Any discussion of the role of poetry (shi’r) in Islam must perforce treat the importance of poetry during the jahiliyya—period of ethical and spiritual ignorance. Muslims use that Arabic word to designate their history prior to the advent of the Qur’anic revelations. In the jargon of social science, the meaning and function of poetry was, and to some extent still is, contested. This accounts for poetry’s apparent ambiguous status in Islamic history today, a condition that is directly traceable to its exalted standing during the jahiliyya.
Pre-Islamic poetry is animated by the Bedouin ethos of the desert, in which the tribal poet (sha’ir) is a “singing witness” to the collective’s customs and traditions, and to its wars and heroic exploits. The poet provides the tribe with a somewhat idealized mirror image of itself. The poet’s inventiveness therefore is concentrated in the manner and diversity of expression, as the poem’s subject matter remains constant and predictable.
Eulogies during the jahiliyya celebrated such virtues as valor, endurance, patience, loyalty, and generosity, as well as the preeminent tribal virtue: ‘asabiyya (solidarity). The panegyric to tribal leaders was often peppered with aphorisms (hikma, singular hikam) that reflected the largely secular worldview of tribal life. So-called vagabond poets (su’luk) performed on the periphery of tribal society, expressing preferences for antinomian if not misanthropic beliefs and behavior, including the privations of solitary life in an unforgiving desert environment. Lastly, there were itinerant court poets whose number and importance increased as Islam flourished in cultural centers beyond the Arabian Peninsula: in Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, Qayrawan, Fez, and Cordoba, for example.
For some Muslims, pre-Islamic Arabic poetry was emblematic of “the days and ways of barbarism” (Goodman). Whatever degree of truth resides in this characterization, it should not preclude an appreciation of the continuity in poetic expression and themes after the jahiliyya, even if the Bedouin poetry of the Arabian desert was subject to an Islamic transformation and transvaluation that belies whatever Muslim animus was aimed at poetry as such.
For instance, pre-Islamic poetry was born in song, and its fundamental orality was nurtured within an audiovisual culture. Poetic recitation is frequently compared to singing birds, and its meter, rhythm, and melody to birdsong. It is not surprising that the Khurasan! poet and hagiographer Far!d ad-D!n ‘Attar uses birds as metaphors for spiritual experience and the mystical quest in his delightfully didactic and allegorical mathnawi (doubled rhyming couplets), The Conference of the Birds (Mantiq at-tayr) (Homerin 2001). After ‘Attar, Jalal al-D!n Rum! (604/1207 CE-672/1273 CE) writes of the falcon as a symbol of the soul; the equation of soul and bird is, however, hardly unique to Islam. A transvaluation of the vagabond poets’ truest friends, namely the wolf and the hyena, might be inferred from Indian and Persian miniatures that show the Muslim saint or mystic sleeping or sitting among now-tamed wild animals. More conspicuously, the language of profane or physical love was used by poets like Muhammad Shams ad-D!n Hafiz (726/1325 CE-791/1389 CE) and Rum! to poetically convey the relationship of love between human beings and God, between lover and the beloved.
Islam is emphatic that Muhammad, as God’s Messenger and Seal of the Prophets, was no tribal bard moved by the jinn (singular jinni, intelligent, usually invisible beings), those fiery spirits thought to have inspired pre-Islamic Bedouin poets in the manner of the Greek muse. Muslims rightly argue the Qur’an’s literary qualities transcend those of even the best poetry. The need for the Qur’an to distance itself from pagan poetry was quickened by the fact the Arabic word for poetry (shi’r) comes from a verb that means “to know” and “to perceive.” For Muslim authorities this meant that the knowledge revealed in the Qur’an was in direct and urgent competition with the poetic articulation of the Bedouin worldview. It hardly helped matters that poets were often the most dangerous and implacable foes of the Prophet.
Still, and strictly speaking, poetry is not forbidden in Islam, although “as a patterned mode of discourse where pattern is a vehicle of art and art can militate for autonomy and for control of content, poetry is clearly suspect” (Goodman, 34). As one sura in the Qur’an titled “The Poets” suggests: “only those who are lost in error follow the poets” (26: 224), and another one states: “We have not taught the Prophet poetry, nor would he ever have been a poet” (36: 69). Hence despite the transparent and eloquent poetic qualities of the Qur’an, its words are unequivocally “not the words of a poet” (69: 40-41).
Yet, and importantly, the Qur’an also refers to those poets “who believe, do good deeds, and remember God often” (26: 227). Hadith (plural ahadith)—the literature of reports or traditions of the sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions—is less nuanced, tending to view poetry with prima facie suspicion or questionable acceptability.
Muhammad himself was not above finding wisdom in poetry, or immune from enchantment by its aesthetic elegance. What is more, the Qur’an effects a transition from the poet’s oral culture of inexplicable intuition and improvisation to a literary culture that esteems study and contemplation, a reasoned scrutiny of culture’s contents. As Oliver Leaman advises, “There are many references to the importance of reason in the Qur’an, and Islam seems to take pride, at least in its early years, in presenting itself as highly rational.” This transition might also be seen as a change “from a point of view which made contact with the pagan surface of existence to one which reached into its metaphysical depths” (Adonis 1990, 37). It’s no small irony that Qur’anic exegesis and studies gave birth to a vigorous literary criticism and incipient science of religious aesthetics, all the while indirectly stimulating poetic production and opening new vistas in poetry.