THE LAST SEMITIC CONQUERORS:
THE SUDDEN BLOSSOMING OF ARABIC LITERATURE
THE Arabs are one of the most ancient races known to history. Historical records, which are perhaps earth's earliest, have been recently rediscovered among the ruins of Babylon and the other cities of the Euphrates valley; and these refer frequently to Arab invasions of the fertile valley and to Arab conquests over its fairest regions. The cultured classes of many an ancient Babylonian city were thus of the Arabian race, springing from the intermarriage of the fierce desert conquerors with the defeated valley folk. Yet in their own homeland the Arabs were among the last of Asiatic peoples to develop a written literature. We come down almost to the time of Mohammed, that is, to the sixth century after Christ, before we find among them any written books.
That the Arabs were thus slow in creating written literature was due to their peculiar mode of life. The art of words was highly honored among the most ancient Arab tribes. But to these dwellers amid the desert silence, the art was one of spoken, not of written, words, an art of polished and sarcastic oratory or of passionately chanted verse. The Arab prided himself upon three virtues: his generosity to those whom he accepted as his friends, his skill in the arts of war--that is, his handling of his horse and weapons--and, lastly, his mastery of his language. When a new poet of unusual merit appeared in any tribe, a festival of rejoicing was held; and the other tribes sent envoys to congratulate the fortunate folk, upon the honor and happiness that the gods had sent them.
That a people who so valued the arts of speech should have studied them for thousands of years without developing them into written forms is one of the striking oddities of literary history. Yet the causes of this oddity are obvious. The greater part of the vast Arabian peninsula is so barren that its people must keep ever on the move to find enough green food for the animals upon which they depend for their own existence. Hence they have no place for the storing of books, the preservation of libraries. True, there are in Arabia some fertile spots, in oases or along the southern coast, where Arab cities have grown up; but even the Arabs of these cities journey often and far into the desert. Its blank and burning sunshine is their true home; and in its vast solitudes a man's own memory is, even to-day, the best treasure-house for his books.
Hence Arabic literature in the written form, the only form in which it can be permanently preserved, does not begin until the sixth century of our own era, the century just before Mohammed. During this period there were several of the tribal poets so valued, that the idea was formed of honoring them by hanging copies of their best poems in the chief religious shrine of Arabia, the building called the Kaaba at Mecca. So the Arabic literature which we know to-day begins with these "hanged" poems, and they form the opening of the present volume.
There were seven of these celebrated poems, each by a different poet. Unfortunately the seven poems are no longer preserved in the Kaaba--if, indeed, they ever did literally "hang" there--and the Arabs themselves are not entirely agreed as to either the names or the poems of these, their earliest writers. But the most noted among them are fully agreed on and highly treasured. Among them all, the poet probably earliest in date is Imru-ul-Quais, often spelled in our letters, which differ widely from Arabic forms, Amrulkais. He was a prince, who by his passionate devotion to affairs of love so angered his father, the sheik, or king, of the tribe, that Imru-ul-Quais was banished to the solitary life of a shepherd. He thus escaped the destruction which came upon all his people in a bitter tribal war; and he was left a tribeless wanderer. He came finally, about the year 530, to the court of the great Greek-Roman emperor Justinian, at Constantinople; and there the poet-wanderer was much honored. Tradition says he was put to death by torture for winning the love of a princess of Justinian's family. Mohammed declared Imru-ul-Quais to be the greatest of the Arab poets; and the poet-prince is said to have been the first to reduce to a regular-measured rhythm the wild individual chanting of the earlier desert-singers.
A poet among the seven who is even more noteworthy is Antar, or Antarah; for he was afterward made the hero of the most celebrated of Arab romances. Antar was the son of a negro slave-woman and was brought up as a slave in the household of his Arab father. Such, however, was his strength and courage that he rose to be the chief hero of his tribe. He was also its chief poet, singing sometimes of its warfare, sometimes of his love for its princess, Ibla or Ablah. Ablah at first ridiculed the advances of the young slave but afterward clung to him through all his career of glory and misfortune. The tales which later generations wove around Antar are like those which the English built upon King Arthur's life, or the Spaniards on the Cid. He has become the national hero of his race.
If we pause for yet another of the "hanged" poets, it must be for Zuhair, who is credited with beginning the philosophical and religious writings of his nation. Zuhair was among the latest of the "hanged" poets and so nearly contemporary with Mohammed that the two are said to have met. Zuhair was then an aged and revered sage, a hundred years old; and Mohammed, just beginning his prophetic mission, prayed God to protect him from the witty tongue of the poet. That is, in Arab phrase, he sought help against Zuhair's djinn or spirit; for the early Arabs believed their poets to be genuinely inspired; and as most of the poems were epigrams, brief, biting, and sarcastic, the inspiration was attributed to the evil spirits, the djinns or genii who were supposed to possess the earth equally with man.
Zuhair in his verses was less satiric than most of his brother poets. He strove to express deep thoughts in simple words, to be clear and by his clear phrases to teach his people high and noble ideas. He was a man of rank and wealth, the foremost of a family noted for their poetic skill and religious earnestness. In brief, Zuhair is the gentleman philosopher among Arab poets.
A. J. Arberry, "The Seven Odes" (London, 1957).
Lady Anne Blunt and W. S. Blunt, "The Seven Golden Odes of Pagan Arabia" (London, 1903).
Sir William Jones, "The Mo'allakat or Seven Arabian Poems" (new ed., Calcutta, 1877).
F. E. Johnson, "The Seven Poems Suspended in the Temple at Mecca" (Bombay, 1893).
Charles J. Lyall, "Ancient Arabian Poetry."
Charles J. Lyall, "The Diwans of 'Abid ibn al-Abras and 'Amir ibn at-Tufail" (London, 1913)
W. A. Clouston, "Arabian Poetry for English Readers" (Edinburgh).
The Hanged Poems [Table of Contents]
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