A poem by Abu Sakhr al-Hudhali, as transmitted by Abu Ali al-Qali

It gives me great pleasure to publish David Larsen’s translations & introductions on this core text of 8 century poems with 10 century comments from the classical, though unhappily too little known (at least in Euro-American lands) Arab literary tradition. See also his translation of al Sukkari’s version of the same poem on my Jacket2 blog.
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The curtailment of artistic freedom is an unusual thing to praise. Literary translation is a special art, though, and it is founded on constraint. What is the translator free to create, but an accurate target-language representation of the source text? Stylistic freedom lies in the translator’s working conception of accuracy itself (i.e., its standards and defining principles, and the degree of rigor with which they are followed). And with that I am straying into issues of translation that are not my theme. My concern here is more for the translator’s responsibility to source context than source text.

With regard to Arabic, it is a lively concern. Classical Arabic poetry is a deeply embedded tradition, and its productions are hard to appreciate ex situ. Individual works are cast against a plurality of contextual and generic backdrops, which (until source tradition becomes better known to target-language readers) it is up to the translator to describe. And so the translator of Arabic poetry is forever explaining. The alternative is to make short extracts from longer poems – choice, unobscure excerpts that stand on their own in lyric snatches. This is the method most commonly followed in anthologies today (e.g., Night and Horses and the Desert), and there is much to recommend it – above all, ease of absorption by the target-language reader. There is also classical precedent: many medieval anthologies are made up of poetic outtakes, and if modern editors (Arab and Western) do the same it is somewhat defensible.

That said, it is a mode of presentation that contributes little to awareness of poetic form. Especially this is true of the “high” Arabic form, which is the qaṣīda – a multithematic form embracing several genres in succession (typically though not necessarily: amatory complaint, travelogue, and praise or blame). You can take one section out and make an exemplary fragment of it, but you can’t call it a qaṣīda, which is the form the early poets were working in.

Another problem with the excerptive method in translation is Orientalist precedent. A “series of representative fragments” is after all the Orientalist translator’s native medium, as Edward Said says in part two of Chapter Two. The result, however – a mosaiform stand-in for source tradition, mined for its target-language reader-friendly content – is something I hesitate to call a replica or simulacrum of anything. An English-language anthology of Arabic fragments is more like a limit-marker, ensuring that Western tastes for Arabic poetry will run only so far, and no further.

Least of all do I imagine editorial completism as a political solution. Indeed, there is reason to doubt the activist/humanist applications of Arabic-to-English translation tout court. Elliott Colla’s article “Dragomen and Checkpoints” for The Translator 21:2 (2015) 132-53, points out that far from being an antidote to conflict, translation has always been an instrument of military occupation and colonial rule. And by way of Cicero’s call for Roman translators “to wrest from now-languishing Greece” the intellectual capital of a subjugated people (Tusculan Disputations II.2.5), Dimitri Gutas reminds us of translation’s long-standing triumphalist commitments, in his article “The Historical and Ideological Dimensions of Graeco-Arabic Studies” for Intellectual History of the Islamicate World 3 (2015), 326–50. I hasten therefore to disavow any claim that a formally principled approach to translation can ameliorate anything outside the literary realm.

For me, it is enough. If a global English-language readership is better able to access Arabic poetry, it is all the justification my efforts need. With that, I return to the question of what to do with poems that circulate in different versions. This is not a genre issue, but one of historical practice. The variation displayed in the present poem is an organic result of the still-primarily-oral information culture in which anthologists of the ninth and tenth centuries (CE) were working. There being no grounds for authenticating one at the expense of another, I have contrived to translate them all and publish them here and here and here, with the duplicate lines duplicated exactly wherever they occur in each version. If this variform state is not the “original” state of the 7th-century poem, it is the only state in which we can access it today.

As Abū ‘Alī Ismā‘īl al-Qālī’s introduction makes clear, it is a composite state. Al-Qālī was an eminent philologist and litterateur who, after long study in Mosul and Baghdad, emigrated to Cordoba with his library in 942. The books he could not bring with him he dictated from memory after his arrival, and until his death in 966 he remained in al-Andalus as a revered source of Iraqi learning. His Dictations run to four volumes in the 1926 Cairo edition, and it is here (vol. 1, p. 148) we read that Abū ‘Alī said:

“I was told by Abū Bakr ibn al-Anbārī (d. 940): ‘The grammarian Abu ‘l-‘Abbās Aḥmad ibn Yaḥyā (known as Tha‘lab, d. 904) said: Abū Sa‘īd ‘Abd Allāh b. Shabīb said: “I heard this poem in recitation by Ismā‘īl b. Abī Uways (d. 840), and also by al-Zubayr b. Abī Bakkār (d. 870), and also by ‘Abd al-Malik b. ‘Abd al-Azīz al-Mājishūn, and also by Muḥammad b. Ṭālūt al-Wādī.” And my father [Abū Muḥammad al-Anbārī, d. ca. 916] recited it to me too. All these men credited the poem to Abū Ṣakhr al-Hudhalī, each of them adding a part to the whole (yazīdu ba‘ḍuhum ‘alā ba‘ḍ).’ And [al-Qālī continues] Abū Bakr ibn Durayd (d. 933) recited some of it to me too.”

From this it is evident that al-Qālī’s version of the poem goes back to Ibn Shabīb (d. ca. 873), a savant of Basra whom al-Dhahabī (d. 1347) calls “one of the most erudite men of his day, despite the unreliability of his memory.” Weakness of memory is a significant disqualifier for a scholar of hadith, and Ibn Shabīb is remembered instead as an akhbārī (a gatherer of instructive reports). In the 10th-century bibliography called al-Fihrist, he is credited with a now-lost Book of Reports and Traditions, but the present poem was probably not included in this work. Rather, it was dictated orally to Tha‘lab, the grammarian of Kufa who passed it on to al-Qālī’s teacher Ibn al-Anbārī. What al-Qālī gives us might be thought of as a third-generation “snapshot” of the poem as pieced together by Ibn Shabīb and Ibn al-Anbārī before him.

Whether this version of the poem is compromised by Ibn Shabīb’s alleged weakness of memory is a question voided by comparison to the other versions, which are no closer to each other than they to al-Qālī’s version. It is unquestionably a genuinely early poem: a generation before Ibn Shabīb, four of its verses appeared in the Ḥamāsa of Abū Tammām (d. ca. 845), and a generation before that the singer Ibrāhīm ibn al-Mahdī put some of its verses to music for the caliph al-Amīn (r. 809-813), whose uncle he was (see Abu ‘l-Faraj al-Iṣbahānī’s postscript to the poem as it appears in The Book of Songs). The poem’s multiply divergent condition probably dates to the 8th century, if not all the way back to Abū Ṣakhr’s lifetime (for which see my introduction to al-Sukkarī’s version).

In the 1926 printed edition of al-Qālī’s Dictations, as in manuscript, the poem is interrupted in places where al-Qālī mentions his teachers’ sources and their glosses to the poem, as well as two peripheral remarks by Ibn Shabīb. This poses another editorial dilemma. Should interlinear commentary be exported to footnotes, so as to smooth the reception of Abū Ṣakhr’s poem? Or is the commentary better left in place? I am pleased to be able to try out both solutions. Where this translation appears in the Cambridge Literary Review‘s forthcoming tenth issue (fittingly dedicated to the theme of marginalia and annotations), I have rendered much of the commentary as footnotes. Here, where footnotes are not so easily accommodated, I have left the commentary in place (set off by a change in text color) – at some detriment to the flow of the translated poem, but affording the English-language reader an experience of the classical editorial practices to which we owe our access to the poem in the first place. [My own supplementary language is in square brackets.]

♦   ♦   ♦

AT DHĀT AL-JAYSH I recognized one dwelling as Laylā’s,
  and another at Dhāt al-Bayn, with tell-tale markings.
Even now I picture them as if unaltered,
  even though both dwellings were long made away with since our time.
At a halt by their outline, the answer [I sought] was stammered,
  and I said, my eye astream with a flowing tear,
“O riders trotting by, have you news from the valleys of al-Ḥimā
  and who might be abiding there since our time?”
“We passed that way by night,” they said. “If someone
  for whom you pine be there, the wayfarer has no knowledge.”


Tha‘lab said: Ibn Shabīb said: A Bāhilī tribeswoman named Umm al-Mighwār said: “Early one morning, I was in the courtyard of my house when there passed a party of mounted riders. They put me in mind of this verse [which I recited aloud]:

”O riders trotting by, have you news from the valleys of al-Ḥimā
    and who might be abiding there since our time?”

We were answered by a boy from atop his mount, who recited:

  “We passed that way by night,” they said. “If someone
    for whom you pine be there, the wayfarer has no knowledge.”

Can the bushes answer questions? Or the acacia of al-Kadā,
subtribal redoubt of Marrān? My two companions! What about the lotus tree?


In the recitation of Ibn al-Anbārī, on the authority of Tha‘lab, the place’s name is al-Kadā. In my estimation, this is a shortening of the name al-Kadā’ [with final hamza], due to metrical necessity. Ibn Durayd for his part said the word was al-Ku, calling it a plural of al-kudya [Arabic for “beggary”].

By the One Who gives cause for weeping and laughter, the One Who
  deals death and life, and the One entitled to give command:
Her plans were for permanent departure, absolute
  at dawn’s first light, [the night] I made my way to her.
Catching sight of her [preparations], I was struck dumb,
  abandoned by all cleverness and all reserve.
And I forgot the trifles I’d come to say, like a drinker
  whose power to remember is robbed by wine,
She left me without a shred [of hope] to go by,
  nor a bone without a break in all my ribcage.
She left me jealous of the wild animals I see in pairs
  that may give in to fright but never scatter.
I might be excused for calling out the wrong
  she did me on that day, but my blame has its limits.
If it were made known to me that she was departing
  I could not have endured it, and [for my sake] she was afraid.
I don’t know if life goes on for me, after her departure.
  What [terrible extremes] her departure puts me though!
To all love but ‘Āmirī love, my heart is resistant.
  “Abū ‘Amr without the ‘amr,” you could call it.


[This verse’s play on words resists translation. ‘Amr is a word for “lifespan,” and also a man’s name: “Father of a Lifeless Life,” he names his heart. The verse comes with Ibn Shabīb’s commentary on the lovesick madness called “‘Āmirī love,” after the legendary lover Qays ibn al-Mulawwaḥ al-‘Āmirī, better known as Majnūn Laylā:] Ibn Shabīb said: I was told by al-Zubayr ibn Bakkār: “When Abu ‘l-Sā’ib Salm ibn Junāda recited this verse to me, he said: ‘By God, it is the red death (al-mawt al-aḥmar), nephew, and there is no defense against it. ‘”

My hands are close to dampness when I touch her.
  She is [like a pool] ringed with plants of leafy gold.
Memory of you stirs up in me a violent elation,
  like a rain-drenched sparrow shaking off [its wings].
My love for ‘Ulayya makes me wish we were
  secluded on a raft with nothing else between us,
amid calm waters, whose undulating surface no ship crosses,
  far from the [high sea’s] terrors and green eddies,
that we might bring our souls’ anxiety to a carefree end,
  and the sea drag down the slanderer we dread.
The lengths that time went through to come between us
  were amazing. Done with what was between us, time stood still.


Ibn Shabīb said: These are the verses I heard from Ibn Abī Uways:

O love I feel for Laylā! You have spared me nothing.
  To the anguish of abandonment, you add still more.
O love! Let nothing halt the nightly increase
  of my ardor for her. Let the Day of Resurrection be my relief.
The evenings we spent at al-Ḥimā will never return,
  not even with the petals of the flowering mimosa.
The times gone by are never coming back around – blessings
  and thanks to [the Creator]! All that happens is according to Your plan.


Ibn al-Anbārī said: My father related these additional verses to me on the authority of Aḥmad b. ‘Ubayd (known as Abū ‘Aṣīda, d. 885):

I took my leave of you, until you said: “He is oblivious to displeasure.”
  I paid you visits until you said, “He cannot endure [much longer].”
Right you are! I am a lovesick fool, assailed
  by torments of a heart-pervading passion, or some sorcery.
Beloved are all living things, as long as you may live,
  and when a grave contain you, beloved be the dead!

♦   ♦   ♦

Source: Abū ‘Alī Ismā‘īl b. al-Qāsim al-Qālī, Kitāb al-Amālī, ed. Muḥammad ‘Abd al-Jawād Aṣma‘ī. Cairo: Maṭba‘at Dār al-Kutub al-Miṣriyya, 1926 (4 vols.). Repr. Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyya, 2002 (4 vols. in 2). I. 148-50.

For more information on Abū Ṣakhr and his tribe’s role in the development of ghazal poetry, see TK. For the musical settings of Abū Ṣakhr’s poem, see my post on the tumblr Lyric Poets. And for yet another version of the poem, as attributed to Majnūn Laylā, see my translation blog Writing Gathering Field.

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2 opinions on “A poem by Abu Sakhr al-Hudhali, as transmitted by Abu Ali al-Qali”

  1. The role of memory and transmission in the back story to this poem is fascinating.

    This is lovely:

    She left me without a shred [of hope] to go by,
    nor a bone without a break in all my ribcage.
    She left me jealous of the wild animals I see in pairs
    that may give in to fright but never scatter.

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