There is a Yemeni poet from pre-Islamic times, considered to be one of the first poets, who is famous for his marvelous poetry, even if not many poems remain. His wise sayings are popular among the people, in poetry or in prose, and books on heritage and history say that he was one of the greatest of the old poets of pre-Islamic times. He is the sage of Madhaj, one of its most prominent poets, and also one of its leaders. All previous writers who wrote about his poetry praised it and the pride and wisdom that it showed. His poetry is considered a resource on the correct usage of the Arabic language, and many linguists and grammarians have used his poems to illustrate the Arabic language. Some consider him to be a member of the first class of pre-Islamic poets, while others have claimed that he is the first to write poetry in the form that it is written in now, or the first to write Arabic poetry. Some think he lived a very long life.
His name is Sala’ah bin Amr bin Muawiyah bin Awf bin al-Harith bin Awf bin Munbih bin Awd bin Saab bin Saad al-Ashirah, from Madhaj. His teknonym is Abu Rabi’ah.
There were many who wrote about him and his poetry who were mistaken about his lineage, putting Malik in the place of Muawiyah, and this is a misconception that is a result of not understanding a famous line of poetry that was written by al-Afwah, which is:
My father is a warrior known for his magnificent steed, if trouble starts he deals with it seriously.
The reality is that Amr bin Malik is his shortened lineage, for Malik is not the poet’s grandfather, but an ancestor, and he is Madhaj, because this is the title. Madhaj, the progenitor of the Madhaj tribe, is named Malik bin Adad bin Zaid bin Kahlan bin Sabaa, and this is what was stated by Ibn al-Kalbi.
There have also been people that have believed that al-Afkal is his title, but the truth of the matter is that this was the title of his grandfather, Muawiyah, while the title of the poet himself was al-Afwah, because he was a glorious orator. Ibn Janni said: “They said that he was very well-spoken when he talked, and he spoke what was on his mind. This is why they named him al-Afwah al-Awdi.” Some of the people who have translated his poems have claimed that he was named al-Afwah* because of his big lips and prominent teeth. As one writer notes:
“This explanation is not based on any evidence, except for the fact that al-Afwah could carry that meaning as well. Those who worked on his poetry in the past did not mention this explanation. Ibn Al Kalbi (204 Hijri), in the book Nasab Ma’d Wal Yaman Al Kabeer, did not mention this meaning of his title, and he was always very interested in the meanings behind titles and nicknames. Similarly, Ibn Habib (245 Hijri) wrote a whole book about the meanings of poet’s titles and nicknames, and he did not mention this strange explanation of his title when he mentioned Afwah Awd. There is also Abu Al Faraj (365 Hijri), who agreed with the two writers mentioned above. This explanation was presented by Al Aini, who came to this conclusion because of the linguistic root meaning of the word. Al Aini had audacity, and a bad reputation for attributing unsaid poetry and providing the meanings behind titles, so his statements cannot be taken seriously. The poet was given the title Al Afwah because of his eloquence and wisdom, which is proven by the poetry and prose that we have of his that supports this theory.”
Al-Afwah was a great leader among his people, and Abu Al Faraj al-Asfahani said, from Hisham bin al-Kalbi, from his father, who said:
“Al Afwah was one of the main poets in the old times, during pre-Islamic times, and he was a great leader among his people. He led his tribe during their wars, and they would follow his guidance. Arabs consider him one of their sages, and his poem, Daliah, which starts with: ‘Among us are those that have not built anything great for their people, and if anyone else among their people rebuilds what they have ruined, they return and ruin things again’ is considered one of the wise sayings of the Arab people and their literature.”
Critics and historians have praised al-Afwah’s position in his tribe, and he is considered to be a famous and powerful warrior of the Arabs.
The tribe of Awd is a part of the clan of the sons of Saad al-Ashirah, and the tribe is made up of the descendants of Awd bin Saab bin Saad al-Ashirah bin Madhaj. The tribe of Awd resides in the middle of Yemen, or what was called Sarw Madhaj and is now located in the south and southeast of the al-Baydha governorate. Al-Hamdani describes the Arabian Peninsula:
“Al Shuhd is their fortress, and there is great abundance around it. Al Sir, Nawas, and Abayah are also around it, and they have a fortress known as Al Hadhmiyah. They have many livestock and animals, and all of these areas are the areas of Bani Zayed bin Hay bin Awd. The Na’wah Valley is the area of Bani Manbih, who are the brothers of Bani Katif and Bani Qais from the Bani Awd clan, who are the relatives of Al Afwah Al Awdi. This area has very fine places in it. The Khawdan Valley is the area of Bani Af’a in Al Sarw, who are also from the Bani Awd clan and they are the family of Muhammad bin Al Sindid, while the Dhu Wathan Valley is the valley of the Bani Af’a as well.”
Among these areas, the poet lived in Wadi Na’wah, which is located in the present day area of al-Zaher al-Humaiqan.
Despite most historians agreeing that he is a poet who lived during pre-Islamic times (except for Blachère, who, in his book The History of Arabic Literature, states that the poet lived during the beginning of the third century Hijri, or the ninth century AD), they have also greatly differed on his exact era, as well as the date of his death. Some of them have claimed that he was the first poet, and that he came before al-Muhalhel. Al Sayuti said in Al Mazher: “Omar bin Shabbah said regarding the classes or categories of poets…that some people have claimed that al-Afwah al-Awdi came before all of the poets, and that he was the first to compose poems.” Some of them have exaggerated how long ago he lived, saying that he was alive during the time of Christ, and Louis Cheikho believed that the poet died around 570 AD, or around half a century before the Hijrah. Khair al-Din al-Zarkali began with agreeing with Louis Cheikho on the date of al-Afwah’s death, but then he reconsidered and raised questions about the date, saying that “He might have died a while before this date.” Regardless, he was one of the earliest poets, with most critics claiming he was amongst the first class of poets.
The first to ever collect his poetry into one collection was Abdulaziz al-Maimani in Miscellaneous Literature, which was supervised in its publishing by the Egyptian writer Ahmad Ameen. Al-Afwah’s poetry had been in separate books until al-Maimani changed that. Al-Maimani had history in publishing the poetry of al-Afwah and introducing readers to him. It seems that al-Maimani edited and revised the manuscript a number of times, adding poetry and organizing it better, until he finished what he believed to be al-Afwah’s poetry collection on 8 July 1936. Al-Maimani stated that he had benefitted from an old text that he found that included nine poems by al-Afwah on five pages. He said that he had also benefitted from the poems that were collected by Krenkow from verses in Lisan Al Arab and others.
Critics and historians agree on al-Afwah’s position in the field of poetry, and they believe that he surpasses other poets in using words and descriptions that no one had used before him, which shows that they were in awe of his poetry. They believe him to be one of the preeminent pre-Islamic poets. Al-Afwah addressed a number of issues in his poetry, including pride, wisdom, descriptions, and complaints. His three most famous poems are Daliah, Ra’iyah, and Lamiah.
Daliah is his most famous poem, and it is considered a source of wisdom and a great piece of literature for Arabs, and also has important pieces of wisdom and knowledge of politics. In it, he says:
Among us are those that have not built anything great for their people, and if anyone else among their people rebuilds what they have ruined, they return and ruin things again.
They do not listen to advice or guidance and do not value those that advise them, for folly and ignorance are the two main characteristics that they have,
They are like Luqaim in his tribe, when he destroyed his people and what Aad, his tribe, had done,
Or like Qudar who came after him, he led his people down the wrong path and they were destroyed,
A house cannot be built without pillars, and the pillars are worthless if they are not strongly embedded in the ground,
And if you have these pillars, and they are embedded deep into the ground, and you have good people living in the house, then things will be good.
If the people who based their decisions based on wisdom and knowledge, then it will be easy to achieve the interests of the tribe.
People’s conditions will never be fixed if they do not have wise people leading them, and there will never be wise people leading them as long as the ignorant are in positions of power.
Matters should be left to the wise, and then things will be good, otherwise evil people will come into power and lead.
If the best members of a tribe are in charge of their tribe, their tribe will grow, as will their importance.
It will only lead to negative results if, when making an important decision, the opinions of the ignorant are taken with the same weight as the opinions of the wise.
For how can we ever be guided or on the right path, if the wise of us are marginalized and not allowed to lead.
The people that give the most ignorant of them power to lead will soon find themselves in a lot of trouble.
It is time to leave to a better people, even if they are far, because they are in a better state and listen to guidance,
I will travel and the distance of the whole world between us, even though we are blood relatives and share a home.
Freeing oneself from this kind of situation is the best solution, and whomever finds himself in a similar position should leave it.
For people always want more of that which is good for them, and they never want any additional evil to affect them.
Among his boasts is a famous poem called Raya, and it starts:
If you see head becoming bald…!
This is a long poem, and there is a part in it where he says:
We are Awd, and Awd is well known. We have never been lacking in honor and pride.
Our pride has been passed down to us from Madhaj, before there was ever a lineage from Nizar in the north.
Our domain is an ancient one, and our forefather is the best from out of the Awd clan,
What we have was built on power and war,
We are Midhhij, and compared to others it is like night and day.
Also, among his wisdom and complaints about the times that he was living in is the following saying:
I have gotten to know people, generation after generation, and I have only known frauds and haters.
I have known bitterness in all things, and there is nothing more bitter than being doubted.
And I have never known sayings worse and more difficult to bear than animosity from men.
These are very well-known verses, and some have taken them to show that he lived to an old age.
Among his most eloquent poems and most magnificent boasts is his famous poem where he shows his pride in himself and in the tribe of Qahtan, and he admonishes them for ruining the reputation of their grandfather by neglecting their duties and by becoming divided. He says:
I am of the leaders of Madhaj, and its upper class, and I am a generous man, from a lineage of generous men.
Tell Madhaj: “Go back to your origin and honor,” and if they do not heed this advice then all will be lost.
Honor, pride, and glory was of Yemen and Qahtan, but today I see it in the Levant in the lineage of Nizar.
How great Himyar would be if it united with Madhaj, and how great Madhaj would be if it united with Himyar.
Some of the books that tackles Arabic literary tradition mention some of his prose work, and they include many gems of wisdom, including:
“Trial brings experience, good behavior is good support, and not having good behavior only brings harm. Spend your time with those who are chivalrous or strive to be so, and do not spend time with evil doers because then you will be lost. Rejecting these kinds of people will only bring good. Being wise and evil-tempered saves you from anger, and indecency keeps you from being aware. Falling to temptation does not allow one to be constructive, and one of the best things that someone can do is to say good things.”
His poetry is also valuable for literature and language because he is one of the first to use certain meanings. Al-Askar said: “He is one of the first to compare a horse’s hoof to a stone.” Ibn Qutaibah said about the poem Raya¸ which begins “If you see my head becoming bald”, that it is one of the best poems written in Arabic. Some people have raised suspicions about this poem being written by him, and al-Jahiz stated in his book Kitab Al Hayawan that this poem was attributed to him but was not his. Because of the popularity of his poetry and his eloquence, we find that some of the best poets borrowed some of the imagery that he used.
As for the linguistic value of his poetry, this can be clearly seen as one often finds old dictionaries using dozens of his works as examples of usage. Ibn Mandhour, for example, used more than 40 verses that were written by al-Afwah as examples, and, in most of them, he mentioned that the writer was al-Afwah. He used some of the verses multiple times to explain other words from the same verse.
Yaqout al-Hamawi often used his poetry to illustrate the correct usage of grammar, and if he could not mention the exact location, he only said, as an example, that this had been used by al-Afwah.
Alwi Ahmad al-Malgami is Yemeni poet and writer residing in Egypt.
* Translator’s Note: Having a prominent mouth.
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A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)