In pre-Islamic Bedouin times, poetry flourished and was the mark of artistic achievement. As this poetry was recited orally in public, the power of the spoken word bestowed the pleasure of sound and rhythm on its listeners. The prevalent genre in this poetry, the qasida, was based on a union of metre and rhyme, with the same rhythmic structure repeated in each line (bayt) of the poem – aa, ba, ca, da, and so on.
The qasida, considered the highest achievement of Arabic eloquence, has from ten to one-hundred lines; its standard pattern consistsof three sections: the prelude, the description of the poet’s journey, and the eulogy – either of the poet’s tribe or self-praise.
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‘). 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.
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, admiration of and devotion to the Prophet became an essential part of Muslim piety.
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), Jalal al-Din Rumi (d. 1273) and Nizari Quhistani (d. 1320).
The relationship between Sufism and Shi’ism at the time influenced Shi’i literature. The establishment of the Shi’i state by the Fatimids (909-1171) in North Africa, Egypt, and Syria, as well as by Buwayhid dynasty (945–1055) 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).
The qasida is also part of the tradition of devotional poetry amongst the Nizari Ismailis in Persia (modern day Iran) and Central Asia. In the northeastern regions of Persia, a specific style of poetry known as munajat, meaning praising God, was popular. In the munajat , one person or two people recited the first line or section, followed by a refrain that was sung by the entire congregation.
For the Nizari Ismailis of the Indian subcontinent, who today reside in many countries around the world, the devotional literature comprises ginans, which have been a central part of the religious life of the community.
The ginans, composed in several Indic languages, served as secondary texts to convey the teachings of the Qur’an and the esoteric Ismaili interpretation to non-Arabic speaking peoples. They were composed by Pirs and Saiyads, or preachers, who came to the Indian subcontinent as early as the eleventh century.
Over the centuries, poets have poured out their hearts in praise of God, the Prophet, and the Imams in Arabic, Farsi, Sindhi, Urdu, Hausa, Swahili and many other languages.
Kamal Abdul Malek, “Muslim Literature in Arabic,” The Muslim Almanac Edited by Azim A. Nanji, Gale Research, Detroit, 1996
Foreward by Annemarie Schimmel, Shimmering Light: An Anthology of Ismaili Poetry. London, I. B. Tauris in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 1996
Amnon Shiloah, Music in the World of Islam. Wayne State University Press. Detroit,1995.
Music & Melodies of the Persian Ismaili Qasideh, The Institute of Ismaili Studies (accessed July 2016)
Compiled by Nimira Dewji