al-Farazdaq realized Imruʼ al-Qays' poetic revelation

In early Arabic ʻUdhrī poetry, Bedouins were associated with chaste love.  ʻUdhrī poets were liars.  They passed on only what they heard.  They did not write poetry about what was actually done.  Imruʼ al-Qays, the leading poet of the pre-Islamic divisive age, told the truth.  Imruʼ al-Qays’s poetic revelation in his famous Muʻallaqah can be understood only through fearlessly, poetically, and faithfully entering hellfire with this most poetical of poets.[1]

Equating the persona in a poem with the biography of the poet betrays poetry and the poet.  Imruʼ al-Qays and his famous Muʻallaqah have been betrayed.  Leading Umayyad poet al-Farazdaq lamented society’s frivolous sacrifice of poetry.  Al-Farazdaq told a fellow poet:

Poetry was once a magnificent camel.  Then, one day, it was slaughtered.  So Imruʼ al-Qays came and took its head.  ʻAmri ibn Kulthum took its hump, Zuhayr the shoulders, al-Aʼsha and al-Nabigha the thighs, and Tarafa and Labid the stomach.  There remained only the forearms and offal which we split among ourselves.  The butcher then said, “Hey you, there remains the blood and impurities.  See that I get them.”  “They are yours,” we replied.  So he took the stuff, cooked it, ate it and excreted it.  Your verses are from the excrement of that butcher. [2]

The only proper way to honor the sacrifice of poetry is to separate true poetic imagination from excrement.

egg for lovely woman

The Muʻallaqah of Imruʼ al-Qays describes the reality of sex beneath the officially endorsed social construction of gender in a status-obsessed, fiercely tribal society.  The Muʻallaqah begins with the poem’s persona stopping with two companions at a desolate, abandoned home site.  The persona laments the personal loss of “one beloved.”  He enacts that personal loss by remembering his love affairs with the mother of al-Huwayrith and her neighbor, the mother of al-Rabāb.  Having sex with your own mother is mythic.  Having sex with two mothers next door is mundane reality, then and now.  The poetic persona recalls to himself, “Did you not have many a fine day from them?”[3]

The poetic persona then recounts a series of other sexual memories.  The first is specified only superlatively: “and best of all the day at Dārat Juljul.”  The second sexual memory was sacrificing his camel for girls who enjoyed playing with their food, and probably playing with the poetic persona, too:

And the day when, for the virgins,
I hocked my mount,
— What an amazing sight!  — they made off
with her saddle and its gear!
Then through the day the virgins
tossed her meat,
And her fat like twisted fringes
of white Damascus silk.

The third sexual memory was the day he jumped into ʻUnayzah’s howdah.  ʻUnayzah repeatedly told the poetic persona to withdraw as the howdah moved with their weight.  The persona responded:

Keep going, I said to her,
slacken his reins,
But don’t drive me away from your
twice-to-be-tasted fruit!
Then many a woman like you, pregnant and nursing,
have I visited by night,
And distracted from her amuleted
When he cried from behind her, she turned
her upper half toward him,
But the half that was beneath me
did not budge.

That sexual memory has within itself another embedded, enacted sexual memory, that of outrageous sex with a pregnant, nursing mother.  A leading scholar of early Arabic poetry has observed:

In light of the pre-Islamic belief that sexual intercourse with a nursing mother is harmful to the nursling, she is endangering her children, born and unborn, as well as betraying her husband, the father, or pater putativus at least, of her nursling and unborn child.  These details enhance the illicit and antisocial aspect of the liminal erotic encounter. [4]

That day at Dārat Juljul has tended, among readers, to roll together these distinct sexual memories.

The danger of revelation is emphasized in the persona’s further sexual memories.  Conflating many females with a single female, the persona brags that “many … whose tent none dares to seek,” he took pleasure with, unhurried.  The nature of the danger is then immediately described:

I stole past guards
to get to her, past clansmen
Eager, could they conceal it,
to slay me.

Yet the poetic persona gets the girl.  He led her forth from her tent.  Her silken gown dragged on the ground and obscured their tracks.

Al-Farazdaq attempted to honor in life Imru’ al-Qays’s poetic revelation.  He repeatedly told the story of his experience.[5]  One day al-Farazdaq found some mule tracks heading out of Basra, where he lived.  Motivated by the thought that the riders surely carried food and drink, al-Farazdaq followed their tracks on his own mule.  He came across girls bathing in a pond.  He said to them, “I have never seen anything like today, not even the day of Dārat Juljul.”[6]

By al-Farazdaq’s time, a story of Dārat Juljul had arisen about the day at Dārat Juljul in Imruʼ al-Qays’s poem. Imruʼ al-Qays was in love with his cousin ʻUnayzah.  One day ʻUnayzah’s clan moved.  Imruʼ al-Qays followed them.  ʻUnayzah and other girls of her clan stopped to bath in a pond. After telling their slaves to move away a distance, the girls undressed completely and submerged themselves in the pond.  Imruʼ al-Qays sneaked upon them.  After seizing their clothes, he proclaimed:

By God, I won’t give a single one of you girls her clothes, not though she stays in the pond all day, until she comes out of the water naked and takes her clothes herself. [7]

The girls resolutely remained in the pond until the day was well advanced.  Then one by one they surrendered, except for ʻUnayzah. She implored Imruʼ al-Qays in the name of God to release her clothes to her in the pond, but he would not compromise.  Finally, ʻUnayzah surrendered and came out of the pond, naked.  He looked at her, front and back, and then laid down her clothes.  After his siege and their surrender, the girls lamented:

You’ve certainly punished us, keeping us here your prisoners and starving us! [8]

Imruʼ al-Qays offered them a feast of reconciliation:

He said, “what if I were to slaughter my camel for you, would you eat of it?” “Yes,” they shouted.  So he drew his sword and hamstrung the beast, then he slaughtered it and stripped off its flesh.  The servants collected a great pile of brushwood and kindled up a mighty fire, and he set to hacking off the choicest pieces for them and throwing the meat on the glowing embers.  The girls ate, and he ate with them, and drank the remainder of the wine he had with him, singing to them between-whiles and flinging to the slaves some of the roast meat. [9]

When time came to depart, each girl carried a piece of Imruʼ al-Qays’s gear, except for ʻUnayzah. Imruʼ al-Qays declared that ʻUnayzah would carry him.  He thrust himself into her howdah and rocked it.  That’s the story of Dārat Juljul, the story about the day at Dārat Juljul in Imruʼ al-Qays’s poem.

Al-Farazdaq said to the girls bathing in the pond, “I have never seen anything like today, not even the day of Dārat Juljul.”  He then modestly turned away from them.  He did not then capture and hold their clothes. That wasn’t the end of the story:

they called out to me {al-Farazdaq}: “Hey you, you with the mule, come back, we want to ask you something!”
So I turned back, while they were still up to their necks in the water.
“Come on,” they said, “you must tell us the story of Dārat Juljul!” [10]

Like the heroine in the fourteenth-century Old French petticoat fable, al-Farazdaq not only told the story, but also enacted it. When al-Farazdaq got to the point in the story where Imruʼ al-Qays seized the girls’ clothes, al-Farazdaq jumped down from his mule and seized the girls’ clothes.  He declared:

… and {Imruʼ al-Qays} said to them, just as I say to you:  “By God, I shall not give any of you girls your clothes, even if you stay in the pond all day, until you come out naked.”

One of the girls, a saucy one, interjected:

That man was in love with his cousin; are you in love with one of us then?

Al-Farazdaq responded unartfully:

No, by God!  I am not in love with any of you, but I do find you attractive.

The girls were amused and responded guilefully:

they shouted and clapped their hands, and said, “Go on with your story, since you won’t leave before you’ve got what you want!”

Al-Farazdaq continued the story of Dārat Juljul.  When he finished that story, the saucy girl said:

Well, well, that was a damn good story, very nice indeed! Who are you mister?

Al-Farazdaq humbly demurred.  She insisted.  She guessed his identity and asked him directly whether he was al-Farazdaq, the famous poet.  Al-Farazdaq confessed to his actual identity.  She declared:

If you are he, then I think you won’t part with our clothes unless you’ve had your way.

Al-Farazdaq agreed to enacting that plot.  She then ordered him: “Turn away for a second!”  She whispered to her friends.  Then all the girls dived down.  They came out of the pond with their hands filled with mud:

They approached me, menacingly.  They smeared my face with mud and slime, filling my eyes and covering my clothes.  I fell on my face and while I was distracted by the dirt in my eyes they grabbed their clothes and absconded with them.  The saucy one sat on my mule and left me flat on my face, in the worst possible state, covered in shame: {the saucy girl said,} “That bloke thought he could fuck us!”

“Fuck us” is a general folk metaphor for “treat us badly.” It’s far from the poetry of the sexual exploits in the Muʻallaqah of Imruʼ al-Qays.  The difference is not just between informal speech and the written word.  The girls returned al-Farazdaq’s mule along with a written message:

Your sisters say to you: “You tried to get something from us that we would not give, but we hereby give you back your wife; now fuck her all night! Here are a few pennies for the public bath in the morning!”

Al-Farazdaq married at least four times.  He made no original effort to seduce the girls.[11]  The girls’ urging him to have sex with a mule, described as his wife, is unrighteous vindictiveness in the form of a crude insult.

The Muʻallaqah of Imruʼ al-Qays is about social regulation of sexuality, not the life of Imruʼ al-Qays.  Biographical stories about Imruʼ al-Qays tell of him allying with the Byzantines and dying from betrayal far from home.[12]  Despite Imruʼ al-Qays’s unpropitious biography, the Muʻallaqah of Imruʼ al-Qays has been one of the most revered poems in Arabic for more than 1400 years.[13]  It ends with a massive natural storm and two final verses pairing images of renewal and destruction:

As if, early in the morning,
the songbirds of the valley
Had drunk a morning draught
of fine spiced wine,
As if the wild beasts drowned at evening
in its remotest stretches
were wild onions’
plucked-out bulbs. [14]

Outside the most poetical of poetry, the acts of the poetic persona and the mothers who had sex with him in the Muʻallaqah of Imruʼ al-Qays mainly generate violence against men.  Through its theatrically enacted bi-narrative, al-Farazdaq’s story of the girls overturns the biographical story of the day of Dārat Juljul.[15]  The girls in that story represent vicious social disparagement of male sexualityCrude misandry is as much of a social problem as is the illicit sexuality in the Muʻallaqah.[16]  Civilizing human nature, sexually distinctive like male stallions and female whisperers, requires truthful recognition of what women and men actually do.  Truthful, hellish views are necessary to have renewal rather than destruction.

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[1] Cf. Qurʼan, Surat Ash-Shu‘arā (26), v. 221-227.  According to a hadith, Imruʼ al-Qays was “the most poetical of the poets, and their leader into Hell-fire.”  Trans. Arberry (1957) p. 40.  Similarly, Stetkevych (1993) p. 285, citing ibn Qutaybah, Al-Shiʻr wa al-Shuʻarāʼ 51.

[2] From Qurashi, Jamhara, trans. Khalidi (1994) p. 98. The poets listed are seven associated with the famous hanging odes (Mu‘allaqāt).  Some sources exclude al-Aʼsha and al-Nabigha from this group.  That both were famous poets isn’t contested. Imruʼ al-Qays taking the head represents a widely held view that he was the leading pre-Islamic poet.  Jamhara cites Abu ʻUbayda saying, “Poetry was launched by Imruʼ al-Qays and ended with Dhu al-Rummah.”  The latter died c. 735.  Id. p. 98, n. 27.

[3] Muʻallaqah of Imruʼ al-Qays, l. 10 (part), from Arabic trans. Stetkevych (1993) p. 250.  Id., p. 263, attributes this line to the poetic persona’s companions, but it seems to me to work as a self-voiced question.  Stetkevych translates an Arabic verse as four lines of English text, with alternate lines indented.  Because of technical challenges, I have not indented alternate lines in quoting from id.  The translation of F. E. Johnson and Faiz-ullah-bhai, from Horn (1917), is available online. All subsequent quotations of the Muʻallaqah are from Stetkevych (1993) pp. 250-2; specifically , l. 10 (part), ll. 11-12, ll 15-17, l. 24.

[4] Stetkevych (1993), p. 265.  Id. p. 262, n. 30 observes:

The offspring of an illicit affair with a married woman would be reckoned to the paternity of her husband, according to the old Arab precept that lies behind the Islamic precept that the child is reckoned to the bed on which he is born (al-walad lil firāsh).

Underscoring the continuing relevance of the Imruʼ al-Qays’s Muʻallaqah, the same long-established principle remains in U.S. paternity law.

[5] That story is given a bushy isnād:

ʻAbd Allāh ibn Mālik related to us: Muḥammad ibn Mūsā related to me: al-Qaḥdhamī related to me: one of our friends related to me, on the authority of ʻAbd Allāh ibn Zālān al Tamīmī, the rāwī of al-Farazdaq, that al-Farazdaq said:

From Abū l-Faraj al-Iṣfahānī, al-Aghānī, XXI:340-3, from Arabic trans. van Gelder (2013) p. 123.  An isnād is usually a linear chain.  The last sentence of the story, the meta-comment, “Whenever he told this story….” indicates that the story was told repeatedly.

[6] Id.  I consistently use the term “girls” to refer to the young, sexually mature, unmarried females in the stories.  In many cultures, such females are commonly distinguished from other women.

[7] From Arabic trans. Arberry (1957) pp. 33-4.  Stetkevych (1993), p. 264, n. 33, states that Arberry’s translation is from ibn Qutaybah, Al-Shiʻr wa al-Shuʻarāʼ 49-50. Al-Farazdaq died in Basra c. 728. Ibn Qutaybah died in Baghdad in 885.  Al-Iṣfahānī died in Baghdad in 967.

[8] From trans. Arberry (1957) p. 34.

[9] Id.  I’ve made some insubstantial changes in the quotation for consistency.

[10] From al-Iṣfahānī, trans. van Gelder (2013) p. 123.  Subsequent quotes are from id., pp. 123-6, unless otherwise noted.

[11] In the beginning of al-Farazdaq’s story, he heads out from Basra into the desert to follow persons that he thinks are carrying food and drink.  Surely many more persons had food and drink within Basra.  Al-Farazdaq going out into the desert to get food and drink seems to me meant retrospectively to raise skepticism about his desire for sex.  Moreover, al-Farazdaq turns away from the girls in the pond after his declaration about the day at Juljul.  Only at the girls’ urging does he tell and enact the story of that day.  When the girls bluntly ask, “are you in love with us?”, al-Farazdaq, quite unlike ardent, poetic Arabic lovers, declares comically, “No, by God!  I am not in love with any of you, but I do find you attractive.”

[12] Stetkevych (1993), Ch. 7, discusses these stories and analyzes the Muʻallaqah in light of them.  Id. p. 283 notes, “The relation of Imruʼ al-Qays’s Muʻallaqah to his akhbār is such as to undermine the working premise of this entire book.”  I don’t find the subsequent rationalization compelling.  More generally, structural concepts such as rites of passage seem to me to be too abstract and too deterministic to address the complexity of personal development.  They also tilt interpretation in favor of biography over social structure.

[13] Arberry (1957), pp. 39-40, declares:

The fame of Imruʼ al-Qays was widespread during his lifetime; after his death he gained even greater renown.  …  It is no exaggeration to say that his Muʻallaqah is at once the most famous, the most admired and the most influential poem in the whole of Arabic literature.

By the tenth century, children were being taught Imruʼ al-Qays’s Muʻallaqah in Islamic elementary schools (kuttāb).  Kister (1969) p. 36.  In a fictional, eleventh-century Arabic tale filled with realistic details, a believing jinnee declares:

you, race of humans, are rapturous about Imruʼ al-Qays’s poem, “Stop, let us weep for the remembrance of a loved one and dwelling place,” and make your children learn it by heart at school.

Abū al-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī, Risālat al-ghufrān, trans. van Gelder (2013) p. 271. In my view, that’s astonishing testimony to learned critical blindness.

[14] ll. 81-81, trans. Stetkevych (1993) p. 257.

[15] The story ends with meta-text:

Whenever he told this story, he would say, “I have never again met their like.”

Trans. van Gelder (2013) p. 126.  The girls, like the poetic persona in Imruʼ al-Qays’s Muʻallaqah, are encountered only in the story or poem.

[16] Without little appreciation for the truth of ordinary men’s lives, Jones (2011),  p. 338, observes of the sexual exploits in Imruʼ al-Qays’s Muʻallaqah:

I have no doubt that the appeal of this section to the male Arab psyche has added much to the poem’s general popularity over the centuries.

Do you think that the same is true for the female Arab psyche?  And what about the children?

[image] House of Fabergé, Rose Trellis Egg;  In 1907, Russian Tsar Nicholas II presented this egg to his wife, Alexandra Fedorovna, to commemorate the birth of their son.  Image thanks to Wikipedia and the Walters Art Museum.


Arberry, Arthur  J. 1957. The seven odes: the first chapter in Arabic literature. London: G. Allen & Unwin.

Gelder, Geert Jan van. 2013. Classical Arabic literature: a library of Arabic literature anthology. New York: New York University Press.

Horne, Charles Francis. 1917. The sacred books and early literature of the East with an historical survey and descriptions, vol. V. New York: Parke.

Jones, Alan. 2011. Early Arabic poetry: select poems. Reading: Ithaca Press.

Khalidi, Tarif. 1994. Arabic historical thought in the classical period. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Kister, M.J. 1969. “The Seven Odes: Some Notes on the Compilation of the Muʿallaqāt.” Rivista degli Studi Orientali 44: 27-36.

Stetkevych, Suzanne Pinckney. 1993. The mute immortals speak: pre-Islamic poetry and the poetics of ritual. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

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