The Case of Poetry in Surah al-Shu’ara’ (the Poets)

By Spahic Omer

As an art, Arabic poetry is the earliest and perhaps most prominent form of Arabic literature. One thing is the present knowledge of Arabic poetry, which dates back approximately to the 6th century, but the other is oral poetry which is believed to predate that by many centuries.

Poetry was the only medium of literary expression in pre-Islamic Arabia. In point of fact, it was the only form of art. One of the reasons for that was the remarkable Semitic respect for the word and its inherent potentials and beauties. In addition, the cultural and civilisational identities of the Semites throughout history, whereby they appeared to be more cultured than civilised, played also a role.

Even during some ancient biblical times, the Arabs were known for their poetry and for what the scholars sometimes call “gnomic wisdom”. King Solomon’s (Prophet Sulayman) wisdom is said to have been so magnificent that it outshined the wisdom of all the people of the East and all the wisdom of Egypt (Peterson, 2017). By the “people of the East”, it is meant the Arabs.

And Job’s (Prophet Ayyub) wise friends, it’s clear, come from north Arabian groups. Indeed, the Book of Job as a whole has been argued by some commentators to have an Arabian origin (Peterson, 2017). It is described as the greatest poem of ancient and modern times. The Book of Job is in the Ketuvim (“Writings”) section of the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh), and the first poetic book in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible (Seow, 2013).

The Qur’an is not poetry, and the Prophet (pbuh) was not a poet

The reference of surah al-Shu’ara’ to the poets and its entire context are twofold. Firstly, it proves that the Qur’an is not a work of poetry and that Muhammad (pbuh) is not a poet.

Secondly, it asserts that poetry and other forms of art are a double-edged sword. In principle, they are neither good nor bad, and they cannot be generalised and declared as either prohibited or permitted. It all depends on a number of internal and external factors which pertain to the worldview and intention of an artist, his overall conduct and the substance, purpose as well as objective of his art.

The polytheistic Arabs (mushriks) stopped at nothing trying to justify their rejection of the Prophet (pbuh) and his revelation, the Holy Qur’an. Given that the city of Makkah since time immemorial was a large scale religious hub and a centre of pilgrimage, the Makkans had to continuously explain the case of Muhammad (pbuh) to the visitors and pilgrims that flocked to the city. They had to cautiously disapprove and deride his case so that the other people could become convinced and do the same yet before meeting him. His fascinating and enthralling religious preaching had to be thwarted at all cost.

One of the charges levelled against the Prophet (pbuh) was that he was no more than an extraordinarily skilful poet and the Qur’an nothing more than the product of his great poetic skill and artistry. Therefore, the Qur’an hastened to repudiate such baseless allegations. It highlighted that the Prophet (pbuh) was an unlettered man who had never learned how to read and write (al-‘Ankabut, 48). Moreover, the Qur’an was officially his greatest and permanent miracle. It explicitly challenged anybody from among the Jinns or humankind, in any place and age, and individually or collectively, to come up with anything that could rival yet the shortest chapters (surahs) of the Qur’an in terms of their beauty, style, content, meaning and implications for thought and life (al-Baqarah, 23-24).

The logic goes to the effect that if the Prophet (pbuh) was a poet and the Qur’an poetry, then many great poets from various times and locations would have taken up the challenge and do away with the menace of Muhammad (pbuh) and Islam once and for all. However, nothing ever to that effect came to pass. Everyone felt so overwhelmed and incapacitated by the style and spirit of the Qur’anic message that nobody even dared to try.

In the context of its defence of the Prophet (pbuh) and his heavenly mission, the Qur’an articulates once the words “poetry (al-shi’r)” and “poets (al-shu’ara’)” and four times the word “poet (sha’ir)”. The kernel of the Qur’an’s defence is the following verse from surah Ya Sin: “And in no way did We teach him (the Prophet) poetry; and in no way does it behove him. Decidedly (this revelation) it is nothing (else) except a Remembrance and an evident Qur’an” (Ya Sin, 69).

The message of surah al-Shu’ara’ concerning the rejection of the charge that the Prophet (pbuh) was a poet and the Qur’an poetry is as follows.

The (dishonest and wrong) poets are followed only by the erring ones (al-ghawun) (verse 224). Such is the case because the poets speak indiscriminately about basically every subject without seriously considering if they are right or wrong. They roam confusedly and aimlessly “through all the valleys of words and thoughts” (verse 225). They often talk about sensual pleasures. They tend to excessively jest, parody, glorify and criticise. If situations demand and their personal objectives warrant, they and their poetry also arouse the feelings of hatred, enmity and vengeance against others.

The poets are often loose cannons, submitting themselves to no spiritual and moral restrictions or authority. Their absolutely free and intensely imaginative and fantasising minds and souls are the only sources of legitimacy to them. Every knowledge or initiative ought to be turned to that frame of reference for its authentication and endorsement.

In their world, there is no place for the higher standards and nobler ends of life. Hence, the surah, apart from alluding to the fact that the poets – and many other artists – are lost and blind, accentuates the inconsistency between what they say and do (verse 226), which is a serious deficiency most commonly found among hypocrites. The verse thus also indicates the inconsistency between the ideas, creativity and dreams of the poets and the implications of living a real life (Maududi, 1982).

If this is the case with the (immoral) poets, the same holds true for their sympathisers and followers. They complement and sustain each other. They make up an exclusive sphere of concepts, traditions and mores under the guise of art (poetry).

Indeed, he who is in demand and is followed dictates the religious convictions and ethical behavioural paradigms of those who pursue and follow him. Correct is the Latin phrase: “Cuius regio, eius religio”,which is translated as “whose realm, his religion”. Ibn Khaldun also rightly observed that the common people follow the religion (creed) of their rulers, or leaders, in every sense of every word in the idiom.

Who are “al-ghawun”, “the erring ones”?

The passionate followers of the (immoral) poets are called “al-ghawun”, which broadly means “the erring ones”. The term, in fact, implies any type or category of people who are misguided and live in error. In that case, the poets are guilty of a dual spiritual misdemeanour: being misguided themselves and misguiding the others.

In order to underscore the seriousness and profundity of the matter, the surah uses the same term twice more, apart from the case of the poets in verse 224. That is in verses 91 and 94. Both instances are mentioned in connection with Hellfire and the conditions of its inhabitants. The verse 91 reads: “And Hell will appear plainly to the erring ones (or those who were straying in Evil or were lost in grievous error) (al-ghawin)” (al-Shu’ara’, 91). And the verse 94 reads: “Then they will be thrown headlong into the (Hellfire) they and those who were (lost) in (grievous) error (al-ghawun)” (al-Shu’ara’, 94).

It is also interesting to note that the same word with its derivatives is employed elsewhere in the Qur’an predominantly in the context of Satan and his unceasing scheming that aims at deceiving man and causing his fall. Therefore, whoever does the same thing and adopts the similar deceptive strategies follows in the footsteps of Satan.

On the other hand, those who follow the Prophet (pbuh) constitute together with him a community that possesses a highly cultured, refined and kind behavioural paradigm. Its existential purpose and mission are rooted in universal righteousness, God-consciousness, a sense of commitment for higher ontological ideals and ends, and a high regard for the rights of others.

Topping the list of its priorities are fairness, justice and comprehensive excellence. To its people, life is an extremely serious business with correspondingly serious consequences. No human pursuit is to deviate, even in the slightest, from this outlook and the action-plans that emanate therefrom.

It is in relation to this that the surah asserts that the Qur’an is God’s speech and His revelation (verse 192). By describing Himself in the same verse as “the Lord of the worlds” as the source of the revealed Qur’an, God wants to suggest that His revelation is total, encompassing the whole truth, and universal, aiming at everyone and every circumstance and everywhere till the end of time.

Trustworthiness, protection (security) and truth

God sent the Qur’an down through the archangel Jibril (Gabriel) who is His trustworthy messenger from the realm of angels (verse 193). Thus, the Qur’an came from Almighty God, the Creator and Lord of the universe, through the trustworthy archangel Jibril (al-Amin) and to the Prophet (pbuh), who as well was nicknamed al-Amin (the trustworthy). The project started in Makkah, which was dubbed the city of protection and security (al-balad al-amin) (al-Tin, 3). The concepts of “trustworthiness (al-amanah)” and “protection (al-amn)” are interrelated, overlapping each other in many respects. It is almost as though there can be no one without the other. The root of both words is the same.

All that by no means is a coincidence. The whole case of the Prophet (pbuh) rested on the absolute and divine authority and on the premises of total trustworthiness, authenticity, integrity and infallibility. It aimed to create generations of people who will epitomise in their deeds, words and attitudes trustworthiness, virtue and honesty. Being thus at peace with themselves, they could become a source of peace, motivation and guidance to others.

The same is true with regard to every other prophet. Trustworthiness (al-amanah) was the paramount quality of each and every one of them. The reliability and integrity of every stage and aspect of revelation had to be ensured and substantiated.

Five of the seven prophets whose stories are featured in surah al-Shu’ara’ are reported in the same surah to have conveyed to their respective communities the following message: “Will you not fear (be conscious of) Allah? I am a trustworthy messenger (rasul amin) to you. So fear (be conscious of) Allah, keep your duty to Him, and obey me.” The five prophets are Nuh (verses 106-108), Hud (verses 124-126), Salih (verses 142-144), Lut (verses 161-163) and Shu’ayb (verses 177-179).

Owing to this, the surah categorically states that “it is not devils who have brought it (the Qur’an) down. Neither would it suit them, nor can they (produce it). Verily, they have been removed far from hearing it” (al-Shu’ara’, 210-212).

The two-sidedness of poetry

However, putting forward that every ideological alternative that tends to rival the Qur’an and its straight path is partly or completely Satan’s business, the surah conveys: “Shall I inform you (O people!) on whom it is that devils (the evil ones) descend? They descend on every lying wicked person. (Into whose ears) they pour hearsay vanities and most of them are liars” (al-Shu’ara’, 221-223).

That the case of the poets follows immediately after the latter set of verses clearly shows how tricky, double-sided and devious poetry – and other art forms – could be. As a means, rather than end, its legitimacy, or otherwise, depends on how and for what purposes it is used. Just as it can procure much goodness, it likewise can generate much harm.

That the allusion to the negative sides of poetry precedes the allusion to the positive ones may suggest that the former outweighs the latter in its potency, effects and scope. It may also suggest that the former is more needed by falsehood and disbelief to establish themselves and thrive, than the latter by the truth. The truth is objective and self-governing. A great deal of the creativity and resourcefulness of the wicked and dishonest poets – and of other artists – which is proportionately wicked and dishonest, is nothing but Satan’s whispers. As equal partners, they move together and cooperate towards the same ungodly ends.

Still, there is much room for appropriate poetry and art in Islam and its civilisation, provided the divine criteria are duly observed. Those criteria are clearly spelled out in verse 227 where God speaks about the exceptions to the previously stated poetry trends and its proponents: “Save those (poets) who believe and do good works, and remember Allah much, and vindicate themselves after they have been wronged. Those who do wrong will come to know by what a (great) reverse they will be overturned!” (al-Shu’ara’, 227).

This verse is the last verse in surah al-Shu’ara’. Its role is akin to the final and parting emphasis on the most important thing that permeates virtually every section of the surah, that is, the identity of the truth and its salient features. The truth must set up a backdrop for every human activity. Its essence must be its beginning, means and end.

Abdullah Yusuf Ali further elaborates: “Poetry and the fine arts which are to be commended are those which emanate from minds steeped in faith, which try to carry out in life the fine sentiments they express in their artistic work, aim at the glory of Allah rather than at self-glorification or the fulsome praise of men with feet of clay, and do not (as in jihad) attack anything except aggressive evil. In this sense a perfect artist should be a perfect man. Perfection may not be attainable in this life, but it should be the aim of every man, and especially of one who wishes to become a supreme artist, not only in technique but in spirit and essentials.”

The Prophet (pbuh) was not against poetry as such

Nobody disputes the innate permissibility of poetry. It is like any other form of speech: what is good is good, and what is evil is evil. In view of that, the Prophet (pbuh) was never against proper and beneficial poetry. Yet, he himself sometimes recited certain poetry verses, or he asked someone to recite to him. However, his interest in poetry was lukewarm and he never memorised whole poems verbatim, nor did he intend to. He is reported to have said that in some poetry, truly, there is wisdom. He also remarked about a non-Muslim poet that he is almost a Muslim in his poetry.

Likewise, some of the Prophet’s companions were fond of the subject. Some mastered it and were renowned poets. However, they used their talent only for defending and promoting the truth and its people. No inappropriate aims found their way into their poetry interests and hobbies.

A companion Hassan b. Thabit was one of the most outstanding poets of the Prophet (pbuh). He used to recite poetry inside the Mosque of the Prophet (pbuh) and in the presence of the Prophet (pbuh) who once said: “O Hassan! Reply on behalf of Allah’s Messenger (to the attacks of the polytheists by means of poetry). O Allah! Support him with the Holy Spirit (angel Jibril or Gabriel)” (Sahih al-Bukhari).

Not only that. The Prophet (pbuh) even set up a pulpit (minbar) for Hassan b. Thabit in his Mosque to defend him and his mission, and to lampoon or compose satirical poetry defaming the infidels and their agendas against the Prophet (pbuh) and his Islamic cause. According to a report, once a man started abusing Hassan b. Thabit in front of ‘A’ishah, the wife of the Prophet (pbuh), whereupon she said: “Do not abuse him, for he used to defend the Prophet (pbuh) (with his poetry)” (Sahih al-Bukhari).***

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