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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 7 - Romanticism  


The Arabic Lyric

The first and greatest source of Arabic literature is the Koran, or, as scholars transliterate the Arabic word, qur'an, which literally means, "recitation." Islamic scholars generally have not subjected the Koran to literary analysis, for to the believer, the original reciter of the "recitation" -- Mohammed --was not an author in any normal sense. What Mohammed spoke was simply the word of God. Yet modern students of literature clearly regard the short suras, or chapters, of the Koran as lyric poetry. If we look at the first sura of the Koran as the beginning of a great literary tradition, we can see some of the special characteristics that distinguish Arabic writing as well as Islamic literature composed in a variety of languages including Persian, Turkish, Urdu, Indonesian, and a host of others spoken by those who profess the faith of Islam.

All these languages are linked, not as members of the same linguistic family like the Romance languages, but by their religious roots; not surprisingly, then, Arabic lyrics display qualities quite different from the witty wordplay of a Renaissance sonnet or the subtle indirection of a Chinese or Japanese poem. Rather, the mark of Arabic and Islamic lyric expression is its rhapsodic, ecstatic nature, more appropriate to the praise of God, than to the seduction of a beautiful woman or the description of a sorrowful parting.

In this poetry it is especially important to recall that the original impulse to recite is most difficult to translate, since so much depends on the repetition of sounds in a text that is chanted.

The Opening

In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate
Praise be to God, the Lord of the Universe
the Merciful, the Compassionate,
the Authority on Judgment Day.
It is You whom we worship
and You whom we ask for help.
Show us the upright way:
the way of those whom You have favored,
not of those with whom You have been angry
and those who have gone astray.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Although this prayer is addressed to the merciful God, it assumes that mercy is not guaranteed to all. What sense of the individual's spiritual responsibilities do the last lines of the poem convey?
  2. What is unusual about the identity of the speaker here?
  3. Compare some of the Hebrew Psalms. What characteristics do religious lyrics seem to share?