poetic currency of ancient Islamic social distinction

Poetry was a common currency for claiming social distinction in the ancient Islamic world.  Ibn Abi Usaybiah’s biographies of physicians frequently include specimens of the physicians’ poetry.  Ibn Hazm, an early eleventh-century Andalusian public official and scholar of theology and law, interspersed his own poetry in describing aspects of love in his prose book, Ring of the Dove.[1]  An eminent prisoner in twelfth-century Alexandria, petitioning for aid to gain release, used poetry in his petition.[2]  Inserting self-quoted poetry within a prose composition was a common literary practice in the ancient Islamic world.

Poetry was also used in more immediate transactions.  Poetry praising a potential patron could serve as a resume of cultural merit:

Once Ibn al-Mūtrān {a leading physician who served the twelfth-century sultan of Egypt and Syria, Salāh al-Dīn} was sitting at the door of his house, when a distinguished-looking young man, dressed as a soldier, came up to him and handed him a piece of paper on which were written twelve lines of poetry praising him.  After reading them, Ibn al-Mūtrān asked him if he was a poet.  The youth replied: “I am not, but I come of a good family.  I have fallen on evil days and have been given these short lines of verse in order to come here and place my fate in your hands so that you may direct me in the way your lofty mind sees fit.” [3]

Ibn al-Mūtrān, evidently impressed with the poetry, arranged for the young man a lucrative position serving the Governor of Sarhad in Iran.

Florid, obscure language was economically significant.  It helped to provide jobs:

al-Haysa Baysa was once recovering from an illness in which he was treated by Abū al-Qāsim.  The physician prescribed that al-Haysa Baysa eat pheasants, so his servant went and bought one.  On his way back al-Haysa Baysa’s servant passed the gate of an emir’s house where young Turkish slaves were playing.  One of them snatched the pheasant from the servant and ran away.  The servant came and told his story.  Said al-Haysa Baysa: “Bring me paper and ink.”  These were brought, and he wrote:

Although he stole a broken miserable pheasant, which was stopped by hunger in the middle of its flight in the air and was circling on the ground, when the camel’s feet are worn out — it is necessary to hurry and help it.  Why, this matter is touching your honor!  Goodbye!

He then said to his servant: “Take it and have a good trip, bringing it to the Emir.”  The servant went and gave it to the Emir’s steward.  {The Emir’s steward gave the note to the Emir.}  The Emir called his scribe and gave him the note.  The scribe read it and considered the way he could transmit its meaning.

The scribe’s expert learning is key to resolving this state matter:

Said the Emir: “What is it?”  The scribe replied: “The content of it is that one of your slaves took a pheasant from his servant.”  The Emir ordered him to go and buy a cage full of pheasants and send it to him.  That was done.[4]

Florid, obscure langauge transformed a simple matter of a single pheasant into an affair that required expert knowledge and that was resolved with a cage full of pheasants.

Al-Haysa Baysa had a considerable reputation as a poet.  Ibn Kallikan in his biographical dictionary (completed in 1274) described al-Haysa Baysa as a famous poet and praised his poetic diction and eloquent epistles.  According to the Chronicle of Ibn Al-Athir, the lord of Monsul made a large gift to al-Haysa Baysa in response to his ode of praise for the ruler.[5]  Al-Haysa Baysa’s florid language facilitated transactions:

Once, in Baghdad, the poet al-Haysa Baysa wrote a note to Amīn al-Dawlah ibn al-Tilmīdh as follows, asking him for an eye-medicine:

“I hereby inform you, O devout physician, learned doctor, precious and experienced, by whom the world is sustained and the wild beasts driven out, that I am suffering, feeling in the pupil of my eye a tear which is not like the sting of the scorpion, neither like the prick of a needle, nor like the bite of a snake, but rather like a burning coal; so I am going from dusk to dawn without distinguishing between day and night, without knowing the difference between a cold and a rainy day; nay, sometimes I tremble painfully, at other times I become eaten up with worry, now I shrink and now I stretch, sighing repeatedly, my soul intending to raise my voice in a neigh, calling out my disturbance and tumult, each day of the week — Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday — I cannot walk astray nor cower, neither can I get angry nor follow, so hurry and send me the eye-medicine that will benefit my illness and quench my thirst.”

When Amīn al-Dawlah read this note, he jumped up immediately, took a handful of eye-medicine and told one of his friends: “Bring it to him without delay to save us from another of his notes!” [6]

Making an observation prevalent throughout recorded history, a twelfth-century Islamic author noted “the diversity and dissonance so prevalent in poetry {today}.”[7]

Poetry also had value in oral performance.  Writing in thirteenth-century Damascus, Ibn Abi Usaybiah praised a fellow physician `Izz al-Dīn:

He was accomplished in all the literary arts and his poetry was unmatched by either the ancients or his contemporaries.  It contained eloquent phrases and truthful meanings, clever puns and excellent parallels.  Indeed he united in himself all the different sciences, and was equally masterful in poetry and prose.  He was the quickest of men in composing poetry extempore and the most gifted in declaiming it.  I witnessed him several times recite a poem he had composed on the spur of the moment, rich in various meanings, which nobody else could do, for this art was his specialty.[8]

`Izz al-Dīn was a practicing physician who worked in two hospitals and taught at a university.  He also had great literary learning and evidently delighted in displaying his poetic skills.

In the ancient Islamic world, anyone seeking to gain social distinction or rise in a profession benefited from cultivating the poetic skills of a courtier.

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[1] Arberry (1953), p. 13, notes of Ibn Hazm’s poetry, “His poetry, of which he appears to have had a considerable conceit, is in truth very mediocre… .”

[2] HP pp. 646-7 (Abū al-Salt).

[3] HP pp. 822-4.  The phrase “but I come of a good family” seems to explain how the soldier got the poetry.

[4] HP p. 509.  I’ve made some minor edits to clarify the sense of the passage.  Al-Haysa Baysa (“in dire straits”) was the nickname for Shihāb al-Dīn abu ’l-Fawāris saʿd b. Muḥammad b. Saʿd al-Ṣayfī al-Tamīmī.  He lived from 1098 to 1179.  As an adult he lived in Baghdad.

[5] The chronicle of Ibn al-Athīr, the year 544, from Arabic trans. Richards (2007) p. 27.  I’m grateful for Prof. Geert Jan van Gelder for correcting my prior mis-representation of al-Haysa Baysa’s work and reputation.  He also supplied the reference to ibn Kallikan.

[6] HP pp. 509-10.  Id. notes, “In his conversation and correspondence al-Haysa Baysa always used affected eloquence and strange expressions.”  Al-Haysa Baysa, who trumpeted his Arabic heritage, was an eleventh-century “representative of the florid style in vogue in Arabic poetry and ornate prose”:

He dressed himself like a Bedouin chief, riding on horseback through the streets of Baghdad fully armed.  He also affected Bedouin speech, pronouncing the qāf like g; he was fond of obsolete words—he got his nickname from the expression fī ḥayṣa bayṣa “in straits and distress”—and addressed everyone in the classical language with all its grammatical niceties.

Fück (2012).  In the Hellenistic world, some seeking social distinction similarly emphasized literary use of Attic Greek.

[7] HP p. 647.

[8] HP p. 940.


Arberry, A.J., trans. 1953. ʻAlī ibn Aḥmad Ibn Ḥazm, The ring of the dove; a treatise on the art and practice of Arab love.  London: Luzac.

Fück, J.W. 2012. “Ḥayṣa Bayṣa.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Brill Online.

HP: Ibn Abi Usaybi’ah, Ahmad ibn al-Qasim. English translation of History of Physicians (4 v.) Translated by Lothar Kopf. 1971. Located in: Modern Manuscripts Collection, History of Medicine Division, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD; MS C 294Online transcription.

Richards, D. S. 2007. ʻIzz al-Dīn Ibn al-Athīr. The chronicle of Ibn al-Athīr for the crusading period from al-Kāmil fiʼl-taʼrīkh. Part 2. Aldershot: Ashgate.

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