Sunday, 8 December 2013

Northern Arab: Literature

Assalamu'alaikum wa rahmatullah

This topic is my favorite topic for our tradition but I am not good in language style like my father. My father cannot fluently speak in Arabic but he was undeniably very good in written Malay literature. There are boxes of his writings and poems out here in Malay. He even wrote few books such as his autobiography: Dari Kodiang ke Jalan Riong, Tokoh Ulama Nusantara which is a tribute for famous Muslim clerics within Malay speaking sphere, some Malay short stories such as the Bingkisan Sutera Biru and Mencari Pelangi published by the Malaysian Islamic Development Department before he is paralyzed by strokes. While for me, I am not good in writing, haha. Most of my writings are about spiritualism, psychology, yogic explanation based from Tantra-Yoga of India and about Islam I wrote everything that I heard by hand in Malay using Arabic script. Then, I spontaneously type them in here right away in English before I burn my notes in the metal can.

Arab Descent with Malay

I studied Arabic since I was a little child. We begin everything just like the Israelites children of the past were sent to teachers to learn reading and writing. I was educated through mosque system differently to my sisters who are my siblings where they were educated in secular system. I think the difference happened because my mother and some elders who split my lips with sweets during my tahnik ceremony had consecrated me for "religious" matter. Usually, Muslim parents would bring their newborn babies to spiritual leaders of their community while during the period of prophet Muhammad s.a.w was in Medina, Muslims brought their babies to prophet Muhammad s.a.w himself for the blessings. 

I get to know Arabic alphabets before the Roman alphabets and it was a big trouble for me when I was schooled in national system after I reached seven years old. I read things differently from my spellings other than I used different kind of language at home. For e.g the word chili being pronounced as cabai and everybody in the class laughed at me. I scribe things faster in Arabic script anyway but I cease to do that when I am around with people since Malay in Arabic script is deemed as alien after the 60's. The language style which using the Arabic script is different to the one which uses Roman alphabets since it is a kind of Classical Malay language. Arabic script was used by educated Malay speaking people in Classical period in South East Asia where they consists of native Malay noblemen like the royalties and Arab descents like us who worked closely with royalties. When the Educational Ministry converted the language into Roman script, it also means that we were in deprivation. 

The person in charge with the conversion of the Malay into Roman script was the Education Minister, Mr. Khir Johari who is also a citizen of Kedah state. He enforced the policy in 1966 and the younger generations who speak Malay found that Malay in Arabic script is alien to them. The government seems like trying to save the Arabic script as a medium for Malay written language but they do not put any hard effort on it. They show the "lack" of interest in it. As for me, I write in both Arabic and Malay using Arabic script as part of my identity, heritage and root.


Arabic is rich with amṭhāl or proverbs. It spreads fast due to its simplicity, it is compact and easy to be memorized by everyone. This is different to poems since not everyone could memorize it and the poets were known as the people of higher status and position in society. Those who receives the poem too are deemed with such a high esteem within the society.

Proverbs usually relating the people with the nature, activities and their surrounding. There are differences due to geographical location and region. For Northern Arabs, their proverbs would mostly be related to camel, horse, contests due in battles, hunting and arrow. For the Quraish Arabs, business and trade is the main theme of their proverbs since they engaged themselves more in the activity.

The Quran also consists various proverbs used to explain the teachings of morality in relation to the Oneness of the God the Highest.


Northern Arabia during the "age of ignorance" values poetry and poets. It is known as the Sha'ir. They expressed their feeling and release their tensions in battles and wars through poetry. A poet is highly respected within a certain tribe. Sometimes, a certain dignified guest would be honored with poetry. Sometimes they express their courage in the beginning through poetry.

Expression of Feeling

Ancient Northern Arabian poetry could be seen as the modest ones. A poet would phrase his nostalgic memory in the form of a poem such as how he lived his life in a poor Bedouin tent with cattle around them. Later he has to migrate for uncertain luck abroad and does not know when he could return to his village. He would perhaps spontaneously phrasing the poem while he sits alone somewhere in the city expressing his melancholic feeling about his memory in the village or sometimes about his girlfriends in the village and how he missed them... Maybe about Fatma.. Maybe about Ablah and so on.

Poetry in War

Poetry held an important position within the ancient Arabia society with the poet or sha'ir filling the role of historian, soothsayer and propagandist. Words in praise of the tribe known as the qit'ah and the lampoons or hija' to denigrate other tribes seems to be the most popular forms of early Arabic poetry. It could also be used by a Northern Arab poets for propaganda as to raise the spirit of his tribe to take revenge or remembering how vulnerable was their enemies that they managed to defeat them in previous wars and battles. There were mock battles in poetry known as zajal and it represents psychological wars between the poets of different tribes besides the real wars. In other occasions, they would recite poems lamenting their deceased friends or brothers who were killed in the battle.

Source of Studies

Among prominent Arab during the age before the advent of prophet Muhammad s.a.w was Imru' al-Qays bin Hujr of the Kindah tribe. He was the last king of the kingdom of Kindah. Although most of the poetry from the era was not preserved, the remains is well regarded as the finest of Arabic poetry to date and we had to learn these poems in our Higher Arabic classes. Due to the eloquence and artistic value, the poems in the age before prophet Muhammad s.a.w constitutes a major source for Classical Arabic in both grammar and vocabulary besides as a reliable historical record of the political and cultural life of the time in ancient Arabia.

Recitation Styles

Alongside the poems there is also a rawi or a reciter. The job as a reciter was to learn poems by heart and to recite them with explanations and probably often with decorative details on it from the recitation style to other details. This tradition allowed the transmission of poetic works and the practice was later adopted by those who memorize the Quran.

In certain periods, there are unbroken chains of illustrious poets. Each one trains a reciter as a bard to promote his verse, and then to take over from them and continue the poetic tradition. For e.g Tofayl trained 'Awas bin Hajar. Bin Hajar trained Zohayr. Zohayr trained his son, Ka'ab. And Ka'ab trained al-Hutay'ah, al-Hutay'ah trained Jamil Buthaynah and Buthaynah trained Kuthayyir 'Azza.

The art of tarannum adopted in the Quranic recitation within some parts of Muslim world is based from this tradition. I am not good and not so much interested in this art but I am not against this. I just found that it is fussy for me and young people do not like too elaborate art but simply the modest and practical ones. This kind of art is almost comparable to Indian styles of recitation for the Vedas and rāga (melodic recitation) of poems in Southern Indian style or Sanskrit meters. This art works closely with the tajwīd or philology. 

Wandering Poets

These people are almost comparable to the Śarmanas of the ancient India. They are called as the Su'luk in Arabic. Their literary works consisted attacks on the rigidity of tribal life and they praise solitude.

Maybe I could categorize myself within this group of people because when I turned to Buddhism as I confronted people around me, it is because the great teacher, Siddartha Gautama, was also a Śramana. Among the prominent wandering poets of ancient Arabia were Ta'bbata Sharran, al-Shanfara and 'Orwa bin al-Ward.

Some of these poets attack on the values of the clan and of the tribe with ironic words, 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. 

Best Poems

The very best of these early poems were collected in the 8th century as the Mo'allaqat meaning "the hung poems" since they were hung on or inside the Cubicle Shrine and the Mufaddaliat or the examination or anthology of the Mofaddal.

The Mo'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 Mofaddaliyat on the other hand contains rather a random collection.

The Northern Arabs would conduct the poetry contest in an annual market known as the Okah and if a new poet arise within a particular tribe thus his whole tribe would also be proud of him and being the pride of his friends although his friends are not talented in poetry. It was customary for them to stay in a group outside of their tents at night especially when the full moon is there and they would recite the "seven renowned ones" over and over.

Characteristics of Ignorance Ages Poems

Several characteristics that distinguish the poetry of the ignorance ages from the poetry of the later times are...
  • More attentions was given to the eloquence and the wording of the verse than than to the poem as whole. This resulted in poems characterized by strong vocabulary and short ideas but with loosely connected verses.
  • It is the romantic or nostalgic prelude with which the poems of ignorance ages would often begin. In these preludes, a thematic unit known as "naīb", the poet would remember his beloved and her deserted home and its ruins. This concept in Arabic poetry is referred to as "al-waqafa 'ala al-atlal" or standing by the ruins since the poet would often begin his poem by saying that he stood at the ruins of his beloved. It is a kind of ubi sunt as explained in Latin term.
The latter period of Arabic poems consists of different ideas and also themes ranging from religious, love and so on. We could listen the poems in the form of al-ġinā', anāshid, and from various regions such as from Southern Spain, South East Asia, Central Asia, South Asia and North Africa.


This means oration and it was an art prominent in Arabia after the poetry. I hate this art the most and I used to sneak out from the contests at our schools while we were forced by the teachers to attend and to watch fellow schoolmates delivering their oration.

I sneaked out because I think that their speeches are not original, boring and they have some kind of weird gestures, ahaha. Does not matter in whatever language that people deliver their oration... I still hate it the same as I hate to listen to preachers regardless movements or religions wasting my time to listen to their "meaningless" persuasion. Oh yeah, I hate choral speaking too. I never join any contests at the school and I never mingle closely with other students. I just cannot be dissolved into the "local" mainstream society and they I think is different from people around.

Well, in the beginning... Poets and poetry were deemed as precious and it could still be seen while prophet Muhammad s.a.w was a young man. While listening to the Revelation recited by prophet Muhammad s.a.w, some of the people said, "It sounds like poetry, but it is not poetry!"

Later, people began to feel sick of poetry because some of the poets began to make profits out of making poems for others. So, the attention to the poets turned little by little to the orators. The orators who delivered their speeches like a fiery fire would receive great attention and applauds from the audience. Orators appear and work in the same manner with the previous poets. They are used by political parties to attack each other, to defend their parties (tribes) from enemies who abuse their parties and in revenge.

The difference between the orators and poets is that orators do not have to pick up complicated or hard words but enough with common words. Many of the orators would bring up the pride of their tribes while delivering their oration in the battle field. They would stand on a place which is higher than the audience and delivering their speeches with hand gestures, face expressions, sometimes holding a stick. The orators who were praised in the society were not those who dubiously deliver the talk but the one who is spontaneous and loud in expressing his ideas.

Nowadays, we have the preachers who took the place of our ancient orators. There is also orator in the mosque which is known as the khaţib who recites the messages related to the "Path" and issues surrounding the society such as religious and morality, social, political and economic issues. 

Sealed with prayers for mercy, peace, and, love, amin!

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