A Balanced Approach to Poetry
Prophet Muhammad (Pbuh) distinguishes between frivolous and serious poetry. He says: “Poetry is like ordinary speech: fine poetry is like fine speech, and objectionable poetry is like objectionable speech.”
(Related by Al-Bukhari in Al-Adab Al-Mufrad and Al-Daraqutni).
Commentary by Adil Salahi
The Qur’an criticizes poets for their exuberant and excessive statements that exaggerate feelings, passions and actions. The Qur’anic statement that occurs at the end of Surah 26 (As-Shura) makes an exception in the case of poets who are true believers and who observe Islamic values in what they say. This is echoed by the Prophet as he distinguishes between frivolous and serious poetry. He says: “Poetry is like ordinary speech: fine poetry is like fine speech, and objectionable poetry is like objectionable speech.” (Related by Al-Bukhari in Al-Adab Al-Mufrad and Al-Daraqutni).
This is absolutely fair, because it judges poetry on the basis of the meanings the poet wants to convey, and the way such meanings are expressed in the poem. It does not slam a blanket judgment condemning all poetry or all forms of art. It allows freedom of expression, provided that its principles are not violated. This is both fair and appropriate. Islamic principles include all that is good and beneficial for mankind, and preclude all that is bad and harmful. Therefore, commitment to Islamic principles is bound to heighten one’s sense of propriety and fine speech. It also positively affects one’s judgment of what constitutes fine poetry.
Thus, Aishah, the Prophet’s wife, says: “There is fine and objectionable poetry. You should accept what is fine and reject what is objectionable. I have used some of the poetry of Kaab ibn Malik, some of which was in poems of forty lines or less.” (Related by Al-Bukhari in Al-Adab Al-Mufrad).
The first part of this Hadith is the same as the one quoted earlier, making distinction between different standards of poetry on the basis of the meanings expressed. Thus, what is virtuous, or advocating proper values, or encouraging good action, is fine and may be used, quoted or recited as one feels fit. But what is contrary to Islamic values should be abandoned, whether it is frivolous, obscene or mere exaggeration. The second part of the Hadith speaks of Aishah’s own action, which may be taken as an example to be followed. She was the Prophet’s wife who had a fine insight in what is permissible in Islam and what is forbidden. Thus, when she speaks of her reciting some poetry, this indicates the permissibility of doing so, particularly when she has already stated a criterion for distinguishing quotable poetry. She tells us that the poetry she recites is that composed by Kaab ibn Malik, an Ansari companion of the Prophet. He was one of the very early people of Madinah to embrace Islam, and he was chosen among twelve of the people who pledged their loyalty and support to the Prophet to be given responsibility for their respective clans and tribes. His poetry was always used in the service of the Islamic cause. Hence, it was fine poetry, committed to the observance of Islamic values. It was no surprise that Aishah, a highly educated lady, should choose his poetry to recite.
Another fine poet from the Ansar was Abdullah ibn Rawahah who died in the Battle of Mu’tah, which was the first military engagement between the Islamic state and the Byzantine empire. Abdullah was a model believer who showed total commitment to the cause of Islam and perfect obedience to God and His messenger. It is reported that he was once coming into the mosque when the Prophet was addressing his companions. He heard the Prophet saying, “Sit down”. The Prophet said this to the whole congregation, but not as an order. In fact, most of them were already seated. The Prophet was merely using the word in his speech. Nevertheless, it was in the form of an order, and although it was not addressed to any one in particular, Abdullah ibn Rawahah immediately fulfilled it and sat down at the point which he reached. The Prophet noticed his action and said to him: “May God increase your keenness to obey Him and His messenger.”
Aishah, the Prophet’s wife, was asked: “Was God’s messenger in the habit of quoting a wise saying of poetry?” This is a reference to a frequent habit which means that in a given situation, that is likely to be repeated, we quote a phrase or a sentence which fits it well. She said: “He used to quote a line by Abdullah ibn Rawahah, wa ya’teeka bil-akhbar man lam tuzawwid.” This means: “News will be brought to you by one whom you have not commissioned for the task.” The import is self-evident. It is a comment on how one receives news of importance from unexpected quarters.
This last Hadith tells us that the Prophet used to like poetry, although he himself never said a line of poetry. Indeed, he is not known to ever having recited a poem. He is described in the Qur’an as not being taught poetry by God, and that such education is not befitting of him. This is very true, because, as God’s messenger, his task is to deliver God’s message embodied in the Qur’an, which is a much higher form of literary style than poetry. Indeed, when his opponents increased their level of hostility, they compared the Qur’an to poetry, although they were ready to concede that it was unlike poetry. The Prophet nevertheless loved fine speech, including poetry.
A report by Al-Shareed says: “The Prophet asked me to recite for him some of the poetry of Umayyah ibn Abi Al-Salt. As I did, the Prophet urged me to say more, until I completed one hundred rhymes. He then said, ‘He has almost become a Muslim’.” (Related by Al-Bukhari in Al-Adab Al-Mufrad, Muslim, Ibn Majah and others)
We should note here that Umayyah was a very wise poet. Prior to Islam, he sought to learn about divine religions and he read the Bible and other scriptures. He mentions in his poetry the early prophets, particularly Abraham and Ishmael. He refused to worship his people’s idols, and he forbade himself wine, urging others not to drink any intoxicants. When he learned that a prophet would be sent to mankind and that he would be from Hijaz, he hoped that he would be this prophet. But when God’s messenger, Muhammad, declared his message and Umayyah realized that he would not be the one, he felt envious and stopped short of embracing Islam. It is also reported that at one stage, he was on his way to join the Prophet and declare his acceptance of God’s message, but some unbelievers pointed out to him that a number of his relatives were killed in the Battle of Badr, the first major military engagement between the Muslims and the unbelievers. He was in great grief and he interrupted his journey without joining the ranks of the Muslims. He died later without ever becoming a Muslim. His poetry includes much of his ideas about God’s oneness, the falsehood of pagan beliefs, as well as the importance of sound moral values. Hence the Prophet’s comment in the above Hadith. The Prophet is also reported to have said about him: “His poetry is that of a believer, but his heart is that of an unbeliever.”