Classical Arab poetry usually covers the period beginning with the earliest traceable Arabic poems. The earliest form Arabian poetry dates back from the 6th century to the consolidation of the High abbasid court poetry. To its foundations lies a very rich oral traditional comprising of pre-Islamic tribal and court poetry which are presented in preeminent Arabic poetic form (Polythematic qasida or ode) ( Hoyland 41).
This kind of poetry usually expressed and preserved the values the traditional warrior in its full tripartite form. It consisted of nasib, rahil (desert journey), praise of madih,fahkar, personal and tribal boast. Ancient Arabic poetry is it is characterized into two main types. They are rhymed or measured and prose. The rhymed poetry is usually within fifteen different meters. These were collected and elucidated by al-Farahidi in The Science of ‘Arud. One of the students of al-Farahi later added one more meter making them sixteen.
In the rhythmical poetry, the meters are known in Arabic as "seas" (buḥūr) with the measuring unit of seas is known as "taf‘īlah". In every sea there is usually a certain number of taf'ilas which is to be observed by the poet in every verse of the poem. This makes the measuring technique of a poem to be a very rigorous. Occasionally, adding or removing a one consonant or a vowel can change the bayt from one meter to another. To put into consideration, in rhymed poetry, every bayt must end with the matching rhyme all through the poem. (Hoyland 52)
Poetry has long been debated in different settings. This has given room for some of the researchers and critics of Arabic poetry to classify it in two main categories. There is the classical poetry and modern poetry. The Classical poetry was written before the Arabic renaissance (al-Nahḍah). Thus, the researchers have indicated that all poetry that was written in the classical style is called "classical" or "traditional poetry". This is because it follows the traditional or the ancient structure and style. Others have also given it the name "horizontal poetry" which reflects to its horizontal parallel structure. Modern poetry, on the other hand, is said to have deviated from classical poetry in five distinct ways based on its content, rhyme, style, topics and structure (Hoyland 25).
Poetry before Islam
The first documented poet in the pre-Islamic time was Imru' al-Qais. He was the last king of the kingdom of Kindah. Researchers have argued that the poetry of that period was not preserved however; the kind of poetry that has remained is well regarded as the best of Arabic poetry to date. Additionally, the articulacy and artistic value of the pre-Islamic poetry creates a major source for classical Arabic language both in grammar and vocabulary. This has also made it become a reliable ancient or rather the historical record of both cultural and political life of the time (Hoyland 9).
In the pre Islamic, society poetry held an important position with the poet or sha'ir filling the part of propagandist, historian and that of a soothsayer. A lot of distinct Words were used in praise of their own tribe (qit'ah) and lampoons demeaning other tribes (hija').These seemed to have been some of the most distinct and earliest forms of poetry. The poet usually represented his or her own tribe's pride, prestige and relevance in the Arabian Peninsula. Mock battles in poetry or zajal would often stand in lieu of real wars. One of the places known to play host to regular poetry festivals was the market of Ukaz, which was not far from Mecca.
During these festivals the poet was usually accompanied by the reciter (rawi) whose job was to learn the poems by heart and recite them with the actual explanations. This would greatly reveal the real meaning of the poem. Huffaz adopted this tradition allowed transmission of these poetic works and the practice for the memorization of the Quran.The most famous and known poets of the pre-Islamic era were Imru' al-Qais, Samaw'al ibn 'Adiya, al-Nabigha, Tarafa, Zuhayr, and Antar. There were also other poets known as vagabond (suluk) poets.
These were Ta'abbata Sharran, al-Shanfara, and 'Urwah ibn al-Ward, Much of their work consisted attacks on the rigidity of other tribes, their way of life and praise of solitude. Several of these attacks were based on the values of the clan and of the tribe. They were usually ironic and full of teasing to the listeners. Historians have argued that they were only used in to endorse all that the members of the audience would want to hear about their communal values and way of life. These poets were identified closely with their own individual tribes. There were others, such as al-A'sha, who was known for their roaming in search of work from the people who needed poetry.
Majority of the best of these ancient poems were put together in the 8th century as the Mu’allaqat. These were the hung poems. This is because they were hung on or in the Kaaba. Others were the Mufaddaliyat meaning al-Mufaddal's examination (Anthology). The definitive sources of the eras were the Mu’allaqat. They were known to have an output with only a single case of the work of each one of the so-called "seven renowned ones”. However different versions differ slightly in from the actual "renowned ones” that they chose. On the other hand, Mufaddaliyat contains rather a more random collection (Hoyland 22).
Several characteristics are used to distinguish between the pre-Islamic poetry and the poetry of later times. Among the distinct characteristics of t the pre-Islamic poetry is that more attention was given to the articulateness together with the wording of the verse than to the poem in general. As a result of this, poems were characterized by strong vocabulary and short ideas. This made them to have very loosely connected loosely connected verses. Another distinct characteristic is the romantic or yearning prelude with which pre-Islamic poems would often start with. In most of these preludes, a thematic unit called "nasib", would make the poet remember his beloved and her abandoned home and its ruins. This is the concept which is refered to as al-waqfa `ala al-atlal" in Arabic poetry “(standing by the ruins). This is because the poets would often start his/her poem by way of saying that he stood at the ruins of his beloved (Abulhab 108).
Poet under Islam
Under the new emerging faith of Islam, these ancient poems were to some extent considered a threat. To some extent they not only suppressed, but were restricted to use for some years. This was due to the fact that, their sha'ir and pronouncements were very closely associated with the religion practiced before Islam. This was as result of the contradiction of the role of the poet and the teachings of the Quran. This brought a lot of criticism. Their praise of dubious subjects such as wine, sex and gambling clashed with the new belief. This was not allowed in the teachings of Quran. The Satirical poems that were attacking or directed to an idea or leader were becoming less censured. Other poets were becoming early converts to the Islamic faith; they started developing poetry about or in praise of Islam (Hoyland 112).
As a result of the new faith, it was the early poems' relevance to Islamic scholarship, which would positively lead to their preservation. The poems not only illuminated life in their early years of Islamic faith and its antecedents but also would prove to them the basis for studying linguistics based on the Qur’an teachings.
Majority of the pre-Islamic forms of verse were either retained or improved. There were instances where where two poets exchanged creative insults, (Naqa'id or flytings). These were very popular with al-Farazdaq and Jarir. They resulted in swapping a great deal of criticism. This tradition has however continued in a more modified form known as zajal resulting in two groups 'joust' in verse, and has remained a shared style in Lebanon. (Abulhab 46).
The last of the Bedouin poets is Ghaylan ibn 'Uqbah. He was nicknamed Dhu al-Rummah. Most of His works had continued the themes of the works from the pre-Islamic poets. His work in particular was full of themes that particularly eulogized the tough but simple desert life which were customarily recited round a campfire. This formed the themes that were continued and returned to by many modern, urban poets. This is the poetic life that saw birth of comfortable and luxurious life in Umayyad courts. (Phillip 77).
As a results of this ghazal or love poem came into the limelight. Amongst this new breed of poet was Abu Nuwas. He was the new breed of poets who was openly known for many of his poems that openly praised of wine. Historians have labeled as one of the poets of bizarre writing especially on his poems that openly talked of homosexuality (Phillip 43). Other poets like Nuwas produced suggestive but these poems were considered beautiful. Many of the poems pushed to the limit what was barely acceptable under Islam religion; however there were other poets who produced poems themed on the Islamic religion. From literature, it is said that Nuwas struck a deal with his Abu al-Alahijah where he would concentrate on wine and love poems while Al-Alahijah would write more of homilies. (Phillip 21).
These poems usually expressed a wide of views on religion, sin and the afterlife. However they occasionally cut into the unorthodox territory. Some of the poets such as Salih ibn 'Abd al-Quddus were executed for here say, while the work of Al-Alahijah was acceptable. Waddah al-Yaman, now the widely known poet of Yemen, was also executed for his verse. This was probably speculated because of his over-familiarity with the wife of the caliph Al-Walid ( Abulhab 16).
Majority of the Court poets were joined with known court singers. They included Ibrahim al-Mawsili, his son Ishaq al-Mawsili and Ibrahim ibn al-Mahdi. Many stories about these early singers and poets were retold and written in the Book of Songs by Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahan (Abulhab 12). It is documented that much of the Arabic poetry started to decline after the 13th century along with much of the literature as a result of the emergence of Persian and Turkish literature. However it continued to flourish for a little longer in al-Andalus (Islamic Spain). Eventually it ended with the eviction of the Arabs in 1492. However the big low was in1499 when Cardinal Jimenez de Cisneros burnt 1,025,000 Arabic volumes (Abulhab 42).
One of the most famous examples of Arabic poetry based on romance is the Layla and Majnun. This poem dates back to the Umayyad era in the 7th century. This work of poetry is a tragic story of everlasting love much like that of the later Romeo and Juliet (Abulhab 53). Another poetic love work was Hadith Bayad wa Riyad (The Story of Bayad and Riyad) which is a 13th-century Arabic love story. It was written in al-Andalus . in this masterpiece the main characters of the story are Bayad, a merchant's son and a foreigner from Damascus, and Riyad, a well-educated girl in the court of an unnamed Hajib of al-Andalus (vizier or minister), This kind of poety is believed to be the only illustrated document known to have survived especially from more than eight spans of Muslim and Arab existence in Spain (Abulhab 87).
This kind of poetry in genre of Arabic poetry was known as hija. It was introduced into Arabic literature by the Afro-Arab writer al-Jahiz in the 9th century. This was based on ability to use anecdotes, paradoxical observations or employ a vocabulary of a nature which was more familiar in hija, satirical poetry (Abulhab).
Abulhab, Saad D. DeArabizing Arabia: Tracing Western Scholarship on the history of the Arabs and Arabic Language and Script. New York: Blautop Publishing. 2011. Print.
Hoyland, Robert G. Arabia and the Arabs: From the Bronze Age to the Coming of Islam. London: Routledge.2001. Print.
Philip Kennedy, the Wine Song in Classical Poetry: Abu Nuwas and the Arabic Literary Tradition. Oxford. 1997. Print.