Thursday, April 26, 2018

Comparative Analysis of Abu Nuwas and al-Mutanabbi’s Temperaments and Styles

"Comparative Analysis of Abu Nuwas and Al-Mutanabbi’s Temperaments and Styles"
By Christa White
Image result for al-mutanabbi oneworld bookImage result for abu nuwas oneworld book

The Abbasid dynasty ruled a large empire centered in Baghdad, Iraq from the 750-1258 C.E., and out of this period arose two of the most acclaimed Arab poets, Abu Nuwas (756-814) and Al-Mutanabbi (915-965). Two books from the Makers of the Muslim World series published by Oneworld Publications, Abu Nuwas: Genius of Poetry, and Al-Mutanabbi: Voice of the Abbasid Poetic Ideal, illustrate the striking similarities of the poets’ lives despite the span of a century between them, including their humble origins, their lifetime of prestige, and untimely deaths. Perhaps the most significant shared accomplishment was the popular approval and patronage they gained despite their overt heterodoxy. The dispositions of both Abu Nuwas and al-Mutanabbi seem to depart from the pious contemporary values, making the acclamation they enjoyed all the more remarkable. This analysis contrasts the individual temperaments of Abu Nuwas and al-Mutanabbi, and how this influenced the unique poetic styles that ultimately earned them global acclamation.   Although there was inimitable talent possessed by both poets, the temperaments of Abu Nuwas and
al-Mutanabbi laid on opposite ends of the spectrum. Anecdotes of Abu Nuwas’ life describe
him as provocateur who was never short of a witty response. He spent a good deal of his time
as a drunken merrymaker, as revealed in the reoccurring Bacchic themes that played a role a
majority of his poems. Careless of consequences, he valued self expression, even the most
vulgar expressions, over his public image and at times over his career. For example, although
he clearly identified with the Muslim faith, he was incredibly irreverent to religious topics. In
writing, he would change sacred phrases such as “there is no god but God” to “there is no God
but bread”, and “Come to prayer!” to “Come to sleep- together!” These were not the words of a
heretic, but rather an agitator who fed off of his own controversy. This very lack of adherence
to customs and common decency, though, are in part what made Abu Nuwas’ poems so
captivating. Al-Mutanabbi, while outspoken, was far from the socialite that Abu Nuwas was.
His somber, competitive, and aloof demeanor and abstinence from wine alienated him from his
peers. Unlike Abu Nuwas, who supported himself writing poetry as a means to fund his
excessive drinking and escapades, al-Mutanabbi considered his career as a poet the defining
aspect of his life and thus took this role very seriously. Because of this, although al-Mutanabbi
lacked charisma, he was largely respected by his contemporaries purely for his poetic talent.
Al-Hatimi, a particular rival and literary critic that also served in the same court as
al-Mutanabbi in Baghdad, made it his special mission to critically dismantle al-Mutanabbi’s
new compositions. He was far better versed than al-Mutanabbi in rhetorical styles, such as
classifications of idioms, metaphors, and motifs. The critic found, however, that whatever
al-Mutanabbi’s craft lacked in technicalities, he more than compensated for in creativity.
Above all, the two poets fostered similarly tremendous egos. Propping up this ego was not of
paramount importance to Abu Nuwas, neither did it affect his success; however it is clear that
he did possess a sense of superiority in relation to his fellow poets. To a colleague, he is to
have once crassly stated, “I am unique. Many recite poetry like you .” His frequent attacks on
significant public figures and breach of taboo subjects show that he considered himself an
exception to the rules, partly due to the immunity his pure talent and popularity provided.
For al-Mutanabbi, hubris was a central aspect of his personality that more than once undermined his
achievements. Not the least of these conceited blunders was his alleged claim to prophethood,
complete with an original Quranic-like text and the performance of frivolous “miracles.” This is
supposedly the event that gave him his eponym, al-mutanabbi, “the would-be prophet.” In this
particular episode he and Abu Nuwas share yet another offense - sacrilege. This critical misstep in his
career as poet became the ammunition that patron Abu’l-Misk Kafur used to deny al-Mutanabbi a
promised governorship, a position he desperately vied for during his five-year residency in Egypt.
After years of evading al-Mutanabbi’s demands, Kafur finally outrightly denied him the promised
position, saying, “When you were poor and in a bad way, with no one to support you, you had
pretensions to prophethood. If you attained a governorship and acquired a following, who would be
able to stand you?” In his attempt to bestow upon himself superhuman status, al-Mutanabbi
inadvertently ensured that he would never rise above his station as court poet.   
The coveted governorship was not the only thing al-Mutanabbi’s pride cost him. Many of his
poems reveal that al-Mutanabbi thought of himself as a war hero and fearsome soldier. Just
before his death, this contemptuousness caused him two critical errors. By 965 CE,
al-Mutanabbi gained notoriety among the subjects of his various defamatory satires. Before
traveling to Baghdad from Shiraz, associates warned al-Mutanabbi of a particular avenger,
Fatik, who had vowed to bring al-Mutanabbi to justice. al-Mutanabbi heedlessly rejected the
accompaniment of an escort, no doubt assured that he, his son, and servants were capable of
providing their own protection. Soon after their departure, the group was attacked by Fatik and
friends. It is alleged that al-Mutanabbi was nearly able to flee the scene of slaughter, until a
slave belonging to him called out, “What happened to that verse of yours- ‘The horses and the
night and the barren desert know me/ so too, war and combat and paper and pen’?” Of course,
unable to shake his pride even in a moment of critical peril, al-Mutanabbi returned to the scene
and, outnumbered, met his untimely end.      
Although a span of over 100 years lay between the lives of Abu Nuwas (d. 813) and al-Mutanabbi
(d. 965), they mutually composed at the height of the Islamic Golden Age that ranged from the 8th to
14th centuries. This period marked the beginning of “modern” Arabic poetry, but was still heavily
influenced by pre-Islamic oral tradition. Both poets highly valued the work and tradition of their tribal
poet predecessors. “Modern” poets distinguished their style through the development and elaborate
use of rhetorical devices. Among these devices were conceit, allusion, metaphysics, onomatopoeia,
metaphor, and rhyme that emphasized the novelty of delivery rather than the originality of meaning.
Abbasid era poetry maintained most of the poetic models popularized by pre-Islamic poets, revolving
around recurring topics such as the praise of patrons, hunting, and love.
Abu Nuwas and al-Mutanabbi both were unconventional in their adherence to these models,
but expressed this digression in very different manners. For example, both wrote poems that
began with the commonly cited Bedouin motif, which opens with the scene of an abandoned
campsite once occupied by a lost lover. Al-Mutanabbi’s utilization of this motif appears in the
first ode he authors for his most prestigious patron, the Hamanid overseer of Aleppo,
Sayf al-Dawlah. The poet’s voice is that of the bereft traveler who addresses his companions:
“Your faithfulness is like the abode,
The saddest part of it that which is effaced,
While the most healing of tears are those that flow.
I am aught but a lover and for every lover
The most derelict of his two pure friends is the one who blames him.
In this introduction, al-Mutanabbi pays tribute to the traditional motif, but adds to the physical
abandonment of his lost lover the additional emotional abandonment of his companions, who fail to
console him. al-Mutanabbi deftly combines the two to convey a doubly potent emotion that
encompasses not only profound loss and regret, but hopelessness that endures longer than the vision of
the campsite, as no one can comprehend his state of forsakenness. In another poem, al-Mutanabbi
again cleverly alters the traditional campsite motif in a novel manner. Instead of depicting a scene of
two consoling companions, the subject instead directs his grief-stricken emotions to the two camel
drivers of his lover’s litter as it is carried away. This technique heightens suspense and emotion as the
subject pleads fruitlessly with the drivers who possess the power to halt their journey and allow him
one last glimpse of his beloved.
Abu Nuwas took a different approach that is truly reflective of his attitude towards convention, and
his personal mantra of living life to the fullest. Rather than reinvent the traditional campsite motif,
Nuwas critically deconstructs it:
“The wretch paused to question an abandoned campsite,
While I paused to question about the neighborhood tavern.
May God never dry the tears of those who cry over stones,
Nor ease the love-pangs of those who yearn for tent pegs.”
His true feelings about the lamentation of lost lovers as a respected theme of Arab poetry is further
clarified in the following line:
“What a difference between those who buy wine and enjoy it,
Versus those who weep over the traces of lost campsites!
In a quintessentially Abu Nuwas style, the poet offers his favorite vice, wine, as an antidote to the
angst of unsuccessful romantic pursuits. Simultaneously, he mocks those who figuratively wallow
dejectedly in the shadows of loss. He rather encourages the audience to seek out the pleasures of life
because ultimately, the pleasure of wine and the pleasure of love are both temporary.  
These two poems show Abu Nuwas and al-Mutanabbi’s ability to reinvent pre-Islamic structures as a
reflection of their unique, more holistic approaches to composition in a artistic period that was heavily
reliant on tradition. Al-Mutanabbi was expert at adding new polish to old techniques in a manner that
made them fresh and appealing, using minute alterations that cleverly shift the entire setting of the
motif. In contrast, Abu Nuwas constructed novelty presentations of traditional motifs by rebelling
against convention and presenting his own alternatives. The comfort of the repeated motif was
replaced by the pleasure of novel ideas and beliefs.
The styles of Abu Nuwas and al-Mutanabbi do seem to reflect their temperaments. Abu Nuwas’
challenge of poetic tradition is likely influenced by his confrontational and devil-may-care attitude,
more similar to the pagan concept of carpe diem than Islamic conservatism that was also common in
the Islamic Golden Age. Al-Mutanabbi, in contrast, was driven by his pursuit of perfection and
immense creativity, although his compositions also reflect the frustration and disappointment that
resulted from his egotism. Both Arab poets relied greatly on their innate talent, and their flaws of
aggression and pride, that allow their poetry to stand above the rest.    



Bibliography


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Larkin, Margaret. Al-Mutanabbi: Voice of the ‘Abbasid Poetic Ideal. Makers of the Muslim World.
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