1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Mo'allakāt

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MO‛ALLAKĀT (Mo‛allaqāt or Mu‛allaqāt). Al-Mo‛allaqāt is the title of a group of seven longish Arabic poems, which have come down to us from the time before Islam. The name signifies “the suspended” (pl.), the traditional explanation being that these poems were hung up by the Arabs on or in the Ka‛ba at Mecca. The oldest passage known to the present writer where this is stated occurs in the ‛Iqd of the Spanish Arab, Ibn ‛Abd-Rabbihi (A.D. 860–940), Bulaq ed. of 1293 A.H. vol. iii. p. 116 seq. We read there: “ The Arabs had such an interest in poetry, and valued it so highly, that they took seven long pieces selected from the ancient poetry, wrote them in gold on pieces of Coptic linen folded up, and hung them up (‛allaqāt) on the curtains which covered the Ka‛ba. Hence we speak of ‘the golden poem of Amra’al Qais,’ ‘the golden poem of Zuhair.’ The number of the golden poems is seven; they are also called ‘the suspended’ (al-Mo‛allaqat).” Similar statements are found in later Arabic works. But against this we have the testimony of a contemporary of Ibn 'Abd-Rabbihi, the grammarian Nahhas (d. A.D. 949), who says in his commentary on the Mo‛allaqat: “As for the assertion that they were hung up in [sic] the Ka‛ba, it is not known to any of those who have handed down ancient poems.”[1] This cautious scholar is unquestionably right in rejecting a story so utterly unauthenticated. The customs of the Arabs before Mahomet are pretty accurately known to us; we have also a mass of information about the affairs of Mecca at the time when the Prophet arose; but no trace of this or anything like it is found in really good and ancient authorities. We hear, indeed, of a Meccan hanging up a spoil of battle on the Ka‛ba (Ibn Hishām, ed. Wüstenfeld, p. 431). Less credible is the story of an important document being deposited in that sanctuary (ibid. p. 230), for this looks like an instance of later usages being transferred to pre-Islamic times. But at all events this is quite a different thing from the hanging up of poetical manuscripts. To account for the disappearance of the Mo‛allaqāt from the Ka‛ba we are told, in a passage of late origin (De Sacy, Chrestom. ii. 480), that they were taken down at the capture of Mecca by the Prophet. But in that case we should expect some hint of the occurrence in the circumstantial biographies of the Prophet, and in the works on the history of Mecca; and we find no such thing. That a series of long poems was written at all at that remote period is improbable in the extreme. Up to a time when the art of writing had become far more general than it was before the spread of Islam, poems were never—or very rarely—written, with the exception, perhaps, of epistles in poetic form. The diffusion of poetry was exclusively committed to oral tradition. Moreover, it is quite inconceivable that there should have been either a gild or a private individual of such acknowledged taste, or of such influence, as to bring about a consensus of opinion in favour of certain poems. Think of the mortal offence which the canonization of one poet must have given to his rivals and their tribes. It was quite another thing for an individual to give his own private estimate of the respective merits of two poets who had appealed to him as umpire, or for a number of poets to appear at large gatherings, such as the fair of ‛Oqāẓ (Okad) as candidates for the place of honour in the estimation of the throng which listened to their recitations. No better is the modifications of the legend, which we find, at a much later period, in the Moqaddima of Ibn Khaldūn (A.D. 1332–1406), who tells us that the poets themselves hung up their poems on the Ka‛ba (ed. Paris iii. 357). In short, this legend, so often retailed by Arabs, and still more frequently by Europeans, must be entirely rejected.[2] The story is a pure fabrication based on the name “suspended.” The word was taken in its literal sense; and as these poems were prized by many above all others in after times, the same opinion was attributed to “the [ancient] Arabs,” who were supposed to have given effect to their verdict in the way already described. A somewhat simpler version, also given by Nahhas in the passage already cited, is as follows: “Most of the Arabs were accustomed to meet at ‛Oqāẓ and recite verses; then, if the king was pleased with any poem, he said, ‘Hang it up, and preserve it among my treasures.’ ” But, not to mention other difficulties, there was no king of all the Arabs; and it is hardly probable that any Arabian king attended the fair at ‛Oqāẓ. The story that the poems were written in gold has evidently originated in the name “the golden poems” (literally “the gilded ”), a hgurative expression for excellence. We may interpret the designation “suspended ” on the same principle. It seems to mean those (poems) which have been raised, on account of their value, to a specially honourable position. Another derivative of the same root is ‛ilq, “precious thing.” A clearer significance attaches to another name sometimes used for these poems—assumūṭ, “ the strings of pearls.” The comparison of artificially elaborated poems to these strings is extremely apt. Hence it became so popular that, even in ordinary prose, to speak in rhythmical form is called simply naẓm—“to string pearls.”

The selection of these seven poems can scarcely have been the work of the ancient Arabs at all. It is much more likely that we owe it to some connoisseur of a later date. Now Naḥḥas says expressly in the same passage: “The true view of the matter is this: when Ḥammād ar-Rāwiya (Ḥammād the Rhapsodist) saw how little men cared for poetry, he collected these seven pieces, urged people to study them, and said to them: ‘These are the [poems] of renown.’ ” And this agrees with all our other information. Ḥammad (who lived in the first three quarters of the 8th century A.D.) was perhaps of all men the one who knew most Arabic poetry by heart. The recitation of poems was his profession. To such a rhapsodist the task of selection is in every Way appropriate; and it may be assumed that he is responsible also for the somewhat fantastic title of “the suspended.”

There is another fact which seems to speak in favour of Ḥammād as the compiler of this work. He was a Persian by descent, but a client of the Arab tribe, Bakr ibn Wail. For this reason, we may suppose, he not only received into the collection a poem of the famous poet Tarafa, of the tribe of Bakr, but also that of another Bakrite, Ijlarith, who, though not accounted a bard of the highest rank, had been a prominent Chieftain; while his poem could serve as a counterpoise to another also received-the celebrated verses of Harith's contemporary Amr, chief of the Taghlib, the rival brethren of the Bakr. ‛Amr praises the Taghlib in glowing terms: Ijlarith, in a similar vein, extolls the Bakr-ancestors of Ḥammād's patrons. The collection of Iplarnmad appears to have consisted of the same seven poems which are found in our modern editions, composed respectively by Amra’al-Qais, Tarafa, Zuhair, Labid, Antara ibn Shaddad, ‛Amr ibn Kulthfim, and I- Iarith ibn Hilliza. These are enumerated both by Ibn ‛Abd-Rabbihi, and, on the authority of the older philologists, by Nahhas; and all subsequent commentatorsseemtofollowthem. We have, however, evidence of the existence, at a very early period, of a slightly different arrangement. Certainly we cannot now say, on the testimony of the Jamharat ash‛ār al ‛Arab, that two of the most competent ancient authorities on Arabic poetry, Mofaqldal (d. c. 790) and Abu ‛Ubaida (d. A.D. 824, at a great age), had already assigned to the “Seven” (viz. “the seven Mo‛allaqāt”) a. poem each of N abigha and A‛shā in place of those of ‛Antara and Harith. For meanwhile it has been discovered that the compiler of the above-mentioned work-who, in order to deceive the reader, issued it under a false name-is absolutely untrustworthy. But the learned Ibn Qotaiba (9th century A.D.), in his book Of Poetry and Poets, mentions as belonging to the “Seven” not only the poem of ‛Amr, which has invariably been reckoned among the Mo‛allaqāt (ed. de Goeje, p. 120), but also a poem of ‛Abid ibn Abras (ibid. 144). In place of which poem he read this we do not know; and we are equally ignorant as to whether he counted other pieces than those indicated above among the seven.

Now Nabigha and A‛sha enjoyed greater celebrity than any of the poets represented in the Mo‛allaqāt, with the exception of Amra’al-Qais, and it is therefore not surprising that scholars, of a somewhat later date, appended a poem by each of these to the Mo‛allaqāt, without intending by this to make them an integral part of that Work. This is clear, for instance, from the introductory words of Tibrizi (d. A.D. 1109) to his commentary on the Mo‛allaqāt. Appended to this he gives a commentary to a poem of Nabigha, to one of A‛shā, and moreover one to that poem of ‛Abid which, as we have just seen, Ibn Qotaiba had counted among the seven. It is a pure misunderstanding when Ibn Khaldun (loc. cit.) speaks of nine Mo‛allaqāt; and we ought hardly to lay any stress on the fact that he mentions not only Nabigha, and A‛shā, but also ‛Alqama, as Mo‛allaqa—poets. He was probably led to this by a delusive recollection of the Collection of the “Six Poets,” in which were included these three, together with the three Mo‛allaqa-poets, Amra’al-Qais, Zuhair and Tarafa.

The lives of these poets were spread over a period of more than a hundred years. The earliest of the seven was Amra’al-Qais (q.v.), regarded by many as the most illustrious of Arabian poets. His exact date cannot be determined; but probably the best part of his career fell within the midst of the 6th century. He was a scion of the royal house of the tribe Kinda, which lost its power at the death of King Ḥārith ibn ‛Amr in the year 529.[3] The poet’s royal father, Ḥojr, by some accounts a son of this Ḥārith, was killed by a Bedouin tribe, the Banū Asad. The son led an adventurous life as a refugee, now with one tribe, now with another, and appears to have died young. The anecdotes related of him—which, however, are very untrustworthy in detail—as well as his poems, imply that the glorious memory of his house and the hatred it inspired were still comparatively fresh, and therefore recent. A contemporary of Amra’al-Qais was ‛Abīd ibn Abraṣ, one poem of whose, as we have seen, is by some authorities reckoned among the collection. He belonged to the Banū Asad, and is fond of vaunting the heroic dead of his tribe—the murder of Ḥojr— in opposition to the victim’s son, the great poet.

The Mo‛allaqa of ‛Amr hurls defiance against the king of Ḥīra, ‛Amr son of Mundhir, who reigned from the summer of 554 till 568 or 569, and was afterwards slain by our poet.[4] This prince is also addressed by Ḥārith in his Mo‛allaqa. Of Ṭarafa, who is said to have attained no great age, a few satirical verses have been preserved, directed against this same king. This agrees with the fact that a grandson of the Qais ibn Khālid, mentioned as a rich and influential man in Ṭarafa’s Mo‛allaqa (v. 80 or 81), figured at the time of the battle of Dhū-Qār, in which the tribe Bakr routed a Persian army. This battle falls between A.D. 604 and 610.[5]

The Mo‛allaqa of ‛Antara and that of Zuhair contain allusions to the feuds of the kindred tribes ‛Abs and Dhobyān. Famous as these contests were, their time cannot accurately be ascertained. But the date of the two poets can be approximately determined from other data. Ka‛b, son of Zuhair, composed irst a satire, and then, in the year 630, a eulogy on the Prophet; another son, Bujair, had begun, somewhat sooner, to celebrate Mahomet. ‛Antara killed the grandfather of Aḥnaf ibn Qais, who died at an advanced age in A.D. 686 or 687; he outlived Abdallāh ibn Ṣimma, whose brother Duraid was a very old man when he fell in battle against the Prophet (early in A.D. 630); and he had communications with Ward, whose son, the poet ‛Orwa, may perhaps have survived the flight of Mahomet to Medina. From all these indications we may place the productive period of both poets in the end of the 6th century. The historical background of ‛Antara’s Mo‛allaqa lies somewhat earlier than that of Zuhair’s.

To the same period appears to belong the poem of ‛Alqama, which, as we have seen, Ibn Khaldūn reckons amongst the Mo‛allaqāt. This too is certainly the date of Nābigha, who was one of the most distinguished of Arabic poets. For in the poem often reckoned as a Mo‛allaqa, as in many others, he addresses himself to No‛mān, king of Ḥīra, who reigned in the two last decades of the 6th century. The same king is mentioned as a contemporary in one of ‛Alqama’s poems.

The poem of A‛sha, sometimes added to the Mo‛allaqāt, contains an allusion to the battle of Dhū Qār (under the name “Battle of Ḥinw,” v. 62). This poet, not less famous than Nābigha, lived to compose a poem in honour of Mahomet, and died not long before A.D. 630.

Labīd is the only one of these poets who embraced Islam. His Mo‛allaqāt, however, like almost all his other poetical works, belongs to the Pagan period. He is said to have lived till 661, or even later; certainly it is true of him, what is asserted with less likelihood of several others of these poets, that he lived to a ripe old age.

The seven Mo‛allaqāt, and also the poems appended to them, represent almost every type of ancient Arabian poetry in its excellences and its weaknesses. In order rightly to appreciate these, we must translate ourselves into the world of the Bedouin, and seek to realize the peculiar conditions of his life, together with the views and thoughts resulting from those conditions. In the Mo‛allaqa of Ṭarafa we are repelled by the long, anatomically exact description of his camel; but such a description had an extraordinary charm of its own for the Bedouins, every man of whom was a perfect connoisseur on this subject down to the minutest points; and the remaining parts of the poem, together with the other extant fragments of his songs, show that Ṭarafa had a real poetic gift. In the Mo‛allaqāt of ‛Amr and Ḥārith, for the preservation of which we are especially grateful to the compiler, we can read the haughty spirit of the powerful chieftains, boastfully celebrating the splendours of their tribe. These two poems have also a certain historical importance. The song of Zuhair contains the practical wisdom of a sober man of the world. The other poems are fairly typical examples of the customary qaṣīda, the long poem of ancient Arabia, and bring before us the various phases of Bedouin life. But even here we have differences. In the Mo‛allaqa of ‛Antara, whose heroic temperament had overcome the scorn with which the son of a black slave-mother was regarded by the Bedouins, there predominates a warlike spirit, which plays practically no part in the song of Labīd.

It is a phenomenon which deserves the fullest recognition, that the needy inhabitants of a barren country should thus have produced an artistic poetry distinguished by so high a degree of uniformity. Even the extraordinary strict metrical system, observed by poets who had no inkling of theory and no knowledge of an alphabet, excites surprise. In the most ancient poems the metrical form is as scrupulously regarded as in later compositions. The only poem which shows unusual metrical freedom is the above-mentioned song of ‛Abīd. It is, however, remarkable that ‛Abīd’s contemporary Amra’al-Qais, in a poem which in other respects also exhibits certain coincidences with that of ‛Abīd (No. 55, ed. Ahlwardt), presents himself considerable licence in the use of the very same metre—one which, moreover, is extremely rare in the ancient period. Presumably, the violent deviations from the schema in ‛Abīd are due simply to incorrect transmission by compilers who failed to grasp the metre. The other poems ascribed to ‛Abīd, together with all the rest attributed to Amra’al-Qais, are constructed in precise accord with the metrical canons. It is necessary always to bear in mind that these ancient poems, which for a century or more were preserved by oral tradition alone, have reached us in a much mutilated condition. Fortunately, there was a class of men who made it their special business to learn by rote the works either of a single poet or of several. The poets themselves used the services of these rhapsodists (rāwī). The last representative of this class is Ḥammād, to whom is attributed the collection of the Mo‛allaqāt; but he, at the same time, marks the transition of the rhapsodists to the critic and scholar. The most favourable opinion of these rhapsodists would require us to make allowance for occasional mistakes: expressions would be transposed, the order of verses disarranged, passages omitted, and probably portions of different poems pieced together. It is clear, however, that Ḥammād dealt in the most arbitrary fashion with the enormous quantity of poetry which he professed to know thoroughly. The seven Mo‛allaqāt are indeed free from the suspicion of forgery, but even in them the text is frequently altered and many verses are transposed. The loose structure of Arabic poems was extremely favourable to such alterations. Some of the Mo‛allaqāt have several preambles: so, especially, that of ‛Amr, the first eight verses of which belong not to the poem, but to another poet. Elsewhere, also, We End spurious verses in the Mo‛allaqāt. Some of these poems, which have been handed down to us in other exemplars besides the collection itself, exhibit great divergences both in the order and number of the verses and in textual details. This is particularly the case with the oldest Mo‛allaqa—that of Amra’al-Qais—the critical treatment of which is a problem of such extreme difficulty that only an approximate solution can ever be reached. The variations of the text, outside the Mo‛allaqāt collection, have here and there exercised an influence on the text of that collection. It would be well if our manuscripts at least gave the Mo‛allaqāt in the exact form of Ḥammād’s days. The best text—in fact, we may say, a really good text—is that of the latest Mo‛allaqa, the song of Labīd.

The Mo‛allaqāt exist in many manuscripts, some with old commentaries, of which a few are valuable. They have also been several times printed. Especial mention is due to the edition of Charles (afterwards Sir Charles) Lyall with the commentary of Tibrīzī (Calcutta, 1894). Attempts to translate these poems, verse for verse, in poetical form, could scarcely have a happy result. The strangeness, both of the expression and of the subjects, only admits of a paraphrastic version for large portions, unless the sense is to be entirely obliterated. An attempt at such a translation, in conjunction with a commentary based on the principles of modern science, has been made by the present author: “Fünf Mo‛allaqāt übersetzt und erklärt,” in the Sitzungsberichte der kais. Akad. d. Wiss. in Wien. Philos.-hist. Classe. Bde. cxl.-cxiv. A supplement to this is formed by an article, by Dr Bernh. Geiger, on the Mo‛allaqa of Tarafa, in the Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Morgenlands, xix. 323 sqq. See further the separate articles on the seven poets.  (Th. N.) 


  1. Ernst Frenkel, An-Naḥḥās’ Commentar zur Mu‛allaqa des Imruul-Qais (Halle, 1876), p. viii.
  2. Doubts had already been expressed by various scholars, when Hengstenberg—rigid conservative as he was in theology—openly challenged it, and Sprenger (Das Leben des Mohammad, i. 14, Berlin, 1861) declared it a fable. Since then it has been controverted at length in Noldeke's Beitrdge zur Kenntniss der Poesie der alten Araber (Hanover, 1864), p. xvii. sqq. Ahlwardt concurs in this conclusion; see his Bemerkungen über die Aechtheit der allen arabischen Gedichte (1872), pp. 25 seq.
  3. See Tabarí’s Geschichte der Perser und Araber . . . übersetzt von Th. Nöldeke (Leiden, 1879), p. 171.
  4. See Nöldeke’s Tabarī, pp. 170,172.
  5. Ibid. p. 311.