Poetry has been central to the spiritual life of Muslims

A musical gathering, dated 18th century, Ottoman Turkey.
Aga Khan Museum Collection

The earliest examples of religious poetry in Islam are to be found in the verses of a small group of poets who were companions of Prophet Muhammad. The most famous poet was Hassan ibn Thabit (d. 669), who wrote poems in praise of the Prophet as well as to spread the messages from the Prophet. In the years following the Prophet’s death in 632, a number of the poets composed eulogies in his memory as well as poems inspired by passages of the Qur’an.

In the early years of Islam, Arabic poetry was largely non-religious, such as praise poems (madih), love lyrics (ghazal), hunting poems (tardiyyat), and satire (hija‘). Islamic religious poetry seems to have emerged in the late eight century in association with the widespread movement for religious and social reform. Additionally, the spread of tasawwuf, or Sufism, which focused on the spiritual and mystical life of Islam, led to the cultivation of the introspective style of religious poetry.

Initially, this poetry focused on the fear and wrath of God. In the next century, the wrath of God was replaced by personal love for Him and a quest for divine union in this world. Some of the finest mystical-love poems were composed by Dhu’l-Nun (d. 861) and Mansur al-Hallaj (d. 922). Al-Hallaj’s famous poem the Kitab al-tawasin contains a eulogy of Prophet Muhammad and became the most popular genre of religious poetry in all languages and cultures of Islam. Henceforth, veneration of the Prophet became an essential part of Muslim piety.

A collection of poems by Nizami (d. 1209).
Aga Khan Museum Collection

In about the twelfth century, Sufi poets began to compose mystical poems: the most notable of the poets include Ibn al-Farid (d. 1235), Ibn Arabi (d. 1240) writing in Arabic, and the Persian poets Farid al-Din Attar (d. 1225) and Jalal al-Din Rumi (d. 1273). The relationship between Sufism and Shi’ism at the time influenced Shi’i literature. The establishment of the Shi’i state by the Fatimids in North Africa, Egypt, and Syria, as well as by Buwayhid dynasty in Iran and Iraq led to a renaissance of Shi’i literature and learning. Prominent poets from this time include Ismaili poets Ibn Hani (d. 973), Nasir-i Khusraw (d. after 1072). Al-Shirazi (d. 1078), and the Twelver Shi’i poet al-Sharif al-Radi (d. 1015).

Poetry was not confined to Persian speaking Nizari Ismailis; the spread of Ismailism into the Indian subcontinent by dai’is, or pirs, whose teachings were conducted primarily through oral instruction, led to the composition of poems and devotional hymns, or ginans in a variety of local languages.

Poets have poured out their hearts in praise of God, the Prophet, and the Imams in Arabic, Farsi, Sindhi, Urdu, Hausa, Swahili and others; however, the different languages used by the Ismaili community meant that this literature has been inaccessible to many of them. A collection of selected short poems composed in Arabic and Persian have been translated into English and compiled into an anthology, Shimmering Light, published by The Institute of Ismaili Studies. Visit  http://www.iis.ac.uk/view_article.asp?ContentID=100721

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Adapted from the Foreward by Annemarie Schimmel of Shimmering Light: An Anthology of Ismaili Poetry. London: I. B. Tauris in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 1996.

Research by Nimira Dewji

The Pir Series:

Ginans: Rendition & Expression:

Qasidas: Rendition & Expression:

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