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AL MUTANABBI: The Greatest Arab Poet
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The art of Arabic poetry is one of the disciplines, which characterize the Arab people. It has a unique nature among the broad field of world poetry. Reflecting the people who create it and the tongue they speak, Arabic poetry is essentially founded on sound synchronizations and abrupt powerful expression. Thus, verses are brief, and Arab poets tend to opt for a handful of dazzling paragraphs rather than a prolonged storytelling effect. Indeed, the paramount works in Arabic poetry are short and they emanate extraordinary impact for the native reader. Throughout history, in the Arab lands, the Arab rulers found inspiration and entertainment in the verses of their court poets.

It was one such poet who became the most renowned of all the Arab poets ever. This was a man by the name of
Abu at-Tayyib Ahmad ibn Huseyn Al Mutanabbi. Among other things, Al Mutanabbi rose to fame with his marvelous metaphors and ornate enhancements of the language. Over a couple of dozen reviews have been written to examine and interpret the subtle, almost hidden messages in his verse. And indeed, they were in fact less than direct to the less experienced reader. For example, in one of his most famous paragraphs, Al Mutanabbi portrays an approaching multitude of soldiers as a crowd so huge that "The warriors marched hidden in their dust and saw with their ears just." Some interpretations put it in plain words that this means that the soldiers' senses were mystified in the commotion, so that although they thought they were seeing, they were in fact hearing the tumult surrounding them. Sadly enough, it is often asserted that in translation, Mutanabbi's verses completely lose their essence. What do Arabic native speakers regard as the perfection of Arabic literature can seldom be shared outside of the Arabic realm. The following passages provide an account of the life and significance of the great poet.

The Life of Al Mutanabbi

    Abu at-Tayyib Ahmad ibn Huseyn Al Mutanabbi was born long ago in 915. His place of birth was the town of Al Kufah in Iraq. Little Al Mutanabbi was the son of a water carrier who was supposedly of noble and ancient southern Arabian descent. In his youth, Al Mutanabbi was well educated in Syria in Damascus, which he partly earned because of his lyrical abilities. Having lived closely among the Bedouin of the Banu Qalb tribe, he learnt their doctrines and Arabic.

    It was in his youth that he won his nickname "Al Mutanabbi", which means “the one who wants to become a Prophet”. Why he was named so is only partly clear. According to some interpretations, he likened himself to the Prophet Salih in some of his verses. Others claim it is his political activities that won the young poet the unusual name. He was the leader of a revolutionary movement and, claiming to be a Prophet, led a revolt in his home town in 932.

    The revolt was suppressed and the young man was imprisoned. It is during this period that he began to write his first poems.

    Al-Mutanabbi’s involvement in politics did not end with the unsuccessful revolt. Throughout his whole life he would aspire towards political influence, although his aspirations were never rewarded. He travelled from Iraq to Syria, Egypt and Iran in search of an influential patron that would eventually appoint him as governor of a province. However, while his poetic talent was widely acclaimed everywhere he went, his skills in handling the matters of state were never recognized as such.

    His political ambitions first lead him to Aleppo in Northern Syria, where he joined the court of Prince Saif al Dawla. From his arrival in 948, Al Mutanabbi enjoyed the protection of the prince for some nine years, before his political aspirations caused him to loose his patron’s favours and made leaving the country the only option on hand. In 957 he was forced to flee to Egypt, which was at that time ruled by the Ikhshidis. In Egypt the poet won the protection of the regent, Abu al Misk Kafur, but his favours were not bestowed on Al Mutanabbi for a long time. He had to flee this country in 960, after he wrote several satirical poems that presented the court in a bad light.

    The poet’s tumultuous path then lead to Shiraz, Iran, where he gained the protection of the Adud ad-Dawlah and worked as court poet until 965. It was in this same year when he found his death. Having returned to Iraq, he was attacked and killed by bandits in a trip in the vicinity of Baghdad.

Understanding Al Mutanabbi

    The bold imagination and hypnotizing metaphors and hyperboles induced many to call Al Mutanabbi the most important representative of the panegyric poetic style. To understand Al Mutanabbi’s significance for Arabic poetry, one needs to take a closer look at the genres predominant at the time.

    These were, as they emerged according to traditional rules, the ghazal, which usually embodied a love poem, the qitah, a less serious literary form exploring the humorous side of life; and the qasidah, which Al Mutanabbi, with his assertive and more personal style, followed but slightly modified.

    The qasidah poetic form was born at the dawn of Arabic society before Islamic times. It developed from the first type of Arabic literature, which essentially was the courageous and daring verses of the proud families of the early Arabs. In its essence, the qasidah described episodes from the author's life experience or that of his close ones. This was done with a vivid and very impactive aroma. The structure of the qasidah consists of twenty to over one hundred verses. Adhering to the standard outline, the verses keep to a preset arrangement. In the beginning, there is an overture, which is essentially a love poem prologue, known as nasib. After this comes the account of the author’s experience. Then comes the conclusion with a section, which was used exclusively to praise the benefactor of the author and to criticize his enemies. In some rare cases, the poet took the liberty to end with a section of self-praise, and al Mutanabbi used this chance on several occasions. The qasidah sounded very appealing to Arabs from all walks of life and became recognized as the common form of panegyric – generally, a eulogistic oration or laudatory discourse to elevate a particular ruler.

    Apart from the above mentioned purpose, the qasidah was also used for sacred reasons. Further in its development, the prologue section of the qasidah became occasionally an eloquent sketch of nature or a passage filled with meaningful words of wisdom. In some more rare cases, the author’s only aim in this opening was to make obvious his mastery in expressing himself in the Arabic tongue.

    Al Mutanabbi did go one better than all conventional qasidah poets in the lavishness of what has been referred to as his “reckless audacity of imagination.” As a poet, he experimented and mixed facets from Syrian, Egyptian, and Iraqi influences with orthodox Arabic standards. The works he wrote – his panegyrics of his patrons with short abrupt verses, which are still quoted today – have always managed to capture the attention of Arabs and especially their rulers. Armed with the qasidah’s audacious overstatements and its splendid resonance, Al Mutanabbi has always enjoyed a broad sphere of admirers. Again, the western reader is unlikely to derive as much artistic enjoyment from Mutanabbi’s poetry as does one whose native tongue is Arabic.

    Openly swollen with pride of his supremacy as a poet, Al Mutanabbi often sang his own praises with sentences such as this famous one: "The desert knows me well, the night and the mounted men, the battle and the sword, the paper and the pen" A deeper grasp of Al-Mutanabbi’s outstanding ability requires an understanding of the skills a writer had to posses in the Arab world. First of all, the poet had to be resourceful and thus well educated. He had to have more than general knowledge about the classics of Arabic and Persian literature. In addition, he had to be well informed about the different scientific disciplines and, most importantly, to feel comfortable with the native myths, legends, common beliefs, and traditions. He had to construct an entertaining blend of these and other elements and to make references to them in his poems. These mixes were masterfully used by Al Mutanabbi; they resulted in imaginary scenes and settings, oftentimes based on hobbies of the rulers such as shatranj or chess, polo, hunting and others.

    As other experienced poets of the time, Al Mutanabbi also played with puns to make his point in an entertaining way. Taking it even further, he even composed paragraphs that could have an alternative meaning altogether when read backward word by word. He also had to be comfortable using chronograms, cores originating from the numerical values of a phrase or verse, which when deciphered, revealed the time and day of a specific pertinent occurrence or experience. This becomes apparent with this passage from one of Mutanabbi’s poems: “Glory and honour were healed when you were healed, and your pain passed on to your very enemies. Light, that had left the sun, as if it was sick in its body, came back to it again. By race, the Arabs are the supreme in the world, but a foreigner will take part with the Arabs of good heart.”

    Al-Mutanabbi's pride often entered the realm of arrogance. It was the foundation of much of his writings. In a sense, Al Mutanabbi was a very controversial figure of his time. His poetry achieved much success with its opulently metaphorical and skillfully attacking or slyly praising qasidahs. His subject matters always bring to mind the time-honored and accepted Arab intrinsic worth of reliability, respect, companionship, courage, and gallantry. During Al Mutanabbi’s lifetime and till our present day, his poetry attracted and attracts a great deal of interest. As with many controversial figures in history, the censure he received at times gave him popularity and opened the doors of his patrons in the cultural centers of the Arab world in the tenth century. Today, Al Mutanabbi remains somewhat unknowable. There is an aura of a hint of vagueness about his works and himself as a person. Not much is known of his personal life. Maybe this will drive more contemporary readers to his works. Maybe he has revealed more of himself to us in the qasidahs he wrote. Maybe this, together with his personality and poetic talent, remains exciting, stimulating and appealing to his readers.




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