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Arabian Poetry, by W. A. Clouston, [1881], at

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An indescribable charm surrounds the early poetry of the Arabs. Dwelling in the wonderful creations of their genius with these ancient poets, you live, as it were, a new life. Cities, gardens, villages, the trace of even fields, left far out of sight, you get away into the free atmosphere of the desert; and—the trammels and conventionalities of settled society cast aside—you roam with the poet over the varied domain of Nature in all its freshness, artlessness, and freedom.—Sir William Muir, K. C. S. I., LL.D.

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IN the modern history of the world, no race or nation has figured so largely, or so widely and permanently influenced the destinies of mankind, as the race of shepherds, dwelling in tents, who have occupied the peninsula of Arabia almost since the Deluge. Roused, from the fatal lethargy of the gross idolatry into which they had long been sunk, by the enthusiasm of one man, who substituted for their vain superstitions the simple but sublime formula of belief, "There is but one sole God," in the space of less than a hundred years these people had overrun and conquered a great part of the then known world, which they held subject for several centuries, until, in their turn, they had to yield to more vigorous races. But wherever the Muslim gained footing, there his footprints are still to be seen; and the influence of the enlightened descendants of the first Arabian conquerors, who gave the nations the choice of the Qur’ān or the

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scimitar, remains in European arts, sciences, and literature to this day.

The early history of the Arabs, like that of other very ancient nations, is involved in great obscurity. Their country, or most part of it, seems from remote antiquity to have been called ‘Ariba, a name which it still retains. Regarding the origin of this name learned men differ in opinion. According to some, the name of ‘Ariba was derived from ‘Arba, a district of Tamana, where Ishmael dwelt; others say there was a town of this name in the neighbourhood of Makka. Tradition asserts that the name was derived from Ya‘ruh son of Qahtān, or Joktan, the grandson of Eber; while certain learned Hebraists would have it to be of Hebrew original, since the term araba in that language signifies west, and in the Scriptures the western part of the peninsula is called eretz arab, or ereb—the western country.

Ptolemy's division of Arabia into the "Stony," the "Desert," and the "Happy" was altogether unknown to the Arabs themselves. The best Oriental writers divide the peninsula into five provinces or kingdoms, namely: Yaman; Hijāz; Tahāma; Najd; and Yamāma. Of these the two first call for special notice.

The province of Yaman has always been famed for the fertility of its soil, and the mildness of its climate, which seems to realise the dreams of the poets in being a perpetual Spring. "The beauties of Yemen," says Sir W. Jones, are proved

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by the concurrent testimony of all travellers, by the descriptions of it in all the writings of Asia, and by the nature and situation of the country itself, which lies between the eleventh and fifteenth degrees of northern latitude, under a serene sky, and exposed to the most favourable influence of the sun: it is enclosed on one side by vast rocks and deserts, and defended on the other by a tempestuous sea; so that it seems to have been designed by Providence for the most secure as well as the most beautiful region of the East. Its principal cities are: Sanaa, usually considered as its metropolis; Zebîd, a commercial town, that lies in a large plain near the Sea of Omân; and Aden, surrounded with pleasant gardens and woods. It is observable that Aden, in the Eastern dialects, is precisely the same word with Eden, which we apply to the garden of Paradise. It has two senses, according to a slight difference in its pronunciation: its first meaning is, a settled abode; its second, delight, softness, or tranquillity. The word Eden had probably one of these senses in the sacred text, though we use it as a proper name. We may also observe that Yemen itself takes its name from a word which signifies verdure and felicity; for in those sultry climates, the freshness of the shade and the coolness of water are ideas almost inseparable from that of happiness; and this may be a reason why most of the Oriental nations agree in a tradition concerning a delightful spot where the first inhabitants of the earth were placed before their fall. The ancients,

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who gave the name of Eudaimon, or Happy, to this country, either meant to translate the word Yemen, or, more probably only alluded to the valuable spice trees and balsamic plants that grow in it, and, without speaking poetically, give a real perfume to the air." Such a charming land and climate may well be supposed to have been the seat of pastoral poetry; and, indeed, the best poets which ancient Arabia produced were those of Yaman.

The province of Hijāz is so named, either because it divides Najd from Tahama, or because it is surrounded by mountains. Its principal cities, Makka and Madīna, are most sacred in the estimation of every Muslim. Makka is the Qibla, or place in the direction of which Muslims everywhere turn their faces in prayer: it contains the Sacred Ka‘ba, or Cubical House,—the Baytu-’llāh, or House of God—whither flock unnumbered pilgrims from all parts of the world of Islām once every year; * and the sacred well, Zem Zem—the self-same well, saith tradition, near which Hagar sat with her son Ishmael when she was comforted by the angel. Moreover, Makka is

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the birthplace of Muhammad. El-Madīna—"the city," emphatically—was called Yathrub before the Prophet retreated thither: it contains his tomb, which is, of course, also visited by the devout.

Oriental writers divide the inhabitants of Arabia into two classes: the old lost Arabs, descended from ’Ad and Thamūd (who were destroyed by God because of their unbelief), and others famous in tradition; and the present Arabs, who are sprung from two different stocks: Qahtān, the same with Joktan the son of Eber, the fourth in descent from Noah; and ‘Adnān, who was descended in a direct line from Ishmael, the son of Abraham and Hagar. * Those descended from Qahtān are called ‘al-‘Arabu-’l-‘āriba, genuine or pure Arabs (some authors, however, consider the old lost tribes as the only pure Arabs); those from ‘Adnān, ‘al-‘Arabu-’l-musta‘riba, naturalised or insititious Arabs.—For several centuries many of the Arabian tribes were under the government of the descendants of Qahtān: Ya‘rub, one of his sons, having founded the kingdom of Yaman, and Jurhum, another son, that of Hijāz.

"The perpetual independence of the Arabs," says Gibbon, "has been the theme of praise among strangers and natives; and the arts of controversy transform this singular event into a prophecy and a miracle, in favour of the posterity of Ishmael. Some

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exceptions, that can neither be dissembled nor eluded, render this mode of reasoning as indiscreet as it is superfluous: the kingdom of Yemen has been successively subdued by the Abyssinians, the Persians, the Sultans of Egypt, and the Turks; the holy cities of Mecca and Medina have repeatedly bowed under a Scythian tyrant; and the Roman province of Arabia embraced the peculiar wilderness in which Ishmael and his sons must have pitched their tents in the face of their brethren. Yet these exceptions are temporary or local; the body of the nation has escaped the yoke of the most powerful monarchies: the arms of Sesostris and Cyrus, of Pompey and Trajan, could never achieve the conquest of Arabia; the present sovereign of the Turks may exercise a shadow of jurisdiction, but his pride is reduced to solicit the friendship of a people whom it is dangerous to provoke and fruitless to attack. The obvious causes of their freedom are inscribed on the character and country of the Arabs. Many ages before Mahomet, their intrepid valour had been severely felt by their neighbours in offensive and defensive war. The patient and active virtues of a soldier are insensibly nursed in the habits and discipline of a pastoral life. The care of the sheep and camels is abandoned to the women of the tribe; but the martial youth, under the banner of the emir, is ever on horseback and in the field, to practise the exercise of the bow, the javelin, and the scimitar. The long memory of their independence is the firmest pledge of its

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perpetuity; and succeeding generations are animated to prove their descent and to maintain their inheritance."

The religion of most of the Arabs before the time of Muhammad was rank idolatry. The Sabian religion—worship of the sun, the fixed stars, and the planets, and of angels and lower intelligences—overran the whole nation, although there also existed among them a considerable number of Christians, Jews, and Magians. It was perhaps natural for the Arabs to be led into the worship of the celestial luminaries: a pastoral life requiring continual observation of their motions, in order to forecast changes of the weather, they would be very easily induced to ascribe the blessing of rain to a divine power that resided in them. The constellations, which divide the zodiac into twenty-eight parts, through one of which the moon passes every night, were called anwā’, or the Houses of the Moon. In the Temple of Makka were 360 idols, one for each day of their year; of these the chief were Lat and ‘Uzza, by which they were wont to swear, though such an oath was not considered so binding as the following, from which it will be seen that, besides their imaginary deities, they also believed in a supreme God: "I swear, by Him who rendered the lofty mountains immovable, the Giver of life and death, that I will never betray you, either in word or in deed." If a man broke this oath, the same day he would bark like a dog, and the flesh would fall off his bones.

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[paragraph continues] Some tribes believed in a future state, and when a warrior died his camel was tied to his grave and there left to perish, in order that its master should ride it on the Day of Reckoning, as befitted his rank; others had no faith either in a past creation or a resurrection, ascribing the origin of all things to nature and their dissolution to age. But, for the most part, the pagan Arabs concerned themselves but little as to their future destiny—content if their daily wants were supplied, they hardly looked beyond the present.

Of their virtues and their vices much may be learned from the reliques of their ancient poetry. Hospitality was greatly esteemed among them, while avarice, in men, was held in supreme contempt. The bitterest taunt by one tribe to another was to say that their men had not the heart to give, nor their women to deny: men being esteemed for liberality and courage; women, for parsimony and beauty. The fires which they kindled on the tops of hills, and kept burning during the night, to guide travellers to their tents, and hence called "hospitality fires," are often referred to in their early poetry. But their system of morals, observes Sir W. Jones, "generous and enlarged as it seems to have been in the minds of a few illustrious chiefs, * was on the whole miserably depraved for a century at least before Muhammad:

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the distinguishing virtues which they boasted of inculcating and practising were, a contempt of riches and even of death," but in the age immediately before the time of the Prophet, "their liberality had deviated into mad profusion, their courage into ferocity, and their patience into an obstinate spirit of encountering fruitless dangers."

The general mode of life of the tent-dwelling pagan Arabs was much the same as that of their descendants the Bedawīs of the present day. The wants of a pastoral life are few. To the Arab of the desert, the camel—like the reindeer to the Laplander—is an invaluable gift of Providence. Strong and patient, the camel is capable of carrying a load weighing a thousand pounds, and of making a journey of several days’ duration without water; while the dromedary, of a lighter and more active build, is celebrated by their poets as outstripping the ostrich in speed. The long and fine hair of the camel, which is cast periodically, was woven into cloth for their tents and their garments; its milk, cooled in the wind, furnished a refreshing and nourishing drink; its flesh was their chief food, together with the flesh of horses on festal occasions. Camel's milk, however, was not their only beverage: the old Arabs—those of the deserts as well as those of the cities—seem to have been greatly addicted to wine-drinking, and intoxication was the rule rather than the exception at their frequent feasts. Even the women appear to have freely indulged in wine—in the absence of their lords, if not with their sanction

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and in their presence. The pre-Islāmite bards all celebrate the exhilarating effects of wine, and some even boast of their ability to drink the whole store of the vintner, "at one sitting." It was therefore not without reason perhaps that Muhammad, the great Lawgiver, sternly interdicted the use among Muslims of that salutary yet perilous beverage, and of all other intoxicating drinks.—The Arabs are praised by all ancient writers for their respect for women; their scrupulously keeping their word; and for their quickness of apprehension and their penetration, and—the desert tribes especially—the vivacity of their wit. On the other hand, they were characterised by an eager desire for the property of their neighbours, an unconquerable fondness for strife and bloodshed, and by their vengeful disposition.

One of the barbarous customs which prevailed among the independent tribes of Arabia was the system of private war, or tribal and family feuds, similar in their origin, duration, and ferocity to those feuds which existed among the Highland clans of Scotland until within comparatively recent times. The murder of an Arab chief by the people of another tribe was sufficient to kindle a sanguinary war between the two tribes and their collateral branches, which often lasted for a generation, and even longer. For every relative that had been slain, the Arabian, when his tribe were victorious over that of the slayer, singled out a captive, and, as a point of honour, coolly put them to death. But avarice

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sometimes mitigated this brutal custom: the nearest relative of the deceased was permitted to waive the blood-vengeance in consideration of a fine, the amount of which, about the time of Muhammad's birth, seems to have been ten camels. The Prophet endeavoured to soften or regulate the vengeful disposition of his countrymen by several passages in the Qur’ān; and in later times, in the Sunnat, or Traditions, almost equal in authority with the Qur’ān itself, the amount of the bloodwit was increased to one hundred camels. "In the East," says Richardson, "the relations of the principals in a quarrel seem to have been bound by honour and custom to espouse their party and to revenge their death: one of the highest reproaches with which one Arabian could upbraid another being an accusation of having left the blood of his friend unrevenged."

The custom of setting apart certain months of the year, during which all warfare was unlawful, must have acted as a wholesome check upon the sanguinary disposition of the pagan Arabs. The eleventh, twelfth, first, and seventh months were thus held sacred; the twelfth, Dhu’l-hajj, being, as the name implies, the month of pilgrimage to Makka. "During these months whoever was in fear of his enemy lived in security; so that if a man met the murderer of his father or his brother, he durst not offer him violence." Similar in object, though not in observance, to the sacred months of the old Arabs, were the Treuga Dei and the Pax Regis of Europe during

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the Middle Ages. * Muhammad retained the sacred months, but gave permission to attack the enemies of Islām at all times.

The unnatural practice, which prevailed among some tribes, of burying their female children alive as soon as they were born, had its origin perhaps in a desire to save them from the ill-usage to which female captives were often subjected.  They also sacrificed them to their idols, in common with some of the neighbouring nations. It is said that even the Greeks themselves in the earlier ages destroyed their female offspring. Muhammad, of course, abolished this horrible custom.

Divination and augury were much in vogue among the old Arabs. Arrows, without heads or feathers, were employed in divination, and were usually kept in the temples dedicated to local or favourite idols.

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The idol Habal in the Temple of Makka, which was destroyed by Muhammad himself when he purified the Ka‘ba, had seven such arrows in its hand; but three was the number commonly used. On one of these was written: "Command me, Lord!" on another: "Forbid me, Lord!" and the third was blank. If the blank arrow happened to be drawn, they were again mixed (in a sack), and drawn until a decisive answer was obtained. No enterprise of moment was undertaken without consulting either these divining arrows or the flight of a bird: if it flew to the right, it was ominous of good fortune: but if to the left, the intended journey or enterprise was abandoned.

The principal dialects spoken by the Arab tribes were those of Himyar (or Yaman) and of the Quraysh. The language of Himyar seems to have been but little cultivated; that of the Quraysh, called the pure, and styled in the Qur’ān, "the perspicuous and clear Arabic," ultimately became the language of all Arabia. The Quraysh were the most learned and refined of all the Western Arabs: carrying on an extensive trade with every neighbouring state, and being, for many generations before the time of Muhammad, the custodians of the Ka‘ba, to which a vast number of pilgrims flocked once a year from all parts of Arabia, and from every country where the Sabian religion prevailed, refinement and learning were a natural consequence of their intercourse with strangers of the best classes.

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Poetry and eloquence, but especially poetry, were assiduously cultivated by the Arabs. "With them," says Professor E. H. Palmer, "it was not merely a passion, it was a necessity; for, as their own proverb has it, 'the records of the Arabs are the verses of their bards.' What the Ballad was in preserving the memory of the Scottish Border wars, such was the Eclogue in perpetuating the history and traditions of the various tribes of the Arabian peninsula. The peculiar construction of their language and the richness of its vocabulary afforded remarkable facilities for the metrical expression of ideas; and accordingly the art of Munāzarah, or poetical disputation, in which two rival chieftains advanced their respective claims to pre-eminence in extemporary verse, was brought to the highest perfection among them."

To their poetry, indeed, the Arabians have been chiefly indebted even for the preservation of their language. The old Arabs set great store by the genealogy of their families, and as this was the subject of frequent and bitter disputes, their poems preserved the distinction of descents, the rights of tribes, and the memory of great actions. The principal occasions of rejoicing among the desert tribes were: the birth of a boy; the fall of a foal of generous breed; and the rise of a great poet capable of vindicating their rights, and of immortalising their renown.

Such, in brief, were some of the characteristics of those ancient people, who, under the banner of Islām, spread like an inundation over Asia: "delighting in

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eloquence, acts of liberality, and martial achievements, they made the whole earth red as wine with the blood of their foes, and the air like a forest of canes with their tall spears": and in a very few years created an empire larger than that of the Romans themselves.


xx:* According to Arab tradition, Abraham built the first Ka‘ba on the same spot where the present building stands. Muslim writers go farther, and say that Adam himself erected a temple there, and that it was built and rebuilt ten times. (For a full description and history of the Ka‘ba, see Burton's Pilgrimage to el-Medinah and Meccah, vol. iii., chapter xxvi.) Putting idle legends aside, the antiquity of the Ka‘ba reaches far beyond the Christian era: we learn from Greek writers that the Temple at Makka had been visited by pilgrims time out of mind.

xxi:* From the uncertainty of the descents between Ishmael and ‘Adnān, the Arabs of this stock usually reckon their genealogies no higher than ‘Adnān.

xxiv:* Hātim, chief of the tribe of Tā’ī, and Hāsn, of the tribe of Fazāra, are greatly celebrated for their profuse hospitality. The name of Hātim is still synonymous in the East with the utmost liberality.

xxviii:* The Treuga Dei, or Truce of God, was adopted about the year 1032, in consequence of a pretended revelation of a bishop of Aquitaine. It was published in the time of a general calamity; and it made so deep an impression on the minds of men, that a general cessation of private hostilities was observed, we are told, for seven years; and a resolution formed, that no man should in time to come molest his adversary from Thursday evening till Monday morning. The Pax Regis, or Royal Truce, was an ordinance of Louis VIII., King of France, a.d. 1245; by which the friends or vassals of a murdered or injured person were prohibited from commencing hostilities till forty days after the commission of the offence.—Richardson.

xxviii:† See Epitome of the Romance of Antar, in the present volume—pp. 244 and 249.

Next: II.—The Mu‘allaqāt, or, Seven Ancient Arabic Prize Poems