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Arabic Poetry in West Africa: An Assessment of the Panegyric and Elegy Genres in Arabic

Poetry of the 19th and 20th Centuries in Senegal and Nigeria


Author(s): Abdul-Samad Abdullah and Abdul-Sawad Abdullah
Source: Journal of Arabic Literature, Vol. 35, No. 3 (2004), pp. 368-390
Published by: BRILL
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ARABIC POETRY IN WEST AFRICA:


AN ASSESSMENT OF THE PANEGYRIC AND ELEGY GENRES
IN ARABIC POETRY OF THE 19th AND 20th CENTURIES IN
SENEGAL AND NIGERIA
ABDUL-SAMAD ABDULLAH
The Universityof Melbourne,Australia
Abstract
This articleexplores the form and contentof West AfricanArabicpoetry,with particularreferenceto Nigeria and Senegal. It analyses several key poetic featuresof
this region of West Africa, with the focus on nineteenth and twentieth century
poetry. The historicalcontext is both the period of Europeancolonisationand the
pre-colonialperiod.The article suggests that Arabicpoetrywas a much older tradition in the region, that it was in no sense challenged by colonial rule, and that
strongreligious commitmentis visible in its content.
This study surveys the key influenceof Arabianpoetry on West AfricanArabic
poetry.It analysesrelevanttextsandhighlightstheimportanceof a numberof significant
issues relatingto this area of study in the researchof West African Islamic literature. The study also explores the extent of the intellectualinfluenceof Islam. This
is evidenced by the irrefutablepresenceof Arabisationat a time of Islamic penetration, as defined by the distinctive Islamic characterof West African Arabic
poetry.
West African Arabic poetry of the 19th and 20th centuries is classical in
its inspiration and uses a rich repertoire of poetic techniques and the full
range of poetic forms. The poetry is religious in most of its inspirations and
concerns and is more responsive to the oldest tradition of Arabic verse than
to contemporary non-African Arabic poetry. Overall, the poetry keeps its
distance from philosophical complexities and deep intellect, and relies
instead on spontaneity and simplicity, while avoiding artificiality. By the
19th and 20th centuries, Arabic poets in West Africa had completely assimilated the Arabic language, which gave them the ability to compose poetry
in this Islamic language in a way that was not much different from that of
the Arab peninsula. The religious tone runs through most of their poetic
motifs in the same way that the zealous tone dominates Jihad poetry. Arabic
poetry in West Africa was thus primarily an outgrowth of classical al-Jdhili
and al-lIslami Arabic poetry. This might partly be due to an environment
Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2004
Also available online - www.brill.nl

Journal of Arabic Literature, XXXV, 3

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ARABIC POETRY IN WEST AFRICA

369

that was closer to Bedouin life. It is worth noting that, during the 19th and
20th centuries, the majority of the Arabic poets of West Africa did not have
access to collections of classical Arabic poetry of all of its periods, except
for six or seven long poems (Mu'allaqdt) of pre-Islamic poetry (al-Shi'r alJdhill) and (Isldmi), poetry cited in some books of al-Sirah al-Nabawiyyah,
occasional citations in the scholarly books of various Islamic disciplines,
and religious poetry in the form of al-Mada'ih al-Nabawiyyah (qasidahs in
praise of Prophet Mohammad).' This explains more clearly the influence of
Jdhili and early Isldmi poetry on Arabic poets of West Africa, in terms of
their poetic techniques and styles. High levels of linguistic skill reminiscent
of the classical tradition are nevertheless achieved despite the lack of resources and models other than a few classical texts that represent a very
small portion of the huge poetic history of the Arabic language.
West African poetry is thus arguably a spontaneous and deep internalization of the principles of classical Arabic verse rather than simple duplication or imitation. It seems to maintain a strong dialogue with a culture that
had become universal in binding Muslims together as one entity, regardless
of differences of race, language and land. West African poetry seems to
derive its inspiration from the Arabic language as a vehicle of the language
of religious dialogue. Hence, the West African Arabic poets of Senegal and
Nigeria demonstrated this Islamic cultural identity at its highest level
through their poetry in the Arabic language. This was an exceptionally high
literary achievement, given that Arabic was not their first language and their
distance from the Arabian Peninsula.
As mentioned above, the Arabic poets of West Africa derived their literary culture from books containing poems, which explains the relative lack
of innovative poetry in some cases. Also noticeable is the eloquence and,
sometimes, the exoticism which characterises the language of their poetry in
its different motifs. In contrast, their didactic poetry is characterised by popular language understandable to the masses. Metrically, their poetry rarely
departs from the use of wide metres. The most favoured metres of lyrical
poetry in general are, in order of frequency, wide (al-basit), long (al-tawil),
perfect (al-kdmil), ample (al-wdfir), and light (al-khafif). The poets seldom
depart from these five meters, for they are also the favourite poetic metres
of the master poets of Arabia. Abf al-'Ala' al-Ma'arri says:
In poetry it is generallyfelt that there are no better metres than the al-basit
and al-tawil, found in the majorityof Arab poetry.Among the poems of the
masterpoets, the majorityfall in the al-tawil and al-basi.tpatterns.The metres

See Hunwick cited in Stefan Sperl and Christopher Shackle, eds. Qasida Poetry in Islamic

Asia and Africa (Leiden. New York. Koln: E. J. Brill, 1996), pp. 83-4.

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370

ABDULLAH
ABDUL-SAMAD

that are prominentin all poetrynumberfive: threeare the variouspatternsof


al-tawil and the first two are patternsof al-basit... Three metrescome after
those five: the first patternof al-wafir, the first patternof al-kdmil, and the
second patternof al-kdmil.2
It is understood that Arabic poets of West Africa adhered to the rhyming
rules of Arabic prosody; indeed, defects in the rhyme schemes of their
poems are seldom found. This is without question an indication of their
mastery of Arabic language, since rhyming poems require a very high standard of technical skill. One of the essential conditions for studying the characteristics of Arabic Poetry in West Africa is an account, even a brief one,
of the origins of that poetry. This, in turn, requires an understanding of the
development and movement of the Arabic language in the region, and the
extent of its spread before European colonisation.
Islamic Arabic culture in West Africa extended as far as what is known
as the Western Sudanese region (al-Suddn al-Gharbi).3 This culture had
trade and commercial networks which spread outwards into other regions.
Many historians emphasise the caravan trade routes that connected Western
Sudan and Egypt, and in turn linked these to North Africa (modem Tunisia)
and further west to al-Maghrib al-Aqsd (modem Morocco).4 Some of these
routes may have been in operation before the dawn of Islam, perhaps in the
second century C.E., although they were abandoned for security reasons in
the middle of the third century.5 This relationship was commercial at first,
but with the emergence of Islam and its spread into Western Sudan, the
relationship took on a religious and cultural dimension from as early as the
seventh century C.E.
The religious relationship merged the Muslims of this region into one
group which drew its way of life and moral values from one source-Islam,
with its holistic approach to life. It was then natural for the Muslim people
of Western Sudan to begin eagerly and attentively learning about Islam, wherein
they believed the value of all their affairs was to be found, and also learning its language in order to carry out its rituals as perfectly as possible. As
a result of learning the Arabic language and Islamic culture, the Muslims of
Western Sudan became the intellectual elite of the region. Administration
and planning experts in the pagan regions actively sought Muslim assistance
2 Abu al-'Ala1al-Ma'arri,al-Fusul wa-al-Ghdydt(Bayrit: al-Maktabal-Tijarilil al-Tiba'ah
wa-al-Tawzi'wa-al-Nashr),pp. 212-214.
3 It is that belt of West Africa that extends, roughly,from latitude 10 to 20 north,and
from longitude 17 west to 15 east.
4 AhmadShaykhuGaladanci,Harakatal-lughahal-'arabiyyahft Nayjiriyamin sanat 1804
ild sanat 1966 (Ph.D. dissertation,Cairo University,1974) p. 2. 'Ali Abubakar,al-Thaqdfah
al-'arabiyyahft Nayjiriyamin 1750 ild 1960. (Bayrit: 'Abd al-Hafiz al-Bassat, 1972), p. 3.
5 M. Hiskett,The Developmentof Islam in WestAfrica (London:Longman,1984), p. 13.

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ARABIC POETRY IN WEST AFRICA

371

in runningtheir affairs. Muslims occupied key positions in translationand


managementin the (pagan) GhanaEmpire,even before it became Islamic.6
This continuedto be the case even after the fall of Islamic Ghana and its
replacement by the Islamic Mali Empire in the 13th century C.E.7 The
importanceof Islamic educationto the people of the region, and in which
Arabic played a primary role, is further evidenced by the traveler Ibn
Battuitah's(1304-1368/1377 C.E.) description of the Islamic Empire of
Ghana and the great keenness of its governmentand people to teach their
children Islamic religion and Arabic language. They placed a particular
emphasison the memorizationof the Holy Quran,"shacklingtheir children
if they show[ed] negligence in memorizingit, the shackles removed only
after they memorizedit."8
Several historians mention a visit that Askiya MuhammadTure, the
founder of the Askiya dynasty (1493-1591), made to Cairo during a pilgrimageto Mecca in 1497. He asked the advice of the great Cairenescholars, such as al-Suyfiti, concerning the development of education in the
region. The advice given to him by the scholarshad a distinctand effective
role in developing education in Western Sudan. The Askiyas themselves
also did much to encourageeducation. Some of them had large libraries,
and addedto theircollectionsmost of the new books and manuscriptswhich
arrivedin WesternSudan from Egypt and the Far West.9
The 16th centurySenkoremosque at Timbuktudeveloped into a flourishing centre of Arabic and Islamic education,and became the favouritedestination of studentsin WesternSudan. Subjectstaughtthere includedMaliki
jurisprudence,syntax, morphology,rhetoric,logic, history,geography,astronomy and arithmetic.The Arabic language was the language of education
and administration,and also became one of the well-establishedlanguages
of communicationin the popularculturalcentres of the region.'0A number
of towns in WesternSudan thus became intellectualcentres,with Timbuktu
a good example. That city was the goal of many scholarsof the periodwho
sought to teach in its centre of higher education,while increasingnumbers
of studentsaspiredto sit in its learninggroups. Thus, Timbuktubecame a
focus of cultureand intellect as well as an importanttrade centre.1

Hiskett, p. 22.
7 Peter B. Clarke, West
Africa and Islam, (London: Edward Arnold Ltd, 1982), p. 38.
8 Ibn Battutah, Rihlat Ibn Battutah (Bayrit: Dar Sadir wa-Dar Bayrut), p. 690.
9 Abubakar, 45.
p.
10 Ibid., p. 46.
" 'Abd al-Qadir Zabadiyah, Dawlat Songhay fi 'ahd al-Askin (al-Jaza'ir: al-Sharkah alWataniyyah li al-Nashr wa-al-Tawzi'), p. 100.

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ABDUL-SAMAD ABDULLAH

Other important educational centres developed in Gao, Wallata, Gazargamu (capital of the mais of Borno from the 1480s),12 Kano, and Katsina.
Along with Timbuktu, these were the key Islamic enlightenment centres in
Western Sudan during the early period of the region's Islamic history. In
addition to these centres, other enlightenment sources such as mosques,
schools, and arbours were built throughout the region. Schools were set
up under the trees and in the corridors of the 'ulama's houses while open
spaces were used as primary schools, retreats, and prayer rooms. In this
way, Islamic Arabic education moved towards development and prosperity
until it reached its highest standard in the kingdom of Sunghay under the
Askiyas (1493-1591).
Evidence of the flourishing of Arabic language at that time and of the
level of its maturity can be seen in the seven questions sent by HiajAskiya
Muhammad I of the Sunghay Empire, in about 923/1502, to Imam alMaghili of Tlemcen in Algeria, one of the outstanding Muslim academics
and scholars of his time and Judge of Tuwat, North Africa. Askiya I was
seeking advice on a number of issues. The questions were said to be controversial religiously and complex. Each consisted of, linguistically, more
than two lines, with strong and cohesive sentence structure. There is no
doubt that the writer was skilled in Arabic writing.'3 The answers and
advice that al-Maghili rendered influenced the behaviour and outlook of
Askiya I as a Muslim ruler, and had a significant impact on the history of
West Africa in general, and on its Islamic history in particular.'4
It was not only Muslims who accepted the Arabic language. Islam's literacy, its impressive rituals, and its annual festivals were all acceptable to
polytheists of the region.'5 This, in turn, created a vigorous connection with
Arabic culture that profoundly influenced the cultural output. Islamic influence inevitably coloured the intellectual production of these societies,
since the producers in that field were Islamic intellectual elites who had
mastered the Islamic religion through the Arabic language. In the great cities
such as Timbuktu, Wallata, Kano, and Katsina, where productive activities
and trade transactions took place, there developed a wide circle of scholars,
thinkers and judges who had mastered the Arabic language and Islamic
thought. Their highly variegated output in the form of commentaries, jurisprudence, linguistics, and documentation of the history of the region fol-

12
John Hunwick, "The Arabic Literary Tradition of Nigeria," Research in African Literature (2004), p. 2. http://iupjournal.org/ral/ral28-3.html 2004.
13 Zabadiyah, p. 156.
14
Clarke, p. 50.
'1 Hiskett, p. 31.

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ARABICPOETRYIN WESTAFRICA

373

lowed the traditionalmodels that Arab culturehad developed in Arabiaand


North Africa.16

The Arabic language was not only masteredby the Western Sudanese,
they used the flourishinglanguage also to produce high quality academic
and artistic works. This continued until the society began to whither following the invasionby the Moroccanarmy of al-Mansur's,which overthrew
the SonghayEmpirein 1591. The subsequentperiodsaw a decline into stagnationof theonce-flourishing
WesternSudaneseArabicculture.Manycommentators consider the intellectual productionsof this period as impoverished
and lacking the eloquence and lucidity of the earlier models. The works
are typically afflictedby unnecessarycrammingand ingenue expressions.'7
However, this period of stagnation was followed by a resurgence of
Islamic Arabiccultureduringthe dynastyof the West AfricanNigerianreligious reformerShaykh OthmanIbn Fodiye (1837-1903).18 This renaissance
was manifestednot only in Othman'sown writings,but also in the writings
of his brother,WazirAbd Allah Ibn Fodiye, his son, MuhammadBello, and
other writers of that period.19In addition,the reformerShaykh set out for
his people an organisedadministrativesystem that conformedto the previous Islamic administrativesystems in Arabia; he also made Arabic the
official language. Letters exchanged between Shaykh OthmanIbn Fodiye,
the Caliph of Sokoto, and Shaykh al-Kanemiof Bomo, in which the latter
seeks justificationfor the Jihadof the formeragainstthe Bomo people, who
by all historicalaccountswere Muslims, are a clear testimonyto the flourishing of the Arabic languageduringthat period.20
This efflorescenceof Arabicwent beyondacademicand scientificwritings
to the field of creativeliterarywriting,which reachedits peak in the second
half of the nineteenthcentury,particularlywith linguistic usage variationin
lyrical poetry.The remainderof this articlewill thereforeexplore the characteristicsof Arabicpoetryin this region. One characteristicwas that Arabic
poetrybelongedto high culture;that is, it was meantfor elite Arabic schol-

16

17

Zabadiyah, p. 156.
Ibid., p. 157.

18
Shaykh OthmanIbn Fodiye or dan Fodio was the founderof the Sokoto Caliphatein
northernNigeria, 1754-1903. For more details, see MurrayLast, The Sokoto Caliphate(New
York:HumanitiesPress, 1967), p. 3.
19 For more details on the intellectualactivities of this Jihadistleader and the membersof
his immediate and extended family, see Boyd and Furniss' "Moblizethe people" cited in

Stefan Sperl and Christopher Shackle, eds. Qasida Poetry in Islamic Asia and Africa (Leiden.

New York. Koln: E. J. Brill, 1996), p. 430.


20 For more details on this correspondence,see T. Hodgkin ed.,
Nigerian Perspectives
(Oxford, 1975), pp. 261-267.

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ABDULLAH

ars who were able to appreciate poetic composition in Arabic. In Hunwick's


words, "The ability to compose Arabic verse came to be regarded as the
hallmark of the scholar, even if relatively little of the verse output was of
what one might call a literary nature."21
Another feature of Arabic poetry of the period was its vital role in mobilizing support for the Jihadists' religious, social, and political agendas.
Arabic poetry was employed in promoting and defending the Jihadists' militant activities, as well as linking their Islamic reform movement to the
Islamic legacy in order to validate it. The genre of Arabic poetry initially
found an audience in the Islamic elite scholars who had mastered the Arabic
language. Eventually, however, it won the hearts and minds of the Muslim
masses through versified translations into local languages such as Hausa and
Fulfulde, which were heavily influenced by Arabic prosody in their rhyme
and metre. Poets would also occasionally write parallel poems in Arabic and
either Hausa or Fulfulde for the same purpose.22Discussing the qasida in
Arabic, Hausa, and Fulfulde, according to Boyd and Fumiss, "is like looking
into a triangular prism from each of its three sides. At the centre is a group
of writers and translators, warriors and leaders, from a single extended
family under the Jihadist leader, Shehu Usman dan Fodio. The intellectuals
amongst them operated in all three languages, using them for different
purposes."23
Arabic verse preceded Hausa verse, as the earliest written 'ajami Hausa
verse dates from the period of the Sokoto Caliphate.24The fact that the form
of the Hausa verse is closely aligned with the stanza patterns of Arabic
verse and with the metrical patterns of classical Arabic, in addition to its
being a later development, affirms that Arabic poems were the first forms
of written poetry or literature in general in the region.25It is not easy, however, to gain an accurate insight into the origins of Arabic poetry in the
region and its early development. West African Arabic poetry preceding the
tenth century of the Hijrah (16th century C.E.) is not documented, which
makes it difficult to locate authentic poems from that period. The historical
evidence, however, points to a tradition of Arabic language poetry in the
region during that time. The 17th century West African historian al-Sa'di,

21 Hunwick, p. 84.
22 Asma'u Bint
Shaykh OthmanIbn Fodiye was famous for this type of literaryexercise.
For more informationsee Beverley B. Mark and Jean Boyd, One Woman'sJihad (Bloomington, IN: IndianaUniversityPress, 2000), pp. 94, 100.
23 Boyd and Fumiss, in Sperl and Shackle,p. 429.
24Boyd and Furniss,p. 430.
25For more informationabout the developmentof Hausa verse, see Boyd and Fumiss in
Sperl and Shackle, pp. 429-30, and M. Hiskett,A Historyof Hausa Islamic Verse (London:
School of Orientaland AfricanStudies, 1975).

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ARABIC POETRY IN WEST AFRICA

375

for example, describes the ingenuity of Sudanese poets in his time and the
themes they covered, but he does not quote from the poems.26 However, the
fact that al-Sa'di commented on the poets supports the existence of Arabic
poetry during or even before his time. Unfortunately, archaeological or literary evidence has not come down to us.
In his article on the Arabic qasida in West Africa, Hunwick cites verses
composed in Murrakesh in the late twelve century by a grammarian poet,
who seems to have come from Kanem on the northern shores of Lake Chad,
as the first example of the literary usage of Arabic in West Africa.27
Although conclusive evidence is lacking, it is not unreasonable to suggest
that Arabic poetry in West Africa already existed at a time that we do not
know of and cannot be guided to. It is impossible therefore to assert a
definite beginning or define the period during which the poetry developed.28
For these reasons, this article will examine only poems written from the thirteenth century of Hijrah (19th century C.E.) onwards, when the picture of
Arabic poetry in this region is clear and unambiguous. The range of poets
cited is also limited to Senegal and Nigeria, as these countries have the richest traditions of Arabic poetry in the region. The inevitably limited scope of
this research does not allow the inclusion of Arabic poetry in the whole of
the West African region.
West African Arabic poetry included two poetic genres: lyrical (al-shi'r
al-ghind'i) and didactic (al-Shi'r al-ta'limi). Lyrical poetry represents the majority of poems. This genre also includes a wide range of forms, from panegyric (al-madih) to elegy (al-rithd'). Its types include pride (al-fakhr),
description (al-wasf), love (al-ghazal), fortitude (al-hamdsah), militantism
(shi'r al-Jihdd), complaint and nostalgia (al-shakwd wa al-Hanin), occasional poetry (shi'r al-mundsabdt), and encomiastic verse praising the
Prophet Mohammad (al-madd'ih al-nabawiyyah). This would indicate that
poets followed the path of Arabic poetry elsewhere, employing most of the
poetic varieties and motifs tried by the Arabic poets of the Arabian
Peninsula. Due to the limited scope of this article, only two poetic genres
or motifs, the panegyric and the elegy, are explored.
Panegyric
West African Arabic panegyric poetry resembles in style the panegyric
poetry of the famous al-Jahili poet, Zuhayr Ibn Abi Sulma, whose style was
commended by the second caliph, 'Umar Ibn al-Khattab: "He was not rep26
27
28

'Abd al-Rahman al-Sa'di, Tarikh al-Sudan (Paris: Huids, 1898), p. 218.


Hunwick, p. 83.
Ibid., p. 84.

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ABDULLAH

etitious in what he said, and would not praise anyone beyond what the person deserved."29Omar is suggesting that Zuhayr would only applaud a truly
praiseworthy person, unlike some profiteers among the panegyric poets who
were only anxious to fill their pockets with gold and silver. To the West
African poets, praise seems to be an echo of admiration from the depth, of
the soul. Praise was to them an expression of the love of absolute ideals and
the passion for pure values.
The objects of their praise were mostly scholars, intellectual leaders, and
missionaries of Islam who, after Allah, were responsible for the development of religious, cultural, social, and political life in Islamic societies
throughout the region. In addition to this, these poets of praise were themselves of the same calibre as the praised figures. Praise solely to earn money
was a rare occurrence. Local poets who praised in local languages and
dialects spared the West African Arabic poets the burden of earning a living through praise alone. As equals in social status to their praised subjects
and in accordance with African culture, the West African Arabic poets
regarded praise for material gain as demeaning and reserved for local professional praise-makers, who were regarded as belonging to the lowest levels
of society.
Praise of an individual rendered by the West African Arabic poets for
people in high society had a strong political and social impact. Moreover,
the translation of some of these poems from Arabic to the local languages
meant that the impact finally reached the masses.30
The values and ideals for which the Arabic poets of this region praised
their subjects were little different from those for which Arab poets elsewhere
wrote panegyrics. Qualities such as justice, loyalty, courage, generosity,
nobility, pride, and protection of neighbours were attributes that Arab poets
glorified. Above all, however, the Arabic poets of West Africa emphasised
spiritual or religious aspects in their poems, as well as the religious conception of those common values. We can quote here an example by the
Senegalese poet Ahmad 'Ayan Sih31 in which al-Haj Sa'id al-Nfir,32the descendant of the well-known Mujahid Shaykh Omar al-Ffiti, is praised. The
poet says, after the characteristic introductory section, common in classical
29 MuhammadIbn Sallam al-Jumahi,
Tabaqdtfuhul al-shu'ard',edited by M. M. Shikir
(Jeddah:Dar al-Madaniedition n.d.), vol. 1:63.
30To understandthe magnitudeof the impactof the translatedIslamicliteratureand Arabic
verses or qasida to local languages on both clerics and masses, see Boyd and Fumiss, pp.
430-3.
31 Ahmad
'Ayan Sih (b. 1913) was one of the most skillful SenegaleseArabicpoets of the
20th century.He wrote Arabicpoetryof differentmotifs but wrote extensivelyin elegiac and
panegyricgenres, especially, in praiseof the Prophet.
32
al-Haj Sa'id al-Nfr Til was an Islamic scholarwell known in Dakar,Senegal. He was
one of the great shaykhswho wrote extensively in the field of Islamicjurisprudence.

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ARABIC POETRY IN WEST AFRICA

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Arabic Poetry, in which there is mourning for the relics and traces of the
beloved ones' habitation33
Imam Sa'id al-Nfir,
Who swept away ignorancefrom my family and my homeland.
Each of us drew academicdistinction
From his preciousand unmatchedwritings.
He is the light with which Allah the Beneficent
Illuminatedall Senegal with educationand perfection.
0 how wonderfulare these words that his fingerswrote to me,
More preciousthan a necklace of sapphireand pearls.
When he disappeared,all knowledgedisappeared,
Never to returnuntil his return.
He is the refuge, the hero, the master,
And the learnedof all times, in generosityand perfection.
Many poets before had used the qualities the poet describes here. Nevertheless, the excellence of 'Ayan Sih's phrasing from his use of metaphoric
expressions gives the poem characteristics of good poetry in Arabic. The writing is a fluid and breathless outpouring of love and admiration for al-Haj
Sa'id al-Nfir's qualities, such as his outstanding academic merit and his significant role in eradicating ignorance among his people.
Certain expressions such as lahu ta'dlifu ghurin ("he has noble literary
works"), nufrun 'andra bihi al-Rahmdnu jumlatand ("he is the light with
which the Beneficent illuminated all Senegal"), with their elements of exaggeration, are appropriate to the Arabic panegyric in general. Hence, such the
convention of exaggeration does not contradict the claim that West African
Arabic poets give only earned praise, as was mentioned earlier.
The structure of the poem follows the model of the Arabic poem
described in studies by Arab critics such as Ibn Qutaybah al-Daynawari and
Ibn Rashiq al-Qayrawani.34According to these authorities, the Arabic poem
characteristically begins with an introduction professing love, followed by a
lamentation over the ruins left behind by loved ones, such as traces of a
ditch and tent pegs, dry camel dung, and ashes from the cooking pit of an
old campsite. The poet recognises the spot as one where he once enjoyed a
love relationship with a maid from a friendly tribe that had pitched its camp
in the same camping ground.35This is generally followed by a description
of the journey to those ruins and traces of the beloved; the device found is
in both pre-Islamic and Islamic Arabic poetry.
33 For more details on the classical Arabic ode or al-qasidah, see Ilse Lichtenstadter,Introduction
to Classical Arabic Literature (New York: Schocken Books, 1976), pp. 23-27.
34 Ibn
Qutaybah al-Daynawari, al-Shi'r wa-al-Shu'ara' (Dar al-Kutub al-'Ilmiyyah), p. 27.
Ibn Rashiq al-Qairawani, al-'Umdah (Dar al-Bayda': Dar al-Rashad al-Hadithah), Vol. 1:225.
35 Lichtenstadter, p. 24.

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ABDUL-SAMAD
ABDULLAH

In the poem of praise to al-Haj Sa'id al-Nfir above, the Senegalese poet
begins with an introductory section lamenting the traces left behind by loved
ones. The following is an extract:
Is it because of rememberingthose in al-bdn and the al-bdn itself,
Or is it because of rememberingcertaingazelles when you see another
gazelle
That you come to this ruin crying for those who used to live there?
Then give my best regardsto my homeland.
I stay awake all the night, sleepless,
And my night remainsas long as the doves who sing on the branchmake me
sad.
Forget Salma, who offered nothing but a half-waking vision.

Wheneveran easterlywind throughthe cherishedSanliwi touches my cheek,


The tears flow down.
My people blame me, but one like me would never cry over those images,
Except from far away and long years after.
My heart is imprisonedin the dwellings of those who have gone,
But it found nothingexcept remnantsof past events.
I weep for disastersthat still overwhelmme
And keep my eyes awake with tears.
By Him whose light illuminatedthe universe,
Sword of Allah bring back my dignity and make me forget.36
After this introduction, the poet goes on to his main subject, which is
praise of Shaykh al-Haj Sa'id al-Nfir for his knowledge, enlightenment,
guidance, courage for the sake of Allah, and his numerous writings, as we
saw in the previous extract.
Sometimes, however, the poet begins the panegyric with the nasib 'an
amatory prelude', rather than the conventional address to the ruins, before
proceeding to address the object of praise. In his panegyric to Shaykh
Muhammad al-Jilani, the Amir and army commander, the Nigerian poet
Muhammad al-Bukhari, son of Shaykh Othman Ibn Fodiye,37 begins with
expressions of love:38
Umm al-Fadl struckyou with desertion,
And you remainedlike a drunkardamong the people.
I have in my hearta red-hotcoal,
Since she kept me away from reapingher close fruits.
She came up in the palace boasting,with pitch black and silky hair
36 'Amir Samb, al-Adab al-singhdli al-'arabi (al-Jaza'ir:al-Sharkahal-Wataniyyahlil alNashrwa-al-Tawzi', 1978), Vol. I: 115.
37 He was one of the sons of ShaykhOthmanIbn Fodiye and was active in academicand
militaryspheres.He was knownfor his eloquencein Arabiclanguageand wrote manyqasidas
in Arabic.He died in 1849.
38 Mohammadal-Bukhari,
al-Mayl 'aid hubb al-Nisa' (Manuscriptin privatecollection of
Shaykhal-Muntaqaal-Kashnawi),p. 13. For Arabictext, see appendix2.

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IN WESTAFRICA
ARABIC
POETRY

379

And the eyes of a thirstygazelle, with the neck of a gazelle,


A firm shank and a bosom of gems and pearls.
After this erotic and physical description of his beloved, already exploited
by earlier Arab poets, he returns to his purpose in a more conventional
manner:
Forget this, and speak again of the one who crushedour enemies;
The protectorof our homelandand killer of the brave enemies.
The poem continues with praise for his subject's courage, toughness in
war, kindness and softness towards friends, and bitterness towards the
enemy. He praises the commander as abundantly generous, openhanded and
fair, and says that he took over the country with both a sword and courtesy.
Sweet and soft to his friends,
But bitter-tastingto malicious enemies.
A hero, trustworthy,who sacrificeshimself
In the hard days of the battlefield.
In all the tribes there is no match for generosityand intelligence
To Muhammadal-Jilani.
He took over the tribes and their affairs
With his sword, his generosity,his justice and his goodness.
If you come as his guest, as a needy stranger,
The next morningyou will awakenwealthy and well protected.
There is an interesting parallel between the amorous prelude, in which the
poet resists his feelings for the beautiful beloved, and the resistance in warfare that enemies encounter from the praised one due to his courage and
faith.
Although most panegyric expressions are used repeatedly in Arabic
poetry in general, the West African poets extended their meanings through
allusions to the noble principles and values of Islam. These include piety,
frequent reminders of Allah, deep and thorough knowledge of religion care
for orphans, and help for the poor. What the Senegalese poet Dhu al-nun
(1877-1927)39 said in praising Shaykh al-Khidim Ahmad Bamba (18501927) exemplifies this technique.40After the usual passage about the ruins
(al-atldl),41 he shows the position of the Shaykh among the people:
His right hand is so used to giving
That he would not distinguishbetween a man from Ya'murand one from
Ja'far.
39A Senegalese Islamic scholar and Arabic poet of exceptionalpoetic skills and originality (d. 1927).
40 Ahmad Bamba Ambak (1853-1927) was an Islamic scholar, the founding saint of alTariqahal-Muridiyyahin Senegal, and a highly respectedpublic figure of spiritualauthority.
41 For Arabic text, see appendix3.

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380

ABDUL-SAMAD ABDULLAH

With this Sheikh, an orphanis never oppressed


And a beggar never repulsed.
Here the poet alludes to concept mentioned in the Quran: "Therefore,
treat not the orphan with oppression, and repulse not the beggar" (93:9-10).
Hence, although this panegyric poetry is structurally formulaic, it is also
deeply affected by associations of a humane and religious nature. The panegyric also maintains a strong dialogue with a culture that had become a
universal in binding Muslims together as one entity, regardless of differences
of race, language, and land.
Elegy
Elegy is one of the most frequent poetic genres among the Arabic poets
of West Africa. Whenever a scholar or a Muslim leader died, poets would
rush to eulogise him with sad poems lamenting the death of what they saw
as a pillar of Muslim society, a communal society in which everybody
knows everybody else. Thus, the poets invite every member of that society,
which functions as one body whose members integral parts are, to share
their sorrow for the loss of an important part and significant source of inspiration in that communal society. There are many different types of elegies,
such as those for scholars, kings, ministers, fathers, brothers, friends, husbands, wives, and even for cities. The most common elegies are for scholars and friends. An elegy includes lamentation (nadb), commemoration (ta'bin),
and consolation (ta'ziyah).
Elegiac elements are often mixed with praise. This is a fundamental feature deeply rooted in Arabic poetry in general. Indeed, as Ibn Rashiq alQayrawani said:
There is no differencebetween elegy and praise, except that elegy indicates
it is intendedfor a dead personby using "was"or "withhis deathwe lost so
and so", and similarexpressionsto make it known the personis dead.42
In itself, the poetic expressions of Nigerian and Senegalese elegies were
similar to those of the Eastern and Western Arabic poetry, but the West
African Arabic poets further developed the elegy as they did the panegyric
by adding new values with religious dimensions. Among the values stressed
were piety, knowledge, teaching and guiding people to ways of peace,
acceptance of God's destiny for them and for the deceased, total submission
to His will, and the description of this world as illusory. The Nigerian poet

42

al-Qayrawani, vol. 2: 147.

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ARABIC POETRY IN WEST AFRICA

381

Asma' Bint Othman Ibn Fodiye (1793-1865)43 elegizes her friend 'A'ishah,
saying:
To Allah I complainof the many anxieties burieddeep inside my heart;
For the loss of leading scholarsand mastersof religion,
And of my sisters, all friendsof goodness and giving.
The death of my beloved remindedme of those virtuousand righteoussisters
Who have long since passed away.
Righteousand devoutly obedientto the Lord,
Guardingin the absence of their husbandsall that Allah told them to guard,
Makingextra acts of worship.
Greaterwas my distress, loneliness, and longing,
And the tears flowed down my cheeks,
For the loss of the noble A'ishah,
A woman who possessed all kinds of virtues:
RememberingAllah, giving charity,reciting the Quran,
Protectingthe oppressed,
And carryingthe burdenof great responsibilities.
She was the guardianof orphans,
The comforterof widows,
And a pillar of the communitywith her gifts of love and tenderness.44
This elegy suggests that women were very active in West African Islamic
society. Their activities ranged from benevolent activities such as orphanage
welfare and helping the needy and widows, to political activities such as defending the oppressed and defending the weak. This is an indication that women
were active socially and politically, but at the same time did not compromise their roles wives, mothers and sisters. This is an interesting phenomenon that is worth further exploration.
Asma' Bint Othman Ibn Fodiye elegizes the same friend in another poem:
I accept what Allah has decreed;
I only express in my words the right of sisterhood.
There is no sin in making an elegy;
The Prophetwas elegized by Abu Sufyan on the day of his death.
I am crying tears for her out of mercy, longing, and true affection.
The Prophetdid not forbid this;
He only forbadecrying out for the dead with "Oh"and "Ah."45

43 LegendaryIslamic scholar, poet, social and political activist of her time. For detailed
informationregardingthis highly respected and authoritativepublic figure, see Beverly B.
Markand Jean Boyd, One Woman'sJihad (Bloomington& Indianapolis:IndianaUniversity
Press, 2000), pp. 1-61.
44 Asma' Bint Othman cited in al-Wazir
al-Junayd, 'Arf al-Rayihdnft al-Tabarruk bi dhikr

al-ShaykhOthman(Manuscriptin the privatecollection of Shaykhal-Muntaqaal-Kashnawi),


p. 43. For Arabictext, see appendix4.
45 Ibid., p. 45. For Arabic text, see appendix5.

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382

ABDUL-SAMAD ABDULLAH

Her brother, Muhammad al-Bukhari, elegizes his wife:46


0 sister of Ahmad,
Losing you has hastenedmy tears with blood.
Sleep has been drivenaway;
Since your death was announcedto me,
My eyes have not closed.
What a fine girl you were,
Generousand caring for your husband.
Such excellent and perfectbehavior,
Made even betterby beautifulmanners.
He ends with:
By Allah, my eyes still flow with tears
And my heart is full of pain.
But I accept the ruling of the Almighty,the Everlasting.
May the mercy of the Lord of the throne
Be an unendingflow from which you may drink.
Having experienced his wife's generosity and good manners, he finds all
other women undesirable:
With my love for you I need no woman but you,
Daughterof the generous.
Since I lost you,
I see all women as sheep.
At the end of his elegy, al-Bukhari beseeches God to shower mercy on
his wife, but with the metaphor of asking God to allow her to drink of His
mercy. By so doing, the poet indicates the great need of his beloved for the
mercy of God, a need that is similar to that of the drought-stricken land for
water. This also alludes to the Islamic belief that only the mercy of God
ensures life in the Hereafter. The poet also expresses his acceptance of the
destiny given him by God in relation to his wife's death. This is an indication of the deeply rooted religious connotation to be found in the Arabic
poetry of this part of West Africa. God's edicts are actively followed, and
God is considered a force in deciding human destiny. It is worth mentioning that the elegy is the ultimate way of inviting others to share one's grief
over the death of someone who was loved, adored and respected, and who
is sorely missed. Mourning the deceased by expressing one's admiration and
appreciation of his or her merits and of the contribution the person made to

46 Mohammadal-Bukharicited in al-Wazir al-Junayd,'Arf al-Rayhdnfi al-Tabarrukbi


in theprivatecollectionof Shaykhal-Muntaqa
al-Kashnawi),
dhikral-ShaykhOthmdn(Manuscript
p. 23. For Arabictext, see appendix6.

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ARABIC POETRY IN WEST AFRICA

383

the Muslim community in general and to the Islamic cause in particular is


the highest honour that could be paid by the West African Arabic poets.
This article concludes with an elegy by the Senegalese poet Ahmad 'Ayan
titled Dam'at al-Bdki "Tears of a weeping person." This is considered an
elegy for cities (rithd' al-mudun), since the poet mentions countries, cities,
and towns that enjoyed Islam and its culture in the past, and laments what
has become of them since the colonisers seized control. These places include
Mali, Futa, Cayor, Meseigh, Kumbi, Bundu, Anjor, Ghana, Toro, Timbuktu,
Gurma, Hausa, Katsina, and Kano. He also mentions black kings such as
Latjur and warrior-scholars such as Haj Omar Tal. This is a long poem, so
only a few verses are quoted here:
O you who united the people in glory and honour,
Awakeningthem from humilityand destruction,
Stop in Senegal and Sudan
For lamentingwhat they sufferedfor lack of blessing.
There are generationsfrom East and West
That the scholarsunited in Oneness of God.
Today, the enemies split them apart
And unitingthem seems a dream.
Where are the scholarswho once achieved for their religion the entire honour of the world, Leaving nothingfor anyone else?
Where are the kings who were feared by the lions of the jungle,
Where are the good manneredand the pleasantones?
Can you not see that the land is emptiedof the trustworthy,
Of the scholarswith their wealth of erudition?
In Futa there is no one left of the family of Faruqand his children,
Buildersof glory and honour.
Here is Cayor empty of Latjur
And smotheredwith shame.
Meseigh used to be our home
And I had homes throughout Jolof.47

The poet seems to bewail the cities that lost their previous Islamic culture because of the schisms and infighting among Muslims that can be
attributed to the colonisers' divisive plotting against Muslims and Islam. The
poet describes the misfortunes that afflicted the region with the advent of
colonialism. The poem argues that colonial rule has destroyed the people's
minds, value system, political and economic structures, and culture, education, social harmony, religion, and civilisation. Worst of all, in the poet's
eyes, is that the colonial masters destroyed the morals and creativity of the
colonised and implanted the seeds of fear and disunity among them. According to the poet, the colonial subjects' regaining their identity and creativity will be difficult if not impossible, let alone emancipating themselves
47

Samb, vol. I: 117. For Arabic text, see appendix 7.

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384

ABDULLAH
ABDUL-SAMAD

from mental colonisation. He urges the Muslims of the region to unite and
overlook the superficial religious differences that separate them. He also
asks them to be mindful that it is only Islam that can solve their problems.
It is clear that elegies for cities are a form of West African Arabic poetry
with close relation to elegies written in the Islamic East in the aftermath of
the invading Moguls and to elegies for the cities of the former Islamic Iberia
which had fallen to the Christian crusaders.
The Arabic elegiac poems of West Africa have certain features in common, such as the pervasive sense of personal sadness as a basic element.
The poet expresses extreme shock at the loss of the deceased and presents
this as personal sorrow. Abstract sorrow is seldom expressed. However,
there is no departure from Islamic teachings in the elegies for the dead. The
Islamic elegy is submissive to the commands of God. The poet finally goes
back to God to accept the destiny assigned to him by God, as can be seen
clearly in the extracts from the Nigerian woman poet Asma'a Bint Othman
Ibn Fodiye and her brother Muhammad al-Bukhari. Many elegies also begin
with praise of God and vilification of this world, as seen in Asma'a. Likewise,
the Nigerian poet Isma'il Ibn Muhammad starts his elegy to his teacher, the
scholar Shu'ayb, by saying:
Allah is the greatest,
This world was createdfor extinction.
It was not created,my brother,for eternity.48
Other elegies avoid such preliminary introductions and move directly to the
main topic, such as in the extract from Muhammad al-Bukhari Ibn Othman
Ibn Fodiye.49 A single elegy may combine bewailing, eulogy, and consolation, in no particular order. This is a common feature of the elegies of the
West African Arabic poets.

48 Abubakar,p. 357.
49Otherexamplesof poets like Muhammadal-BukhariIbn OthmanIbn Fodiye includethe
NigerianShaykhOmarIbn Ibrahimand the Senegalese ShaykhAhmad'Ayan Sih.

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385

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