Pre-Islamic Arabia  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The phrase Pre-Islamic Arabia refers to the Arabian Peninsula prior to Muhammad's preaching of Islam in the 7th century CE.

Some of the settled communities developed into distinctive civilizations, and are limited to archaeological evidence, accounts written outside of Arabia and Arab oral traditions later recorded by Islamic scholars. Among the most prominent civilizations were the Thamud which arose around 3000 BCE and lasted to about 300 CE and Dilmun which arose around the end of the fourth millennium and lasted to about 600 CE. Additionally, from the beginning of the first millennium BCE, Southern Arabia was the home to a number of kingdoms such as the Sabaeans and Eastern Arabia was inhabited by Semitic speakers who presumably migrated from the southwest, such as the so-called Samad population. A few nodal points were controlled by Iranian Parthian and Sassanian colonists.

Pre-Islamic religion in Arabia consisted of indigenous polytheistic beliefs, Ancient Arabian Christianity, Nestorian Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism and Rahmanism.

Pre-Islamic poetry

The first major poet in the pre-Islamic era is Imru' al-Qais, the last king of the kingdom of Kindah. Although most of the poetry of that era was not preserved, what remains is well regarded as the finest of Arabic poetry to date. In addition to the eloquence and artistic value, pre-Islamic poetry constitutes a major source for classical Arabic language both in grammar and vocabulary, and as a reliable historical record of the political and cultural life of the time.

Poetry held an important position in pre-Islamic society with the poet or sha'ir filling the role of historian, soothsayer and propagandist. Words in praise of the tribe (qit'ah) and lampoons denigrating other tribes (hija') seem to have been some of the most popular forms of early poetry. The sha'ir represented an individual tribe's prestige and importance in the Arabian peninsula, and mock battles in poetry or zajal would stand in lieu of real wars. 'Ukaz, a market town not far from Mecca, would play host to a regular poetry festival where the craft of the sha'irs would be exhibited.

Alongside the sha'ir, and often as his poetic apprentice, was the rawi or reciter. The job of the rawi was to learn the poems by heart and to recite them with explanations and probably often with embellishments. This tradition allowed the transmission of these poetic works and the practice was later adopted by the huffaz for their memorisation of the Qur'an. At some periods there have been unbroken chains of illustrious poets, each one training a rawi as a bard to promote his verse, and then to take over from them and continue the poetic tradition. For example, Tufayl trained 'Awas ibn Hajar, 'Awas trained Zuhayr, Zuhayr trained his son Ka`b, Ka`b trained al-Hutay'ah, al-Hutay'ah trained Jamil Buthaynah and Jamil trained Kuthayyir `Azza.

Among the most famous poets of the pre-Islamic era are Imru' al-Qais, Samaw'al ibn 'Adiya, al-Nabigha, Tarafa, Zuhayr bin Abi Sulma, and Antarah ibn Shaddad. Other poets, such as Ta'abbata Sharran, al-Shanfara, 'Urwah ibn al-Ward, were known as su'luk or vagabond poets, much of whose works consisted of attacks on the rigidity of tribal life and praise of solitude. Some of these attacks on the values of the clan and of the tribe were meant to be ironic, teasing the listeners only in order finally to endorse all that the members of the audience held most dear about their communal values and way of life. While such poets were identified closely with their own tribes, others, such as al-A'sha, were known for their wanderings in search of work from whoever needed poetry.

The very best of these early poems were collected in the 8th century as the Mu'allaqat meaning "the hung poems" (traditionally thought because they were hung on or in the Kaaba) and the Mufaddaliyat meaning al-Mufaddal's examination or anthology. The Mu'allaqat also aimed to be the definitive source of the era's output with only a single example of the work of each of the so-called "seven renowned ones", although different versions differ in which "renowned ones" they chose. The Mufaddaliyat on the other hand contains rather a random collection.

There are several characteristics that distinguish pre-Islamic poetry from the poetry of later times. One of these characteristics is that in pre-Islamic poetry more attention was given to the eloquence and the wording of the verse than to the poem as whole. This resulted in poems characterized by strong vocabulary and short ideas but with loosely connected verses. A second characteristic is the romantic or nostalgic prelude with which pre-Islamic poems would often start. In these preludes, a thematic unit called "nasib", the poet would remember his beloved and her deserted home and its ruins. This concept in Arabic poetry is referred to as "al-waqfa `ala al-atlal" (الوقوف على الأطلال / standing by the ruins) because the poet would often start his poem by saying that he stood at the ruins of his beloved; it is a kind of ubi sunt.

Some famous Jahili poets:

See also




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