Abul Tayyeb al Mutanabi (915-965): The Would-be Prophet

The desert knows me well,
the night and the mounted men.
The battle and the sword,
the paper and the pen.

The Wall Street Journal last Saturday did an appreciation of Firdausi, author of the Persian epic the Shahnamen Book of Kings.  He’s a well enough known name (that is to say, I’ve actually heard of him), but who is the best of the Arab poets?

Short answer is, Al-Mutanabi.

He was born in Al Kufah, Iraq, the son of ancient and noble family which by his fathers generation had fallen on hard times.  His father was a water carrier.  Still, lineage counts for something and Al-Mutanabi got an education in Damascus, and made something of it. Arrogance marked the fellow, well justified in the literary realm, probably less so in other endeavors.  He thought he should be a man of power.

At nineteen he joined a band of Shi’ite Qarmatians, and with a crew of Bedouins led a revolt against his home town in 932. It fizzled,  he spent two years in a Syrian prison before recanting and so gaining his freedom.

Renunciation was one thing, he still needed to make his way in the world.  He  took up the pen and started looking for men who would pay for flattery.

It is a frequent comment about Arabic literature is that the best aspects of it cannot be translated without falling flat, and I’m willing to believe it.  In the case of Al-Mutanabi, his work is said to be  so good that “blind people can read it”and “deaf people can hear it.”  (Granted,  he himself said that, but there doesn’t appear to be a lot of dissent.  It ain’t bragging if it’s true.)

Not an easy path,  praising people to the skies when you yourself have an outsized ego.   The fact was, his own dreams of power never really left him, and he hoped that his panegyrics would lead to political appointments with some heft.

It didn’t happen.   Worse, as the politics of the day were constantly shifting and Al-Mutanabi could not always restrain himself from the barb.  He removed to Egypt for a time where his patron was the slave born black eunuch regent Abu al-Misk Kafur, regent for the ruling Ikhshidids.  Disappointed in his hopes for serious preferment, Al-Mutanabi, conscious both of his skill as a writer and his above-average ancestry, he eventually departed for  Iran, leaving behind some rude poetry about his former friend.

He next settled in Shiraz, where he was court poet for Adud ad-Dawlah, more or less on the straight and narrow until 965.  But he couldn’t restrain that talent for invective.  This time he insulted  one Dhaba al-Asadi (a figure otherwise forgotten by history).  The man took it to heart and began to track the poet down.   The offended party found him, too, on the road just outside of Baghdad, and even from a distance it was clear that al-Asadi intended violence.   Al-Mutanabi and his traveling companions mounted up and began to run away, but one of their  thought there was a bit of shame in this and began to recite the lines above.

It stung Al-Mutanabi’s pride.  He  immediately turned around and faced his attackers, inviting, and in the event getting, violent death for the sake of personal honor.

Outside of Pushkin,  also killed in a matter of personal honor, it is difficult to think of too many poets with that kind of moxie.

(To this day, the center of bookselling in Baghdad is Al-Mutanabbi street. For more on the man and his works, see Al-Mutanabbi: Voice of the ‘Abbasid Poetic Ideal

2 thoughts on “Abul Tayyeb al Mutanabi (915-965): The Would-be Prophet

  1. Notes on your article:

    Fedousi wasn’t Arab but Persian, on which the article is misleading.

    Almutanabi’s ancestry isn’t clearly known and is a matter of debate.

    His longest and most notable relationship with a patron was with Sayf Ad Dawlah in Damascus, which isn’t elaborated on and is a noteworthy omission.

    A better translation of his quote given would be “I am he who’s the art the blind man gazed on, and my words have made the deaf to hear”

    • Translations is always a tough nut, and I appreciate your addition, for which many thanks.

      I thought I was pretty clear in distinguishing between Firdausi as the author of the great Persian epic and that of Al-Mutanabi as an Arab writer, sorry if you found it confusing.

      Mea culpa on the Sayf ad-Dawlah, his patron before he left for Egypt, and worthy of a post himself. This piece is intended as an amuse bouche, to raise awareness of the man not as well known in the west as he should be, which is why I refer those interested to the book.

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