Thursday, 20 September 2007

Chaste Love to Explicit Sex: Three Types of Arabic Love Poetry

Detail from the medieval love story of Bayad and Riyad, 13th Cent. AD, Spain.

By Mohja Kahf

Early Arabic love poetry developed into three models that might be called Hijazi, Udhri, and Kufi. You could say Hijazi love poetry was the Dating and Romance Network of classical Arabic literature. From that Hijazi baseline, Udhri love takes the high road, expressing chaste, idealized love, while Kufic erotic poetry is the soft porn of its time.

Hijazi Love: Meet Me by the Mosque, Darling

Hijazi love poetry developed in Mecca and Medina just a few decades after the advent of Islam, taking its name from the northwestern region in the Arabian peninsula where those two cities are. It speaks of relationships between men and women whose feet are firmly planted on earth. Lovers in the poetry sometimes get a glance at each other, a conversation, a touch, a clandestine rendezvous (can we say ‘a date?’).

Umar ibn Abi Rabi’a* (d. 93 AH/ 711 CE) is the best-known exemplar of Hijazi love poetry. Born in Medina the day of Caliph Umar’s terrible assassination and named for him, he grew up in a wealthy family. Later he moved, avoiding Medina’s political turmoil, to Mecca, where many of his love poems are set.

Umar ibn Abi Rabi’a loved pursuing women who were traveling to Mecca on Hajj. He declares,

Standing at the two Marwas stirs me—
Passion is thought created in a lover
(Arthur Wormhoudt’s translation in Bitar, p. 25)

The phrase “two Marwas” refers to Safa and Marwa, the boulders near the Kaba between which pilgrims run seven times to commemorate Hajar’s running, part of the landscape Umar traversed daily. Meccan landscape, holy site for Muslims becomes, in Umar’s poetry, backdrop for scenes of the lover’s passionate adventures—not pining for a Divine Beloved, but scanning the cityscape for a lady of recognizably human dimensions:

To Aisha daughter of Taimi: I have
A fever in the heart whose heat I fear not
A gazelle reminds me of Taimi’s daughter
(Arthur Wormhoudt’s translation in Bitar, p. 25)

Umar praises the ladylove, sometimes named ‘Hend,’ sometimes ‘Um Amr,’ sometimes “Aisha bint Taimi,” for her beauty, character, and lineage. She is “Mistress of women in the king’s house, her ancestors dwelt on peaks of respect” (Wormhoudt in Bitar, 29). The lady figure in his poetry is not a pedestal persona standing for all womankind, but a typical woman belonging to Umar’s era, specifically one with “Quraish gravity,” “good manners and spotless garments” (Bitar, p 29), who journeys on Hajj with her kin, dispatches servants with notes for her boyfriend, and gives him the time of day for a date.

“She shows down her back black tresses that cover her” (Bitar, 25), Umar says. He spies her getting dressed; she is veiled only by the back of her tent (Bitar, 27). The point of view of the poet here is waiting lovingly outside for her to come forth. The speaker longs for what the girlfriend does not always give him:

Say to the beauty: Memory wastes,
and tears for you, each morn, hurry.
Would my heart with your love in it
had no such thing or thought within.
It sobbed when Hend was stingy and
gave not what I hoped and expected.
(Arthur Wormhoudt’s translation in Bitar, p. 27)

Still, he does at least hope and expect to kiss her, hold her waist, laugh with her. Umar’s poetry, with its concern for fashion, its often merry and snap tone, reflects the more sophisticated lifestyles of the city in the new, expansive and cosmopolitan Umayyad era. Sometimes Hijazi love poems allude to the imagery of the desert and tribal Arabian life, but this is fading into poetic convention, for the real world the poets know in the early Umayyad era is increasingly urban. Other poets of Hijazi love include al-Ahwas and Ibn Qays al-Ruqayyat.

Ancestry of the Hijazi love poems found in pre-Islamic couplets:
The very earliest appearance of eros in Arabic literature is in the odes of the pre-Islamic era. Convention was that the first few couplets of the ode were devoted to romantic love. Then the poem went on to its main topics, usually the chivalry of the poet in defense of the tribe.

Perhaps the greatest pre-Islamic poet, Imra’ul Qais, begins his famous Muallaqa with a boast of how he made love to his lady ‘Fatima’ while she breastfed a baby, with the upper half of her body twisted toward the infant and her lower half nestled against her man (a gymnastic feat worthy of boasting by her, it seems to me, more than by him). Pre-Islamic Arab women wrote love couplets as well. Um al-Dahhak al-Muharibiya wrote these lines to “her Dibabi husband, with whom she was madly in love:”

The contentment of love is hugging, kissing, and bellylapping,
Then hairpulling and bodyrocking that floods the eyes
(Udhari, p. 54)

These early erotic couplets of the pre-Islamic ode are the grandparents of Hijazi love poetry. Romantic love is limited to a few couplets prefacing the body of the ode in pre-Islamic poetry. However, it describes a love that is understandable in earthly, social, human terms, like the love that develops into a full genre in Hijazi poetry, which is described above.

Udhri Love: Love Unto Death

The object of love in Udhri poetry, on the other hand, almost evolves into something other-worldly. Udhri poetry emerges in the same early Umayyad period as Hijazi poetry and in the same northwestern Arabian province, but is named after Bani Udhra, the tribe of Jamil ibn Ma’mar, a poet of Medina (d. 82 AH/ 701CE).

Jamil is famous as a lover of the lady Buthayna from a neighboring tribe. The story of their romance is that Buthayna’s people turn down Jamil’s marriage proposal because they feel Jamil’s verses praising their love have compromised her honor—merely saying that a woman loved a man was considered a blot on her honor in ancient Arab tribal society (and in some sectors of modern Arab societies, for that matter). Buthayna is forcibly married off to another man, but she and Jamil continue to be in love with each other, although they never consummate their love. Jamil continues to visit her and to complain in verse of his longing.:

My bosom friend, in your whole life,
have you ever seen a slain man
weep for love of his slayer, as I do?
(my translation from Farrukh, Vol. 1, p. 482)

Here he portrays himself as “slain” by love of Buthayna, a typical Udhri conceit.

Indeed, Jamil ibn Ma’mar came to be called “Buthayna’s Jamil,” or in Arabic “Jamil Buthayna.” He was the first to come up with the notion, which became a staple of Arabic love poetry ever after, that to die in love is martyrdom, as in these verses:

They say, go out in jihad, Jamil, do battle
But what jihad do I want beside woman?
For every conversation with women is joy,
and he who is slain while among them is a martyr
(my translation from Farrukh, Vol. 1, p. 481)

Jamil is playing here on the tradition that posits jihad as a win-win for the believer—if the jihad is victorious the mujahed wins victory, and if slain, he wins heaven anyway. Likewise, Jamil says, he who makes jihad among women wins either way: Simply to be among them is heavenly, and if love kills you (which was not melodramatic fancy in ancient Arabia, mind you—love could seriously get you killed by the lady’s tribesmen), well, you still win, but on a higher, metaphysical level.

Udhri, or chaste, love poetry celebrates a lofty union of souls between a man and a woman that endures despite societal obstacles and legal limits, eternal beyond even death. Udhri poetry turns the unattainability of physical union with the beloved into a spur to virtue, high devotion, and chivalry in the life of the lover, who ultimately dies as a martyr to love. Jamil’s poetry “adds a new dimension to Arabic love poetry. His love is chaste, but not strictly platonic, since he seeks fulfillment in marriage” (R. Jacobi, 411).

The classic Udhri lovers are Laila and Majnun, a star-crossed pair whose story is set, as Udhri romances tend to be set, in the desert rather than the city landscape of Hijazi love poetry. The real ‘Majnun’ is said to be the poet Qais Ibn al-Mulawwah. The real ‘Laila’ is Laila bint Sa’d al-Amiriya (d. 688CE). Also a poet, she wrote:

I have been through what Majnun went through,
But he declaimed his love
And I treasured mine,
Until it melted me down
(Udhari, p. 76)

Udhri poetry typically sets the love story in a primitive tribal Arab lifestyle that was fast fading in reality. The poets and their readers lived in the increasingly urban and sophisticated world of the Umayyad empire, but they romanticize the old desert life, the way a rapidly industrializing America in the 1880s romanticizes cowboy life. Qais & Lubna and Kuthayyir & Azza are other famous couples in the Udhri genre.

Udhri love poetry posits passions that may begin between regular men and women seeking earthly union in marriage, but spirals toward the more purely spiritual. The lover’s pining is magnified to a life calling. The beloved’s distance renders her almost angelic in her loftiness. The lover describes her beauty in awed veneration; he would no more imagine making love to the lower half of her half-twisted torso or rendezvousing with her in the vicinity of the Kaba than Dante would think of bedding heavenly Beatrice in The Divine Comedy. The Udhri lover yearns for union with the ladylove, withers and pines away without her, laments pitiably outside her house, is driven mad by his longing, and often must leave society to wander as an outcast in his love-driven misery—but is liable to fall dizzy and faint should she actually come within sight. ‘Love unto death’ is the core theme of Udhri poetry.

Udhri love and the genesis of religious love poetry:
You can tell where this is leading, right? Udhri love evolves toward later Sufi poetry of Divine Love. Sufi poetry feeds freely on the imagery of human love, taking every image of courtship and romance as an allegory for the ineffable, for the stages and stations of the journey of the soul toward God, the Ultimate Love. Rabia al-Adawiya is the first to love: She is the first in Arabic poetry to phrase the relationship of the worshiper for God in terms of Love. In later Sufi poetry, some of which becomes more extravagant in its metaphors for Divine Love, even references to “Laila” –a woman’s name meaning ‘dark one’—can turn out to be an allegory for the Kaba in her black gown, whom the worshipper seeks on his Hajj journey.

Kufi Poetry: Baby, Take It Off

Founded as a garrison town by the Caliph Umar in 17 AH/638 CE, the city of Kufa in Iraq gained importance when Ali ibn Abi Talib made it the seat of his caliphate for four years. As a frontier town, it was the scene of the mixing of Arabs with Persians and other races newly entering the growing Islamic empire—and the site of adventures in multiculturalism which this mixing, by no means a happy one for all parties, produced. During the Umayyad era, Kufa became associated with light-hearted, urbane poetry such as that of al-Uqayshir al-Asadi, “known for wine poetry as well as for his licentious love poetry” (Leder, 456). Kufa experienced another cultural boom during the early Abbasid period, fed in part by the Persian influence.

One of the genres of poetry that flourished in Kufa early on is the poetry of ‘mujun,’ meaning jesting, satire, ribaldry, shamelessness. One might call this genre of licentious literature the poetry of ‘shocking and mocking.’ Khamriyat, or poetry celebrating wine, was another genre to flourish in the earliest days of Kufa and later in its Abbasid prosperity. Love poetry was another hot genre in Kufa, sometimes licentious and associated with mujun poetry, sometimes not so libertine.

If Udhri love poetry leans toward religious love poetry, Kufi poetry is often deliberately sacrilegious, sometimes jestingly turning the religious terminology of Islam itself into sexual innuendo. Even the word ‘islam,’ which means ‘submission,’ is outrageously used in one poem to suggest the passive position in sex between men. Not all this is to be taken literally. Mujun poetry has an element of political protest against the centralized Islamic order ruled by the Abbasid caliphate (in effect, the Abbasid monarchy). Poets “used illicit symbolism contained in sacred texts and religious commentaries to create parody and satire about political and spiritual leaders” (Wright, 2).

Abu Nuwas (d. 199 AH/ 813 CE), born right at the cusp of the Abbasid era of both Arab and Persian parentage, was educated in Quran, hadith, and Arabic at Basra and Kufa, and traveled to Mecca for hajj. “Give me a cup of distraction from the mu’adhin’s call,” he writes brazenly in the mujun genre, “Give me wine to drink publicly, and bugger and fuck me now.” (Wright 12). Although he seems to have gone through cycles of revelry and repentance, he is known for his poetry in praise of wine-drinking and sexual exploits with women, men, and boys, such as:

Make love to boys in their youth,
When their beards begin to sprout,
And in ripe old age
Sit down in every tavern, where wine
And lovemaking are offered . . .
And if you are asked, ‘Is pederasty
Permitted at this time?’
Say ‘Of course!’
To keep souls away from what they love is a great sin . . .
In this way you will carry out the holy war
A share of the booty and paradise will then be your right . . .
(Wright, 12)

Abu Nuwas has poems describing anal sex with men and boys in no uncertain terms. Yet Abu Nuwas is not only a poet of graphic sex and vulgar language. The poems with such shocking elements are those in the mujun and khamriyat genres, not his love poetry. Moreover, mujun poetry and explicitly erotic poetry can certainly be found outside Kufa, despite the association of its name with the early flourishing of these genres.

As far as Abu Nuwas’ love poems, they are divided by redactors into the “mudhakkarat,” or poems addressed to men, comprising about two-thirds of the whole group, and the “mu’annathat” or poems addressed to women, about one-third. However, it is not always easy to tell which category an Abu Nuwas poem should enter, especially because of an Arabic poetic conceit of concealing love for a woman under a male pronoun. And where does one put his “ghulamiyyat,” poems to young girls disguised as men, who apparently formed a fascinating segment of Abbasid society?

His love poems to men, women, and shall we say “others,” actually do not contain obscenities. In his love poetry, “Abu Nuwas describes the appearance of the male or female beloved, the pain of the lover (his tears, emaciation, insomnia, submissiveness, etc.), but also the joy of reunion. Furthermore, he describes the blamer, the jealous watcher, and the one who slanders the lovers; also the procuress, the apple that serves as harbinger of love, and many other things” (G. Schoeler, 42). Abu Nuwas is said to have truly loved only one woman, after all is said and done, his beloved Janan:

A muhajjaba fascinates my heart
Beauty is her niqab
. . . .
She uses it to cover her face’s rarities
And increases the value of the bits she shows
(my version based on Arthur Wormhoudt’s translation in Bitar, p. 37, with consulting the original)

If we were to look only at his actual love poetry, leaving out the mujun verse, Abu Nuwas may even be seen as a Hijazi-style poet of love like Umar ibn Abi Rabi’a.

With some poetry it is hard to say whether it is Hijazi or Kufi, or something else entirely. Dahna bint Mas-hal complains:

If you want to know how the old man fared with me,
this is what went on:
He lolled me the whole night through,
and when dawn flashed his private lips,
thundered rainlessly,
and his key wilted in my lock
(Udhari, p. 90)

She died in 708 CE, which puts her in an era where all three modes of erotic writing existed. Where to place her, and other verse like hers? When typologies fail in their usefulness, it is best not to be rigid about applying them.

Three Arab Ways to Say ‘I Love You’

Elegant, sensual, and high-spirited, the lover in Hijazi poetry usually gets to first base, and is ever hopeful and cheerful in the pursuit of a real, earthly love, grounded in his or her social world.
The melancholic Udhri poet falls down chastely at the foot of his worshipped lady, in selfless surrender even unto death to the spiritual power of a love that, alas, can never be realized in this cruel world. Udhri poetry of chaste love is linked to later developments in purely religious, mystical love poetry.
Never mind chaste or mystic love with the Kufi poet of mujun, a gay devotee of the erotic; he goes all the way, in every position, and flippantly tells all.

The Fun Doesn’t Stop There

Ibn Hazm’s twelfth-century Andalusian love treatise, The Ring of the Dove, has the elegant, discreet, and courtly ring of Hijazi love, as does the poetry of Arab noblewoman Wallada bint al-Mustakfi. (Women participated in all three genres of love poetry; a separate column detailing Arab women’s erotic writing is forthcoming.) In the early twentieth century, the popular love writings of Lebanese-American Khalil Gibran (who was of Christian background) bear the stamp of idealized, spiritualized Udhri love. The bawdy stories in the Thousand and One Nights, such as ‘The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad’ could be considered in the same category as the Kufi or ‘mujun’ erotica.

These three canons of love poetry may have developed early in the history of Arabic literature, but they remain useful categories when we look at the subject of eros in later Arabic literature, and indeed, in the literature of the world.

Dr. Kahf, a member of the Middle East & Islamic Studies faculty at the University of Arkansas, teaches a course on “Love and Eros in Middle Eastern Literature.”


*AH = After Hijrah, using the Islamic reckoning. CE = Common Era or Christian Era (=AD).

*Fyi, the man’s name ‘Rabia’ is totally different in Arabic from the woman’s name which looks the same in English transliteration. The male name, as in the poet Umar, has a short ‘a’ at the beginning, and the stress is on the next-to-last syllable, which is a long ‘e’ sound, whereas the woman’s name has a long ‘a’ sound in the first syllable, which is the stressed syllable, and a short ‘i’ vowel sound in the next-to-last syllable.


Bitar, Farid, Treasury of Arabic Love: Poems, Quotations, and Proverbs in Arabic and English. Hippocrene Books, 1996.

Farrukh, Umar. Tarikh al-Adab al-Arabi, Dar al-Ilm lil Malayin, 1984, Vols. 1 and 2.

Giffen, Lois A. Theory of Profane Love Among the Arabs: The Development of a Genre. New York University Press, 1971.

Jacobi, R. “Jamil ibn Ma’mar” in Julie Scott Meisami and Paul Starkey, ed., Encyclopedia of Arabic Literature, Routledge, 1998.

Leder, S. “Kufa” in Julie Scott Meisami and Paul Starkey, ed., Encyclopedia of Arabic Literature, Routledge, 1998.

Schoeler, G. “Abu Nuwas” in Julie Scott Meisami and Paul Starkey, ed., Encyclopedia of Arabic Literature, Routledge, 1998.

Udhari, Abdullah al-. Classical Poems by Arab Women: A Bilingual Anthology. Saqi, 1999.

Wright, J.W. “Masculine Allusion and the Structure of Satire in Early Abbasid Poetry,” in J.W. Wright Jr. & Everett K. Rowson, ed., Homoeroticism in Classical Arabic Literature, Columbia University Press, 1997.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Who leads us? God or Man?

...Purda nahi jub ko'i Khuda say
...Bundo sey purda kurna kya

...When there are no veils between me and God
...Then why must I veil between my fellow man

This piece of poetry I heard in a song from the Bollywood film Mughal-e-Azam recently struck a chord with me for several reasons. It is Ramadhan, the holy month of fasting when the Muslim faithful fast from dawn until dusk. I am finding it tiring at times but also spiritually refreshing but I am also left confused at how Ramadhan has become a time when many put on their 'holy hats' and become ever so 'Islamic' in this month, going to the Mosque to pray extra prayers, switching from the local Asian Bollywood Music radio station to the more conservative Radio Ramadhan to listen to the same voices year after year talking about the same issues, women and the veil, Islamophobia etc etc etc. One of my close friends seemed rather upset last night when he explained that one of our mutual friends insists that he join him for extra prayers in the Mosque every night and if he says no then he is hurled abuse about how 'bad' he is being during this holy month. I was not sure if I was to laugh or cry at this! It makes me wonder how we have gotten to the stage where our faith and spirituality is being led by our fellow man and not by a deep love and attachment with God. Religion and spirituality led by man is so restrictive and commanding, religion and spirituality through the love of God is so liberating and progressive!

HIV/Aids and Homosexuality

One of my friends who is working on a project looking into HIV/Aids in Arab society referred me to this short movie which I found very interesting. It touches upon two of the greatest taboos in Muslim society, homosexuality and HIV/Aids. The thing I liked about this clip is that it goes beyond texts, literature, traditions but it shows how a family reponds and cope with an issue when it comes knocking on their own front step.