Also known as Imru’ al-Qais, Imr al-Qays, Imru’ al-Qays. Born: Probably in Yemen, c. AD 497. Education: Introduced to poetry by his uncle al-Muhalhil, his mother’s younger brother; also self-taught. Family: Married a woman named Jundhub while in exile; one known daughter although it is unclear whether Jundhub is her mother. Career: Exiled twice by his father for his love of poetry; wandered the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula with companions singing, drinking, and reciting poetry; later returned to avenge his father’s death. Died: c. ad 542, under mysterious circumstances but most likely from the bubonic plague.



The Diwan of Imr al Qais ibn Hujr ibn Kinda ibn Qahtan (contains commentary and Arabic texts). 1974; translated by Arthur Wormhoudt.

”The Wandering King” in The Seven Odes: The First Chapter in Arabic Literature by A.J. Arberry. 1957.

Critical Studies:

Imrulkais of Kinda, Poet Circa A.D. 500-535: The Poems, The Life, The Background by Charles Greville Tuetey, 1977; ”The Last Days of Imru’ Al-Qays: Anatolia” by Irfan Shahid and ”Imru’ Al-Qays Praises the Prophet” by Julie Scott Meisami in Tradition and Modernity in Arabic Literature, edited by Issa J. Boullata and Terri DeYoung, 1997; ”Regicide and Retribution: The Mu’allaqah of Imru’ al-Qays” in The Mute Immortals Speak: Pre-Islamic Poetry and the Poetics of Ritual by Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych, 1993; ”Imru’ al-Kays b. Hudjr” in Encyclopaedia of Islam, 1999.

Imru’ al-Qays is considered by many Arabic literary scholars to be poet par exellence of the pre-Islamic period. The testimony to this epithet is his famous mu’allaqa, or ”Suspended Ode,” which was written in qasida form and composed during the sixth century ad. This literary masterpiece, only one of seven of his works to have survived, is without a doubt the most influential poem in Arabic literature not only for its premature fascinations but also for its aesthetic qualities and innovative imagery, which has served as a model for later generations of Arab poets, especially those who lived during the ‘Abbasid period (c. 750-1258 ad). Although poetry was the genre of choice for the pre-Islamic poets, only vestiges remain due to the fact that the means of transmission was strictly oral; it was not until the end of the eighth century AD that great pains were taken to collect, record, and edit this massive body of work.

Imru’ al-Qays, also known as ”al-Malik al-Dillil,” which can be translated as either the ”Vagabond King” or the ”Errant King,” is believed to have been the youngest son of Hujr, reportedly the last king of Kindah, an influential South Arabian tribe who achieved prominence in the Arabian Peninsula in the fifth and sixth centuries ad. Sources mention that he was banished because he had been enamored of his cousin Fatima and had supposedly composed erotic poetry about her. Thus began perhaps the most famous chapter in Arabic literature and certainly in pre-Islamic poetry: the wayward, and oftentimes scandalous, adventures of Imru’ al-Qays. After his banishment from his father’s kingdom, he spent his days roaming the length and breadth of the Arabian Peninsula with a band of companions, drinking, reciting poetry, and enjoying the company of women. It was during this time, it is said, that he had learned of his father’s murder while he was playing backgammon with a companion. At first, he paid no attention to the messenger, and, according to A. J. Arberry, it was only after he inquired further about his father’s murder that he is said to have exclaimed, ”He left me to rot when I was a boy, and now that I am a man he has loaded me with his blood.” It was then that he vowed to avenge his father’s death. These circumstances in Imru’ al-Qays’s early life provide the context for his famous mu’allaqa.

Imru’ al-Qays’s mu’allaqa is based on the qasida, usually translated into English as ”ode.” This complex literary form possesses a rigid structure, and al-Qays’s masterpiece consists of at least 60 couplets. Also, the poet must strictly adhere to a chosen meter, as well as follow an identical rhyme. In addition, the qasida is composed of a tripartite structure: a beginning, middle, and an end. Due to this compact organization, the qasida utilizes metaphor to a large extent rather than mere description in order to convey meaning.

The events in Imru’ al-Qays’s mu’allaqa revolve around two main themes: premature sexuality and the vowing of vengeance for his murdered father. In the opening section, known as the nasib, we see the poet stopping at a deserted desert encampment remembering his youthful, and often scandalous, encounters with various women of his tribe. Several scholars, among them Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych, believe that these events of this extended nasib, which is longer than the traditional nasib, are illustrative of the poet’s ”arrested development” into manhood. As Stetkevych observes, ”whereas mature men are consoled or diverted from the foolish infatuations of their youth, [Imru' al-Qays's] heart remains bound to puerile passion.” There are numerous other indications of Imru al-Qays’s arrested development both in his real life and in his mu’allaqa, which in the latter takes a metaphoric form. Two examples from his poetry that demonstrate a lack of maturity are his cavalier reaction to his father’s murder and the slaughtering of his camel for maidens who, instead of cooking the raw meat and consuming it, prefer simply to play with it.

The famous storm scene, reproduced in part below from quatrains 71-72, The Mute Immortals Speak, introduces the second major event of Imru’ al-Qays’s mu’allaqa. Since it occurs in the text where there is traditionally a battle fought and also is a fairly common metaphor in pre-Islamic poetry, it is very probable that the storm is symbolic of an engagement to have been fought in revenge for his father’s murder:

O friend, do you see the lightning? There is its flash—

Like two hands shining in a high-crowned cumulus!

Its flashing illumining the sky, or like the sudden flare of a monk’s lamp When, tilting it, he soaks with oil the tightly twisted wick.

By including the storm scene, Imru’ al-Qays, in effect, elevates his qasida from the earthly level to that of the cosmic. Or in Stetkevych’s words, ”a military triumph has given way to a poetic one.”

Imru’ al-Qays is thought to have died in 542 ad, just a quarter of a century before the advent of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula. However, the cause of his death remains a mystery. Legend has it that he met his untimely end by wearing a poisoned robe given to him by the Emperor Justinian after having apparently seduced his daughter. However, Arabic literary scholars dismiss this account as fictitious, as history reports that Justinian was childless. It is more likely that he died of the bubonic plague, which is known to have occurred during the reign of Justinian in Ancyra (modern Ankara, the capital of Turkey) and was buried there.

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