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Postclassical Poetics: The Role of the Amatory Prelude for the Medieval Islamic Republic of Letters

  • Sahar Ishtiaque Ullah


The prophetic encomia—panegyrics dedicated to the prophet Muhammad—are one of the most often recited forms of Arabic poetry up to today and are grounded in a cultural milieu where hagiography, competitive circulation of narrative and counter-narratives, rituals and esoteric practices, and educational institutions have a role in its formation. The unifying of the classical erotic poetic with the postclassical devotional created out of the encomium a vehicle that encapsulated palpable memory, nostalgia, and aspirational ideal for a greater past and beloved subject and successfully left a lasting cultural imprint. Against a general disregard for the postclassical tradition as one of decadence argued by Arab modernists, I join the ongoing effort to debunk the myth of premodern decadence as interrogated by Muhsin al-Musawi’s two-part article “The Republic of Letters: Arab Modernity?” by considering the role of the postclassical prophetic encomia’s amatory prelude—a convention from the classical Arabic ode—as a site of continuity and innovation. Within specifically the famous Qaṣīdat al-Burdah (trans. The Mantle Ode) by Muhammad ibn Sa'īd al-Būsīrī (d. 693/1294) and the badī’iyyāt modeled after the Burdah in meter and rhyme initiated by Ṣafī al-Dīn al-Ḥillī (d. 750/1349), the prelude takes a significant poetic turn replacing the classical abandoned desert campsites of the Arabic ode with the city of Madīnah. Operating as a unifying repository of the medieval Islamic Republic of Letters, the amatory prelude continued to perform its classical function as a liminal space but innovatively transformed that space for the reading/listening public as a collective reimagining of the Beloved as Muhammad and the abandoned desert campsite as the City of the Prophet outside of the discursive borders of the imperial.



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1 Translation by Stetkevych, Suzanne P., The Mantle Odes: Arabic Praise Poems to the Prophet Muhammad (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2010), 93.

2 The first date indicates the hijrī year of the Islamic calendar, and the second date indicates the year of the Gregorian calendar.

3 The postclassical period from the mid-thirteenth century to the late eighteenth century is also referred to as the medieval or premodern period in Arabic and Islamic studies. The terms and periodization is not without critique. For a full reading of the problem of periodization in Arabic literary studies, see al-Musawi, Muhsin, The Medieval Islamic Republic of Letters: Arabic Knowledge Construction (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2015), pp. 13, 15–17, 89–90, and Bauer, Thomas, “In Search of a Post-Classical Literature: A Review Article,” Mamluk Studies Review 11.2 (2007): 137148. See also al-Musawi, Muhsin, “The Republic of Letters: Arab Modernity? Part I,” Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry, 1.2 (2014): 273. See Allen, Roger and Richards, D. S., Arabic Literature in the Post-Classical Period (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

4 The prophetic encomia, or al-madā’ih al-nabawiyya, a genre of poetry, also includes the badī’iyyāt as a subgenre.

5 I say performatively here because the poetry’s form begs to be recited out loud before an audience for the poem’s full effect and complete affect to occur. In this genre of poetry, I would argue, form is as significant as content in terms of invoking memory.

6 In the realm of Arabic-Islamic science, historian George Saliba has compellingly argued for reenvisioning the medieval period—also called the Age of Decline in Islamic intellectual history—as the Golden Age of Arabic science, especially with regard to the field of astronomy. See Saliba, George, A History of Arabic Astronomy: Planetary Theories During the Golden Age of Islam (New York: New York University Press, 1994).

7 See al-Musawi, Muhsin, “The Republic of Letters: Arab Modernity? Part I,” Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry 1.2 (2014): 273. Also see al-Musawi, Muhsin, Islam on the Street: Religion in Modern Arabic Literature (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009), xxx.

8 Like other “Golden Ages” of other literatures, the framing of the Abbasid Golden Age set the standard for the academic study of Arabic literature even more than the earlier Umayyad period.

9 al-Musawi, Muhsin, “The Republic of Letters: Arab Modernity? Part II,” Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry 2.1 (2014): 4.

10 Another aspect of such periodization is the manner in which the term the medieval is deployed against the Renaissance and Enlightenment that connotes a lack of civilization, complexity, dynamic cultural exchange, and literacy. See Davis, Kathleen and Altschul’s, Nadia important edition on Medievalisms in the Postcolonial World: The Idea of “The Middle Ages” Outside Europe (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).

11 Here, non-Arab as an identity marker—in contradistinction with the modern national and ethno-racial category of Arab—does not, however, sufficiently encapsulate and characterize the identity of the premodern Muslim subject and specifically the border-crossing intellectual enmeshed in the medieval Islamic republic of letters.

12 See Hodgson’s, MarshallThe Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization, Volume 3: The Gunpowder Empires and Modern Times (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974).

13 On the contributions of the Mamluks, for example, see Bāshā, ʻUmar Mūsā, Tārīkh al-Adab al-ʻArabī: al-ʻAṣr al-Mamlūkī (Beirut, Lebanon: Dār al-Fikr al-Muʻāṣir, 1989).

14 For more detail about the literary production of the period, see al-Musawi, Muhsin, Medieval Islamic Republic of Letters: Arabic Knowledge Construction (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2015).

15 “The Republic of Letters: Arab Modernity? Part I,” 277.

16 Ibid.

17 According to Pascale Casanova’s World Republic of Letters, eighteenth-century Paris as “the locale and armature” functioned as “an intellectual centripetal and centrifugal force” creating a republic of cultural networks that ran counter to national communities. Decentering France as a model, al-Musawi argues that the existence of a medieval Islamic republic of letters demonstrates a far more extensive project informed by multiple shared cultural registers including poetics. Challenging the constructed secular-religious binary in which the secular equals humanist, al-Musawi directs attention to traditions that problematize a universal application of Casanova’s theory. See “The Republic of Letters: Arab Modernity? Part I,” 268.

18 Ibid., 3.

19 The postclassical badīʿiyyāt are a subgenre of the prophetic encomia, the emergence of which was inspired by al-Būṣīrī’s famous panegyric The Mantle Ode or Qaṣīdat al-Burdah. The badīʿiyyāt were composed along the same rhyme and meter of the Burdah in praise of the Prophet but are distinguished by the attempt to create within each verse an example of a rhetorical trope (i.e., badī’). Alī Abū Zayd’s defines the badī’iyyāt as

a collection of odes that appeared in the 8th/14th century and continued until the 14th/20th century; the purpose of which was to praise the Prophet and the aim of which was to collect all figures of speech within its verses (by way of) incorporating one trope in each verse.

Translation is mine. See Alī Abū Zayd’s excellent work documenting the proliferation of badī’iyyāt in the postclassical period in Al-Badīʿiyyāt fī l-Adab Al-ʻArabī: Našhʼatuhā, Taṭawwuruhā, At̲haruhā (Beirut: ʻĀlam al-Kutub, 1983), 7.

20 See Muhsin al-Musawi for how culture provided shared codes not lost on either the khawāṣṣ (elite) or ‘āmmah (the common public) in “The Republic of Letters: Arab Modernity? Part I,” 267.

21 This important medieval European moment of vernacularization is the period in which famous figures moved away from composing works in scholastic Latin like Berceo (d. 1264) who, for example, composed hagiographical accounts in Castilian Spanish and others like Dante (d. 1321) and Boccaccio (d. 1375) who wrote prose and poetry in Florentine Italian.

22 al-Musawi, Muhsin, “The Republic of Letters: Arab Modernity? Part II,” Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry 2.1 (2014): 16. Also see Dabashi, Hamid, The World of Persian Literary Humanism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012).

23 al-Musawi, Muhsin, “The Republic of Letters: Arab Modernity? Part II,” 16. Also see Hamid Dabashi, The World of Persian Literary Humanism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012).

24 Ibid., 277.

25 See Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ’s discussion on adab “Al-Adab al-Ṣaghīr,” Rasāʼil Al-bulaghāʾ [A Collection of Literary Epistles by ʻAbd Allāh Ibn Al-Mukaffaʻ and ʻAbd Al-Hamīd Ibn Yaḥya Al-Kātib, ed. Muhammad Kurd ʿAlī (Cairo: Al-Zāhir, 1908). Also see Medieval Islamic Republic of Letters: Arabic Knowledge Construction, 180.

26 See al-Mūsawī, Muḥsin, The Islamic Context of the Thousand and One Nights (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009).

27 See ʿAbd Allāh ibn Muslim Ibn Qutaybah, Kitāb Al Shiʿr wa al Shuʿarāʾ: Introduction to the Book of Poetry and Poets, trans. Arthur Wormhoudt (Oskaloosa, IA: William Penn College, 1973). Also, for a translation, see Nicholson, Reynold A., A Literary History of the Arabs, (London: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 71140.

28 See Stetkevych, Jaroslav, The Zephyrs of Najd: The Poetics of Nostalgia in the Classical Arabic Nasīb (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993). Stetkevych offers three theories of structure to the tripartite qaṣīdah showing that each structure is interdependent, 1–26.

29 See Stetkevych, Suzanne Pinckney, The Poetics of Islamic Legitimacy: Myth, Gender, and Ceremony in the Classical Arabic Ode (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2002), 80.

30 See Renate Jacobi’s argument in Sperl, Stefan and Shackle, C., Qaṣīdah Poetry in Islamic Asia and Africa (Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1996), 2131.

31 The Zephyrs of Najd: The Poetics of Nostalgia in the Classical Arabic Nasīb, 2.

32 The poetry of al-Mutanabbī (d. 354/965), for example, reproduced the nasīb and madīḥ. For examples of the camel-section, see Jacobi’s “The Camel-Section of the Panegyrical Ode” for a detailed structural analysis of the changes within the qaṣīdah form over four periods, 21–22.

33 Qaṣīdah Poetry in Islamic Asia and Africa, xv–xxvi.

34 See The Poetics of Islamic Legitimacy: Myth, Gender, and Ceremony in the Classical Arabic Ode.

35 ʿAbd-Allah Muḥammad al-Būṣīrī, Sharaf al-Dīn Abī, Burdat al-Madīḥ al-Mubārakah (Abu Dhabi: Dār al-Faqīh, 2001), 12.

36 The Zephyrs of Najd: The Poetics of Nostalgia in the Classical Arabic Nasīb, 50. Also see Kadhim, Hussein, The Poetics of Anti-Colonialism in the Arabic Qaṣīdah (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2004).

37 Ibid., 16, 79.

38 Ibid., 20. In another analysis-by-metaphor, Stetkevych explains that the amatory prelude is the first act of a three-act play in which the emotional drama of the qaṣīdah is performed and transmitted to the audience.

39 I address the critical role of this particular trope in my dissertation.

40 His ode is referred to as a “mantle ode” because after the recitation of the poem, Muhammad gifted Ka’b his mantle as a sign of intercessional protection and allegiance. Al-Būṣīrī reports dreaming of the Prophet performing this very same gesture for him while writing his most famous poem known affectionately as the burdah or “mantle.” For a study on the mantle odes of Arabic literature, see The Mantle Odes: Arabic Praise Poems to the Prophet Muhammad.

41 Translation from Sells, Michael, “’Bānat Suʿād’: Translation and Introduction,” Journal of Arabic Literature 21.2 (1990): 148.

42 Ibid., 69.

43 For example, see the encomium of ʻĀʼishah bint Yūsuf Bāʻūnīyah’s (d.923/1516) in Sharḥ Al-Badīʻīyah Al-Musammāh Bi-Al-Fatḥ Al-Mubīn Fī Madḥ Al-Amīn (Damascus: Rand lil-Ṭibāʻah wa-al-Nashr wa-al-Tawzīʻ, 2010).

44 Jaroslav Stetkevych situates the qaṣīdah in a larger corpus of lyric poetry in The Zephyrs of Najd, xi–xii.

45 Ibid., 79.

46 The Mu‘allaqāt (i.e., The Hanging Odes) or the Mudhahhabāt (i.e., The Golden Odes) refer to seven famous pre-Islamic odes reported to have been written in gold and hung inside the Ka’bah as a reward and tribute to their composers’ eloquence.

47 Translation by Arberry, A. J., The Seven Odes: The First Chapter in Arabic Literature (London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1957), 148184. The translation, however, is of one version of the ode. In other versions, the poet says,

Have the poets left anywhere in need of patching?

Or did you, after imaginings, recognize her abode?

O abode of ‘Ablah in Jiwa,’ speak (to me)!

Morning greetings, O abode of ‘Ablah, and be safe from ruin!

See Sells, Michael, Desert Tracings: Six Classic Arabian Odes (Middletown, CN: Wesleyan University Press, 1989), 48.

48 Medieval Islamic Republic of Letters: Arabic Knowledge Construction, 302.

49 See The Zephyrs of Najd: The Poetics of Nostalgia in the Classical Arabic Nasīb, 77. Also see Medieval Islamic Republic of Letters: Arabic Knowledge Construction, 290.

50 This translation is my own.

51 See Williams, Raymond, Marxism and Literature (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1977).

52 The ode is constructed along a mutaqārib meter. Translation by Ali, Samer, Arabic Literary Salons in the Islamic Middle Ages: Poetry, Public Performance, and the Presentation of the Past (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010), 141142.

53 Translation from Nicholson, Reynold, Translations of Eastern Poetry and Prose (New York: Greenwood Press, 1969), 33.

54 Here, I am considering Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital. When poets needed other sources of patronage outside of the court, social prestige offered considerable mobility, attention, and recognition, as well as attracted other forms of patronage. See Bourdieu, Pierre, Language and Symbolic Power (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991).

55 This raises other questions about the context in which these pedagogical concerns regarding Arabic language arose as well as the challenges for a poet and litterateur’s employment.

56 For a concise translation of rhetorical tropes, see Cacchia, Pierre, The Arch Rhetorician: Or the Schemer’s Skimmer: A Handbook of Late Arabic Badīʻ Drawn from ʻabd Al-Ghanī An-Nābulsī's Nafaḥāt Al-Azhār ʻala Nasamāt Al-Asḥār (Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 1998).

57 Medieval Islamic Republic of Letters: Arabic Knowledge Construction, 135.

58 Ibid., 138–39.

59 Ibid., 187.

60 Ibid., 182.

61 One of the important roles of the postclassical qaṣīdah form is its ability to encapsulate and be used as an effective pedagogical tool for conveying various Arabic-Islamic disciplines including rhetoric as in the case of the badī’iyyāt. This aspect of the ode, however, will not be addressed in this paper.

62 The role of the encomia has been debated even by the ancient Greeks. In Plato’s Republic, praise is shown to be “a powerful forces in the Athenian polis,” and his rendition of Socrates suggests that praise is one of the most effective ways of teaching people. See Nightingale, Andrea W., “The Folly of Praise: Plato’s Critique of Encomiastic Discourse in the Lysis and Symposium,” The Classical Quarterly, 43.1 (1993): 112.

63 See “Al-sayfu asdaqu anbā’an min al-kutubi,” by Abū Tammām Habīb ibn Aws Al-Ṭa’ī, translated by Suzanne Pinckney Stetkeveych in The Poetics of Islamic Legitimacy, 304–08.

64 Translation from The Mantle Odes: Arabic Praise Poems to the Prophet Muhammad, 93.

65 See Schimmel, Annemarie, And Muhammad Is His Messenger: The Veneration of the Prophet in Islamic Piety (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1985), 33.

66 See Mūsá, ʻIyāḍ ibn, Muhammad, Messenger of Allah: Ash-Shifā’ of Qādī ‘Iyāḍ, trans. Aisha A. Bewley (Inverness, Scotland: Madinah Press, 1991), 226.

67 Both Al-Shifā’ and the Burdah are mentioned in the nineteenth-century Maqāma of Ḥasan al-ʻAṭṭār as texts in which French colonizers took great interest. See Gran, Peter, Islamic Roots of Capitalism: Egypt, 1760–1840 (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1979). Also see Tageldin, Shaden, Disarming Words: Empire and the Seductions of Translation in Egypt (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011).

68 See Medieval Islamic Republic of Letters: Arabic Knowledge Construction.

69 I address the inflection of postclassical poetics in these works in my article “The Book Shelf in the Inner Room: Post-Classical Poetics in Modern Arabic Literature” for a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Arabic Literature.

70 Ibid.

71 Translation by Th. Emil Homerin fromʻUmar Ibn Al-Fāriḍ: Sufi Verse, Saintly Life (New York: Paulist Press, 2000).

72 See Qur’an 7:171 and the related narratives regarding pre-eternity in Al-Ḥaddād, ʿAbdallāh ibnʿAlawī, Lives of Man: A Guide to the Human States: Before Life, in the World, and After Death (Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 2003).

73 Private Seminar with Abdallah Adhami, “Introduction to Badīʿiyyat” at Columbia University, New York City, July 2014.

74 A Google search of simply “burdah” will lead to numerous links to translations and audio recordings from around the world.

75 My translation.

76 Madīnah—often spelled as Medina—literally means “city” in Arabic. Originally known as Yathrib before Islam, the adopted city and resting place of the Prophet was resignified as al-Madīnah al-Munawwarah (trans. The Illuminated City), Madīnah al-Nabī (trans. The City of the Prophet), or simply al-Madīnah (trans. The City). Madīnah as aṭlāl is repeatedly invoked in the prophetic encomia.

77 My translation.

78 See Taqī al-Dīn ʻAlī ibn ʻAbd al-Kāfī al-Subkī, Shifāʼ Al-Saqām Fī Ziyārat Khayr Al-Anām (Ḥaydrābād al-Dakan: al-Maṭbaʻah al-Dāʼirah al-Maʻārif al-Niẓāmīyah, 1897), Al-Ṭabʻah 1: 39-40. The narrative includes an account of Bilāl’s reunion with Ḥasan and Ḥusayn, the grandchildren of Muhammad, who request from Bilāl his adhān. He acquiesced, and the people of Madīnah left their homes and took to the streets upon hearing his voice and cried in anguish at the memory of their days with the Prophet. It concludes that he left Madīnah a few days later and died in Damascus. Hadith critics dispute this incident, and some deemed the narrative as a fabrication while others like al-Subkī classified it as sound. The story is often referred to in contemporary contentious discourses regarding visiting Madīnah in order to visit the Prophet’s grave. The story of Bilal’s adhān upon the request of Ḥasan and Ḥusayn is also included in Akyeampong, Emmanuel K. and Gates, Henry L. Jr., Dictionary of African Biography (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2012), 448.

79 In another narrative, Bilāl refers to the moment of death as a celebratory moment of union with his beloved Muhammad saying, “What a happy occasion! Tomorrow I will meet my beloved—Muhammad and his host!” See ʻAbd al-Karīm ibn Hawāzin al-Qushayrī, Al-Qushayri’s Epistle on Sufism: Al-Risala al-Qushayriyya fi 'Ilm al-Tasawwuf, trans. Alexander D. Knysh (Reading, UK: Garnet, 2007), 313.

80 See ʻAṭīyah, Jarīr ibn and Farazdaq, , Kitāb al-Naqā’iḍ: Naqā’iḍ Jarīr wa al-Farazdaq (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyah, 1998), 285. This translation is my own.

81 For a review of characteristics attributed to Madīnah within Islamic discourses, see Casewit, Daoud S., “Fada’il Al-Madinah: The Unique Distinctions of the Prophet’s City,” Islamic Quarterly 35.1 (1991): 5.

82 Translation from The Mantle Odes: Arabic Praise Poems to the Prophet Muhammad, 99.

83 In some ways, echoes of Benedict Anderson’s concept of imagined communities as precursors to nationalism could be read here. See Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London, UK: Verso, 1991). On the other hand, this republic of letters is distinct from Anderson’s imagined community that would not have met but felt bound together by other factors. Considering the function of isnād in the scholarly community as a means of acquiring prestige and authorial legitimacy and permission to transmit, writers of badīʿiyyāt would have been placed in direct conversation with each either through textual encounters or in actual space and time.

84 See Turner, Victor W., The Ritual Process (New York: Penguin, 1969), 155.

85 Lefevbre states that spaces of representation include homes as well as representational spaces such as drawings. See Lefebvre, Henri, The Production of Space (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1991).

86 See Foucault, Michel, “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias,” trans. Jay Miskowiec. Architecture/Movement/Continuité (1984): 19.

87 See The Zephyrs of Najd: The Poetics of Nostalgia in the Classical Arabic Nasīb, 24.

88 Ibid., 43.

89 Ibid., 52. Also see Medieval Islamic Republic of Letters: Arabic Knowledge Construction, 301.

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