AL-KHANSA’ (LITERATURE)

Name means ”snub-nosed” or ”the gazelle.” Born: Tamadir bint Amr bin al-Harith b. al-Sharid b. Mudar, c. 575 AD, from the tribe Sulaym and the clan al-Sharid. Family: Married 1) her cousin Rawaha b. Abd al-’Aziyy al-Salmi; 2) Murdas Bin Abi ‘Amer; four children. Career: Mukhadrama poetess who lived prior to and after the revelation of Islam; converted to Islam, 629 AD. Died: 646 AD.

Publications

Collections

Diwan al Khansa, translated from the text of Karim Bustani by Arthur Wormhoudt. 1973; as Selections from the Diwan of al Khansa, translated and commented on by Arthur Wormhoudt, 1973.

Critical Studies:

Commentaires sur le Diwan d’al-Khansa, 1896, as Moi, poete et femme d’Arabie, translated into French by Anissa Boumediene, 1987. The Mute Immortals Speak: Pre-Islamic Poetry and the Poetics of Ritual by Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych, 1993.

Al-Khansa’ is the most celebrated poetess of eulogy (marthiyya) in Arabic literature. Nineteenth-century Arab critics assigned al-Khansa’ to secondary status in the hierarchy of Arab poets, yet she perfected the inherited forms and themes of traditional elegies by adding new expressions, emotions, and imagery. Her elegies about her brothers and children demonstrate a marked shift in emotions and imageries from previous elegies. Her eulogy for her two brothers—a blood brother Mu’awiya and a half-brother Sakhr, both killed in skirmishes with rival neighboring tribes—are characterized by their pagan metaphors and brought her much fame. After Mu’awiya’s death in a raid, al-Khansa’ beseeched Sakhr to take vengeance on the offending tribe. Sakhr successfully defeated the tribe and killed his brother’s murderers, but he was fatally wounded in the battle. Al-khansa’s focus on Sakhr in her elegies could be attributed to his generosity, for he shared his wealth with his sister on multiple occasions when her husband had squandered his money on gambling. Sakhr had suffered for a year before he died. The poems al-Khansa’ wrote during that year and the elegies she wrote after his death are some of the finest elegies in Arabic literature.


Similar to her predecessor poets, al-Khansa’ created an anecdotal narratives about Sakhr in which she lamented the deceased’s integrity, gallantry, munificence, and justice. But to temper her strong and tender expression of perpetual grief, a grief evinced by a constant stream of tears which badly affected her eyes, she introduced new universal themes such as patience, mishaps that befall man, man’s struggle with his fate, and, his ultimate surrender to God’s will. Prophet Muhammad commended her themes on death and accepting God’s will. Al-Khansa’s poetry is characterized by the splendor of her language, genuine compassion for her brothers, beautiful sensory and pagan metaphors and similes, an economy of words, and musical rhymes, as this extract from one of her elegies for Sakhr demonstrates:

Verily, Sakhr if you have made my eyes shed tears

You long brought me mirth

I had tears for you among wailing women

I had the most reason to be the one wailing

I incited you on the battle

When you were alive


But who can avert the invincible death

Though (they say) weeping over the killed is improper

I think crying for you is the best of the pleasant deeds.

Al-Khansa’ demonstrated the excellence of her poetry and word choice in poetic competitions at the ‘Ukaz market, a bazaar in the city of Mecca where, in addition to trading, Arab poets held poetry contests prior to the revelation of Islam in Mecca in 610 ad. She outwitted the prominent poet of her time, Hassan bin Thabit, in her depiction of Arab self-esteem. Well-esteemed poets such as the pre-Islamic poet al-Nabigh al-Dhubyaani asserted that no poet could match al-Khansa’, and the Umayyad poet Bashshar b. Burd reported that she was better than the best poets. Arab critics considered her poetry to be paramount to the mu’allaqat, the fine poems that were posted on the Ka’ba, the holy place in Mecca.

Al-Khansa’s life was a chain of wounds that never healed, for she lost not only her brothers, but also her four sons years later in the Qadisiyya battle in 635 ad. Though al-Khansa’ exhorted her brother and children to fight for different objectives, her verses now lacked pagan imageries, less shedding of tears, and she stopped lamenting the blind twist of fate. Her suffering from the loss of her sons was more serene and congruent with the Islam that she embraced in 629. Upon hearing of their death, she reported, ”Who dies, if Islam lives?” When the second caliph ‘Umar b. al-Khattab went to offer his condolences for the deaths of her sons, al-Khansa’ replied, ”Congratulate me commander of the faithful, for I’m the mother of the martyrs.” In one of her later poems she writes:

My sons I carried you with pain and raised you with care

You have fallen today for the cause of Islam

Who says you are dead

You are very much alive

And alive with honor

I feel proud to be the mother of martyrs

Al-Khansa’s poetry is compiled in Tabaqat al-Shu’ara’ by Ibn Sallam, al-Aghani by al-Asfahani, and al-’I'jaz wa al-’Ijaz by al-Tha’alibi among many anthologies of Arabic literature. Al-Khansa’s profound anguish for her brothers enriched the elegies with expansive imagery and strong emotions, and her poetry was an exquisite model for poets to come.

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