Oral Composition in Pre-Islamic Poetry
Author(s): James T. Monroe
Source: Journal of Arabic Literature, Vol. 3 (1972), pp. 1-53
Published by: BRILL
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4182889
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ORAL COMPOSITION IN PRE-ISLAMIC POETRY*
THE PROBLEM OF AUTHENTICITY
The authenticity of pre-Islamic poetry is hardly a problem of
recent formulation, for as early as 'Abbasid times effort was expended
by Arab philologists in sorting out the authentic from the forged.
Although we may smile today, we can hardly refrain from applauding
the objective rigor of the critic al-Jumahi for having branded as
spurious those ancient Arabic poems attributed to the peoples of
"Ad and Tham5d.1 The medieval Arabic tradition, in possession of
far more material for study than is available to us at present, proceeded
with exemplary caution and restraint in so ticklish a matter.
But in 1925 a frontal attack was launched, which claimed to show
that all or practically all pre-Islamic poetry had been forged in Islamic
times. The call to battle was sounded simultaneously yet independently
by the Egyptian scholar Taha Husain and the British Orientalist
D. S. Margoliouth. The former cut the Gordian knot by the publication
of his book Fi sh-shi'r al-jdhili ('On Pre-Islamic Poetry'),2 and two
years later he summed up his position that the general mass of what
we call 'pre-Islamic' literature had nothing to do with the preIslamic period, but was simply fabricated after the coming of Islam...
* Abbreviations: A
Labid; M = The Mufa4daliyyhvI;M
T = Tarafa; Z = Zuhair.
= cAlqama; IQ = Imru' al-Qais;
Mucallaqa; N = Nabigha adh-Dhubyan1;
I References to A, Alq, IQ, N, T, and Z are quoted from: W. Ahlwardt (ed.);
The Divans of the Six Ancient Arabic Poets (London, 1870). (IQ, 128, 20, 19) =
Imru' al-Qais, Divans, p. 128, no. 20, 1. 19; (A, M, 5) = cAntara,Mu'allaqa, 1. 5.
2 References to Labid are quoted from: Labid, Diwan, ed. DIr Sadir (Beirut,
1966). (L, 114, 38, 14) = Labid, Diwdn, p. 114, no. 38, 1. 14.
3 References to MIare quoted from: Al-Mufaddal ibn Muhammad ad-Dabbi,
The Mufa44aliyyat: An Anthology of Ancient Arabian Odes, ed. Charles J. Lyall
(Oxford, 1921), vol. I. (M, 180, 63) = Mufa44aliyydt, p. 180, 1. 63.
4 A single vertical stroke before a formula indicates the beginning of the
first hemistich (/). A single vertical stroke after a formula indicates the end of
the second hemistich. Two vertical strokes at the end of a formula indicate the
end of the first hemistich (//). Two vertical strokes at the beginning of a formula
indicate the beginning of the second hemistich. When no vertical strokes are
marked, the formula occupies an internal position in the hemistich.
1 Amjad Trabulsi, La critique poilique des arabes jusqu'au Ve siecle de /'Hcgire
(XIe siicle deJ. C.) (Damascus, 1956), p. 65.
Journal of Arabic Literature, III
"what you read as being the poetry of Imru' al-Qais or Tarafa or
Ibn Kulthuim or 'Antara is not the work of these men at all; it is
merely the fabrication of 'transmitters', or the forgery of Bedouins,
or the manufacture of grammarians, or the pretence of story-tellers,
or the invention of commentators and traditionists and theologians." I
What then were the reasons given for this extraordinary and wholesale forgery of individual and collective anthologies, to say nothing
of scattered fragments too numerous to count? According to Taha
Husain the Meccan tribe of Quraish, in order to win the struggle
for power within the nascent Islamic community, had needed authoritative texts to enhance its own prestige, and so it forged a literature
in its own dialect as a basis of support for its political ambitions.
Devout Muslims, too, sought to prove that Islam had been foreshadowed by pious Arabs who had believed in Allah prior to the
revelation. This would account for the occasional references to Islamic doctrine contained in the poems. Likewise the Koran was full
of obscure words and allusions to events that were no longer understood by later generations. Rather than admit ignorance of these
passages, later commentators adopted the face-saving expedient
of inventing lines of poetry to use as lociprobantesin support of their
personal interpretations. Story-tellers, furthermore, forged 'old'
verses and used them to spice their tales in order to enhance their
own prestige before gullible audiences. After the expansion of
Islam beyond the confines of the Arabian peninsula, the Arabs
came into contact with culturally superior subjects. Thereupon
they forged a poetic literature to prove to their non-Arab subjects
that they too had enjoyed a high level of civilization in their earlier,
camel-herding days. The conquered peoples, on the other hand,
once admitted to the status of adopted clients in an Arab tribe,
became as eager as their conquerors to forge evidence proving the
ancient glory of their new masters, partly to curry favor with them,
and partly to lord it over their less fortunate unadopted brethren.
D. S. Margoliouth had some additional points to make in a now
famous article.2 A literary form called 'poetry' (shi'r), he argued,
must have existed prior to Islam because the Koran refers to it,3 and
Taha Husain, Fi l-adab al-jdhili (Cairo, 1927), p. 63.
"The Origins of Arabic Poetry,"Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, n.v. (1925),
3 Koran 26: 224-225.
Muhammed was accused of being a poet by his enemies,' which charge
he strongly rejected.2 This would imply that for the pre-Islamic
Arabs the word 'poetry' meant the rhymed prose of the soothsayers
and of the Koran rather than the measured verse of later times. This
assumption is supported by the fact that unlike other early literatures
such as Latin, not one line of poetry is to be found among the abundant pre-Islamic epitaphs and inscriptions. From this evidence it
may be assumed that the Koran uses the word 'poet' in the sense
of soothsayer. So-called 'pre-Islamic' poetry is uniformly written
in the Meccan Quraishite dialect of the Koran, and not in the various
tribal dialects of Arabia, whose existence and peculiarities were
known to medieval Arab philologists. Also, the poems frequently
allude to writing, which would imply that the Quraishites were a
literate tribe, whereas Arab tradition would indicate that the poems
were orally transmitted. The poetry must then have been preserved
either orally or in writing. In the former case, the vehemence with
which Muhammad attacked 'poets' would surely have resulted in
the suppression and rapid extinction of the professional reciter.
If the poems were preserved in writing, use of books is implied, but
the Koran specifically accuses the pagan Arabs of possessing neither a
book nor writing. Generally speaking, literature evolves from the
irregular to the regular, as may be observed in the case of Latin.
By analogy, it can be assumed that the irregular rhythms of the
Koran gave rise to the regular meters of Arabic poetry, and not the
reverse. Medieval Arab philologists speak eloquently, too, of the
many forgeries perpetrated by transmitters such as Hammad arRawiya and his disciple Khalaf al-Ahmar. The generosity of caliphs
in rewarding transmitters of ancient poetry must also have been an
irresistible temptation to forge poetry.
Pre-Islamic poets, continues Margoliouth, frequently swear by
Allah and occasionally they even quote Koranic passages.3 Their
thorough knowledge of Islamic customs and doctrine thus reflects
negatively on the authenticity of the whole body of poetry. The
poems are all in the Koranic dialect of Quraish which could only
have been spread throughout Arabia after the rise of Islam as a
unifying force. Furthermore, poets such as 'Amr ibn Kulthum
Koran 37: 35.
Koran 69: 39-43.
3 An example by Zuhair in R. Blachere, Histoire de la litteralure arabe des origines
a la fin du XVe sidcle de J. C. (Paris, 1952), I, p. 176.
betray a general knowledge of Near Eastern geography that is
suspicious in an Arabian Bedouin. In his Mu'allaqa 'Amr claims to
have tasted the wine of Baalbek, Damascus, and Qasirin, and requests
to be given that of Andarin, possibly near Aleppo. This leads Margoliouth to comment that "doubtless in the 150 years which this person
is supposed to have lived he had time for extensive travels." 1 The
qa4ida too, exhibits a stereotyped literary structure. This would
imply that an original literary prototype must have existed in writing.
If so, then why did the Koran not censure this textual source as the
root of all the evil it sought to suppress?
The reaction to this dual attack on the authenticity of the classical prototype of Arabic poetry caused much ink to be spilled,
both in the East and in the West. In a succinct summary of the case
for the defense, A. J. Arberry replied point by point to the HusainMargoliouth thesis as follows:2
The Koranic passages cited by Margoliouth are both mistranslated
and torn from their proper context. They clearly refer to 'poetry'
as measured verse and not to the rhymed prose of the soothsayers.
The references in the Koran to the lack of a book and to writing
among the pagan Arabs can in no way be construed as referring to
poetry. It is clear from the context that they have to do instead with
the lack of a holy scripture. On the linguistic side, Arberry points
out that there were no metrical epitaphs in Greek before Homer,
and that to this very day Arabic epitaphs rarely contain verse. Furthermore, the theory espoused by medieval Arab philologists that the
Arabic of the revelation derived from the speech of Quraish has been
rejected by recent linguists. Instead, it is now thought that side by
side with the tribal dialects there existed a specialized literary language
used as a koinefor intertribal affairs. This dialect, which was more
lofty and dignified than normal speech, was used both by the Prophet
and by pre-Islamic poets because it gave greater currency to their
ideas. While it contained elements and borrowings from the different
tribal dialects, it was essentially an artificial, literary language for
use on solemn occasions. It was formerly maintained, furthermore,
that the poetic texts called 'pre-Islamic' had originally cited the
name of the pagan goddess al-Lat, which had been replaced by its
metrical equivalent Allah by later generations of pious transmitters.
cit., P. 443.
A. J. Arberry, The Seven Odes: The First Chapter in Arabic Literature (London,
1957), pp. 228-254.
More recent investigations have suggested, however, that Allah
may in fact have been known to the pre-Islamic Arabs. The verse
by 'Amr containing place names outside the Arabian peninsula,
as Arberry shows, was already rejected as spurious by the medieval
commentator Tibrizi, but even if the latter's opinion is not accepted,
the verse may be considered a mere poetic exaggeration.
If the poets were the spokesmen of paganism, Margoliouth had
asked, then who preserved and transmitted their poems after paganism
was blotted out by Islam? Arberry maintains that Islam has always
sat lightly upon the Bedouins. After the initial fervor of conversion
to the new religion had died down, they soon reverted to their
old ways. The art of poetry could not simply have disappeared,
otherwise from whom would the early Islamic poets have learned it?
The Bedouins, lukewarm Muslims though they may have been,
were not so rash as to flaunt the old gods in the face of pious Muslims, and gradually the names of the idols were replaced by that of
Such is the present state of affairs with regard to the problem of
the authenticity of pre-Islamic poetry, according to Arberry's exposition. While some of the points raised by Taha Husain and Margoliouth
have been answered satisfactorily, others continue to arouse nagging
doubts that have left their mark on all subsequent studies. Generally
speaking a stalemate has been reached. Those scholars objecting to the
Husain-Margoliouth thesis have at times argued their case brilliantly, but they have so far failed to provide an overall theoretical explanation of the nature of pre-Islamic poetry. They have been handicapped by the lack of a suitable critical method with which to
solve the problem on an objective basis convincing enough to be
acceptable to scholarly consensus.
The references to Islamic doctrines found in the ancient poets,
who could not possibly have known Islam, appear to have already
disturbed medieval Arab scholars. Living as they did in an age of
faith, and thus attributing scientific validity to the miraculous,
they solved the problem by the 'Methuselaean' expedient of attributing
improbably long lives to the poets. In this way the latter could be
brought conveniently within the pale of Islam and given ample
time to revise and correct their poetry in the light of the new faith
and its teachings. Half-legendary biographies of the poets thus
developed and it was claimed, for example, that Zuhair met the
Prophet when he was a centenarian; that Labid lived over 120 years
and died a Muslim; that both Harith ibn Hilliza and 'Amr ibn Kultham
lived to the overripe age of 150 years.1 Modern critics, relying
on a positivistic approach, have not only rejected these stories
as fabulous inventions, but, as we have seen, have occasionally
gone to the extreme of rejecting the whole corpus of poetry along
with the biographies of the poets. Thus both the medieval and the
modern approaches have failed to come to grips with the problem.
If the corpus was forged at all, common sense would tell us that it
must have been forged in imitation of an earlier model now lost to us,
and that this model would necessarily have had to be authentic, since
it is inconceivable that a whole literature should have arisen from
scratch. Sensing this fact, more moderate scholars such as R. Blachere
have suggested with a far greater degree of plausibility that even if
our present body of pre-Islamic poetry was all or partially forged,
it must reflect, in all probability, the style and ideals of an earlier
and authentic model.2 Supposedly false poems must therefore express
the spirit of the Jahiliyya in general, even though they may have
been composed in later time. Faute de mieux, this is the view generally
accepted today by most scholars. But if this is so, how then are we to
distinguish the true from the false? To this question criticism has so
far provided no reliable answer.
Above all, it can be sensed that many of the arguments advanced
on either side smack of the study, while the compromise solution
is based on probabilities and leaves too many questions unanswered.
Too often partisans of either side pick out certain historical facts
in support of their arguments, to the exclusion of others that tnight
possibly yield opposite results. Furthermore, these arguments are
largely based on external evidence, while those based on internal
evidence too often use what are, after all, primarily literary texts,
as sources for historical data, without taking into account the inner
laws of composition and structure of a poem. Thus a new and different
approach is needed; one based on the study and analysis of pre-Islamic
poems themselves in the light of current literary theory. It is time
for the literary critic to attempt a solution of the problem on the
basis of what literary historians have discovered.
Without a prior working-hypothesis which is ultimately confirmed
by the results of investigation, no study can be carried out successfully.
Ibid.; Mlargoliouth, op. cit.
Blachere, op. cit., pp. 184-186.
This paper will therefore begin on the assumption that pre-Islamic
poetry was an oral poetry. It will attempt to prove this on the basis
of internal and external evidence, and will apply a contemporary
theory of oral literature to it. Finally, it will contrast the orality
of pre-Islamic poetry with the literate nature of later, Islamic, poetry.
THEORY OF ORAL POETRY
It would hardly be an exaggeration to state that the techniques
peculiar to oral poetry and used by oral poets to compose regular
verse have come to be understood far more closely during the past
thirty years than in all the time that has elapsed since the rise of
Aristotelian criticism in Ancient Greece. The discovery of, and advances
in, the study of the oral technique of composition are chiefly due to the
investigations conducted by Milman Parry and Albert B. Lord. Parry
first applied the concept of theformulato the study of Homer and came to
the conclusion, today generally accepted, that Homer was an oral poet.'
To corroborate his thesis he then turned to a living tradition of oral
epic poetry, namely the one preserved and cultivated by illiterate
Yugoslavian singers. It was hoped that new insights applicable to Homeric studies could be discovered by focusing attention on the singer
and his method of composition, studied in the laboratory of a still living oral tradition. With the help of Lord, Parry showed that orally composed poetry is clearly distinguishable from written poetry.2 The literate poet in every age and culture has time to elaborate and polish his
ideas before setting them down in their definitive form. Furthermore,
his reading public is once-removed from him. In contrast, the oral poet
composes during the very act of performance, that is to say, he improvises, and he must do so verv swiftly indeed if he is to retain the audience
that is immediately in front of him. In order to achieve this remarkable
feat of producing regular verses extempore and without the use of
memory, the oral poet is not entirely lacking in technical resources, for
he draws upon a vast repertory of traditional formulas which he has
previously mastered and which he strings together at lightning speed
l Milman Parry, L'Epithete traditionelle dans Homere (Paris, 1928); Les formules
et la mitriqued'Homere (Paris, 1928); "Studies in the Epic Technique of Oral
Verse-Making I: Homer and the Homeric Style," Harvard Studies in Classical
Philology,XLI (1930), pp. 74-147; "Studies in the Epic Technique of Oral VerseMaking II: The Homeric Language as the Language of an Oral Poetry," HSCP,
XLIII (1932), 1-50; The Making of Homeric Verse: The Collected Papers of Milman
Parry, ed. Adam Parry (Oxford, 1971).
2 See especially, A. B. Lord, The Singer of Tales (Cambridge, Mass., 1964).
to produce regular lines of poetry; he sings in a specialized language of
which the smallest separable unit is not the individual word, but the
formula, defined by Parry as "a group of words which is regularly
employed under the same metrical conditions to express a given
essential idea." I
The stock of formulas in any oral tradition is elaborated during
the course of centuries by the slow process of trial and error. Those
that prove to be of greater use to the poet in expressing what he needs
to say outlast the less useful ones so that slowly, by a process of
natural selection, a traditional stock of collectively known formulas is
elaborated and adopted.
The application of these findings to ancient or medieval literatures
has proved to be most illuminating. In a poem the circumstances of
whose composition are today lost to us, the repetition of a significant
number of formulas or formulaic phrases and constructions is a
sure indication that it was orally composed, whereas a general lack
of formulaic repetition indicates its written origin. In other words,
oral poetry is almost entirely formulaic, whereas written poetry is not.
An oral poem has no fixed text until it is written down from a composer's dictation. Before this moment, its 'text' circulates from mouth
to mouth, never being retold word for word or line for line in exactly
the same way. It can be lengthened or abridged; some of its elements
may be suppressed and new ones added to it with each performance;
it can be entirely reworded. The poem thus exists in a fluid state and
is recreated with each new performance. Neither does the oral
poet memorize the poems of his more experienced mentors, nor does
he even memorize his own songs. Conscious memorization thus plays
no part in the technique of the oral poet. Instead, the process of learning how to compose orally entails mastering a repertory of themes,
motifs, plots, proper names, and formulas. With the aid of these the
apprentice slowly begins to elaborate poems of his own in regular
verse. Since this process is a slow one, it often occurs that older and
therefore more experienced singers are better artists than young men.
But although a good poet may be more skillfull in handling the collective repertory of formulas, the body of material he relies upon is
essentially the same as that used by the mediocre poet. The poet thus
applies a pre-existent repertory shared with his generation and
inherited from the earlier generations that constitute the tradition.
1 Parry, "Studies I," p. 80; Lord, op. cit., p. 30.
In this respect, his language is an artificial, specialized poetic diction
rising above dialect differences, and it is intelligible to all the people
of the different regions or tribal groupings that make up the cultural
group. Since this poetic diction is based on formulas inherited from
the past and stabilized by metrical requirements, it tends to be far more
conservative than the surrounding spoken dialects with which it
coexists. Some formulas will only fit the meter in particular dialect
variants, and these will be preserved like fossils in the poetic language
long after the dialect they were borrowed from has ceased to be
spoken. Formulaic diction thus abounds in archaisms and references
that occasionally are not even understood by the poet and his audience.
This is a theory of the nature of oral poetry, but it is also the result
of long and painstaking research conducted by Parry and Lord
among Yugoslavian bards. It has subsequently been applied successfully (and thus confirmed) to other oral literatures, mostly of the
Indo-European group,2 but never to Arabic literature. The purpose
1 Jan Vansina, De la tradition orale: Essai de mithode historique, MIusee Royal
de l'Afrique Centrale: Annales, Serie in 8?, Sciences Humaines, XXXVI
(Tervuren, 1961), pp. 43-44.
2 Anglo-Saxon: Donald K. Fry (ed.), The Beowuif Poet: A Collection of Critical
Essays (Englewood Cliffs, N. J., 1968); Francis P. Magoun Jr., "The OralFormulaic Character of Anglo-Saxon Narrative Poetry," Speculum, XXVIII
(1953), pp. 446-467.
English: James H. Jones, "Commonplace and Memorization in the Oral
Tradition of the English and Scottish Popular Ballads," Journal of American
Folklore, LXXIV (1961), pp. 91-113.
French: Joseph Duggan, "Formulas in the Couronnementde Louis," Romania,
(1966), pp. 315-344; A Concordance of the CHANSON DE ROLAND
(Columbus, 1969); Tatiana Fotitch, "The Chanson de Geste in the Light of Recent
Investigations of Balkan Epic Poetry," Linguistic and Literary Studies in Honor of
Helmut A. HatZfrld, ed. Alessandro S. Grisafulli (Washington D. C., 1964),
pp. 149-162; Eugene Vance, "Notes on the Development of Formulaic Language
in Romanesque Poetry," Milanges offerts ai Reni Crozet, ed. Pierre Gallais and
Yves-Jean Ride (Poitiers, 1966), I, 427-434.
Gaelic: James Ross, "Formulaic Composition in Gaelic Oral Literature,"
Modern Philology, LVII (1959), pp. 1-12.
Greek: W. E. MIcLeod, "Oral Bards at Delphi," Transactions of the American
Philological Association, XCII (1961), pp. 317-325; Michael N. Nagler, "Towards a
Generative View of the Oral Formula," TAPA, XCVIII (1967), 269-311; James
"The Homeric Hymns as Oral Poetry," American Journal of
Philology, LXXXIII (1962), 334-368; Joseph A. Russo, "A Closer Look at Homeric
Formulas," TAPA, XCIV (1963), pp. 235-247; "The Structural Formula in
Homeric Verse," Yale Classical Studies, XX: Homeric Seudies, ed. G. S. Kirk
and Adam Parry (New Haven and London, 1966), pp. 219-240.
Hebrew: William Whallon, "Formulaic Poetry in the Old Testament," Comparative Literature, XV (1963), pp. 1-14; "Old Testament Poetry and Heroic
Epic," Comparative Literature, XVIII (1966), 113-131.
of this paper is therefore to examine the formula in pre-Islamic poetry
with a view to shedding light on the problem of authenticity.
FOR THE ORAL NATURE
OF PRE-ISLAMIC POETRY
The idea that the poets of pre-Islamic times were illiterate is not a
new one.' Medieval Arab critics relied on oral transmission by
Bedouin informants in writing down and collecting their poems.
But although the orality of the transmission they were recording
was quite obvious to them, their literate habits of mind blinded
them to the significance of this fact, nor were they aware of the
techniques of oral composition. They were obsessed with the desire
to establish the 'original text' of a given poem, and when different
informants came up with differing versions, instead of asking themselves what were the reasons for the discrepancies, they developed
a general distrust of informants and often rejected as spurious those
poems transmitted by what they considered to be disreputable transmitters.2
In the eighth and ninth centuries A. D., the partisans of the urbanized anti-Arab group known as the Shu'abiyya observed that in
Hittite: I. MNIcNeill,"The AMeter of the Hittite Epic," Journal of Anatolian
Studies, XIII (1963), pp. 237-242.
Norse: Lars Lonnroth, "Hjalmar's Death-Song and the Delivery of Eddic
Poetry," Speculum, XLVI (1971), 1-20.
Spanish: J. M. Aguirre, "l2pica oral y epica castellana: tradicion creadora y
tradicion repetitiva," RomanischeForscbungen,LXXX (1968), pp. 13-41; Bruce A.
Beatie, "Oral-Traditional Composition in the Spanish Romanceroof the Sixteenth
Century," Journal of the Folklore Institute, I (1964), pp. 92-113; A. D. Deyermond,
"The Singer of Tales and Medieval Spanish Epic," Bulletin of Hispanic Studies,
XLII (1965), pp. 1-8; L. P. Harvey, "The MIetrical Irregularity of the Cantar
de Mio Cid," BHS, XL (1963), pp. 137-143; Ian Michael, "A Comparison of the
Use of Epic Epithets in the Poema de Mio Cid and the Libro de Alexandre," BHS,
XXXVII (1960), pp. 32-41; Ruth H. Webber, Formulisfic Diction in the Spanish
Ballad, University of California Publications in Modern Philology, XXXIV:
2 (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1951), pp. 175-278.
Toda: Murray B. Emeneau, "Oral Poets of South India: The Todas," Journal
of American Folklore, LXXI (1958), pp. 312-324; "Style and Mfeaning in an Oral
Literature," Language, LXII (1966), pp. 323-345; Toda Songs (Oxford, 1971).
1 See the Arabic tradition according to which the poet Tarafa and his uncle
Mutalammis, also a poet, are depicted as illiterates, in R. A. Nicholson, A Literary
History of the Arabs (London, 1907), p. 108. There is, of course, no guarantee
of the story's authenticity, but it should be noted that the notion that a great
pre-Islamic poet was illiterate did not appear unusual to the medieval commentators who recorded the tale.
Blachere, op. cit., pp. 118-120.
public speeches and recitations of poetry the desert Arabs had the
uncouth habit of brandishing bows and staffs for emphasis and
perhaps as a rhythmic aid.' This custom was viewed by the Shu'iibiyya
as a sign of backwardness, but it acquires particular significance
when compared to the recorded fact that such aids were used by
poets, soothsayers, and prophets in pre-Islamic times.2 Rhythmic
aids are essential to the composition of oral poetry, and Lord has
observed that when the Yugoslavian singer is deprived of his musical
accompaniment he loses his beat and begins to produce irregular
lines that are half in prose and half in verse.3 In deriding this custom,
the Shu'ubiyya fortunately recorded it for our use. Al-Jahiz (d. A. D.
869), who presumably had witnessed recitations of Arabic poetry
by Bedouins, in his defense of the Arabs against the adverse charges
made by the Shu'abiyya, distinguishes clearly between literate and
The Persians may have good orators but their eloquence is always
the result of long thought, deep study and counsel. It is founded in
literary scholarship, so that the successor always builds upon the
efforts of his predecessors and the last man always uses the fruit of
all previous thinking. It is quite different amongst the Arabs. Their
eloquence is spontaneous,extempore,as if the result of deep inspiration.
It is produced without effort or deep study, without exercise of reason
and without the aid of others. The speakerpreparesto speak or recite a
verse, on the day of battle, or when watering the beasts; as soon as
he concentrateshis thoughts on the subject of his speech the concepts
and words just flow from his mouth as if by themselves. Nor did the
old Arab poets endeavour to preserve their speeches or transmit
[them] to their children. The Arabs had no knowledge of writing
and their art was inborn and not acquired. To speak well was so
naturalto everyone that it was not necessaryto write down the work
performed or to make it the subject of study and tradition; just as
the examples of their predecessors were not available to them. Thus
only that which a man had involuntarily rememberedwas ever transmitted; it is but a small part of the great mass which is known only
to him who counts the drops in the clouds and knows the number
1 "The staff is used for beating rhythm, spears for fighting, sticks for attack,
bows for shooting, but there is no relation between speaking and the staff,
and none between an address and a bow." Apud Ignaz Goldziher, "The Shu'fibiyya," Muslim Studies, ed. and trans. S. M. Stern (London, 1967), I, p. 156.
Cf. ibid., p. 159.
2 These rhythmic aids were used in particularby al-Harith ibn Hilliza and Nibigha, as well as by the Prophet. See ibid., p. 156, n. 4. Cf. Blachere, op. cit.,
vol. II, p. 357.
Lord, op. cit., pp. 126-127.
of the grains of sand. Of this any Shu'uibitemight convince himself
if he but came to the dwelling places of the true Arabs.'
Fortunately for the modern investigator, the oral tradition of
pre-Islamic poetry has not died out. Fifteen centuries after the age
of Imru' al-Qais it is still alive in Arabia and has been studied, if
only sporadicallv, by contemporary scholars. If more field work has
not been done, it is partly because modern Orientalism has inherited a
curious preconception from the middle ages. Medieval critics had
reasoned that only those works in the classical cArabiyya (i.e. the
pre-Islamic koine of poetry) were to be considered literature. Folkpoetry not in the 'Arabiyya was consequently regarded as sub-literary
and unworthy of the serious critic's attention. As centuries went
by and the poetic koine slowly changed, its divergence from the
classical norms became more evident, and it was relegated to
oblivion. Although this attitude has continued to persist even in
Western circles, there are signs that times are changing. Certainly
the following statement by R. B. Serjeant announces a welcome and
long overdue change of perspective in modern scholarship: "In the
20th century it is time to take classical, pre-Islamic or early Islamic
verse to Arabia for explanation and commentary, and see what
results can be obtained from this method of approach, which should,
of course, always be used with caution. One would in many cases
obtain a more valid explanation of a verse than that provided by an
'Abbasid grammarian." 2
The observations made today in Arabia not only confirm those of
al-Jahiz, but also illuminate the Arab poet's method of oral composition. Although none of the scholars who have conducted field
research seem to have been familiar with the Parry-Lord theory,
their numerous observations coincide with it in every respect.
The poems so far collected, chiefly from the northern, central and
southern regions of Arabia, belong to a tradition generally believed
to descend from pre-Islamic poetry.3 This tradition today uses basically
the same meters common to ancient poetry, if one makes allowance
for the linguistic transformations that have taken place during the
Goldziher, op. cit., pp. 160-161.
R. B. Serjeant, South Arabian Poetry: I Prose and Poetry from Hadramawt
(London, 1951), p. 3, n. 2.
3 Op. cit., pp. 3, 8, 13, 57; Albert Socin, Diwn ausCentral-Arabien,
Abhandlungen der philologisch-historischen Classe der kbniglich sachsischen Gesellschaft
der Wissenschaft, XIX (Leipzig, 1901), p. 46.
course of 1500 years.1 The language of the poems is a near-classical
koine understood even by the illiterate,2 and descending directly
from the ancient poetic koine.3 It exists alongside the regional and
tribal dialects, and allowing for slight differences of pronunciation,
it is readily comprehensible to audiences throughout Arabia.4 The
poets who employ this koine are largely illiterate.5 The act of composing a poem, today as in ancient times, is expressed by the phrase
qilt (never katabt) al-qa.rida('I uttered [not 'I wrote'] a poem').6
The poetry is composed extempore and is rarely written do wn.
Instead, the poet's friends learn fragments of it from him, and when
the poems are transcribed this is done from oral dictation.7 In this
way the scribe has replaced the ancient rdwi or 'reciter'.8 The oral
poets have no theoretical knowledge of meter. They rely on what
observers have described as an instinctive sense of rhythm.9 As in
the case of the Yugoslavian poets described by Lord and Parry,
when dictation to a scribe slows down the rhythm of recitation,
the Arab poet's technique of composition is disturbed; he loses his
beat, and metrical irregularities result in his poem. These are usually
corrected by the scribe.'0The ideas, sentences, themes, and motifs
of this poetry are traditional and belong to a common repertory."
Modern observers have noted that when poets are accused of 'stealing'
each other's verses, as often happens, they have only vague answers
to give in their own defense.12 Plagiarism is, of course, a moral concept
more appropriate to a written literature than to an oral tradition,
which is collective, and has no concept of literary property. The
language of the poems contains formulas,13 and the introduction
l Serjeant, op. cit.,
pp. 76-85; Socin, op. cit., p. 48.
Serjeant, op. cit., p. 8.
Ibid., p. 55.
Ibid., p. 8.
Alois Musil, The Manners and Customs of the Rwala Bedouins (New York, 1928),
7 Blachere, op. cit., p. 87; Musil, op. cit., p. 284; Serjeant, op. cit., p. 57.
8 Blach&re,op. cit., pp. 92-93.
9 Serjeant, op. cit., p. 76.
10 Ibid., pp. 12, 76; Harvey, op. cit.; Lord, op. cit., pp. 126-127.
11 Serjeant, ibid., p. 8.
12 Musil, op. cit., p. 284.
13 "Many of the [hunting poems] commence with the phrase 'akfat kalban'."
Serjeant, op. cit., p. 26. Even a cursory examination of modern Arabian oral
poetry reveals the use of many other formulas. For example, a high proportion
of odes begin with the expressionyd rikib.
of some of its traditional motifs is at times datable. For example,
the coffee-drinking theme has to be fairly modern since the habit
was unknown in Arabia during medieval times.'
In the process of transmission the poems are constantly undergoing
modifications in vocabulary, number and order of lines.2 No two
Bedouins who claim to know the same poem will recite it in exactly
the same way. Even the poet will change his own text from one
performance to the next and when confronted with earlier and
different versions is unable to account for the obvious discrepancies.
When this happens, he will appeal to the omniscience of God and
declare that all versions are equally good.3 There is thus no 'original
text' and a search for one would be a vain endeavour.4 Poets often
'forget' the poems they themselves have composed, thus betraying
that they have not relied on memory in the first place.5 In the rather
fluid situation of oral performance the poets are often obliged to
end their poem rapidly when they sense that their audience is becoming
impatient or bored. Because of this the ends of poems tend to be more
unstable and to vary more than the beginnings.6 The poets delight
in using rare words similar to the gharib of ancient times. Some
of these are dialect forms or archaisms fossilized in the poetic koine
and not even understood by the poet using them. More scrupulous
poets will, however, not hesitate to substitute a familiar for an unfamiliar
word.7 The poems are chanted in a monotonous tone to the accompaniment of the rabab,but the different parts of the poem are clearly distinguishable from one another. The firstwords are blurted out, the next are half
swallowed, and the end is uttered in a falsetto.8 Parry and Lord also found
that Yugoslavian singers use different melodies for different sections
of the poem. The purpose of this is to keep alive the audience's
I Ibid., p. 13. Cf. G. E. von Grunebaum, "Zur Chronologie der fruharabischen
Dichtung," Orientalia, ser. 2, VIII (1939), pp. 328-345. The author attributes the
introduction of the formula tabassar kbalili hal tard min Zacd3inininto pre-Islamic
poetry to MTuraqqishthe younger (b. ca. 500). (See pp. 335-336.)
2 Musil, op. cit., p. 284; Serjeant, op. cit., pp. X, XI; Socin, op. cit., p. 6.
fusil, op. cit., 284.
4 Ibid., p. 284.
5 Ibid., p. 284. Cf. the anecdote according to which the pre-Islamic poetess
al-Khansa' was unable to recite a poem she had composed earlier, when asked
to do so by the caliph 'Umar, but instead, immediately improvised a new poem
on the same topic, in Marcel Jousse, Etudes de psychologielingu'istique: Le style orale
rytbmique et mnimotechniquecbez les verbomoteurs(Paris, 1925), p. 133.
6 Socin, op. cii., p. 6.
7 Musil, op. cit., p. 284; Serjeant, op. cit., p. X; Socin, op. cit., p. 6.
8 Musil, op. cit., p. 283; Blachere, op. cit., vol. II, p. 357.
interest. If the poet senses that the audience is getting bored he will
break into a new melody to increase the dramatic tension or to
announce that the end is drawing near. The melodic dimension of
oral poetry helps to explain why so many pre-Islamic poems seem
to stop in mid-air rather than coming to a carefully constructed conclusion.' The text in this case relies heavily on the human voice
to impress the hearer. It is composed to be sung and not to be read.
INTERNAL EvIDENCE FOR THE ORAL NATURE
All poetry is based on one form of repetition or another, but the
distinctive feature of oral-formulaic poetry, and in this pre-Islamic
poetry is no exception, is the high frequency with which certain
word combinations, the formulas, are repeated. For the purposes
of this study it will be necessary to distinguish between four different
categories of repetition: 1. The formula proper. 2. The formulaic
system. 3. The structural formula. 4. Conventional vocabulary.
To avoid misunderstandings it is emphasized from the outset that the
oral-formulaic technique is no rigid, mechanized system reducing
the poet to the level of a mere computer, but a highly flexible and
delicate instrument worthy of being used by a great artist. The
categories listed above merge into one another and can only be defined
approximately, and there will always be dubious examples that can be
fitted into either of two categories. This classification should therefore
be taken only as a convenient means for making certain basic distinctions.
1. The Formula: In the strict sense defined by Parry, the formula
includes only verbatim, or nearly verbatim repetitions. Formulas
can and do vary in length from two or three words to a whole hemistich or even a whole line:
/ 'afat id-diyaru
(L, M, 1)
(IQ, 144, 45, 10)
1 Lord, op. cit., p. 37. The peculiar way in which Bedouins left their poems in
suspense at the end was already noted by medieval Arab critics, who found the
habit unsatisfactory and disapproved of it: "There are some Bedouins who end
their poems brusquely, leaving the minds of their audience in suspense. Their
speech remains unfinished, as though they had never thought about coming to a
conclusion." Ibn Rashiq, Kitab al-'Umda ft sina'at ash-sbicr wa-naqdi-hi, (Cairo,
1955), I, 160.
/ wuqiifan bi-ha sahbi 'alaiyamatiyya-hum//
yaqiiliinalI tahlik asan wa-tajammali (IQ, M, 5)
/ wuqiifan bi-ha sahbi calaiyamatiyya-hum /
yaquiluina tahlik asan wa-tajalladi /
(T, M, 2)
2. The Formulaic System: The minor substitutions observed in the
last two examples above can be drastically increased, giving rise to
formulaic systems.' These are larger groupings of different formulas
related to one another in that they share at least one word in common
in the same metrical position. The formulaic system is related to the
very important linguistic process of substitution. In everyday
spoken language, the number of possible word combinations,
although not infinite, is very large indeed and is only restricted by
grammatical usage. Oral-formulaic speech is in a sense a second
grammar within that of the spoken language. It admits fewer possible
word combinations, namely those alone that are useful in producing
regular metrical speech. The good oral poet does not, however,
merely repeat formulas word for word. If he did so he would soon
run out of word combinations to express what he wanted to say.
Instead he learns how to substitute words within a formula for others
of equivalent rhythmic value. This leads to the creation of new,
derivative formulas whose relationship to the original formula,
or to others in the system, can often be detected because of the words
they share in common and in the same metrical position. It is, of
course, not always possible to tell which is the original and which the
derivative formula, but in many cases relationships within larger
groups are clearly discernible:
/ ya 'amru
/ ya bu'sa
/ ya dhata
/ ya dara
(M, 321, 3)
(IQ, 121, 9, 1)
(M, 886, 1)
(Z, 99, 18, 1)
(Z, 97, 17, 2)
(Z, 97, 17, 2)
/ auda sh-shababa l-Iadhi
// inna sh-shababa l-ldhi
/ huwa l-jawadu l-ldhi
/ lau la l-humamu l-ldhi
/f hatta tulaql l-ladhi
// akhnai alai-ha l-ladhi
Lord, op. cit., p. 35.
Journal of Arabic Literature, III
97, 17, 13)
16, 14, 9)
6, 5, 6)
/ ka-anni wa-qad khallaftu tiscina hijjatan /
fi kulli hijjatin //
fi kulli rihlatin //
(Z, 101, 20, 6)
(L, 118, 38, 44)
(L, 134, 44, 30)
3. The Structural Formula: If the process of substitution is pushed
to its extreme, and no key words are left to be shared in common by
two formulas, it might be argued that we are no longer dealing with
a formulaic construction at all. It is obvious, however, in a vast
number of instances, that two or more groups of words in the same
metrical position, and yet sharing no key word in common, can be
cast in the same or similar rhythmic, and often even syntactic, constructions.These word groups are called structural formulas.1 Because of the
peculiar nature of word derivation in Arabic, structural formulas
abound in its poetry. By substituting the root consonants of one
word for those of another root, vast numbers of rhythmically similar
words can be derived. If these are then arranged into similar syntactic
constructions, structural formulas will result. They could thus be
considered larger clusters of formulaic systems:
/ cafat id-diyaru
/ "afat id-diyaru
/ la'iba z-zamanu
/ taraqa 1-khayalu
/ zacama l-ghudafu
/ zacama 1-humamu
/ hana r-rahlilu
/ kadhaba l-atiqu
/ saqata n-nasifu
(L, M, 1)
(IQ, 144, 10)
(Z, 81, 2)
(M, 515, 1)
(N, 9, 3)
(N, 10, 22)
(N, 9, 5)
(A, 35, 3)
(N, 10, 7, 17)
/ bacda l-fawarisi
// baina I-qawalibi
// ghubsun kawasibu
/ nakhlun kawaricu
// rihu l-masayifi
/ ?allat turasidu-ni
(L, 130, 2)
(M, 713, 8)
(M, 298, 14)
(L, M, 39)
(L, 152, 4)
(L, M, 31)
(L, 154, 6)
(M, 75, 32)
/ wa-inna shifaii
// wa-kana shifa'an
(IQ, M, 6)
(Alq, 110, 10, 5)
1 See especially Nagler, op. cit.; Russo, op. cit.
/ wa-li sahi 1-fu'adi wa-la 'aiyyi //
/ wa-li zulman aradtu wa-la khtilaba //
(Z, 99, 18, 7)
(M, 700, 14)
Vocabulary:Certain individual words, or etymologically related words, are used over and over again in pre-Islamic
poetry to convey specific traditional motifs and ideas. Nevertheless,
in a few cases it was not possible to collect enough examples in the
same meter to declare them fully formulaic. At times, the same word
will appear in different meters and in different combinations with
other words, that is to say, under different metrical conditions.
But the frequency with which such words are repeated in a similar
context of meaning leads to the suspicion that they probably also
belong to formulaic constructions.
In analysing the Homeric poems, the scholar has a referent of
about 27000 lines at his disposal, whereas the corpus of pre-Islamic poetry is considerably smaller and more unwieldy. For the
purposes of the present study a referent of slightly over 5000 lines
was used. Had the referent been larger, the percentage and number
of formulaic repetitions would have been proportionately greater,
and some of the individual words would have fitted into as yet
undiscovered formulaic constructions. But since the formulaic
nature of such words has not been proven definitively, they have been
included provisionally in a separate category of their own:
// bi-minan ta'abbada
(kdmil) (L, M, 1)
(wdfir) (N, 20, 19, 3)
// khalaqan kama daminial-wubhyya
(kdmil) (L, M, 2)
(wdfir) (A, 52, 27, 2)
(jawil) (Z, 91, 15, 5)
/ ka-wa4yi saha'ifin
/ li-man talalun ka-l-wa4yi
/ fa-waqaftu as'alu-hd
/fa-waqaftu fi-ha kai usdaila-hd
/ waqaftu usd'ilu-hanaqati
(kdmil) (L, M, 10)
(kdmil) (M, 827, 6)
(mutaqdrib) (M, 355, 3)
ba'da 'ahdi anisi-hi //
(kdmil) (L, M, 3)
/ suduman qadiman 'abdu-hubi-anisi-ha // (kdmil) (L, 207, 7)
/ la'ibat bi-ha l-anw'u bacdaanisi-ha // (kdmil) (A, 41, 19, 3)
// bi-siqti l-liwd
fa-sala l-liwd la-hu //
baina l-liwd fa-sarimatin //
bi-s-sarimati fa-l-liwa //
124, 17, 11)
bi-sh-sharabbati fa-l-liwa //
sarat thalathan min al-liwd //
bi-mun'ariji l-liwd //
(Z, 83, 6, 9)
(Z, 80, 3, 29)
(M, 23, 6)
From the above examples it becomes clear that oral formulas have
nothing whatsoever to do with the formal divisions of metrical feet
established by Khalil ibn Ahmad for Arabic poetry, in the sense
that they do not necessarily coincide with a foot. The oral poet has no
knowledge of feet. Instead, it is by combining formulas of one class
or another with the aid of rhythm that he builds regular lines of verse.
For example, two structural formulas that frequently occur in basit
// ghulbun sawajidu
/ khalfa l-'adariti
// sidu dh-dhawa'ibi
(L, 56, 15, 7)
(N, 14, 11, 5)
(L, 55, 15, 4)
mahmiidun masari'u-hu //
mankiiban dawabiru-ha //
(L, 58, 15, 21)
(Z, 85, 9, 18)
(M, 848, 7)
The combination of these two patterns in proper sequence produces
the perfect basit hemistich:
----1/ shibi l-mabariki, madriusin madafi;u-hu //
(M, 242, 28)
Likewise, in kdmil meter, the following three formulas are very
/ 'afat id-diyaru
(IQ, 144, 45, 10)
(A, 41, 19, 2)
(IQ, 157, 59, 4)
ardi-ha wa-sama'i-ha /
haiyi-ha wa-nisa'i-ha /
(M, 497, 15)
(M, 480, 5)
(M, 311, 27)
(M, 55, 8)
(M, 719, 9)
(M, 223, 38)
// hadbin tuqassiru
On the basis of these three formulas, and with slight adjustments,
Labid produces the following line:
'afat id-diyaru, mahallu-ha fa-muqamu-ha
bi-minan ta'abbada ghaulu-ha fa-rijamu-ha /
(L, M, 1)
It should also be noted that in Arabic the formula is not limited
to descriptive tags or epithets, but that it is all-pervasive in the
sense that literally everything is formulaic, from nouns to verbs
and even particles. Certain formulas also occur with greater frequency
among some poets than among others. In studying the oral poetry
of the Yugoslavian tradition Lord concluded that although the
repertory of formulas in a tradition is shared collectively, not all
singers know or use all the formulas in it.1 Independently, in studying
Spanish ballads, R. Menendez Pidal has also been able to show
that the number and type of variants is greater from one region to
another than it is within a region.2 Thus in oral poetry local, regional,
tribal, and even individual peculiarities in style can be detected
beneath the surface of a common, traditional repertory. A study
of pre-Islamic formulas lends further support to this theory. Basing
his arguments on a stylistic, thematic, and linguistic approach,
G. E. von Grunebaum has divided pre-Islamic poets into six major
schools or sub-groups.3 The close stylistic relationship he pointed
out between the early-Jahili poets Imru' al-Qais and 'Alqama (both
were born ca. 500)4 is entirely confirmed by formulaic analysis.
Likewise the late-Jahili poets Nabigha, Zuhair, and Labid show
clear indications of using similar formulas. A systematic compariscn
Lord, op. cit., pp. 49-50, 63-65.
R. Menendez Pidal, Diego Catalan,and Alvaro Galmes, Comoviveun romance:
Dos ensayos sobre tradicionalidad (Madrid, 1954). See also Holger Olof Nygard,
The Ballad of Heer Halewijn; Its Forms and Variations in Western Europe: A Study
of the History and Nature of a Ballad Tradition, Folklore Fellows Communications,
CLXIX (Helsinki, 1958).
3 G. E. von Grunebaum, op. cit.
4 Ibid., p. 381.
of formulas in pre-Islamic poetry could thus permit us to solve the
problem of arranging the poets chronologically into schools.
But even if not all singers use the same formulas, these divergent
formulas can be arranged into larger formulaic systems, from which
it immediately becomes clear that they are interrelated and belong to a
common tradition. The most stable formulas are those used to express
the most common ideas in the poetry. Because in an oral situation
the poet may begin his recitation at a leisurely pace, but is not always
allowed to finish it, the most common formulas appear in the earlier
parts of the poem. In the case of Arabic it was found that there are
certain typical nasib formulas, and other typical rabil formulas, etc.,
for each thematic section of the poem. The formulas peculiar to each
theme, however, can be grouped into larger systems or structural
families with those of other themes, thus betraying the fact that thev
belong to a common repertory. The process of substitution is thus
of enormous importance to the oral poet since it permits him to use
his technique creatively rather than relying slavishly on memorization.
In pre-Islamic poetry the formulaic process can be seen at work
not only within the hemistich or the line, but from one prosodic
unit to the next. Once a poet has established a linguistic pattern,
he frequently repeats it immediatelv in the next hemistich or line.
In this way, nouns, verbs, particles, or even whole phrases at the
beginning of a hemistich frequently are repeated in the followiing
/fa-lam ara ma'sharan asarii hadivyan //
wa-lam ara /ara baitin yustaba'u/
/ wa-jaru 1-baiti wa-r-rajulu l-munadi //
(Z, 78, 1, 52-53)
/ wa-qadghadautu qirnl yushaiyicuni
/ wa-qad 'alautu qutiuda r-rahliyasfauni1/
(Alq, 113, 13, 44-45)
/ mana'ta 1-laitha min akli bni hujrin /
wa-kdda/-laithu yudi bi-bni hujri /
/ mana'ta fa-anta dhii mannin wa-nu'ma // (IQ, 132, 24, 1-2)
bani shamaja bni jarmnin
(IQ, 161, 67, 2-3)
bi-anna fa-ha baridun //
(N, 10, 7, 22-24)
Otherwise, the word just before the end of a hemistich can be
repeated immediately in the beginning of the next hemistich:
// bi-ta'natin faisalin lamma da'dnil
/ da'dni da'watan wa-l-khailu tardi /l
(A, 50, 25, 1-2)
When one listens to recitations of Arabic poetry, no pause is heard at
the hemistich break, but actually accentual groups very rarely bridge
the caesura in pre-Islamic poetry. There is, to put it differently,
little internal enjambement of the caesura. In the different meters
studied, only in kdmil were formulas found to bridge the caesura.
This is an important feature of oral poetry, and one which should
be kept in mind when arguing for the orality of pre-Islamic poetry,
since it is a well-known fact that literate Arab poets of later medieval
times, in contrast, frequently and deliberately used the displaced
caesura as a rhetorical device to achieve certain artistic effects.l
The end of the line is clearly marked off by the ever-recurring
Arabic monorhyme, and enjambement between lines is very infrequent
in pre-Islamic poetry. Lines are therefore linked loosely together in a
series, frequently by the use of a conjunction, or by the repetition of a
key word in the previous line. This is what Lord has described as
the typical "adding" stvle of oral poetry, and it is based on parataxis.2
This does not mean that the lines are entirely independent from one
another as is often claimed, for a second line will usually connect
with a first in the way described above, even if the first contains an
idea that is entirely independent of the second. Since the second
line is dependent on the first, it will often echo its sound patterns
by either repeating formulas, alliterative effects, or structural patterns.
One question that is very significant is how the pre-Islamic poet
managed to acquire a wide enough repertory of formulas to compose
poetry in fifteen different meters. In other words, does each meter
have its own peculiar repertory of formulas or do the formulas
exist prior to the different meters? In the former case, the whole system
would indeed be cumbersome if not impossible for an individual
to master, but in the latter, then the order in which a common
1 In the Nxniyya of the Andalusian poet Ibn Zaiduin more than half of the
caesuras are displaced, and this is by no means an atypicalexample, for the technique
is common in tenth and eleventh century poets. See James T. Monroe, "La
poesia hispanoirabe durante el califato de C6rdoba: Teoria y practica," Estudios
orienta/es, VI (1971), pp. 113-151.
a Lord, op. cit., p. 54.
set of formulas is arranged by a poet in a given performance would
give rise to a distinct meter.
The present study was based on the four most frequent meters
found in pre-Islamic poetry. A typical sanmplein each meter was
compared to a large referent of lines in the same meter, and formulas
were discovered. When the four meters had been subjected to this
procedure, it became evident that several identified formulas were
used indifferently in coinciding sections of different meters:
ardi-ha wa-sama'i-ha /
bad'u-ha wa-iyadu-ha /
(M, 479, 15)
(M, 748, 10)
(L, M, 6)
(L, 196, 57, 7)
// dhikra habibin
(IQ, M, 1)
(IQ, 121, 9, 1)
/ waqaftu bi-ha
(M, 837, 3)
(N, 30, 29, 3)
At times, obviously related formulas contain slight modifications
that allow them to be used in different meters. For example, the
above formula reappears as follows in kdmil:
/ fa-waqaftu fi-ha
/ fa-waqaftu fi-ha
(M, 827, 6)
(A, 45, 21, 6)
Here the additicn of the initial conjunctionfa plus substitution of long
fi for its synonym short bi easily adapts the formula to a new meter.
From this the important principle can be derived that it is the order of
formulas that determines the meters of Arabic poetry. Viewed from the
unitarian theory of the formula, the rich complexity of Arabic prosody is therefore seen to respond to a simple, underlying cause. At the
same time, there is a tendency for certain words to recur more
frequently in certain meters. This leads to the phenomenon of linguistic
economy typical of the oral poet. Parry observed that in Homer
a given synonym always recurred in the same metrical conditions,
whereas another synonym would be used where the conditions
were different.' This meant that the profusion of synonyms in Homeric
Greek had a function to fulfill; they were not used merely for effect.
Pre-Islamic poetry is notorious for its vast store of synonyms, for
which no satisfactory account has been given other than to refer
it to the 'fantasy' and 'verbosity' of the Oriental poet. A meter-bymeter formulaic analysis reveals, however, that as a general rule
certain synonyms tend to recur in particular meters, while others
do not. Thus, for example, the word talalun and its structurally
related synonyms (dimanun)are the terms usually employed for the
abandoned encampment in wdfir and tdwil hemistich beginnings,
whereas diydruis used in kdmil:
/ li-man talalun
/ li-man talalun
/ li-man talalun
/ li-man dimanun
(IQ, 157, 59, 1)
(Z, 81, 1)
(M, 190, 1)
(M, 263, 1).
99, 18, 1)
123, 39, 1)
91, 15, 5)
/ li-man id-diyaru
/ li-man id-diyaru
/ li-man id-diyaru
While formulas are prior to the different meters, they may thus
be modified in some instances by use of synonyms so that they can
be adapted to a particular meter. It is important to realize that the
formulas are in the poet's mind (however subconsciously) before he
actually utters a line of poetry. With the aid of rhythm, he then
organizes them so as to produce a specific meter. If the principle
outlined above is understood, then the frequent metrical irregularities
in Arabic verse can be explained by a method that is far simpler than
the cumbersome classification developed by medieval prosodists,
and which merely describes allowed variations from the normal
meter without explaining the underlying reason for them. To take
an example, the normal form of kdmil is:
- /vW.2- _
Each foot can thus begin either with two short syllables or one
1 Parry, "Studies I," HSCP, XLI (1930).
long one. Now, it happens that a very frequent formula found in the
beginning of kdmil lines is the syntactic group verb + article + noun,
in which the morphological pattern is CvCvCv l-CvCvCv. This formula is frequent, it should be added, precisely because it is not unusual
in the Arabic language.
/ la'iba z-zamanu
/ taraqa l-khayalu
(Z, 81, 4, 2)
(M, 515, 1)
Since it also happens that the third person masculine singular
form of the perfective Arabic verb in hollow roots is of the pattern
CvCv rather than CvCvCv as above, it often occurs in the normal
process of substitution during oral performance that a hollow root
will be used instead of a regular one:
(N, 9, 7, 5)
If in place of a verb, a noun is used, and the syntactic pattern is
altered to a genitive construction, the following result is obtainable:
// qulha l-kilabi
(M, 712, 2)
The process of substituting with words that are almost but not
precisely equivalent acoustically, within syntactic formulas common
to the Arabic language, thus gives rise to formulaic or structural
systems that contain slight metrical irregularities. Since oral poets
are not machines, this tends to occur rather frequently, especially
in view of the fact that they have no time to polish or revise their
'texts'. These irregularities, it should be added, never occur in the
stressed rhvthmic core of a foot, but only in svllables bearing a
secondary stress. This proves that the rhythmic core of each foot,
and the regular sequence of cores in a line, are essential to the oral
poet. These are what provide the rhythmic skeleton around which
he organizes his formulas, and it is only in the secondary, unstressed
sections of the line that slight rhythmic deviations (Zihdfdt)are allowed to occur.'
I For a full description of stress patterns in Arabic meter, based on a regularly
see Gotthold Weil,
recurring rhythmic core consisting of the sequence ,
Grundriss i nd System der altarabischen Metren (Wiesbaden, 1958).
Given the overwhelming importance of the formulaic technique
for the production of oral poetry in Arabic, it is curious to note
that, as far as I know, medieval Arab critics were not aware of it.
This must be attributed to their literate habits of mind, nor should
they be blamed for something about which not even modern scholars
have been aware. In the western area of Islam, however, the fourteenth-century writer Ibn Khaldiin (A.D. 1332-1406) outlined a
most lucid account of the formulaic technique; one that is at the same
time astonishing for its insight and for its totally innovative approach:
Let us mention the significance of the word 'method' as used by
poets, and what they mean by it.
It should be known that they use it to express the loom on which
word combinations are woven, or the mould into which they are
packed. It is not used to express the basis upon which the meaning
[of a word rests]. That is the task of the vowel endings. It also is not
used for perfect expression of the idea resulting from the particular
word combination used. That is the task of eloquence and style.
It also is not used in the sense of meter, as employed by the Arabs
in [connection with poetry]. That is the task of prosody. These three
sciences fall outside the craft of poetry.
[Poetical method] is used to refer to a mental form for metrical
word combinations which is universal in the sense of conforming
with any particular word combination. This form is abstracted by
the mind from the most prominent individual word combinations
and given a place in the imagination comparableto a mould or loom.
Word combinations that the Arabs consider sound, in the sense
of having the [correct] vowel endings and the [proper] style, are
then selected and packed by [the mind] into [that loom], just as the
builder does with the mould or the weaver with the loom. Eventually,
the mould is sufficiently widened to admit the word combinations
that fully express what one wants to express. It takes on the form
that is sound in the sense [that it corresponds to] the Arabic linguistic
habit... the [poetical] methods that we try to establish here have
nothing to do with analogical reasoning. They are a form that is
firmly rooted in the soul. It is the result of the continuity of word
combinations in Arabic poetry when the tongue uses them. Eventually
the form of [those word combinations] becomes firmly established.
It teaches [the poet] the use of similar [word combinations]. [It teaches
him] to imitate them for each word combination that he may use
in his poetry.l
Ibn Khalduin thus maintains that poetic method has nothing to do
with grammar, rhetoric, and prosody, precisely the sciences a literate
Ibn Khalduin, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, trans.
Rosenthal, ed. N. J. Dawood (Princeton, 1969), pp. 445-446.
Arab poet was expected to have mastered. Method is instead, the
ability to derive formulas in Arabic poetrv by the process of substitution. Curiously enough, although he collected oral Bedouin
poetry in North Africa, and in his Muqaddimawas largely concerned
with the differences between nomadic and sedentary civilizations,
Ibn Khaldu:n failed to distinguish between the degrees of substitution
among literate and oral poets, mainly because this can only be done by
the application of modern statistical analysis.
STATISTICAL ANALYSIS OF PRE-ISLAMIC POETRY
To avoid misunderstandings it should be pointed out that the
following statistical figures were obtained by counting manually,
line by line, without the use of data processing equipment, and that a
margin of error is therefore inevitable. The manual method was
nevertheless chosen deliberately because computers must be programmed to collect specific kinds of information, but in this case,
without knowing clearly from the outset what kind of formulas
existed in Arabic poetry, if any, it was not possible to design a programme. It was therefore decided to rely on the human mind to
recognize various categories of formulas during the process of
investigation. What was lost in total precision, was gained in wealth
of observations that a machine could not have recorded.
An element of subjectivity no doubt also entered into the identification of some marginal formulas. Possibly a different division of word
groups than the one adopted might have led to the recognition of
different formulas. This is, of course, inevitable, but since the categories actually established were the ones used in subsequent statistical
checking, the overall validity of the figures is not seriously affected.
It would have been desirable to have used the total corpus of
pre-Islamic poetry as a referent, had it been manageable. However,
this is not the case, since many poems and fragments lie scattered
throughout medieval works. To assemble them all, sort them out,
and eliminate repetitions would have taken years. It was therefore
decided to use a representative selection consisting of the diwans
of the six major pre-Islamic poets Nabigha, 'Antara, Tarafa, Zuhair,
'Alqama, and Imru' al-Qais in the masterly Ahlwardt edition,'
plus the diwjn of Labid,2 and the general anthology of pre-Islamic
W. Ahlwardt, The Divans of the Six Ancient Arabic Poets (London, 1870).
Labid, Diwan, ed. Dar aadir (Beirut, 1966).
edited by Lyall.1 This selection
poets entitled the Mfufa&laliyydt
takes us chronologically from early pre-Islamic times well into the
seventh century A. D., and includes a wide range of poets, represented
both by the breadth of a collective anthology and by the detailed
depth of individual diwdns.
The relatively limited number of lines available as a referent
(when compared to the much larger referent available to Homeric
scholars) posed a further problem. It is a statistical law that the larger
the referent, the greater the percentage of formulaic repetition will be.
In other words, a comparison of a ten line tawil sample with 2520 lines
in the same meter, as against a ten line kdmil sample with a referent
of 1157 lines (all that were available in the texts used), is not entirelv
valid statistically. As it is, the formulaic percentages obtained in
these two cases were 89.86% and 82.12% respectively. Had the
two referents been equal the percentages would no doubt have been
closer to each other. The only alternative would have been to have reduced all the referents to the size of the smallest (a mere 646 lines in basif),
but this would have posed a serious problem. Nevertheless, the fact
that the slight discrepancy in the size of the referents did not sensibly
distort the statistical results became clear gradually, as experience
gained during the course of investigation showed that in the case of
each meter, by the time 300 to 400 lines of referent had been examined,
all the major formulas in the sample under study had been identified,
after which only additional repetitions of the same formulas were
accumulated. These additions did not sensibly alter the percentages
In sum, the statistical figures obtained are not and should not be
taken as absolute. Theirgenerallyremarkable consistency does, however,
point clearly toward a sharp distinction between the oral and the
literate poet in Arabic. The following steps were taken:
1. Imru' al-Qais, Labid, Zuhair, and Nabigha were chosen as
sample pre-Islamic poets for formulaic analysis because their lives
are said to have spanned over a century. Imru' al-Qais was an earlyJahili poet born ca. A.D. 500, whereas the others were late-Jahili
and two of them are said to have known Islam. One sample was
chosen from the poems of each, in tawil, krmil, wdfir, and basit
1 Al-Mufaddal ibn Muhammad ad-Dabbi, The Mufaddaliyyal:An Anthology
of Ancient Arabian Odes, ed. Charles James Lyall (Oxford, 1921), 1.
Journal of Arabic Literature, III
respectively. The selection of meters was also made deliberately
because previous statistical surveys have shown that 50.41% of
all pre-Islamic poetry is in tauwi, 17.53% in kdmil, and 24.77% in
wdfir and basit. This means that 95.38% of all pre-Islamic poetry is
in these four meters, leaving only 6.37% in the remaining eleven.'
Conclusions drawn from the work of these four poets in these four
meters are thus both chronologically and prosodically valid for the
major part of pre-Islamic poetry.
2. The first ten lines of the Mtu'allaqaof Imru' al-Qais were used
as a sample and compared with a referent of 2520 lines, also in
tawil, comprising all tawil poems in lmru' al-Qais's Diwdn, in those
of six other major pre-Islamic poets (Nabigha, 'Antara, 'Alqama,
Tarafa, Zuhair, and Labid), and in the minor pre-Islamic poets
included in the Mufaddal/yydt.It was discovered that at least 89.86%
of Imru' al-Qais's text is formulaic (see Chart I). The majority of
the formulas found were either word for word repetitions or formulaic
3. The first ten lines of the Mu(allaqa of Labid were then compared
with 1157 lines in kamil, comprising all kdmil poems in Labid's
Diwdn, in those of six other major pre-Islamic poets (Nabigha,
'Antara, cAlqama, Tarafa, Zuhair, and Imru' al-Qais), and in the
wide selection of minor poets from the same period included in the
Mufaddaliyydt. It was discovered that at least 82.12% of Labid's
text is formulaic, including a predominance of formulas and formulaic
systems (see Chart II).
4. The first ten lines of poem no. 18 by Zuhair in wdfirwere compared
with an 800 line referent in the same meter, including all wdfir poems
in Zuhair's Diwdn, in those of Labid, Nabigha, 'Antara, Tarafa,
'Alqama, and Imru' al-Qais, and in the poets included in the Mufa.daliyydt. Paradoxically, Zuhair, who is depicted by the Arab tradition
as having had the habit of composing for four months, asking the
advice of other poets for four months, and finally of reciting a single
qa.ida publicly at the end of a year,2 appeared to be 92.59% formulaic,
the highest percentage obtained (see Chart III).
5. The first ten lines of poem no. 5 by Nabigha in basHt
compared with 646 lines in the same meter, comprising all basit
1 For these figures, see Mary Catherine Bateson, Structural Continuity in Poetry:
A Linguistic Study of Five Pre-Islamic Arabic Odes (Paris and the Hague, 1970),
op. cit., 119.
poems in Nabigha's Diwdn, in those of Labid, cAntara, Zuhair,
cAlqama, and Imru' al-Qais (Tarafa had no poems in basit), as well
as in the Mufa.4al4yydtpoets. The sample by Nabigha proved to be
85.62% formulaic (see Chart IV).
It has often been argued against the oral-formulaic theory that
formulas are in fact nothing more than those word combinations
that are imposed upon the poet by the rigid requirements of meter;
in other words, that meter determines the shape of the formulas
and not vice-versa. If this were true, then the frequency with which
formulas occur in literate and oral texts would be about equal.
On the other hand, if we accept the theory that the oral poet uses
pre-existent formulas to create meter, whereas the literate poet uses
individual words which he then fits into a pre-existent metrical scheme,
then we can expect to find a higher formulaic frequency among oral
poets than among their literate colleagues. This fact has been established
in the case of other literatures. The best way to prove it is to select
a poet, or a group of poets, with regard to whose literacy there is no
doubt whatsoever, and to determine whether he or they use formulas
with as great a frequency as do oral poets. To provide this further
check on the validity of our thesis about pre-Islamic poetry, the
following steps were therefore taken:
6. The formulas identified in Imru' al-Qais's Mu'allaqa, I1. 1-10,
by means of 2. above were checked against the work of other Arabic
poets to determine the extent to which they constituted a collective
formulaic repertory. It was found that these formulas constitute an
average of 33.24% of the total text in 574 lines of referent selected
at random from other tawi/ poems by pre-Islamic poets (Nabigha,
cAntara, Tarafa, Zuhair, Labid, and Imru' al-Qais),' but only 9.22%
of the text in 348 lines of referent randomly selected from tawil
poems by literate poets who lived after the coming of Islam (Abui
Nuwas, Mutanabbi, Ibn Zaidiin, al-Barildl).2 It was also observed
that the coincidences with the modern poets were almost exclusively
on the level of structural formulas, and that almost no word for word
' Referent used: (1) Nabigha: Ahlwardt, Divans, nos. 1, 15, 17. (2) 'Antara:
Ibid., nos. 4, 7, 8, 9, 15, 24, 26. (3) Tarafa: Ibid., no. 4. (4) Zuhair: Ibid., no. 16.
(5) Imru' al-Qais: Ibid., nos. 4, 10, 20. (6) Labid, Diwdn, nos. 4, 18, 44.
2 Referent used: (1) Abii Nuwas, Diwan, ed. Dar Sadir (Beirut, 1962), pp. 21,
28, 200, 242, 244. (2) Mutanabbi, Diwdn, ed. R. Dieterici (Berlin, 1861), pp. 660,
672, 284, 327. (3) Ibn Zaidiin, Diwdn wa-Rasd'il, ed. 'All cAbd al-'Azim (Cairo,
1957), pp. 261, 152, 158. (4) Al-BAriidi: A. J. Arberry, Arabic Poetry: A Primer
for Students (Cambridge, 1965), no. 28.
formulas and very few formulaic systems found in pre-Islamic poetry
occur in the modern poets.
7. Step 6 was repeated with the formulas in krn,il identified in
Labid's Alu'allaqa, ll. 1-10, by means of 3. above. It was discovered
that these formulas constitute an average of 30.46% of the total
text in 325 lines of referent selected at random from other kimil
poems by pre-Islamic poets (Nabigha, 'Antara, Tarafa, Zuhair,
Imru' al-Qais, Labid; 'Alqama was omitted because the small number
of lines in kdmil by him made statistical results negligible),' but again
only 9.88% of the text in 299 lines selected from kdnmil
literate poets (Abiu Nuwas, Mutanabbi, Ibn Zaiduin, Shauqi).2 Again
it was found that the literate poets seem to have inherited mainlv
structural formulas from the pre-Islamic tradition. Thus the statistics
for both tawil and kdmil were found to correspond rather closely
to one another. The formulaic content of both averages to at least
85.99% of identified formulas in the two samples studied, and these
formulas in turn constitute a combined average of about 31.32?%of
the total work of other pre-Islamic poets sampled, but only 9.64%
of the total work of Islamic poets studied. Furthermore, with remarkable consistency, the percentages varied only slightly from poet to
poet within each of the two groups (see charts V, VI).
The literate poets chosen are representative of at least three different
schools ('modern' [mu.hdath],neoclassical, and contemporary) and
styles ranging chronologically from the eighth to the twentieth
centuries A.D., and geographically from Baghdad to C6rdoba.
Clearly then, this consistent difference between pre-Islamic and
modern poetry responds not to the stylistic peculiarities of different
schools, but to something much deeper, namely to two radically
different techniques of composition: the oral-formulaic as opposed
to the literate.
CONCLUSIONAND FURTHER PROBLENIS
The combined formulaic average of all the four samples studied
is 87.54%, and this figure is valid for 95.38% of all pre-Islamic poetry.
1 Referent used: (1) Nabigha: Ahlwardt, Divans, nos. 7, 10. (2) cAntara:
Ibid., nos. 2, 21. (3) Tarafa: Ibid., nos. 1, 8, 17. (4) Zuhair: Ibid., no. 4. (5) Imru'
al-Qais: Ibid., nos. 45, 46, 59. (6) Labid, Diwdn, no. 51.
2 Referent used: (1) Abci Nuwas, op. cit., pp. 25, 64, 177, 184, 196. (2) Mlutanabbi, op. cit., pp. 191, 594, 732. (3) Ibn Zaiduin,op. cit., pp. 184, 343. (4) Shauqi:
Arberry, op. cit., no. 29.
Taking only the two most commonly used meters, !awil and kdmil,
the average is 85.99%, and this is valid for 67.94% of the poetry.
The formulas identified in these two meters constitute an average
of about 31.32% of the total referent of other pre-Islamic poets,
but only 9.64% of the referent of modern, literate poets. A pre-Islamic
poet therefore uses slightly over three times as many formulas as a
modern poet; i.e., if it were to be assumed that a pre-Islamic poet's
work is actually 100% formulaic (although theoretically correct,
this assumption cannot be proved owing to the lack of a sufficiently
large referent), this would mean that a modern poet's total use of
formulaic constructions is somewhat less than 33.33%. To this
should be added the important fact that modern poets use significantly
less verbatim formulas and formulaic systems than do pre-Islamic
poets. Had only these been included in the statistics, the figures would
have been proportionately reduced. The three-to-one ratio does,
however, agree with findings in other literatures.
The formulas used by the pre-Islamic poet belong to a traditional
and collective repertory; they fit within larger systems common
to all pre-Islamic poets in general, but this is not the case for literate
poets. This proves that the pre-Islamic poet worked with an artistic
medium based on the formula rather than the individual word.
This in turn is a characteristic feature of traditional, oral poetry.
The relative lack of individual stylistic differentiation between one
pre-Islamic poet and another, in contrast to the unmistakably individual
style of a Mutanabbi or an Abui Nuwas, is thus explained by the oralformulaic method of composition.
It follows that pre-Islamic poets, who were oral-formulaic artists,
composed during the course of improvisation rather than relying
upon memory. In contrast, modern poets, being literate, thought
out their poems, perhaps even pen in hand, applying the rules of
grammar, prosody, and rhetoric in order to invent their own individual
stylistic figures (badi') which differed from poet to poet. Their poems
rely over three times as much on their own innovations in style
as do those of pre-Islamic poets. Whereas pre-Islamic poets use
one another's formulas freely and with a typically oral disregard
for the concept of literary property, critics in later times introduce
the idea of plagiarism, and literate poets come to be severely judged
by its standards. The structural formulas literate poets use are to be
explained as the result of conscious or unconscious imitation of their
literary heritage within an unusually conservative tradition, but it is
an artificial usage; it is based on deliberate forethought, on conscious
imitation, or on memory, and not on oral-formulaic improvisation.
Medieval Arab literary critics insisted that the hallmark of originality in the literate poet was his ability to rephrase traditional
literary motifs inherited from pre-Islamic poetry. The literate poet
was expected to treat only the ancient themes, preserving the outward
form of the qa.ridain all its rigidity, but he was not allowed to say
the same things in the same words as his predecessors, since this was
considered plagiarism.' Therefore the literate poet learned to create
his own personal linguistic patterns and to rely on these rather than
on the traditional formulaic repertory used by pre-Islamic poets.
Style ceased to be collective, and became individual. Abu Tammam
and Mutanabbi were both accused of having invented some of the
most sublime lines in Arabic poetry along with some of the most
grossly unpoetic ones. For example, in one instance Mutanabbi
ended a panegyric with the following exclamation:
/ lau lam takun min dha l-wara l-ladh min-ka hfi //
'aqimat bi-maulidi nasli-hdhauwa'u I
If you had not been of this human kind, which is rather of you,
Eve would have been barren of the birth of her offspring.2
The line is in kdmil, yet it sounds harsh and abrupt, particularly
the first hemistich. Upon closer examination that hemistich proves to
contain none of the formulas identified in pre-Islamic poetry. Only
the second hemistich contains one single structural formula found
also in Labid's Mucal/aqa (italicized), and this helps to make the line
somewhat smoother toward the end. The abruptness, however,
is not the result of inferior workmanship, but rather, it is a deliberate
attention-getting device appropriate to the grand finale of a panegyric.
Yet the old poetic technique, based on tried and true formulas that
had over the centuries proven aesthetically pleasing to the Arab ear
(for which very reason they survived in the collective tradition),
acted as a safeguard for the poet against the pitfalls of innovative
I G. E. von Grunebaum, "The Concept of Plagiarism in Arabic Theory,"
Journal of Near Eastern Studies, III (1944), pp. 234-253. For a literate poet's defense
against the accusation of plagiarism see James T. Monroe, Risalat at-Tawdubi'
wa-Z-Zawdbi' ('Treatise of Familiar Spirits and Demons') by Abfi 'Amir ibn Shbhaid
al-A shja'i al-Andalusi: Introduction, Translation, and iVotes, University of California
Publications: Near Eastern Studies, XV (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1971).
2 Mutanabbi, op. cit., p. 201. Trans. by A. J. Arberry, Poems of al-Al-Mtanabbi
(Cambridge, 1967), p. 30.
failure. When the oral technique was abandoned with the advent
of writing and more reliance was placed on personal inventiveness,
an unevenness in the poetic style inevitably resulted.
Since modern poets could not attain the high degree of formulaic
diction found in pre-Islamic poetry, and in fact dislocated the sound
of poetic rhythms for deliberate literary effects, by introducing
their own turns of phrase, it necessarily follows that pre-Islamic
poetry, on the basis of internal evidence, could not have been forged
by literate authorsin Islamic times, but that it is authentic, traditional,
Oral-formulaic poetry in other literatures is known to have had no
fixed texts.1 Each poet, each reciter recreates and rephrases a given poem
with each performance of it. As centuries go by, and cultural conditions change, a poem may undergo considerable modification, though
always retaining a core of identity, based in the case of epic poetry on
the plot. The pagan poetry of the Anglo-Saxons uses the same formulaic technique as does Christian Anglo-Saxon poetry of later times, but
Christianity censored those references to pagan customs that were felt
to be essentially incompatible with Christian society, while tolerating
other, more innocuous ones. The pagan tale of Beowulf thus contains
Christian themes and elements.2 Likewise, Spanish ballads with
Christian themes, preserved today by Moroccan Jews, exhibit a
process of 'de-Christianization'.3 In the Iliad, archaic Mycenaean
elements, such as the shield of Ajax, are found consorting anachronistically with elements from later, Homeric times.4 This typical feature
of oral poetry, namely the ease with which it absorbs the new while
never ridding itself entirely of the old, explains why so many pre-Islamic poems refer to and swear by Allah; why Koranic quotations
appear in what are in other respects typically ancient poems. The
See the works cited on p. 9, n. 2, for specific literatures.
Francis P. Magoun Jr., op. cit.
G. Armistead and Joseph Silverman, "Christian Elements and
De-Christianization in the Sephardic Romancero," Collected Studies in Honor of
Americo Castro's 80th Year, ed. M. P. Hornik (Oxford, 1965), pp. 21-38. A case
of 'de-Islamization' in Arabic poetry which is rather similar to the Spanish
phenomenon occurs when the Hudhaili poet Abiu Khirash, in order to taunt
the Prophet and the novel Muslim doctrines, deliberately transforms the Islamic
formula wa-l-ldbu aclamu ('God knows best') into wa-l-qaumu allamu ('the tribal
warriors know best'). See E. Braunlich, "Versuch einer literargeschichtlichen
Betrachtungsweise altarabischer Poesien," Der Islam, XXIV (1937), p. 209.
4 Denys Page, History and the Homeric ILIAD
(Berkeley and Los Angeles,
1959), pp. 232-238.
pre-Islamic poems gradually absorbed Islamic elements during a
long process of constant elaboration. They were in a sense 'depaganized'.
The Parry-Lord theory of oral-formulaic poetry has until now
been applied largely to studies of the epic, that is to say, to relatively
long poems of a narrative character, containing a basic story and a plot
around which the different themes common to a tradition are organized.
In this case the use of the oral-formulaic technique is essential to the
poet because the nature of epic compositions is such that they are
usually far too long to memorize. In contrast, pre-Islamic poems
are lyrical-descriptive; they tell no story, and are relatively short
compositions, ranging from a few to a hundred or more lines.
Like European ballads and the Toda songs of India, the Arabic
poems are short enough to be committed to memory, and
it is therefore reasonable to suppose that memory may have
played a greater role in their transmission than in that of epic poetry,
as the tradition of the rdwi would seem to indicate. In the case of
pre-Islamic poetry it is therefore necessary to make a modification
of the Parry-Lord theory. As it has been proved, the high formulaic
content of the poems shows beyond a doubt that they were orally
composed. On the other hand, the different recensions of individual
poems made by Arab philologists, although they contain numerous
variant readings for individual words, and although specific lines are
often placed in a different order from version to version, are by no
means entirely recast or retold in a new sequence of formulas as occurs,
in the epic. This feature of pre-Islamic poetry points to a far greater
textual stability than is the case with the epic. This stability also occurs
according to Lord, in the case of shorter epic poems when they are frequently repeated or resung by a bard. The same is true of the Spanish
ballad. In this case the composer eventually ends up by memorizing his
poem, but it is necessarv to stress that the process of memorization is
unconscious and that it occurs only after oral composition of the normal,
improvised type. Oral improvisation and memory, in the case of
short poems, are therefore not two mutually exclusive opposites,
but are connected by the unconscious process whereby a poem
gradually becomes stabilized in the mind of the composer.
Whether there is memorization or not, it should be stressed
that oral-formulaic composition is the normal, indeed the only
form of composition available to the illiterate poet, and that it is
employed despite differences of form or genre. In medieval Spanish
poetry it may be observed, for example, that not only the epic,
but also the ballad and the lyric are highly formulaic, and that poets
frequently use the same formulas in different meters or genres. But
when the professional and creative class of jongleurs who knew the art
of improvisation died out, the epic died out with them, and only the
ballad and the lyric survived because these shorter compositions
could be retained in the memories of non-professional performers.
In Arabic literature too, the tradition of the rdwipoints in the direction
of memorization; of a rhapsodic stage following a truly creative
aoidic one, although it is not advisable to stress this point too much,
since it is known that rdwiswere not merely memorizers of the poetry
they heard from their mentors, but that the relationship was also
that of an apprentice poet. Thus Ka'b ibn Zuhair, son and rdwi of
Zuhair ibn Abi Sulma, later became a poet in his own right. One can
only suppose that the period of apprenticeship would allow the
aspiring poet to acquire the formulaic repertory and technique
with which to compose poems of his own.
On the basis of internal evidence it can be concluded that preIslamic poetry should on the whole be viewed as authentic as long
as it is clearly understood that what has been preserved of it is probably
not an exact recording of what a great poet once said, but a fairly
close picture of it, distorted by the vicissitudes of an oral transmission
in which both memorization and 'de-paganization' were operative
and further complicated by a tradition of scribal correction. The
variants of a given poem should thus be studied by focusing on the
history of the poem's transmission and recensions, as recorded by
the Arabic tradition. If it is evident that variants in a text are due to
different recensions recorded from different informants, then, barring
other factors, these variants should all be accepted as valid, since
the search for an exact 'original text' is a hopeless pursuit in the case
of oral poetry.
Further studies should be able to provide us with a complete
concordance of pre-Islamic formulas, including those used by all
poets from this period. Thereafter, it will become necessary to
compile individual concordances of the formulaic repertory found in
each poet. By comparison of the individual concordances with the
general, those formulas most favored by a poet can be distinguished.
This in turn can allow us to characterize individual stylistic features
in pre-Islamic poetry with some degree of objectivity, and ultimately
to distinguish chronological and literary relationships between
individuals and schools.