Classic Arab Poems

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A Friend's Birthday
When born, in tears we saw thee drowned,
While thine assembled friends around,
With smiles their joy confessed;
So live, that at thy parting hour,
They may the flood of sorrow pour,
And thou in smiles be dressed!

An Epigram
Whoever has recourse to thee
Can hope for health no more,
He's launched into perdition's sea,
A sea without a shore.

Where'er admission thou canst gain,
Where'er thy phiz can pierce,
At once the Doctor they retain,
The mourners and the hearse.

Lines to Haroun and Yahia
Th' affrighted sun ere while he fled,
And hid his radiant face in night;
A cheerless gloom the world o'erspread—
But Haroun came and all was bright.
Again the sun shoots forth his rays,
Nature is decked in beauty's robe—
For mighty Haroun's scepter sways,
And Yahia's arm sustains the globe.
—Isaac Al Mouseli

The Ruin of the Barmecides
No, Barmec! Time hath never shown
So sad a change of wayward fate;
Nor sorrowing mortals ever known
A grief so true, a loss so great.
Spouse of the world! Thy soothing breast
Did balm to every woe afford;
And now no more by thee caressed,
The widowed world bewails her lord.

To Taher Ben Hosien
A pair of right hands and a single dim eye
Must form not a man, but a monster, they cry:
Change a hand to an eye, good Taher, if you can,
And a monster perhaps may be chang'd to man.

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On A Little Man With A Very Large Beard

How can thy chin that burden bear?
Is it all gravity to shock?
Is it to make the people stare?
And be thyself a laughing stock?

When I behold thy little feet
After thy beard obsequious run,
I always fancy that I meet
Some father followed by his son.

A man like thee scarce e'er appeared—
A beard like thine—where shall we find it?
Surely thou cherishest thy beard
In hopes to hide thyself behind it.
—Isaac Ben Khalif

Poems by Caliphs

Charles F. Horne wrote: “Many of the Arab caliphs inclined to the gaieties of life rather than to their religious duties, and kept many poets around them. Indeed some of the caliphs themselves were poets: The Caliph Walid composed music as well as verse; and was hailed by his immediate companions as a great artist. His neglect of religion, however, was so reckless as to rouse the resentment of his people, and he lost his throne and life.” [Source: Charles F. Horne, ed., “The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East”, (New York: Parke, Austin, & Lipscomb, 1917), Vol. VI: Medieval Arabia, pp. 205-234]

To A Lady Blushing
Leila, whene'er I gaze on thee
My altered cheek turns pale,
While upon thine, sweet maid, I see
A deep'ning blush prevail.

Leila, shall I the cause impart
Why such a change takes place?
The crimson stream deserts my heart,
To mantle on thy face.
—The Caliph Radhi Billah

To the Caliph Haroun Al-Rashid
Religion's gems can ne'er adorn
The flimsy robe by pleasure worn;
Its feeble texture soon would tear,
And give those jewels to the air.

Thrice happy they who seek th' abode
Of peace and pleasure in their God!
Who spurn the world, its joys despise,
And grasp at bliss beyond the skies.
—Prince Ibrahim Ben Adham

To My Father by Caliph Yazid

Must then my failings from the shaft
Of anger ne'er escape?
And dost thou storm because I've quaff'd
The water of the grape?

That I can thus from wine be driv'n
Thou surely ne'er canst think—
Another reason thou hast giv'n
Why I resolve to drink.

'Twas sweet the flowing cup to seize,
'Tis sweet thy rage to see;
And first I drink myself to please;
And next—to anger thee.
—The Caliph Yazid

On The Vicissitudes Of Life

Mortal joys, however pure,
Soon their turbid source betray;
Mortal bliss, however sure,
Soon must totter and decay.

Ye who now, with footsteps keen,
Range through hope's delusive field,
Tell us what the smiling scene
To your ardent grasp can yield?

Other youths have oft before
Deemed their joys would never fade,

Till themselves were seen no more
Swept into oblivion's shade.

Who, with health and pleasure gay,
E'er his fragile state could know,
Were not age and pain to say
Man is but the child of woe?
—The Caliph Radhi Billah

Love and Women Poems

To My Mistress maid
To scorn me thus because I'm poor!
Canst thou a liberal hand upbraid
For dealing round some worthless ore ?
To spare's the wish of little souls,
The great but gather to bestow;
Yon current down the mountain rolls,
And stagnates in the swamp below. —Abu Tammam Habib

To a Female Cup-Bearer
Come, Leila, fill the goblet up,
Reach round the rosy wine,
Think not that we will take the cup
From any hand but thine.

A draught like this 'twere vain to seek,
No grape can such supply;
It steals its tint from Leila's cheek,
Its brightness from her eye.
—Abu Al Salam

Ah! I mourn no fancied wound,
Pangs too true this heart have wrung,
Since the snakes which curl around
Selim's brows my bosom stung.

Destined now to keener woes,
I must see the youth depart,
He must go, and as he goes
Rend at once my bursting heart.
Slumber may desert my bed,
'Tis not slumber's charms I seek—
'Tis the robe of beauty spread
O'er my Selim's rosy cheek.

To A Lady

No, Abla, no—when Selim tells
Of many an unknown grace that dwells
In Abla's face and mien,
When he describes the sense refined,
That lights thine eye and fills thy mind,
By thee alone unseen.

'Tis not that drunk with love he sees
Ideal charms, which only please
Through passion's partial veil,
'Tis not that flattery's glozing tongue
Hath basely framed an idle song,
But truth that breathed the tale.

Thine eyes unaided ne'er could trace
Each opening charm, each varied grace,
That round thy person plays;
Some must remain concealed from thee,
For Selim's watchful eye to see,
For Selim's tongue to praise.

One polished mirror can declare
That eye so bright, that face so fair,
That cheek which shames the rose;
But how thy mantle waves behind,
How float thy tresses on the wind,
Another only shows.

To My Favorite Mistress

I saw their jealous eyeballs roll,
I saw them mark each glance of mine,
I saw thy terrors, and my soul
Shared ev'ry pang that tortured thine.

In vain to wean my constant heart,
Or quench my glowing flame, they strove;
Each deep-laid scheme, each envious art,
But waked my fears for her I love.

'Twas this compelled the stern decree,
That forced thee to those distant towers,
And left me naught but love for thee,
To cheer my solitary hours.

Yet let not Abla sink deprest,
Nor separation's pangs deplore;
We meet not—'tis to meet more blest;
We parted—'tis to part no more.
—Saif Addaulet, Sultan of Aleppo

To His Female Companions

Though the peevish tongues upbraid,
Though the brows of wisdom scowl,
Fair ones here on roses laid,
Careless will we quaff the bowl.

Let the cup, with nectar crowned,
Through the grove its beams display,
It can shed a luster round,
Brighter than the torch of day.

Let it pass from hand to hand,
Circling still with ceaseless flight,
Till the streaks of gray expand
O'er the fleeting robe of night.

As night flits, she does but cry,

"Seize the moments that remain"—
Thus our joys with yours shall vie,
Tenants of .yon hallowed fane! —Rakeek

Poems on Mortality, Religion, and the Human Condition

Hail, chastening friend Adversity ! 'Tis thine
The mental ore to temper and refine,
To cast in virtue's mold the yielding heart,
And honor's polish to the mind impart.
Without thy wakening touch, thy plastic aid,
I'd lain the shapeless mass that nature made;
But formed, great artist, by thy magic hand,
I gleam a sword to conquer and command. —Abu Menbaa Carawash

On Fatalism
Not always wealth, not always force
A splendid destiny commands;
The lordly vulture gnaws the corpse
That rots upon yon barren sands.

Nor want, nor weakness still conspires
To bind us to a sordid state;
The fly that with a touch expires
Sips honey from the royal plate.
—The Holy Imam Shafay

On Moderation In Our Pleasures

How oft does passion's grasp destroy
The pleasure that it strives to gain?
How soon the thoughtless course of joy
Is doomed to terminate in pain?

When prudence would thy steps delay,
She but restrains to make thee blest;
Whate'er from joy she lops away,
But heightens and secures the rest.

Wouldst thou a trembling flame expand,
That hastens in the lamp to die?
With careful touch, with sparing hand,
The feeding stream of life supply.

But if thy flask profusely sheds
A rushing torrent o'er the blaze,
Swift round the sinking flame it spreads,
And kills the fire it fain would raise.
—Abu Alcassim Ebn Tabataba

On The Incompatibility Of Pride And True Glory

Think not, Abdallah, pride and fame
Can ever travel hand in hand;
With breast opposed, and adverse aim,
On the same narrow path they stand.

Thus youth and age together meet,
And life's divided moments share;
This can't advance till that retreat,
What's here increased is lessened there.

And thus the falling shades of night
Still struggle with the lucid ray,
And e'er they stretch their gloomy flight
Must win the lengthened space from day.
—Abu Alola

On the Monks of Khabbet

Tenants of yon hallowed fane!
Let me your devotions share,
There increasing raptures reign—
None are ever sober there.

Crowded gardens, festive bowers
Ne'er shall claim a thought of mine;
You can give in Khabbet's towers—
Purer joys and brighter wine.

Though your pallid faces prove
How you nightly vigils keep,
'Tis but that you ever love
Flowing goblets more than sleep.

Though your eye-balls dim and sunk
Stream in penitential guise,
'Tis but that the wine you've drunk
Bubbles over from your eyes.

Life and Death

Maid of sorrow, tell us why
Sad and drooping hangs thy head?
Is it grief that bids thee sigh?
Is it sleep that fles thy bed? — Rais

On Life
Like sheep, we're doomed to travel o'er
The fated track to all assigned,
These follow those that went before,
And leave the world to those behind.

As the flock seeks the pasturing shade,
Man presses to the future day,
While death, amidst the tufted glade,
Like the dun robber, waits his prey.

On The Death Of A Son

Tyrant of man! Imperious Fate!
I bow before thy dread decree,
Nor hope in this uncertain state
To find a seat secure from thee.

Life is a dark, tumultuous stream,
With many a care and sorrow foul,
Yet thoughtless mortals vainly deem
That it can yield a limpid bowl.

Think not that stream will backward flow,
Or cease its destined course to keep;
As soon the blazing spark shall glow
Beneath the surface of the deep.

Believe not Fate at thy command
Will grant a meed she never gave;
As soon the airy tower shall stand,
That's built upon a passing wave.

Life is a sleep of threescore years,
Death bids us wake and hail the light,
And man, with all his hopes and fears,
Is but a phantom of the night.
—Ali Ben Muhammad Altahmany

Crucifixion of Ebn Bakiah

Whate'er thy fate, in life and death,
Thou'rt doomed above us still to rise,
Whilst at a distance far beneath
We view thee with admiring eyes.

The gazing crowds still round thee throng,
Still to thy well-known voice repair,
As when erewhile thy hallow'd tongue
Poured in the mosque the solemn prayer.

Still, generous Vizier, we survey
Thine arms extended o'er our head,
As lately, in the festive day,
When they were stretched thy gifts to shed.

Earth's narrow boundaries strove in vain
To limit thy aspiring mind,
And now we see thy dust disdain
Within her breast to be confin'd.

The earth's too small for one so great,
Another mansion thou shalt have—
The clouds shall be thy winding sheet,
The spacious vault of heaven thy grave. —Abu Hassan Alanbary

To A Cat

Poor puss is gone! 'Tis fate's decree—
Yet I must still her loss deplore,
For dearer than a child was she,
And ne'er shall I behold her more.

With many a sad presaging tear
This morn I saw her steal away,
While she went on without a fear
Except that she should miss her prey.

I saw her to the dove-house climb,
With cautious feet and slow she stept
Resolved to balance loss of time
By eating faster than she crept. Her subtle foes were on the watch,
And marked her course, with fury fraught,
And while she hoped the birds to catch,
An arrow's point the huntress caught.

In fancy she had got them all,
And drunk their blood and sucked their breath;
Alas! she only got a fall,
And only drank the draught of death.

Why, why was pigeons' flesh so nice,
That thoughtless cats should love it thus?
Hadst thou but lived on rats and mice,
Thou hadst been living still, poor puss.

Curst be the taste, howe'er refined,
That prompts us for such joys to wish,
And curst the dainty where we find
Destruction lurking in the dish.
—Ibn Alalaf Alnaharwany

To A Dove

The dove to ease an aching breast,
In piteous murmurs vents her cares;
Like me she sorrows, for opprest,
Like me, a load of grief she bears.

Her plaints are heard in every wood,
While I would fain conceal my woes;
But vain's my wish, the briny flood,
The more I strive, the faster flows.

Sure, gentle bird, my drooping heart
Divides the pangs of love with thine,
And plaintive murm'rings are thy part,
And silent grief and tears are mine.
—Serage Alwarak

On A Thunderstorm

Bright smiled the morn, 'till o'er its head
The clouds in thicken'd foldings spread
A robe of sable hue;
Then, gathering round day's golden king,
They stretched their wide o'ershadowing wing,
And hid him from our view.

The rain his absent beams deplored,
And, soften'd into weeping, poured
Its tears in many a flood;
The lightning laughed with horrid glare;
The thunder growled, in rage; the air
In silent sorrow stood.
—Ibrahim Ben Khiret Abou Isaac

Poem of Imru-Ul-Quais; A Pre-Islamic Early Hanging Poem

Stop, oh my friends, let us pause to weep over the remembrance of my beloved.
Here was her abode on the edge of the sandy desert between Dakhool and Howmal.
The traces of her encampment are not wholly obliterated even now;
For when the Sonth wind blows the sand over them the North wind sweeps it away.
The courtyards and enclosures of the old home have become desolate;
The dung of the wild deer lies there thick as the seeds of pepper.
On the morning of our separation it was as if I stood in the gardens of our tribe,
Amid the acacia-shrubs where my eyes were blinded with tears by the smart
from the bursting pods of colocynth. As I lament thus in the place made desolate, my friends stop their camels;
They cry to me "Do not die of grief; bear this sorrow patiently."
Nay, the cure of my sorrow must come from gushing tears.
Yet, is there any hope that this desolation can bring me solace ?
So, before ever I met Unaizah, did I mourn for two others;
My fate had been the same with Ummul-Huwairith and her
neighbor Ummul-Rahab in Masal.
Fair were they also, diffusing the odor of musk as they moved,
Like the soft zephyr bringing with it the scent of the clove.

Thus the tears flowed down on my breast, remembering days of love;
The tears wetted even my sword-belt, so tender was my love.
Behold how many pleasant days have I spent with fair women;
Especially do I remember the day at the pool of Darat-i-Julju1.
On that day I killed my riding camel for food for the maidens:
How merry was their dividing my camel's trappings to be carried on their camels.
It is a wonder, a riddle, that the camel being saddled was yet unsaddled!
A wonder also was the slaughterer, so heedless of self in his costly gift!

Then the maidens commenced throwing the camel's fesh into the kettle;
The fat was woven with the lean like loose fringes of white twisted silk.
On that day I entered the howdah, the camel's howdah of Unaizah!
And she protested, saying, "Woe to you, you will force me to travel on foot."
She repulsed me, while the howdah was swaying with us;
She said, "You are galling my camel, Oh Imru-ul-Quais, so dismount."
Then I said, "Drive him on! Let his reins go loose, while you turn to me.
Think not of the camel and our weight on him. Let us be happy.

"Many a beautiful woman like you, Oh Unaizah, have I visited at night;
I have won her thought to me, even from her children have I won her."
There was another day when I walked with her behind the sandhills,
But she put aside my entreaties and swore an oath of virginity.
Oh, Unaizah, gently, put aside some of this coquetry.
If you have, indeed, made up your mind to cut off friendship with me, then do it kindly or gently.
Has anything deceived you about me, that your love is killing, me,
And that verily as often as you order my heart, it will do what you order?

Poem of Zuhair: Another Hanging Poem

"Does the blackened ruin, situated in the stony ground
between Durraj and Mutathallam, which did not speak to me,
when addressed, belong to the abode of Ummi Awfa?
"And is it her dwelling at the two stony meadows, seeming
as though they were the renewed tattoo marks in the sinews
of the wrist?
"The wild cows and the white deer are wandering about
there, one herd behind the other, while their young are spring-
ing up from every lying-down place.

"I stood again near it, (the encampment of the tribe of
Awfa,) after an absence of twenty years, and with some efforts,
I know her abode again after thinking awhile.

"I recognized the three stones blackened by fire at the
place where the kettle used to be placed at night, and the
trench round the encampment, which had not burst, like the source of a pool.
"And when I recognized the encampment I said to its site,
'Now good morning, oh spot;
may you be safe from dangers.'
"Look, oh my friend! do you see any women traveling on
camels, going over the high ground above the stream of

"They have covered their howdahs with coverlets of high
value, and with a thin screen, the fringes of which are red,
resembling blood.
"And they inclined toward the valley of Sooban, ascending
the center of it, and in their faces were the fascinating
looks of a soft-bodied person brought up in easy circumstances.
"They arose early in the morning and got up at dawn, and
they went straight to the valley of Rass as the hand goes
unswervingly to the mouth, when eating.

"And amongst them is a place of amusement for the farsighted one,
and a pleasant sight for the eye of the looker who
looks attentively.
"As if the pieces of dyed wool which they left in every
place in which they halted, were the seeds of night-shade
which have not been crushed.
"When they arrived at the water, the mass of which was
blue from intense purity, they laid down their walking sticks,
like the dweller who has pitched his tents.

Lament Of The Vizier Abu Ismael

Charles F. Horne wrote: “One distinguished philosophical poem of some length is the well-known "Lament of the Vizier Abu Ismael." This we give in full at the conclusion of this section; but mainly we must illustrate the finest flowering of Arabic verse by selecting specimens of characteristic brevity.” [Source: Charles F. Horne, ed., “The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East”, (New York: Parke, Austin, & Lipscomb, 1917), Vol. VI: Medieval Arabia, pp. 205-234]

No kind supporting hand I meet,
But Fortitude shall stay my feet;
No borrowed splendors round me shine,
But Virtue's luster all is mine;
A Fame unsullied still I boast,
Obscured, concealed, but never lost—
The same bright orb that led the day
Pours from the West his mellowed ray.

Zaura, farewell! No more I see
Within thy walls, a home for me;
Deserted, spurned, aside I'm tossed,
As an old sword whose scabbard's lost:
Around thy walls I seek in vain
Some bosom that will soothe my pain—
No friend is near to breathe relief,
Or brother to partake my grief.
For many a melancholy day
Through desert vales I've wound my way;
The faithful beast, whose back I press,
In groans laments her lord's distress;
In every quivering of my spear
A sympathetic sigh I hear;
The camel bending with his load,
And struggling through the thorny road,
'Midst the fatigues that bear him down,
In Hassan's woes forgets his own;
Yet cruel friends my wand'rings chide,
My sufferings slight, my toils deride.

Once wealth, I own, engrossed each thought,
There was a moment when I sought
The glitt'ring stores Ambition claims
To feed the wants his fancy frames;
But now 'tis past—the changing day
Has snatched my high-built hopes away,
And bade this wish my labors close—
Give me not riches, but repose.
'Tis he—that mien my friend declares,
That stature, like the lance he bears;
I see that breast which ne'er contained
A thought by fear or folly stained,
Whose powers can every change obey,
In business grave, in trifles gay,
And, formed each varying taste to please,
Can mingle dignity with ease. —Abu Ismael

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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