The Arab Homer, part 1


arab homer mThe Arab Homer

Introduction: The Eastern origins of Hellenism

The past few centuries have demonstrated without a doubt that Greek epic is an integral part of a continuous stream flowing from the Near East to the Aegean.

In his magnificent edition of Hesiod's Theogony, published in 1966, Martin West claimed that “Greece is part of Asia; Greek literature is a Near Eastern literature”.[1] Walter Burkert, who undoubtedly is an pioneer in establishing Oriental influences on Greek philosophy, mythology, and art, argued that “Akkadian cuneiform side by side with Aramaic, Phoenician, and Greek alphabetic script produces a continuum of written culture in the eighth century which stretches from the Euphrates to Italy”.[2] Such views, once ignored or marginalized, have now become mainstream and due to works like Walter Burkert’s The Orientalizing Revolution and Martin West’s The East face of Helicon we have come to realize that Near Eastern antecedents or prototypes form the very core of Greek myth and poetry. In fact, Hellenism itself cannot be understood if separated from its Eastern context, not minimizing in any way the originality of Greek spirit, which created an unsurpassed miracle out of these Eastern influences. The Oriental mythological tradition should be regarded as a background of Homeric world and can elucidate certain obscure dimensions of the Homeric imagination. The aim of this study is to show how Homeric tradition had its roots in the East, from where it drew elements of its artistic splendour, and how in the end it returned the favour to the East, whose poets likewise drew inspiration from “the king of Greek poets”.[3]

Greek and Arab epic tradition have of course much in common. Themes of tribal enmity, invasions and plunder, abduction of women, revenge, heroism, chivalry and love feature prominently in both traditions. While the Greeks have Hercules, Perseus, Theseus, Odysseus, Jason or Achilles, the Arabs have ʻAntar bin Šaddād (the “Arab Achilles”), Sayf bin Ḏī Yazan, Az-Zīr Sālim and many others. When it comes to the actual performance of poetry, similarities between the two traditions are even greater. Homeric aoidos playing his lyre has a direct counterpart in Arab rawin playing his rababa. Also, the venue for presenting the songs is very similar. While in Greece there were Pan-Hellenic festivals dedicated to reciting poetry, pre-Islamic Arabs had the ʻUqāẓ souq, where the best poets were rewarded by having their poems hanged on the walls of the Kaaba (the so called Muʻallaqāt).

The main problem I will try to answer in the first part of this study is whether or not the Arabs translated the Homeric epics and subsequently read them. Of course, poetry is deeply rooted in Arab tradition. In the late pre-Islamic (Jāhiliyya) period poetry served to forge a specific Arab identity.[4] It is reported that ʻUmar bin al-Ḫaṭṭāb said “Poetry is the register of the Arabs (Aš-šiʻr dīwān al-ʻArab)”.

Homer and the Translation movement

As is well known, it was Hārūn ar-Rašīd’s (763–809) son al-Ma’mūn (786-833) who, after purportedly seeing Aristotle in a dream, established Bayt al-Ḥikma in Baghdad. The diligent Arab translators worked tirelessly on translating classical Greek works of philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, pharmacology and botany but surprisingly not the masterpieces of Greek poetry (epic, lyric or dramatic). There are several reasons for this. Firstly, Greek poetry is steeped in a polytheistic worldview, reflecting the central role of the Gods in the everyday life of the Greeks, of course and did not suit the taste of a devout Muslim or Christian.

The second reason, derived from the first, is the phaenomenon of the almost complete absence of gods in the Arab poetic tradition. The pre-Islamic Arab poetic tradition almost never deals with the gods and their interactions with the humans. This is the reason why, while it is possible to reconstruct the Greek cosmology using Hesiod’s Theogony in minute detail, the pre-Islamic Arab poetry tells us disappointingly little regarding the pre-Islamic Arab pantheon. Gods are a sine qua non in Greek poetry (especially epic), and the Iliad and the Odyssey are the perfect example of this synthesis between the human and the divine, the main characters of these epics being divine or semi-divine (heroes are usually the sons of gods and goddesses). In the Homeric corpus human and divine actions are inter-woven both in the Trojan war and in the return of Odysseus, and one cannot tell whether the humans are more similar to the gods or the gods behave too much like the humans. The parallelism between the Earthly and Heavenly battles is obvious, as the divine struggle takes place both in the Iliad (one party supporting the Achaeans - Poseidon, Hera, Athena; the other supporting the Trojans – Zeus, Apollo, Aphrodite) and the Odyssey (some gods aiding Odysseus on his return home, Poseidon preventing him). How can the constant victories and setbacks of both the Achaeans and the Trojans and the wanderings of Odysseus be understood if we take the actions of the Olympians out of the picture? This concept of divine intervention is fundamentally alien to the pre-Islamic Arab poetic world-view. The gods, with all their virtues and flaws, are an integral part of the epic narration and is the main condition of its understanding in its totality, something the Arabs could not understand, not only because many translators were Christians and the majority of the society Muslims, but also because they were lacking similar traditions during the pre-Islamic era.

The third reason is the lack in the Arab poetic tradition of epic poetry in the form of a lengthy narrative poem cantered around a specific heroic episode. The Arabs, both in the Pre-Islamic period as well as during the Islamic period, never composed an epic poem the size of the Iliad or the Odyssey. Ibn Rušd (1126-1198) touches upon the lack of lengthy Arab epic poems which have the beginning, the middle and the end and relate stories about states and kingdoms (al-ašʻār al-qiṣaṣiyya), while commenting on Aristotle’s Poetics (1459a):

“And the like of these is very rare in the Arabic language (wa-muḥākāt hāḏā an-nawʻ min al-wuǧūd qalīl fī lisān al-ʻArab) … and he [Aristotle] mentioned glorious names in this category of poets and praised highly Homer (aná anāʼan ʻāman ʻalá Ūmīruš).”[5]

Finally, the most important reason why the Arabs eschewed translating Greek poetry is fact that the Arabs felt that poetry cannot be translated because any translation is unfaithful to the poem’s original meaning and destroys its poetic structure. Of this more will be said later on.

Al-Ǧāhiẓ (776-868/9) in Kitāb al-Ḥayawan (The Book of Animals) reaffirms this when he so eloquently says: “Only Arabs and people who speak Arabic have a correct understanding of poetry (faḍīlat aš-šiʻr maqṣūra ʻalá al-ʻArab wa-ʻalá man yatakallamu bi-lisān al-ʻArab). Poems do not lend themselves to translation and should not be translated. When they are translated, their poetic structure is broken, the meter is no longer kept, the poetic beauty disappears, and nothing worthy of admiration remains.”[6]

When it comes to the translations of Homer’s works we certainly know of one translation (albeit into Syriac) during this golden era of the Abbasid Caliphate. Theophilus of Edessa (695–785) translated the Iliad into Syriac for the caliph Al-Mahdī. The information regarding this is found in Bar Hebraeus’s (1226–1286) History (Tārīḫ muḫtaṣar ad-duwal).

“And he translated the two books of the poet Homer (wa-naqala kitābay Ūmīrūs aš-šāʻir) about the conquest of the city Ilion (madīnat Īlyūn) in the ancient time from Greek into Syriac to the utmost degree of eloquence (bi-ġāya mā yakūnu min al-faṣāḥa)”[7]

However, of this translation only one verse is preserved (Β 204), of which more will be said later on, so we do not know what exactly “the two books of the poet Homer” means – two books of the Iliad (Α and Β) or the Iliad and the Odyssey.

It is also reported that Ḥunayn bin Isḥaq (809–873) translated the Iliad. We find his story in the work by the 13th century Syrian physician Ibn Abī Uṣaybiʻa ʻUyūn al-anbāʼ fī ṭabaqāt al-aṭibbāʼ (The most useful Information regarding the Classes of Physicians), a voluminous history of medicine organized as histories of notable physicians (Greek and Arab). The story is told by Ḥunayn’s friend Yūsuf bin Ibrāhīm. Ḥunayn was a Nestorian Christian born in the Lakhmid capital Hira and fluent in both Syriac and Arabic. He moved to Baghdad to study with the greatest physician of his day - Yūhannā bin Māsawayhi, a native of Hira’s rival Jundishapur, but apparently asked too many questions which irritated his teacher, and was soon expelled. Disheartened by this, but by no means having lost his desire, we are told that Ḥunayn left Baghdad for two years without letting anyone know where he was going or why.[8]

Now, the story about Ḥunayn acquires a new dimension.

“Hārūn ar-Rašīd had a Byzantine Greek slave girl (ǧāriya rūmiyya) named Ḫiršá whom he held in high esteem and who served him as a keeper of the storehouse. She had a sister (or maybe it was her niece) who would occasionally bring ar-Rašīd a garment or some other thing Ḫiršá had in her care. One day ar-Rašīd missed her, but when he asked where she was, Ḫiršá informed him that she had married her to a relative of hers. Al-Rašīd became very angry and said: “How dare you marry, without my permission, a relative of yours whom you should first have bought from me, since she is my property?” He then ordered Sallām al-Abraš to investigate who had married her and to punish him. Sallām made the necessary inquiries, discovered who the man is, seized him and did not finish with him until he had him castrated. His castration took place while the slave girl was already pregnant. She gave birth when ar-Rašīd set out for Tus and died shortly afterwards. Ḫiršá adopted the boy, raised him in the Greek way of life (addabathu bi-ādāb ar-Rūm) and instructed him in reading Greek books (qirāʼat kutubihim). He mastered the Greek language (al-lisān al-yūnānī) to such perfection that he became the foremost authority on it (kānat lahu fīhi riʼāsa). He was Isḥāq, also known as Ibn al-Ḫaṣī [son of the castrate]. We used to meet quite frequently at assemblies of men of culture (maǧālis ahl al-adab).

When he once fell ill, I paid him a visit. While I was his house, at one point I observed a man with luxuriant hair, part of which hid his face from my sight.[9] Going back and forth, he was reciting Greek poems by Homer (yataraddadu yunšidu šiʻran bi-ar-rūmiyya li-Ūmīrūs), king of the Greek poets (raʼīs šuʻarāʼ ar-Rūm), and the timbre of his voice resembled that of Ḥunayn, whom I had not seen for more than two years. I said to Isḥāq bin al-Ḫaṣī: “This is Ḥunayn.” He denied it, but this denial resembled an admission. So, I addressed Ḥunayn, and he answered me, saying: “Yūhannā bin Māsawayhi said that it is impossible for an ʻAbādī [Ḥunayn’s clan] dissolved of obligations with the Christian faith to learn medicine.” Ḥunayn told me that he had agreed to study medicine until he had mastered the Greek language (al-lisān al-yūnānī) to such perfection that nobody in his time could compete with him (iḥkāman lā yakūnu fī dahrihi man yaḥkumuhu iḥkāmahu).”[10]

To sum up, two years later his friend Yūsuf bin Ibrāhīm found himself called to the bed of a patient whose mother was of Greek ancestry. There he noticed a strange man reciting Homer in the original Greek. The stranger was Ḥunayn, who returned to Baghdad having mastered Homeric Greek to such a degree that he was able to recite the Homeric poems in the original. There is more to the story than what meets the eye. It implies that the members of the Baghdadi elite like Yūsuf bin Ibrāhīm not only knew Greek, but were familiar with Homeric poems and could recognize them and attribute them correctly upon hearing (some contemporary Arab historians even harbour notions of “Baghdadi philhellenism”).

Whether the Arabs produced or not an integral version of the Homeric corpus during the era of the Translation movement is probably destined to remain a mystery, they were well aware of his position in Greek paideia.

The most vivid description of Homer is found in the famous gnomological work by an eleventh-century Damascus-born Egyptian scholar Al-Mubaššir bin Fātik Muḫtār al-ḥikam wa-maḥāsin al-kalim (Choice of Wise Sayings and Fine Statements), which lists basic biographic information about every author before delving into his wise sayings. The chapter dedicated to Homer (Ādāb Ūmīrūs aš-Šāʻir) starts with a biographical sketch:

“He was the oldest poet of the Greeks (aqdam šuʻarāʼ al-Yūnāniyīn), and the Greeks held him in the highest regard (arfaʻūhu manzilatan ʻindahum). He lived roughly five hundred and sixty years after Moses, peace be upon him. He produced many words of wisdom (ḥikam) and beautiful and dignified poems (qaṣāʼid ḥasana ǧalīla). All their [Greek] poets who came after him imitated him: they took and learnt from him. He was their model (al-qudwa ʻindahum).”[11]

Next, we find a vivid description of his physical appearance:

“He was of moderate stature, beautiful appearance and of brown complexion; he had a large head, narrow between his shoulders. He walked swiftly, and often looked around. On his face there were scars from smallpox. He joked a lot, but was also fond of insulting those who preceded him, and was funny. He frequented chieftains (mudāḫilan li-ar-ruʼasāʼ). He died at the age of one hundred and eight years.”[12]

And finally, a witty dialogue worthy of Plautus’ humour!

“Once he was captured, and the divider (al-muqassim) took him away to sell him. One of the people wanting to buy him asked him: “Where are you from?” He replied: “I am from my father and my mother.” He then asked him: “Do you think that I should buy you?”. He [Homer] replied: “You have not bought me yet. Have you made me your financial advisor (mušīr)?” The man bought him. Another one wanting to buy him asked him: “What are you good for?” He replied: “For freedom”. He was a slave for a while, after which he was freed. He lived a long life.”[13]

All Arab authors agree on one thing – Homer was the first and the greatest Greek poet. In this fashion, he is sometimes compared to Imruʼ al-Qays (6th century), the first and for many the greatest Arab poet. In a way, he is the Greek Imruʼ al-Qays, while Imruʼ al-Qays is the Arab Homer.

Al-Bīrūnī (973-1048) mentions in his Al-Āṯār al-bāqiya ‘an al-qurūn al-ḫāliya (The Remaining Signs of Past Centuries) that

“Homer is the first poet among the Greeks as Imru’ al-Qays is among the Arabs (Ūmīrūs aš-šāʻir al-mutaqaddim ʻinda al-Yūnāniyīn ka-Imriʼi al-Qays ʻinda al-ʻArab).”[14]

With regards to the inimitable nature and almost divine status attributed to his poetry Abū Sulaymān al-Manṭiqī as-Siǧistānī (912-985) says in Muntaḫab Ṣiwān al-Ḥikma (Selections from the Depository of Wisdom), a collection of wise sayings of Greek and Arab philosophers about which more will be said later on:

“He was placed by Plato and Aristotle, and others who follow their path, in the highest rank. Aristotle always had a collection of his poetry by his side. His poetry was quoted as evidence by his contemporaries and those who came after him because all agreed on his mastery of knowledge, solidity of wisdom, quality of opinion, and richness of diction.”[15]

Regarding the quality of his poetry As-Siǧistānī mentions an episode in which

“Diogenes Laertius was once asked who is the greatest Greek poet, and he simply replied

  • Every poet thinks of himself as the greatest but all agree on Homer (kull aḥad ʻinda nafsihi, wa-ʻinda al-ǧamāʻa Ūmīrūs)”.[16]

When addressing the issue of translating Homer, As-Siǧistānī echoes Al-Ǧāhiẓ:

“It is well known that that poetry loses the greater part of its splendour in translation and corruption permeates its ideas by way of changing the artistic form.”[17]

But also reports that Stephanos [son of Basilios] translated part of his poetry from Greek into Arabic.[18] Needless to say, we know nothing of this translation.

Not only celebrating him as the greatest Greek poet due to the universal value of his poetry, As-Siǧistānī also makes him the loftiest in comprehending the Divine and places Homer on the path of true monotheism (tawḥīd), basing this claim on a single verse - Β 204 (οὐκ ἀγαθὸν πολυκοιρανίη).

There is no good in the rule of many (lā ḫayra fī kaṯrat ar-ruʼasāʼ).

This is enough for one who contemplates the splendour of these words and their dignified ideas which everyone speaking about tawḥīd – among the philosophers and theologians who came after him – took as a model and a tenet.”[19]

Homer was thus a true monotheist and his poetry guides the humanity ever since in understanding the indivisible oneness of God.

Of course, through their study of Plato and especially Aristotle (Poetics and Rhetoric), the Arabs knew what Homer meant for the Greeks, and for his wisdom, eloquence, and poetic mastery.

Ibn Rušd said of Homer when commenting on Aristotle’s Rhetoric:

“He was the master of sublime grace among the Greeks (kāna rabb an-niʻma al-ʻaẓīma bi-ḏālika ʻinda al-Yūnāniyīn), who magnified (ʻaẓẓamūhu kull at-taʻẓīm) him to the point they considered him a divine human (hattá iʻtaqadū fīhi annahu kāna raǧulan ilāhiyyan) and a first teacher of all Greeks (kāna al-muʻallim al-awwal li-ǧamīʻ al-Yūnāniyīn)”[20]

Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) mentions in his Muqaddima:

“It is well known that poetry is not restricted to the Arabic language. It exist in all languages (Arabic and non-Arabic). There were poets among the Persians and also among the Greeks. For example, Aristotle mentioned in his Logic the poet Homer and praised him (wa-ḏakara minhum Arisṭū fī Kitāb al-manṭiq lahu Ūmīrus aš-šāʻir wa-aṯná ʻalayhi)”.[21]

Aš-Šahrastānī (1086–1153) quotes Muntaḫab Ṣiwān al-Ḥikma almost verbatim in his Al-milal wa-n-niḥal (Religions and Sects).[22] But goes even further in stating that Β 204 can also be thought of referring to the Divine thus creating an “Islamic” Homer who so early on clearly professed the oneness of God:

“This is a short saying but with noble ideas, because the rule of many causes the annulment of the wisdom of rule. This is quoted also with regard to tawḥīd in the sense that a multitude of gods is a transgression which by perversion muddles the divine truth.”[23]



al-Bīrūnī. Al-Āṯār al-bāqiya ‘an al-qurūn al-ḫāliya (edited by Eduard Sachau). Leipzig, 1923.

al-Ǧāhiẓ. Kitab al-ayawān (edited by ʻAbd as-Salām Hārūn). Cairo, 1965.

Ibn Abī Uṣaybiʻa. ʻUyūn al-anbāʼ fī ṭabaqāt al-aṭibbāʼ (edited by August Müller), Cairo, 1995.

Ibn al-ʻIbrī (Bar Hebraeus). Tārīḫ muḫtaṣar ad-duwal (edited by Anṭūn Ṣālḥānī). Beirut, 1890.

Ibn Ḫaldūn. Muqaddima (edited by M. Quatremère). Paris, 1858.

Ibn Rušd. Talḫīṣ kitāb al-Ḫiṭāba (edited by Muḥamamad Salīm Sālim). Cairo, 1967.

Ibn Rušd. Talḫīṣ kitāb aš-Šiʻr (edited by Charles E. Butterworth). Cairo, 1986.

al-Mabaššir bin Fātik. Muḫtār al-ḥikam wa-maḥāsin al-kalim (edited by ʻAbd al-Raḥmān Badawī). Cairo, 1980.

as-Siǧistānī. Muntaḫab Ṣiwān al-Ḥikma (edited by ʻAbd al-Raḥmān Badawī). Tehran, 1974.

aš-Šahrastānī. Al-milal wa-n-niḥal (edited by Amīr ʻAlī Muhanna and ʻAlī Ḥasan Fāʻūr). Beirut, 2003.


ʻAbbās, Iḥsān. Malāmiḥ yūnāniyya fī al-Adab al-ʻArabī. Al-Muʼassasa al-ʻArabiyya li-ad-Dirāsāt wa-n-Našr, 1993.

Burkert, Walter. The Orientalizing Revolution. Harvard University Press, 1995.

West, Martin. Theogony. Edited with Prolegomena and Commentary. Clarendon Press, 1966.

West, Martin. The East face of Helicon. Clarendon Press, 1997.


[1] West 1966, 31

[2] Burkert 1992, 31

[3] All translations from Arabic are mine.

[4] The pre-Islamic poetry era can reasonably precisely be defined chronologically as the 150 to 200 years preceding the Islamic revelation, which is the time period mentioned by Al-Ǧāhiẓ, I, 74.

[5] Ibn Rušd, aš-Šiʻr, 126

[6] Al-Ǧāhiẓ, I, 74-75

[7] Ibn al-ʻIbrī, 220

[8] Ibn Abī Uṣaybiʻa, I, 185

[9] Arabs usually identified this hairstyle with Byzantine fashion.

[10] Ibn Abī Uṣaybiʻa, I, 185

[11] al-Mabaššir bin Fātik, 29-30

[12] al-Mabaššir bin Fātik, 30

[13] al-Mabaššir bin Fātik, 30

[14] al-Bīrūnī, 86

[15] as-Siǧistānī, 192

[16] as-Siǧistānī, 193

[17] as-Siǧistānī, 193

[18] as-Siǧistānī, 193

[19] as-Siǧistānī, 193

[20] Ibn Rušd, al-Ḫiṭāba, 101-102

[21] Ibn Ḫaldūn, III, 359

[22] aš-Šahrastānī, 428-429

[23] aš-Šahrastānī, 429