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Qasidas Of Arabia Essay

1180 words - 5 pages

The ancient qasidas (“odes” or “poems”) are a surprising and unique facet of the bedouin or pre-Islamic society because of their almost anachronistic qualities; rigorous poetic structure and carefully metered rhyme not expected to come from a chiefly nomadic culture with little else in the way of visual or performing arts. Regardless of how strange it may appear in retrospect, however, pre-Islamic society depended on these qasidas to bear their cultural heritage, exemplifying simultaneously an individual’s emotions and artistry together with the unifying characteristics that the tribes held dear such as honor, bravery, and eloquence (Weiss 24). Studying the qasidas help historians define not only the pre-Islamic society: the change in poetic culture that came with the rise of Islam can serve as an indication of the shifting values and cultural ideals of the new religious society. The pre-Islamic qasidas had a powerful functional role in bedouin society that indicates a great amount of culture, but with the sweeping expansion of Islam, the only characteristic retained from the odes were their sophisticated linguistic register, while the morally reprehensible ideals of the earlier age that they contained were rejected in favor of the new religious code.
The functional importance of art in ancient history varies from culture to culture, but the bedouin society in particular built a impressively strong system of both commerce and tribal identification around their qasidas. Each qasida contains three sections —the remembrance of a loved one, the harrowing journey, and the heroic boast— and it is the third section that was used by a tribe to establish their own status and identity (Sells 4-7). Seeing as competition for resources in the Arabian desert was a perpetual way of life, it is only natural that the society’s main artistic form of expression would allow a section for each tribe to exalt themselves and attempt to prove their superiority. Despite this prescribed boasting required of the poetic structure that one would think would encourage conflict, these poems were enjoyed by all at annual fairs as part of the entertainment, bringing together hitherto warring tribes for days of art, economic trading, and commerce (Weiss 21, 24). These small poems of no more than 120 lines provided one common thread that united vast regions of the ancient Arab world and established permanent areas of peace and trade that would grow into the prosperous cities of Muhammed’s time.
These qasidas also provide evidence of tradition and heritage, creating a greatly modified picture of bedouin society from that of just a wandering, culturally devoid collective of tribes. Michael Sells, Professor of Islamic History and Literature at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, would agree, saying that “it has seemed inconceivable that a few tribes of camel-breeding bedouin, largely illiterate, largely ignored by the surrounding civilizations… would over the...

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