The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night

The Caliph Omar Bin Abd Al-Aziz and the Poets85

It is said that, when the Caliphate devolved on Omar bin Abd al-Aziz86 (of whom Allah accept), the poets resorted to him, as they had been used to resort to the Caliphs before him, and abode at his door days and day, but he suffered them not to enter, till there came to him ’Abí bin Artah,87 who stood high in esteem with him. Jarír88 accosted him and begged him to crave admission for them to the presence; so Adi answered, “’Tis well;” and, going in to Omar, said to him, “The poets are at thy door and have been there days and days; yet hast thou not given them leave to enter, albeit their sayings abide89 and their arrows from mark never fly wide.” Quoth Omar, “What have I to do with the poets?” and quoth Adi, “O Commander of the Faithful, the Prophet (Abhak!)90 was praised by a poet91 and gave him largesse, and in him92 is an exemplar to every Moslem.” Quoth Omar, “And who praised him?” and quoth Adi, “’Abbás bin Mirdás93 praised him, and he clad him with a suit and said, O Generosity,94 cut off from me his tongue!” Asked the Caliph, “Dost thou remember what he said?” and Adi answered, “Yes.” Rejoined Omar, “Then repeat it;” so Adi repeated,95

“I saw thee, O thou best of human race,

Bring out a Book which brought to graceless Grace.

Thou showedst righteous road to men astray

From Right, when darkest Wrong had ta’en its place; —

Thou with Islám didst light the gloomiest way,

Quenching with proof live coals of frowardness;

I own for Prophet Mohammed’s self;

And man’s award upon his word we base;

Thou madest straight the path that crooked ran,

Where in old days foul growth o’ergrew its face.

Exalt be thou in Joy’s empyrean

And Allah’s glory ever grow apace.

“And indeed” (continued Adi), “this Elegy on the Prophet (Abhak!) is well known and to comment it would be tedious.” Quoth Omar “Who is at the door?” and quoth Adi, “Among them is Omar ibn Abi Rabí’ah, the Korashí;96 whereupon the Caliph cried, “May Allah show him no favour neither quicken him! Was it not he who said these verses,

‘Would Heaven what day Death shall visit me

I smell as thy droppings and drippings97 smell!

Could I in my clay-bed on Salmá lie

There to me were better than Heaven or Hell!’

“Had he not been” (continued the Caliph) “the enemy of Allah, he had wished for her in this world, so he might after repent and return to righteous dealing. By Allah, he shall not come in to me! who is at the door other than he?” Quoth Adi, “Jamíl bin ma’mar al-Uzri98 is at the door;” and quoth Omar, “’Tis he who saith in one of his elegies,

‘Would Heaven conjoint we lived, and if I die

Death only grant me a grave within her grave:

For I’d no longer deign to live my life

If told upon her head is laid the pave.’”99

Quoth Omar, “Away with him from me! Who is at the door?” and quoth Adi, “Kuthayyir ’Assah”100; whereupon Omar cried, “’Tis he who saith in one of his odes,

‘Some talk of faith and creed and nothing else

And wait for pains of Hell in prayer-seat;101

But did they hear what I from Azzah heard,

They’d make prostration, fearfull at her feet.’

“Leave the mention of him. Who is at the door?” Quoth Adi, “Al-Ahwas al-’Ansárí.”102 Cried Omar, “Allah Almighty put him away and estrange him from His mercy! Is it not he who said, berhyming on a Medinite’s slave-girl, so she might outlive her lord,

‘Allah be judge betwixt me and her lord!

Who ever flies with her and I pursue.’

“He shall not come in to me. Who is at the door, other than he?” Adi replied, “Hammám bin Ghálib al-Farazdak;”103 and Omar said, “’Tis he who saith, glorying in whoring,

‘Two girls let me down eighty fathoms deep,

As low sweeps a falcon wi’ pinions spread;

And cried; as my toes touched the ground, ‘Dost live

To return, or the fall hath it done thee dead?

“He shall not come in to me. Who is at the door, other than he?” Adi replied, “Al-Akhtal al-Taghlibí”104 and Omar said, “He is the Miscreant who saith in his singing,

‘Ramazan I ne’er fasted in life-time; nay

I ate flesh in public at undurn day;105

Nor chide I the fair, save in way of love,

Nor seek Meccah’s plain106 in salvation-way:

Nor stand I praying like rest who cry

‘Hie salvationwards’107 at the dawn’s first ray.

But I drink her cooled108 by fresh Northern breeze

And my head at dawn to her prone I lay.’109

“By Allah, he treadeth no carpet of mine! who is at the door, other than he?” Said Adi, “Jarír ibn al-Khatafah”; and Omar cried, “’Tis he who saith,

‘But for ill-spying glances had our eyes espied

Eyne of the antelope and ringlets of the Reems.110

A huntress of the eyes111 by night-tide came and I

Cried, ‘Turn in peace, no time for visit this, meseems!’

“An it must be and no help, admit Jarir.” So Adi went forth and admitted Jarir, who entered, saying.

“Yea, he who sent Mohammed unto man,

A just successor for Imám112 assigned.

His ruth and justice all mankind embrace,

To daunt the bad and stablish well-designed.

Verily now I look to present good,

For man hath ever-transient weal in mind.”

Quoth Omar, “O Jarir, keep the fear of Allah before thine eyes and say naught save the sooth.” And Jarir recited these couplets,

“How many widows loose the hair in far Yamámah-land113

How many an orphan there abides feeble of voice and eye,

Since faredst thou who wast to them instead of father lost

When they like nested fledglings were sans power to creep or fly!

And now we hope, since brake the clouds their word and troth with us,

Hope from the Caliph’s grace to gain a rain114 that ne’er shall dry.”

When the Caliph heard this, he said, “By Allah, O Jarir, Omar possesseth but an hundred dirhams.115 Ho, boy! do thou give them to him.” Moreover he gifted him with the ornaments of his sword; and Jarir went forth to the other poets, who asked him, “What is behind thee?”116 and he answered, “A man who giveth to the poor and denieth the poets, and with him I am well-pleased.”

85 Bresl. Edit., vol. vi. Pp. 182-188, Nights ccccxxxii.-ccccxxxiv.

86 “The good Caliph” and the fifth of the Orthodox, the other four being Abu Bakr, Omar, Osman and Ali; and omitting the eight intervening, Hasan the grandson of the Prophet included. He was the 13th Caliph and 8th Ommiade A.H. 99-101 (=717-720) and after a reign of three years he was poisoned by his kinsmen of the Banu Umayyah who hated him for his piety, asceticism, and severity in making them disgorge their ill-gotten gains. Moslem historians are unanimous in his praise. Europeans find him an anachorète couronné, à froide et respectable figure, who lacked the diplomacy of Mu’awiyah and the energy of Al-Hajjáj. His principal imitator was Al-Muhtadi bi’lláh, who longed for a return to the rare old days of Al-Islam.

87 Omar ’Adi bin Artah; governor of Kufah and Basrah under “the good Caliph.”

88 Jarír al-Khatafah, one of the most famous of the “Islámí” poets, i.e. those who wrote in the first century (A.H.) before the corruption of language began. (See Terminal Essay, p. 230). Ibn Khallikan notices him at full length i. 294.

89 Arab. “Bákiyah,” which may also mean eternal as opposed to “Fániyah” = temporal. Omar’s answer shows all the narrow-minded fanaticism which distinguished the early Moslems: they were puritanical as any Praise-God-Barebones, and they hated “boetry and bainting” as hotly as any Hanoverian.

90 The Saturday Review (Jan. 2, ’86), which has honoured me by the normal reviling in the shape of a critique upon my two first vols., complains of the “Curious word Abhak” as “a perfectly arbitrary and unusual group of Latin letters.” May I ask Aristarchus how he would render “Sal’am” (vol ii. 24), which apparently he would confine to “Arabic MSS.”(!). Or would he prefer A(llah) b(less) h(im) a(nd) k(eep) “W.G.B.” (whom God bless) as proposed by the editor of Ockley? But where would be the poor old “Saturnine” if obliged to do better than the authors it abuses?

91 He might have said “by more than one, including the great Labíd.”

92 Fí-hi either “in him” (Mohammed) or “in it” (his action).

93 Chief of the Banu Sulaym. According to Tabari, Abbas bin Mirdas (a well-known poet), being dissatisfied with the booty allotted to him by the Prophet, refused it and lampooned Mohammed, who said to Ali, “Cut off this tongue which attacketh me,” i.e. “Silence him by giving what will satisfy him.” Thereupon Ali doubled the Satirist’s share.

94 Arab. “Yá Bilál”: Bilal ibn Rabah was the Prophet’s freedman and crier: see vol. iii. 106. But bilal also signifies “moisture” or “beneficence,” “benefits”: it may be intended for a double entendre but I prefer the metonymy.

95 The verses of this Kasidah are too full of meaning to be easily translated: it is fine old poetry.

96 i.e. of the Koraysh tribe. For his disorderly life see Ibn Khallikan ii. 372: he died, however, a holy death, battling against the Infidels in A.H. 93 (= 711-12), some five years before Omar’s reign.

97 Arab. “Bayn farsi-k wa ’l-damí” = lit. between fæces and menses, i.e., the foulest part of his mistress’s person. It is not often that The Nights are “nasty”; but here is a case. See vol. v. 162.

98 “Jamil the Poet,” and lover of Buthaynah: see vol. ii. 102, Ibn Khallikan (i.331), and Al-Mas’udi vi. 381, who quotes him copiously. He died A.H. 82 (= 701), or sixteen years before Omar’s reign.

99 Arab. “Safíh” = the slab over the grave.

100 A contemporary and friend of Jamíl and the famous lover of Azzah. See vol. ii. 102, and Al-Mas’udi, vi. 426. The word “Kuthayyir” means “the dwarf.” Term. Essay, 231.

101 i.e. in the attitude of prayer.

102 In Bresl. Edit. “Al-Akhwass,” clerical error, noticed in Ibn Khallikan i. 526. His satires banished him to Dahlak Island in the Red Sea, and he died A.H. 179 (= 795-96).

103 Another famous poet Abú Firás Hammám or Humaym (dimin. Form), as debauched as Jarir, who died forty days before him in A.H. 110 (= 728-29), as Basrah. Cf. Term. Essay, 231.

104 A famous Christian poet. See C. de Perceval, Journ. Asiat. April, 1834, Ibn Khallikan iii. 136, and Term. Essay, 231.

105 The poet means that unlike other fasters he eats meat openly. See Pilgrimage (i. 110), for the popular hypocrisy.

106 Arab. “Bathá” the lowlands and plains outside the Meccan Valley. See al-Mas’udi, vi. 157. Mr. (now Sir) W. Muir in his Life of Mahomet, vol. i., p. ccv., remarks upon my Pilgrimage (iii.252) that in placing Arafat 12 miles from Meccah, I had given 3 miles to Muna, + 3 to Muzdalifah + 3 to Arafat = 9. But the total does not include the suburbs of Meccah and the breadth of the Arafat-Valley.

107 The words of the Azán, vol. i. 306.

108 Wine in Arabic is feminine, “Shamúl” = liquor hung in the wind to cool, a favourite Arab practice often noticed by the poets.

109 i.e. I will fall down dead drunk.

110 Arab. “Árám,” plur. of Irm, a beautiful girl, a white deer. The word is connected with the Heb. Reem (Deut. xxxiii. 17), which has been explained unicorn, rhinoceros, and aurochs. It is at the Ass. Rimu, the wild bull of the mountains, provided with a human face, and placed at the palace-entrance to frighten away foes, demon or human.

111 i.e. she who ensnares [all] eyes.

112 Imam, the spiritual title of the Caliph, as head of the Faith and leader (lit. “foreman,” Antistes) of the people at prayer. See vol. iv. 111.

113 For Yamámah see vol. ii. 104. Omar bin Abd-al-Aziz was governor of the province before he came to the Caliphate. To the note on Zarká, the blue-eyed Yamamite, I may add that Marwan was called Ibn Zarká, son of “la femme au drapeu bleu,” such being the sign of a public prostitute. Al-Mas’udi, v. 509.

114 Rain and bounty, I have said, are synonymous.

115 About £4.

116 i.e. what is thy news.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31