al-Mutanabbi Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

al-Mutanabbi 915-965

(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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.