The Arab Homer, part 2


arab homer mArabic poetry meets Greek

Before analysing the major differences between Greek and Arabic poetry, a word or two needs to be said about the translation movement with regard to translating poetry.

The translation movement itself didn’t wait for al-Maʼmūn. Its groundwork was already laid out during the Umayyad era (661-750). The Umayyad caliphs, descendants of a clan which even during the pre-Islamic period had extensive contacts with Syria, modelled their Damascene court on Byzantine imperial traditions and saw themselves as the heirs to the glories of Hellenism. One glance at Quṣayr ʻAmra, the magnificent Umayyad desert castle near Al-Azraq, suffices to demonstrate the vibrancy of Syrian Hellenism under the new Umayyad overlords. The Greeks of course had to vie for supremacy with another great civilization which the nascent Arabo-Islamic civilization borrowed many elements from – the Persian civilization. In fact, the philhellenic translation movement was born out of a struggle with the philo-Persian camp, represented by such first-class intellectuals as Ibn al-Muqaffaʻ (724-759), whose prominent role ensured the domination of the philo-Persian camp until the establishment of Bayt al-Ḥikma.

Arabs always believed that what separates them from other nations is their unsurpassed ability to express themselves poetically. They were well aware that neighbouring nations were heirs to perennial civilizations, but one field in which they knew that no other nation can ever compete with them was poetry. It is no coincidence that the translation movement started around the same time as the Shu'ubiyya movement reached its peak.[1] Islam only helped to reinforce Arab ideas of linguistic superiority because who can argue with God who revealed his final Revelation in Arabic?

The idea so eloquently put forward by Al-Ǧāhiẓ (“Only Arabs and people who speak Arabic have a correct understanding of poetry”) is further stressed by Abū Ḥayyān At-Tawḥīdī (923-1023), the author of Al-Imtāʻ wa-l-muʼānasa (Enjoyment and conviviality). Out of desire to prove that every nation on Earth has certain merits, specific to that particular nation, and not so clearly displayed among sister nations he states that “The Persians possess politics and literature, statutes and fees, the Byzantines science and wisdom, the Indians thinking and reflection, magic and perseverance, the Turks courage and boldness, the Blacks patience, diligence and joy”.[2] The Arabs, on the other hand “possess rhetoric and eloquence”.[3]

Al-Fārābī (74-950), being familiar with Greek and Persian, as well as with Arabic poetry, knew of the existence of certain fundamental differences between the two. What separates Arabic poetry from Persian and Greek is the fact that the Arabs are concerned with verse endings (rhyme), while the Persians and Greeks are not. To these differences he dedicated his two treatises - Risāla fī Qawānīn Ṣināʼat aš-Šiʻr (Epistle on the Canons of Poetry) and Ǧawāmiʻ aš-Šiʼr (Treatise on Poetry).

In Ǧawāmiʻ aš-Šiʼr he states that:

“The Arabs are concerned more with rhyme (nihāyāt al-abyāt) in verse than any other nation whose poetry we have known. So, their poems improve and become more complete by the use of specific words - familiar or unfamiliar; by having the meanings of words imitate the theme of the statement; by having rhythm (īqāʻ); by being divided into metrical units (aǧzāʼ), each of which is rhythmical, with a fixed number of prosodic units (asbāb and awtād); by having a fixed metrical arrangement (wazn) with one part identical to another. In this way the parts become similar when uttered; by having words in each meter of fixed arrangement; by having fixed rhymes by using the same letters or letters which are similar when uttered; by having words imitate the theme of the statement; and also by being melodic (mulaḥḥana).

Some nations treat the tune (naġam) with which they melodify (yulaḥḥinūna) poetry as part of poetry in the same way that they treat the words (ḥurūf) part of it: so that a statement without its tune loses its meter (wazn) as it would lose it had it lost some of its letters. Other nations do not treat the tune in the same way as they treat the words of a statement but treat the statement as if it consists only of its letters - as is the case with the poetry of the Arabs.

If this poetry is melodified (luḥḥinat), the rhythm of the melody might clash (ḫālafa) with the rhythm of the statement, while this clash disappears when the rhythm of the statement melodises itself. Those [the Arabs] who treat the tune as they treat letters of a statement [do it] for fear that the meter of the statement would be lost if it is set to melodised. The public and many of the poets consider that a statement is poetry when it is metrical and divided into metrical units which are uttered at equal intervals. They do not care as to whether the statement consists in what imitates the object or not; neither do they care about the words (alfāẓ) as long as those words are eloquent in the language of that statement (faṣīḥa fī ḏālika al-lisān). Instead they prefer what is familiar and easy (mašhūran sahlan). Many of them have conditioned that the endings of metrical units (nihāyāt aǧzāʼihā) should be similar, either by using the same letters, or by using letters which are uttered at equal intervals.[4]

What is evident is that that Homer (Ūmīrūs), the poet of the Greeks, does not keep the endings of metrical units rhymed. A statement which imitates the theme without being metrically rhythmic still is not considered poetry but is said to be poetical statement. Should it be arranged in meter (wuzina) and divided into feet (qussima aǧzāʼ), it becomes poetry. The basis and substance of poetry among the Ancients is it being a statement which consists of that which imitates the theme, and being divided into metrical units which are uttered at equal intervals. Everything else is not necessary for the basis of its substance, but are things which improve poetry. The most important of these things are the imitation (muḥākāh) and the science of things (ʻilm al-ašyāʼ) by which the imitation [is achieved], while the least important is the meter (wazn).”[5]

So, Al-Fārābī asks - If the elements of imagination are present in a statement while it is not built on specific meter and rhyme, can it be called poetry? He himself answers in the negative. It cannot be considered poetry, but rather a poetic statement (qawl šiʻrī). He makes a comparison between Greek and Arab poetry. Both poetic traditions are built on units known among the Arabs as prosodic units (asbāb or awtād)[6] and among the Greeks as feet (maqāṭiʻ or arǧul). With regard to poetic genres Al-Fārābī states that poetry can be divided by meter or by theme. Here the difference becomes evident. Arabic (and Persian being influenced by Arabic) poetry is divided according to theme - i.e. panegyric (madīḥ), elegiac (riṯāʼ), satirical (hiǧāʼ), moral (ḥikam) or boastful (faḫr), while Greek is divided according to meter (or more correctly specific meter is assigned to each class). In Risāla fī Qawānīn Ṣināʼat aš-Šiʻr he lists thirteen classes of Greek poetry according to metre – tragedy, dithyramb, comedy, iambus, drama, ainos (a class of poetry in which sayings are mentioned which give pleasure either due to their exceeding excellence, or because they are remarkable and striking), diagramma (a class of poetry used by lawmakers in which they described the horrors which await the souls of men undisciplined or unrectified), satire, poemata (a class of poetry by which is described poetry both good and bad, straight and crooked, each kind representing matters both beautiful and good, ugly and bad), epic, rhetoric, amphi geneseos (a class of poetry invented by scientists who used it to describe the natural sciences) and acoustic (a class of poetry intended for the instruction of students of the Art of Music).[7]

What is striking is that before listing the thirteen classes Al-Fārābī states that he is “following a classification used by the Philosopher in his discourses on the Art of Poetry [Aristotle’s Poetics]”, but Aristotle himself never uses this particular classification. However, after listing them he adds that he based the list on “what came to us by those familiar with their poetry and what we have found in the discourses attributed to the philosopher Aristotle in the Art of Poetry, to Themistius, and to other Ancient writers, as well as the Commentators (mufassirūn) on their books”.[8] This unfortunately means that his exact sources remain unknown but once again so clearly demonstrates that the Arabs were from the beginning of their cultural renaissance well versed in all things Greek, including of course the unavoidable “Homer, poet of the Greeks”.


Al-Fārābī, Ǧawāmiʻ aš-Šiʼr (edited by Muḥamamad Salīm Sālim). Cairo, 1971.

Al-Fārābī, Risāla fī Qawānīn Ṣināʼat aš-Šiʻr, 269-270 (edited and translated by Arthur J. Arberry) in FĀRĀBĪ'S CANONS OF POETRY (pp. 266-278), Rivista degli studi orientali Vol. 17, 1937/1939.

At-Tawḥīdī. Al-Imtāʻ wa-l-muʼānasa

[1] The term shu'ubiyya is derived from the Arabic word šuʻūb (peoples) which appears in the surah Al-Ḥujurat (13th ayah): “O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.” (Sahih International) where it emphasizes the equality of all peoples in Islam, denying the superiority of Arabs over other peoples. The term historically refers to a movement that during the period of the Abbasid caliphate produced a series of works glorifying Persian civilization and claiming Persian civilizational superiority over the Arabs. The movement provoked a vehement Arab response represented by intellectuals like Ibn Qutayba.

[2] At-Tawḥīdī, I, 72

[3] At-Tawḥīdī, I, 72

[4] Arabic prosody uses the letter (ḥarf) as the irreducible minimum, as opposed to the syllable, contrary to Greek prosody, which was firmly based on the syllable system. The letters (ḥurūf) are divided into two categories - sākin (resting, i.e. not followed by a vowel) and mutaḥarrik (moving, i.e. followed by a short vowel). Units larger than letters are known as uṣūl (singular aṣl). These are of two kinds - sabab and watad.

[5] Al-Fārābī, Ǧawāmiʻ aš-Šiʼr, 171-173 edited by Muḥamamad Salīm Sālim, Cairo, 1971

[6] sabab (plural asbāb) in Arabic prosody is a phonetic construction of two vocalised consonants or one vocalised consonant followed by a quiescent consonant, while watad (plural awtād) is a phonetic construction of two vocalised consonants followed by a quiescent consonant.

[7] Al-Fārābī, Risāla fī Qawānīn Ṣināʼat aš-Šiʻr, 269-270

[8] Al-Fārābī, Risāla fī Qawānīn Ṣināʼat aš-Šiʻr, 270