Verses from Surah 26: Al-Shu`ara’ (The Poets) [ 221 – 227 ]

IN THE NAME OF ALLAH, THE KIND, THE COMPASSIONATE

[221] Shall I tell you upon whom the Devils descend?
[222] They descend upon every sinful liar.156

Commentary

156. The word Ifk of the text is used for a dirty lie.

[223] They give the ear,157 but most of them are liars.158

Commentary

157. The words yulqun as-sam`a have also been interpreted to mean, “they pass on the hearing” (Zamakhshari). The choice of words seems to lend both the meanings at a time. Hence, Mujahid has explained (as in Ibn Jarir) that the Devils drop what they pick up from the heaven into the ears of every sinful dirty liar. Ibn Kathir has a similar explanation.

158. `A’isha is reported to have said that the Devils add up to what they steal of the words, a hundred lies and pass on to every sinful liar. (Ibn Jarir)

`A’isha is also reported in Bukhari as transmitting, “The Prophet was asked about the fortune-tellers. He said, ‘They are worthless.’ They said, ‘Messenger of Allah! Sometimes they say things that come out true.’ He replied, ‘That is the true word that a Jinni picks up which he then mutters, like the muttering of a hen, into the ears of his friends. They then add up to it more than a hundred lies.’”

Bukhari also preserved a narrative of Abu Hurayrah which reports the Prophet as having said, “When Allah (swt) decrees a thing in the heaven, the angels beat their wings, like chains on rocks, in fear and humility to His command. When fear recedes from their hearts they ask, ‘What did your Lord say?’ They say, ‘The Truth. He is the Lofty, the Great.’ That is heard by those who try to steal a hearing: this way, one upon another – [Sufyan demonstrated with his hands by spreading the fingers of his hand and placing the other hand on them]. So he hears the word and passes it on to the one below him. The other passes it on to the one below him, until they put into the ears of a magician or soothsayer. Sometimes a flame strikes him before he can pass it on. At other times, he is struck after he has passed it on. Then he (the magician or soothsayer) adulterates it with a hundred lies. Then it is said (when he predicts, and it comes out true), ‘Did he not say to us on such and such a day?’ He is testified became of the true word heard from the heaven.”

Muslim also has a similar report. `A’isha also reports in Bukhari from the Prophet, “The angels discuss between themselves, in the clouds, earthly affairs. The Shayateen pick up a word and pour it into the ears of a soothsayer – like (water poured into) a bottle. In turn, they add a hundred lies to it.” (Ibn Kathir)

Alusi conjectures that it cannot be a matter of surprise that just as the Devils pick up a word, the soul of one of the righteous should occasionally picks up a true word (from the first firmament). His opinion is strengthened by his personal experience. When he was five, he was told to do some revision of his text-book. He told his mother he was not going to do any such thing because the Minister was to be killed tomorrow. No one, of course, took it serious – not even himself. But next morning the Minister was killed by his own retinue.

Also see Surah al-Hijr, note 18 of this work for connected details. (Au.)

[224] As for the poets, it is the deviated ones who follow them.159

Commentary

159. This was in refutation of the allegation by the Quraysh that since there was rhyme and rhythm in many parts of the Qur’an, it was a poetic composition, and that the Prophet was a poet. But others have said that what they implied was that the Prophet had come up with some quite imaginative talk, in the manner of the poets. (Alusi)

To condemn the poets in such summary terms was only possible because it was Allah (swt) who revealed these verses. They held such power and influence in the pre-Islamic world, that to attack them was attacking scientists or journalists of today. Who could have, after the European Renaissance, condemned Homer and Virgil, Sophocles and Aeschylus, Dante and Milton, Keats and Shelley? Anyone who did that would be dismissed outright as a lunatic. But poets in Arabia enjoyed greater influence, and Revelation offers us its own tests. Majid offers us some quotes:

“‘The poets, when under inspiration, were believed to be under the power of Jinn. This gave them great distinctions. They were, before Islam, often the leaders and representatives of those tribes. Honour was accorded them not from appreciation of intellectual endowment or of artistic genius but because of their uncanny connection with the supernatural’ (ERE. X., p. 135).

The poets, in Arabia, were ‘the men of knowledge’ for their people. Their incantations held good as oracles, first of all for their several tribes, but no doubt extending their influence often beyond their own particular septs.’ (De Boer, History of Philosophy in Islam, p.2).

‘As his office developed, the poet acquired a variety of functions. In battle, his tongue was as effective as his people’s bravery. In peace, he might prove a menace to public order by his fiery harangue. His poems might arouse a tribe to action in the same manner as tirades of a demagogue in a modern political campaign. As the press agent, the journalist, of his day, his favour was sought by princely gifts, as the records of the courts of al-Hira and al-Ghassan show. He was, at the time,the moulder and the agent of public opinion. Qat` Al-lisan (cutting off the tongue) was the classical formula used for subsidizing the poet and thus avoiding his satires.’” (Hitti, op. cit., pp. 94-95)

[225] Have you not seen that they wander distracted in every valley?160

Commentary

160. That is, Ibn `Abbas explained, they indulge in every foolish talk. Mujahid said that the meaning is: they employ every art to bewitch others (Ibn Jarir). Ibn `Abbas said the same thing, who is also reported to have understood the verse to mean, “They engage in every kind of verbal art.” (Ibn Kathir)

Asad adds: “The idiomatic phrase hama fi widyan (lit. he wandered [or roamed] through valleys) is used, as most of the commentators point out, to describe a confused or aimless – and often self-contradictory – play with words and thoughts. In this context, it is meant to stress the difference between the precision of the Qur’an, which is free from all inner contradictions… and the vagueness often inherent in poetry.”

Majid further elaborates, “I.e., always indulging in fancies and phantasms divorced from real life. The Arab poets very often painted a vicious thing so vividly and alluringly as to excite passions and to darken the intellect. Poetry unless kept under control by reason or Revelation, is apt to lead to mental unbalance and hysteria, and is the fountain-head of false values.”

Had Majid not named Arab poets, we would have thought he was taking about modern-day pop-music and the poetry that goes with it. These produce greater devastating effects on modern man (Au.).

Mawdudi writes: “Arabic poetry at the time of the Prophet (peace be upon him) gave vent to lasciviousness and eroticism, wine-bibbing, tribal prejudice, pride and vanity, vituperation and eroticism, bragging and eulogy, sycophancy and obscenity, and polytheistic superstition.” It was such poetry that the Prophet censured. (Au.)

Ibn `Umar is preserved in Bukhari as reporting that the Prophet and a few Companions passed by a poet reciting poetry. The Prophet said, “Seize your Devil, or, hold your Devil. It is better for a man to fill the inside of his body with pus than to fill it with poetry.” (Ibn Kathir)

The second part of the report is found in all the Sihah works as noted in Fayd al-Qadir. But obviously, it applied to the man, perhaps, because he did not qualify the next verse. (Au.)

Shawkani presents a report from Qurtubi which reports the Prophet as having said, “Good poetry is like good prose and bad poetry is like bad prose.”

(The above report has been treated as Sahih by Albani: S. Ibrahim).

Muslim has another report. `Amr bin Shareed reports his father: “Once I shared a camel’s back with the Prophet. He asked, ‘Do you know any poetical works of Umayyah b. Salt?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Let’s have it.’ So I recited a verse. He said, ‘More.’ So I recited another. He said, ‘More,’ until I recited a hundred verses.

Qurtubi thinks it was Shareed himself and not his father who shared the camel’s back with the Prophet; and that the Prophet listened to that length because Umayyah’s poetry was filled with wisdom.

[226] And that they say what they do not do.161

Commentary

161. Abu Zayd has said that the allusion was to the unbelieving poets. (Ibn Jarir)

Mawdudi wrote: “This is another common trait of the poets … They might be eloquent about generosity but be utterly stingy themselves. They might lavish their rhetoric on courage but be cowardly themselves. They might extol dignified indifference to the rich, give expression to contentment with one’s portion in life and to feelings of self-respect and honour, but themselves be steeped in greed and avarice. They might also be critical of others though their own lives be a catalogue of serious misdeeds.”

[227] Except those who believed and worked righteous works,162 remembered Allah much,163 and defended after they were wronged.164 And soon will the wronging ones know what vicissitude they will turn.165

Commentary

162. It is reported that when the verse condemning the poets was revealed, Hassan b. Thabit, `Abdullah b. Rawaha and Ka`b b. Malik went to the Prophet weeping. They said, “Allah had known when He revealed this verse that we are poets.” The Prophet replied with the verse that follows: “Except those who believed and worked righteous works, remembered Allah much, and defended themselves after they were wronged.” Ibn `Abbas, Qatadah,

`Ikrimah and many others believed that this verse “Except those who believed…” offers an exception to the general indictment expressed in the earlier verse, “As for the poets, it is the deviated ones who follow them.” (Ibn Jarir)

163. That is, Ibn `Abbas and Ibn Zayd said, remembered Allah (swt) much in their poetry. (Ibn Jarir)

164. Whom did they defend? Ibn `Abbas, Mujahid, Qatadah and others have said that the allusion is to the defense of Islam against the poets.

Zamakhshari, Qurtubi, Ibn Kathir and others quote from the Sahihayn and other works: The Prophet said to Hassan b. Thabit, “Satirize them, Jibril is with you.” (In fact, he had got erected a platform for Hassan in his mosque, as reported by Ibn Hisham: Alusi).

On the authority of Ka`b, as in Musnad of Ahmad, when Allah (swt) had revealed what He revealed in connection with the poets, the Prophet said, “A believer fights with his sword and with his tongue. And, by Him in whose Hands is my soul, as if what you shoot at them (of poetry) are showers of arrows.” (Ibn Kathir)

Haythami treated this report of Ahmad as Sahih. (S. Ibrahim in Shawkani)

Thus, writes Qurtubi, there is good poetry and there is bad poetry. It is bad poetry that is the object of criticism here. The Prophet never discouraged good poetry. How could he when he would hear it recited to him, and men like Abu Bakr said their own poetry? The reports that speak of it in disparaging terms are aimed at bad poets, like the Bedouin whom he called ‘the Devil’, who was probably singing some uncouth words.

Throughout history scholars have never criticized poetry per se. Far above that, most of the renowned figures among the Companions either said poetry, quoted it, or heard and appreciated it. The Prophet is reported by Abu Hurayrah as saying on the pulpit of the mosque, “The most truthful of words – or he said poetry – that an Arab said was that of Labeed who said,

“Lo! Everything, save Allah, is false.”

Muslim added to the above version the following words of the Prophet, “Umayyah b. Abi Salt was very near to becoming a Muslim.”

It is reported of Ibn Sirin that he once sang out some poetry. Somebody from among the people around him protested, “Does a man like you recite poetry?” Ibn Sirin told him, “You silly man. Is poetry any different from prose? Both have the good and bad of them.”

As an example, we could cite the words of `Abbas who said poetry in praise of our Prophet. The Prophet said, “May Allah break not your teeth;” which is another way of saying, “May you never get too old.”

To give another example,

I am satisfied with `Ali, a symbol of true guidance
As I was satisfied with `Ateeq, the Companion of the cave
And I was satisfied with Abu Hafs and his people
Nor I was ever happy with the murder of the Old man in his house
Everyone of the Companions are to me models, symbols
Is there then upon me for this statement any blame?
If you know that I do not love them
But for You, then free me from the Fire.

Another example is in the famous lines of Ka`b b. Zuhayr (that he recited before the Prophet). They are loaded with allegories of all sorts. They also demonstrate that a poet can, in rhapsodies, break rules and cross some boundaries:

Musa b. ‘Uqbah has stated, in his Maghazi, that Ka`b b. Zuhayr recited the poem praising the Prophet inside the mosque. When he reached [certain] lines, the Prophet signaled to the people outside that they could enter to hear him.

Commenting on the above, Sa’aati wrote: “Abu Bakr b. al-Anbari has said that when Ka`b b. Zuhayr reached the words:

Truly the Messenger is a light whence illumination is sought
A drawn Indian sword, one of the swords of Allah

.. the Prophet cast his cloak on him.” (Hence the title of the poem QasidahBurdah. (Seerah by Dr. Mahdi Rizqallah, p. 604; and the translation of Ka`b’s poetry is by A. Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad, with minor variations: Au.)].

Hassan b. Thabit said at the death of the Prophet,

So cry O eyes for the Messenger of Allah copiously,
May I never discover you with your tears dried!
Why should you not weep the kindly one?
Whose bounteous robe covered all men?
Be generous with your tears and cries
At the loss of one whose equal will never be found.
Those gone by never lost one like Muhammad
And one like him will not be mourned till the day of Judgment.
[Source: Seerah by Dr. Mahdi Rizqallah, p. 695: Au.].

It is also reported, Qurtubi continues, that once `Umar was going on his rounds at night when he found a lit hut. A woman was spinning wool inside and singing:

Upon Muhammad prayers of peace from the righteous
The best of the purified send peace to him
You stood in Prayers and cried close to dawn
How I wish, while destiny has its own ways
Whether it will assemble me and my beloved in the House?

`Umar sat down there weeping.

Shawkani mentions the following: Ibn Sa`d has preserved a report which says that when Abu Sufyan lampooned the Prophet, Ibn Rawaha stood up and sought the Prophet’s permission to retaliate. He allowed him and he said a few lines. One of them said:

May Allah confirm the bestowed the beauty on you
Like the confirmation of Musa and the helper in the manner the two were helped.

Then Ka`b. (b. Malik) stood up and sought to respond in a similar fashion. The Prophet allowed him. He said,

The Quraysh has tried to overpower its Lord
But the All-overpowering will overpower all.

Then Hassan b. Thabit sought to respond to Abu Sufyan’s satire, promising that he will do it with skill. The Prophet told him to first consult Abu Bakr, who held mastery in genealogy, so that Hassan did not end up lampooning those he did not intend. He promised him that Jibril was with him.

It is also reported that once Hassan was reciting poetry in the mosque when `Umar passed by. `Umar looked at him angrily. Hassan said, “I used to recite poetry here in the presence of someone better than you.” Then he turned to Abu Hurayrah and asked, “I adjure you by Allah, did you hear the Messenger of Allah say, ‘Respond on my behalf. O Allah, help him with Ruh al-Quds?” Abu Hurayrah replied, “Yes.”

And Ibn Abi Shaybah preserved on the authority of Ibn Mas`ud that the Prophet said, “Surely, some poetry is wisdom and some talk magic.” (Quote from Shawkani ends here).

Hassan’s story is in Muslim also, while Sakhawi and Albani treated the report of Ibn Abi Shaybah as trustworthy. (S. Ibrahim)

Qurtubi continues: Now, since we allow a poet to exaggerate and cross certain bounds, is he to be punished for what he admits in his poetry? The answer is a no to major punishments. But they might be restrained in other ways (except, of course, if they attempt character assassination, in which case they will be punished: Au.). It is said that Nu`man b. `Adiyy b. Nadla was one of the governors of `Umar. He said a poem which had the following lines:

Who will take the word to Hanaa’ that her husband
Is in Maysaan, offered drinks in glasses and goblets?
When I wish, village girls sing for me
And a dancer curved on every (body) joint
If you want to redden me then pass on large draughts
And give me no drinks from broken small pitchers
Maybe the Amir al-Mu’mineen will be displeased by
Our drinking in the ruins of the palaces.

When the lines reached `Umar, he asked him to report to him, and when he went, he said, “Yes, by my Lord, they displease me.” Nu`man said, “O Leader of the Faithful! That was just boastful talk. I have not done any such thing as I mentioned. Has not Allah said, ‘Have you not seen that they wander distracted in every valley? And that they say what they do not do?’” `Umar said, ‘That absolves you of any punishment but you are relieved of the post for what you said.”

165. A straightforward verbal translation would be, “to what destination will they turn,” as expressed by Ibn Jarir.

It is said that Hasan (al-Busri) passed by the bier of a Christian. He recited this verse (which supports our translation), “And soon will the wronging ones know what vicissitude they will turn.”

And it is said of Safwan b. Muhriz that when he recited this verse, he cried so much that it was thought his chest will break up.

The ayah, however, is commonly applicable to every wrongdoer. Ibn Abi Hatim reports that `A’isha said, “My father wrote following two lines in the will he left:

In the name of Allah, the Kind, the Merciful. This is what Abu Bakr ibn Quhafa wrote as his will at the time he was leaving this world: at a moment when an unbeliever turns believer, the corrupter gives up, and the liar speaks the truth. I am leaving behind me `Umar as my successor. If he administers justice, then, that’s what I assume and hope of him. But if he oppresses, or alters (the commandments), then, I have no knowledge of the Unseen: ‘And soon will the wronging ones know what vicissitude they will turn.’” (Ibn Kathir, Alusi)

(Surah Concluded)