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Bridging The Divide Between The United States And The Muslim World Through Arts And Ideas: Possibilities And Limitations

Appendix IV: Background Paper
Cultural Awareness In A Time Of Crisis

A. Poetry and Song

So far as can be judged from surviving examples, Arabic poetry of the period before and shortly after the advent of the Quran—assuming this to be an Arabian document that was essentially completed in its current form by roughly 6708 — seldom dealt with religious matters. Unlike the Quran, poetry of this era was metrical; but like the Quran, it used mono–rhymes to give unity to a succession of verses. Pre–Islamic odes became highly important in the eyes of early Muslims because they provided clues for understanding the words and phrases in the Quran in the context of their usage at that time.

Considering this poetry as a reflection of life in its era, rather than as a source for linguistic study, we can conclude that the society of Muslims in the middle decades of the seventh century valued poems including evocations of desert and tribal life, praise of heroes and their deeds, panegyrics extolling leaders and patrons, expressions of mourning, satirical or derisive attacks on enemies, and, for some, drinking songs.9 The “new poetry” of the early Abbasid period (late eighth century)added love poems, “indecent” poems, and exaltations of poetic idiosyncrasy. It also increasingly departed from the ode structure.

Thus, despite being the most acclaimed art of the Arabian Peninsula, Arabic poetry did not, for the most part, center on Islam as a faith — at least during the first two centuries of the religion. Eventually, more strictly religious poetry did come to be written, but the study of Arabic literature has not generally ranked the later, religiously oriented poetry on as high a plane as earlier works. Nevertheless, poetry commands enormous respect in all Arab societies down to the present day, and it is commonplace for prominent individuals from all walks of life, including, most notoriously, Osama bin Laden, to turn their hand to poetic composition.

It must not be lost sight of that in the earliest period of Islam, much of this poetry was sung. One of the most extensive early compendia of poetry, compiled by Abu al–Faraj al–Isfahani, was called the Kitab al–Aghani, or “Book of Songs.” And when one thinks of song, one must further keep in mind that many of the foremost singers of the early era were slave women. Al–Jahiz, in his Epistle on Singing–Girls written in the early Abbasid period, says that high–priced slave girls knew thousands of songs. It is also apparent that their singing was accompanied by musical instruments. The distinction between the poet, assumed to be free and respectable (despite certain notorious exceptions), and the singing girl who could be bought and sold provides an early example of the ambiguous relationship between singing, playing musical instruments, and composing poetry.

Throughout the following centuries, poets tended to be lauded and rewarded by patrons while singers and musicians were often relegated to a demimonde of social outcasts. One early indication of this is the condemnation of musical instruments in the sayings (hadith) of the Prophet Muhammad, e.g., “from among my followers there will be some people who will consider illegal sexual intercourse, the wearing of silk, the drinking of alcoholic drinks and the use of musical instruments, as lawful.”10 There are also many historical examples of religious zealots who publicly broke musical instruments in display of their puritanical feelings.11 Meanwhile, other thinkers of the day took no moral issue with music. For instance, the Arab philosopher Abu Yusuf al–Kindi (d. 873) wrote fifteen treatises on music theory and displayed great knowledge of the Greek tradition of musical writing.

Arabic poetry was joined over the centuries by poetry in the other languages spoken in the various Muslim societies, though many non–Arabs continued to compose in Arabic. Persian poetry emerged in the tenth century, Turkish poetry in the fourteenth, and Urdu poetry in the eighteenth. In Muslim Spain, whose musical practices influenced the Christian cultures of southern Europe, poems were composed that mixed Arabic with the local Romance dialect. In the centuries since, numerous other languages of the Muslim world, from Maltese to Somali, have served as vehicles for poetry. Though some Arabic poetic forms continued to be used in these other languages, new forms arose as well, including love lyrics (ghazals), quatrains (ruba‘iyat), and folk epics celebrating legendary figures from the Islamic past.

Just as with Arabic, these other poetic traditions address a wide variety of subjects (panegyrics, satire, love songs, etc.), but they also sometimes manifest a particular emphasis on Islam as seen through the sensibility of Sufis. It is ironic, given the conventional emphasis on Arabic as the language of Islam, that any historical anthology of religious poetry from across the Islamic world would have a higher representation of non–Arabic than of Arabic verse. The fourteenth–century Persian poet Mawlana Jalal al–Din Rumi, whose verses enjoy enormous popularity in English translation, exemplifies the preeminence of non–Arabs in composing religious verse. Given the wide variety of languages, verse forms, and subject matter, it is difficult to arrive at a summary appraisal of poetry and song in Muslim societies. Moreover, songwriting departed substantially from poetry in the twentieth century under the influence of new styles and instrumentation derived from Western sources. Today, for example, rap music is composed and performed in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Urdu, Swahili, Malay, and other languages predominantly spoken by Muslims. As Muslim poetry and song continue to head in new directions, the weight of fourteen centuries of devotion to this art form suggests that it will long continue to be appreciated by Muslims in almost all regions and social settings.

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