Exploring the Origins

Pre-Islamic Literature in Arabic Culture

Pre-Islamic literature (al-Adab al-Jahili) is the beginning of Arabic literature. It was called al-Jahili because it precedes the spread of the Islamic religion in the Arabian Peninsula. The most prevalent types of Arabic literature flourished in that period was poetry. The classic Arabic was the language of expression in all social occasion especially in form of flirting, commendation, vituperation and bemoaning.

In this era, the poetry of flirtation was rampant. Poet used to flirter his lover in forms of poetry known as (virgin yarn poems) because the poet avoid mentioning any information about his lover due to the customs, traditions and ethics prevailing among the Arabs.

Jahiliyyah (Period of Ignorance)

The period before the revelation of the Qur'an and the rise of Islam is known to Muslims as Jahiliyyah or period of ignorance. While this ignorance refers mainly to religious ignorance, there is little written literature before this time, although significant oral tradition is postulated.

Tales like those about Sinbad and Antar bin Shaddad were probably current, but were recorded later. The final decades of the sixth century, however, begin to show the flowering of a lively written tradition.

This tradition was captured over two centuries later with two important compilations of Al-Mu'allaqat and Al-Mufaddaliyat. These collections probably give us a biased picture of the writings of the time as only the best poems are preserved; some of the poems may represent only the best part of a long poem. However they can be stories and novels and even fairy tales as well.


Al-Muʿallaqāt is a collection of seven pre-Islamic Arabic qaṣīdahs (odes), each considered to be its author’s best piece. Since the authors themselves are among the dozen or so most famous poets of the 6th century, the selection enjoys a unique position in Arabic literature, representing the finest of early Arabic poetry.

Taken together, the poems of Al-Muʿallaqāt provide an excellent picture of Bedouin life, manners, and modes of thought. The idea of grouping together these particular poems is most commonly attributed to Ḥammād al-Rāwiyah, who was an 8th-century collector of early poetry.

An often-repeated legend that originated in the 10th century states that the poems were written down in golden letters on scrolls of linen that were then hung, or “suspended” (muʿallaq), on the walls of the Kaʿbah in Mecca. It is by no means clear, however, that Ḥammād himself ever used the name Muʿallaqāt in referring to his compilation. Instead, he appears to have referred to it as the “seven renowned ones” (al-sabʿ al-mashhūrāt) or simply as “the renowned ones” (al-mashhūrāt).

Most probably, the name Muʿallaqāt in this context is a derivative of the word ʿilq, “a precious thing,” so that its meaning would be “the poems which are esteemed precious.” All that can be said with certainty is that the name Muʿallaqāt appeared about 900 to distinguish the seven poems as a subset in a larger compilation of poems. The precise poems included in the Muʿallaqāt present another puzzle. The list usually accepted as standard was recorded by Ibn ʿAbd Rabbih and names poems by Imruʾ al-Qays, Ṭarafah, Zuhayr, Labīd, ʿAntarah, ʿAmr ibn Kulthum, and al-Ḥārith ibn Ḥilliza.

Such authorities as Ibn Qutaybah, however, count ʿAbid ibn al-Abras as one of the seven, while Abū ʿUbaydah replaces the last two poets of Ibn ʿAbd Rabbih’s list with al-Nābighah al-Dhubyānī and al-Aʿshā. Of the authors of the Muʿallaqāt, the earliest is Imruʾ al-Qays, who lived in the early part of the 6th century. The others belong to the latter half of that century. Zuhayr and Labīd are said to have survived into the time of Islam, but their poetic output belongs to the pre-Islamic period.

Al-Muʿallaqāt odes are all in the classical qaṣīdah pattern, which some Arab scholars believed to have been created by Imruʾ al-Qays. After a conventional prelude, the nasib, in which the poet calls to mind the memory of a former love, most of the rest of the ode consists of a succession of movements that describe the poet’s horse or camel, scenes of desert events, and other aspects of Bedouin life and warfare.

The main theme of the qaṣīdah (the madīḥ, or panegyric, the poet’s tribute to himself, his tribe, or his patron) is often disguised in these vivid descriptive passages, which are the chief glory of the Muʿallaqāt. Their vivid imagery, exact observation, and deep feeling of intimacy with nature in the Arabian Desert contribute to the Muʿallaqāt’s standing as a masterpiece of world literature.

The lively description of a desert storm at the end of Imruʾ al-Qays’s qaṣīdah is a splendid example of such passages. However, it should not be thought that the poems of the Muʿallaqāt are merely naturalistic or romantic descriptions of Bedouin life; their language and imagery embody a complex system of ethical values passed from generation to generation through the poetry.


Al-Mufaḍḍalīyāt or “The Collection of al-Mufaḍḍal” is an anthology of ancient Arabic poems, compiled by al-Mufaḍḍal ibn Muḥammad ibn Yaʿlah between 762 and 784. It is of the highest importance as a record of the thought and poetic art of Arabia in the last two pre-Islamic centuries. Not more than five or six of the 126 poems appear to have been composed by poets born under Islam, and, though a certain number converted to Islam, their work bears few marks of it.

The ancient virtues alone — hospitality to the guest and to the poor, profuse expenditure of wealth, valour in battle, faithfulness to the cause of the tribe — were praised. The 126 pieces are distributed among 68 poets, and the work represents a selection from the composition of those called al-muqillūn (“poets who composed only a few poems”) rather than from the famous poets whose works had been compiled in divans (collections of poetry).

Not all poems of Al-Mufaḍḍaliyāt are complete, many are mere fragments, and even in the longest there are often gaps. Al-Mufaḍḍal, however, always tried to present complete poems and evidently set down all that he could collect of a poem from the memory of a rāwī (professional reciter).

Despite the sparseness of their extant work, several of the poets of Al-Mufaḍḍaliyat are well known and highly respected, such as ʿAlqamah ibn ʿAbadah, Mutammim ibn Nuwayrah, Salamah ibn Jandal, al-Shanfarā, ʿAbd Yaghuth, and Abu Dhuʿayb. Al-Ḥārith ibn Ḥilliza was already celebrated for his ode in the Muʿallaqāt collection.

Pre-Islamic Arabic Poetry

Poetry was the greatest mental activity of the Arabs and the summit of their artistic attainments. The Arab poet was not a narrator. He was a master of brevity, a magician of rhythm and words. The poet was like a prophet: often the priest, the soothsayer and the leader of the clan.

There was a category of poets called " vagabonds ", who were outlaws, unable to fit into their particular tribal organization owing, for example, to the obscurity of their origin of birth, as in the case of al-Shanfarā, who grew up among an enemy clan and turned against them.

With regard to metre and rhyme, pre-Islamic verse can be divided in two ways. According to metre, it has two sub-classifications, rajaz and qaşīd. According to rhyme, it has three subclassifications: ode or qaşīdah, short piece or qiţ'ah, and musammatah. The standard pattern of the qaşīdah consists of three sections, such as nasīb, tashbīb, ghazal.

Prominent Pre-Islamic Arabian Poets

  • Abu Layla al-Muhalhel
  • Adi ibn Zayd
  • Afira bint 'Abbad
  • Al-Fāriʿah bint Shaddād
  • Al-Hujayjah
  • Al-Rabi ibn Abu al-Huqayq
  • Al-Shanfara
  • Al-Nu'man ibn Humaydah
  • Alqama ibn Abada
  • Amir ibn al-Tufayl
  • Amr ibn Kulthum
  • Antarah ibn Shaddad
  • Al-A'sha
  • Harith ibn Hilliza Al-Yashkuri
  • Hatim al-Tai
  • Al-Ḥurqah
  • Imru' al-Qais
  • Ka'b ibn al-Ashraf
  • Ka'b bin Zuhayr
  • Al-Khansa
  • Al-Khirniq bint Badr
  • Mahd al-Aadiyya
  • Labīd
  • Laila bint Lukaiz
  • Asma bint Marwan
  • Mu'aqqir
  • Al-Nabigha
  • Samaw'al ibn 'Adiya
  • Sha'ir
  • Uthman ibn al-Huwayrith
  • Zuhayr bin Abi Sulma
  • Zuhayr ibn Janab

Imru' al-Qays

Ameru' al-Qays, or Imru'u al Quais, Ibn Hujr Al-Kindi was a celebrated pre-Islamic Arabian poet of the sixth century, circa 500-535 C.E. and the author of one of the Muallaqat, an anthology of Arabic literature attributed to seven famous poets.

Informational Videos

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