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Religious poetry from the Quranic milieu: Umayya b. Abī l-Ṣalt on the fate of the Thamūd1

  • Nicolai Sinai (a1)

Unlike most ancient Arabic poetry, the poems attributed to Umayya b. Abī l-Ṣalt treat subjects that are also prominent in the Quran, such as creation, eschatology, and episodes from Biblical history. The authenticity of this corpus has, however, been the subject of some controversy. After a critical survey of previous scholarship, this article examines one particular passage from the Umayya corpus dealing with the destruction of the ancient tribe of Thamūd, which, it is argued, is likely to be pre-Quranic. The article then proceeds to highlight the crucial differences, both in content and in literary format, that exist between Umayya's retelling of the Thamūd narrative and its earliest Quranic version, and concludes with a number of general remarks on the Quran's religious milieu as reflected in Umayya's literary output.

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Parts of this article were originally presented at the conference “Religious culture in late Antique Arabia”, convened by Kirill Dmitriev and Isabel Toral-Niehoff and held at the Museum of Islamic Art, Berlin, 25–27 June 2009. I am grateful to Tilman Seidensticker for his encouraging remarks on a preliminary draft of this piece, and to Behnam Sadeghi for kindly suggesting various stylistic improvements and clarifications.

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2 Peters, F. E., Muhammad and the Origins of Islam (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), 259.

3 According to Seidensticker, Tilman (“The authenticity of the poems ascribed to Umayya b. Abī l-Ṣalt”, in Smart, Jack R. (ed.), Tradition and Modernity in Arabic Language and Literature (Curzon: Richmond, 1996), 87101, see p. 88), Umayya “must have died before the Muslim occupation of al-Ṭā’if in 8 A.H. because he is not mentioned in the historical reports about this event”. For a survey of the biographical information see Schulthess, Friedrich, “Umajja b. Abi-ṣ Ṣalt”, in Carl Bezold (ed.), Orientalische Studien Theodor Nöldeke zum siebzigsten Geburtstag, vol. 1 (Gießen: Alfred Töpelmann, 1906), 7189, see pp. 72–6.

4 On the historicity of the ḥunafā’ see Rubin, Uri, “Ḥanīfiyya and Kaʿba: an inquiry into the Arabic pre-Islamic background of dīn Ibrāhīm”, Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 13, 1990, 85112.

5 This article will assume the traditional dating and localization of the Quranic corpus as an early seventh-century text from Western Arabia. For an attempt to vindicate this assumption against diverging views see Sinai, Nicolai, Fortschreibung und Auslegung (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2009), 2358.

6 Sprenger, Alois, Das Leben und die Lehre des Moḥammad nach bisher grösstenteils unbenutzten Quellen (Berlin: Nicolaische Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1861–65), vol. 1, 7681 and 110–19 (quoted after Seidensticker, “Authenticity”, 100, n. 13).

7 Huart, Clément, “Une nouvelle source du Qorān”, Journal Asiatique 10/4, 1904, 125–67.

8 Schulthess, Friedrich (ed. and trans.), Umajja ibn Abi ṣ Ṣalt: Die unter seinem Namen überlieferten Gedichtfragmente (Leipzig: Hinrichs'sche Buchhandlung, 1911).

9 al-Ḥadīthī, Bahja ʿAbd al-Ghafūr, Umayya b. Abī ṣ-Ṣalt: Ḥayātuhū wa-shiʿruhū (Baghdad: Maṭbaʿat al-ʿānī, 1975); al-Satlī, ʿAbd al-Ḥāfiẓ, Dīwān Umayya b. Abī l-Ṣalt (Damascus: al-Maṭbaʿa at-taʿāwuniyya bi-Dimashq, 1977).

10 Frank-Kamenetzky, Israel, Untersuchungen über das Verhältnis der dem Umajja b. Abi ṣ Ṣalt zugeschriebenen Gedichte zum Qorān (Kirchhain: Max Schmersow, 1911).

11 Nöldeke, Theodor, “Umaija b. AbiṣṢalt”, Zeitschrift für Assyriologie 27, 1912, 159–72 (quoted from Seidensticker, “Authenticity”, 90).

12 Andrae, Tor, Der Ursprung des Islams und das Christentum (Uppsala: Almqvist, 1926), 4856.

13 Hirschberg, J. W., Jüdische und christliche Lehren im vor- und frühislamischen Arabien: Ein Beitrag zur Entstehungsgeschichte des Islams (Krakow: Nakładem polskiej akademii umiejeţności, 1939).

14 Seidensticker, “Authenticity”.

15 Two recent publications by Gert Borg discuss individual poems attributed to Umayya, among them no. 27 in Schulthess, which is briefly discussed below (“Umayya b. Abī al-Ṣalt as a poet”, in Vermeulen, U. and De Smeet, D. (eds), Philosophy and Arts in the Islamic World (Leuven: Peeters Press, 1998), 313); “The divine in the works of Umayya b. Abî al-Ṣalt”, in Borg, G. and de Moor, E. (eds), Representations of the Divine in Arabic Poetry (Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi, 2001), 923). Although both pieces offer some introductory remarks on the issue of authenticity, Borg's general approach is to bracket the problem of ascription as unsolvable and then proceed to a literary analysis of the respective texts. Montgomery, James E. (“Salvation at sea? Seafaring in early Arabic poetry”, in Borg, and de Moor, (eds), Representations of the Divine, 2547), discusses one of the poems describing Noah's Ark and the Deluge (Schulthess, no. 29 = al-Saṭlī, no. 62) and juxtaposes it with the relevant Quranic passages.

16 Tilman Seidensticker, “Die Authentizität der Umaiya Ibn Abī ṣ-Ṣalt zugeschriebenen Gedichte II”, forthcoming in Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft 161, 2011 (this article also includes a helpful correlation of the differing systems of numbering used by Schulthess and al-Saṭlī).

17 For a detailed documentation of the respective Quranic verses see Frank-Kamenetzky, Untersuchungen, 10–12 (note that Frank-Kamenetzky still cites the Flügel edition of the Quran!).

18 In the Quran it makes sense generally to translate rabb al-ʿālamīn with “lord of the inhabitants of the world” (cf. verses such as Q 29: 10 and 28, 26: 165, or 7: 80, where it is clear that al-ʿālamūn refers to persons); since the poem presently discussed is likely to be dependent on the Quran (see below), I have also adopted this rendering in my translation of the poem (similarly, in v. 9 below the word maqāmiʿ has been translated in accordance with Q 22: 21). On similar Judaeo-Christian epithets that predate the Quran – such as ribbôn ha-ʿôlamîm (Hebrew), basileus tôn aiônôn (Greek), or egzī’a k wellu ʿālamāt (Ethiopic), where the plural refers to the two “worlds”, i.e. this world and the Hereafter – see Nöldeke, Theodor and Schwally, Friedrich, Geschichte des Qorāns, vol. 1: Über den Ursprung des Qorāns (Leipzig: Dieterich'sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1909), 112, n. 2.

19 On the lasting merit of Nöldeke's attempt to distinguish four subsequent textual clusters within the Quranic corpus see Sinai, Nicolai, “The Qur'an as process”, in Neuwirth, Angelika, Sinai, Nicolai and Marx, Michael (eds), The Qur’ān in Context: Historical and Literary Investigations into the Qur’ānic Milieu (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 407–39.

20 As can be gathered from Seidensticker, “Authentizität”, this observation is also made by Nöldeke (“Umaija b. AbiṣṢalt”, 164).

21 Al-Saṭlī, no. 8. The poem – which apart from a few variants is not included in Schulthess' edition – is generally accepted as authentic, see Nöldeke, “Umaija b. AbiṣṢalt”, 161–2.

22 Seidensticker, “Authenticity”, 91 (following Frank-Kamenetzky, Untersuchungen, 38 and 48).

23 This possibility is entertained in Borg, “Divine”, 9–10, and has also been argued in a paper presented by Cornelia Horn at the conference “Religious culture in late antique Arabia”, Berlin, 25–27 June 2009.

24 Calder, Norman, “From midrash to scripture: the sacrifice of Abraham in early Islamic tradition”, Le Muséon 101, 1988, 375402.

25 Frank-Kamenetzky, Untersuchungen, 43 and 48, and Nöldeke, “Umaija b. AbiṣṢalt”, 166 (I owe this reference to Tilman Seidensticker).

26 See Toral-Niehoff, Isabel, “Eine arabische poetische Gestaltung des Sündenfalls: Das vorislamische Schöpfungsgedicht von ʿAdī b. Zayd”, in Hartwig, Dirk et al. (eds), “Im vollen Licht der Geschichte”: Die Wissenschaft des Judentums und die Anfänge der kritischen Koranforschung (Würzburg: Ergon, 2008), 235–56; Kirill Dmitriev, “An early Christian Arabic account of the creation of the world”, in Neuwirth, Sinai and Marx (eds), The Qur'ān in Context, 349–87.

27 For example, we have two somewhat hazy references to the idea that everything that exists in our world corresponds to a supernatural prototype (no. 25: 2 and no. 34: 5 Schulthess), there is a passage on the names and features of the seven heavens (no. 25: 15–22 Schulthess), the daily course of the sun and the moon are described (no. 25: 39–48), and the divine throne is mentioned several times (cf. no. 25: 23–6, no. 25: 29, no. 26, and no. 34: 4 Schulthess). Interestingly, one verse (no. 25: 45b Schulthess, on which see Hirschberg, Lehren, 96–8, and Cornelia Schöck, “Die Träger des Gottesthrones in Koranauslegung und islamischer Überlieferung”, Welt des Orients 27, 1996, 104–32, see pp. 112–3; I owe this reference to Tilman Seidensticker) restates the famous verse Ezekiel 1: 10, where the carriers of the divine throne are likened to a man, a lion, a bull, and an eagle (subsequently interpreted as symbols of the four Evangelists). The fact that such a reference is absent from the Quran corroborates the fact that at least part of the Umayya corpus rests on non-Quranic sources, and may thus well be pre-Quranic.

28 While references to divine “creation” (kh-l-q) of the world, and in particular of man, already appear during the early Meccan period (cf. Q 96: 1.2 and 75: 37–9), in these early texts divine creation is clearly understood in the sense of God's ongoing maintenance of the present cosmic order rather than in a parallel to the first chapters of the Book of Genesis. This is evident from the fact that God's creation of man, as alluded to in these early passages, is always connected with the development of the embryo in the maternal womb rather than with the creation of Adam and Eve. It is only in Q 55: 14 – which is to be dated towards the end of the early Meccan period (see Sinai, “Qur'an as process”, 424) – that the creation of Adam from dust (Genesis 2: 7) is for the first time alluded to in the Quran.

29 While Abraham and Moses are mentioned already in the earliest stratum of the Quran (see, for example, Q 87: 18.19 and also the allusions to Pharaoh in 85: 17–8 and 73: 15–6, where, however, Moses is not named), Noah first appears in 54: 9–16 and 37: 75–82, which Nöldeke dates to the Middle Meccan period. It is only well into the Middle Meccan period, in Q 19 that the roster of Quranic protagonists is extended to include New Testament figures like Jesus, Mary and Zacharias. See Sinai, Fortschreibung, 103.

30 See Sinai, “Process”, 426–7.

31 See Sinai, “Process”, 425–6.

32 See inter alia Q 54: 23–31, 26: 141–59, or 11: 61–8.

33 While Schulthess chose to arrange these fragments in the chronological order of Biblical history, to which the fate of the Thamūd is then appended, al-Saṭlī proposes a slightly different and much less persuasive ordering (with vv. 14–22 of the Schulthess edition coming before vv. 12–3).

34 Cf. Pharaoh's statement in Umayya 34: 15 (qāla innī ana l-mujīru ʿalā n-nāsi wa-lā rabba lī ʿalayya mujīrā) and the phrase wa-huwa yujīru wa-lā yujāru ʿalaihi from Q 23: 88, and Umayya 34: 19 (“And he called to God, yet his call was not granted after his transgressions; so he became a sign, fa-ṣāra mushīrā)” and Q 10: 90–92: “But as he [Pharaoh] was drowning he cried, ‘I believe there is no God except the one the Children of Israel believe in. I submit to Him.’ / ‘Now? When you had always been a rebel, and a troublemaker! / Today we shall save only your body as a sign (āya) to all posterity. […]’”.

35 See Hirschberg, Lehren, 80.

36 See Robinson, Neal, Discovering the Qur'an: A Contemporary Approach to a Veiled Text, 2nd ed. (London: SCM Press, 1996), 109–12, on the basis of Neuwirth, Angelika, Studien zur Komposition der mekkanischen Suren (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1981), 192–6.

37 See, for example, Q 80: 24–32 or 55: 10–12.

38 On the opposition of Quranic descriptions of nature to notions of space prevalent in Arabic literature, where the natural environment is frequently depicted as inhospitable, desolate, and obstructing the hero or even threatening his very survival, see Neuwirth, Angelika, “Geography and the Qur’ān”, in McAuliffe, Jane (ed.), Encyclopaedia of the Qur’ān, vol. 2 (Leiden: Brill, 2002), 293313 (in particular see pp. 300–2).

39 See Frank-Kamenetzky, Untersuchungen, 44 and 48.

40 On the translation of vv. 30–31 see the emendations to Schulthess' translation that are proposed in Andrae, Ursprung, 53.

41 Frank-Kamenetzky, Untersuchungen, 44 and 48.

42 As I have argued in an earlier article, Q 91 ought to be assigned to the second sub-group of the early Meccan period (Sinai, “Process”, 423).

43 The translation of this Quranic passage, as that of all others, is taken – with slight modifications – from Abdel Haleem, M. A. S.'s translation (The Qur'an, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

44 Power, E., “Umayya Ibn Abi-s Salt”, Mélanges de l'Université Saint Joseph 1, 1906, 197222, see p. 212

45 Cf. Huart, “Nouvelle source”, 153–4, and Power, “Umayya”, 212.

46 Andrae, Ursprung, 52–3.

47 Perhaps one might anticipate the objection that the above reasoning rests on an argument from silence: after all, it might just be the case that the author of Umayya no. 34 is so thoroughly familiar with the Quranic versions of the Thamūd story that he explicitly mentions only those aspects of the story as known to him that are absent from the Quran. Yet this hypothesis, although not completely impossible, does strike one as rather unlikely. I will therefore proceed on the assumption that Umayya no. 34 is authentic.

48 It may be worth pointing out explicitly the essential difference between the Thamūd poem on the one hand and the poems on Mary and the sacrifice of Abraham (see above) on the other: whereas in the latter two cases the texts attributed to Umayya overlap with both with the Quran and with tafsīr, in the former case there is only overlap with the exegetical tradition, and conspicuous divergence from the respective Quranic accounts. In my view, this makes it more likely that, in the case of the Thamūd poem, we are indeed confronted with a pre-Islamic version of the story that is independent of the Quran, whereas such a conclusion is far less certain with respect to the poems on Mary and Abraham's sacrifice.

49 The most recent in-depth study of the Quranic punishment legends is David Marshall, God, Muhammad and the Unbelievers: A Qur'anic Study (Richmond: Curzon Press, 1999).

50 Cf. also the verse by ʿAdī b. Zaid cited by Andrae, Ursprung, 46, where the ʿĀd and Thamūd are linked with the people of Noah that appear in slightly later Quranic punishment lists or cycles such as Q 53: 50–52 and Q 54: 9–42.

51 Horovitz, Josef, Koranische Untersuchungen (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1926), 11.

52 Cf. Horovitz, Koranische Untersuchungen, 18.

53 See the haggadic parallels adduced in Hirschberg, Lehren, 79–162.

54 Research currently undertaken by Joseph Witzum at Princeton University suggests that many of the narrative traditions that are usually labelled “haggadic” are also very prominent in Syriac homiletic literature.

55 Frank-Kamenetzky, Untersuchungen, 38 and 48.

56 Hirschberg, Lehren, 119.

57 Hirschberg refers to the Ethiopic Book of Adam and Eve, translated by August Dillmann as Das christliche Adambuch des Morgenlandes (Göttingen: Dieterichsche Buchhandlung, 1953), 106. The Syriac Cave of Treasures, to which the Ethiopic Book of Adam and Eve is closely related, does not mention that darkness prevailed during the Flood.

58 Charles, R. H. (trans.), The Ethiopic Apocalypse of Enoch (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1917), ch. 89: 3.4: “And I saw again, and behold fountains were opened on the surface of that great enclosure, and that water began to swell and rise upon the surface, and I saw that enclosure till all its surface was covered with water. / And the water, the darkness, and mist increased upon it; and as I looked at the height of that water, that water had risen above the height of that enclosure, and was streaming over that enclosure, and it stood upon the earth”.

59 Cf. Neusner, Jacob (trans.), Genesis Rabbah, 3 vols (Atlanta: Scholar's Press, 1985), vol. 1, 273 (Parashah 25).

60 The tradition, reported by Ibn Qutayba, that Umayya's familiarity with Judaeo-Christian traditions was “derived from the ancient scriptures”, i.e. from literary, rather than oral, sources (Montgomery, “Salvation”, 25–6) is almost certainly a later conjecture as to how he came by his knowledge of Judaeo-Christian tradition. That Umayya did not in fact have first-hand exposure to the written text of the Bible is also suggested by the fact that according to Umayya 32: 26, the Deluge lasted only seven days and not forty, as Genesis 7:17 states (Hirschberg observes that Umayya here is in agreement with ancient Near Eastern accounts of the Deluge, cf. Hirschberg, Lehren, 120); once again, the Biblical text has as it were vanished from sight – it is the narrative in itself that is important.

61 This insight tends to get blurred by speaking of the “pagan” environment of the Quran, since “pagan” is generally understood in the sense of both “confessionally uncommitted to” and “ignorant of” the Biblical tradition. One might also add that this milieu seems to have been confined to towns, cf. Hirschberg, Lehren, 14.

62 See Neuwirth, Studien, 91–115.

63 See in general Bauer, Thomas, Altarabische Dichtkunst: Eine Untersuchung ihrer Struktur und Entwicklung am Beispiel der Onagerepisode, 2 vols (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1992), vol. 1, 172204. I would submit that Umayya's adherence to customary literary conventions is also the major reason why his poetry displays such a striking interest in animal scenes (for example, Umayya's retelling of the story of Noah includes an excursus on how the dove was granted her necklace as a reward for having informed Noah about the retreat of the waters; see no. 29: 7–8 Schulthess): for an ancient Arabic poet, elaborate descriptions, particularly of animals, are a major opportunity to demonstrate his poetic skill. Less likely is E. Power's attempt to explain this stylistic feature with Umayya's “special love for animals” (see Power, “Umayya”, 205).

64 The tradition, found in the Kitāb al-aghānī (Cairo 1963, vol. 4, 129; I owe this reference to Borg, “Divine”, 10, n. 5), that Umayya at least for a certain period believed himself to have been chosen as the prophet of the Arabs is rather improbable, or at least cannot be substantiated by the character of his purported literary output.

65 Although certain parallels between the early Quranic surahs and ancient Arabic oracles (such as the use of introductory oaths that often refer to celestial bodies like the sun and the moon or to cosmic oppositions like light and darkness) have frequently been observed (see, for example, Hoyland, Robert G., Arabia and the Arabs: From the Bronze Age to the Coming of Islam, London: Routledge, 2001, 220–1), a systematic study of such oracles as transmitted in later Islamic literature – in particular as to their authenticity – still remains an urgent desideratum. Methodologically, such a study might be able to employ, in suitably adapted form, some of the criteria employed in Tilman Seidensticker's examination of the authenticity of pre-Islamic talbiya formulae, see Seidensticker, “Sources for the history of pre-Islamic religion”, in Neuwirth, Sinai and Marx, The Qur’ān in Context, 293–321.

1 Parts of this article were originally presented at the conference “Religious culture in late Antique Arabia”, convened by Kirill Dmitriev and Isabel Toral-Niehoff and held at the Museum of Islamic Art, Berlin, 25–27 June 2009. I am grateful to Tilman Seidensticker for his encouraging remarks on a preliminary draft of this piece, and to Behnam Sadeghi for kindly suggesting various stylistic improvements and clarifications.

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