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DEVOTIONAL POETRY. The creation of religious verse seems to be a latecomer in the Islamic world. An aversion to poetry, especially religious poetry, is palpable in the first centuries of Islam, when it was feared that poetry-criticized in the Qur’an, (surah 26.226 ff.) and often negatively described in hadith might conflict with the divinely inspired words of the Qur’an, or that people might think religious verses were divinely inspired. The praise  poems by the Prophet’s companion Hassan ibn Thabit (d. 659) are descriptive and panegyric rather than devotional.

In present-day India and Pakistan and perhaps to a lesser extent in Turkey, Iran, and many of the Arab countries, mystical songs in different languages are heard during religious festivals like the Prophet’s birthday or the anniversary of a saint, or in any gathering of devout people; the long, sonorous litanies recited at such occasions often approach real poetry. But only in a milieu somewhat charged with mysticism could something like devotional poetry develop. Thus it is not usually written in classical languages such as the high Arabic of the theologians but rather in the regional vernaculars spoken from West Africa to South Asia.

Sufis of the ninth century sometimes listened to music and in particular to love songs that might lead them into ecstasy. Many of the early Sufi poems composed in the tenth and eleventh centuries might be sung; they speak in sweet words of the poet’s longing for his divine beloved, using imagery of profane love poetry as well as the traditional form of a classical Arabic (or, in Iran, Persian) ghazal. Other popular literary forms developed: the Arabs used strophic poems like zajal or muwashshah in a language not exactly classical; the popular genres of billiq and mawaliyah are short verses that could be used for both profane and religious purposes. The same holds true for the du bayti, a four-line verse that corresponds roughly to the Persian ruba’i.

Praise of the Prophet, na’t, began to assume all available literary forms from the twelfth century on, from short love verses to long winded descriptions of his greatness. Na’tiyah poetry remains viable in almost all literature of the Muslim world to this day, as is apparent in a glance through a Pakistani newspaper during the month of Rabi`al-Awwal when the Prophet’s birthday is celebrated.

The first major genre entirely confined to devotional expressions was the mawlud, a poem recited on the occasion of the Prophet’s birthday on the twelfth day of the third lunar month. Mawluds were first composed in the early thirteenth century in prose, but these prose versions soon gave way to lengthy poems in the vernaculars. The most famous mawlud (Turkish, mevlut) in Turkey is one by Suleyman Celebi of Bursa(d. 1419) that is recited to this day not only on the Prophet’s birthday but also on special occasions such as the fortieth day after a death or the anniversary of one, or in fulfillment of a vow. As performed today in Turkey, it is interspersed with Qur’anic recitations and prayers; when the actual moment of the Prophet’s birth is described, with a swan touching Aminah’s back, each participant touches his or her neighbor’s back in remembrance of this event.

Muslims in other areas besides Turkey have produced a remarkably large body of mawluds. To recite such a poem opens, as it were, the gates of paradise; Muslims in Nigeria will be as touched by the story as are those in Kenyawho listen to a mawlud and feel as if they have

entered a heavenly world, purified from sin. In recent decades rationalist as well as fundamentalist Muslims have criticized the festive celebration of mawlud and the recitations of marvelous stories that are woven around the luminous appearance of the last messenger of God, when all of nature greeted him who was sent “as a mercy to the worlds” (surah 21.107); yet despite such opposition, it seems impossible for Muslims to give up these pious, poetic songs.

Suleyman Celebi’s mevlut was translated into Bosnian, and soon Muslims in the Balkans invented mawluds in their own languages, as did the Kurds, the Pathans, and most other nations. The name mawlud is applied in some languages, such as Sindhi, not only to long elaborated stories but even more to short devotional poems in which the Prophet’s miracles or his wonderful qualities are described. Generally such a short poem is introduced by an important poetic statement that is repeated by a chorus after each line to emphasize the main purpose of the poem. This technique is found in many devotional poems on the folk level.

Another form of devotional poetry seems to have developed almost parallel with the mawlud. This is a kind of narrative ballad that describes in detail the wondrous acts of the Prophet, of the first four caliphs (especially ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib), or, very often, of Sufi pirs. Although such descriptions are known from classical poetry, especially from Persian classical epic, there are many such narratives in vernaculars or varieties close to them. For example, the fife of the Prophet was an inspiring topic for many folk poets of Egyptand neighboring countries, and there is no dearth of poems in modern Arabic dialects that tell of major events in the Prophet’s life. His marriage with Khadijah, his first wife and the “mother of the faithful,” was dear to poets everywhere; it appears in Egypt and Turkeyas well as Indo-Pakistan. Perhaps the folk poets’ tendency to address Muhammad as the ideal bridegroom accounts for this type of poetry. Ballads of this kind usually have a basic text that is slightly altered according to the singer’s predilections or, as is typical of oral literature, with the passage of time: allusions to contemporary events can be easily inserted into a verse to make the poem more vivid.

One event that has probably been elaborated more in high poetry than on the folk level is the mi’rajiyah, which deals with the Prophet’s journey through heaven and hell into the immediate presence of God. Other, more human events in the Prophet’s life were also the subjects of lengthy poems, many of which use the long a or some other ending as a monorhyme to achieve the form of a rather simple qasidah. This form, called manqabah, is frequent in Sindhi and exists in Panjabi as well. The poets have favorite themes; two or three are particularly favored: the story of the hannanah, the sighing palm trunk, and the story of how the Prophet rescued a gazelle are reworked time and again. Other poems deal with an origin legend such as the reason for honey’s taste: both in Anatolia and in the Indus Valley one learns that only when the bees hum the blessings over Muhammad does the honey become sweet.

There are numerous manaqib in honor of Sufi saints, especially of `Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani, the eponym of the most widespread tariqah. In such poems the poets may use boundless exaggeration: the first known Sindhi poem in honor of this saint, from the late eighteenth century, enumerates all the countries and cities where the saint’s barakah is active, and all these names alliterate-a mnemonic device typical of popular poetry.

Similar devices are used in the si-harfi or acrostic poem, a genre well known from antiquity. It occurs frequently in the dervish poetry of Anatolia and Indo-Pakistan. The si-harfi, (“thirty-letter poem”) was mainly used for mystic and didactic purposes; the listener was able to follow the sequence of thought by simply keeping in mind the sequence of the alphabet. Among the si-harfi one has become almost proverbial-Sultan Bahu’s (d. 1692) Panjabi verse on the letter alif, “God is a jasmine bush.”

Another form still composed and sung in the Indus valley are barah-masa poems. This form is originally Indian; it tells the events and feelings in each month of the year as seen through a loving woman’s eyes. The months can be the Hindu ones, the Islamic lunar months, or, lately, even the Western months. When the Muslim months are used, the speaker remembers the tragedy of Karbala in Muharram, the Prophet’s birthday in the third month, `Abd al-Qadir’s anniversary in the fourth, and the Prophet’s heavenly journey in Rajab, and the catalog ends with the happiness of union with the Divine Beloved at the Ka’bah in Mecca or with the beloved Prophet at his mausoleum in Medina. Other interpretations are possible: in a recent Sindhi barah-masa poem in the Christian sequence of the months the pious writer even introduces Coca-cola in July instead of the time-honored spiritual wine.

A genre of poems in honor of Medina first appears in the late thirteenth century in Egypt; it became increasingly more important and also more moving the farther the poet lived from the Arabian Peninsula; longing for Medina is reflected to this day in almost every language used by Muslims. Again, the Indo-Pakistani poets in Urdu and Sindhi seem to be the most prolific writers in this field.

The Persians as well as the Ithna`Ashari Shi’is of the Indian subcontinent poured out their love and longing for the imams and in particular for Husayn ibn`Ali, the martyr of Karbala, in elaborate forms. Allusions to Karbala are frequent in medieval poetry in all Middle Eastern languages, but after the establishment of Twelver Shiism as the state religion in Iran in 1501, the tendency to participate in the imam’s suffering by reading or listening to poetry proliferated. In Iran the devotional literature in this field evolved into the ta’ziyah, dramatic performances of the tragedy at Karbala, in which the poets bring together the most incongruous protagonists;Karbalais perceived as a cosmic event, preordained from eternity, and everyone and everything is somehow involved in it. Thus there is a ta’ziyah in which the martyr mystic al-Hallaj, Mawlana Rumi, and his friend Shams-iTabrizappear together to evoke the eternal mystical character of Husayn’s suffering. Popular songs about Karbala occur in Urdu, Sindhi, and Panjabi, and are enacted in the villages of Muslim India; they often mention not only Husayn but also his elder brother Hasan as “the two princes” who were slain in battle, although, historically speaking, Hasan predeceased his brother by more than ten years. [See Karbala; Ta`ziyah.]

The marthiyah or elegy as a special genre seems to be a product of the Indian subcontinent. The earliest known marthiyah in Dakhni Urdu was written at the Qutbshahi court of Golconda in the seventeenth century. When Urdu became the language of literature in northern India around 1700, one of the major poets of Delhi, Mirza Sauda (d. 1’781), composed more than a hundred marthiyahs in various forms. The true development, however, occurred at the Shi’i court of Lucknow, where Anis (d. 1875) and Dabir (d. 1874) competed in long, moving poems whose recitations still attract large crowds of Indians and Pakistanis not only in the subcontinent but also in the diaspora, especially in London.

The particular importance of the marthiyah lies in its form, the musaddas, a six-line stanza with four rhyming. lines and two closing lines with a different rhyme. The musaddas allowed the poet to extend the poem as much as he wished without becoming tiring, while the traditional qasidah with its monorhyme could not keep the listeners’ interest awake for more than a hundred lines. The Urdu marthiyah in musaddas was so popular that the Indian Muslims saw in musaddas the ideal form to express religious emotions and moral exhortations. Hall’s poem “The Ebb and Flood of Muslim Civilization” (1879) is simply known as “The Musaddas”; and Iqbal’s religious poems like Shikwah (Complaint) and Jawab-i Shikwah (Its Answer), again use the musaddas form.

Both the marthiyah and the ta’ziyah could and still can be used to express the identification of Muslims with the suffering Husayn and his family, and of the Western powers-Britain or America-with the armies of Yazid, intent on destroying their lives and hopes. Thus the marthiyah assumes a highly political character, even though a casual reader may not be aware of this aspect in an apparently religious poem. A simpler form of poetry connected with Karbala is the Bengali jari-namah, a name derived from zar, “complaint.”

In addition to the long devotional poems, there are numberless short, singable poems in the Sufi tradition. The Persian ruba`i was often recited in sama` (mystical dance). Short poems in honor of the Prophet appear in Sind, composed by bards called bhan.

Popular religious folk songs are attested from the Middle Ages. In the Turkish tradition, Yunus Emre (d. 132 t ) in Anatoliaseems to have been the first to sing of his love of God, his longing, his hope and fear in simple verses. Even though he sometimes used the Arabo-Persian metrical system `araz, he chose meters that resemble the Turkish popular syllable-counting meters and can be easily scanned according to stress rather than quantity. The repeated rhyme often consists of a religious formula such as al-hamdu lillah-these were also used in the dhikr of the dervishes. Yunus’s poetry influenced the entire development of Turkish popular mystical literature, and hundreds of poets followed his example. In the Bektashi order and among the Shi’i `Alawis these forms survived to the nineteenth or even twentieth century. Although Ottoman urban poets did not care much for these products of Anatolia, they remained popular and gained new weight in the Turkish Republic. Sometimes even high-ranking or learned poets turned to such simple, moving verses, among them Isma’il Hakki Erzerumlu (d. 1785), whose consoling words,

Let us see what God will do

what He does is always good,

still rise to the lips of many modern Turks.Yunus’s deepest influence was visible in the modern Turkish poet Ismail Emre, who composed thousands of verses exactly in the style of previous Bektashi and Sufi poets. An illiterate blacksmith from Adana, he was compelled to sing his verses, which are called dogus (“something that is born”) and were transcribed by his friends. Some seemingly unimportant remark or sight would inspire a poem in which he expressed his mystical feelings. Other mystically minded Turkish writers of today composed verses owing to inspiration, but none of them attained the popularity of the “Yeni (new) Yunus Emre.” Others, barely known, still sing little poems called Ramazan manderi to express their feelings during the month of fasting, or they speak of other religious events in unassuming verses.

Islamic devotional poetry to this day is permeated with the feeling of wahdat al-wujud, the unity of being, which could easily lead the poets to see that “everything is He,” that there is no difference between Pharaoh and Moses or between the martyr mystic Hallaj and the judge who condemned him. Such ideas were spread in the Muslim world by the Sufi brotherhoods, and this can explain the remarkable similarity of a Turkish Sufi song and one composed in Sindhi or in Bengali. Everywhere in the eastern Islamic world Hallaj appears as the model of the loving Sufi who wants to be killed in order to prove his love-a religious image that permeates even secular poetry in the modern world.

Another aspect of mystical devotional poetry is that it can be easily turned into paradoxes because the poet is aware that he cannot share his experience with the uninitiated, and he can tell the ineffable only by using oxymoron or paradox. During performance, lines of these poems can be changed or verses from other poems inserted, provided they fit the meter; thus the recitation of mystical poetry during dhikr is very different from the orderly recitation of classical poetry.

Devotional poetry appears to be very much alive among smaller Islamic sects, and the ginan of the Khoja Isma’ilis is a point in case. The first examples stem from the early fifteenth century, but this genre with its sub genres has remained alive through the centuries. New songs to honor the imam emerge in the community, often with a strange blend of traditional mystical expressions and very modern concepts. Here the evolution of devotional poetry can still be observed. Burushaski, a language of isolated Isma’ili Hunzas, boasts a large devotional literature that is yet to be studied.

The high literature of Islam, too, have never ceased to produce poetry that can be called devotional. Classical poems that were thought to carry a special barakah are now available on tape, and it is interesting to see the vitality of Busiri’s great poem, the Burdah. Translations of this long qasidah have been made through the centuries into Persian, Turkish, Urdu, Panjabi, and other languages. The Burda is celebrated in the Deccan by inserting Qur’anic recitation and commentary. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the poem was also enlarged by takhmis, making it into quintuplet verses (two lines from the original poems plus three lines by the later poet). By inserting their own verses into the main body of the Burdah, poets in the Arab lands, the Deccan, and West Africa hoped to partake of the barakah of this great poem in which veneration of the Prophet resounds so strongly.

Everywhere poets have expressed the same love for the Prophet in their verses, from the Arab poet `Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulusi (d. 1732) or the Indian reformer Shah Wali Allah (d. 1762) and his compatriot in the Deccan, Azad Bilgrami (d. 1785), whose powerful qasi-dahs in honor of the Prophet earned him the surname Hassan al-Hindi. The last Mughal emperor of Delhi, Bahadur Shah Zafar (d. 1862), wrote na`tiyah poetry in Urdu, and Mirza Ghalib (d. 1869), the most famous Urdu poet, devoted highly complicated Persian qasidahs to the Prophet and to `Ali. Some decades later Muhsin Kakorawi (d. 19o5) devoted his entire poetic work to the praise of the Prophet; his qasidah “From the area of Kashi (Benares) a cloud moves toward Matthura” is a masterpiece on two stylistic levels, combining Hindu imagery in pure Hindi with high flown Urdu replete with allusions to the Qur’an, hadith, and traditional eulogies of the prophets. In the poetry of Iqbal (d. 1938) one can find a number of profound Persian and Urdu poems that can be called, without exaggeration, moving devotional poetry. We may also note such modern Arab poets as Salah `Abd al-Sabur of Egypt and, finally, the impact of classical religious poetry as sung by Umm Kulthum upon Muslims through the media of audiotapes, records, and videotapes. The development of new technology is also important for the growth of religious poetry in regional languages in remote areas such as the Hindu Kush, where the radio now broadcasts modern devotional poetry in Khowar and Shina.

[See also African Languages and Literatures; Arabic Literature; Persian Literature; Turkish Literature; Urdu Literature; and Sufism, article on Sufi Thought and Practice.]


Chelkowski, Peter. Ta`ziyeh: Ritual and Drama inIran.New York, 1979.

Emre, Ismail. Yeni Yunus Emre ve Doguslari. 2 vols. in I. Istanbul, 1950.

Knappert, Jan. Swahili Islamic Poetry. 3 vols.Leiden, 1971. Littmann, Enno, ed. Ahmed il -Bedawi: Ein Lied auf den agyptischen Nationalheiligen.Wiesbaden, 1950.

Littmann, Enno. Mohammed im Volksepos.Copenhagen, 1950. Littmann, Enno. Islamisch-arabische Heiligenlieder.Wiesbaden, 1951. Schimmel, Annemarie. As through a Veil: Mystical Poetry in Islam.New York, 1982. Includes an extensive bibliography.

Schimmel, Annemarie. And Muhammad Is His Messenger.Chapel Hill,N.C., 1985.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/devotional-poetry/

  • writerPosted On: November 6, 2012
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