Arabic Rhetoric (VI) – Encounter with Modernity (1900s)

Encounter with Modernity


The early twentieth-century ushered in the modern era, in which the Arabs started to become more aware of modern Western intellectual and literary developments. It was also a time when Muslims began to reflect critically on their own scholarly heritage, with a view to identifying and understanding whether any part of it could have contributed to the (by then) pervading intellectual, material and political weakness and subjugation to European colonialism. Calls for and attempts at reform and revival emerged across the classical disciplines of Islam and the Arabic language.

Three Questions

In the field of balagha, the discussion was centered on three major questions:

i) Do discussions from medieval philosophy, theology, formal logic, dialectics and Islamic legal theory really belong in the books of balagha? There emerged the widespread sentiment that such discussions were alien to balagha proper, and that they unnecessarily complicated its study and distracted from its aesthetic essence.

ii) Does the discipline of balagha need to be updated by incorporating modern developments in fields such as psychology, music, pedagogy, sociology and European linguistics and literary theory?

iii) What changes are needed in how balagha is taught in the 20th century?

The answer to this is, of course, closely linked to how we answer the previous two questions. In 1939, `Ali al-Jarim (an Azhar-educated scholar, who went on to become Dean of Cairo University) and Mustafa Amin (an Egyptian educator) published al-Balagha al-Wadiha, a textbook that presented a simplified introduction to the classical sub-disciplines of balagha, doing away with obscure discussions from philosophy and logic, and also being selective in which topics/devices are included. The book was a great success, has been re-published many times, and continues to be used as high-school level textbook in the Middle East, and for introductory seminary courses for non-Arabs.

Questions such as the above were debated vigorously on the pages of the Risala intellectual journal in mid-20th century Egypt, and the debates spawned several books, by both conservatives and progressives, discussing the issues in more detail. There emerged three broad attitudes or approaches. 

(to be continued)

— Suheil Laher



Sundial: Sue Rickhuss,

Futuristic clock: Gerd Altman,


Arabic Rhetoric (V) – Stasis and Stagnation (600 – 1300 H)

Stasis and Stagnation : The Seventh to Fourteenth Centuries

In the 7th/13th century, the Mongols were ravaging the Islamic heartland, eventually sacking Baghdad and destroying many of its books in 656/1258. Around the same time, the western realms witnessed the decline and defeat of many Muslim states in seventh-century Spain. Andalusian poet Salih al-Rundi (d. 684) wrote a famous elegy to his homeland, the opening lines of the poem saying,

For everything, once it has reached is peak, there’ll be decline,
Let not the human be beguiled, then by a lifestyle fine.

Similarly and perhaps not entirely coincidentally, for balagha the seventh and eighth centuries brought a crowning synthesis, but also the onset of decline.

The crowning systematization occurred in Central Asia, at the hands of Yusuf al-Sakkaki (d. 626/1229), a Khwarazmi scholar of the Arabic language. Sakkaki wrote a compendium of the major disciplines of Arabic entitled Miftah al-`Ulum (‘The Key to the Disciplines’), which he divided into three sections: morphology (sarf), syntax (nahw) and balagha respectively. The balagha section was a digest of Jurjani’s work on ma`ani and bayan, plus a section on badi` (rhetorical embellishments). Jurjani himself had discussed some rhetorical embellishments, but had not treated badi` as a separate sub-discipline. It was thus Sakkaki who pioneered the division of balagha into three sub-disciplines, which after him became the standard taxonomy, and his book became a standard reference. Jalal al-Din al-Qazwini (d. 739/1338, ‘the orator of Damascus’) wrote an abridgement of it (Talkhis al-Miftah, ‘The Summary of the Key’) which along with his al-Idah fi `Ulum al-Balagha (‘The Elucidation of the Disciplines of Balagha‘, intended as a commentary on the Talkhis), came to be widely studied and taught. Many subsequent scholars wrote commentaries on the Talkhis, one prominent example being Taftazani’s (d. 793/1390) Mutawwal (“The Protracted”). Suyuti’s (d. 911/1505) 1,006-line didactic poem `Uqud al-Juman fi `Ilm al-Ma`ani wal-Bayan was a versification of the contents of the Talkhis, and is still taught today in some traditional seminaries in the Muslim world.

Notwithstanding the achievements in consolidation and epitomization, balagha in the post-Zamakhshari era generally entered a stage of stasis, and even stagnation, with many later writers effectively trying to reduce it to a set of mechanical rules similar to grammar, and continuing to parrot the illustrative examples mentioned in the seminal works, without attempting to apply the principles to other texts. Scholarly efforts were mostly confined to summarizing earlier works, which is not without benefit, but with little new ground being broken, balagha lost its dynamic character. This retreat of scholarly endeavor into preservation mode is certainly comprehensible in light of the socio-political upheavals that affected much of this period, and indeed it was prominent across other Islamic disciplines at the time. While the summary-text (mukhtasar) was not a new phenomenon (in fiqh, for example, they existed as early as the 3rd century, with Muzani’s summary of Shafi`i’s legal rulings being an early example), it was in the 7th – 8th centuries that the art of synopsis and condensation reached its peak. While the resulting texts certainly demonstrate that a lot of time and skill were expended to produce them, and they can serve as valuable memory aids for the contours of a discipline, nevertheless, there were debates over the value of such super-summaries. The Mukhtasar Khalil, a Maliki summary text by the erudite Maliki jurist Khalil ibn Ishaq (d. 776) is particularly notorious for the terseness of its language, often to the point of opacity. The Mukhtasar Khalil contains 400,000 legal determinations condensed into less than 300 pages, and it remains a central pedagogical work for Maliki law, but it is not easily decipherable without explanation, and many commentaries have been written for it. A translation of the first few lines is presented below, and it is clearly not a “short and easy introduction to the Islamic rules on purification.” Hattab (d. 954), a famous commentator on Khalil’s mukhtasar, devoted several pages to unpacking and explaining these few lines:

Lesser intangible impurity, and the legal ruling of tangible impurity, are lifted by al-mutlaq (unqualified) [water], which is that to which the name “water” applies without any stipulation, even if it be collected from dew, or it melted after having been frozen, or was the left-over after drinking by a animal or ritually impure woman or man, or the left-over after the washing of the latter two, or a large quantity contaminated by filth that does not change it[s characteristics] or is such that one is uncertain whether the agent of change is detrimental [to purity], or….”

Khalil ibn Ishaq (d. 776), Mukhtasar

Ibn Khaldun, the famous Sevillian historian and sociologist (d. 808/1406) was among those who were critical of the mukhtasar enterprise, expressing his thoughts in a chapter of his Muqaddima (Prolegomena) entitled, “Excess of Summarized Texts in the Disciplines is Detrimental to Learning”.


We do find breaths of fresh air in this period, with scholars whose works are exceptions to the norm of stasis and stagnation. Thus, even though Razi did merely summarize Jurjani’s books, the latter were difficult to approach, and so his summary was useful. Razi himself was a polymath and independent thinker, whose own tafsir explores many of the subtleties of Quranic diction. Another refreshingly non-typical figure in the Zamkhsharian legacy is the Zaydi imam Yahya ibn Hamza al-`Alawi (d. 745/1344), whose work al-Tiraz li-Asrar al-Balagha wa `Ulum Haqa’iq al-I`jaz (‘The Embroidery in the Secrets of Eloquence and the Disciplines of the Realities of Inimitability’) was intended to refine the material and present it in easily-accessible explanation and arrangement. His work is also unique in that he illustrates the principles of balagha with many text-snippets beyond the handful of examples that most writers were simply echoing from one another.

The 7th century also witnessed the emergence of the poetic genre of Badi`iyyat, poems that praised the Prophet Muhammad, but at the same time incorporated rhetorical embellishments, with each line typically illustrating a different rhetorical device. The most prominent pioneer of the genre was `Ali ibn` Uthman al-Arbili (d. 670). Other famous badi`iyyat included those by Safiyy al-Din al-Hilli (d. 750), Suyuti (d. 911) and Aisha al-Ba`uniyya (d. 922), and poems in the genre continued to be written into the modern era.

— Suheil Laher


PHOTO CREDIT: Martina Neugebauer-Renner,

Arabic Rhetoric (IV) – Synthesis and Consolidation (400-600 H)

The scene was now ripe for a final synthesis, that very soon started to take shape. Ibn Sinan al-Khafaji (d. 466/1073), a Shi`ite philologist, poet and litterateur) was aware of the theological, philological, grammatical and literary-criticism strands of scholarship on balagha, but observed that each of them was limited in its scope. He therefore wrote a book Sirr al-Fasaha (‘The Secret of Eloquence’) that was intended to bring together all these aspects. But the major credit for synthesizing balagha and harmonizing its different strands goes to `Abd al-Qahir al-Jurjani (d. 471/1078), a Persian grammarian and Ash`ari theologian who lived and died in Gorgan, near the south-east banks of the Caspian Sea. Jurjani asserted that speech acquires eloquence and beauty when it has secondary meanings (meanings that are not obtained merely from the words); for example, the statement that a woman “often naps in the morning,” might have embedded in it the secondary meaning that she is well-off and has servants who take care of her household chores, leaving her free to nap. Regarding the the eloquence of the Quran in particular, he observed that the concept of nazm (how different components of the speech are coordinated to give a coherence that is striking in its beauty) is central to understanding nature of its unrivalled beauty. He authored two books on balagha : Dala’il al-I`jaz (‘The Indications of Inimitability’) and Asrar al-Balagha (‘The Secrets of Eloquence’), in which he laid the groundwork for systematizing `ilm al-ma`ani (linguistic pragmatics) and `ilm al-bayan (figurative language and imagery) respectively. These two fields became central to the consolidated field of balagha, to which badi` (rhetorical emellishments) was later added as a third. Jurjani can rightly be considered as the founder of the formal discipline of balagha, and his influence and legacy were central to the trajectory of balagha after him.

Among those influenced by Jurjani about a half-century later was a man who hailed from over a thousand kilometers to the northeast, in the Central Asian oasis of Khwarazm. The Mu`tazilite theologian al-Zamakhshari (d. 538/1143) wrote a work of tafsir that attempted to apply Jurjani’s principles to explore balagha aspects of the Quran and its inimitability. Zamakhshari’s was the first balagha-focused tafsir, and he entitled it Al-Kashshaf `an Haqa’iq al-Tanzil wa-`Uyun al-Aqawil fi Wujuh al-Ta’wil (‘The Revealer of the Realities of the Revelation and the Choice Statements on the Ways of Interpretation.’) Despite the fact that it included Mu`tazilite theological positions, it continues, to this day, to be valued even by Sunnis for its balagha content.

Shortly after Zamakhshari, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 606/1210), the renowned exegete, philosopher and Ash`ari theologian, wrote a useful abridgement Nihayat al-Ijaz fi Dirayat al-I`jaz (‘The Ultimate Brevity in the Understanding of Inimitability’) of Jurjani’s two seminal works that is more accessible to those who do not have the time or expertise to dive directly into Jurjani’s writings.

— Suheil Laher

PHOTO CREDIT (Fabric) : Engin_Akyurt,

Arabic Rhetoric (III) – Conceits and Quran (200-400 H)

Conceits and Quran : The Fourth and Fifth Centuries

The fourth and fifth centuries saw two developments that were significant for the history of balagha. These were independent – one theological, the other non-religiously literary – but coincidentally fall on opposite sides of the line drawn by the question, “When does too much of a good thing become bad?”

In the literary arena, this period sees the rise of the badi` (literally: ‘novelty’) movement in poetry. Early `Abbasid poets such as the Iraqi Muslim ibn al-Walid (d. 208/824) tried to embellish their poetry with abundant use of ingenious literary devices and techniques (literary conceits), to the extent that it was often perceived as forced and artificial. Ibn Qutayba had already seen the start of such affectedness, along with lack of proper literary qualifications, in the middle of the previous (2nd-) century. Aside from a natural distaste for such unnaturalness, the critics were likely also reminded of a hadith criticizing those who talk excessively, and with unnatural airs and arrogance:


Hence, we have `Abdullah ibn al-Mu`tazz (d. 296/909, the `Abbasid belle-lettrist and caliph who ruled for just one day before being assassinated), writing his Kitab al-Badi` to show that such embellishing devices were not invented by new movement of `Abbasid poets. To the contrary, he showed, these can be found even in pre-Islamic poetry and the Quran, the difference being that the ‘new age’ poets made excessive use of such embellishments, resulting in their poems being of inferior quality.

In this book of ours, we have set forth what we have found – in the Quran, the language, the hadiths of God’s Messenger, the sayings of the Companions and the Bedouins and others, and the speech of the ancients – of the type of speech that the Moderns call badi`. [We have done this] so that it can be known that Bashshar [ibn Burd], Muslim [ibn al-Walid], Abu Nuwas, and those of their ilk, were not the first to know this art. It is merely that [badi`] was used profusely in their poetry, and this was known in their lifetimes, and so this label was applied to them. Then, after them Aws al-Ta’i became obsessed with it, to the extent that he was overwhelmed by it….and used it abundantly, excelling in some cases and doing deplorably in others, and this is the consequence of excessiveness and the fruit of prodigality. [In the past] a poet would only mention one or two distichs of this sort in a poem, or one might read several of his poems [in their entirety] without finding a distich of badi`  therein, for this [sort of embellishment] was deemed pleasing from them if they produced it once in a while, and its prestige would increase when it was interspersed [in this way].”


Ibn al-Mu`tazz’ book also appears to have been the first attempt to systematize the study of badi`, which would eventually become one of the three sub-disciplines in the study of balagha. He listed five rhetorical embellishments:

  1. Isti`ara (‘Metaphor’)
  2. Tajnis (Consonance)
  3. Mutabaqa (Contrast)
  4. Radd al-Kalam `ala ma taqaddamaha (Epanalepsis)
  5. al-Madhhab al-Kalami (Rational Persuasion)

Nevertheless, he sagely commented that, “The embellishments of [speech] are many, and no scholar should claim to have exhaustively listed them all.” Indeed, later rhetoricians emended his list, with some of them reaching over a hundred different embellishing devices! Ibn al-Mu`tazz’ pioneering study of badi` in poetry prompted works by numerous other writers, among which Abu Hilal al-`Askari’s (d. 395/1005) Kitab al-Sina`atayn (‘The Two Crafts,’ i.e. poetry and prose) is noteworthy for broadening the scope of the discussion to prose. Another development in prose, slightly later than the badi` movement in poetry, but roughly parallel in its nature, was the emergence of the maqamat genre. Pioneered by Badi` al-Zaman al-Hamadhani (d. 398/1008), the maqamat works comprise a series of picaresque short stories that are amusing, but also use highly sophisticated (even to the point of being artificial, and opaque and obscure to the average reader).


So, far we have seen the poetic, philological and secretarial currents of scholarship that dealt with various aspects of what would become the field of balagha. The fourth and fifth centuries witnessed the start of a synthesis and systemization of the discipline. Mu`tazilite theologian al-Rummani (d. 384/994), in his Nukat fi I`jaz al-Quran (‘Issues concerning the Inimitability of the Quran’), observed that balagha is one aspect (among seven) of the miraculous inimitability of the Quran, and he also identified and defined some rhetorical figures.


Others followed his lead, including the renowned Ash`ari theologian al-Baqillani (d. 403/1013), who further explored the eloquence of the Quran in his I`jaz al-Quran, a book that also drew on the earlier poetry criticism works of Qudama, Ibn al-Mu`tazz, al-`Askari and others.


These theological works were the start of the eventual synthesis that would bring together the earlier disciplines, but are original enough to constitute a new sub-genre of balagha the theological.

— Suheil Laher

PHOTO CREDIT: Marco Pazzini,

Arabic Rhetoric (II) – Secretaries and Stallions (100-300 H)

Secretaries and Stallions : The Second and Third Centuries

The increased mingling of Arabs and non-Arabs spawned fruitful cultural exchange, but also rivalries motivated in part by each linguistic group’s fear of dilution and loss of their own languages’ purity. In the meantime, the conduct of official state business began to be more sophisticated, and the political stability and prosperity witnessed in this time allowed for further systematization of knowledge. All of these historical developments had their reverberations in the field of balagha in the 2nd and 3rd centuries .


A major impetus to the development of balagha came from the official government secretaries (kuttab) who emerged as a distinct professional group during this time. These secretaries needed to use refined and ornamental language in official documents, and were also in contact with the poets of their time. As a result, they were able to master the arts of style and diction. Manuals for secretaries therefore started to be produced, such as Ibn Qutayba’s (d. 276/889) Adab al-Katib (The Secretary’s Etiquettes), and ʻAbdul-Rahman al-Hamadhani (d. 327/939) al-Alfaz al-Kitabiyya (‘The Secretarial Words,’ a compilation of synonyms and eloquent expressions useful for secretaries and others wanting to write eloquently).-


Philologists also contributed to the documentation of eloquence, but cast a wider net than merely serving secretarial needs. Baghdadian grammarian Thaʻlab’s (d. 291/914) al-Fasih (‘The Eloquent’) was not only a collection of eloquent words and expressions, but also drew attention to inelegant utterances and common errors (vulgarisms), and Ibn al-Sikkit’s (d. 244/848) Islah al-Mantiq (‘Rectification of Speech’) was similarly an encyclopedia of correct and eloquent expression. One motivating factor for such compilations by philologists was their awareness of the declining purity of people’s Arabic, as Arabs were influenced by their interactions with other ethnic groups, many of whom themselves started to speak Arabic.


Another genre that emerged during this time was a formal literary criticism of poetry, and it drew the attention of both philologists and secretaries. The former (philological strand) includes the book Fuhulat al-Shuʻara’ (‘The Poetic Geniuses,’) by the Basran poetry expert and voyaging researcher of philology al-Asmaʻi (d. 216/831). The book evaluates the productions of a number of pre-Islamic and Islamic poets on the basis of both style and meaning, before judging whether or not each poet qualifies to be called an expert (fahl, literally: a stallion that has reached its fourth year).


Qudama ibn Jaʻfar’s (d. 337/948) Naqd al-Shiʻr (‘Poetry Criticism’) and Ibn Tabataba’s (d. 322/934) ʻIyar al-Shiʻr (‘The Gauge of Poetry’) are prominent representatives of the secretarial thread of poetry criticism. A third thread of the genre is inspired by Aristotle’s Poetics, which had already been translated into Arabic by this time, and would soon be commented on by Arab philosophers such as Ibn Sina (d. 428/1037). However, it would not be until later, in the Maghrib (Muslim West), that individuals like the Andalusian Hazim al-Qartajanni (d. 684/1286, who was born and raised in Cartagena, Spain, then moved to North Africa after his city fell to the Castillians) attempted to apply these Hellenistic principles of analysis and critique to Arabic literature.

The first attempt to systematically discuss and document the field of balagha also came during this period. The belletrist, Muʻtazilite (‘rationalist’) theologian and polymath Abu ʻUthman al-Jahiz (d. 255/869) wrote a lengthy work entitled al-Bayan wal-Tabyin (‘Expression and Elucidation’), in which he gave a taxonomy of human expression (including writing, gesturing and speaking), as well a wide range of topics including: the relative rise and fall of oration and poetry, the merits of the secretaries, errors and defects in speech, the different types of words and of speakers, the meaning of eloquence, the eloquence of the Quran, the origin of language, and a refutation of the shuʻubi (a pro-Persianate cultural movement of the time) attempts to discredit Arabic.

— Suheil Laher


Picture Credit: Janet Gooch,

Arabic Rhetoric (I) – The Red Tent (pre-Islam to 100 H)

The Red Tent and the First Century

The prodigy (“al-Nabigha”) Ziyad al-Dhubyani (d. 18 BH / 604 C), a renowned pre-Islamic poet, used to set up a red tent in the marketplace of `Ukaz, where poets would come and present their poetry to him for praise, criticism, and adjudication. Arabic poetry appears to have emerged quite suddenly in the sixth century CE, and was already very sophisticated by the time of the Prophet Muhammad. Poets would sometimes think about and refine their poems over an entire year (such poems were termed hawli


yyat), and there were literary fairs and contests that drew poets from all over Arabia. The Prophet himself is reported to have appreciated good poetry. There were clearly aesthetic criteria that the Arabs had for judging poetry in this early period, but they were not yet formal or documented.

Eloquence and sophistication have long been valued in Arabic, as they have been in other languages, but the emergence of balagha as a technical term and as a formal subject of study was a gradual development, involving a confluence of several currents in earlier scholarship, the earliest of which is probably this endeavor of poetry criticism. Into the midst of this milieu, which valued and delighted in poetry, emerged then the Qur’an, with an innovative literary style that did not conform to the conventions of Arabic poetry or prose, and yet was beautiful and powerful. The Quran posed a challenge to the Arab literary conoisseurs and artists to imitate it, declaring that their inability to do so proved the Quran’s divine origin. This theological concept of inimitability of the Quran would, in time, influence the development of balagha, as we pick up on later.

JawamiKalimThe Prophet made a clear distinction between the Quran (believed to be God’s words brought to him by the angel Gabriel, and covered by the challenge of inimitability), and his own words which, even when they related to religious matters, were not claimed to be inimitable in their style. Nevertheless, he did value eloquence and effective communication. Some of his sayings are succinct yet profound in meaning, and he declared this ability to be a divine blessing (even if not a miracle). Imam Nawawi’s (d. 676/1278) famous compilation of 40 Hadiths was an attempt to collect some of the most important such sayings. Other hadiths indicate that the Prophet also paid attention to word choice, disapproving of saying things in a way that could lead to misunderstanding, or have a negative psychological effect.


After the Prophet’s death, the concern for language remained strong. The fourth caliph `Ali (d. 40/661), in particular, had a reputation for eloquence, and two centuries later al-Sharif al-Radiyy (d. 406/1015, Twelver Shi`i scholar and poet) attempted to compile what he could find of Imam `Ali’s sermons, letters and other words in the book Nahj al-Balagha (‘The Peak of Eloquence.’) Although the subsequent the Umayyad dynasty (41/662 -132/750) certainly had its demerits, decline of the Arabic language was not *among them. Among the skilful orators of this period were Zayd ibn al-Husayn (a descendant of the Prophet), the famous ascetic Hasan of Basra (d. 110/728), and the notorious tyrant Hajjaj ibn Yusuf (d. 95/714). Mu`tazilite theologian Wasil ibn `Ata’ (d. 131/748) was unable to pronounce the ‘r’ sound, due to a speech impediment, but was so skillful with the language that he managed to speak eloquently without using any r-containing words! The Umayyad era was also one of territorial expansion (leading to cultural exchange) and intellectual maturation. The marketplaces of Mirbad and Kunasa, in the garrison cities of Basra and Kufa respectively, became sites for literary presentation, just as `Ukaz had been in the pre-Islamic (Jahiliyya) period.

(Part 2 scheduled to be posted next week)

— Suheil Laher

PHOTO CREDIT: Charles Wilson, Picturesque Palestine, Sinai and Egypt (New York: Appleton, 1883), vol. IV, p. 253. Scanned public domain version of the page at:

History of Balagha (Arabic Rhetoric & Eloquence) – Prelude

The field of the Arabic language known as balagha (eloquence and rhetoric) started as a spirit without a definite name or formal description, and in time became something rigorously defined and delineated but lacking in its initial dynamic aesthetic spirit, until eventually seeing a revival in modern times. This story covers fifteen centuries, starting in Arabia, but eventually spreading as far as central Asia and Andalusia. In the course of this journey across space and time, we will see the field described by multiple names (bayan, fasaha, balagha and others), and developing in several separate currents, before these are eventually brought to a confluence, and the field takes a steady-state shape comprising three sub-disciplines: ma`ani (linguistic pragmatics / semantics), bayan (imagery and figurative language) and badi` (rhetorical embellishments). As for the leading characters of this story, we will meet folk as diverse as Caliphs and imams, philologists and theologians (including Sunnis, Shi`is and Mu`tazilis), as well as poets and secretaries. So, won’t you join us on this fascinating odyssey?

NOTE (1): This entire essay is a prefatory essay to Fawakih Institute’s “Introduction to Balagha” textbook. The textbook is part of Fawakih’s six-level Classical Arabic curriculum. Further details of the Fawakih curriculum and classes (online and in-person) can be found on Fawakih’s website.

NOTE (2): The story of balagha’s history will be posted in several parts (usually one per week). The titles of each part are listed below, and a link will be added for each part as it is released. If a link is not working, the post might not yet be publicly available! Please contact me if you have any questions.

The History of Balagha

    1. The Red Tent and the First Century
    2. Secretaries and Stallions : The Second and Third Centuries
    3. Conceits and Quran : The Third and Fourth Centuries
    4. Synthesis and Consolidation : The Fifth and Sixth Centuries 
    5. Stasis and Stagnation : The Seventh to Fourteenth Centuries
    6. Encounter with Modernity
    7. Engagements with Modernity
    8. Modern Rhetorical Exegesis
    9. Epilogue


– Suheil Laher

Photo Credit: Conger Design,

The Orphan’s Tear (Parvin Etesami’s Poem)

The Arabic word for poet is sha`ir شاعر literally means “one who perceives,” for poets are often sensitive to things that others might not perceive, and they are capable of expressing their insights in beautiful and moving language. Among the themes that have long drawn the interest of poets is social commentary and critique, including economic imbalances and the ethical violations that lead to them.

The English Romantic poet William Blake, in his famous Auguries of Innocence, said,

The prince’s robes and beggar’s rags
Are toadstools on the miser’s bags

The poem presented in translation in this post contains a similar idea, but expressed in its own powerful way.

Parvin Etesami (پروين اعتصامي / Parwin I`tisami, 1907-1940) was the first published female poet in Iran. Her father was a man of letters, and he educated her in Arabic and Persian literature. He would also give the young Parvin his own prose translations of Arabic, Turkish and French poems and ask her to convert them into Persian poetry. She wrote almost entirely within the conventions of classical Persian poetry, and often addressed socio-ethical and moral themes. Shortly before her death, she is reported to have destroyed many of her poems because she was not satisfied with their quality. She died from illness at the age of 37, and her anthology (divan) was published a few years later with an introduction by poet laureate Taqi Bahar.

Below is my translation of Etesami’s Persian poem The Orphan’s Tear ( اشك يتيم ), a social commentary that issues a scathing condemnation of financially corrupt and exploitative leaders. The poem opens with the scene of a pompous royal procession through town, and then zooms in on a young orphan and an old woman, upon whose exploitation and/or deprivation the king’s wealth has been built. The closing predicts that some people will probably be offended by, and remain unaffected by the admonition.

Technical Notes

I have opted for a poetic (rhymed pentameter) translation, and in the process have compromized on accuracy in order to preserve meter and rhyme, so this is not a literal translation. For example, compare the literal and poetic translations of line 11 below:

Literal: That pious one who acquires villages and realms is a brigand
Poetic: The saint who craves control is but a rogue

Each English line corresponds to a hemistich (half-line) of the original Persian, and the first and second half-lines have been switched for easier rhyme. The original Persian poem can be found here.

The Orphan’s Tear (English Translation)

From every street and roof rose joyous shouts;
The king that day was passing through the town
An orphan boy amidst this speaks his doubts,
What is that sparkle that’s atop his crown?

Someone replied : that’s not for us to know,
But it’s a priceless thing, that’s clear!
A crone approached, her twisted back bent low,
She said: that’s your heart’s blood and my eye’s tear!

We were deceived by shepherd’s staff and robe
He is a wolf; for many years he’s known the flock.
The saint who craves control is but a rogue
A beggar is the king who robs his flock.

Upon the orphan’s tears keep fixed your gaze.
‘Til you see from where comes the jewel’s glow.
How can straight talk help those of crooked ways?
And frank words will to most folk deal a blow.


— Suheil Laher


PICTURE CREDIT: OpenClipartVectors,

The Proverbial Hadham’s Truthfulness

adhām حَذامِ was the daughter of Rayyān, an Arabian chief. A imyarite chief named ʻĀṭis ibn Jallā launched a military attack on Rayyan, a severe battle ensued. During the night, Rayyan and his people secretly withdrew. They continued marching all day, to get as far from ʻĀṭis as they could, and then set up camp for the night. Meanwhile, ʻĀṭis upon awakening that morning, had found his foe vanished, and therefore set out in hot pursuit. He caught up to them while they were camped for the night. As ʻĀṭis approached Rayyān’s camp, he disturbed some sandgrouses, which therefore started flying and were spotted by Ḥadhām. Ḥadhām, realizing that danger was afoot, tried to alert her people, and to make them get up and leave before they were overcome:

ألا يا قَوْمَنَا ارتَحْلُوا وَسِيْرُوا  *  فَلَو تُرِكَ القَطَا لَنَامَا

        Forsooth, O my people, decamp and proceed!

        For if the sandgrouse were left alone by night, it would sleep.

(The second part of this utterance later came to be used proverbially to refer to someone pressured to unwillingly do something.)

If the sandgrouse were left alone by night, it would sleep

However, they were too worn out from the battle and the subsequent day-long march to heed her. Thereafter, someone else from her camp – either Ḥadhām’s husband Lujaym ibn aʻb, or a man named Daysam ibn āriq – cried out to his people (also in verse),

فلولا المزعجات من الليالي  *   لما ترك القطا طيب المنام

إذا قالت حذام فصدقوها  *   فإن القول ما قالت حذام

        Were it not for the disturbances of the night,

        The sandgrouse would not have left the sweetness of sleep.

        When Ḥadhām says so, then believe her,

        For the truth is what Ḥadhām has said.

Upon this exhortation, Rāyyan’s people made haste to depart, and took refuge in a nearby valley where they remained safe. Ḥadhām’s name became an archetype of truth, and her words and those of the man who took her cue became proverbial.

When Hadham says so then believe her

NOTE (1): The name Ḥadhām comes from the root h-dh-m, meaning to cut, and legend has it that she became known by this nickname after her hand was cut with a sharp blade by a jealous woman.

NOTE (2): The name Ḥadhām, and similarly other Arabic words on the same morphological pattern fa`ali فعالِ , have a fixed ending vowel, regardless of grammatical case, in Western Arabian (Hijazi) usage. The poetic utterance of Ḥadhām’s relayer (Lujaym or Tariq) became a textbook example to illustrate this grammatical point.

– Suheil Laher


PICTURE CREDITS (for the underlying photographs used):

Anja ,

Skeeze ,

Shawqi on Moral Pedagogy

In a previous post, I introduced Shawqi‘s poem on education, and presented a translation of the first 10 lines. Below is a translation of another portion of the poem (lines 37-43, 46-49). This section highlights the importance of imparting proper education to the youth (male and female), since they will be tomorrow’s citizens. He observes that such education cannot be effectively imparted if the teachers themselves are morally impoverished, and also that parents have an important role in their children’s moral development. Once again, the translation is in quickly-composed pentametric blank verse (giving priority to meter over rhyme), with each hemistich of the Arabic corresponding to one line in English.

On fairness bring up well the country’s youth,
That they be vaults of ethics in their prime.
Yea, the teacher nurtures upright natures,
And he it is who raises virtuous souls.
Who straightens out each logic that’s askew,
And leads its thinker on to reason pure.
When the teacher himself shows not justice
Then justice ‘mongst the youth shall be weak-souled.
When acumen the teacher himself lacks,
Then those he nurtures cross-eyed shall perceive
When fancy is the source of his advice,
Or pride, you may as well call it deceit.
When a people’s wound is in their morals,
Then give them their last rites, and wail for them.
When women-folk are raised illiterate,
Their suckled babes grow ignorant and dull.
The orphan is not he whose parents ceased
The toils of life, left him in abjectness,
But he then found a substitute for them:
The world and time their wisdom teaching him.
The orphan is the one whose parents are
Alive and yet repulse him and neglect.

– Suheil Laher


Photo credit: Muhammed Bahcecik,