Hunting Poems by a One-Day Caliph from the Library of Arabic Literature

In early September, the Library of Arabic Literature published a new collection of hunting poems by Abbasid litterateur, poet, and caliph for a day Ibn al-Mu’tazz (247/861–296/908), in James E. Montgomery’s stunning translation. In his introduction, Montgomery calls into question the prevailing image of Ibn al-Mu’tazz as simply a “poetically gifted aesthete with no taste for politics; an ambitionless, pleasure-seeking son of a murdered caliph brought up by a doting and overprotective grandmother; a reluctant ruler who was forced to grasp the reins of power for just one day before he was discovered hiding in the home of a jeweler friend and was executed on the spot.” Instead, he insists, we must take seriously the role poetry played in the circles of power in Abbasid socCover of "In Deadly Embrace", white title on dark blue ground.iety.

Hunting poems (tardiyyat) in particular are closely connected with these elites and, in Montgomery’s words, “remind us that hunting was not a discrete pursuit but was an inflection of the apparatus of rulership.” The hunt thus figures as a miniature of political life, with the caliph proving that he lives up to an ideal of heroic masculinity necessary for success in both hunting and politics.

Such weighty implications for statesmanship aside, Ibn al-Mu’tazz’s tardiyyat are also simply delightful. Meditations on starlit early-morning departures accompany adoring descriptions of the non-human members of the hunting party: swift dogs race arrows shot from lithe bows, elegant steeds carry their riders without fatigue, and raptors attack ruthlessly from the air. Montgomery’s imaginative translation brings to life hunting scenes alien to most modern readers’ experiences and skillfully renders the aesthetics of the original Arabic verse.

Below, we offer three of our favorite poems as excerpts from this collection. The bilingual Arabic-English edition and translation is now available from the Library of Arabic Literature. -Leonie Rau

In Battle Gear

A description of a goshawk and a horse:


Morning drove off the night

wrapped in its cloak of gloom,

as the Pleaides, sparked by a dawn burst,

blazed like torch fires and Gemini

died away in the sunrise,

fluttering on the horizon

like a flag in the wind.

I startled the oryx,

mounted on a well-drilled, speedy charger,

tufts of hair at his hooves, his back

and withers tightly welded,

wading through water that reached

no higher than his white pasterns,

as if a girl in a red jilbab had fastened

a bracelet on her wrist: his blaze

was white as the early sun; his ribs

like the frame of a camel’s litter,

fused to his spine whose vertebrae

were like the dense knot of a khaṭṭī spear;

his hooves, blue as turquoise and big

as boulders, peeled back the surface

of the ground; his feet, bold, lesion-free,

pounded the high roads with loud thuds,

like polo mallets, raising a dust storm

like a cloud of ʿarfaj smoke

or teased cotton tossed in the air.

Accompanied by a fine gos in battle gear,

her head dusty white, like a king

wearing a crown, her restless eyes,

keen and true, under white brows,

her eyelids like the cloth

of a litter-bearing camel,

her talons like thin, arched eyebrows,

her dappled feathers under black wings

patterned like a regal mantle.


We enjoyed a day of pleasure.

Some slaughtered the birds,

others kindled the fires,

some cooked the meat till it was done,

others, too impatient to wait,

swallowed it raw.


Black at Its Fringes

A description of the pellet bow:


The best way to hunt

is with a taut bowstring,

yellow, tightly twisted,

snorting when stroked

by the archer, its eye

weeping tears of clay

fashioned by a master fletcher

who with all his know-how

crafted them into balls

of identical shape, small pellets

more like pebbles than clay,

stored in navel-shaped pouches,

flying like sparks at hearts

and breasts.

Night was still black

at its fringes as we crossed

the dark to meet the dawn,

patiently taking up our position.

Light spread through the sky.

They came in droves, swimming,

on their way, with Fate’s leave,

to a new meadow or river,

anxious eyes alert to danger—

an archer hurriedly fastened

string to bow and acted

decisively. His shots scattered

the flock. He wore out the lath,

almost ruining it. Birds fell

from the sky, some screaming

in danger, others stranded

on broken wing. Hubris

took control of the archer,

who exulted in his triumph

though he needed to be prudent.

The shooting continued in earnest

and the birds cried, “Humans never fire

pellets like this—it must be raining

stones from the sky!”


The Wind’s Soft Hands

A description of a saker and dogs:


It was a day of pure bliss stolen

from Time, who paid us no heed

as we crossed the dark before sunrise

on haughty, long-necked horses,

through meadows awake with flowers

drenched in tears of rain—

as fragrant as musk pouches,

opened by the wind’s soft hands,

scattered across the leas.

It was time for the quarry to die—

lean salukis, drop-eared hunters,

like unfletched arrows—

were it not for their collars you’d think

a puff of wind might whisk them away.

Ground forces combined with aerial might—

working with sakers in yarak that tower,

then stoop from the sky, like buckets

dropped down a well by hasty hands

thirsty for water, our dogs snatched souls.

The hares’ eardrums were burst by thwacks

like the cracks of date-palm spathes

split open by croppers.

Demon dogs, with jaws of doom, came early

to Qurayyah’s jacks—running fast as the wind,

devouring the miles, rousing the wakeful quarry

all day.

A graceful gazelle of a boy

passed a Bābil wine around, his waist swaying

with the weight of his plump buttocks.

You’d never recover from one of his looks.

His guardian paid no heed, as the boy’s glance

glowed like a coal and my heart grew faint.


Ibn al-Muʿtazz (d. 296/908) was an accomplished and prolific poet and author of works of literary theory and literary history. He was the direct descendant of six caliphs and was himself made caliph in 296/908, but ruled for only one day before he was killed by the palace guards, partisans of his brother al-Muqtadir.

James E. Montgomery is Sir Thomas Adams’s Professor of Arabic at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Trinity Hall. His latest publications are Fate the Hunter: Early Arabic Hunting Poems, and Kalīlah and Dimnah: Fables of Virtue and Vice, with Michael Fishbein.