Regarded as one of the greatest and most influential poets in the Arabic language, Abu at-Tayyib Ahmad ibn Huseyn Al Mutanabbi al-Kindi, the son of a water carrier, was born in 915 CE in Al Kufah, about 170 kilometers south of Baghdad, Iraq. Al Mutanabbi lived a life of controversy led by his political ambition and provocative poems, until his murder in 965.

With an unusual name, which means “the one who claimed prophethood,” and an exceptional poetic talent, Al Mutanabbi’s philosophical attitude and continuous insecurity was mirrored perfectly in the personal tone and openness of his verses.

Al Mutanabbi started writing poetry when he was 9-years-old and went on to stand high above other poets of his time, duly becoming the single most important Arabic writer.

His beautiful but sometimes harsh and controversial works, which were translated into over 20 languages worldwide, influenced the lives of many. For this reason, in the 1960s, Baghdad named a street after the great poet and erected a sculpture of Al Mutanabbi made by renowned Iraqi sculptor, Mohammad Ghani Hikmat, as a reminder of the son of the water carrier, whose arrogance outpaced his insecurity and whose poetry ultimately brought an end to his remarkable life.

Al Mutanabbi was loved by many for his honest and expressive poems.

Praising kings, leaders, and influential figures through verses in exchange for money and gifts was a trend in the old days and even today. Al Mutanabbi was loved by many for his honest and expressive poems, but his significant political ambitions to be a wali (governor) was a personal challenge he lost after joining the courts of Sayf al-Dawla, the Hamdanid poet-prince of northern Syria in 948.

Al Mutanabbi poet

Statue of Al Mutanabbi in old Baghdad, Iraq

“There is no doubt that Al Mutanabbi was a very controversial personality who lived chasing his political dreams of becoming an influential person; his talent can be seen and greatly felt in his poetry, which mainly focused on courage, the philosophy of life, and the description of battles,” Rania Halteh, a history teacher, told Inside Arabia.

“His education contributed widely to the development of his skills. He studied in Damascus and experienced living closely among the Bedouin of the Banu Kalb – an Arab tribe which dominated central Arabia during the late pre-Islamic era, where he learned their principles and Arabic dialect,” she added.

Al Mutanabbi’s early life was far from being a normal one.

“According to several interpretations, he acquired his name when he was young. In some of his verses he likened himself to Saleh, a prophet mentioned in the Quran and Bahá’í books who prophesied to the tribe of Thamud in ancient Arabia, before the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad. This is how Al Mutanabbi ended up being known as ‘the would-be prophet,’” Halteh said.

Proclaiming himself a prophet, an extremely heretical act at the time, and leading a revolution in the Syrian desert among the Kalb tribe who hosted him early in his life, resulted in Al Mutanabbi’s imprisonment by the Ikhshidid dynasty in 933 and his renouncement of prophethood.

“Since his imprisonment, he was labeled a false prophet, and his poetry started to reflect a personal tone which was very direct and emotional. But to really grasp his poetry, a person needs to have a wide imagination and a bit of knowledge about the literature that dominated the era which Al Mutanabbi lived in,” Halteh said.

“Besides the al qasidah literary style that Al Mutanabbi followed and slightly modified, there were the qitah, a less serious form exploring life’s entertaining side, and the ghazal, which typically focuses on love as a theme. Al qasidah, which consisted of 20 to over 100 verses often translated as ode in English, focused on praising an influential person,” Halteh added.

During his nine years at Sayf al-Dawla court, Al-Mutanabbi wrote his most famous poems, including “The Ode on the Reconquest of Al-Hadath” (or in Arabic, Ala qadri ahli al-azmi ta’ al-aza’imu) in 954. It celebrates Sayf Al-Dawlah’s victory over the Byzantine army that led to the reconquest of al-Hadath fortress near the Taurus mountains in modern southeastern Turkey.

The rivalry between Al-Mutanabbi and other poets, especially with Abu Firas Al-Hamdani, was immense.

The rivalry between Al-Mutanabbi and other poets, especially with Abu Firas Al-Hamdani, Sayf Al-Dawlah’s cousin, was immense and led Al-Mutanabbi to leave and head to Egypt to join Abu al-Misk Kafur’s court.  Kafur sensed Al-Mutanabbi’s ambition of becoming a wali and considered him a threat. After he left the court, Al-Mutanabbi criticized Abu al-Misk Kafur in one of his odes.

According to Halteh, it is almost impossible to translate Al Mutanabbi’s works, which are considered masterpieces of Arabic poetry.

Al Mutanabbi poet

Al Mutanabbi Portrait

“Despite attempts by many to translate his work, I believe that everything can be translated or nothing can be translated. Al Mutanabbi hypnotizes you with the structure of the words he uses and captivates you with the meaning behind each word and each letter,” Halteh said. “In my opinion, one should study Arabic and then maybe you could comprehend what he means by this line and that.”

“And how true it is when you are lost in the complicated words of his famous love poems, as you try to understand the meaning behind such lines and voluntarily Al Mutanabbi leads you to another direction,” explained Maram Tweiresh, an Arabic teacher with a passion for the works of the son of the water carrier.

For love is the only thing I have that still lives and does not live.’ This is one of my favorite lines,” Tweiresh shared with Inside Arabia. “If you read it over and over in English, you will never capture the true meaning behind it, but if you read the original line in Arabic, you will get this feeling of euphoria as you float away, in between touching the skies and reaching for the unseen ground beneath you.”

“Al Mutanabbi’s language was influenced by the teachings and the experience he acquired among Egyptians, Syrians, and Iraqis, and his short verses attracted the attention of Arab rulers and their people. In other words, he managed to be influenced and to influence at the same time; we are in the 21st Century and until today his impact can be seen everywhere,” Tweiresh added.

For some, Al Mutanabbi lived for his poetry and met his death for his poetry.

For some, Al Mutanabbi lived for his poetry and met his death for his poetry.

“One of his 326 poems included much insult to a man called Ḍabbah Al Asadi, who along with his uncle Fatik, managed to stop Al-Mutanabbi, his son Muḥassad, and his servant near Baghdad. For a moment Al-Mutanabbi wanted to flee, until his servant reminded him of his bold poetry, and maybe his arrogance or his conviction for what he believed in resulted in his death, when he decided to face Dabbah and fight,” Tweiresh pointed out.

“Al-Mutanabbi will always be a powerhouse, a phenomenon, and one of the greatest influencers in Arabic literature. Who would ever forget his arrogance and pride, which were depicted in his verse: ‘I am the one whose literature can be seen [even] by the blind and whose words are heard [even] by the deaf. The steed, the night, and the desert all know me as do the sword, the spear, the paper, and the pen,’”[i] said Mohammed Khalil, owner of one of the oldest bookshops in downtown Amman.

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[i] Translated from Arabic. Original writing:

ʾAnā l-ladhī naẓara l-ʾaʿmā ʾilā ʾadab-ī                        Wa-ʾasmaʿat kalimāt-ī man bi-hī ṣamamu

Al-ḫaylu wa-l-laylu wa-l-baydāʾu taʿrifu-nī                 Wa-s-saifu wa-r-rumḥu wa-l-qirṭāsu wa-l-qalamu.

 

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