During the long history of the Arabs, poetry has enjoyed a unique position among them. It was their spoken history and it occupied the first rank of their traditions. Even in the earliest days, the poet was honored by his tribe because he could defend his people with skillful words and enhance the tribe's position by singing its glories and belittling its enemies.
The ancient master of words would be surrounded by circles of tribal audiences in the same fashion as modern audiences gather nowadays in front of television sets. In a simpler era, the poet even occasionally attained the position of tribal chief, as was the case of the famous poet Amr bin Kulthoom who reportedly gloried the Taghlib tribe with these words: When one of our babies is weaned, the giants prostrate themselves before him. The tribe were so proud of this poem that it was said about them by another poet: The Taghlib has been distracted from all fine doings by a poem of Amr Bin Kulthoom.
One single line of poetry was sometimes able to elevate the position of a tribe, as happened to the Bani Anfulnaqah, which in English means the tribe of the nose of the camel. Embarrassed by their name, they became proud when Hutay'ah said: There are people who are the nose whilst others are the tails, and who compares the nose of the camel with its tail?
Pre-Islamic poets were also concerned with matters of love, as in the lines of Antara, whose words are still chanted: I have remembered you when the lances were sapping my blood and the Indian swords were dripping with it. Whence I wished to kiss the swords because they glittered like your smile.
The poetry which has survived from ancient times conveys the conflicting views which existed on the meaning of life. While Tarafah summed up his philosophy of life in the famous lines: Were it not for wine, women and horsemanship, life would be worth nothing, Labid retorted: Everything save God is nonsense and every pleasure is sure to vanish.
When the Arabs submitted to God by their acceptance of Islam, it was reported that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said: In poetry there is wisdom, and if you are confused about anything in the Quran seek its explanation in poetry, for it is Arabic. A comment was also offered that poetry used in defence of Islam ...is more painful than being struck by arrows.
The Arabs have always demanded that the Ôtongues' of their tribe be well versed in the majesty of the Arabic language. For that reason many poets used to go to live with the Bedouin tribes to learn the pure Arabic language. Grammatical errors would appear in the language of town dwellers because of the mixing that took place there between Arabs and non-Arabs.
Poetry evolved as the Arab medium of learning so much so that teachers of grammar went so far as to versify the complex rules to make them easier for students to memorise. Moreover, verse was used to record some sciences, for example as was done by Ibn Majid (the famous mariner born at Ras al Khaimah who was considered highly by Vasco da Gama) in recording his navigational experiences.
The essence of great poetry is the dexterity of verbal skill and the range of emotions which are explored, but that requirement is a constraint for the religious poets. While learned men of religion have had to be well versed in poetry and have always employed it in religious speeches (a tradition which continues even today during the Friday sermons), their poetic creation has generally been limited in quality and quantity. The cleric has always had to fight shy of expressing emotions freely because of his religious status. Thus we find Al-Imam al Shafii, probably the best poet amongst religious teachers, saying: Had it not been that poetry demeans the learned men of religion, I would have been today a greater poet than Labid.
Reflection on the destiny of man led to the frequent appearance of mysticism in the various eras of Arabic poetry. The extreme side in mysticism is represented by poets such as Al-Hallaj who said: Oh my trusted friends, kill me, for in my killing lies my life. It is worth mentioning that he was killed when the men of religion sentenced him to death for uttering remarks such as: There is no one in my robe but Allah.
Poetry has had a great role to play in Arabic ethics, as in the saying of Abi Tammam: Were it not for the morals set by poetry, the builders of the edifice of greatness would not know how to begin. Abu Tammam was himself the poet who was able to immortalise in verse a relatively inconsequential conquest of a town called Ammuryah in the poem beginning with the famous verse: The sword is more reliable than the book. Thus the battle of Ammuryah is still remembered, whereas more important conquests without a poet to immortalise them have long since faded from memory.
One of the greatest of Arab poets was Al Mutanabbi, who lived in the fifth century of the Christian era. He was the most expert of all the poets in sounding the depths of the human soul. Because of the wonder of his words, he enriched the Arabic language. For instance, he explained the difference in human behaviour when it emanates from a good or a bad nature by saying: If you do good to an honourable man you become his master, but if you do so to a mean man, he rebels against you.
The master of verse Al-Mutanabbi was able to set certain standards for Arabic values which continued to influence later eras. How many generations of Arabs have considered his lines: Live with self-respect or die honourably between piercing lances and fluttering flags. Or his saying: The wishes of the self are too small to deserve that we fight and destroy ourselves for them. Or his exhortation that: The horse, the night and the desert know me and so do the sword, the lance and paper and pen. Or his resolution: May the time of disgrace never pass me, and may my soul, if it accepts injustice, never accompany me.
Al-Mutanabbi himself was said to have fallen victim to the values which he advocated. He was ambushed and refused to flee, lest men savage the reputation of the poet who had said: But a courageous man would rather meet the darkness of death than meet disgrace.
The values of Al Mutanabbi have continued to reappear in one form or another in the poetry of later poets such as Ibn Al-Wardi, whom we find saying: Never say the origin and branches from which I come, for the origin of a true man are his deeds.
In the twentieth century, the poetry of the Arabs has come to play a role in the nationalistic opposition to injustice and imperialism, as in the case of the poet Shauqi who is credited with saying: Freedom has a door knocked by hands smeared with blood, and, Are the large trees out of bounds to its own nightingales, but in bounds to other birds of all descriptions? The poems of Shauqi were sometimes published on the front page of dailies.
Indeed the revolution in Yemen against the regime of the Imam relied in major part on the appeal of poetry, especially the poetry of Al-Zubairi who left the Imam's prison while reciting: We have left the prison with our noses in the air like lions leaving their lairs, passing in front of the blades of swords and approaching death through its proper gate. This trend of social awareness has become a dominant theme in contemporary Arabic poetry. Following the imperialistic disasters which befell the Arabs, romanticism began to lose ground to socio-realism.
Poetry which flourished in Iraq and later in Egypt during the Naserite era sang the praise of the principles of nationalistic causes. This form is now widespread in the poetry of the Palestinian resistance movement and Arab poets in general.
Though any Arab is still capable of quoting his favourite lines of verse, the art form has suffered in the modern era. During the past few decades poetry has begun to lose its status as the vox populi due to the advent of cinema and television. The novel has also competed and has helped to push the great art to the back rows. The proliferation of newspapers has oddly enough deteriorated the general knowledge of great poetry, as the urgent daily deadlines of modern media encourages the publication of poor and obscure poetry. The result is that the Arab has increasingly been alienated from the greatest of the traditions of his culture.