The History Of Literature I

September 23, 2020 Category: History

The word “poet[ry]” is derived from the Greek “poieses”, which means the will to create / transform.  When it comes to the Reactionary proprietors of institutionalized dogmatism, then, “poieses” is naturally seen as a dire threat.

“Wisdom Literature” goes back to the 3rd millennium B.C. with both the Sumerians and Egyptians (see Stuart Weeks’ work on the topic).  The authors of the Hebrew Bible openly recognize this fact in First Kings 5:10.  In the 20th century B.C., the “Admonition Of [The Murdered] Pharaoh Amenemhat To His Son, Senusret” was composed in Egypt.

When it comes to ancient epics, the record goes back to the Sumerian “Epic of Gilgamesh”, which dates back to the late 3rd millennium B.C.  The Akkadian “Enuma Elish” dates back to the early 2nd millennium B.C.  In the early 11th century B.C., the Egyptian “Story of Wenamun” (an epic composed in Hieratic) was composed.  

Poetry dates to c. 700 B.C., with the Greek epics of Homer and Hesiod.  Homer’s “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” are still considered classics to the present day.  And the legacy of lyric poetry goes back to Alkman of Sparta in the 7th century B.C.

The oldest anthology of poetry is the “Shi-jing” [Book of Songs; a.k.a. “Classic of Poetry”] from the Zhou period in China.  It was an ongoing compilation of material that started in the 11th century B.C. and continued on through the 7th century B.C.

Here, we will explore literature in all three of these forms: didactic, epic, and poetic.  Let’s begin with the Axial Age.

In India, the stories that wound up in the classic Sanskrit anthologies “Maha-bharata”, “Pancha-tantra”, and “Puranas” were originally composed during the Vedic period.  It was during Classical Antiquity that the the epic “Rama-yana” was developed. (For an enumeration of subsequent Hindu lore, see Appendix 3.)

The Dravidian (i.e. Tamil / Sangam) literary tradition began with the first parts of the “Patinen-mel-kanakku” anthology (most notably, the “Ettuthogai”).  The earliest (the “Akananuru”) dates back to 600 B.C.  These were continuously developed through the 2nd century A.D.  Thereafter, the “Patinen-kil-kanakku” collection was composed, which continued to be developed through the Middle Ages.

The legacy of satire goes back to the Ionian satirist, Xenophanes of Colophon, who lived in the 6th century B.C.  During the 6th and 5th centuries B.C., the most revered writers in the world were the Attic writers–most notably: Aeschylus (the Father of Tragedy), Euripides, and Sophocles.  Also notable was Pindaros of Thebes (a.k.a. “Pindar”).

In the 5th century B.C., the Chinese classic, “Spring And Autumn Annals” was composed.  Later, renown writer, Lie Yu-kou of Zheng / Henan (a.k.a. “Lie-zi”) promoted Taoist ideals in his groundbreaking essays.

In the 4th century B.C., the early Confucian tradition was pioneered by great poets like Qu-Yan and Song-Yu of Chu (ref. the “Songs of Chu”).  Ancient China’s “Hundred Schools of Thought” era was contemporaneous with the vibrant philosophical activity in ancient Greece.  Such traditions–in both the East and West–generally allowed for independent voices–though persecution was not unheard of (as exemplified by the death-sentence of Socrates).

In India, the renown Mauryan writer, Chanakya (a.k.a. “Kautilya”; “Vishnugupta”) pioneered Sanskrit exposition with his landmark treatise, the Artha-shatra”. {1}

Meanwhile, in the Hellenic world, Menanros of Dionysia / Lenaia (a.k.a. “Menander”) broke new ground in comedy. 

Literature in the 3rd century B.C. would prove to be propitious.  In the Far East, Panini (Punjabi) and Tiruvalluvar (Tamil) were notable writers; as the Sangam literary tradition thrived.  In Greece, Theocritus of Syracuse broke new ground in pastoral (bucolic) poetry, Posidippus of Pella and Asclepiades of Samos produced lyric poetry, and Apollonius of Rhodes composed the epic, “Argonautica”.  Even scholarly activity flourished at this time.  Eratosthenes of Cyrene was not just a poet, he was a music theorist, geographer, astronomer, and mathematician. {2}

Meanwhile, poetry emerged in the Roman Republic with the Oscan writer, Quintus Ennius of Calabria (known for his epic, the “Annales”).  Others from the period included the Greco-Roman writer, Lucius Livius Andronicus of Calabria (who pioneered Old Latin), as well as Cnaeus Naevius (who pioneered comedy and national dramas [praetexta pabula]).

In the 2nd century B.C., the Roman (Berber) playwright, “Publius” Terentius “Afer” of Carthage (a.k.a. “Terence”) broke ground.  There also arose what is now referred to as the “Circle of Scipio” (a group of intellectuals and writers named after the Roman statesman, “Publius” Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus).  Ionian poet, Nikandros of Klaros (a.k.a. “Nicander of Colophon”) produced renown work.  And Oscan writer, Marcus Pacuvius of Calabria pioneered tragedy.

In China, there emerged the eight great “immortals” of Huainan, who together (under the patronage of King Liu An of Huainan) composed the great anthology of essays, the “Huainanzi” in the 2nd century B.C. Meanwhile, one of the greatest writers of Classical Antiquity, Sima Qian, composed his magnum opus: “Records Of The Grand Historian”.

In India, Su[n]draka composed the classic “Mrcchakatika” [“Little Clay Cart].  Shortly thereafter, the great Tamil anthology, “Eighteen Greater Texts” was composed.

In the 1st century B.C., Han essayist, Jia Yi of Luoyang was a renown political commentator, best known for his open criticism of the Qin dynasty (“Guo Qin Lun”).  Meanwhile, the Chinese “Classic Of Mountains And Seas” was composed.

By the time Marcus Tullius Cicero of Arpinum started breaking new ground in the 1st century B.C. (ref. his “De Finibus Bonorum Et Malorum” [On the Ends of Good and Evil], wherein he discusses Platonism, Epicureanism, and Stoicism), the legacy of letters in the Occident had been firmly established.  In the earliest days of the Roman Empire, writing continued to flourish.  “Publius” Vergilius Maro (a.k.a. “Virgil”) composed the “Aeneid”.  Gaius Valerius Catullus of Verona–followed by Propertius of Assisi–pioneered love poetry.  Other figures are worth noting:

  • “Publius” Ovidius Naso (a.k.a. “Ovid”) composed “Metamorphosis”.
  • Marcus Terentius Varro composed his magisterial “Antiquitates Rerum Humanarum et Divinarum” [Human and Divine Affairs of Antiquity]; and also wrote extensive commentaries on agriculture and linguistics.
  • Quintus Horatius Flaccus (a.k.a. “Horace”) composed satires.
  • Albius Tibullus pioneered the elegy.
  • Athenaeus of Naucratis composed his “Deipno-sophistai”.
  • Epicurean thinker, Philodemus of Gadara composed poetry.
  • Meleager of Gadara, a Cynic, compiled an anthology entitled “The Garland”.

(Also worth noting are the works of Lucius Accius of Umbria and Titus Lucretius Carus of Mantua.)

Then came the great statesmen, Lucius Annaeus Seneca of Cordoba (a.k.a. “Seneca the Younger”) and Marcus Aurelius, who promoted Stoicism.  In the 1st century A.D., there was also:

  • Iberian writer, Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (a.k.a. “Quintilian”)
  • Iberian writer, Marcus Valerius Martialis of Augusta Bilbilis (a.k.a. “Martial”)
  • Iberian writer, Marcus Annaeus Lucanus of Cordoba (a.k.a. “Lucan”)
  • Italic writer, Decimus Junius Juvenalis of Aquinum (a.k.a. “Juvenal”)
  • Boeotian writer, Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus of Chaeronea / Phocis (a.k.a. “Plutarch”)

It might be noted that Plutarch’s “Moralia” predates the Gospel of John–what would become the most embellished (and, not coincidentally, the most influential) of the Gospel accounts of the Palestinian preacher, Jesus of Nazareth.

This brings us to Late Antiquity.  In the Buddhist tradition, the great Indian poet, Asvaghoṣa of Saketa broke new ground in the late 1st century A.D.

The 2nd century A.D. was a major time for didactic literature.  The stoic philosopher (and Roman Emperor) Marcus Aurelius composed insightful tracts.  The anthology of fables, “Physiologus” was composed in Alexandria.  The Numidian (Berber) writer, Lucius Apuleius of Madaurus composed the satirical novel, “The Golden Ass”, which earned renown in Carthage.  And Lucian of Samosata composed satires.

In the Far East, literary excellence continued to flower.  The Chera prince, Ilango Adigal composed the great Tamil epic, “Silappadikaram”; and the Buddhist monk, Chithalai Sathanar composed its sequel, the “Manimekalai”.  Ashva-ghosha of Saketa composed the classic poem, “Saundara-Nanda”; as well as the classic hagiography of Siddhartha Gautama of Lumpini: the “Buddha-charita”.

During the 3rd century A.D. in China, there emerged the “Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove” in Cao Wei.  These writers engaged in “quingtan” (rigorous philosophical debates).  They even produced robust political criticisms of the (Confucian) Jin regime.  Ji Kang wrote “Shisi Lun” [“Discourse on Individuality”].  Ruan Ji was the most renown of these free-thinking essayists.  And by the end of the 3rd century, the renown Indian writer, Bhasa, had composed the “Svapna-Vasavadattam” [“Dream of Vasavadatta”] as well as the tale of “Charudatta In Poverty”.

Tao Yuanming (a.k.a. “Tao Qian”) thrived as a writer in China c. 400 A.D.  In India, the Kashmiri poet, Kalidas[h]a was the most renown dramatist of the era (4th or 5th century A.D.)  Also in India, Aryabhata of Kusumapura emerged as the first major mathematician and astronomer of the Dark Ages c. 500 A.D.

In the Greco-Roman world, myriad epic romances were composed during Late Antiquity.  Some of the most notable:

  • “The Adventures of Leucippe and Clitophon” by Achilles Tatius of Alexandria
  • “Chaereas and Callirhoe” by Chariton of Aphrodisias
  • “The Tale of Anthia and Habrocomes” by Xenophon of Ephesus
  • The “Aethiopica” by Heliodorus of Emesa
  • “Daphnis and Chloe” by an author from Lesbos.

Even during the Roman Empire’s decline, iconoclasts continued to write.  In the 4th century, Palladas of Alexandria composed eloquent critiques of Christianity.  In the early 5th century, Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius composed his masterful critique, “Saturnaliorum Libri Septem” [Seven Books of the Saturnalia].  And Nonnus of Panopolis composed his “Dionysiaca”.

Alas, by the time Roman Catholicism had overtaken Europe, writers of philosophy were being persecuted, imprisoned, and even executed–as shown by the treatment of heterodox thinkers like Boëthius in the early 6th century. {3}

Persia had a vibrant tradition of literary criticism in Late Antiquity (that is: prior to the Islamic take-over).  This is attested by Pahlavi works like the “Ayin-e Nam-e Nebeshtan” [Principles of Writing Book].  Persian literature flourished as well.  Most notable was the “Daedestan-i Menog-i Khrad” [“Judgement of the Spirit of Wisdom”; composed in the “Pazend” variation of Avestan script] and the “Drakht-i Asurig” [“Assyrian Tree”; composed in Pahlavi script].  Meanwhile, Persian versions of the Panchatantra proliferated–as with the “Bab-e Edteda’I-ye”. {4}

For didactic purposes, we will now juxtapose the development of literature in the Muslim world against the rest of the world.  It is worth noting how such development was influenced by the advent of Islam.

A half-century before the birth of Mohamed of Mecca, Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius of Anicia penned his landmark work, “The Consolation of Philosophy”–which contained far more profound insight than the entirety of all the Islamic scripture that would be composed for the next thousand years…and would far surpass the “Recitations” in eloquence.

Leading up to Mohammed’s own time, the great poets of the Middle East wrote in Syriac–as with Ephrem of Nisibis and–later–luminaries like Jacob of Sarug and Narsai of Nisibis.  All hailed from al-Jazeera (northern Levant).

In India, the literary tradition continued.  By the time Mohammed of Mecca was born, Nathakuthanaar had composed the great Tamil epic, “Kundala-kesi”; Bhartrhari had just composed his great work of Sanskrit poetry, the “Satakatraya”; Gunadhya had compiled the collection of tales, the “Brihat-Katha” [in the extinct Paishachi language]; and Varahamihira of Ujjain / Avanti had just finished composing the “Brihat-Samhita”…and was about to complete his magnum opus (a treatise on astronomy known as the “Pancha-Siddhantika”). 

Meanwhile, the Aeolian (Greek) poet, Agathias of Myrina / Mysia was in his prime.  As MoM came of age, the great Brittonic (Cumbric) poet, Aneirin of Gododdin, composed the epic, “Y Gododdin”; and the great Irish (Gaelic) poet, Eochaid mac Colla of Connacht (a.k.a. “Dallan Forgaill”) composed the “Amra Choluim Chille” [Elegy of Saint Columba].

To ascertain what the impact of Islam was on the region, it’s worth contrasting things as they were BEFORE and AFTER its existence.  Prior to MoM’s lifetime, Arabia boasted a plethora of revered poets–including:

  • As-Samaw’al ibn Adiya of the Banu Harith
  • Ziyad ibn Muawiyah of the Banu Dhubyan [a.k.a. “Al-Nabigha”]
  • Alqama ibn Ubada of the Banu Tamim [a.k.a. “Alqama al-Fahl”]
  • Maymun ibn Qays al-Asha of the Banu Hanifa [at Hajr, in Yamamah, in the Najd]
  • Tarafa ibn al-Abd of the Banu Bakr {11}
  • Harith ibn Hilliza al-Yashkuri of the Banu Bakr
  • Abu Aqil Labid ibn Rabiah of the Banu Amir / Hawazin
  • Imr[u] al-Qays ibn Hujr of the Banu Kindah {5}
  • Maymun ibn Qays “al-A’sha” of the Banu Hanifa [at Hajr, in Yamamah, in the Najd] {6}
  • Umaiya [alt. Umayya] ibn Abi as-Salt of the Banu Khuza’a [hailing from Ta’if; ostensive progenitor of the Umayyads via Sufyan]

…to mention ten of the most prominent.  In pre-Islamic Arabia, women were also accorded literary stature–as with the poetesses, Afira bint Abbad of Yamama (who earned renown in the 3rd century) and Layla bint Lukayz (who earned renown in the 5th century).

In pre-Islamic Hijaz, the lyrical poetry known as “nasheed” was popular as well, for which musical instruments were often used as accompaniment.  (It may be for this reason that instruments were banned by early Mohammedans.)

Also notable was Antarah ibn Shaddad al-Absi of Najd (a.k.a. “Antar”), a storied Arabian warrior-poet of the Banu Abs (one of the tribes of the greater Banu Ghatafan, who allied themselves with the Quraysh after MoM took control over Yethrib).  He died in 608, two years before MoM claimed to have received his first revelation.  Antarah ibn Shaddad is often down-played by Islamic apologists–who want to believe that the Koran was the first great Arabian work, unmatched by antecedent writers.  All evidence is to the contrary.

We should bear in mind that, as Classical Arabic had not yet fully developed, all these writers would have spoken the lingua franca of the region, SYRIAC.  Indeed, Syriac is the language that Mohammed of Mecca would have spoken / understood, and the language in which Koranic ayat were originally recited.  These writers would have used a script influenced by the Nabataean alphabet, or possibly a Semitic script like Safaitic, Dadanitic, or Hismaic.  Only after Classical Arabic was developed in the 8th century did the (neo-Nabataean) Kufic script start being used…which eventually led to the Arabic script. {7}

If one were to take a time machine back and recite the Koran to anyone in the early 7th-century Hijaz, including MoM himself, they would likely not understand much of what you said.  It would be like trying to speak to a citizen of the Roman Empire (who spoke Vulgar Latin) in one of the medieval Romance vernaculars; or to a Netherlandish peasant during the Dark Ages (who spoke Old Frisian) in modern Dutch.

The best reference for pre-Mohammedan Arabian poetry are the earliest anthologies.  Here are the five most renown:

  • The “Mufaddaliyyat” compiled by Al-Mufaddal al-Dabbi of Kufa (c. 700)
  • The “Mu’allaqat” compiled by Hammad ar-Rawiya of Kufa (8th century)
  • The “Asma’iyyat” compiled by Al-Asma’i of Basra (late 8th century)
  • The “Jamharat Ash’ar al-Arab” compiled by Abu Zayd of the Quraysh (late 8th century)
  • The “Kitab al-Hamasah” compiled by Habib ibn Aws of the Banu Tayy [a.k.a. “Abu Tammam”] (9th century)

In the 10th century, Abu al-Faraj of Isfahan (a.k.a. “Abulfaraj”) compiled the massive “Kitab al-Aghani” [Book of Songs], a compendium of material that had spanned from 6th-century Arabia all the way through 9th-century Syria…including material culled from Mesopotamia.

Note that the material in these anthologies was ORIGINALLY in Syriac; and was only later rendered in Classical Arabic.  In each case, the compiler had to translate most of the source-material from the original Syriac verse (likely available only in Kufic script when written; complimented with contemporaneous orality) into the still-germinating Classical Arabic.  By the time the Koran was finally compiled (it was rendered in its current form at some point in the 9th century, probably using Kufic script), Classical Arabic had been developed for exactly that purpose.

The Father of Arab poetry (sometimes misleading called the “Father of Arabic Poetry”), Imra al-Qays (listed above) would have died just a few years prior to MoM’s birth.  Once a beloved poet throughout Arabia, he would later be denigrated as a blasphemer by Mohammedans (that is, once MoM had set the new precedent).

The most prominent Arabian poet during Mohammed’s early life would have been Ziyad ibn Muawiyyah of the Banu Dhubyan (a.k.a. “Al-Nabigha”).  He was not alone.  Five other Arabian poets during MoM’s early life:

  • Zuhayr ibn Abi Sulma of the Banu Muzaina
  • Hatim of the Banu Tayy
  • Jabal ibn Jawwal of the (Jewish) Banu Taghlib
  • Amr ibn Kulthum of the (Jewish) Banu Taghlib
  • Uday [alt. “Adi”] ibn Zayd of the (Christian) Banu Lakhm, hailing from Al-Hirah

All of them would have written in Syriac.  (Records are clear that the Christians of Al-Hirah read and recited their scriptures–and composed their liturgical material–in Syriac.)  There were even renown female poets during MoM’s lifetime.  Here are seven of the most notable:

  • Safiyah bint Thalabah al-Shaybaniyah of the Banu Shayban (a.k.a. “Al-Hujayjah”)
  • Qutayla ukht al-Nadr of the Banu Quraysh
  • Hind bint al-Numan of the Banu Lakhm (a.k.a. “Al-Hurqah”)
  • Al-Khirniq bint Badr
  • Asma bint Marwan
  • Al-Khansa
  • Jewish poetess, Sarah of Yemen (of the Banu Qurayza)

The notion that Arabia was bereft of a vibrant literary tradition prior to Islam is sheer nonsense.  Indeed, around the time MoM was growing up, poetry competitions were regularly being held in the Hijazi town of Ukaz.  In fact, as we’ll see, the advent of Islam FETTERED the literary tradition; and rendered female writers all but obsolete (as I show in part II of my essay, “The History Of Female Empowerment”).

It should be noted that SATIRE was the most common form of poetry in Arabia until Mohammedan prohibitions rendered it verboten.  That is: UP UNTIL Islam overtook the region, satirical commentary was a major part of Arabian culture–as the great poets enumerated above attest.  However, once sharia was put in place, satirical poetry vanished.  Anything that was seen as subversive was forbidden.  Where once critical discourse flourished in the region, it ceased to be tolerated.

An illustrative case is the Arabian poet, “Labid” of the Banu Amir tribe (listed above), who wrote pagan poetry UNTIL he became acquainted with Islam.  In other words, the one “pre-Islamic” poet who ended up converting to the new “din” promptly stopped writing after his conversion.

There were actually a few Arabian poets, popular during Mohammed’s lifetime, who were purported to have (eventually) converted to Islam.  Take, for instance, the female poet, Tumadir bint Amr of Najd (a.k.a. “al-Khansa”), who is now known only for her elegies.  As the story goes, she opted to become Muslim (though there is no hard evidence for this).  Other apocryphal tales of conversion include the poet, Hassan ibn Thabit of the Banu Khazraj–who is said to have lived for over 120 years.  (Gadzooks!)  His contributions were limited to encomia to MoM.

The way some Islamic apologists tell it, though, poetry was exuberantly celebrated in the Muslim world during its earliest days and throughout the Middle Ages.  Outside of panegyrics to approved rulers and elegies for deceased brethren, this is nonsense.  In other words: The only poetry permitted was poetry that served the interests of those in power (read: verse that was FOR powerful men; or at least verse that was APPROVED BY powerful men). {12}  Note that even the Koran itself was addressed explicitly to MEN.  Leaving aside the entire chapter of the Koran devoted to impugning poets, we might simply review what actually transpired.

Pursuant to Mohammed’s rise to power, poets who persisted to compose verse yet failed to toe the line were summarily executed (or assassinated).  The Hadith, as well as the two earliest biographies of MoM (those of Ibn Ishaq and Al-Tabari) remind us that this is precisely what was done to myriad writers who strayed from their assigned path.

The aforementioned Asma bint Marwan was one of the first writers to be killed for her craft.  Per Ibn Ishaq’s “sirat”, when MoM heard of Asma’s strident criticism of him, he responded: “Who will rid me of Marwan’s daughter?!”  She was murdered in her bed, as she slept with her infant children.

But she was only the beginning.  Take note of a dozen more writers who were persecuted / executed by the Sahabah–all of whom are attested in Islamic records:

  • Persian poet, Nadr ibn al-Harith ibn Kalada of Ta’if (decapitated for reciting Persian folktales)
  • Jewish poet, Abu Afak of Banu Ubayda (who’s poem about MoM we still have)
  • Jewish brothers, Sallam and Al-Rabi ibn Abu al-Huqayq of Khaybar (renown poets from the Banu Nadir)
  • Huwayrith ibn Nafidh [alt. Nuqaydh] Wahb Qusayy
  • Jewish poet, Ka’b al-Ashraf of Yathrib (also of the Banu Nadir) {8}
  • Ka’b ibn Zuhayr ibn Abi Sulama
  • Al-Harith ibn al-Talatil
  • Abdullah ibn Zib’ari (who was spared when he repented)
  • Abdullah ibn Khatal (from the Banu Taym clan of the Quraysh)
  • Fartana bint al-Zibr’a and Qurayba (slave girls of Abdullah ibn Khatal)

These were the most notable cases.  There were surely many others who met the same fate–due to material that was deemed sacrilegious.  MoM’s ministry was characterized by extreme brutality–a record filled with executions (mostly beheadings) and torture. {9}

The above figures can be enumerated not because of cherry-picking by mendacious anti-Islamic muckrakers; they are from the EARLIEST Islamic sources (such as Al-Tabari and Ibn Ishaq) who were BOASTING about such occurrences.  So to reject these accounts would be to repudiate MUSLIM sources, not to defend them.

This point is worth reiterating: Accounts of the above persecutions are not the result of anyone trying to dig up dirt on Mohammed.  Such ignominious incidents are proudly proclaimed by Muslim historiographers.  Unsurprisingly, there are few incidents recorded in NON-Islamic sources (as non-Muslims were not exactly encouraged to document such cases); and surely Islamic sources were not eager to–or even able to–tout every poet that was disappeared by the authorities. {10}

So it bears repeating: These examples are touted in ISLAMIC sources.  Hence, for Muslim apologists to dispute this incriminating record, they must bring into question the credence of their own scriptures.

The aforementioned executed writers were not anomalies; they were indicative of a larger trend.  Islamic sources highlighted them not because such occurrences were embarrassing, but because they were EMBLEMATIC.  This precedent is even attested in Islam’s holy book.  In Surah 111 of the Koran, Mohammed denounces the wife of a man he despised (Abu Lahab), Umm Jamil bint Harb ibn Umayya–contemptuously referring to her as “the carrier of firewood”.  Mohammed wished both the husband and wife damnation.  Umm Jamil’s crime?  Supporting her husband when he opposed MoM’s proselytization in Mecca.

Ironically, one of the most renown examples of poetry during Mohammed’s lifetime was from a woman named Qutayla bint al-Nadr.  She was most famous for having written an elegy to her late brother, Nadr ibn al-Harith–a pagan who had spoken out against Mohammed, and had been executed on Mohammed’s orders (ref. the records of Al-Jahiz of Basra).  Her fate has been lost to history.

Perhaps one of the preeminent Arabian poets of the late 7th century was Hammam ibn Ghalib of the “Darim” clan of the Banu Tamim (famously known as “Al-Farazdaq”).  He was reprimanded for impertinent verse on several occasions; and at one point was banished by caliph Marwan.  He eventually agreed to be employed as a propagandist for the Umayyad caliph, Al-Walid–thus sparing his career, and possibly his life.

Al-Farazdaq’s contemporary–and rival–poet, Jarir ibn Atiyah (also of the Bani Tamim) was initially not well-received by the Umayyad caliphs either (by Abd al-Malik or by Al-Walid).  Later, he too decided to toe the line; and would consequently become THE ONLY poet known to have ever been received by caliph Umar II.

Meanwhile, Persian writer, Abdullah ibn al-Muqaffa was executed for heresy (in the 750’s) by Abbasid caliph, Al-Mansur.  Al-Muqaffa was a Muslim, yet some of the views expressed in his verse seemed to too closely resemble Manichaean thought.  So he was killed.

And so it went: Pursuant to Mohammed’s ministry, poetry was stringently regulated throughout Arabia–with dire consequences for those who produced un-approved material.  For example, while the work of the popular poet Al-Alahijah was permitted because it was primarily limited to homilies and elegies, others were not so lucky.  The great Yemeni poet, Waddah al-Yaman (late 7th / early 8th century) was executed for composing un-approved verse.  The renown poet Salih ibn Abd al-Quddus was also killed for heretical statements (8th century).  As we shall see forthwith, this trend continued through the Middle Ages.

In a nutshell, permissible material was limited to sanctioned elegiac and panegyric verse.  Anything that did not fit the guidelines of piety (critiques, parodies, or encomia to the wrong kind of figures) was forbidden.

The well-known pagan poet K’ab ibn Malik is worth noting.  He presumably knew he had a choice if he wanted to continue in his vocation: play along or die.  Toeing the line was a more attractive career prospect than being executed; so he opted to comply with the new Mohammedan strictures.  Thereafter, he devoted his prodigious skills exclusively to the composition of elegies (i.e. one of the only acceptable topics under an Islamic theocracy).  Surely, he was aware that he was in danger of meeting the same fate as the (non-compliant) writers listed above.  Unsurprisingly, K’ab ibn Malik is retroactively deemed an exemplar of fealty to the Mohammedan movement in the Hadith.  Such is the nature of revisionism: “See!  Mohammedans ADORED poetry!”

Another well-known Arabian poet of the era was a Christian from the Mesopotamian “Taghlib” tribe: Ghiyath ibn Ghawth (a.k.a. “Al-Akhtal”).  It is unknown how he died (c. 710, during the reign of Umayyad caliph, Al-Walid).  Being non-Muslim, he was certainly not celebrated by the caliphate; yet it seems that he was permitted to recite so long as he limited himself to elegies (and the occasional panegyric to an approved figure).  It is safe to assume Al-Akhtal was eventually disappeared.  For also in the early 8th century, another renown Bedouin poet, al-Kumayt ibn Zayd al-Asadi of Kufa, was assassinated for reciting un-sanctioned poetry.

With so much material suppressed, it is no wonder that Arabs were so easily impressed by the “Recitations” (i.e. the Koran).  For–outside of officially sanctioned material–denizens of Dar al-Islam were allowed to be exposed to virtually nothing else.

To recapitulate: The only poetry permitted was that which did not in any way challenge the Mohammedan movement.  Ergo material was restricted to encomia, eulogies, benedictions, and MAYBE allusion to some anodyne personal affairs…so long as it did not trespass on the Sunnah or impugn those in power (that is: so long as it did not cause “fitna”).  Anything that treaded on theological / political ground had to be in line with Mohammedan diktats lest it be deemed heretical; with dire repercussions for the author.

But what was going on elsewhere in the world during MoM’s lifetime?  As it turns out, poetry was well-attested.  For example, there were the great Tamil poets, Thirugyana Sambandar (alt. “C[h]ampantar”) and Appar Tirunavukkarasar.  And it was during MoM’s ministry that the great Sanskrit epic, “Bhatti-kavya” was composed by the famed Gujarati poet, Bhatti of Vallabhi.

Meanwhile, the Irish epic “Tain Bo Cuailnge” and the earliest pieces of “Ulster Cycle” were composed.  During Mohammed’s lifetime, there also emerged such writers as:

  • Anglo-Saxon (Christian) poet, Cædmon of Northumbria
  • Gaelic poet, Senchan Torpeist of Connacht
  • Welsh poet, Taliesin
  • Andalusian writer, Isadore of Seville
  • Byzantine poet, Georgios of Pisidia
  • Palestinian Jewish poet, El’azer ben Kalir (and his mentor, Yannai)
  • Indian author, Banabhatta, who composed one of the earliest novels (a romance known as the “Kadambari”)
  • Indian author, Subandhu, who composed the romantic fairy-tale, the “Vasa-vadatta”
  • Tibetan writers, Prajna-Varman and Jina-mitra
  • Chinese (Tang) poet, Luo Bin-wang of Wu-zhou [Zhe-jiang]

One wonders how such writers may have fared under sharia law.  Would the Salaf have welcomed their non-Mohammedan material?  (See part I of “The History Of Salafism”.)

So what about the centuries following the inception of Islam?  As I showed in part II of “The History Of Female Empowerment”, poetry–EVEN JUST AMONG WOMEN–was thriving for millennia before AND for the millennium following MoM’s ministry.  There, I track the trend exclusively in terms of female writers / intellectuals–a rough barometer for how things were generally (in terms of scholastic activity and free speech).

What else was going on elsewhere in the world during the century following Mohammed’s ministry?  We might note that the renown Indian poet Bhavabhuti of Vidarbha (Maharashtra) composed the “Mahavira-charita” and “Uttara-Rama-charita”.  In Nara-era Japan, Otomo no Yakamochi compiled an anthology of didactic poetry known as the “Man’yoshu” [Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves], which included material dating back to Mohammed’s lifetime.  (His poems incorporated Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian, and Shinto teachings.)

By then, free speech was virtually non-existent in the Muslim world.  Indeed, it was systematically suppressed, per Mohammed’s example.  Take, for instance, one of the most renown writers of the era: Arab poet, Abdullah ibn al-Mu’tazz, who lived in the 9th-century.  His grandfather was assassinated by the Abbasid caliph.  Then his father was assassinated, also by the Abbasid caliph.  Then–in one of the more bizarre and ironic twists of fate in palace history–he HIMSELF was designated caliph…but then only lasted a single day before he too was assassinated (to make way for the preferred caliph).

Just after Mohammed’s death, one of the greatest poets of the Far East emerged: Pallava (Indian) writer, Dandin of Kanchi-puram.  Meanwhile, the Cumbric / Brythonic poet, [a]Neirin broke new ground.

Starting in the 8th century, the anthology of Vajrayana poetry, the “Charyapada”, started to be compiled (using the Magadhi Prakrit).

Meanwhile, literature flourished in Japan.  It was during the 7th and 8th centuries that the anthology of poetry known as the “Man-Yoshu” [Myrian Leaves] was compiled in the Chinese-based “man-yogana” script (ref. Otomo no Yakamochi).  Soon thereafter were the “Rokkasen” (six poetry geniuses) of the early Heian period: Otomo Kuronushi, Ono no Komachi, Ariwara no Narihira, Kisen Hoshi, Sojo Henjo, and Funya no Yasuhide.  “Waka” poetry thrived in the Nara and Heian periods–notably:

  • The “Man’yo-shu” of the 8th century
  • The “Kokin Waka-shu” in the 9th century
  • The “Gosen Waka-shu” in the 10th century

It was also around this time that classics like the “Ko-jiki” and “Nihon Shoki” were composed.  Kukai of Shikoku [a.k.a. “Kobo-Daishi”] wrote in the late 8th / early 9th century.  The epic “Monogatari” literature flourished starting in the 9th century.  The Tendai Buddhist writer, Gen-shin (a.k.a. “Eshin-Sozu”) composed the epic “Ojo-yoshu” c. 985.  And Murasaki Shikibu of Kyoto broke new ground as a female novelist when she composed the “Tale of Genji” c. 1000.

Tellingly, the great Persian (Barmakid) poet, Aban al-Lahiqi of Basra, who lived in the late 8th / early 9th century, was Manichaean.  In the early 9th century, the great Persian-Arab poet, Abu Nuwas al-Hasan of the Banu Hakam began his career praising the famous (Buddhist) Bactrian dynasty: the Barmakids of Balkh.  The caliph (Harun al-Rashid) exiled him for the gesture.  Abu Nuwas al-Hasan was eventually imprisoned by the next caliph (Muhammad ibn Harun al-Amin) for writing sacrilegious material.   Later, he would be imprisoned AGAIN…by the NEXT caliph (Abu Ja’far Abdullah al-Ma’mun).  The famed poet died in prison.

Also from the 9th century, there was the Arabic book of songs, the “Kitab al-Aghani”–which included some material from the aforementioned court panegyrist, Al-Farazdaq.  Much of this was mere propaganda–generally serving some sort of economic or political purpose (i.e. extolling the caliphate / sultanate)…which is simply to say: It was primarily comprised of material of which the powers-that-be approved.

Meanwhile, the Irish (neo-Platonist) thinker, Johannes Scotus Eriugena composed his magnum opus, the “Periphyseon” (a.k.a. “On the Division of Nature”). In India, the Digambara (Jain) poet, Asaga wrote the “Vardhaman Charitra” [Life of Vardhamana] in both Sanskrit and Kannada. Soon thereafter, Raja-shekhara penned the “Kavya-mimamsa” and “Karpura-manjari”.

In 10th-century, the greatest Persian poet (Abu Mansur Muhammad ibn Ahmad Daqiqi of Tus) was Zoroastrian.  He was most renown for his composition of an epic history of Iran, which romanticized the Sassanian culture from the days of yore. Meanwhile, the Armenian author, Gregor of Narek composed the “Matean Voghbergut’yan”.

Arguably the greatest Arab poet of the Middle Ages was Abu at-Tayyib Ahmad ibn al-Husayn al-Mutanabbi al-Kindi of Aleppo (b. Kufa) [a.k.a. “Al-Mutanabbi”], who wrote in the 10th century.  What, pray tell, became of HIM?  Lo and behold: He was assassinated.  Why?  His bold verses were deemed to be offensive to Mohammedan traditionalists.

In the Muslim world, such tragic episodes were not anomalies.  There were numerous examples:

  • Arab poet, Al-Kumayt ibn Zayd al-Asadi of Kufa was imprisoned–and eventually assassinated–for impertinent poetry (early 8th century)
  • Persian writer, Bashar ibn Burd of Basra was executed for heresy (8th century)
  • Arab writer, Abul Atahiyya of Kufa was imprisoned for offending the caliph (9th century)
  • The most famous Persian (Sufi) poet of the era, Mansur al-Hallaj was executed for composing unapproved verse (late 9th / early 10th century)
  • Famed Persian poet, Abu Mansur Muhammad ibn Ahmad Daqiqi of Tus, opted to remain Zoroastrian; and was eventually murdered for the decision (10th century)
  • Arab writer, Abul Ala al-Ma’arri of Aleppo was killed for heretical material (11th century)

Such men were persecuted for exercising free speech–just as had been Abdallah ibn al-Mu’tazz, Salih ibn Abd al-Quddus, Waddah al-Yaman, et. al.  Anyone today who is unaware of the assault on free speech during MoM’s tenure–and the centuries thereafter–betrays a grave ignorance of the Islamic record. To suggest, as some do, that Abdallah ibn al-Mu’tazz is evidence that free speech was accepted–let alone celebrated–in the early Muslim world is a vulgar joke.  Yet such declarations often circulate in some circles.

At the risk of flogging a steed that is already deceased: The only poets who were allowed in the Mohammedan domain were those who paid tribute in the approved manner.  This could take the form of (A) those who composed eulogies for the departed and (B) those who paid tribute to the powers that be–specifically: to the presiding cynosure (caliph / sultan / mullah / emir).  Examples of officially-approved panegyrists include the Arab poet, Al-Mutanabbi of Kufa (later executed for stepping out of line) and the Hamdanid poet Sayf al-Dawla of Aleppo–both of whom wrote in the 10th century under the Abbasid caliphate.

Other than (approved) elegies and panegyrics, some verse regarding the quotidian (the beauty of a sunset, an account of a permissible romance, the sweet aroma of a flower) were permitted…so long as it didn’t ruffle any feathers (read: subvert the Sunnah).  Anyone else was censured, persecuted, or killed.

The rare exceptions proved the rule.  In the 11th century, Seljuk (Persian) Sultan, Malik Shah of Isfahan was a man of letters, and patron of the great poet, Omar Kayyam.  Not coincidentally, he was renown for his policy of religious tolerance.  Such deference was not attributable to more stringently hewing to the Sunnah.  He is notable for being so atypical.  In other words: He was exceptional precisely because he was LITERALLY an exception. Also notable was the (Uyghur) Kara-khanid “Kutadgu Bilig”, composed by Yusuf Khass Hajib of Balasagun…for the prince of Kashgar.

Certain works from Islam’s so-called “Golden Age” stand out.  Most notable was the great epic, the “Shahnameh” [Book of Shahs] by Persian poet, Abu al-Qasim Ferdowsi of Tus–composed c. 1000.  The work gave an embellished historiography of Persian kings.  It was Persian pride that allowed this lore to be disseminated, as it did not OVERTLY undermine sharia, nor did it trespass on the Sunnah.  Ferdowsi was not at liberty to compose his epic however he saw fit, though.  His material had to meet the approval of his employers: first the governor of Tus (on behalf of the Samanid ruler,  Abu Mansur Mamari) and then the Ghaznavid Sultan Mahmud (who required him to alter the epic to suit Ghaznavid sensibilities).  Accordingly, modifications were made to antecedent versions of the lore.

As it happened, Ferdowsi spent much of the end of his life in exile, having displeased the Islamic authorities.  Local clerics did not allow him to be buried in an Islamic cemetery; which indicates that the grievance with his work was most likely religious.  In openly harboring non-Islamic beliefs, he was eventually murdered under, one might say, vague circumstances.  Much of his poetry was deemed too controversial, and so was eventually destroyed.

It is worth surveying the most notable Muslim writers of Islam’s “Golden Age” and the centuries thereafter:

  • Persian writer, Roozbeh Pur-i Dadoe of Shahr-i Gur [Arabized to “Abu-Muhammad Abd-ullah Ruzbeh ibn Daduya”; a.k.a. “Ibn al-Muqaffa”], who spent most of his life in Basra (8th century)
  • Persian poets, Abu al-Abbas of Marv and Hanzala of Badghis (late 8th century)
  • Persian poet, Abu Nuwas al-Hasan ibn Hani al-Hakami of Ahvaz (late 8th / early 9th century)
  • Persian poets, Ibn Abi Tahir Tayfur of Khorasan, Ibn Qutayba ad-Dinawari [al-Marwazi] of Kufa [a.k.a. “Ibn Qutaybah”], and Hanzala of Badghis (9th century)
  • Persian poet, Abu Hafs of Sughd [Sogdia] (late 9th / early 10th century)
  • Persian poet, Abu Abdullah Jafar ibn Mohammad of Rudak [a.k.a. “Rudaki”] (late 9th / early 10th century)  {13}
  • Persian (Sufi) poet, Abul Hasan Shahid ibn Hussain Jahudanaki of Balkh [a.k.a. “Shahid Balkhi”] (early 10th century)
  • Tunisian (Fatimid) poet, Muhammad ibn Hani of Masila / Andalusia (10th century)
  • Persian poets, Abul Qasim Hasan Unsuri of Balkh and Abu al-Qasim Firdawsi of Tus [a.k.a. “Ferdowsi”] (late 10th / early 11th century)
  • Turkic poet, Yusuf Khass Hajib of Balasaghun; who wrote the (largely secular) “Kutadgu Bilig” (11th century)
  • Andalusian (Almoravid) poet, Muhammad ibn Ammar of Algarve (11th century)
  • Andalusian (Mu-wallad) poet, Abu Amir Ahmad ibn Gharsiya of Basque country [who penned Shu’ubiyya material] (11th century)
  • Persian (Sufi) poet, Abu Ismail Abdullah al-Ansari of Herat (11th century)
  • Persian writer, Abu Mansur Ali ibn Ahmad Asadi of Tus [Khorasan]; who wrote the epic “Garshasp-Nama” and composed philosophical dialogues called “Monazarat” (11th century)
  • Persian polymath, Omar Khayyam of Nishapur / Khorasan; who studied in Samarkand; then pursued his vocation in Bukhara; and set the standard for “ruba’i poetry” with his magnum opus, the “Ruba’iyat” (late 11th / early 12th century)
  • Persian (Sufi) poets, Hakim Abul-Majd Majdud ibn Adam Sana’i of Ghazna and Ahmad-e Jami of Torshiz / Khorasan (late 11th / early 12th century)
  • Persian (Sufi) poet, Hakim Abul-Majd Majdud [ibn Adam Sanai] of Ghazna; who penned “al-Hadiqat al-Haqiqa” [“The Walled Garden of Truth”] (early 12th century)
  • Turkic (Sufi) poet, Khoja Akhmed Yassawi of Sayram (early 12th century)
  • Persian writer, Nizami Aruzi of Samarkand [a.k.a. “Arudhi”]; known for his epic “Chahar Maqaleh” (12th century)
  • Persian poet, Jamal al-Din Abu Muhammad Ilyas ibn Yusuf ibn Zakki of Ganja [a.k.a. “Nizami Ganjavi”]; who penned the “Panj Ganj” [rendered “Khamsa” in Arabic]; and was known for love-stories like those of Qais ibn Al-Mulawah (a.k.a. “Majnun”) and Layla al-Aamiriya, as well as an account of the fabled romance between the shah Khosrow and the maiden Shirin (12th century)
  • Persian (Sufi) poet, Abu Hamid ibn Abu Bakr Ibrahim of Nishapur [a.k.a. “Attar”; a.k.a. “Farid ud-Din”]; who wrote “ghazal” (lyrical poetry) and “Mantiq-ut-Tayr” [“The Conference of the Birds”] (late 12th / early 13th century)  {14}
  • Sindhi (Sufi) “qalandar”, Syed Muhammad Usman of Marwand [a.k.a. “Lal Shabaz”] (late 12th / early 13th century)
  • Persian poet, Abu-Muhammad Muslih al-Din ibn Abd-Allah of Shiraz [a.k.a. “Sa’di / Saadi Shirazi”]; who penned the “Bustan” and “Gulistan” (13th century)
  • Persian writer, Sadid ud-Din Muhammad Ibn Muhammad Aufi of Bukhara; known for his “Jawami al-Hikayat wa Lawami al-Riwayat” [Collection of Stories and Illustrated Histories] (13th century)
  • Persian (Sufi) “mevlana”, Jalal al-Din Muhammad of Balkh [a.k.a. “Rumi”; primarily associated with Konya, in the Sultanate of Rum]; who composed the “Masnavi-i Ma’navi” (13th century)  [Also of note was his son, Baha al-Din Muhammad-i Walad.]
  • Turkic (Sufi) poet, Yunus Emre of Karaman, a major influence on Sufi literature (late 13th / early 14th century)
  • Bengal poet, Shah Muhammad Sagir of Arakan; who composed an eloquent version of the ancient love story between Yusuf and Zulaikha (late 13th / early 14th century)
  • Persian poet, Khwaja Shams al-Din Muhammad Hafez of Shiraz [a.k.a. “Hafez”]; who influenced romantic “ghazal” (lyric) poetry (a.k.a. “divan”) in Persia for centuries (14th century)  {15}
  • Persian (Sufi) poet, Nur ad-Din Abd ar-Rahman of Jam / Khorasan [a.k.a. “Jami”]; author of the “Haft Awrang” [Seven Thrones] (15th century)

During this auspicious period, these were the most prominent writers in the Muslim world.  (See Appendix 1 for other Muslim writers.) None of the figures listed here were permitted to compose subversive material. So far as Arabic went, the most notable work from the period was an Arab love story from the 13th-century: the “Hadith Bayad wa Riyad” [Story of Bayad and Riyad]…with unknown origins.

Of the 34 listed: 26 were Persian, 3 were Andalusian, 2 were Turkic, 2 were from the Far East, and 1 was Maghrebi.  None were from the Levant, Mesopotamia, or Arabia.  Funny how Classical Arabic–putatively god’s native tongue–did not inspire an efflorescence of literature IN Classical Arabic.  Even within Dar al-Islam, the vast majority of literature was composed in Pahlavi (Persian) during the “Golden Age”, which explains why it became the literary language of the Ottoman Empire.

Let’s turn, now to the Late Middle Ages.

Pages: 1 2 3

CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 - 2010-2019 -
Developed by Malagueta/Br
Note to readers: Those reading these long-form essays will be much better-off using a larger screen (not a hand-held device) for displaying the text. Due to the length of most pieces on our site, a lap-top, desk-top, or large tablet is strongly recommended.


Download as PDF