Abu Tammam (Abu Tammam HabTb ibn (Writer)


Aws al-Ta’i) (ca. 805-845) poet, anthologist

Abu Tammam was a prime exponent of the badi, or new school of Arab poetry that emerged in the Abbasid period. He was also one of the first to assemble an anthology of pre-Islamic and other early Arabic poetry.

Born in Syria to a Christian family, Abu Tammam converted to Islam in his youth, changed his name to indicate descent from a noble Arab tribe, and moved to Cairo to study Arabic poetry. He specialized in panegyrics, poems extolling leading figures of the day, from the Abbasid caliphs (rulers) al-Ma’mun and al-Mu’tasim to provincial governors who would pay for the service.

The most famous of Abu Tammam’s panegyrics is his ode “Amorium,” which celebrates al-Mu’tasim’s victory over the Byzantines in 838: “O day of the Battle of’Ammuriya, [our] hopes have returned from you overflowing with honey-sweet milk; / You have left the fortunes of the sons of Islam in the ascendant, and the polytheists and the abode of polytheism in decline.”

Abu Tammam’s innovative style aroused criticism in his day and from later commentators. His use of archaic words, far-fetched similes, and homonyms was often considered mannered, abstract, and overly sophisticated. His poems were unfavorably compared with the supposed naturalism of earlier poets, and the debate became an important stimulus to the tradition of Arab linguistic and literary criticism.

As an anthologist, Abu Tammam put together several diwans, or poetry collections, the most famous of which is al-Hamasa (Heroism), consisting of hundreds of poems from pre-Mohammed Arabia down to his own time, mostly by less famous poets. Unlike his own poetry, the works he collected and thus helped preserve have been universally celebrated as among the purist models of classic Arabic form.

English Versions of Works by Abu Tammam

“Amorium.” In Night and Horses and The Desert. Edited by Robert Irwin. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 2000, 132-135. Arberry, A. J., ed. Arabic Poetry: A Primer for Students. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1965.

A Work about Abu Tammam

Stetkevych, Suzanne Pinckney. Abu Tammam and the Poetics of the Abbasid Age. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers 1991.

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