(Full name Ahmad ibn al-Husayn Abu al-Tayyib al-Jufi al-Kindi al-Mutanabbi) Syrian poet.
One of the most acclaimed of the classical Arab poets, al-Mutanabbi is the author of the tenth-century Diwan, a collection of poems featuring numerous skillfully crafted panegyrics or praiseful verses, written for the poet's patrons to extol their generosity and celebrate their bravery in battle. His mastery of the genre helped to advance Arab poetry from its classic qasida form.
Al-Mutanabbi was born in Kufu in 915; his father, although of noble ancestry, was a water-bearer. Al-Mutanabbi was well-educated, studied for a time in Damascus, and from a young age offered himself as a panegyrist to various men of modest rank. He completed his education in the desert, practicing his craft with the Bedouin. His consummate skill at writing verse enabled him to pass himself off as divinely inspired; his popular name, al-Mutanabbi, means “he who passes himself off as a prophet.” With numerous Bedouins joining him, he led a failed uprising in al-Samāwa, Syria, for which he was imprisoned in 933. From 948 to 957, al-Mutanabbi served as poet in the court of the Arab prince Saif al-Daula of Aleppo but ultimately, after falling victim to court intrigue, fled to Egypt. There, he wrote numerous panegyrics for the ruler, Kāfūr. When his hoped-for reward of a government position was denied him, al-Mutanabbi left Egypt in 962 and wreaked revenge on Kāfūr by making him the object of biting satire. Further searches for patrons led al-Mutanabbi to Iraq and Iran. Returning to Iraq in 965, he and his party were accosted by thieves. According to legend, al-Mutanabbi's first impulse was to escape, but then he was reminded of some of his verses glorifying bravery in warfare, turned back to fight against his attackers, and was killed.
Al-Mutanabbi's fame rests on one work, the Diwan. It is divided into five sections: the first part consists of poems written in Syria; the second part contains 161 poems, most dedicated to Saif al-Daula; the third part contains numerous poems written for a variety of occasions; the fourth part consists of five poems written for Ibn al ‘Amid; and the fifth and final part consists of seven poems for the Prince of Southern Persia, ‘Adud al-Daula. In all, the Diwan. encompasses 287 individual poems, ranging in length from a couple of lines to sixty stanzas.
Al-Mutanabbi has received much praise in past centuries for the careful structure of his poems' opening lines, transitions between sections, and endings. A. J. Arberry notes that al-Mutanabbi's detractors, however, charge him with plagiarism, ill manners, and inadequate stylistic skill. Arberry regards the controversy about al-Mutanabbi's merit as a poet, which continues to the present day, to be “perhaps the surest proof of his universal greatness.” Andras Hamori further examines the arguments of both admirers and detractors of al-Mutanabbi. Hamori, beyond noting that al-Mutanabbi's aphorisms are quotable and forceful, adds: “His images can be astonishingly bold and, within a mannerist system of perception, beautifully precise.” Elsewhere, Hamori examines the question of how al-Mutanabbi's contemporary audience would have read and reacted to his poems. Hamori cites critical evidence that “the medieval reader could indeed see past the single line and notice larger aspects of composition.” J. Derek Latham offers critical analysis of one of al-Mutanabbi's most famous poems, written on the battle of al-Hadath, in which he finds a logically developed poetic scheme that results in a “coherent and harmonious whole.” Arthur Wormhoudt provides a close reading of several poems from the Diwan, discussing their background, meaning, and stylistic traits. While Arberry deems that “the odes which [al-Mutanabbi] composed in praise of Saif al-Daula rank amongst the greatest masterpieces of Arabic literature,” critics unanimously agree that it is difficult if not impossible for readers not raised in an Arab culture to fully appreciate his work.
SOURCE: Nicholson, Reynold A. “Poetry, Literature, and Science in the ‘Abbásid Period.” In A Literary History of the Arabs, pp. 285-364. London: Cambridge University Press, 1966.
[In the following excerpt from a work originally published in 1907, Nicholson examines al-Mutanabbi's critical reputation, particularly objections made to his work by his near-contemporary, Tha'álibí.]
Sayfu 'l-Dawla's cousin, Abú Firás al-Hamdání, was a gallant soldier and a poet of some mark, who if space permitted would receive fuller notice here.1 He, however, though superior to the common herd of court poets, is overshadowed by one who with all his faults—and they are not inconsiderable—made an extraordinary impression upon his contemporaries, and by the commanding influence of his reputation decided what should henceforth be the standard of poetical taste in the Muḥammadan world.
Abu 'l-Tayyib Aḥmad b. Husayn, known to fame as al-Mutanabbí, was born and bred at Kúfa, where his father is said to have been a water-carrier. Following the admirable custom by which young men of promise were sent abroad to complete their education, he studied at Damascus and visited other towns in Syria, but also passed much of his time among the Bedouins, to whom he owed the singular knowledge and mastery of Arabic displayed in his poems. Here he came forward as a prophet (from which...
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SOURCE: Arberry, A. J. Introduction to Poems of Al-Mutanabbi, edited by A. J. Arberry, pp. 1-15. London: Cambridge University Press, 1967.
[In the following essay, Arberry surveys al-Mutanabbi's literary merits and shortcomings and offers an explanation for his popularity despite his many flaws as a poet.]
My Arabic Poetry was intended as an initiation into a study of a great and abundant, but as yet still comparatively unexplored literature, so that the Western reader might hopefully be stimulated to explore farther, being by now a little more oriented towards the ideals at which the Arab poets aimed, the themes of which they sang, the images they invented and elaborated, and the conventions they observed. That anthology comprised specimens of the work of thirty-one poets, ranging in time from the sixth to the twentieth century, and in space from Persia to Morocco. Now in this volume it is intended to present for examination the best and most interesting (at least to the compiler's taste) of the output of the man universally esteemed the greatest of all the Arab poets, and thereby to advance a little nearer towards understanding the art of poetry as practised by the most poetical people of mankind.
Abu 'l-Taiyib Aḥmad ibn al-Husain al-Mutanabbī was born in al-Kūfa, thriving city of commerce and learning, in the year 303/915. His father is said to have been a water-carrier of...
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SOURCE: Latham, J. Derek. “Toward a Better Understanding of al-Mutanabbi's Poem on the Battle of al-Hadath.” Journal of Arabic Literature 10 (1979): 1-22.
[In the following essay, Latham provides historical context for a celebrated poem by al-Mutanabbi and analyzes its style and symbolism.]
1. ‘Alā qadr-i ahl-i l-‘azm-i ta'tī l-‘azā'im-u wa-ta'tī ‘alā qadr-i l-kirām-i l-makārim-u
2. wa-ta‘zumu fī ‘ayn-i l-ṣaghīr-i ṣighār-u-hā wa-taṣghuru fī ‘ayn-i l-‘azīm-i l-‘azā'im-u
With the worth of men of resolve are resolutions in accordance, and in accordance with the worth of the generous are generous deeds.1
Great in the eye of the small are small deeds, and small in the eye of the great are great deeds.
It is with these two verses, now proverbial and as famous as their celebrated author, that al-Mutanabbī opens one of his best known qaṣīdas.2 Perhaps because the poem is so familiar, its undoubted artistic merits have been taken very much for granted, or worse, they have passed the undiscerning unperceived.3 Such merits—as indeed the merits of much great Arabic poetry, which are only too often lost on...
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SOURCE: Hamori, Andras. “Reading al-Mutanabbi's ‘Ode on the Siege of al-Hadat.’” In Studia Arabica et Islamica: Feststchrift for Ihsan ‘Abbas on his Sixtieth Birthday, edited by Wadad al-Qadi, pp. 195-208. Beirut, Lebanon: American University of Beirut, 1981.
[In the following essay, Hamori explores aspects of al-Mutanabbi's poetry that would have appealed to his contemporary audience.]
Among the classical Arabic poems that treat specific events, many are strongly linear.1 The composition of the work at hand2 is best understood as an occasionally intricate variation on an implicit linear sequence. Al-Mutanabbī's mastery of sound and phrase are evident in it throughout, but the design is largely responsible for the power.
The poem—a panegyric—opens with a two-line moral generalization (“what seems great to the mean seems mean to the great,” etc.) that is applied, in vss. 3-4, to the recipient: Sayf al-Dawla.3 In Arabic poetry, generalization followed by specific application often serves as preface, the reverse as conclusion. The latter was observed by the medieval writers on rhetoric.4 Why such a technique of composition would develop is easy to see. Apt generalization—ḥikma—is valued by the culture in the first place. When the ḥikma stands in a formal relation to the rest of the matter (when coolly...
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SOURCE: Hamori, A. “Al-Mutanabbi.” In 'Abbasid Belles-Lettres, edited by Julia Ashtiany, T. M. Johnstone, J. D. Latham, R. B. Serjeant, and G. Rex Smith, pp. 300-14. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
[In the following essay, Hamori provides an overview of al-Mutanabbi's life and works.]
Abū ’l-Tayyib Aḥmad b. al-Husayn, known as al-Mutanabbī, was born in 303/915 into a poor Kufan family. He took up the career of professional panegyrist while still a boy, and early began his travels in search of patrons. For years he had to content himself with offering hyperboles to men of modest distinction. In 322/933 we find him in prison in Himṣ (Homs): according to most Arabic sources, he had attempted to lead a bedouin revolt in the Syrian desert. The religious tincture of his call (of which his collected verse may retain some samples) earned him, according to this tradition, the name al-Mutanabbī, “He who sets up as a prophet.” This appears to have been his only try at advancement by extraliterary means. Gradually he grew in fame, and his patrons in rank. The nine years he spent, from 337/948 to 346/957, at the court of the Hamdanid prince Sayf al-Dawlah1 in Aleppo were his longest stay with any one patron, and must have been the most satisfying. Sayf al-Dawlah was an Arab prince—a matter of great importance to Mutanabbī—and he truly...
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SOURCE: Wormhoudt, Arthur. “The Blessing of Ishmael and Esau.” In The Blessing of Ishmael and Esau in the Diwan of Abu Tayyib ibn al Husain al Kindi al Mutanabbi, pp. 1-57. Oskaloosa, Iowa: William Penn College, 1992.
[In the following excerpt, Wormhoudt explicates several of al-Mutanabbi's poems.]
Ishmael and Esau both play important roles in the tradition of which the New Testament and the Quran are a part. Ishmael is mentioned several times in the Quran since he and his father Abraham are said to be the builders of the Ka'ba at Mecca. Esau is important to Arabic Christians since his name is spelled ‘Isu and the name of Jesus is spelled ‘Isa. The root ‘is’ can mean to wither and become gray. The former term is applied to crops, the latter to camels. The name of Abraham is often referred to in both the Quran and the New Testament as the founder of Christianity and Islam. The covenant between him and Yahweh Elohim is sealed with circumcision which represents the separation of vowels from consonants in the Hebraic, Arabic and Greco-Roman scripts. These scripts are to be distinguished from the syllabic scripts of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt which do not separate vowels from consonants. The latter are thus idolatrous since idols do not hear or speak with vowels and consonants. Idols are only visible objects.
The story in Genesis which provides the context for these characters...
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Hamori, Andras. The Composition of Mutanabbi's “Panegyrics to Sayf al-Dawla.” Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1992, 127 p.
Provides compositional analysis of the panegyrics and compares Mutanabbi's literary techniques to those of his contemporaries.
Issawi, Charles. “Al-Mutanabbi in Egypt (957–962).” In The Arab World's Legacy, pp. 81–84. Princeton, N.J.: Darwin Press, 1981.
Discusses al-Mutanabbi's frustrated political ambitions. This essay was first published in 1952.
Larkin, Margaret. “Two Examples of Ritha.” Journal of Arabic Literature 16 (1985): 18-39.
Examines how poet Ahmad Shawqi (1868-1932) made use of an elegy by al-Mutanabbi in one of his own elegies.
Meisami, Julie Scott. “Al-Mutanabbi and the Critics.” Arabic and Middle Eastern Literatures 2, no. 1 (January 1999): 21-41.
Examines structural aspects of three poems by al-Mutanabbi.
Wahbi, Magdi. “An Anger Observed.” Journal of Arabic Literature 20, no. 2 (September 1989): 187-99.
Briefly discusses Mahmoud Shakir's personal approach to the study of al-Mutanabbi.
Additional coverage of al-Mutanabbi's life and works is contained in the following source published by the Gale...
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