(Mu’allaqat, Seven Odes,Golden Odes) (sixth century)
Most Arabic poetry from the fifth and sixth centuries is attributed to anonymous authors. However, literary scholars generally agree that the Hanged Poems (also called the Mu’allaqat, or “The hanging ones”) were written by the following seven poets: imru’ al-qays, tarafah ‘amr ibn al-’abd, Zuhayr ibn Abi Sulma, labid, Antara ibn Shaddad, ‘amr ibn kulthum, and al-Harith. They were displayed in the Ka’aba, the chief religious shrine in Arabia.
Little is known about the lives of most of these poets. They likely read their works aloud in a poetry competition during an annual meeting of the Arabic tribes. It is believed that the seven best of the qasidas (long poems or odes) chosen through these competitions were the ones hanged for display in the Ka’aba, hence their collective title as the “hanged ones.” They address the topics of warfare, love, and famous cities of the region.
The oldest of the Hanged Poems was written by Imru’ al-Qays, otherwise known as “the vagabond prince.” He was of royal descent from the ancient kings of Yemen, and the stories about his life differ. In one telling, Imru’ took vengeance on his father’s murderer and then fled the region for fear of retaliation. In another story, Imru’ became a wanderer because his father banished him for writing of love rather than spending more time warring. In both stories, Imru’ eventually arrived in Constantinople and became a celebrated poet in the palace of the Roman emperor Justinian (530). He was later poisoned as punishment for falling in love with a Byzantine princess.
Imru’ al-Qays is said to be the greatest of the Mu’allaqat poets, the first to capture in a regular rhythm the chanting of the earlier desert singers. His poem speaks of the loss of love:
There my companions halted their beasts awhile over me saying, “Don’t perish of sorrow; restrain yourself decently!” Yet the true and only cure of my grief is tears outpoured: what is there left to lean on where the trace is obliterated?
Antarah, another of the poets, was a son of an Arab and his slave woman; he was raised as a slave in his father’s house. He desperately loved Abla, a young woman of his tribe, but never had a relationship with her because his tribe did not consider Antarah, a slave, to be Abla’s equal. His poem speaks of their unrequited love:
I was enamored of her unawares, at a time when I was killing her people, desiring her in marriage; but by your father’s life I swear, this was not the time for desiring.
The poet Zuhayr is regarded as the philosopher of the group of Mu’allaqat poets, a man of rank and wealth from a family noted for their poetic skill and religious earnestness. He sought, through his poetry, to instill noble ideas in the people around him. In this poem, he encourages peace among the tribes:
And war is not but what you have learnt it to be, and what you have experienced, and what is said concerning it, is not a story based on suppositions. When you stir it up, you will stir it up as an accursed thing, and it will become greedy when you excite its greed and it will rage fiercely.
Many of the Arabic tribal poets passed their works along orally. It was solely the public selection of these seven poems, which were said to have been written in gold on the walls of the Ka’aba, that allowed for their preservation for future generations.
English Versions of the Hanged Poems
Horne, Charles F. Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East: Ancient Arabia, The Hanged Poems, The Koran. Vol. 5. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger Publishing, 1997.
Jones, Alan. Early Arabic Poetry, Vol. 2, Select Odes. Reading, N.Y.: Garnet Publishing, 1996.
Works about the Hanged Poems
O’Grady, Desmond. The Seven Arab Odes. London: Agenda & Editions Charitable Trust, 1990.
Stetkevych, Suzanne Pinckney. Mute Immortals Speak: Pre-Islamic Poetry and the Poetics of Ritual. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993.