immovable mountains in al-Khansa & the Gospels

immovable mountains

Lamenting her two brothers killed in inter-tribal violence, the early Arabic poet al-Khansa declared:

I will cry for them, by God, as long as the lovesick pine
and as long as God keeps in place the immovable mountains [1]

The simile “as long as the lovesick pine” refers to ancient belief that lovesickness causes enduring physical illness and sometimes even death. The reference to immovable mountains could be merely a physical metaphor: immovable mountains are prominent physical features of the world.[2] But just as lovesickness is a very literary idea, the figure of crying as long as God keeps in place the immovable mountains may have considerable literary range.

The Christian Gospels contain a strange figure of immovable mountains. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus says to his disciples:

Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, “Be taken up and thrown into the sea,” and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. [3]

Closely related figures exist in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The first letter to the Corinthians refers to “faith that can move mountains.”[4] The impossibility supposed possible is an ancient, widely used rhetorical figure. The impossibility of casting mountains into the sea assumes understanding of mountains as immovable. Literary elaboration upon that understanding apparently goes back at least to the time of the Christian Gospels.

Al-Khansa’s lament may have refigured the Gospel figure of moving immovable mountains. Both concern God’s power. In the Gospels, faith in God gives a person of faith the power to move mountains. In al-Khansa’s lament, God keeps in place the immovable mountains.

The water of al-Khansa’s tears connects to the sea. Just as immovable mountains are obvious macroscopically, erosion of land from streams of water is obvious microscopically. One can imagine small streams of water over a long time wearing away mountains.[5] In the Gospels, faith in God would allow al-Khansa to cast mountains into the sea. In al-Khansa’s lament, only God keeping in place mountains stops her stream of tears from washing the mountains away. Even if she were to live long enough to fill a sea with her tears, without God’s will, the mountains remain.

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[1] Al-Khansa, Diwan ed. Abd al-Salam al-Hufi (Beirut: Dar al-Katub al-Ilmiyaa, 1985) p. 99, from Arabic trans. Hammond (2010) p. 169. Al-Khansa is one of the most celebrated women poets in classical Arabic literature. Id, n. 3, remarks that this poem does not exist in many editions of al-Khansa’s Diwan.

[2] Psalm 125:1-2 uses immovable mountains in a straight-forward metaphor:

Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion,
which cannot be moved, but abides forever.
As the mountains surround Jerusalem,
so the Lord surrounds his people,
from this time on and forevermore.

[3] Mark 11:22-3. See also Matthew 17:20, 21:21; Luke 17:6.

[4] 1 Corinthians 13:2.

[5] The mu’allaqa of Labīd provides such imagery:

And the torrent beds of Rayyán naked tracings,
worn thin, like inscriptions carved in flattened stones,

Replenished by the rain stars of spring, and struck
by thunderclap downpour, or steady, fine-dropped, silken rains.

From Arabic trans. Sells (1989) p. 35. For related discussion, Hammond (2010) pp. 124-7.

[image] Photo thanks to Cathy Edelman.


Hammond, Marlé. 2010. Beyond elegy: classical Arabic women’s poetry in context. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sells, Michael Anthony. 1989. Desert tracings: six classic Arabian odes. Middletown, Conn: Wesleyan University Press.

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