Poetry Facts

A Brief Look at Middle Eastern Poetry

Last Updated: May 3, 2022
middle eastern poetry

The Middle East has one of the greatest literary traditions known to mankind. It reflects their history events, culture, and human values. A big part of it is no doubt, poetry. In this article, we’re going to take a look at Middle Eastern poetry and see how big of a role it plays in their culture.

The History of Middle Eastern Poetry

The Middle East has a rich history of poetry, way longer than Europe. Poetry was the backbone of Middle Eastern literature and culture. Poems were used to declare war, resolve disputes, and preserve history. Poets of the old Arabian Peninsula tribes used to memorize tens of thousands of poems.

A big part of Middle Eastern poetry is Arabic poetry, which dates back as far as the 6th century. However, oral poetry is believed to even predate that. The history of Arabic poetry can be separated into three big eras: pre-Islamic poetry, Islamic poetry, and modern poetry.

1. Pre-Islamic poetry

Most of the poetry of the pre-Islamic era was lost and not preserved. However, the work that remains is considered to be among the best of Arabic poetry to this day. Pre-Islamic poetry is a reliable historical, political, and cultural record. The poems are eloquent and rich in artistic value.

In the pre-Islamic society, poetry held a very crucial position. Poets in that society can play the role of historian, fortune teller and even propagandist. Within those roles, propagandist seems to be the most important one since words were used to praise the tribe (qit’ah) and criticize other tribes (hija’).

2. Islamic poetry

After the time of pre-Islamic poetry, or what many call the “Age of Ignorance”, comes the period of Islamic poetry. Writers of pre-Islamic poetry were considered incompetent to be writing sacred texts such as the Quran, and this had caused tension among the early Islamic world.

Islamic poetry plays a crucial role as it is passed down from generation to generation. These poems address and examine many important parts of the Muslim faith and Islamic culture. The poets of that time explored a wide range of topics, from spiritual, literary to political.

3. Modern Middle Eastern poetry

The modern era of Middle Eastern poetry started somewhere around the 19th and early 20th centuries. As part of the Arab renaissance movement, or “al-Nahda,” many poets such as Hafiz Ibrahim, Ahmad Shawqi, and Francis Marrash began to find ways to develop the classical poetic forms.

Many Middle Eastern poets at the time were familiar with Western literature. Most of them continued to write in classical forms despite the new knowledge. A small number of poets, however, publicly criticized the blind imitation of classical poetry and sought inspiration from English or French romanticism instead.

A popular theme in the new poetry was the use of love poems, or ghazals, in praise of the poet’s homeland. Political views in poetry were unwelcome most of the time, and several poets faced censorship or even exile. The Arab poets tried harder and harder to liberate themselves from conventional poetry the closer they got to European poetry.

Why is Poetry Important in the Middle East?

Regardless of the changes throughout history, one thing remains certain: poetry retains a very important status in Middle Eastern culture. The funerals of the national poets were attended by thousands of mourners. Countless poetry competitions keep attracting people’s attention, despite the growing pace of the digital age.

But why is that? Why does poetry play such an important and irreplaceable role in the Middle East?

If you’ve read the previous section about the history of poetry in the Middle East, this should come as no surprise. Since the dawn of their culture, poetry has already had a robust tradition. It reflected their senses of self-identity, of communal history, and of aspirations for the future.

In times of crisis, the first voice to raise is that of the poets. They represent the anger, the fear, and the determination of the people in the Middle East. As long as that fact still remains, poetry will always retain its status and value within the Middle Eastern cultural heritage.

Top 10 Famous Middle Eastern Poets You Should Read

1. Rumi

Rumi, the great Sufi mystic and poet, is one of the most important figures in Middle Eastern literature. The influence of his writings is nothing less than substantial. His poetry had achieved wide circulation in the West, and Rumi himself became a global phenomenon by the end of the 20th century.

Rumi’s poetry awakens the love within us, helps us connect with our hearts and spirits. His verses inspired many people around the world, including celebrities like Deepak Chopra and Madonna. Maybe his poetry can do the same for you.

You might like: 47 Famous Quotes From The Wise Persian Poets

2. Al-Mutanabbi

Al-Mutanabbi was one of the greatest poets in the Arabic language.

His work has been translated into over 20 languages around the world. He started writing poetry when he was nine, and took great pride in himself through his poetry.

Al-Mutanabbi’s poetry largely revolves around praising the kings he visited during his lifetime, but he also discussed topics such as battles and courage.

His poetry deeply reflects his philosophy of life and contains many valuable lessons. Today, his poems are considered to be proverbial and are wide spread throughout the Arab world.

3. Khalil Gibran

Khalil Gibran, usually referred to in English as Kahlil Gibran, was a Lebanese-American poet.

His best work of poetry, The Prophet, is one of the best-selling books of all time and has been translated into more than 100 languages.

Gibran wrote in both English and Arabic, and he was heavily influenced by Western literature, such as the Bible, William Blake, or Walt Whitman.

His work discusses topics such as love, death, and nature, and they show his deeply mystic and religious nature.

4. Omar Khayyam

Omar Khayyam was a Persian poet, and also a polymath, astronomer, philosopher, mathematician, and historian.

There’s a bit of controversy surrounding his name in the history of Persian literature, since there is no material that could confidently be attributed to him.

Most of the English-speaking readers know him through the collection of his quatrains in The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, translated by Edward FitzGerald.

Many scholars believe that Khayyam composed poetry in his leisure hours as a way to relax and amuse his inner circle.

5. Mahmoud Darwish

Mahmoud Darwish was the Palestinian national poet, who won many awards for his literary works. Over his career, Darwish had published over 30 books of poetry and eight books of prose. He was the poet who reflected the tradition of the political poet in Islam .

Mahmoud Darwish was widely considered a Palestinian symbol and a spokesman for Arab opposition to Israel. He was even placed under house arrest at one point when his poem “Identity Card” was turned into a protest song.

The central theme in Darwish’s poetry is the concept of watan or homeland, as he used Palestine as a metaphor for the loss of Eden, birth and resurrection.

6. Orhan Veli Kanık

Orhan Veli Kanık was one of the most innovative Turkish poets of the 20th century. He refused to use syllable and aruz meters, and pretty much shunned everything old in order to bring about a new “taste.” Even though this desire of Kanık limited the technical possibilities in his poetry, he did bring the poetic language closer to the spoken language with his plain phraseology.

Unsurprisingly, the innovations he introduced to poetry met great resistance at first. Kanık tradition-transgressing works were criticized harshly and subject to derision and contempt. Despite all that, his works had always aroused interest, eventually leading to an increase in understanding of the poet, and finally affection and admiration. The great Turkish writer Sait Faik Abasıyanık called him “a poet who achieved both great fame and notoriety in his time.”

7. Adonis

Adonis, or Adunis, is the pen name of the Syrian poet Ali Ahmad Said Esber. He was the man who led a modernist revolution in Arabic poetry in the second half of the 20th century.

Adonis had published twenty volumes of poetry and thirteen of criticism in total. In his work, he broke free of the traditional of formal structure in Arabic poetry and experimented with new elements such as free verse, variable meters or prose. In his own words, he wanted to “draw on Arab tradition and mythology without being tied to it.”

Adonis is regarded as the greatest living poet of the Arab world, and he had been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature multiple times.

8. Maram al-Masri

Maram al-Masri is a Syrian poet, who is considered one of the most captivating feminine voices of her generation.

Her poetry is simple and direct, with the utilization of almost child-like metaphors. It contrasts sharply with traditional Arabic love poetry.

As a writer of The Guardian described her, she is a love poet who spares no truth of love’s joys and also mercilessness.

Maram al-Masri has published several collections of poems and received many poetry awards, including the “Adonis Prize” of the Lebanese Cultural Forum in 1998.

9. Ahlam Mosteghanemi

Ahlam Mosteghanemi is an Algerian writer, who is best known for her novels. She had built for herself the reputation of being one of the world’s best-selling Arabic speaking woman writers. Her novels are listed as prescribed books in the curricula of many schools around the world, and her work has been translated into several languages.

Even though she is known more as a novelist, Ahlam began her literary career as a poet. She was a host of a poetic radio show at 17, and published her first poetry book, Ala Marfa al Ayam (To the Days’ Haven) at 20. She was part of the first generation to acquire the right to study in Arabic after French’s prohibition, and the first woman to publish a compilation of poetry in Arabic.

10. Ahmed Shawqi

Ahmed Shawqi was an Arabic poet, whose nickname is the Prince of Poets.

He was an admired poet with a prolific command of rhyme and diction. His name holds a prestige in the Arab world and his poetry still inspires many young Arab poets to this day.

One of the things that made Shawqui stand out from other poets of his time is his wide range of topics.

He wrote about religion, politics, patriotism, and Pan-Arabism. His poems were deeply affected by events in his life, and often contained inspiring life lessons.

Final thoughts

So that’s the overview of Middle Eastern poetry. As you should have known by now, the Middle East has one of the richest poetry traditions in the world, and this article still hasn’t barely scratched the surface. However, I hope that it will be a good gateway for you to learn more about this fascinating topic.

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