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Islam

The Popularity of Arabic Poetry

Murales in the Asilah medina, Morocco, Pierre-Yves Babelon / Shutterstock.com

From the desert to talent shows, Arabs identify the community’s collective memory in the figure of the poet

Since the Pre-Islamic era the habit of gathering in the evening in the camp around the poet to listen to people’s lives narrated in verse invites us to reflect on the social and communicative aspect that Arabic poetry has had since its dawn. The collective memory of the tribe is identified in the figure of the poet (shā‘ir). As the recognized spokesperson of the community, he had the task of exalting the deeds of its heroes (fakhr), remembering their genealogy (nasab), blaming their opponents in war (hijā’), and mourning those who had died (rithā’).

Historically, poetry has always represented the highest literary expression for Arabs.
In the poetic compositions of each epoch, memories of the past, present life, and future prophecies come together, and with such a charismatic vigor they reach the reader, who perceives their collective force while at the same time finding their own individuality.

In his famous work on Arabic poetry, al-‘Umda, Ibn Rashīq (d. 456/1063) was already emphasizing that poetry was the official means to record Arabs’ glorious deeds, their heroes and tribal genealogies, with the exaltation of values such as generosity, courage and hospitality. He wrote that the whole tribe was pleased to announce the arrival of a poet, guardian of its traditions and singer of its glories. Later on, in his Muqaddima, Ibn Khaldūn (d. 808/1406) also stressed that for Arabs poetry is where glorious deeds, history and science are gathered, and it is also the main reference point for knowledge and wisdom. He then went on to say that Arabic poetry was a clear representation of the concept of muruwwa, the Arab ‘virtus’.

Poetry has always been considered the highest form of literary despite the criticisms that the Qur’an has directed to the poets – so much so that Prophet Muhammad himself had to reject the accusation of following the traditional art of fortune-tellers (kāhin) and poets, obsessed by demons1 – and the accusations of inauthenticity expressed by some scholars such as Margoliouth and Tāhā Husayn.

The collection of poems (dīwān) is a fundamental basis for the study of Arabic literature as a whole, an indispensable notion in order to understand the role that poetry has played and still plays today. As the illustrious Italian scholar Francesco Gabrieli (d. 1996) noticed: “Arabic poetry, archive of the splendor and daily life of this people

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