Introducing ‘The Mu`allaqat for Millennials’

Kevin Blankinship and Hatem Alzahrani introduce a new approach to the mu`allaqat:

By Kevin Blankinship

“Have the poets left any patch unsewn?” ʿAntarah ibn Shaddad’s uneasy question reverberates across barren time and desert, as we ask whether centuries-old books have anything left to teach us, illumined moderns. Are we not now, thanks to technological advances, economic strength, and a feeling for social justice, reasonably assured of our own progress? Have we not, by virtue of the natural and human sciences, become masters of nature itself and captains of our own human souls? 

No doubt the arrogance of this posture will strike readers as forcefully as intended. The chance that we can still gain something from communing with the dead should give pause, furthermore, to those who ask why we need yet another translation of Arabic poems with a storied past in European languages: the ten—or in some versions, seven—ancient “hanging odes” (mu`allaqat)? But perhaps considering the result of such effort is the best answer: The Mu`allaqat for Millennials, Pre-Islamic Arabic Golden Odes, out this week from the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra) in cooperation with the AlQafilah Magazine, both initiatives of Saudi Aramco.

Aiming to make the mu`allaqat known to new readers, the project gathers a team of eight commentators and translators. They include Abdallah S. Alroshaid, Professor of Arabic Literature at Al-Imam Mohammad Ibn Saud University; Saudi writer and physician Adi Alherbish; New York University Clinical Associate Professor David Larsen; Huda J. Fakhreddine, Associate Professor of Arabic Literature at the University of Pennsylvania; Kevin Blankinship, Assistant Professor of Arabic Literature at Brigham Young University; Saleh Said Alzahrani, Professor of Rhetoric and Criticism at Umm al-Qura University; Sami Abdulaziz AlAjlan, Assistant Professor of Literary Criticism at Al-Imam Mohammad Ibn Saud University; and Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych, Sultan Qaboos bin Said Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University.

At the helm are Hatem Alzahrani, Assistant Professor of Arabic Literature at Umm al-Qura University, and Bander Alharbi, editor-in-chief of AlQafilah Magazine. What follows is Professor Alzahrani’s published introduction to the The Mu`allaqat for Millennials.

The Muʿallaqāt Book: Story, Map, and Contribution 

By Hatem Alzahrani

The Muʿallaqāt (Suspended Odes) are the ten most important Arabic poems from the pre-Islamic era and the linguistic foundation of Arabic culture. In the pages that follow, you will see the Muʿallaqāt presented in both Arabic and English. Both ​languages share the joy of interpreting these timeless texts; the Arabic section provides new commentaries on the odes, while the English section furnishes original translations. The aim is to explore their human lessons, celebrate their artistic originality, and listen carefully to what they reveal about the artists who produced them as well as those who witnessed their creation. At the same time, they reveal a great deal about us, the people of the twenty-first century who belong to a rich variety of cultures and languages.

This project has a story, and I will tell it briefly in this introduction. I will also attempt to sketch a map for this work so that you can enjoy your journey through the coming pages.

This project began one beautiful autumn day in 2019 with an invitation from Saudi Aramco’s AlQafilah Magazine to participate in an advisory committee whose task was to reintroduce the Muʿallaqāt to millennials. The invitation opened a window to a dream that I thought was nearly impossible to achieve: to bring timeless Arabic poetry texts to new generations regardless of their linguistic and cultural affiliations. Work on the project began immediately by selecting a team of world experts in Arabic poetry to accomplish two main goals: write new commentaries on the Muʿallaqāt and produce original translations of them, all preceded by new introductions and cast in a style that would meet the needs of the contemporary reader. While making the ancient odes more accessible to the non-specialist was essential in the decisions that led to the style and format of this book, we also wanted it to serve as a reference work for the specialist.

It has been a marvelous journey through time with the Muʿallaqāt, along with their commentators, critics, and translators throughout history, and the many fascinating stories surrounding the odes and their poets in the akhbār books of literary accounts. Likewise, it has been a unique panoramic tour of the geographic locations across the Arabian Peninsula that appear in the Muʿallaqāt, in both fictional and non-fictional realms, which the poets celebrate in their endings after having wept over them in their preludes. The aim of this journey was for the final product to appear in a form befitting the unique status of the Muʿallaqāt, and I am confident that what you see now before you does justice to the towering legacy of these odes.

Each author will have the opportunity to clarify the detailed points of his or her commentary and translation, so here I will limit my discussion to the following technical points. Each Muʿallaqah chapter, whether in its Arabic commentaries or English translations, begins with an introduction that provides a background on the poet’s life and poetic status, with an overview illuminating the most important literary akhbār about him. After that, we proceed to the poem and the conversation it has inspired throughout literary history, often by comparing it to texts from other literatures. Finally, the introduction ends with general observations on the poem and its enduring message.

In the Arabic section, each poem is divided into parts based on its distinctive themes. Since the odes appear in many versions in the classical sources, it was the commentators’ task to either pick one version and adhere to it, or produce a new, “critical edition” of their own after comparing various versions from multiple sources. The commentary itself is organized in such a way as to achieve the two-fold goal of defining obscure words and furnishing the verses with exegesis and interpretation. While the latter part, called “Meaning,” comes right below the verses, the former, called “Language,” appears in an end-note sub-section to the left side of the page. The Language part often includes contemporary names for the ancient locations mentioned in the odes, along with some biographical information about the poems’ characters, human and non-human alike.

Just as the commentary section was essential in achieving the purpose of this project, so, too, was the translation section, furnished with entirely new English renderings of the ten Suspended Odes. The English introductions were not intended to differ from the Arabic ones, particularly in terms of the factual information they provide. However, they are unique in that they contextualize the odes more in line with the “horizon of expectations” that suits the English-speaking reader. They often link the Arabic poems to texts from Western literatures, which hopefully allows the English reader more access to these ancient odes. Because the English section comes without a commentary detailing the author’s reading decisions, such as the ode’s thematic divisions, the English introductions most often represent a reading that precedes the text. This provides a bird’s eye view of the ode by dividing it into distinct thematic units and allows for a reading of them in light of the methodological considerations and artistic choices of each translator. The result is a translation that functions as a commentary and interpretation of the Arabic text.

In reviewing the texts of this book with the eight colleagues responsible for content creation in both languages, we were keen on producing a work that appeals to non-specialist contemporary readers while meeting the increasingly challenging reading requirements stipulated by the poems themselves. This meant diving more and more into the poems in order to explore their distinctive aesthetics and their undying messages of love, hope, and perseverance in face of adversity.

These two complementary goals for our project meant, in the end, a full year of wonderful negotiations over delicate reading matters such as word choice, including or excluding specific ideas, or coming up with the right structure. On some occasions, the discussion revolved around finding a common ground about the interpretation of a particular verse, or a single word, or even a certain harakah (short vowel) at the end of a word. On others, the hope was to arrive at a reasonable agreement over the meaning of a particular phrase between the Arabic commentary and the English translation. On all occasions, however, the ingenuity of the Muʿallaqāt themselves succeeded in opening up a broad horizon of meanings that led us to an appropriate compromise path.

The poetic styles of the Muʿallaqāt vary greatly, from their vocabulary to the images their poets create to communicate abstract concepts. Put simply, they differ in everything, from diction to fiction. Indeed, I’d go further to say that, sometimes, we are faced with great stylistic variation in the same Muʿallaqah, and perhaps it is this tolerance, or rather acceptance, of stylistic diversity that had a positive impact on our book and led to our own stylistic diversity in receiving the poems—both the Arabic commentaries and the English translations. This book succeeds, within reasonable and acceptable limits, in leaving enough freedom for commentators and translators to showcase their distinctive views of the odes, which are reflected in their equally distinctive writing styles.

At last, the ten Muʿallaqāt with their Arabic commentaries and English translations appear in one volume, cast in a style that is designed to be as close as possible to today’s non-specialist readers while still meeting the needs of the specialist. The Muʿallaqāt are immortal works of art, and we may have been so astonished by these odes and their artists that we had the courage to aspire to present them anew to a new generation.  

Still, reading the Muʿallaqāt is a humbling experience; it teaches us to listen carefully in the hope of a reading that we know will never be fully satisfying or complete. Hence this work is just an invitation, and this is one of its most important contributions. ​​It invites a new generation, and in a language highly suitable to them, to enter the theater of the Muʿallaqāt and enjoy the amazing journey. The goal, from the beginning, has been to open the door, and we are hopeful that the coming days and years will bring us news of the success of our venture.

A huge project like this deserves to be undertaken by a multitude of institutes over the course of years. But the hard work and dedication of all of the people involved has made it possible to deliver, as planned, in just one year. These people include the content creation team, i.e., commentators, translators, reviewers, and editors, along with the project management team in AlQafilah magazine and King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra), the dynamic cultural initiative from Saudi Aramco to the world. In such an exceptional moment in the history of humanity as this year, when once normal daily activities have become threatened or even life-threatening, this project has come to light to affirm the timeless message that arts and words, immortal and enduring, outlast the vagaries of history.


Hatem Alzahrani is editor and reviewer of the book Al-Muʿallaqāt li-jīl al-alfiyyah (The Muʿallaqāt for Millennials: Pre-Islamic Arabic Golden Odes, 2020). He is a poet, critic, and academic from Saudi Arabia. He serves as the Content and International Communication Supervisor for the project.