In This Article Arabic Praise Poems

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews of Praise Poetry
  • Translations

Islamic Studies Arabic Praise Poems
by
Jocelyn Sharlet
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 November 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0233

Introduction

Praise poems were a highly valued genre of oral and written composition in Arabic from the beginning of Arabic literature until the early 20th century, when free verse, prose fiction, and journalism began to play more prominent roles in Arabic writing, although the genre continued to flourish in the Nabati dialect of Arabic in the Arabian peninsula. Many pre-Islamic praise poems were dedicated to the poet’s tribe or its allies, but some focused on an elite individual. In the Islamic period, most praise poems were dedicated to an individual elite, while some were dedicated to places, things, or concepts. Poems dedicated to individual elites were often exchanged for a material reward or other assistance and were performed, often on the occasion of a specific event, before an audience of the recipient’s close associates or conveyed in written correspondence. The genre developed in conjunction with other genres such as the boast, the elegy, invective, and request for pardon and censure, as well as the genres of love, wine, hunting, and wisdom. Praise poems were often composed in the qasida form, a metered, monorhyme, polythematic poem, or in a short series of metered, monorhyme verses or even a single metered verse. Most Arabic praise poems were composed by men who worked as poets or in other lines of work that required advanced literacy. Many praise poems were addressed to male political, administrative, military, religious, or scholarly figures who were the superior or similar in status to the poet. A great deal of praise poetry circulated in writing beyond the initial performance or correspondence. This poetry circulated as whole poems in collections by one poet and sometimes as whole poems or short selections in commentaries, anthologies, biographies, encyclopedias, books of rhetoric, or historical chronicles. Praise poems depict the recipient in an ideal-yet-realistic way that articulates the values and priorities of society. As a result, Arabic praise poetry became a cornerstone of education and literacy, the preparation for a variety of professions, and the representation and evaluation of people and places. The patronage relationships in the context of which many of the poems were composed were in some cases related to tribal affiliations in the pre-Islamic era and the 1st century of the Islamic era, but later on, these relationships were often based on other kinds of political, religious, or social affiliation. Patronage relationships were always voluntary and usually temporary, so poets normally composed poetry for more than one patron in their careers. It is sometimes possible to learn details about the context of a praise poem from the poem itself, commentary, or other sources. The praise section of a polythematic praise poem is often the largest section. Other praise poems are epigrams, and praise poetry may circulate in short selections from longer poems. In praise, poets may focus on one or more of several sets of qualities. First, there are the more general qualities of glory, loftiness, and awesomeness. In dealing with allies, there are the other-centered qualities that make it possible to build and maintain a good network: generosity, forgiveness, self-control, commitment to fulfilling promises, haste in giving gifts, how generosity defends people against the vicissitudes, the jealousy of others, and the pleasure that generous people take in their generosity. Finally, the praise section may include wise opinions in war, bravery, description of warriors, weapons and armor and banners, description of battle horses and the journey to battle, and description of defeated adversaries. The praise section may also include the qualities of piety, knowledge, and wisdom, or the qualities of affection, eloquence, manners, elegance, and loyalty. Praise varies in the qualities depicted for different categories, including rulers, ministers, governors, military officials, judges, God, the prophet Muhammad, religious officials, members of the prophet Muhammad’s family, mystical authorities, scholars, secretaries, poets, and friends. Unlike theoretical and prescriptive ethics that can be found in political advice, philosophy, scripture, and other religious texts, ethics in praise poetry is realist, applied, and descriptive and often depicts contemporary people.

General Overviews of Praise Poetry

Praise poetry is often viewed as a problematic genre because it depicts contemporary individuals or regions in a one-sided way that focuses on merits and ignores flaws. Dahhan 1980 explains that praise may be an accurate or inaccurate depiction of its subject, but either way it displays the values and priorities of society. Meisami 1998 offers a brief introduction to the genre after discussing both Arabic and Persian literature. Finally, Bearman, et al. 2016 offers more extensive and in-depth authoritative coverage of praise poets than the shorter Encyclopedia of Arabic Literature.

  • Bearman, Peri J., Thierry Bianquis, Clifford E. Bosworth, Emeri van Donzel, and Wolfhart P. Heinrichs, eds. Encyclopaedia of Islam. 2d ed. Leiden, The Netherlands: BrillOnline, 2016.

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    Available online through subscription. Also see Encyclopaedia of Islam Three, edited by Kate Fleet, Gudrun Krämer, Denis Matringe, John Nawas, and Everett Rowson (Leiden, The Netherlands: BrillOnline, 2016), available online through purchase or subscription. A helpful start for research on major praise poets. Discusses historical context and literary features.

  • Dahhan, Sami. Al-Madih. Cairo, Egypt: Dar al-Maʿarif, 1980.

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    Breaks down the topic of praise poetry into praise of kings and caliphs; commanders, ministers, or other elites; scholars and intellectuals; God, the prophet Muhammad, or the members of the prophet’s family; and regions or countries.

  • Meisami, Julie Scott. “Madh.” In Encyclopedia of Arabic Literature. Vol. 2, K–Z. Edited by Julie Scott Meisami and Paul Starkey, 482–484. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.

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    A short summary of the main issues. An authoritative and convenient reference that includes major praise poets.

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