Devotional Literature

“The generic term sharru or precentor in Assyria can be traced in the sha’ir or poet-soothsayer of the Arabs. The Assyrian hymn was the shire, and in it we recognize the Hebrew shir (song) and the Arabic shi’r (poetry). The Psalm of David in Assyrian was the zamaru, which equates with the Hebrew zimrah (song) and mizmor (psalm). Certainly the Assyrian shigu or penitential psalm is identical with the shiggaion of the Hebrew and the shajan of the Arabs in origin. Likewise, the allu or wail in Assyrian may be linked up with the Hebrew and Arabic elal and wilwal. Indeed, the Assyrian shidru or recitation may find its cognate in the inshad of the Arabs. Yet scarcely a line has come down to us concerning the hymn of the ancient Arabs, that their songs were appreciated is borne out by an inscription of Ashurbanipal (7th century B.C.), where Arab prisoners toiling for their Assyrian masters whiled away their hours in singing (alili) and music (ninguti), which so delighted the Assyrians that they begged for more.

In Arabia, the Bedouin soul was essentially music-loving. Its aspirations, its movements, and its impulses were all reflected in the rhythmic expression of Arabic verse, whose meter could be as short or long as the step of a camel. Under the rule of the Qoraish at Mecca, the poets and minstrels from all parts of the peninsula vied with each other for supremacy in their art during the fair of Ukaz. It was here that the singing girls (qainat or qiyan) sang the famous mu’allaqat. The Arabic poetry of pre-Islamic era is predominantly secular, and the poets retained their pagan character. Even minor allusions to God are extremely rare. The Hanif and Christian poets however praised God and expressed feelings of wonder at His creation, such as Waraqa bin Naufal, Umayya bin Abi as-Sallat (d. 624), Nabigha al-Jadi, Quss bin Sa’ida (d. 600), Abul Qays Sirma, Labid bin Rabia, etc. There were the old pagan chanting of the pilgrimage, the tahlil and talbiyya, which were turned favourably to the account of Islam and became lawful, even to the allowability of the tabl (drum) and shahin (fife) as an accompaniment (Ihya Ulum, p. 220). Hassan bin Thabit (d. 40/661), known as the “poet laureate” of the Prophet, devoted his time in composing in defence of Islam and praise of the Prophet. It is related that in the battle of Banu Quraiza, the Prophet encouraged him by telling that Jibrail helped him in the composition of his poetry. When Ka’b bin Zuhayr embraced Islam in Mecca, he recited his famous piece known as Banat Su’ad, much to the delight of the Prophet. Transported with admiration on hearing the praises of himself, the Prophet threw onto the poet’s shoulders his own striped mantle (burda) from the Yamen, and ordered others to hear his couplets. Zuhayr bin Sard of Banu Sa’d had accompanied the delegation of Hawazan to the Prophet. He recited an ode in his praise. After hearing him, the Prophet ordered release of all their prisoners. The Prophet so much liked the verses of Umayya bin Abi Sallat that he used to say, “The poetry of Umayya has accepted Islam, but his heart is still adamant.” The Prophet appreciated the following couplet of Lubayd bin Rabi’ah and described it as one of the best specimens of Arabic poetry: “Listen! Every thing, except God, is perishable, and surely every comfort of life is to be snatched” (al-Isti’ab). In sum, the first praise poems for the Prophet were however written during his lifetime. Hassan bin Thabit served him as a poet in Medina. His duty was in a certain sense that of a journalist who poetically recorded the important events that happened in the young Islamic community. He was there to denigrate the Prophet’s enemies and to extol the brave deeds of the Muslims. He says, “I witness with God’s permission that Muhammad is the Messenger who is higher than the heaven” (Diwan, ed. Walid N. Arafat, London, 1971, no. 89).

The Prophet is reported to have said, “God has not sent a Prophet except with a beautiful voice.” (Ihya Ulum, p. 209). Ibn Rabbihi writes that the Prophet said, “Teach your children poetry which will sweeten their tongue.” ((Iqd al-Farid, 3:178).

Anas bin Malik related that the Prophet used to make him sing the huda (caravan song) when traveling, and that Anjusha used to sing it for the women and al-Bara bin Malik for the men (Ibid. p. 217). Ghazalli testifies that the huda did not cease to be one of the customs of the Arabs in the time of the Prophet, and in the time of the Companions, and that it is nothing but poems equipped with agreeable sounds (salawat tayyiba) and measured melodies (alhan mauzuna) (Ibid). Ibn Athir writes that once the Prophet heard the voice of the singing-girl when passing the abode of Hassan bin Thabit, who asked if it were sinful to sing. The Prophet said, “Certainly not!” (Usd al-Ghaba, 5:496). Hujwiri writes that a slave-girl was singing in the house of A’isha when Umar asked leave to enter. As soon as the slave-girl heard his steps, she ran away. He came in and the Prophet smiled. Umar said, “O’Prophet! What has made you smile?” The Prophet answered, “A slave-girl was singing here, but she run away as soon as she heard your step.” “I will not depart,” said Umar, “until I hear what the Prophet heard.” The Prophet called the girl back and she began to sing, the Prophet listening to her (Kashf al-Mahjub, p. 401).

We also read that the girls greeted the Prophet in jubilant in Medina from the housetops with recitation (inshad) set to melody (lahn), and accompanied by the beating of tambourines (dufuf) (Ihya Ulum, p. 224). Syed Waheeduddin writes in The Benefactor (Lahore, 1964, p. 33) that, “The Banu Najjar led the welcoming crowds in full armour, their weapons glistening in the sun. The whole of Yathirab lined the road in orderly rows. Young girls played on their tambourines and sang song of welcome. There was an unprecedented marry-making, and when Muhammad came to the group of Umar bin Awf Najjari, the well-dressed girls came out of seclusion, danced and sang to the tune of music the following ballad: “We belong to the clan of Najjar, (we are) Muhammad’s soldiers from the Jari.”

There is a story of A’isha who took to one of the Ansars his bride. When she returned, the Prophet said to her, “Did you lead the girl to her husband?” She said, “Yes.” He then said, “And did you not send someone who could sing?” She said, “No.” The Prophet then said, “Surely you knew that the Ansars are people who delight in the ghazal.” Bilal was the son of an Abyssinian slave-girl. To him the Prophet is claimed to have once said, “O’Bilal, sing us a ghazal” (Ibn Hisham, p. 205). Once the Prophet was riding with some Companions when he asked one of them to recite the poetry of Umayya. A hundred lines were recited for him, and the Prophet said at the finish, “Well done!” “And when the satire in the poetry and the talking about it wearied them,” says the tradition, “it was said,