From the Political to the Historiographical Use of Poetry

Noëmie Lucas

PhD candidate, Paris Panthéon-Sorbonne University

icon-calendar April 30, 2018

In his work Ansāb al-ašrāf, al-Balāḏurī (d. 279/892?) relates an episode of the construction of the canal “al-Mubārak” by Ḫālid b. ʿAbd Allāh al-Qasrī (d. 126/743), the governor of Iraq at the time. He was praised by the poet al-Farazdaq (d. 110/728?) then mocked by him, as a way to get revenge on Ḫālid who did not reward him for his initial praise. Al-Farazdaq was imprisoned for this insult, then finally released by the grace of the Caliph Hišam b ʿAbd al-Malik (r. 724-743), after which he wrote poetic verses of praise about him.

The text of al-Balāḏurī integrates these famous verses into its historical narrative in prose, to the extent that one may wonder if the narrative prose is not, in reality, the historical contextualisation of these verses, even though researchers tend to consider them as a simple illustrations of historical prose.

This impression is reinforced, for example, by the different historical contextualization that Abū al-Faraǧ al-Aṣfahānī (d. after 362/972) gives of the same verses in his Kitāb al-aġānī.

However, the reality is probably in between these two extreme points of view, one that would make poetry a simple illustration of historical narrative and the other that would make historical narrative a commentary on the poetry cited. Poetry plays a major role in pre-Islamic culture as it creates and destroys reputations, records events, builds history, relies on the authority of feared and respected characters, has an aesthetic role… In a word, it is one with the text and it is by holding the two together, verse and prose, that one must read and interpret these ancient historical sources.

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