The place of poets in Islam

The place of poets in Islam

Rather Nasir

Regarding poetry, the Islamic point of view is clear: like all other arts, literature is a transitory entertainment. The Quran says, “As for the poets, only those who are lost in error follow them. Are you not aware that they roam confusedly through all valleys, and that they say what they do not do? Excepted are those who believe, and do righteous deeds, and remember God often, and strive to be triumphant after they have been wronged.” (26: 224, 227.) These verses make a clear exception for poets who are restrained by their faith and fear of God. Not all poetry is condemned but only the sort that is removed from virtue. Yet, there is another verse in the Quran that says about the Prophet (s.a.w): “We have not taught him poetry, nor does it behove him to be a poet.” Surah Yasin (36: 69)
This verse speaks of a special case that applies to the Prophet only, who delivers God’s message to mankind, contained in the Qur’an. Needless to say, the Qur’an has a unique style, which captivated the Prophet’s Arab contemporaries, who were highly appreciative of fine style. They attached great importance to poetry, and the tribes that had several excellent poets were able to gain high repute. One can compare poetry in Arabia at the time to the media in our times in terms of their influence on society. If we describe poetry as a discriminating use of words, constructions and images which charges them with intense meaning, adding a clear element of beauty and finesse, then the Qur’an takes all these elements to much higher levels that are beyond the reach of the most excellent and refined of poets. Hence, the Arabs at the time felt that the Qur’anic style set much higher standards of excellence.
The Prophet’s style, as it is clear from his statements, is superb. It is indeed at the highest level of human styles: uniquely expressive, full of imagery, concise and precise. But it is all in prose. Had the Prophet used poetry, there might have been confusion in some people’s minds as to the Qur’an being a form of poetry. Hence, the Prophet never used poetry, and in the above verse God clearly states that He has not taught Muhammad, His final messenger, how to write poetry.
However, the Prophet (s.a.w) never showed disapproval of the good poets, even if such poets were non-Muslims. Amr ibn Al-Shaurid mentions a report by his father who says: “I was riding behind the Prophet on the same mount when the Prophet asked me: ‘Do you memorise any poetry by Umayyah ibn Abi Al-Sallt? When I answered in the affirmative, he asked me to recite. I quoted one line, and he asked for more. He kept asking for more until I had recited one hundred lines.” (Related by Muslim, Al-Tirmidhi, and Al-Bukhari in Al-Adab Al-Mufrad). Islam gave such a prominence to poetry that the Prophet of Islam (PBUH) had a pulpit made for Hassaan (RA) in Masjid Nabawi. There he used to recite his poetry and defend Islam as a faith and Muhammad (PBUH) as a prophet of Allah. Hazrat Hassaan (RA) continued this even after Prophet of Islam (PBUH) had passed away.

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