Monday, July 27, 2009

Jarir - the legendary poet, NOT Saudi's chain of bookstores

In year 2000 while in Riyadh, I was called for an interview by Jarir Bookstore at its HQ. I was offered the post, but declined due to the package, however, I am always fond of Jarir for its book collections.

Jarir Bookstore View at Night

Jarir – a notable legend in poetry

By Rahla Khan

MOST people who come to the Kingdom carry back fond memories of a chain of bookstores called ‘Jarir’, yet not many of us know much about the eponymous poet after whom the chain of stores is presumably named.

He was Jarir Bin ‘Atiyyah Bin Huthayfah Al-Khatfi Bin Badr Al-Kulaibi Al-Yarboo’i, Abu Hazrah, from Banu Kulaib, a sub-tribe of Banu Tamim.
Born to a humble family in Yamamah during the reign of Caliph Uthman Bin Affan, he later moved to DamascusIraq, Al-Hajjaj Bin Yusuf, with his fawning verse, subsequently made a living by penning eulogies in praise of some of the other Umayyad caliphs.

According to an account in Al-Bidayah wan-Nihayah, Jarir was the only ‘court poet’ who was granted an audience by the ascetic Caliph Umar Bin Abdul Aziz. On the occasion, Jarir recited a few couplets of extempore verse, praising ‘Umar Bin Abdul Aziz for his generosity and comparing him favorably with some other past Caliphs, but he was admonished by Umar Bin Abdul Aziz to “stop lying for a living.”

On hearing this, Jarir asked ‘Umar Bin ‘Abdul-’Aziz for some money, since he was poor and had no other means of sustenance. Umar Bin Abdul Aziz said, “If you could prove to me that you are included among the list of people mentioned in the Qur’an who should be helped with alms, I would be the first person to do so.” When Jarir insisted on receiving some money, pleading his poverty, Umar Bin Abdul Aziz gave him 200 Dirhams from his own pocket, taking care to clarify that it was not from the public exchequer. Jarir later said that those two hundred Dirhams brought him such plenitude, that he was not reduced to begging for money ever again.

Interestingly, Jarir is mainly remembered for his lifelong feud with fellow poets, Hammam Bin Ghalib Abu Firas Al-Farazdaq and the Iraqi Christian poet Al-Akhtal, whom he vied with for official patronage and favors.

This infamous feud consumed the trio’s creativity and became their overriding preoccupation for a large portion of their lives, resulting in a genre of poetry called Naqa’id or ‘flytings’: an elaborate contest of one-upmanship by trading barbs and insults in verse.

No one could really tell who won the upper hand in these medieval flame-wars – the litterateurs of their time and over the ages have been divided in their opinions – and the various books written analyzing the satire and literary style of these contests have proved inconclusive. But one comes away with the feeling that they all lost – their time, efforts, intellectual resources and creativity – in pursuit of a goal that basically brought no tangible benefit to anyone.

One can’t help but compare these poets with Companions like Hassan Bin Thabit, who sought permission from the Prophet (peace be upon him) to lampoon the pagans to counter their propaganda against Islam and the Prophet (peace be upon him), and was granted a pulpit in the Prophet’s mosque to recite his poetry and encouraged with the supplication: “O Allah! Support him (Hassan) with the Holy Spirit (Gabriel).’’ (Sahih Al-Bukhari)

Or Abdullah Bin Rawahah, the Prophet’s staunch supporter and scribe in Madina who was martyred in the Battle of Mu’tah, who wrote verses for the Muslims to take away the tedium of their labor during the Battle of the Trench, and was praised by the Prophet with the words: “Your brother does not utter obscenities (referring to his verses).”

Or Ka’b Bin Zuhayr, the only poet who attempted to meet the challenge of the Qur’an to produce verses like it, but later repented and went to Madina to seek forgiveness for satirizing the Prophet. It is said that he was rewarded with a mantle by the Prophet (peace be upon him) for his poem ‘Baanat Su’aad’ written on the occasion of the Battle of Mu’tah, where several prominent Companions were martyred.

Or the pre-Islamic poet Labid, author of one of the seven ‘Hanging Odes’ (Mu’allaqaat), who later accepted Islam and was praised by the Prophet (peace be upon him), with the words: “The most true words said by a poet were the words of Labid. He said: ‘Indeed, everything except Allah is perishable.’” (Sahih Al-Bukhari)

Or ‘Amir Bin Al-Aqwa’, the poet upon whom the Prophet (peace be upon him), invoked the Mercy of Allah during a journey as he led the camels in the caravan while chanting Huda – poetry that keeps pace with the camel’s footsteps – saying, “O Allah! Without You we would not have been guided on the right path, neither would we have given in charity, nor would we have prayed. So forgive us what we have committed. Let all of us be sacrificed for Your cause and when we meet our enemy, make our feet firm and bestow peace and calmness on us and if they (our enemy) call us towards an unjust thing, grant that we will refuse.” (Sahih Al-Bukhari)

The Qur’an says it best (as ever), when it delineates the difference between the two kinds of poets:

“As for the poets, the erring follow them. Do you not see that they roam in every valley? And that they say what they do not do? Except those who believe, and do righteous deeds, and remember Allah often, and defend (Muslims) after they have been wronged...” (Qur’an, 26:224-227)

Indeed, it is a great blessing if one is able to use the gifts and faculties given by Allah in His service, rather than in the service of one’s own whims and desires