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Al-Nābighah’s O Abode of Mayyah: Transgression and Redemption

Al-Nābighah’s O Abode of Mayyah: Transgression and Redemption

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K a¿ b i bn Z u h ay r a n d t h e M a n t l e of t h e P rop h e t â•… · â•… 13

in Abū al-Faraj al-I»bahānī’s (d. 356/967) Kitāb al-Aghānī, presents alNābighah’s flight from his liege lord’s court as the result of the jealousy

and court intrigue of a poetic rival, al-Munakhkhal:

The reason that al-Nābighah fled from al-Nu¿mān was that once he and

al-Munakhkhal╯.╯.╯.╯a l-Yashkurī were sitting before the king. Now alNu¿mān was misshapen, leprous, and ugly, whereas al-Munakhkhal╯.╯.╯.╯was one of the most comely of the Arabs, and al-Mutajarridah,

al-Nu¿mān’s wife, had had her eye on him. Indeed, it was rumored among

the Arabs that al-Nu¿mān’s two sons by her were actually al-Munakhkhal’s. Thus, when al-Nu¿mān said to al-Nābighah, “O Abū Umāmah,

describe al-Mutajarridah in your poetry,” and he composed his qa»īdah

in which he described her: her abdomen, her buttocks, and her private

parts, this roused al-Munakhkhal’s jealousy. So he said to al-Nu¿mān,

“No one could have composed such a poem except one who had tried her!”

Al-Nu¿mān took this to heart, and when news of this reached al-Nābighah,

he was afraid and fled to the Ghassānids.20

Thus, the poet fled for his life to the rival Ghassānid court, but soon

desired to return to his former Lakhmid liege lord. Inasmuch as the offense was above all poetic in form, so too are the poet’s plea for absolution and redemption payment.21 The object of the poet’s supplication is

therefore absolution and reinstatement in the king’s inner circle. We

should note that in terms of the poetic text of the apology ode, there is

no reference to any sexual impropriety nor is there any admission of

guilt. In other words, the poet’s transgression, which the anecdotes present as sexual, may well rather have been of a political nature.

In terms of the general thematic structure, al-Nābighah’s poem is,

like ¿Alqamah’s ode, a classically structured tripartite qa»īdah: the lyricelegiac prelude (nasīb): vv.1–6, featuring the poet’s stopping over the

abandoned campsite of his beloved; the journey (raƒīl): vv. 7–20, presenting the poet’s she-camel through its comparison to an oryx bull beset by

hunters and their hounds; the praise (madīƒ): vv. 20–49, comparing the

king to Sulaymān (Solomon), praising his generosity, comparing him in

farsightedness (that is, perspicacity) to Zarqāƒ al-Yamāmah, and in might

and generosity to the formidable Euphrates.

The key elements of the supplicatory structure, which are what concern us in the present context, are: Lyric-Elegiac Prelude (nasīb) with its

evocation of Loss; Self-Abasement and Submission; Praise of the One

14â•… ·â•… T h e M a n t l e Ode s

Supplicated; Supplication. It should be noted from the outset that the last

three elements do not always occur in the same order in every supplicatory panegyric and are often not entirely distinct from one another, but

these elements otherwise are fairly predictably found in what is normally

termed the madīƒ section. In addition, elements of what could be termed

Self-Abasement can often be identified in the nasīb and, in the tripartite

ode, in the central raƒīl (journey) section. In general, it soon becomes

evident that an essential element of the self-abasement is the poet’s expression of fear and hope, that is, his throwing himself upon the mercy

of the formidable mamdūƒ.

The element of Loss that is distinctive of the Lyric-Elegiac Prelude

(nasīb) takes the form not of a direct description of the poet’s passion for

the lost beloved herself, as in ¿Alqamah’s ode, but of the closely related

theme of the evocation of the abandoned campsite where the poet’s beloved, Mayyah, once dwelt. Termed “stopping at the traces” (al-wuqūf

¿alá al-a‚lāl), this is undoubtedly the most highly developed and evocative elegiac theme of the Arabic lyrical tradition.22

Al-Nābighah al-Dhubyānī: O Abode of Mayyah 23

1.O abode of Mayyah on height and peak! It lies abandoned

And so long a time has passed it by.

2.I stopped there in the evening, to question it;

It could not answer for in the vernal camp there was no one.


6.By evening the abode was empty, by evening its people had packed

â•… up and left;

It was destroyed by the same fate by which Lubad was destroyed.

7.Turn away from what you see, for it is irredeemable,

And raise the saddle-rods on a she-camel, brisk as an onager, solid.


The sense of loss in such a nasīb is projected onto the physical traces or

remains of the campsite, which bear a metonymic relation to the lost

beloved. The nasīb ends with the separation and departure of the tribe,

or rather, the poet’s recollection of it (v. 6). There he invokes Lubad, the

symbol of mortality, the last of the long-lived vultures whose life-spans

measured out the life of the legendary sage Luqmān and whose death

K a¿ b i bn Z u h ay r a n d t h e M a n t l e of t h e P rop h e t â•… · â•… 15

marked the sage’s own demise.24 The poet’s departure, which entails his

abandoning the site of loss and strengthening his resolve to head for his

patron’s court, is expressed in the transitional verse (v. 7), which moves

from despair to determination as the poet puts the past behind him and

saddles up his sturdy energetic she-camel for the journey. The raƒīl, in

turn, leads into an extended simile, comparing the poet’s she-camel in

her fortitude to a lone oryx bull. The oryx bull’s travails and ultimate

triumph, as he suffers through a cold night of freezing rain and then at

dawn triumphantly fights off a hunter and his hounds, is in effect an

allegory of the poet/passenger who himself undergoes a similar passage

from passive suffering to life-affirming resolve (vv. 7–20).

The supplicatory element of Self-Abasement is to some extent implied in the hardships of the desert journey that the poet/passenger undergoes in the raƒīl, which, in effect, says to the mamdūh that the poet

has suffered hardship and faced perils to get to him. But the element of

Self-Abasement, and with it Submission, is more explicit in the expression of twinned fear and hope that occurs midway through the madīƒ

section. These verses are, at the same time, glaringly performative and

constitute what we termed above, in our discussion of ¿Alqamah’s ode,

the ritual core of the poem, with its characteristically transparent and

straightforward diction. The poet proclaims his innocence, which he

confirms with an oath, one of the major categories of speech act or performative speech (vv. 37–39):

37.No, by the life of Him whose Ka¿bah I have anointed

And by the blood I have spilled out upon stone altars,

38. And by the Protector of the birds that seek the refuge of the sanctuary,

Unmolested by the riders of Mecca between the spring and the thicket,

39.I never said those evil things that were reported to you.

If I did, then let my hand be palsied till I cannot hold a whip.

40.It was nothing but the calumny of enemies for which I suffered;

their speech was like a stab that pierced my liver.


Verse 41 conveys the sense of Self-Abasement in the fear of alNu¿mān that strikes the poet’s heart. In verse 42 the poet begs the king

to be merciful and to “go easy” on him, which is an expression of Self-

16â•… ·â•… T h e M a n t l e Ode s

Abasement and Submission. At the same time he proposes a contract: in

exchange for King al-Nu¿mān’s “going easy” on him, that is, forgiving

and accepting him rather than punishing him for his transgression, the

poet offers his allegiance, as expressed in the Arabic tradition, “May my

soul be your ransom” (nafsī fidāka), which is to say, “I pledge my life to

you.” Verse 43 reiterates the plea for mercy that opens verse 42:

41.I’ve been told that Abū Qābūs* has threatened me, [* = al-Nu¿mān]

And no one can withstand the lion when it roars.

42.Go easy! May the tribes, all of them, be your ransom,

And all my herds’ increase, and all my progeny!

43.Don’t fling at me more than I can withstand,

Even though my foes should rally to support you.


It is obvious as well that verses 42 and 43, with their pleas for mercy,

involve simultaneously the elements of Self-Abasement and Supplication

(see more, below).

The Praise of the One Supplicated in al-Nābighah’s ode includes the

standard elements of generosity and might, which we can understand as

the counterparts to, respectively, the poet’s hope and fear:

20.Such a she-camel conveys me to Nu¿mān,

Whose beneficence to mankind, both kin and foreigner, is

â•… unsurpassed.

.╯.╯.╯.╯.╯.╯.╯.╯. .

27.I see no one more generous in bestowing a gift,

Followed by more gifts and sweeter, ungrudgingly given.

28.The giver of a hundred bulky she-camels,

Fattened on the Sa¿dān plants of Tūæiƒ, with thick and matted fur,

29.And white camels, already broken in, wide-kneed,

On which fine new ¥īran saddles have been strapped,

30.And slave girls kicking up the trains of long white veils,

Pampered by cool shade in midday heat, lovely as gazelles,

31.And steeds that gallop briskly in their reins

Like a flock of birds fleeing a cloudburst of hail.

.╯.╯.╯.╯.╯.╯.╯.╯. .

K a¿ b i bn Z u h ay r a n d t h e M a n t l e of t h e P rop h e t â•… · â•… 17

44.Not even the Euphrates when the winds blow over it,

Its waves casting up foam on its two banks,

45.When every wadi rushes into it, overflowing and tumultuous,

Sweeping down heaps of thorny carob bush and sticks and boughs,

.╯.╯.╯.╯.╯.╯.╯.╯. .

47.Is ever more generous than he is in bestowing gifts,

Nor does a gift today preclude a gift tomorrow.


However powerful and beautiful these verses are, al-Nābighah’s praise

also includes two more unusual passages that are particularly suited to

his dilemma. One suggests the comparison of al-Nu¿mān to Sulaymān

(Solomon) in such a way as to suggest that God’s exhortations to

Sulaymān should apply to the king’s treatment of the poet:

24.Then whoever obeys you, reward his obedience

In due measure and guide him on righteousness’ path.

25.And whoever defies you, chastise him with a chastisement

That will deter the evil-doer—but do not harbor rancor.


A second comparison is between al-Nu¿mān and Zarqāƒ (= Blue-Eyed) alYamāmah, whom legend credits with the first use of kohl and with extraordinarily keen eyesight. When she warned her tribesmen that the enemy,

camouflaged with tree-branches, was approaching, they dismissed her

warning and were defeated in a surprise attack.25 In al-Nābighah’s poem,

a riddle based on her ability to count a distant flock of doves extends her

physical ability to mental acuity and insight, hence al-Nābighah’s exhortation to the king, “Judge with perspicacity like the girl of the tribe” (v. 32).

The element of Supplication itself, the poet’s petition or entreaty to

the patron, is evident in the many imperative pleas that punctuate the

poem: v. 32 “Judge with perspicacity”; vv. 42–43 “Go easy,” and the offer

of allegiance that it entails. However, it comes to the fore particularly in

the closing verses of the poem, vv. 48–49. These verses, too, constitute a

complex social movement, for the poet does not merely present his plea

for forgiveness, but encapsulates the entire exchange ritual of praise for

prize that constitutes the performative core of the ode. He states clearly,

however, that he desires no material gift, but only the mamdūƒ’s forgive-

18â•… ·â•… T h e M a n t l e Ode s

ness. That is, in a sort of ritual substitution, “apology” and “forgiveness”

stand in for “praise” and “prize”:

48.This is my praise: if it sounds good to you,

I have alluded—may you disdain all curses—to no gift.

49.This is an apology: if it has availed me nothing,

Then its author is indeed down on his luck.


Al-Nābighah’s poem succeeded, the literary tradition tells us. We read

in an anecdote that the poet ¥assān ibn Thābit (later the famed poetlaureate of the Prophet Muƒammad) had come to al-Nu¿mān’s court in

al-Nābighah’s absence hoping to make his fortune there, only to witness,

with despair, the return of the king’s erstwhile favorite with his masterpiece of apology:

At this, ¥assān ibn Thābit declared, “I begrudged al-Nābighah three

things, and I don’t know which I envied the most: al-Nu¿mān’s drawing

him into his intimate circle once more after his estrangement and sitting

up at night conversing with him and listening to him; or the excellence

of his poetry; or the hundred purebred royal camels that the king bestowed on him.”26

King Nu¿mān not only forgave the poet and reinstated him as poetlaureate and boon companion in his court, but, as we have come to expect from Mauss’s rules of gift exchange and our reading of ¿Alqamah’s

ode in the context of its literary anecdotes, he bestowed upon him as well

a gift of one hundred of the Lakhmid’s coveted royal purebred camels.

As was the case with ¿Alqamah’s ode, our reading of al-Nābighah’s

O Abode of Mayyah in the context of its literary anecdotes reveals that

this qa»īdat al-madƒ, here in the form of a poem of apology, likewise

exhibits a multifaceted complex of ritual and performative functions. It

performs the court ceremonial of the exchange of praise poem for prize:

that is, a ritualized enactment of the relation of subject to ruler. The

poem’s tripartite structure of nasīb, raƒīl, and madīƒ (lyric-elegiac prelude, desert journey, and praise) effects a rite of passage through which

the poet makes the transition, as the anecdotes tell us, from banishment

to reinstatement in the Lakhmid court. The key elements of the Supplicatory Ode are likewise in evidence in the Loss expressed in the abandoned

K a¿ b i bn Z u h ay r a n d t h e M a n t l e of t h e P rop h e t â•… · â•… 19

campsite of the nasīb, the elements of Self-Abasement in the poet’s expressions of fear and hope, the Praise of King al-Nu¿mān for might and

generosity, and the Supplication itself, the poet’s plea for the king’s forgiveness. Overtly performative acts (speech acts) such as the exculpatory

oath and oath of allegiance take place within the poem as well.

Finally, once again we need to emphasize that not only does the qa»īdah

incorporate speech acts, but the entire qa»īdat al-madƒ itself in its recitation before the mamdūƒ constitutes a multifaceted performative utterance.

In the case of al-Nābighah’s O Abode of Mayyah the overarching ritual

structure is that of supplication for the king’s forgiveness. In the literary

tradition, the most celebrated versions identify al-Nābighah’s transgression as a sexual-poetic scandal involving the king’s wife. As we noted above

there is no evidence of its nature in the poem itself, and the poet, rather

than confessing to any wrongdoing, denies it. As we will see, below, in our

discussion of Ka¿b ibn Zuhayr’s ode to the Prophet, this appears to be the

ritual-poetic norm for what is termed in the Arabic tradition i¿tidhāriyyah

(poem of apology). In this case, the literary tradition, broadly speaking,

presents al-Nābighah’s poem describing the king’s wife al-Mutajarridah in

obscene terms as the transgression, which means that it does not take the

poet’s denial in his poem of apology to be true.27 That being the case, we

have to understand the denials and their accompanying oaths as the sanctioned form of the ritual apology. That is, the oath of denial is an element

of what Mauss terms the “formal pretense and social deception” that characterize ritual exchange (cited above). Whatever precise nature of the poet’s

transgression, the poem of apology is the poet’s redemption payment.

If, in our reading, the ritual complexes of ¿Alqamah’s A Heart Turbulent with Passion and of al-Nābighah’s O Abode of Mayyah feature a

pronounced supplicatory aspect, in our final pre-Islamic example the

supplicatory aspect is far less pronounced as other aspects of the panegyric pact between poet and patron come to the fore.28

3. Zuhayr ibn Abī Sulmá’s The Tribe Set Out:

The Tacit Panegyric Pact

It behooves us to speak of another of the master poets of the Jāhiliyyah,

Zuhayr ibn Abī Sulmá,29 in part because he is the father of Ka¿b ibn

Zuhayr, whose poem to the Prophet Muƒammad, Su¿ād Has Departed,

20â•… · â•… T h e M a n t l e Ode s

is the first poem to be given the sobriquet of Mantle Ode and the most

renowned poem of praise presented to the Prophet in his lifetime. But it

is of further interest because the relationship between Zuhayr and his

Murrite kinsman, the chieftain Harim ibn Sinān, to whom his most

famous praise poems are addressed, became the proverbial and paradigmatic model throughout the Arabic-Islamic poetic tradition, especially,

as we shall see (chapter 2) in the medieval madīƒ nabawī tradition, for

the exchange of praise/poem for prize. We will term the relationship

between poet and patron that is established through this ritual exchange

of poem for prize the “panegyric pact.”

Zuhayr is said to have been a well-to-do lord (sayyid) of the Banū

Murrah (his father’s maternal clan, whose association Abū Sulmá preferred after an act of treachery on the part of his paternal kin, the Banū

Muzaynah); he was known for forbearance and possessed a reputation

for piety (al-wara¿).30 Two points are given prominence in the biographical and critical anecdotes concerning Zuhayr: that he was both the scion

of a prominent poetic family of the Jāhiliyyah and the progenitor of Islamic poets (Zuhayr’s father Abū Sulmá was a poet, as were his maternal

uncle, Bashāmah ibn al-Ghadīr, his stepfather, Aws ibn ¥ajar, and his

sisters, Salmá and al-Khansāƒ; his two sons Ka¿b and Bujayr, as we will

see below, were poets who converted to Islam);31 and that in his panegyrics he never composed praise of anyone that was not true (lam yamdaƒ

ƒaƒadan ƒillā bi-mā fīh).32 Inasmuch as the classical Arabic tradition

came to attack the qa»īdat al-madƒ, especially in the Islamic periods, as

insincere flattery in exchange for material gain, this last point exculpates

Zuhayr from the first part of the criticism. A charming anecdote absolves him of the second. It presents the poet not as greedy for gain but

rather as somewhat embarrassed by his patron’s unbounded munificence. Whereas we saw ¿Alqamah (above) scheming to maximize the

return on his poem, we find Zuhayr, in an anecdote related in Kitab alAghānī, concocting a ruse to evade his patron’s oath of generosity:

[Al-A»ma¿ī] said: It reached me that Harim had once sworn an oath that

every time Zuhayr presented him a praise poem he would give him a gift,

and any time he petitioned him he would grant his request, and even if

the poet so much as greeted him, he would give him a gift—whether a

slave, or a slave-girl, or a horse. Zuhayr became so embarrassed at how

much bounty he received from Harim that, when he saw him surrounded

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