Al-Mutanabbi : biography
Abu at-Tayyib Ahmad ibn al-Husayn al-Mutanabbi () (915 – 23 September 965) was an Arab Iraqi poet. He is considered as one of the greatest poets in the Arabic language. Much of his poetry revolves around praising the kings he visited during his lifetime. Some consider his 326 poems to be a great representation of his life story. He started writing poetry when he was nine years old. He is well known for his sharp intelligence and wittiness. Al-Mutanabbi had a great pride in himself through his poetry. Among the topics he discussed were courage, the philosophy of life, and the description of battles. Many of his poems were and still are widely spread in today’s Arab world and are considered to be proverbial.
His great talent brought him very close to many leaders of his time. He praised those leaders and kings in return for money and gifts. His powerful and honest poetic style earned great popularity in his time.
Al-Mutanabbi in Egypt
Al-Mutanabbi joined the court of Abu al-Misk Kafur after parting ways with Saif al Dawla, but Kafur dismissed Al-Mutanabbi’s intentions claiming them to be a threat to his position.Al-Mutanabbi realized that his hopes of becoming a statesman were not going to be materialized and he left Egypt in c. 960. After he left, he heavily criticized Abu al-Misk Kafur with satirical odes.
Al-Mutanabbi was killed because one of his poems contained a great insult to a man called Dhaba al-Asadi (Arabic: ضبة الأسدي Ḍabba al-ʾAsadī). Dhaba, along with his Uncle Fatik al-Asadi (Arabic: فاتك الأسدي Fātik al-ʾAsadī), were determined to kill Al-Mutanabbi because of that poem which contained a great insult to Dhaba. They managed to intercept Al-Mutanabbi, his son Muhassad (Arabic: محسد Muḥassad), and his servant near Baghdad. Ibn Rachik reported that when Al-Mutanabbi wished to flee, his servant awkwardly reminded him of his bold verses; Al-Mutanabbi resolved to live up to them, fought, and died along with his companions in 965.
Mutanabbi’s egomaniacal nature seems to have got him in trouble several times and might be why he was killed. This can be seen in his poetry, which is often bombastic.
In a famous poem he speaks to the power of identity and the freedom that comes with knowing oneself.
|ʾAnā l-ladhī naẓara l-ʾaʿmā ʾilā ʾadab-ī|| ||Wa-ʾasmaʿat kalimāt-ī man bi-hi ṣamamu|
|Al-ḫaylu wa-l-laylu wa-l-baydāʾu taʿrifu-nī|| ||Wa-s-saifu wa-r-rumḥu wa-l-qirṭāsu wa-l-qalamu.|
|I am the one whose literature can be seen (even) by the blind|| ||And whose words are heard (even) by the deaf.|
|The steed, the night and the desert all know me|| ||As do the sword, the spear, the paper and the pen.|
Much of the sense of the first line is lost in translation, as in Arabic it begins with "I" and ends with "my".
Childhood and Youth
Al-Mutanabbi was born in the town of Kufah in Iraq in 915. He was the son of a water carrier. In his youth, Al-Mutanabbi was educated in Damascus, Syria. His nickname Al-Mutanabbi means "The one who wants to become a Prophet" or "the would-be prophet", the reason for this controversial nickname is not entirely known, some say that he claimed to be the predecessor of prophet Saleh. Others claim it is his political activities that won the young poet the unusual nickname when he led a revolutionary movement in his home town in 932. The revolt was suppressed and the young man was imprisoned. It is during this period that he began to write his first known poems. Al-Mutanabbi had great political ambitions to be Wali, to fulfill his ambitions he joined the courts of Sayf al-Daula and Abu al-Misk Kafur but his ambitions failed.
إذا رأيتَ نيوبَ الليثِ بارزةً فلا تظنّ أنَّ الليثَ يبتسمُ
"If you see the teeth of the lion, do not think that the lion is smiling at you."
Al-Mutanabbi and Sayf al-Daula
Al-Mutanabbi lived at the time when the Abbasid Caliphate started coming apart, many of the states in the Islamic world became politically and militarily independent from the weak Abbasid Caliphate. Chief among those states was the Emirate of Aleppo. Ruling this greatly independent state at the time of Al-Mutanabbi was Sayf al-Daula.
Al-Mutanabbi joined the court of Sayf al-Daula in 948. Sayf al-Daula was greatly concerned with fighting the Byzantine Empire in Asia minor where Al-Mutanabbi fought alongside him. During his nine years stay at Sayf al-Daula’s court, Al-Mutanabbi versified his greatest and most famous poems.
During his stay in Aleppo, great rivalry occurred between Al-Mutanabbi and many scholars and poets in Sayf al-Daula’s court, one of those poets was Abu Firas al-Hamdani, Sayf al-Daula’s cousin. In addition, Al-Mutanabbi lost Sayf al-Daula’s favor because of his political ambition to be Wāli. Al-Mutanabbi had no other choice but to leave Aleppo heading toward Egypt.