The Ghazal by Robert Irwin

Very deep is the well of the past. Should we not call it bottomless? Thomas Mann, Joseph and His Brothers.

The ghazal, or love lyric, evolved out of the pre-Islamic Arabian qasida, or ode, and the origins of the qasida go back to a time before Arabic became a written language. The qasida, which was originally orally transmitted and which was conventionally divided into three parts, began with a nasib, a lament for lost love, before proceeding on to the rihla, a journey which often involved hard riding. This second section was likely to include praise of the poet’s horse or camel, as well as vivid evocations of landscape and perhaps also desert storms in which lightning featured prominently. Finally, it was traditional to end with a madih, a panegyric addressed to a patron from whom the poet hoped to receive a reward. It is the nasib which con­cerns us here, for this was an amatory prelude, in which the poet, contem­plating the deserted campsite, reflected on a past sexual encounter and, implicitly at least, on lost youth. The amatory prelude was always in the retrospective mode and dealt with youthful love. Tashbib (a noun form which derives from the verb shabba, to become a young man) means youth­fulness, but it is also an alternative word for the love lyric.

Imru’l-Qays, who died around 540, was and is the most widely admired of the pre-Islamic or Jahili poets. Here is an extract from the nasib of his Mu’allaqa, (a poem which was honoured by being suspended in the enclo­sure of the Ka’ba):

Oh yes, many a fine day I’ve dallied with the white ladies,

And especially I call to mind a day at Dara Julul,

And the day I slaughtered for the virgins my riding-beast

(and how marvellous was the dividing of its loaded saddle),

And the virgins went on tossing its hacked flesh about

And the frilly fat like fringes of twisted silk.

Yes and the day I entered the litter where Unaiza was

And she cried, ‘Out on you! Will you make me walk on my feet?’

She was saying, while the canopy swayed with the pair of us,

‘There now, you’ve hocked my camel, Imr al-Kais. Down with you!’

But I said, ‘Ride on, and slacken the beast’s reins,

And oh, don’t drive me away from your refreshing fruit.

Many’s the pregnant woman like you, aye, and the nursing mother

I’ve night-visited, and made her forget her amuleted one-year-old,

Whenever he whimpered behind her, she turned to him

With half her body, her other half unshifted under me . . .

[AJ Arberry, The Seven Odes]

A little further on in the nasib, Imru’l-Qays provides a somewhat atomis­tic evocation of the woman’s beauty:

I twisted her side-tresses to me, and she leaned over me;

slender-waisted she was, and tenderly plump her ankles,

shapely and taut her belly, white fleshed, not the least flabby,

polished the lie of her breast-bones, smooth as a burnished mirror.

She turns away, to show a soft cheek, and wards me off

with the glance of a wild deer of Wajra, a shy gazelle with its fawn;

she shows me a throat like the throat of an antelope, not ungainly

when she lifts it upwards, neither naked of ornament;

she shows me her thick black tresses, a dark embellishment

clustering down her back like bunches of a laden date tree –

twisted upwards meanwhile are the locks that ring her brow,

the knots cunningly lost in the plaited and loosened strands;

she shows me a waist slender and slight as a camel’s nose-rein,

and a smooth shank like the reed of a watered, bent papyrus.


Imru’l-Qays was a boastful amatory predator and a truly great poet. We are to understand that he won the lady’s favours with a gift of the meat of his riding-camel. Jahili poets scorned unfulfilled or platonic love and looked back on fleshly couplings. As Hugh Kennedy has noted, Jahili poets did not see lost or unattainable love as spiritually improving: ‘It was bad news’. Jahili sex was always contemplated in retrospect, for love is irretrievably lost, and dahr, or fate, has separated the poet from his beloved and often he laments his grey hairs. If the woman can return, it is only as a tayf al-khayal, a ghost. There can be no real consolation for lost love and the finest qasidas are intensely bleak. (A later poet of the Umayyad period, Waddah, contra­posed the composition of love poetry and the fear of death.)

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