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The Yemeni Sage Al-Humaid bin Mansour:

Between Historical Reality and the Folkloric Imagination

Passion is like the thorn of a Sidarbaum tree, whose tips are stuck in my side.” Al-Humaid bin Mansour

Al-Humaid bin Mansour is a central figure in Yemeni folklore. The poems and stories that are attributed to this wise and guiding personality are widespread throughout Yemen (especially in al-Baydha, Yafa’, Abyan, Shabwa, al-Dhale’, Mareb, al-Jawf and Hadramawt). These poems and stories have also spread north, reaching Ibb, Taiz and the Tehama region. Some Yemeni expatriates have told us that they have heard the sayings of al-Humaid bin Mansour, as well as stories about him, by people from Thaqif in Saudi Arabia.[1] Farther afield, Talal al-Rumaidhi, a Kuwaiti researcher, categorized al-Humaid as a Kuwaiti figure, because his poems are well-known in Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman. Muhammad Aziz al-Arfaj, a researcher, states in his book on the roots of Nabatean poetry that the sayings of al-Humaid spread through the Gulf from Yemen along the coasts, responding to the claim by Talal al-Rumaidhi by proving that al-Humaid was Yemeni because of the popularity and presence of his sayings and poems in many areas in Yemen.[2]

The secret of the importance and centrality of the personality of al-Humaid to the culture of these areas lies in his strong link to agriculture, which was the main pillar of life in these areas. Through agriculture, people were linked to Allah who grants rain and controls winds so that crops will grow and livestock prosper, thus keeping people alive.

Al-Humaid bin Mansour, as a figure in cultural heritage, reflects the feelings of noble Yemeni farmers who treated the land well and coexisted with it in a way that linked their existence, as well as their ideas of existence and non-existence, with it. This coexistence resulted from the experience of the conditions and characteristics of the land and everything relating to it, including the climate and its changes. There is also al-Humaid’s deep social experience and his knowledge of people’s conditions, and how to deal with them. He has been able to convey this knowledge and experience to us through wise sayings and advice attributed to him. In a single sentence, he conveyed to us the life philosophy of simple Yemeni farmers. Of this, we will give two examples. The first conveys his love for the bull that plows the land, as well as his love for fertile land.

If not for fear of admonishment and blame,

I would have called the bull ‘father’,

I would have called the bull ‘the father of my children’.[3]

The second example shows the scope of al-Humaid’s concern and interest in his land and agriculture, reaching the point that he would see it in his sleep every night, spending much time thinking about each detail relating to it.

There is not a single night that I do not dream,

Of the land and all of its length and width.

The words that are used in this line of poetry, naq’ and shajib, mean the different sides or borders of a plot of agricultural land.

The reality of al-Humaid bin Mansour

There have been differing opinions among authors trying to determine the personality of al-Humaid bin Mansour, and whether he really existed or was just an imaginary figure. There are those that believe that he was an imaginary figure, a legend created by the popular imagination, and that everything that is attributed to him is nothing more than accumulated social experience. Others, however, believe that he was a real person who existed; while there are also others who think his existence lies somewhere between these two positions. This group believes that he was a real person who lived in the past, most likely during the 16th century,[4] but that his life and sayings have been exaggerated to the point where he has become a fantastical figure due to additions to his legend over the years. This last opinion might be the most correct and the most in line with the historical reality, as there have been many great historical figures that have become legendary in the popular imagination, which develops and exaggerates heroes and sages.

The era of al-Humaid bin Mansour

Just like historians have differed over whether he existed or not, they have also differed in determining the era that he lived in. Some believe that he lived in the pre-Islamic period, while others believe that he lived during the Islamic period, using as evidence the Islamic names that al-Humaid included in his sayings, such as:

How beautiful this land is, oh Muhammad,

How beautiful every inch of it is.

There are historians that have specified his era more precisely, and they believe that he lived during the 16th, 17th, or 18th centuries. All of these issues were mentioned in al-Khalaqi’s book, which included his opinions and the opinions of those before him,[5] each writer and historian having justifications and explanations to support their views.

The land of al-Humaid bin Mansour

Due to these differences in opinion on his existence and era, they also differed in specifying where he was born and where he lived; Dr Abdulaziz al-Maqalih says: “Some of the people that wrote about Al Humaid bin Mansour did not state more than that he was raised in the eastern part of the country, and this area can be defined as extending from Oman to Aden.”[6] This statement is vague, and it does not precisely specify the area where al-Humaid and his poetry are the most popular.

Omar al-Jawi states, “He is a farmer from the area to the east of the city of Al Baydha, or so it seems from his sayings and the names that he used.”[7] This aligns with the beliefs of some residents of the eastern and western parts of the middle areas that al-Humaid is from the Bani Hilal clan in the area of Markhah, or that he is from the area between Saroum in al-Baydha and Khawrah in the Shabwa governorate.[8] The area of Markhah is where some researchers believe the al-Humaini style of poetry originated, which is a melodic style, well-known in many areas in Yemen.[9] Al-Humaid’s origin is mentioned by some of the statements attributed to al-Humaid himself, where he mentions his lineage in the beginning of some of his poetry:

Al Humaid bin Mansour, the son of Al Zayed Al Hilali…

There are many people in these areas who believe that he moved around in the areas of al-Baydha and the surrounding region. In his book, al-Khalaqi’s states that al-Humaid moved around between Markhah and al-Hajar, west of al-Madhba, where he lived among the people of Barman, members of the al-Humaiqan clan.[10] It seems that al-Humaid, as an individual or a body of work, moved around a lot, as we find his poetry in areas ranging from Hadramawt in the east and to Rada’a in the north. There are also many areas in the al-Baydha governorate that were mentioned in his poetry in passing, including the areas of al-Zaher, al-Haykal and Radman. Among his poems is the following:

Oh, those who say that they have fertile land,

The fertile land is the land of Al Yazidi,

The land of Na’wah and Mirdas,

Where a head of corn fills a whole bag,

And a row of plants yields a large crop.

Na’wah and Mirdas are well-known agricultural areas in al-Baydha, known for the quality of arable land.

He also praised the generosity of some of the people of these areas, such as a man named al-Khushaibi, who was said to have resided in al-Haykal before he moved to Rabat al-Awadhil near Mikayras. Al-Haykal is known for the quality of its arable land. Among al-Humaid’s poems is:

Oh, you who are traveling by Al Khushaibi,

To Abu Ali, who always stands with his neighbors,

I spent a year as a neighbor to his home,

And I never had to even light a fire in mine,

Whoever sees the pile of wheat next to his house,

Will believe that this is a carpenter’s shop,

A busy and hardworking carpenter.

He also talks about Radman:

Everyone goes back to his home,

And my home is far,

Far, after Radman,

And after a valley beyond Radman.

Al-Humaid bin Mansour and other famous sages

Artwork by Rofaida Ahmed

Al-Humaid’s legend has become mixed with other wise individuals famous in Yemeni history. There are people who confuse al-Humaid and Ali Walad Zayed, another famous individual, especially in the northern highlands (in Dhamar, Sana’a, Amran, Al Mahwit, Hajjah and Saadah). There are also those who confuse al-Humaid and Abu Aamer, famous in Hadramawt and the surrounding areas. It is much more common, however, for people to conflate al-Humaid and Ali Walad Zayed because of the similarity in statements and the similarity of their images in the minds of people living in areas in the east, middle, and northern highlands of the country.

There is another figure who is directly and closely linked with al-Humaid, someone even considered to be a contemporary among many of the people of al-Baydha, Yafa, al-Awadhil, and Shabwa. This figure, Sharqah bin Ahmad, is not usually mentioned without al-Humaid being mentioned alongside him, and there are older people who say that Sharqah was close to al-Humaid.

Anyone who contemplates the sayings of Sharqah and al-Humaid will find that they are different individuals, and that each worked in different fields of agriculture. Al-Humaid specialized in plowing, and he had sayings and a general philosophy on life based on this. Sharqah, on the other hand, specialized in getting water out of wells and irrigating crops, known as water-fetching and irrigation. This is confirmed by farmers in the areas where the sayings of the two sages, Sharqah and al-Humaid, are most popular.

Anyone reading deeply into the sayings of al-Humaid will find that they included all aspects of people’s lives. Due to the limitations in the article format, we only present the sayings where al-Humaid disparaged sedition and war, and the catastrophes and unending sorrow that result from them.

Oh, may you not live, the starter of war,

You who are always lighting its fire,

War, in the beginning, is easy,

But then it quickly gets bitter.

A bitterness that kills good men,

And then you are stuck in battle after battle.

In this poem, he prays for the death of those that start wars, because war, in his opinion, is like a fire that burns everything. This is not a strange point of view for him to have because, after all, he was a farmer, and would have preferred stability and security.

He starts the verse by praying that they do not live, and the way that he states it, by starting with ‘may they not live’, followed by a call, ‘Oh, those who start wars’, confirms the depth of his hatred for those who start conflict. He prays for their death in order for others to live and have security and stability. This implies that, in the death of these individuals, there will be life for coming generations, and he uses this method of calling upon them to reiterate the distance between the author of the verse and these  people.

Al-Humaid also expressed pain and sympathy for the victims of wars, and reminds them that, no matter how bad things get and how severe the suffering is, wars end:

After war, things get better,

But pity the one who died in it.

Al-Humaid, however, does not call for cowardice or weakness, and, in another verse, he tells his son to always stand up for his tribe, especially those who are too weak to stand up for themselves, and to support them when they are oppressed or wronged. He says:

Oh, Muhammad, my son, I will give you advice,

I will give you four pieces of advice:

The first: Prepare yourself and go out to support those that call for your help,

The second: Fight for those that come to you for shelter before they are killed,

The third: To your guest, quickly give them food, even if all you have is little,

The fourth: With a bad woman, divorce her before she gives birth,

Before she gives birth to a daughter that is not raised well.

The position that he takes in this verse does not mean that al-Humaid calls for war, but that he does not want his son to commit an act of shame in the eyes of his community, especially since this is a community based on social solidarity, standing up for the weak, and standing against shame and oppression. Here, he is not defending war, but he is telling his son to answer the call of those in need. We find other statements in al-Humaid’s verses that confirm this:

If my friend is courageous, then I am courageous,

And if my friend will let me down, I will be let down.

The dialect that he uses in the verse advising his son changes in the second piece of advice that he gives him, changing into an imperative form for his son. Here, he is not just advising him, but giving him a direct order to fight with those seeking his shelter or support. The word that he uses, al rabee’, means someone who comes from outside an area or a tribe and asks for support and shelter.

In the third piece of advice, he tells his son to be quick in being gracious with a guest, even if he has little food to offer, and to be hospitable as soon as the guest arrives.

The fourth piece of advice is considered the most important, because it concerns the most important part of the family: the wife. A woman is the main pillar of society, and al-Humaid expresses this in another verse:

If the main pillar of the home is good,

Then all other concerns will be solved.

If the main pillar of the home is bad,

Then everything else is lost.

Al-Humaid does not ignore emotions, especially love, and he has suffered from the pain of love and passion:

Passion is like the thorn of a Sidarbaum tree, whose tips are stuck in my side.

Al-Ulbi or al-Alab is also known as the Sidarbaum tree,[11] or the Christ’s thorn jujube, and it is known for having sweet fruit and sharp thorns. The thorns are known as al-dhalouq, understood to be very sharp. Here, al-Humaid compares passion to the thorns of this tree, which, upon pricking the body, can only be removed with a lot of pain.

One concludes, upon studying the sayings of al-Humaid, that they reflect his experience of many aspects of people’s daily lives. His sayings are different from those of Sharqah bin Ahmad in terms of the content and method used; each individual has their own unique style.

Sharqah’s sayings are focused with the songs sung during crop irrigation, and his sayings are mostly limited to this topic.[12] This is confirmed by his following saying:

A measure of water is better than a measure of gold. The gold finishes, in the end, while the water will grow crops.

Artwork by Rofaida Ahmed

Water, to Sharqah, is priceless, and more valuable than gold. He illustrates this by saying that, in the end, no matter how much gold one has, it will finish, whereas the benefits of water do not end (producing grain). Water is the real wealth to Sharqah, and that is why he does not need many others, except for the artisans who make irrigation tools. This is confirmed when he says:

Sharqah says I do not owe gratitude to anyone, except for the blacksmiths and makers of the well buckets.

This shows that he does not value many people, and he values those that work in certain professions, such as blacksmiths, and those who make buckets for wells. He loves and respects them and feels that he owes them.

The job of irrigating crops is not easy nor comfortable. Those that work in this field are always exhausted; they love the sound of a thunderstorm promising rain, which means they can stop working on irrigating their crops. Sharqah says:

Let me hear the thunder, not the sound of the well buckets.

It should be noted that there are differences in style between the way that the sayings of al-Humaid are written and the sayings of Sharqah bin Ahmad. Al-Humaid, with regards to the prosodic meter that he uses, organizes them in accordance with the bahr al-mujtath form. This is the form that all of his sayings are in, and he starts them off with “Al-Humaid bin Mansour said”, which is the style of poetry used in the areas of the al-Baydha governorate, Yafa, Shabwa, al-Awadhil, Dathinah, and the areas surrounding them. Poets use this style, and examples are:

Ibn Abdulnabi Salem said…

and

Qassim Muhammad said…

Sharqah bin Ahmad, on the other hand, does not start in this manner, and he starts directly with his name in some cases. These sayings, in many cases, are wise sayings that are often repeated by people. An example of this is:

A measure of water is better than a measure of gold.

With regards to the meter of this line, it is in the bahr al-rijz form, and it is sung during irrigation to encourage the cows or camels to work faster in getting the water out of the well. It is also considered like the songs that were sung during the travels of a caravan in the desert. This shows that the sayings of Sharqah were more basic.

In conclusion, al-Humaid bin Mansour is more famous that Sharqah bin Ahmad, and the areas where his sayings are popular and well-known are much larger than the areas where Sharqah bin Ahmad, or even Ali Walad Zayed, are known. Al-Humaid bin Mansour and his sayings are known over vast areas, unlike Sharqah bin Ahmad, whose sayings are limited to specific areas. As for the quantity of their sayings, al-Humaid has many more well-known sayings than Sharqah.

Authors’ Biographies

Photo Courtesy of the Author

Ahmad Abdullah Hambaj is a lecturer in the College of Education in al-Baydha University. He has worked in linguistics and anthropology, focusing on folk heritage in al-Baydha governorate and other  regions. His Masters’ thesis, which is currently being published as a book, is called ‘Terms Used in Social Life in al-Baydha Governorate: A Phonological and Semantic Perspective’. Currently, Ahmad is writing his doctorate dissertation at Sohag University in Egypt in the field of linguistics.

Photo Courtesy of the Author


Abdullah Ahmad Hussein
is a lecturer in the College of Education in al-Baydha University. He  teaches folk literature and linguistics, and focuses on collecting and studying folk heritage in al-Baydha governorate and the surrounding areas. He has a manuscript on the field of folk literature in al-Baydha. Abdullah is currently working on his doctorate dissertation at Taiz University on Yemeni novels.

 


[1] Interviews conducted by Ahmad Hambaj with expatriates from the al-Humaiqan area on 7 September 2019.

[2] See Muhammad Aziz al-Arfaj, The Roots of Nabatean Poetry: The Art of Chanting and Meter, the Origin of Nabatean Poetry, the Stages of Its Development, and It Being Influenced by Al Humaini and the Sufi School, Dar Hamaleel for Printing and Publishing, Abu Dhabi, 2015, pg. 195 – 197. In Kuwait, they add an ‘i’ to his name, and call him al-Humaidi bin Mansour.

[3] These verses and others praising bulls used for plowing by al-Humaid can be found in the book by Ali Saleh Al Khalaqi, The Sage Farmer Al Humaid bin Mansour: His Life and Sayings, pg. 67, and also pg. 62 to 70.

[4] Ali Saleh Al Khalaqi, The Sage Farmer Al Humaid bin Mansour: His Life and Sayings, pg. 15.

[5] Ali Saleh al-Khalaqi, The Sage Farmer Al Humaid bin Mansour: His Life and Sayings, pg. 15

[6] Colloquial Poetry in Yemen: A Critical and Historical Study, Dar Al Awdah Beirut, 1978, pg. 379

[7] Al-Hikmah Magazine, First Edition, December 1971, pg. 46

[8] Ali Saleh al-Khalaqi, The Sage Farmer Al Humaid bin Mansour: His Life and Sayings, pg. 12

[9] Hussein Muhammad al-Hadar, The Biography of Muhammad bin Abdullah Al Hadar, Al Hadar Institute for Religious Sciences, Al Baydha, Third Edition, 2005, Book 1, Pg. 63, footnote 1. Al-Hadar believed that al-Humaid bin Mansour is the legend embodying Yemeni farmers, and you can find these statements in the same book, page 275, footnote 1.

[10] Dr. Ali Saleh al-Khalaqi, The Sage Farmer Al Humaid bin Mansour: His Life and Sayings, pg. 27

[11] The scientific name of this tree is Ziziphus spina-christi, and it is also called the Sidarbaum.

[12] See a number of the statements of Sharqah in the book The Sage Farmer Al Humaid bin Mansour: His Life and Sayings by Dr. Ali Saleh al-Khalaqi, pg. 108. The author wrote a whole appendix on Sharqah bin Ahmad, from page 104 to page 111, and this is the most that has been written about Sharqah bin Ahmad.

العربية (Arabic) : هذا المنشور متوفر أيضا باللغة

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