To Stir the Branches

God, damn poetry! How many

a dim poet have we not met?

They put forth the vague rather than what

the listener would find clear and plain.

They deem the absurd a wise idea,

and vulgar talk a thing of merit.

They have no clue as to what is just, and

top their ignorance with ignorance of it.


BY BEGINNING with the above lines of poetry from a verse treatise on the art of prosody, quoted by Ibn Khaki un in his Muqaddima, lines asking God to damn poetry, in verse, I hope to suggest the theme of this piece: language.

It is a commonplace that language transfers and informs culture, in the sense that language, at its best, is not only a product of learning, but defines the mode of learning: demarcating what is knowledge and what isn’t. It is proof of culture. Take the word adab, which, among much else, means culture, refinement, mores or ethics, literature and belles-lettres. And I conflate the last two terms for the sake of argument, as form and function go together. I see no great discrepancy between them where the Arab tongue is concerned – except, perhaps, in degree.

Those with an interest tnfiqh will have read or heard of the importance of the Arabic language in the training of the jurist: grammar, lexicology and so forth. The systemized sciences based on a textual corpus exemplify the best usage: the Qur’an and Prophetic hadith, first and foremost. But Kufan and Basran grammarians include lugat al-‘arab, or the Arabic language. In Book X of The Reliance you’ll read that the companion, Ibn ‘Abbas, one of seven companions from whom most legal opinions were taken, “was visited by many people seeking knowledge of the lawful and unlawful, poetry, Arabic and genealogy,” which shows the importance placed on language. If memory serves me, it was he who cited Arab poetry as a key to understanding certain “problematic” passages of the Qur’an.

The pure Arab tongue is much more than mere grammatical usage. Eloquence here has nothing to do with rhetoric in its pejorative sense, that is, with overwrought, emotional and lengthy bouts of verbal incontinence extolling dubious concepts and virtues – something poetry is often accused of, and rightly so, when at its worst. But poetry is more than the ghost of a man spouting rhyme while drowning in sentiment, or “inspiration,” as some would have it. It is also of some significance that the form Il verb ‘arraba – whence ‘arab (true Arabs, Bedouins), ‘irob (desinential inflection) – means, “to express, voice, state clear Iy,” implying mastery, insight and level-headedness.

Usage – read practice – defines a man. Ibn Khaldun has written that, “All languages are habits like unto crafts (techniques).” And these “habits are acquired through repeated action.” Then, having gone through the manner in which poetic, clerical, scientific and legal habits are acquired, he writes, “Mysticism has its source in diverse types of worship and remembrance. Thus, one refrains from using the senses through solitude and such isolation from other men as is practicable, until the habit of withdrawing into oneself and thus, becoming a mystic is firmly established. The same is the case with other habits,” emphasizing, as in all Islamic arts and sciences, praxis over book learning.

The eloquent are not only in action, but in speech, not only in content, but in formulation. They speak without bending speech, without verbosity and overelaboration. Eloquence, as Ibn Khaldun has it, is dhawq, or taste. And taste, thank God, is acquired, not subjective.

To end where I began, I’d like to quote another passage by Ibn Rashiq from his “Treatise on the Art of Poetry,” as found in the Penguin Classic Birds Through a Ceiling of Alabaster: “I do not know a poet more perfect and amazing in his craft than Ibn al-Mu’tazz [d.908 CE]. His art is so light and so delicate it can scarcely be detected.” To which the translator comments: “Although Mu’tazz’s art may be imperceptible, his quality is apparent. Frequently he concentrates upon an intense visual experience in a surprising metaphor or simile. We derive pleasure not only from the economy and brilliance of expression, but also from the fact that he makes us see physical objects from a different angle. They are made new and, an interesting epistemological point, the result is more accurate than most descriptions.” Here is a sample, and one that survives sensitive translation:

The cavalry of dew is mounted on flowers

Stirred by the whip of the wind.

The field gallops as it stands.

And this piece by Ahnaf, whose poetry Ibn al-Mu’tazz thought was the best he had ever read:

The heart moved by love, wants to fly.

My chest holds an outburst of wings.

The hand of a tambourine girl.

Here I see why the reception of something like The Arabian Nights is such as it is in the West, in its preference for the ornate, “Oriental” and fantastic over the clear, terse and Arabic. May it not last, and may it find no friend among us.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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