Condemned Poetry

Why the Prophet, Peace Be Upon Him, Condemned Poetry, by Yusuf Latif

The Prophet’s condemnation of poetry, blessings and peace be upon him, is often misunderstood. Yusuf Latif sheds some light on why.

The Mu‘allaqa (hanging poem) of the most famous pre-Islamic Arab Poet, Imru al-Qays, begins with the couplet:

Stop, let us weep, in remembrance of a beloved and her campsite
Here in the desert between al-Dukhul and Hawmal.

While it is praised for its beauty and eloquence it is also cited by Islamic scholars as an example of the errant nonsense that is rife in even the greatest poetry written by the pre-Islamic Arabs. One thing they make a point of is the fact that it would make no sense for two or more people, especially when those people are the pre-Islamic Arabs of the desert, to actually gather together to weep over one and the same woman whom they all love equally. It is more likely that blood would have been spilt.

This view takes into account not only human nature (the nature of jealousy) but also the virtues extolled by the tribal societies of the Arabian Peninsula. Of course, one way of engaging in battle over one and the same woman could take the form of poetic competition between rivals. And if that did not settle the matter, the spilling of blood would be the final recourse.

The Sense in Nonsense

With that in mind there is still actually a way in which to make some sense of these lines—namely as an image that plays precisely on the incongruity of rivals actually joining forces in order to extol the virtues of their object of desire together. That is to say, that the grounds of criticism cited above, as a weakness worthy of criticism, provide the impetus for and the strength of these very lines. The poem follows and extends a pattern of praise and glorification that was native to the Arabic poetry that reached its peak just prior to the coming of Islam.

For the poems written in pre-Islamic time were, after all, poems of praise. Their point is the glorification of someone or something, in this case, a woman. What greater glorification and praise can there be, than that rivals to the death would find common ground in weeping over the absence of the one whom they (both or all) find themselves besotted by? It is here at this precise point that pre-Islamic poetry reached the highest peak from which it toppled after the Revelation of the Qur’an.

From Nonsense to Sense

In the wake of the Revelation of the Qur’an, this height of poetic eloquence was shown up for what it is: empty. It became abundantly clear that the praise accorded to this actual or imaginary beloved of Imru al-Qays, and like tropes of Arabic poetry, overshot the mark by immense distances. Eloquence came to be seen as gross exaggeration. Not only that it also became clear that there is a Beloved to whom such praise is rightly addressed.

Not only that, this form of praise of the True Beloved still missed the mark, but not by being a gross exaggeration. Rather, it will always fall far short of the mark because the True Beloved, namely, Allah, is exalted beyond all human comprehension and hence exalted beyond any words a human being might fashion in order to express the Immense Majesty and Beauty of Allah Most High.

Here lies the wisdom of poetry that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) made a note of. It is recorded in Imam Tirmidhi’s Jami‘ and the Sunan of Ibn Majah that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said:

“There is wisdom in (some) poetry” (Tirmidhi’s wording).

Just as there is wisdom in some speech, for he also said (Allah bless him and give him peace):

“Poetry is in the same position as speech. The good in it is as the good in speech. The bad in it is as the bad in speech” (Al-Adab al-Mufrad).

What matters is not only how something is said but the content (and context). For it is known that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) condemned poetry, not for its form, but for its exaggerated content. He said:

“It is better that a man fill his belly with pus that ruins it than to fill (his mind) with poetry” (Sahih Muslim).

This shows that such praise as accorded by Imru al-Qays to a girl is falsehood, but when it or the like thereof is accorded to Allah Most High by a Muslim poet, even though it falls short of the object, cannot but be good.

Weeping Together Over One Beloved

It is ironic then to say that poetry in praise of Allah Most High after the advent of Islam never reached the heights reached by pre-Islamic poets. For what that really means is that it never reached the level of nonsense reached by the earlier poets (and hence the level of “greatness” accorded to them).

It means that Islamic poetry in sincere praise of Allah Most High can reach to the greatest of heights in art and eloquence and yet still fall short of doing justice to the object of praise, Allah, Exalted and Transcendent. And this is exactly as it should be.

And finally it means that the falsehood in the lines of Imru al-Qays noted by early scholars, i.e. that of two or more people gathering to glorify the Beloved has been made true for the Umma of His Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace).

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