The rich culture and traditions of pre-Islamic Arabia were not by any means superseded by the spread of Islam. One of the most important forms of art in Islamic history is poetry, the origins of which date back centuries before the revelation of the Qur’an. The structure, grammar, and vocabulary of classical Arabic were developed through the intense and elaborate construction of poems. Arab culture revolved around spoken word: it was the main form of entertainment, it was a major tool of communication between tribes, and skilled poets earned fame, respect, and status for their work.
Poetry “battles” (like the rap game today) were very popular, and the prestige and standing of a tribe in a certain area were largely based on presentation – how well the tribe’s poets praised their own and how well they mocked others. Even the earliest poets ran a serious business. They hired apprentices to memorize their poems and recite them to ensure they were essentially immortalized in the oral tradition and transmitted for generations. This practice was then implemented by huffadh, which literally means “protectors” of the Qur’an. Because of the established culture of poetry, the revelation of the Qur’an in its poetic form played an important role in the spread and acceptance of Islam throughout the Arabian Peninsula.
The beautiful form and prose of the Qur’an also inspired poets around the world to write their own works in praise of God and the Prophet ﷺ. One of the most well known of these is al-Busiri’s Qasida al-Burda (“The Poem of the Mantle”). Most Muslims are familiar with its refrain:
مولاي صلي و سلم داءمن ابدا على حبيبك خير الخلق كلهم
“My Master, descend peace and blessings continuously and eternally on Your Beloved, the Best of All Creation.”
The Burda is often recited or sung at Muslim gatherings, and it has been translated into Chinese, French, Urdu, Turkish, and almost every other major language. It has been taught, studied and memorized by some of the most influential scholars in Islam, and is regarded as the best model of praise of the Prophet’s character ﷺ. It is particularly celebrated in the Sufi tradition, as al-Busiri himself was greatly influenced by the spiritual teachings of Sufism. The poem is made up of 10 chapters and 160 verses, and each chapter discusses a different topic.
Here is an excerpt from the Burda:
akrim bi khalqi nabiyyin zanahu khuluqun / bi al-husni mushtamilin bi al-bishri muttasimi
How noble was the form of this Prophet ﷺ adorned with a high character that encompassed beauty and was marked with cheerful countenance!
ka al-zahri fi tarafin wa al-badri fi sharafin / wa al-bahri fi karamin wa al-dahri fi himami
A form like the soft lilies and the full moon in splendor, a character like the ocean in generosity and Time in endeavors,
ka’annuhu wa huwa fardun fi jalalatihi / fi `askarin hina talqahu wa fi hashami
Seeming, due to his majesty, even when you met him alone, to head an army or a large company,
ka’annama al-lu’lu’u al-maknunu fi sadafin / min ma`dinay mantiqin minhu wa mubtasimi
As if the very pearl concealed inside the shell were formed in the two molds of his speech and his smile.
la tiba ya`dilu turban damma a`zumahu / tuba li muntashiqin minhu wa multathimi
There is no fragrance equal to the earth that encloses his bones. Blessed is he that breathes its scent and kisses it.
Another great Muslim poet was Jalaluddin Rumi. Because of the general and apparently nonreligious themes of many of the messages in Rumi’s poetry, he is often thought of as more of a spiritual figure with no inclination towards a particular denomination of faith. This is a common view among Rumi’s huge Western audience (Rumi is considered the most popular poet in America); however, Rumi actually drew many of his poems directly from the Qur’an and Hadith. One poet even said of his work, “It is the Qur’an in the Persian tongue.” Rumi was an influential Sufi and believed that music, dance, and poetry were part of the path for reaching God. The Sufi tradition of whirling dervishes, for example, came from Rumi’s idea that in order to reach God one must completely and intensely focus one’s entire self on the Divine. However, the beauty of many of his poems simply comes from their universality. The reason they are still so popular here and now is because regardless of what you believe or don’t believe about God, Rumi’s poems speak to everyone about such general themes as truth, love, and harmony.
“The lover’s cause is separate from all other causes
Love is the astrolabe of God’s mysteries.
The nation of Love has a different religion of all religions — For lovers, God alone is their religion.”
Shahram Shiva is a current poet and scholar of Rumi, and accurately explains the legacy of Rumi’s work:
“Rumi is able to verbalize the highly personal and often confusing world of personal growth and development in a very clear and direct fashion. He does not offend anyone, and he includes everyone…Today Rumi’s poems can be heard in churches, synagogues, Zen monasteries, as well as in the downtown New York art, performance, and music scene.”
From pre-Islamic culture to today, poetry has played an important role in the development and practice of our religion. Dhikr, the remembrance of God, is an act of worship and a type of poetry. The verses of Qur’an we recite everyday are in poetic form. And the poets inspired by this history continue to influence Islam today. Reading and reflecting on this kind of poetry is just as beautiful as any other type of worship in helping us develop our spirituality and connection to God.