Islamic Concept of Poetry

      By Professor Maqsood Jafri

In Greek language, poet means a “seer” and Arabic word “shair” means the man of consciousness and wisdom.  Hence it can be said that poets are the sensitive people with higher senses and sensibilities.  William Wordsworth says that poetry is intermittent inspiration and overflow of powerful emotions expressed in tranquility.  Matthew Arnold regards poetry as the criticism of life.  Some critics consider poetry as creation of higher and nobler human ideals.  God has created Prophets, poets and philosophers.  No one can make them in factories, workshops and academies.


Poets are born poets.  Then why there is a general consensus that the Qur'an has condemned poets and poetry is something to be despised or rejected.  Many people ask me about poetry.  They pose the same traditional question which the dry priests tell them.  Poetry is prohibited in the Qur'an. Is it? Let us briefly shed light on this subject.


First of all we must understand that out of context we can never arrive at our destination.  The Qur'an should be read and understood in totality of its message and spirit.  Its verses are local and universal.  Some verses are in local environments but leave universal and eternal message.  Similar is the case with the Qur'anic verses revealed about poets.  There are two main verses dealing with the subject of poets.  In Sura Yasin, in verse 69, the Qur'an says: “We have not instructed the (Prophet) in poetry, not is it meet for him; this is no less than a message and a Qur'an making things clear.”  Why this verse was revealed to the Prophet?  Simply because the Qur'anic idiom, language and style are so unique that none can excel it.  It is neither poetry nor prose.  Its lucid, lyrical and mellifluous style is not less than any miracle.  The heretics regarded this rhythmic and musical idiom of the Qur'an as poetry and magic.  The infidels leveled three false charges against the Prophet (PBUH) of Islam.  They said; he is a magician; he is a poet; he is a madman; he is an epileptic.  God negates their accusations and in Sura Najm by saying; “By the star when it goes down, your companion is neither astray nor being mislead.  Nor does he say (anything) of (his own) desire.  It is no less than inspiration sent down to him.  He was taught by one Mighty in Power, endued with wisdom.”


These verses of Sura Yasin and Sura Najm clearly exhibit the truth that God rejected the claim of the infidels who regarded the Qur'an as the book of poetry and Prophet Mohammad as a poet.  The poets in general are not condemned in Sura Yasin.  It is an apt reply to the infidels that the Qur'an is a message from God with a serious mission and motto.  During the life time of the Prophet the Arabs were known for their poetic eloquence and excellence.  They named all non-Arabs as “Ajamy” which means the dumb.  The Arabs were much proud of their poetry and oratory.  They used to challenge others in the matters of eloquence.  IT is the way of God that He conferred special miraculous powers to different prophets as required by time. 

During the time of David, the work of smithy was in boom.  God gave the power of melting iron by hand to David.  It was a miracle.  The necromancy and sorcery were at height in the period of Moses.  God gave him a staff which showed miracles.  It devoured the snakes of the magicians and also parted the sea into two making route for his men.  In the time of Jesus Christ, the people were expert in treating the patients through herbs and through spiritual incantations.  God gave miraculous power to Jesus to spiritually treat the lepers and the blind.  He even raised the dead into life. 

Similarly, during the period of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), the poets used to paste or hang their writings on the walls of Kaaba and prove their excellence.  “Saba Moalleqat” were very much popular writings hung on the walls of Kaaba.  Each year there was a poetry contest at Mecca in which great poets from all over Arabia used to participate.  Under such circumstances the Prophet also hung the Sura Al-Kausar on the wall of Kaaba.  A man of letters after reading the Sura Al-Kausar wrote underneath: “This is not the word of man.”  This was the reason that the heretics out of shear jealousy, heresy and infidelity called the Prophet a poet which was defied by God. 

 “The poets” is full chapter in the Qur'an.  In it God says; “And the poets, - it is those straying in evil, who follow them; don’t you see that they wander distracted in every valley?  And that they say what they do not practise.  Except those who believe, work righteousness, engage much in the remembrance of Allah, and defend themselves only after they are unjustly attacked.”  These verses divide poets into two classes.  The evil ones and the righteous ones.  The poets who spread evil are condemned.  The poets who preach nobility are praised.  Here, one question arises; Is it only for poets? Is it not for prose writers? Or is it not for all humans?  If somebody preaches profanity in prose will he be appreciated?  Sacrilegious ideas or deeds have to be condemned.  When the Qur'an talks about the poets, it is in local as well as in universal context. 

God told the people that Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) was not a day dreamer or idle claimer.  Rather he is a Prophet, an activist and a dynamic soul with practical mission.  Good and positive poetry is not condemned.    The Holy Prophet used to ask people to recite the holy poetry of Hazrat Abu Talib.  Hassan bin Sabit used to recite “Naat” in the presence of the Prophet.  Hazrat Ali was a poet.  In Muslim literature, the spiritual and didactic poetry of Saadi, Rumi, Sanai, Attar, Amir Khusroo and Allama Iqbal has special places.  In western literature, the Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained of Milton; The Faerie Queen of Edmund Spenser and the Metaphysical Poems of John Donne have high place.  These writers justified the ways of God to Man.  They enhanced the divine mission of the prophets through their facile pen and noble spirit.  Hence, in the light of above brief dissertation, we can profess that Islam does not oppose poetry if it is written on didactic and divine lines. 


(The writer is an eminent speaker and scholar on Islam.  He can be reached at [email protected])


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