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Biography: Al-Mutanabbi

Mutanabi, Abul Tayyeb al- (915-965), poet regarded by many as the greatest of the Arabic language. He primarily wrote panegyrics in a flowery, bombastic style marked by improbable metaphors. He influenced Arabic poetry until the 19th century and has been widely quoted. Al-Mutanabbi was the son of a water carrier who claimed noble and ancient southern Arabian descent. Owing to his poetic talent, al-Mutanabbi received an education. When Shi'ite Qarmatians sacked Al-Kufah in 924, he joined them and lived among the Bedouin, learning their doctrines and Arabic. Claiming to be a prophet--hence the name al-Mutanabbi ("The Would-be Prophet")--he led a Qarmatian revolt in Syria in 932. After its suppression and two years' imprisonment, he recanted in 935 and became a wandering poet.

He began to write panegyrics in the tradition established by the poets Abu Tammam (d. 845) and al-Buhturi (d. 897). In 948 he attached himself to Sayf ad-Dawla, the Hamdanid poet-prince of northern Syria. During his association with Sayf ad-Dawlah, al-Mutanabbi wrote in praise of his patron panegyrics that rank as masterpieces of Arabic poetry. The latter part of this period was clouded with intrigues and jealousies that culminated in al-Mutanabbi's leaving Syria for Egypt, then ruled in name by the Ikhshidids. Al-Mutanabbi attached himself to the regent, the black eunuch Abu al-Misk Kafur, who had been born a slave. But he offended Kafur with scurrilous satirical poems and fled Egypt in 960. He lived in Shiraz, Iran, under the protection of the Adud ad-Dawlah until 965, when he returned to Iraq and was killed by bandits near Baghdad. Al-Mutanabbi's pride and arrogance set the tone for much of his verse, which is ornately rhetorical, yet crafted with consummate skill and artistry. He gave to the traditional qasida, or ode, a freer and more personal development, writing in what can be called a neoclassical style.

In his most famous line, al-Mutanabbi once boasted of himself:

The desert knows me well, the night and the mounted men.
The battle and the sword, the paper and the pen.

With characteristic economy, the poet deftly summarized all that he honored most in himself and in others: verbal prowess; courage and skill in battle; pride in Arab heritage and tradition. In addition, the intense musicality of al-Mutanabbi's language is revealed in verse through internal rhyme and alliteration.


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