Islam and Poetry
Islam is peaceful, Islam is merciful, Islam allows freethinking, Islam allows freedom of speech, Islam allows freedom of expression ... and what not. These are the words we are constantly being bombarded with for 24/7/365. To add more to this, we are continuously reminded that there were many Muslim poets who wrote great poems. Islam produces great poets, authors and writers. Pious and sincere Islamists are dying to demonstrate these great intellectual achievements of Islam. They even give examples of essays written by Occidental charlatans from famous universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, SUNY (State University of New York), etc.
How true are those claims?
Recently, a very lively discussion/debate took place in a popular Internet forum (Mukto-mona). Many erudite authors published their good works for the benefit of all. Some supports Islamic tolerance for poems while many others refuting the claim that Islam allows composing poems according to the poet's freedom of thought. Some of those cyber posts also pointed out that most of those Islamic poets were not Muslims at all (like Omar Khayya'm, Jalal Al Din Rumi, Al-Mari, etc.) in the true sense. Thus, the claim that Islam had produced many great poets is rather fraudulent.
Indeed, the issue of poetry in Islam is not that simple to tackle. The prophet was very clever on this matter. On certain occasions, he termed the poets and their poetry as evils. Conversely, he encouraged poets when that suited his purposes. This shifty and opportunistic attitude of the prophet of Islam towards poets has made the issue of poetry in Islam rather murky. You will see some verses in the Holy Qur'an and many references especially in Ahadith that denigrate poets. At the same time, you will find some instances when the prophet was quite positive to the poets and poetry.
So what is the correct situation? This short essay makes an attempt to remove this confusion and examine what is the true position of poetry in Islam.
Many people erroneously think that the Holy Quran is the most beautiful poetry given to mankind by Allah. Is this really true? The Qur'an is very clear on this. It says without any confusion whatsoever that it is not poetry and the prophet of Islam did not recite any poetry.
Mohammed does not recite any poetry; the Qur'an is a clear message... 36:69
YUSUFALI: We have not instructed the (Prophet) in Poetry, nor is it meet for him: this is no less than a Message and a Qur'an making things clear:
The Qur'an is also very clear in saying that Mohammed is not a poet possessed but he confirms the messages of apostles sent before him... 37:36-37
YUSUFALI: And say: "What! shall we give up our gods for the sake of a Poet possessed?"
YUSUFALI: Nay! he has come with the (very) Truth, and he confirms (the Message of) the messengers (before him).
The Qur'an is not the words of a poet...69:41
YUSUFALI: It is not the word of a poet: little it is ye believe
Some people thought that Mohammed was a poet...52:30
YUSUFALI: Or do they say:- "A Poet! we await for him some calamity (hatched) by Time!"
During those so-called 'Dark Days' of Arabia, poetry was a passion with the Arabs. There used to be regular poetry festivals in Mecca where all the best poets from all over Hejaj used to meet in an annual gathering and recite their poetical verses. The best of all those selected were then hung on the walls of Kaba. They were called 'golden verses' because they used to be written in gold. There were seven such "golden" poems. The names of their authors are Zuhair, Tarafah, Imrul-Qais, Amru ibn Kulsum, al-Haris, Antarah and Labid. These poets also used to listen to Mohammad's recitation but were not highly impressed. Out of those seven great poets, only Labid embraced Islam (Ref: Dictionary of Islam by T.P.Hughes, Published by Kazi Publications, Inc. 3023-27 West Belmont Avenue, Chicago, IL; page 460). Many of those poetries were based on idolatry and worshipping of various pagan gods and goddesses. So Muhammad developed a strong disdain for those poets and their compositions.
Later, when Muhammad started to disparage the idolatry of the Quraish, the Quraish decided to commission their poets to ridicule Mohammad. One of those poets was Al-Nadir b. al-Harith . He was a sophisticated genius of the Quraish. He faced Mohammad in a debate in Mecca during a pilgrimage season. Muhammad was greatly infuriated when al-Nadir b. al-Harith recited a few verses that were clearly superior to the Quranic verses that Muhammad claimed to be fro Allah. Later, Muhammad took his revenge when the Muskims took al-Nadir as a captive in Badr war. He (al-Nadir) was the first captive Muhammad ordered to be beheaded. Hazrat Ali dutifully carried out Muhammad's order (See History of Tabari; vol. VII, page 65). This was example of tolerance to opposition the prophet of mercy had left for his followers to emulate!
When Muhammad found out that it was quite difficult to face the challenges of those literary stalwarts of those days he started to engage some poets to hurl abuse to those learned poets. Two such poets hired by Muhammad were Hasan and Labid (Ref: ibid; page 460). We get a glimpse of this behaviour of Mohammad from these ahadith.
Muhammed requested to lampoon the pagans in verse with Gabriel's help...8.73.174
Sahih Bukhari Volume 8, Book 73, Number 174:
The Prophet said to Hassan, "Lampoon them (the pagans) in verse, and Gabriel is with you."
Mohammed asked Hassan bin Thabit to abuse Banu Quraiza people with poem and that Gabriel will be with Hassan bin Thabit...5.59.449
Sahih Bukhari Volume 5, Book 59, Number 449:
The Prophet said to Hassan, "Abuse them (with your poems), and Gabriel is with you (i.e, supports you)." (Through another group of sub narrators) Al-Bara bin Azib said, "On the day of Quraiza's (besiege), Allah's Apostle said to Hassan bin Thabit, 'Abuse them (with your poems), and Gabriel is with you (i.e. supports you).'"
Despite Muhammad's hostility towards the pagans of Mecca and his vitriolic verbal attack on them, a few pagan poets during this time were quite appreciative of the beautiful verses of the Quran Mohammad claimed to be from Allah. Some of these Quraish poets even embraced Islam after hearing those poetic verses of the Qur'an (This is the claim by the Egyptian biographer of the Prophet, Husayn Haykal. There are question marks on this claim of Haykal). However, Mohammad was quite unhappy in facing these poets and finally decided to call the poets as evils. Allah promptly sent a suitable verse to his Messenger to this effect.
Poets are evils... 26:224
YUSUFALI: And the Poets,- It is those straying in Evil, who follow them:
Here are some ahadith that clearly demonstrates Mohammad's hatred for the poets and poetry.
It is better to fill one's inside body with pus than to fill it with poetry...8.73.175, 176
Sahih Bukhari Volume 8, Book 73, Number 175:
Narrated Ibn 'Umar:
The Prophet said, "It is better for a man to fill the inside of his body with pus than to fill it with poetry."
Sahih Bukhari Volume 8, Book 73, Number 176:
Narrated Abu Huraira:
Allah's Apostle; said, "It is better for anyone of you that the inside of his body be filled with pus which may consume his body, than it be filled with poetry."
It is better for a man's stomach to be stuffed with pus than to fill one's mind with frivolous poetry... 28.5609
Sahih Muslim Book 028, Number 5609:
Abu Huraira reported Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: It is better for a man's belly to be stuffed with pus which corrodes it than to stuff one's mind with frivolous poetry. Abd Bakr has reported it with a slight variation of wording.
Can't do buying and selling in a mosque, can't announce aloud about lost items, can't recite poems and can't sit in a circle in a mosque on Fridays before the prayer...3.1074
Sunaan Abu Dawud Book 3, Number 1074:
Narrated Abdullah ibn Amr ibn al-'As:
The Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him) prohibited buying and selling in the mosque, announcing aloud about a lost thing, the recitation of a poem in it, and prohibited sitting in a circle (in the mosque) on Friday before the prayer.
What happened to those golden days of poetry in Mecca?
When Mohammad conquered Mecca, those exciting days of poetry and poets were over. This is what the 'Dictionary of Islam' writes:
"It is generally admitted by Arabic scholars that the golden age of Arabic poetry was that immediately preceding or contemporaneous with Muhammad, and that from the time of Muhammad there was a gradual decline. This is not surprising, inasmuch as the Qur'an is considered the most perfect model of composition ever revealed to mankind, and to be written in the language of Paradise" (Ref: Dictionary of Islam, page 460).
Muhammad was quite clever in realising the potential power of poetic verses if used to his advantage. That was why he did not put a complete ban on poetry but started to appreciate those poetries that glorified Allah and Muhammad and helped him in battlefields. In the Khaibar war, a poet called Amr composed poems eulogising Allah and asking Allah's blessings in winning the war, Muhammad immediately blessed Amr and guaranteed his martyrdom. Here is the hadith from Sahih Bukhari.
Mohammed praised the poems of a poet...5.59.509
Volume 5, Book 59, Number 509:
Narrated Salama bin Al-Akwa:
We went out to Khaibar in the company of the Prophet. While we were proceeding at night, a man from the group said to 'Amir, "O 'Amir! Won't you let us hear your poetry?" 'Amir was a poet, so he got down and started reciting for the people poetry that kept pace with the camels' footsteps, saying:-- "O Allah! Without You we Would not have been guided On the right path Neither would be have given In charity, nor would We have prayed. So please forgive us, what we have committed (i.e. our defects); let all of us Be sacrificed for Your Cause And send Sakina (i.e. calmness) Upon us to make our feet firm When we meet our enemy, and If they will call us towards An unjust thing, We will refuse. The infidels have made a hue and Cry to ask others' help Against us." The Prophet on that, asked, "Who is that (camel) driver (reciting poetry)?" The people said, "He is 'Amir bin Al-Akwa'."
Then the Prophet said, "May Allah bestow His Mercy on him." A man amongst the people said, "O Allah's Prophet! has (martyrdom) been granted to him. Would that you let us enjoy his company longer." Then we reached and besieged Khaibar till we were afflicted with severe hunger. Then Allah helped the Muslims conquer it (i.e. Khaibar). In the evening of the day of the conquest of the city, the Muslims made huge fires. The Prophet said, "What are these fires? For cooking what, are you making the fire?" The people replied, "(For cooking) meat." He asked, "What kind of meat?" They (i.e. people) said, "The meat of donkeys." The Prophet said, "Throw away the meat and break the pots!" Some man said, "O Allah's Apostle! Shall we throw away the meat and wash the pots instead?" He said, "(Yes, you can do) that too." So when the army files were arranged in rows (for the clash), 'Amir's sword was short and he aimed at the leg of a Jew to strike it, but the sharp blade of the sword returned to him and injured his own knee, and that caused him to die. When they returned from the battle, Allah's Apostle saw me (in a sad mood). He took my hand and said, "What is bothering you?" I replied, "Let my father and mother be sacrificed for you! The people say that the deeds of 'Amir are lost." The Prophet said, "Whoever says so, is mistaken, for 'Amir has got a double reward." The Prophet raised two fingers and added, "He (i.e. Amir) was a persevering struggler in the Cause of Allah and there are few 'Arabs who achieved the like of (good deeds) 'Amir had done."
Mohammad listened to the recitation of poetry... 28.5602, 5603
Sahih Muslim Book 028, Number 5602:
'Amr b. Sharid reported his father as saying: One day when I rode behind Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him), he said (to me): Do you remember any Poetry of Umayya b. Abu Salt. I said: Yes. He said: Then go on. I recited a couplet, and he said: Go on. Then I again recited a couplet and he said: Go on. I recited one hundred couplets (of his poetry). This hadith has been reported on the authority of Sharid through another chain of transmitters but with a slight variation of wording.
Mohammed said that some poems contain wisdom...8.73.166
Sahih Bukhari Volume 8, Book 73, Number 166:
Narrated Ubai bin Ka'b:
Allah's Apostle said, "Some poetry contains wisdom."
Mohammad was free to drink an antidote, tie an amulet or compose a poetry... 28.3860
Sahih Muslim Book 28, Number 3860:
Narrated Abdullah ibn Amr ibn al-'As:
I heard the Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him) say: If I drink an antidote, or tie an amulet, or compose poetry, I am the type who does not care what he does.
In eloquence there is magic and in poetry there is wisdom... 41.4993
Sunaan Abu Dawud Book 41, Number 4993:
Narrated Abdullah ibn Abbas:
A desert Arab came to the Prophet (peace_be_upon_him) and began to speak. Thereupon the Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him) said: In eloquence there is magic and in poetry there is wisdom.
In eloquence there is magic, in knowledge there is ignorance, in poetry there is wisdom and in speech there is heaving... 41.4994
Sunaan Abu Dawud Book 41, Number 4994:
Narrated Buraydah ibn al-Hasib:
I heard the Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him) say: In eloquence there is magic, in knowledge ignorance, in poetry wisdom, and in speech heaviness.
Sa'sa'ah ibn Suhan said: The Prophet of Allah (peace_be_upon_him) spoke the truth. His statement "In eloquence there is magic" means: (For example), there is a right due from a man who is more eloquent in reasoning than the man who is demanding his right. He (the defendant) charms the people by his speech and takes away his right. His statement "In knowledge there is ignorance" means: A scholar brings to his knowledge what he does not know, and thus he becomes ignorant of that. His statement "In poetry there is wisdom" means: These are the sermons and examples by which people receive admonition. His statement "In speech there is heaviness" means: That you present your speech and your talk to a man who is not capable of understanding it, and who does not want it.
Do those quotes from the Holy Scriptures confuse you? Surely they do. So, what could we finally say about the position of poetry in Islam? To get a clear picture of this affair we need to turn to Sharia. We always think that Sharia means Hudud punishments, like cutting off hands and feet, beheading, lashing etc. But this is just a part of Sharia. Islamic Sharia contains rules and injunctions for every aspect of your life that you could think of or even possibly that you could not think of! Some rules of Sharia are incredibly unbelievable. If you thought that the Talibans have interpreted the merciful Islam wrongly, then please turn to Sharia laws. What Talibans did in Afghanistan and what 'real Islam' is doing in many parts of the world are mind boggling, unbelievable, unconscionable, unthinkable and completely uncivilised... you may think so. But have a look at Sharia and you will surely find where is the root source of these actions lie. There is a very good book on Sharia (concise) based on the Shafii and Hanafi school of Jurisprudence. This book is:
Reliance of the Traveller (Umdat al-Salik by Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri)
Edited and Translated by Nuh Ha Mim Keller (Revised Edition), 1999
Published by Amana Publications, Beltsville, Maryland USA
In this Sharia book we get the following Islamic rulings on poetry and their composers. Mind you that this is not ahadith or Qur'an. This is a legal document and its provisions are completely enforceable in an Islamic Paradise. If you want to be a poet in an Islamic Paradise, then please memorise these Sharia provisions so that you may be able to save your neck by taking advance precautions.
As per Sharia, knowledge is divided into three classes: viz: Unlawful, Offensive and Permissible. The status of poetry depends upon the content of the poem a poet composes. If his composition is to praise Allah and His messenger then that is fine. Any other type of poetry (like philosophical, love, romance, patriotism, nationalism, free and secular thinking, etc.) are completely illegal or haram.
If you are a poet and you depend on your pen and poems for your livelihood, then you must change your profession. In Islam, earning a living by using pen to write poetry is unlawful. Ditto for poetry lovers. If you spend too much time on poetry, then you are engaged in a haram (unlawful) activity. Please note that study of Philosophy is haram too. If you are a Philosopher (or want to be one), then forget about living in an Islamic Paradise. You would surely end up losing your head. Isn't this the reason why the Islamic army of Pakistan killed the then Head of Philosophy Department of Dhaka University, Dr.G.C. Dev? With BNP-Jamaat in power in Bangladesh, all Philosophers (and poets) watch out! It could be that your days are numbered. No kidding. Letany erudite Islamist rebut my article point-by-point.
Here are excerpts from the Sharia
a7.2 Unlawful knowledge includes: (page-14)
(1) learning sorcery, since according to the most reliable position, it is unlawful, as the vast majority of scholars have decisively stated;
(3) magic (sha'badah, meaning sleigh of hand, etc.);
(5) the sciences of the materialists
(6) and anything that is a means to create doubts (n: in internal truths). Such things vary in their degree of unlawfulness
a7.3 Offensive knowledge includes such things as post-classical poetry which contain romance and uselessness (page-14)
a7.4 Permissible knowledge includes post-classical poetry which does not contain stupidity or anything that is offensive, incites to evil, hinders from good; nor yet that which urges one to do good or helps one to do it (n: as the latter would be recommended) (page-14)
r40.3 (ibn Hajar Hayatami) As for listening to singing that is not accompanied by instruments, one should know that singing or listening to singing is offensive except under the circumstances to be mentioned in what follows. Some scholars hold that singing is sunna at weddings and the like, and of our Imams, Ghazali and Izz ibn A'bd al-salam say that it is sunna if it moves one to a noble state of mind that makes one remember the hereafter. It is clear that from this that all poetry which encourages good deeds, wisdom, noble qualities, abstinence from this-worldly things, or similar pious traits such as urging one to obey Allah, follow the sunna, or shun disobedience, is sunna to write, sing or listen to, as more than one of our Imams have stated is obvious, since using a means to do good is itself doing good (Kaff al-raa''a'n muharramat al-lahw wa al-sama' (y49), 2.273 (pp-775, 776)
Who was Ibn Hajar Hayatami? Whatever he was he was not a 'timber mullah'. Neither was he a Mullah like Mullah Omar of Afghanistan having a Madrassa dropout qualification. Ibn Hajar Hayatami was an Egyptian Shafii Imam. He was a brilliant Islamic scholar during his time and prepared an in-depth application of sacred laws that are used as the foremost resource for legal opinion and fatwa purposes. He has prepared an extensive list of grossly offensive items in Islam. In fact, his huge list contains more than four hundred items that are grossly offensive in Islam The list includes music, musical instrument, dancing... any thing and everything you could think of that make modern life enjoyable, pleasurable, pleasant and comfortable. Guess what? All these are grossly offensive in Islam. If you have time then you could go through this list and amaze yourself with the Islamic rules. You will then understand why the Talibans did what they did. Here I am including only part of the list that concerns only poetry.
w52.0 IBN HAJAR HAYATAMI's LIST OF ENORMITIES
w52.1 (432-38) embellishing a poetic ode by mentioning a particular woman, even without indecency, or mentioning an unnamed woman indecently or to sing an ode; (page-989)
(434-37) poetry that contains mockery of a Muslim, obscenity, or lying; or singing such poetry and spreading it; (page-989)
(438) composing panegyrics with poetic figures of speech that exceed normal bounds, earning one's living thereby and spending most of one's time at it; (page-989)
I hope that this short essay will help you to remove from your mind the cobweb that you might have regarding poetry in Islam. If we go by the Islamic rules, then only Hamd and Naat (some of them written by the great Islamic poet Golam Mostafa) are the only poems allowed in Islam. Almost all the poems written in Bangladesh are unIslamic and almost all the poets are engaged, in many cases, in blasphemy acts whether they realise this or not. Although there is no specific hudud punishment specified in Sharia for writing poetry, please know that if a poetry is considered grossly offensive and/or blasphemous then the punishment is death by beheading.
As one can see, the message is now very clear. Most of the poets of Bangladesh (or any other country) are the potential targets for capital punishment if an Islamic Paradise is established and 'real Islam' is practiced in Bangladesh.
Finally, we must realise that Islam is not what the great Universities from the West (like Cornell, Oxford, Cambridge, etc.) try to portray. The 'real Islam 'is not in those places. The 'real Islam' is not even what the minds of the great majority of the Muslims (like Bangladeshis) would like it to be. The 'real Islam' is in the Holy Qur'an, the ahadith and the Sharia. Therefore, take it (in its totality) or leave it. Period.