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The Crows of the Arabs

The incredible story of Black Arabs who lived in the desert.
The Abdu Review
 

I practically pounce on to my mini coffee table with hungry grumbles that echoed off the walls. I crouch down and wait for the last fifteen minutes. The time is now 7:45pm and I break my fast with three medjool dates and infused cucumber water. Scrolling through YouTube to unwind, I stumble upon The Ansari Podcast. It couldn’t have surfaced at a more perfect time. 


This particular episode interviewed Mustafa Briggs, a Islamic scholar who initially became distinguished for his contemporary lectures on the relationship between African diasporic history and its symbiotic relationship with Islam. 


Immediately, I was sent into a rabbit hole after the mentioning of Aghribat al-Arab– The Crows of the Arabs.


Twenty-four poets from Pre-Islamic Arabia, either of African descent or born to African parents, composed works that reflected the social structures of their time. Lineage, family ties, and membership in clans, septs, and tribes were paramount in determining a man's status. This emphasis on ancestry contributed to Bedouin aristocracy, which encompassed elite tribal chiefs from nomadic Arab groups. Within these structures, hierarchy was established through factors like proximity, shared lineage, or linguistic affiliation. It's important to acknowledge that not all these poets belonged to the traditional Arab-African parentage model; some were exclusively African. 


There are seven Pre-Islamic poets, one being Antar, that have their poems collected in the Mu’allaqāt— otherwise known as The Suspended Odes or The Hanging Poems. Antar’s poems are considered a primary source for early written Arabic poetry. These poems were hung inside the Kaaba at that time. 


He is considered one of the greatest Arab poets of the Pre-Islamic period and he was born from an Ethiopian slave woman named Zabiba. His father was from the Arab tribe of ‘Abs. This poet's love story most likely gave Shakespeare inspiration for Romeo and Juliet— his great love being Abla. Antar’s poems followed epic journeys of his battles proving his love for Abla.


Khufāf Ibn Nadba was made chief of his tribe and was a contemporary of the prophet. Sulayk Ibn al-Sulāka was also from an Arab father and Ethiopian mother. He was known to be someone who pillaged. In their poetry, some addressed themes that may have been seen as transgressive, a potential response to the struggle for cultural identity within a society demanding conformity and overlooking Black experiences. These were foot soldiers banding together, creating their own opportunities. Cast out from the tribal fold, sa'alik poets like al-Shanfara and Ta'abbata Sharran emerged as powerful voices. Despite some, like Habba, maintaining ties with their tribes, these poems, forged in the crucible of the desert's harsh realities, chronicled not only the unforgiving landscape and the struggles for survival, but also the profound sense of alienation that came with being ostracized from their communities. 


Habba often found himself in trouble due to flirting with the tribe's women and being satirical. He was of Nubian descent sometimes referred to as “little blackie”. His actions resulted in a tragic end. His owners killed and burned him. Whenever he was punished and sent to prison, he defied them with courage.

If you imprison me, you imprison the son of a slavewoman,

if you free me, you free a tawny lion.

Prison is no more than the shadow of the house where I live,

and a whipping no more than hide meeting hide.


 

In conclusion, the chance encounter with the "Aghribat al-Arab" during Ramadan unveiled a rich tapestry of African influence within pre-Islamic Arabian poetry. These twenty-four poets, both of mixed and solely African descent, challenged the rigid social structures of their time. Their verses not only reflected the harsh realities of desert life but also resonated with the struggles of identity and societal marginalization.


Figures like Antar, a literary giant whose love story set poetic foundations for Arab literature, and Khufāf Ibn Nadba, a tribal leader, showcased the diverse achievements of these poets. Others, like Sulayk Ibn al-Sulāka, tackled sensitive themes, potentially reflecting the fight for cultural expression within a society that valued conformity.


The ostracized "sa'alik" poets, exemplified by al-Shanfara and Ta'abbata Sharran, channeled their experiences of isolation into powerful verses. Even those who maintained tribal ties, like the ill-fated Habba, faced prejudice. Habba's tragic end serves as a stark reminder of the societal struggles these poets confronted.


This exploration serves as a reminder that history is often multifaceted. The Crows of the Arabs deserve recognition for enriching Arabian literature and demonstrating the enduring power of artistic expression in the face of adversity.


 
brigand - Advanced search results in Entries | Oxford English Dictionary. (n.d.). https://www.oed.com/search/advanced/Entries?q=brigand&sortOption=Frequency

Freer, C. (2022, January 12). 21st century Bedouin politics: Considering the modern power of tribes in the Arabian Peninsula. Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/articles/21st-century-bedouin-politics-considering-the-modern-power-of-tribes-in-the-arabian-peninsula/

Jaakko Hämeen-Anttila. (2006). [Review of Ansāb al-ašrāf, by al-Balāḏurī & Muḥammad al-Yaʿlāwī]. Zeitschrift Der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, 156(1), 213–215. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.13173/zeitdeutmorggese.156.1.0213

Lewis, B. (1985). The Crows of the Arabs. Critical Inquiry, 12(1), 88–97. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1343463

MILLER, N. (2021). Yemeni Inscriptions, Iraqi Chronicles, Hijazi Poetry: A Reconstruction of the Meaning of Isrāʾ in Qur’an 17:1. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 31(1), 125–158. doi:10.1017/S1356186320000589

Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Society. (2020, January 15). P | A | Gril: Love Letters to the Ka’ba - Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Society. Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Society - the Society Promotes a Greater Understanding of the Work of Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi (1165–1240) and His Followers. https://ibnarabisociety.org/love-letters-to-the-kaaba-denis-gril/

The Ansari Podcast. (2024, February 13). E79:The ProphetﷺLost Ring, Pirates of the Caribbean & Crows of the Arabs w. Mustafa Briggs [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fAcHJPxGZG8

Wikipedia contributors. (2023, June 24). Su’luk. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Su%27luk

Wikipedia contributors. (2024, March 16). Bedouin - Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bedouin


Zawzanī, A. I. A. (1900) Zawzani's Commentary on the Seven Suspended Odes. [Beirut: Scientific Library, to 1999] [Pdf] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2021666161/.

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Waw Thank you. very educational. great job. keep posting we need more like this. Thanks


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