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Stones and stanzas – Pre-Islamic poetry … a step back from ‘ignorance’

Keeping up with the spirit of scientific and intellectual enlightenment, Dar Al-Athar Al-Islamiyyah at the Yarmouk Cultural Centre hosted Dean of Graduate Studies and Scientific Research at Sana’a University Dr Yousef Mohammed Abdullah who addressed the subject of pre-Islamic poetry.

Talking to a concerned crowd last Monday night, Dr Yousef stated that we have to open a new page where the knowledge of pre-Islamic poetry’s exclusively oral literature is set aside, and start asserting that as much as it was orally narrated and passed down through generations, a virtue that Arabs hold in high regard it was also written down.

The Pre-Islamic Era in Arabic is referred to as “Al-Jahiliya,” meaning the “age of ignorance.” But when it comes to its poetry, Dr Yousef referred to one of the most influential 20th-century writers and intellectuals in the Arab World, Taha Hussain who said “pre-Islamic Arabic poetry is devoid of any form of ignorance.”

This subject has raised numerous debates ever since the first step taken towards the studies of modern Arabic literature, and perhaps Taha Hussain was one of the very first individuals to cause a ruckus in this field, paving the way for further studies and advancements.

Arguments and debates surrounding pre-Islamic poetry is partially due to the vindication that oral narratives were the primary, if not the only means on which pre-Islamic poetry was delivered and passed on, according to 3rd century AH intellectuals.

But this did not hold up in its entirety as numerous archaeological evidence have surfaced proving that oral narratives were not the only means, but it was in parallel with written words. With these findings, Dr Yousef said that we cannot know with certainty if all pre-Islamic poetry passed on by narrators were indeed pre-Islamic, but we are at least given the opportunity to form some sort of a timeline that has provided insights to curiosities like the two ages of the tribal kingdom of Kindah, where the Father of Arabic poetry Imru’al Qais lived during the second age.

An arsenal of poetry that were narrated through generations are now slowly finding its earliest records. There have been numerous discoveries of written Pre-Islamic Arabic poetry from around the Arabian Peninsula, mostly carved in stones dating as far back as the 2nd century AD, on subjects ranging from love poems to epic accounts and maxims, all indicating the rich and strong literary command over poetry.

Pre-Islamic poetry is indeed written in Arabic, but the numerous style of writing and dialect used specially before the advent of Islam creates an ordeal for those attempting to learn and understand.

Dr Yousef told a story about one of his travels around Yemen, when he came across a stone with Arabic inscription. It had twenty-seven lines ending with the same two letters, and after studying it further, he determined that it was an epic poem, written in a very old Yemeni dialect that he has yet to translate completely due to the difficult nature of its structure.

When asked why not refer his archaeological findings in Yemen alongside other experts who could help translate the inscriptions, Dr Yousef said that he has yet to come across anyone that could sufficiently and accurately aid him in this endeavour.

Literal translations have been attained but its figurative meaning is where the difficulties lie, an uphill battle that literary experts and intellects agree is due to the poetic nature of the people.

By Ahmed Al-Naqeeb – Arab Times Staff

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