15 million Ukrainian are displaced by Russia's war.
Millions miss a meal or two each day.
Help us change that! Click to donate today!

Bible Encyclopedias

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

Arabic Poetry

Pre-Islamic Poetry.

The poetic literature of the Arab Jews, to judge from the specimens handed down, must be about as old as Arabic Poetry in general, and in the main is of the same form and stamp. Two epochs may be distinguished; viz.: (1) The pre-Islamic or lyrical, and (2) that which is coeval with Mohammed and entirely polemical. Of the first epoch the oldest verses known are by the poetess Sarah, of the tribe of the Banu Ḳuraiza, who, in a short dirge, bewailed the treacherous slaughter by an Arab chief of many of her compatriots. This incident, which took place toward the end of the fifth century, is also alluded to in a verse of an unknown Jewish poet. The Jewish poetry of this epoch culminates in the songs of the famous Samau'al (SAMUEL (3)) ibn 'Adiya, who inhabited the castle Al-Ablaḳ in Taima (middle of sixth century). Among Arab authors of all ages he is the prototype of fidelity; having sacrificed his son's life in order to keep a pledge given to a friend, who was no other than Imr al-Kais, the most eminent of the old Arab poets. The poem composed by Samau'al on the incident has often been printed, both in the original and in different translations, although various recensions obscure the true text. Another poem attributed to him is of doubtful authenticity. Samau'al's son Jarid is also said to have been a poet.

At the time of the birth of Mohammed there flourished in Medina the poet AL-RABI IBN ABU AL-ḤUḲAIḲ, of the Banu al-Nadhir, of whose poems several are still extant. In one of them the sentence occurs: "There is a remedy for every illness; but folly is incurable."

The poet ShuraiḦ, whose epoch is uncertain, is the author of a fine distich of which the following is a translation:

"Associate thyself to the noble, if thou find a way to their brotherhood;

And drink from their cup, though thou shouldest drink two-fold poison."

To the pre-Islamic period belongs also a poet named Abu al-Diyal, who was not however, a Jew by birth.

Poetry of Mohammed's Time.

A great change is noticeable in Jewish poetry in the second period, when Mohammed had settled in Medina. After the expulsion of the Banu Kainuka, the poet Ka'ab ibn al-Ashraf, of the Banu al-Nadhir, recognized the danger which now threatened all the Medinian Jews. He traveled to Mecca and incited the Ḳuraish in poems to revenge themselves for the defeat suffered at Badr. It appears that Mohammed alluded to Ka'ab's polemic poetry in the simile of "a dog which, if thou drive him away, putteth forth his tongue, or, if thou let him alone, putteth forth his tongue also" (Koran, 7:174). The points of the simile are not only the alliteration of "Ka'ab" and "kalb" (dog), but also the putting forth of the tongue, which was regarded as a symbol of poetic satire. Ka'ab was soon afterward assassinated at the instigation of Mohammed. His poems have been preserved by Moslem biographers of Mohammed; and his death was bewailed in verse by another Jewish poet, Al-Sammāk, whose effusions are also still in existence.

Shortly before Mohammed attacked the Banu Ḳuraiza—the last remaining Jewish tribe in Medina —a woman of this tribe embraced Islam. Her husband, named Aus, tried to entice her to return, and addressed a few lines of entreaty to her which are still extant. The murder of Ḥujaij, rabbi of the Banu al-Nadhir, was lamented in a poem by Jabal ibn Jauwal, who also bewailed the fate of the expelled and massacred tribes. The last poet of this class was MarḦab. He was a native of Yemen who had adopted Judaism, and fought against the Moslems when they attacked Khaibar, the last Jewish stronghold. In a poem of three verses he challenged one of Mohammed's heroes to single combat, and fell in the contest. This closes the list of Arabic-Jewish poets of ancient times. The next centuriesdid not develop Jewish poetry in Arabia, save a few lines in one of Hariri's makamas () and Ibn Ezra's poems. At the beginning of the fourteenth century there lived in Seville Musa B. Tubi, who wrote a philosophic poem styled "Al-Sab'iniyya" (poem of seventy verses), following the lines of Maimonidean argumentation.

A number of Jewish poets writing in Arabic lived in Spain; but, unfortunately, hardly more than their names have come down. Among them are: Moses ben Samuel ibn Gikatilla (eleventh century; see Poznanski, "Ibn Gikatilla," p. 23, Berlin, 1895); Abraham ibn Sahl (Seville, thirteenth century); Nasim al-Israili (Seville); Abraham Alfakar (thirteenth century, Toledo); Ismail al-Yahudi and his daughter Ḳasmunah. All of these wrote MuwashshaḦ poetry (Hartmann, "Das Arabische Strophengedicht," pp. 45, 63, 73, 74, 225, 244).

Revival at Close of Middle Ages.

A kind of revival took place in Arabic-speaking countries at the end of the Middle Ages; but the poetry of this epoch is almost entirely of a liturgical character, and the language is not classical, but is modeled on the dialect of the country in which the Jews happened to live. Many of these are printed among the collections of piyyuṭim for Maghrebine and Eastern rites; but a comprehensive and critical study of them has yet to be undertaken.

Within the last decades have come to light the collections of poems of the Yemenian poet Shalom b. Joseph Shabbezi, who largely made use of the later forms of Arabic poetry, notably the "MuwashshaḦ" (girdle rime).

  • Nöldeke, Beiträge zur Kenntniss der Poesie der Alten Araber, pp. 52-86;
  • Delitzsch, Jüdisch-Arab. Poesien aus Vormohamedanischer Zeit, 1874;
  • Ibn Hisham, ed. Wüstenfeld, passim;
  • Hirschfeld, Essai sur l' Histoire des Juifs de Médine, in Revue Etudes Juives, 7:167-193, 10:10-31;
  • idem, Assab'iniyya with the Hebrew transl. by Solomon b. Immanuel Dapière, edited and translated in Report of Montefiore College, Ramsgate, 1894;
  • idem, Contribution to the Study of the Jewish-Arabic Dialect of the Maghreb, in Journal of Royal Asiatic Society, 1891, pp. 293-310 (Song of Elijah);
  • idem, Jewish-Arabic Liturgies, in Jewish Quarterly Review, 6:119-185, 7:418-427.
H. Hir.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.

Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Arabic Poetry'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901.

Search for…
Enter query in the box below:
Choose a letter to browse: