Revision 2.14 “The leader of the poets to hellfire”

Revision 2.14 “The leader of the poets to hellfire” July 31, 2020


from a Vatican munuscript
An audience in medieval Islamic Andalusia listens to the recitation of a poem accompanied by an ‘ud (a lute).

Wikimedia Commons public domain image


I pick up here with a brief allusion to the story that I told yesterday (Thursday):


Several observations can be made about this story. First of all, like the story before it, it illustrates the power of the pre-Islamic Arabian poet. But it also says a great deal about primitive Arab notions of where poetry comes from. The image of Jarir writhing upon his bed, and the old woman’s judgment that he was mad, are extremely significant. For the equivalent of the English word mad in Arabic is majnun (pro­nounced maj-noon). Although, today, it has generally come to mean “mad” or “crazy,” it originally meant “jinn-possessed” or, liter­ally, “jinned.” Poetry was thought to be a genuine inspiration from the jinn. Who were the jinn? People in the West know them better as “genies,” from the Arabic singular jinnee. (They shouldn’t, however, be confused with Barbara Eden, whose portrayal of a jinnee in her television show of the 1960s was—how can I put this gently?—not entirely authentic.)

The premier collection of pre-Islamic poetry is an anthology known since early times as the Mu’allaqaat. And the oldest and most famous of the pieces included in the Mu’allaqaat is a poem attributed to Imru al-Qays. Imru al-Qays is almost universally considered the greatest of the pre-Islamic poets. Muhammad, too, recognized his eminence, if in a rather unusual way: He is said to have described Imru al-Qays as “their leader to hellfire.” According to tradition, Imru al-Qays was the son of Hujr, the ruler of the tribe of Banu Asad in Central Arabia. Tradition says that he was banished by his father, who despised him for being a poet—hardly a princely way of life!—but it seems more plausible that he was driven away on account of his scandalous love affairs. (Imru al-Qays seems to have been ahead of his time, leading the life of a Bohemian artist long before there was a Bohemia.) When he left home, his wild life continued and even intensified. He took up wandering with other outcasts and became known as “the Vagabond Prince.” But then his father was murdered, and he found himself under the sacred Arabian obliga­tion to avenge him.

This was a duty, not a passion with him. In fact, he resented it. “My father wasted my youth,” he was heard to complain, “and now that I’m old he has laid upon me the burden of blood-revenge.” Still, he seems to have been in no great hurry to get to it. “Wine today,” he’s reported to have said.  “Business tomorrow!”  For seven nights he caroused in wild parties, and then, at the end of the seventh day, he swore neither to eat meat, nor to drink wine, nor to use ointment, nor to wash his head or touch a woman, until he’d extracted vengeance.

But before he actually carried out his revenge, Imru al-Qays visited the oracle-idol of Dhu al-Khalasa, in the valley of Tabala, north of Najran. There was a receptacle at this oracle-idol holding three arrows, marked, respectively, “The Commanding,” “The For­bidding,” and “The Waiting.”[1] The person seeking guidance was supposed to draw one of the arrows and then to obey its advice. (That, after all, was what he had come for.) Imru al-Qays drew the second, the one marked “The Forbidding.” At that, he broke all three of the arrows and dashed them in the face of the idol, yelling (with an unrepeatable oath), “If your father had been slain, you would never have hindered me!”

Imru al-Qays went to Constantinople for help, and the Emperor Justinian received him well and, for his own political reasons, offered to assist him. Indeed, the emperor is supposed to have appointed him phylarch of Palestine. But the poet died en route home, at a place called Angora, somewhere around 540 A.D. (Yes, it’s the same place that gives Angora cats their name. It’s also the same place as the modern capital city of Turkey, Ankara.) He is said to have perished by putting on a poisoned robe sent to him as a gift from Justinian, whose daughter he had seduced.[2] 


[1] Hugh Nibley has linked this sort of Arabian arrow divination with the Book of Mor­mon’s Liahona. See Since Cumorah, 2d ed., Volume Seven of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, edited by John W. Welch (Salt Lake City and Provo: Deseret Book and the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1988), 251-63.

[2] Unfortunately, it is this last detail, seemingly so true to the character of Imru al-Qays, that casts doubt upon the whole story. Justinian had no daughter. For this and other reasons, some scholars have argued that the poet Imru al-Qays did not really exist at all, that he is a bit of early Arabian fiction. This may be true, of course, but his poem exists whether he did or not, and it needs some sort of explanation.



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