One Step Away From Islam

The Value of Pre-Islamic Arab Poetry

Studying Arabic classics was an essential part of Islamic traditional education until very recently. Today’s Muslim cannot always reason with this fact, and often times opinions like ‘why do we need to study the writing of kufr,’ could be heard. With this logic, similar understanding expands to the entire literature, including the ones that were once written by Muslims during so-called Golden Age, a time when the Pure Sand of Arabia was left behind in order to build an Islamic civilization. Even if these people with strict approach would allow any creative writing, it should only be in a religiously constructible form, which does not leave anything to say about Jahiliyya culture.

Even though, the steady opinion for centuries is that there is nothing has written in Arabic greater than seven mu’allaqat, the best poems of the famous Arab poets that were hung to the walls of Kaaba as a symbol of indisputable and overall acceptance. Modern philologists and literary critics are only confirming this fact.

Arabic poetry at the time of revelation of the Quran, was not only at its peak, but also spread through the entire society. People were valuing literature by describing how many beyts (poetic lines) that person memorized. It was a completely normal thing among Arabs to have competition in eloquent and poetic improvisations in different occasions, that would be composed at the moment or on an instant on certain topics. Of course, some of the excesses of this culture were rejected by Islam, but that is not the point. A thought, that some scholars express, is that only in this society in this exact period of perfectly mastered language, that once given by God to Ismail (peace be upon him), and development of al-balagha and al-fusaha (expressionism and eloquence), Holy Quran could be revealed. Exactly these people, that were tempted in poetry and literature, could experience such shock during its revelation, that froze them because of astonishment of what conceivably were put above all the masterpieces that they knew really well and of what they could not have thought anything greater. Only they could preserve divine revelation unchangeable. It was they who were ready in certain level to clothe Prophet’s Seera in needed words and pass it to their descendants.

Pre-Islamic Arab poetry had a very big role. Knowing that poetry, allows us to know the language of those who heard first Quranic ayats. By understanding that poetry, we may be getting little closer to their perception of those ayats. Poetry, as an apex of language of the people, is like a key that opens the doors of the language that is used by God. Traditional Islamic scholars recognized importance of it; therefore, students of Islamic studies had to know old pre-Islamic, as well as Islamic Arab poetry.

The Prophet himself (peace be upon him) was especially particular about poetry. Condemning pointless exercise in rhyming prose (was a trend among intellectual Arabs of that time) like eloquence for eloquences, though he said in a famous hadith:

There is some wisdom in poetry and some magic in eloquence” (Al-Bukhari, Muslim)

In Sunnah we can find a huge amount of saying about dual characteristics of poetry, vivid example of which is the following hadith by Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her):

Poetry is both good and bad. Take the good and leave the bad.” (Al-Bukhari)

Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, during one of his lectures, was answering the question of how the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) reached that eloquence he was famous for in his normal speech though he was not a poet nor expert in it:

He liked poetry, and his favorite poet was Umayya ibn Abi-s Salt1, he used to have poetry recited. Aisha, who grew up in his house, clearly was a master of Arabic poetry; she knew thousands of lines of poetry. Ibn Abbas, his cousin, who grew up again in his house, was a master of poetry. So his house was a literary house, surrounded with a lot of poetry. And those

hadiths in which he disparages poetry, have to do with that he liked wisdom poetry, which is a genre in Arabic tradition, ‘hikmi’. The hadiths are about people who waste their lives in poetry, that’s all they do.”

The word jahil has several shades in its meaning, particularly, a society to which the light of prophetic revelation has not reached yet, a society of jahils. Though it would have been wrong to expand the meaning of the term jahil to every aspect of life in a society. “Al-Asr Al-Jahili” often translated as “Age of Ignorance” which is not quite true, because generalizing all pre-Islamic Arabs as ignorant would be equal to offend the truth.

Needless to say, pre-Islamic Arab society, as any other traditional society, was not indiscrete and all its achievements belonged to small and toughly enclosed circle of tribal-military elite. Therefore, if to make a comparison of values of these people, it reminds the epic poetry of the Greek and the Scandinavian rather than the teamsters on camels. They were people of strong nafs and serious pagans, in comparison to which today’s mushriks are just like little children.

Pre-Islamic Arab poetry pervades powerful drama, a drama of noble pagan whose view is to vanity of surrounding world, valor of which revolts against the devastating power of fate.

This is passage from Antarah ibn Shaddad’s qasida as an illustration:

O, my soul! strive not to fly, thou cans’t not

Escape when death seeks thee, death is predestined;

It will come in some shape or other. Endure then

With the patience of one nobly born. Fly not from

The fears of death, or thou wilt remain scorned

A figure of Antarah ibn Shaddad is a figure of a warrior and poet who got famous for his poems as well as from his achievements, and died few years before Hijra, makes an epic swing. According to a legend, he got to carry newborn Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), and also according to some weak riwayahs, the Prophet said about him:

I have never heard a description of an Arab that I would like have to meet more than Antarah.”

These kinds of legends have artistic value more than factual, that illustrates some sort of archetype of people’s memory that also gives an understanding to a batch of people of that time, who accepted the light of divine revelation and dedicated their best of what they had in The One God’s service, could do unprecedented. People whose names freeze the entire Ummah. Outstanding sahaba were outstanding even before Islam.

Al-Sharid said, “The Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, rode with me behind him and said, “Do you know any of the poetry of Umayya ibn Abi-s Salt?’ ‘Yes,’ I replied and recited a line. ‘Go on,’ he said, until I had recited a hundred lines.”

Abu Huraira reported Allah’s messenger (peace be upon him) as saying: “The truest word uttered by a poet is this verse of Labid: “Behold! apart from Allah everything is vain,” and Umayya ibn Abi-s Salt was almost a Muslim.”

From these hadiths, it becomes clear that the Prophet (peace be upon him) did not only love and value beautiful and truthful oration, but he also loved and valued strong nafs and fitra in those men who are receptive to the truth, those who had a fine and accurate vision on reality and though not intentionally but those who might have been seeking the One that is the most genuine and absolute truth.

Daria Rusanova


1 Umayya ibn Abi-s Salt, also known as “Father of wisdom” Pre-Islamic Arab poet. Was famous for his hanifiyya and tawhid, also known to call to overthrow idols. His poetry is different because of its insight and nobility.

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