Al-Mutanabbi’s Status as the ‘Shakespeare of the Arabs’ Was Always Controversial

When modern readers question whether the self-aggrandizing medieval poet deserves the title, they ignore the many who made their points before them

Al-Mutanabbi’s Status as the ‘Shakespeare of the Arabs’ Was Always Controversial
An illustration of the poet by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines. The text in Arabic is a well-known line from Al-Mutanabbi, which reads, “Just because the lion’s fangs are bared, do not assume that the lion is smiling.”

It seems that in ancient Arabia, poetry and murder were never far apart.

Think of the 40-year al-Basus War, which kicked off between the fifth-century tribes of Bakr and Taghlib after a stray camel blundered onto the grassy meadows of the tyrant Kulayb ibn Rabiah, who shot and killed the poor beast with an arrow. The camel’s owner, the poet al-Basus bint Munqidh, hounded her nephew al-Jassas for vengeance, which he achieved by driving a shaft into Kulayb’s neck. Another pre-Islamic poet, Imru al-Qays, the “Vagabond Prince,” may have visited Byzantine Emperor Justinian, seduced his daughter and crowed about it in verse. For this bold enterprise, the emperor rewarded his guest with a poisoned cloak.

Such stories pack the pages of classical Arabic literature, even occupying a whole book, “Prominent Murder Victims of the Pre- and Early Islamic Periods, Including the Names of Murdered Poets,” by ninth-century genealogist Muhammad ibn Habib, recently translated by Oxford Professor Emeritus Geert Jan van Gelder. One should swallow these narratives with a good helping of sodium chloride. Humans in every epoch are obsessed with killing, a fact that makes them embellish and overstate. “People begin to see,” wrote English critic Thomas de Quincey in 1827, “that something more goes to the composition of a fine murder than two blockheads to kill and be killed — a knife — a purse — and a dark lane. Design, gentlemen; grouping, light and shade, poetry, sentiment, are now deemed indispensable to attempts of this nature.” Cheeky though this extract may be — it’s from a satirical essay called “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” — yet it reminds us that tales of homicide may hold more gravy than grave.

With such caution at hand, observe yet another poetic undoing: that of Abu al-Tayyib Ahmad ibn al-Husayn, better known as al-Mutanabbi, “the Would-Be Prophet.” Widely hailed as classical Arabic’s greatest bard — an opinion he took every chance to encourage — he was ambushed in 965 on the path from Shiraz in present-day Iran to Baghdad and slaughtered by bandits from a tribe he had forced to drink his poetic vitriol. It appears his Don Draper braggadocio was not to everyone’s taste.

“What happened to your verse,” they taunted, “the one that says, ‘The steeds and the night and the desert all know me, and the sword, the lance, the parchment and pen’?” His expansive vanity now bruised, al-Mutanabbi turned and met his attackers, perishing at age 50 alongside his son al-Muhassad.

“Poetry has sunk into the earth,” wrote his student Ibn Jinni upon his death, “and the lush tree of letters, once watered, has gone dry.”

Yet if this Arabic Homer compelled such praise, why did people try to kill him? Or, less dramatically, why did they write dozens of volumes razzing his poetry or claiming he filched it from other, better minds? For some, the fact that controversy stalks al-Mutanabbi may be proof enough of his greatness, not unlike Shakespeare, to whom al-Mutanabbi bears comparison and who a fringe minority still claims did not write his own plays. Less conducive to this view is the fact that even in his own time many did not think al-Mutanabbi the greatest poet. Meanwhile, ask any Arab from mechanic to manager, from the ploughtail to the palace, to reel off al-Mutanabbi’s words by heart, and they can. This fact welcomes if not demands our attention.

Who is al-Mutanabbi? What was it like to live in the society that witnessed him? How did he catch glory by the tail? Who were his enemies (not a few)? His laurels were never fixed in place. Some even think, then as now, that they should be forever struck off. But though modern observers rightly question his status as “the Shakespeare of the Arabs,” those observers forget that the question was never settled in the first place.

“Lovelier than vintage wine and sweeter than a shared cup, is hefting stout blades and tall pikes, and driving one legion into another.” Here is young Ahmad, trumpeting his own martial prowess, barely 15 and not yet dubbed al-Mutanabbi, though whether to believe his self-admiring claims still causes headaches for historians. He was born of a poor family — his father worked as a water carrier — in the southern Iraqi city of Kufah and claimed Yemeni tribal bloodlines, a point of pride in later compositions. While still a teenager, he journeyed to Syria and launched his career as a poet. He showed blazing talent from an early age, although he was limited at first to praising petty rulers (which is how poets showed off their talents in those days). One wouldn’t be too far off to call him a child genius.

Al-Mutanabbi lived in an era of upheaval that Russian orientalist Vladimir Minorsky called the Iranian intermezzo — a period of over two centuries after 821 that birthed more than half a dozen petty states like the Tahirids, the Samanids, the Ziyarids and the Buyids, all in the Persian provinces. Meanwhile, at the imperial center of Baghdad, the Abbasid regime slipped its foundation as rival caliphates arose in Cairo and Cordoba. With such competitors sprouting like weeds across medieval Islamdom, an enterprising young rhapsode like Ahmad had his choice of patrons. The broken politics of the age cleared new routes for money and power, letting both move about more freely. The world and its glory were at the feet of the aspiring poet.

It was also in Syria that Ahmad allegedly earned his nickname al-Mutanabbi, literally “who claims to be a prophet,” a label he forcefully snubbed; in another setting, one thinks of how military call signs like “Iceman” and “Maverick” are not a tribute but rather a slur — less war paint, more tar and feather. The majority of reports agree about how it happened. At the port of Latakia, Ahmad met a certain Abdallah Muaadh ibn Ismail and declared himself a holy man, even supplying his own Quran and staging miracles such as arresting the rain nearby but letting it fall elsewhere. Between such marvels and the verbal genius that joined them, Ahmad caused a stir among the Samawah desert Bedouin and coaxed them into a series of raids. These spread northward past the city of Homs, whose governor finally clapped irons on Ahmad and jailed him for two years. He went free after falling gravely ill and sending a plea to the new governor, who pitied him.

Unfazed, al-Mutanabbi — never one to let his ego be stained by humility — combed the earth once again for the brass ring of fortune, finding it in Aleppo, not far from where he had been imprisoned. The governor of that garrison city, Ali ibn Abdallah al-Taghlibi, aka Sayf al-Dawlah, “the Sword of the State,” so called for his gallant defense of Muslim realms against the Byzantines, had gathered about him poets, preachers, linguists and philosophers, all refined in a sort of courtly alembic that emerged as one of the great medieval Islamic hubs of thought and culture. As 11th-century anthologist al-Thaalibi puts the matter (in the English of Princeton Professor Emeritus Andras Hamori), “Before al-Mutanabbi became connected with Sayf al-Dawla, he had hunted crows and nightingales alike.”

It was here the swaggering balladeer found emotional camaraderie, maybe for the first and only time.

This partly had to do with his lavish wages. According to one source, over a four-year span al-Mutanabbi netted 35,000 gold dinars, more than $12 million in today’s money. He owned land, slaves and horses — not bad for the son of a water carrier. And this, with his relishing of such favor, provoked his rivals to scorn. He recited poetry sitting down, for example, whereas custom required actual carpet-kissing before the sovereign. Such allowances hinted at the real cause of al-Mutanabbi’s glory in Syria: genuine esteem between poet and patron.

By all accounts, what reeks of cloying propaganda in verses by al-Mutanabbi — admittedly the panegyrist’s job — sprang from true affection for Sayf al-Dawlah:

In war or peace you intend the heights
whether tarrying or in haste …

Every life you grace not becomes death;
every sun that is not you equals darkness.

As backstory for this 10th-century Islamic buddy film, both al-Mutanabbi and Sayf al-Dawlah boasted impressive Arab stock, and this at a time when Persians and Turks were pouring into the Muslim world.

“Arabs will never prosper,” al-Mutanabbi had written before reaching Aleppo, “while Persians are their kings.” He smeared the ruling Turks in Iraq as a “kingdom of slaves,” a prelude to the vulgar bigotry he would dump on his later patron, the freed black slave and eunuch Abu al-Misk Kafur.

Like all good things, however, al-Mutanabbi’s bright days at the court of Sayf al-Dawlah turned to gray. Here too, accounts more or less agree on what happened. For several months before his grand exit, al-Mutanabbi locked antlers at court. His rivals included Sayf al-Dawlah’s cousin, Abu Firas al-Hamdani, a poet in his own right who had complained to the governor (in the English of University of California, Berkeley professor Margaret Larkin), “Every year you give him thousands of dinars for three odes, when you could distribute two hundred dinars among twenty poets who would produce poetry better than his.” Apparently, this counsel swayed Sayf al-Dawlah into canceling al-Mutanabbi’s salary.

In turn, the withdrawal of funds triggered an apology that, pace Abu Firas’ harrumphing, remains one of the most highly appreciated and widely quoted poems ever published in Arabic:

Alas! My heart burns for a coldhearted man
on whose account my body and soul are sick.

Why do I hide this love that wastes my flesh
while the nations pretend to love Sayf al-Dawlah? …

O you whom it pricks us to quit: After you,
though we attain all, yet it is but lack …

When you leave a people that could have
kept you, the true departers are they.

Famously, in this same ode, says Larkin, the poet “forces his subject to share the role of hero with him,” including the line that by and by would haunt al-Mutanabbi on the road to Baghdad:

I am he whose bons mots the blind can well see
and whose words cause even the deaf to hear …

The steeds and the night and the desert all know me,
and the sword, the lance, the parchment and pen …

How distant are fault and failing from my honor,
I, the very Pleiades! And they, but hoariness and age.

But even verses like these, ringing down the centuries with al-Mutanabbi’s remarkable expression, could not stop fortune’s wheel from spinning. One day at court, the story goes, he tussled with another man, Ibn Khalawayh, a wit and pedant in his own right who wrote peculiar works of lexicography doubling as literary anthologies: “Names of the Lion,” “Names of the Wind,” “Unfound in Bedouin Speech” and more. The two men often sparred over Arabic grammar, only this time things took a nasty spill.

At one point, al-Mutanabbi did as all whale-sized egos do when they run out of real arguments and retreated to ad hominem. “Shut your mouth!” he blurted. “You’re a Persian from Khuzistan. What’s Arabic got to do with you?” Characteristically restrained, Ibn Khalawayh slapped al-Mutanabbi dead in the face; some say he struck him on the cheek with a key, drawing blood. In any case, al-Mutanabbi looked desperately at Sayf al-Dawlah, whose silence could not have been louder. “I can no longer indulge you,” it implied. “You’re done here.” Despite their shared ethnic pride, it seems al-Mutanabbi had pulled the Arab card one too many times. He left the court of Aleppo disgraced, never to return.

In subsequent years, he did find other patrons, though none as magnanimous or simpatico as “the Sword of the State.” After a stop at Damascus, al-Mutanabbi grudgingly took an invitation — he resisted until he was offered a governorship — to serve as court poet in Fustat, the ancient center of modern Cairo, under the Ikhshidid ruler and freed Nubian slave Kafur. This match was not one destined for success.

At first, the wounded rhymester was grateful for any chance to ply his trade. Observe his salutatory ode to Kafur, “a (generous) sea in Fustat,” with tears shed for Sayf al-Dawlah, “who has proved traitor”:

Less yearning, O my heart. By chance I see you
in love with one who gives aught in return …

But there is a sea in Fustat: I visited upon him
my life, my goodwill, my affection, my rhymes.

Yet ripe fruit soon spoils. In 958, less than a year after coming to Fustat, al-Mutanabbi pressed Kafur about the promised governorship, in a poem boasting of al-Mutanabbi’s fitness for the job. “I hardly broach the subject,” he says, “so as not to bother you.” The patron’s final answer came (in the English of Larkin): “When you were poor and in a bad way, with no one to support you, you had pretensions to prophethood. If you attained a governorship and acquired a following, who would be able to stand you?”

What followed from al-Mutanabbi survives as some of the foulest venom anywhere in classical Arabic. Forever the Arab jingoist, al-Mutanabbi had no stomach for buttering up a Nubian slave; a broken promise from such a man was too much. In poems written at Fustat, one can hear al-Mutanabbi working himself up to the following insults against Kafur, as graphic as they are distasteful:

The eunuch is become lord of chattel in Egypt,
the freeborn crushed and the slave worshiped.

Purchase no slave unless also a stick to beat him,
for slaves are trouble, and filthy at that.

Scarcely I thought I’d see the day when
a dog would ill-treat me while being praised!

Al-Mutanabbi left these lines for Kafur — who burned them without even a glance; al-Mutanabbi published them later with the rest of his poems — after fleeing Egypt with the help of friends. Kafur’s men tracked him but never found him, leaving al-Mutanabbi free to return to his birthplace of Kufah.

That was in 962. The following year, his fame having radiated across Islamdom like spokes on a wheel, al-Mutanabbi accepted the offer of a court position at Arrajan from Ibn al-Amid, a Persian Buyid vizier hailed as a lavish benefactor. He only got three poems out of al-Mutanabbi, however, before the poet took up with the man who would be his last patron, Adud al-Dawlah, another Buyid vizier based in Shiraz. Readers typically ignore al-Mutanabbi’s work from this period. They do so to their disadvantage. That work includes a long (118-line) hunting poem picturing the animals being chased and the splendor of Adud al-Dawlah and his retinue (“The hyperbole of the panegyric verges on the ridiculous,” clucks Larkin, with a distaste shared by moderns for all medieval praise poetry).

Restless and homesick, al-Mutanabbi at last set a course for his native soil of Iraq. He never made it; like Socrates before him, playing the gadfly ended badly for al-Mutanabbi. Nor was he alone in this. The renowned wine poet Abu Nuwas was supposedly killed by slow-acting poison after his erstwhile patrons, the Banu Naybakht, received an abusive poem falsely credited to him by an enemy. Another poet, Bashshar ibn Burd, was beaten and thrown into a river for insulting al-Mahdi, the third Abbasid caliph. In an era before cancel culture and social media mob rule, a man’s words could still travel fast enough to get him killed, let alone reprimanded. It seems that bloodlust, real or symbolic, has not diminished from one age to the next.

“What is important is not the personality. What is important is the work.”

These are the words of fantasy writer Neil Gaiman, spoken as he presented the 2006 Nebula Grand Master award to legendary author Harlan Ellison, a contentious, fire-eating character known for his assorted legal battles (“I see myself as a combination of Zorro and Jiminy Cricket,” Ellison once wrote). Could the same be said of al-Mutanabbi? Could anyone ever pry his writings away from his mammoth persona? He inserts himself into the praise he gives others, fostering the same self-regard that shaped his own character. Likewise, his career is hard to follow without seeing its peregrinations as compelled by his restless and choleric personality. But love that personality or hate it, the work it brought forth has made more of a mark on Arab culture than that of any other writer. One must look at that work squarely to know why.

Although he wrote rather little — just 40 odes in the nine years he spent at the court of Sayf al-Dawlah, and a career total of 5,000 lines, compared with 11,000 by his forebear, the great Abbasid panegyrist al-Buhturi (died 897), or over 14,000 by his devotee, the satirist and freethinker al-Maarri (died 1057) — al-Mutanabbi was a runaway bestseller in a way his competitors never could be. In the words of Hamori, “powerful language, brilliant conceits, lapidary verses about daring, hope, and disillusionment, and a haughty stare in the face of fate and human sleaziness” — all became earmarks of al-Mutanabbi’s poetry.

At a basic level, his lines are highly quotable, stocked with aphoristic wisdom that one might display at the dinner table:

Resolutions come but by the power of the resolute,
and by the strength of the noble come noble deeds.

If largesse be not secured from disturbance, then
nor is praise earned nor does wealth endure.

The worst land is bereft of any friend, and
the worst that man might earn is what sullies him.

Just because the lion’s fangs are bared
do not assume that the lion is smiling!

Schoolchildren all over the Arab world can rattle off these lines from memory. Entire books devote their pages to single verses by al-Mutanabbi that became popular sayings. Furthermore, fans knew al-Mutanabbi for devising new images, Hamori’s “brilliant conceits,” in his poetry. For instance, he says of Sayf al-Dawlah’s intimate knowledge of battle, “You dwell in every abode of combat, as if, with all the swords, you are among family.” And in an ode penned at the Egyptian court of Kafur, he complains of a fever that left him housebound, visiting him as often as would a besotted lover:

My guest appears looking bashful —
she visits only in the dark.

I made her a bed with cushions and throws
but she refused and slept in my bones.

My skin was too tight for both my sighs and hers
so she puffed it with rot, making room for her home.

Of the analogy between illness and a paramour, medieval commentators said al-Mutanabbi had birthed a truly unique motif. And speaking of commentaries, more were attached to al-Mutanabbi’s collected poems, to his “diwan,” than to that of any other Arabic bard. At least several dozen glosses have come to light, ignoring the hundreds of anthologies that quote single verses. Every manuscript archive in Europe and the Middle East houses one or more copies of his diwan. But above all, al-Mutanabbi’s style became the model for aspiring poets. His diwan served as a teaching text, hence the welter of manuscripts; and court composers turned his balance, crispness and rhetorical garnish to new ends.

One of these “neo-classicizing” poets — meaning those who took Abbasid “Golden Age” panegyrists like al-Mutanabbi as their model — was Ibn Hani al-Andalusi (died 973), the “al-Mutanabbi of the Islamic West” and panegyrist to the Fatimid Caliph-Imams in Egypt. He praised the conquests of the fourth Fatimid caliph, al-Muizz li-Din Allah, stretching from Cairo to Aleppo (in the English of Tahera Qutbuddin):

You are he who subdued East and West in their vastness
including all who reside therein, king or hero;

who covered the earth from Egypt to Syria with
cavalry and infantry, and wrapped up plains in mountains.

This paean to martial valor rings with al-Mutanabbi’s praise of Sayf al-Dawlah:

And the lofty mountain forts are bounded
by your cavalry: a collar wrapped round their necks.

They broke the Byzantines at the Luqan River battle, and
routed them at Hizit, till Amid turned pale with captives.

Though few followed al-Mutanabbi into the same cockiness or drama queen energy, none denied the power of his words to win friends, woo women and, most critically, to summon all the riches — and attendant hullabaloo — of medieval Islamdom into their coffers.

“Ferocious competition for the favors of patrons,” wrote Cambridge University professor Arthur James (A.J.) Arberry of the sandstorm that raged around al-Mutanabbi, “was bound to fan the flames of partisanship in a society which prized poetry above all other arts, and in which the rewards for success were very great.”

While he was still alive, al-Mutanabbi’s verses whipped up critics and supporters into such a froth that, just a few years after the poet’s murder, 10th-century judge and critic al-Qadi al-Jurjani defended al-Mutanabbi against attack in a book called “Mediating Between al-Mutanabbi and His Opponents,” in which al-Jurjani responds to hecklers — one detects the odor of sour grapes in their inkwells — who had accused al-Mutanabbi of piracy. “It is unjust,” writes al-Jurjani (in Hamori’s English), “to let the odd lapse lower him in your estimation and not allow his store of excellences to raise him up.” That is, even the Would-Be Prophet nods.

One book, written after al-Jurjani’s, that indicted al-Mutanabbi on charges of theft was “The Expose of al-Mutanabbi’s Plagiarisms” by 11th-century Fatimid civil servant Abu Sad al-Amidi. It contains a lengthy catalog of verses by al-Mutanabbi, each joined to those he allegedly purloined. The book starts with a report about his ambush and homicide on the road to Baghdad, “told by a trustworthy source” (and conveyed in Arberry’s English):

When al-Mutanabbi was killed on the Ahvaz road, there were found, in a saddle-bag he had with him, copies of the diwans of the two Ta’i poets in his own handwriting; and on the margins of the leaves, he had marked every verse whose meaning he had taken and put into different words.

By “the two Ta’i poets,” the narrator means the two great ninth-century Abbasid panegyrists, Abu Tammam and al-Buhturi, themselves the cause of Sturm und Drang regarding which was mightier and who, prior to al-Mutanabbi, was the paragon of good style. True or not, this anecdote and others like it keep alive al-Mutanabbi’s reputation for cribbing. Then again, “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone,” wrote T.S. Eliot in “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” “His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.” The problem of “plagiarism,” therefore, may not stick to someone who recast the Arabic tradition as brilliantly as did al-Mutanabbi.

Beyond literary theft, enemies also charged him with stretching rhetoric too far. The ancient Greeks called this “catachresis,” misuse of words or strained metaphor, which one detects in al-Mutanabbi’s improbable analogy between disease and a lover. Most commentators liked that verse; others did not. Consider how al-Mutanabbi caps off an ode to a revenue clerk named Abu Ali Harun al-Awariji by making all creation that clerk’s posterity:

If you weren’t part of humanity, which itself comes from you,
then Mother Eve herself would be barren of young.

Critics flagged this line as “qabih” (ugly) although they don’t say why. Perhaps it was offensive to declare Eve’s loins barren and to reduce them to the result of an absent patron. But observers cheerfully point out why another line causes indigestion. Therein al-Mutanabbi honors a certain Said ibn Abdallah, the brother of Aleppine judge and bureaucrat Ahmad ibn Abdallah al-Antaki:

Were it possible, I’d mount and ride everyone
like camels, till I reached Said ibn Abdallah!

“‘Everyone’ includes the poet’s mother,” snarks the 10th-century vizier and litterateur al-Sahib ibn Abbad, in a book called “Exposing the Faults of al-Mutanabbi.” “Is the poet eager to mount her too, then?”

But al-Mutanabbi had friends as well. One was the blind, vegan freethinker and alleged Muslim heretic al-Maarri, who was so taken with al-Mutanabbi’s verse he wrote not one but two commentaries on it. At around the age of 30, al-Maarri sailed to Baghdad from northern Syria to seek his destiny as a poet. He became a fixture at the literary salon of a Shiite notable, al-Sharif al-Murtada, a poet and man of letters in his own right. A famous story explains that one day this sharif mocked al-Mutanabbi in the presence of al-Maarri, who quipped, “If al-Mutanabbi had written nothing other than the line, ‘You, ruined abodes, have abodes in our hearts,’ then he’d still be the greatest poet.” Al-Maarri seems to imply a verse later in the same poem:

If mockery of me reaches you from some fool
then it’s proof that I am myself faultless.

The insinuation — that al-Sharif al-Murtada is the fool and al-Mutanabbi the faultless man — was not lost on the sharif, who ordered al-Maarri thrown out of the salon by his feet. Such were the stakes of quibbling over al-Mutanabbi or, in the case of mounting humanity like a camel, of overplaying one’s rhetorical hand, particularly when lauding patrons for cash. More generally, such episodes show that, despite al-Mutanabbi’s several plaudits, he was never a universal icon, even among Arabs.

“You were right,” says Iraqi poet, novelist and New York University professor Sinan Antoon, addressing the Would-Be Prophet in a poem called “Letter to al-Mutanabbi.” “Your words are still wings of light, always carrying you to us, sometimes carrying us to you.”

Written as a psalm to a wounded city, Baghdad, this poem struggles to find hope for the future. Yet it takes strength from the city’s exalted past, evoking its cultural center at al-Mutanabbi Street, a stretch of bookshops plus the Shahbandar cafe where thinkers and artists would eat words and drink music all night. In 2007, a bomb detonated in this quarter of the City of Peace, with the “express goal of interrupting the freedom to read, learn and discuss ideas,” says Anne Evenhaugen, head librarian for the Smithsonian’s American Art and Portrait Gallery Library and curator of “Come Together: American Artists Respond to Al-Mutanabbi Street.” This 2016 exhibit featured over 600 books and other objects collected from Al-Mutanabbi Street shops since 2007, as part of a city-wide festival in Washington, D.C., called “Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here DC 2016.”

For Baghdadis as for others, al-Mutanabbi stands for a vanished Golden Age. A thousand years ago, it was the Islamic world rather than Europe that boasted wealth and erudition. Libraries at Baghdad, Damascus and Cordoba offered collections many times the size of the largest holdings in the West. Caliphal treasuries dwarfed those of any European emperor. So fixed in the Arab mind is al-Mutanabbi as a representative of this lost Atlantis that, when the United Arab Emirates Hope probe arrived at its destination on Mars in February 2021, NASA sent a congratulatory tweet with his verse:

If you venture in pursuit of glory,
don’t be satisfied with less than the stars.

Such adoration starts with al-Mutanabbi’s mastery of the verse form but doesn’t stop there. Despite Neil Gaiman’s insistence that the work itself is what matters most, in reality, al-Mutanabbi’s titanic personality, his bet-on-yourself arrogance and his blustering rodomontade are just as crucial to his legacy, for good or ill. In fact, some of these same qualities have turned people against him.

To start, why isn’t he better known outside the Arab world? The answer relates to what readers in the 21st-century West expect of poetry. Modern readers want poetry to show “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” in the words of William Wordsworth. It should be personal, opening the poet’s private closet; individual, the product of a single godlike genius; and sincere or authentic, above all.

Somewhat by contrast, classical Arabic poets, like premodern authors of any tradition, brought their chops to the most prestigious (and lucrative) type of poem, which for centuries was the ode of praise for a ruler or patron. Such poems sound about as sincere as a TV commercial to the modern ear. Even specialists like Larkin hold their noses when reading them. But these panegyrics earned writers their bread, at least from the eighth to the 13th centuries, and, as with all paid versus unpaid work, the incentive to give them one’s best was therefore stronger. Getting the essence of al-Mutanabbi’s greatness means adjusting modern expectations about what poetry is and does. In the words of Arberry:

To understand what the Arab poet was trying to do, it is necessary to disencumber oneself of the illusion that the poet is a kind of God-given genius, a creature set apart from other men, subject (like the artist and musician of popular imagination) to his own laws. The Arab poet is rather to be considered, and judged, as a craftsman like other craftsmen, a goldsmith of words, a jeweler of verbal images.

Arberry does not apply this logic to other nationalities, though it does tally with many traditions: that of ancient Greek poetry, for instance, where the word poiesis itself means fashioning or crafting; and English ideas like those of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who, translating Anglo-Saxon verse, compared its meter to hammer blows on an anvil. The notion of poetry as a craft, and comparisons between poetry and handiwork, are universal across time and cultures. In this light, the power of classical Arabic poetry — which does often express the poet’s inner state, it must be said — appears when the individual bard, like a jazz virtuoso breaking into a solo, riffs on timeworn motifs such as weeping over ruined campsites or straining to see lightning across the desert.

But genre is just one thing about al-Mutanabbi that rubs modern readers raw. Another is his relentless frat-boy swagger, which for women especially reeks of a desperate attempt to mask an inferiority complex. Indeed, without a grand purpose, separate from the quest for celebrity and fortune, it is hard to see what good comes of lines like:

Whoever can’t sift my words from others’ empty prattle,
he only badmouths himself!

But maybe for artists satisfying one’s ego, in some sense an intrinsic motive, is the best path to rich lyrics and virtuoso recitals, just as satisfying one’s curiosity, more than the promise of wealth or status, is the best path to masterful scholarship.

When al-Mutanabbi’s many modern readers rightly question his greatness, they assume a consensus that just isn’t there. This “Arab Shakespeare” literally fought off enemies within his lifetime, as his untimely murder shows, and thereafter a platoon of supporters did battle in the pages of books. Has time given al-Mutanabbi his due? Even if it did, would that satisfy him? For the man who was happy with no less than the stars, there were but two options, as he himself wrote: “Live gloriously, or die nobly!”

Editor’s note: Except where otherwise indicated, all translations are by the author.

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