The Pre Islamic Arabic Poem

Mualqat Imru Alqays

Authors Introduction: 

Bill Collins said that poetry provides us with a history of the human heart. Poetry is a record of the inner world of person in a specific time period and culture. In it, is a code that opens for us a world and time we could otherwise never access.

What fascinates me as both a native Arabic and English speaker has been my own journey in trying to understand the Arabic culture through reading old Arabic poems. I have found it striking to read both the original Arabic poems and the Arabic interpretation as well as the the English translation and the English interpretation. In reading the two, I found that they each revealed completely different facets of the same poem. 

Sometimes, in the Arabic interpretations, the Arabs don’t describe something because it is maybe obvious to them (especially in these old translations), and sometimes the English describe things that are not included in the Arabic interpretation. Sometimes the English misses the things that only a native could observe, and sometimes the native takes for granted things, that only the novice could observe. 

What became apparent to me was that there was a space between what the native takes for granted and what the novice misses. It seemed that reading dual translations revealed something new to me about the poetry that I did not know, and I became intrigued by the idea of bringing the two translations together and adding my own interpretation to the works as a native Arabic speaker.  

In this piece I share a close reading of 9 lines of my choosing {1,2,3,4,5,6,9,19,21], to investigate some of the words in Almualqa. I use an Arabic and English translation as well as my own understanding of the Arabic language to make my remarks. 

What I’m interested in is: what can we learn about the perspective and the culture of Arabs through a close reading of the poetry (the unlocking of the words)? 

This piece is meant for an Arab audience. I will not attempt to translate all the verses word for word, but rather I will pick and choose words in certain verses that reveal something interesting and intriguing about the Arabic culture. 

One of the things that I will be paying special attention to is the ways in which words in Arabic often describe states of being/processes/verbs as opposed to the object itself which I think is unique to the Arabic culture. Words in Arabic are not stagnant but descriptive of states. 

For example, in one of the verses you’ll see the word for tear: Abrat, which actually describes the passing through! It means tears, but it doesn’t say tears it uses the image of the process to say tears. In doing so, the words are often creating images in the mind of processes. The idea of emotions therefore are displayed as motions, transitions, states of being and so on. 

This example of the word Abrat, is a wonderful illustration of my point which is that a translation that actually translates the root of the words as opposed to the direct English meaning of the words, might be a much more enriching translation of Arabic poetry. 

Qifa Nabki 

Meaning 1: What’s interesting here is that the Imru Al Qays is talking to possibly two people as indicated in (qifa). This is important in Arabic culture, because in Arabic poetry when someone is talking to another, there is a preference that there be at least two people not one. Talking to two people is more favorable than talking to one, even in friendship. (Imam Abdullah 2019). This I think a reflection of how much the Arabs valued community, and the communal nature of the day-to-day movement within society.

Meaning 2: Additionally, Qifa, should technically end with a noon (Qifan), but it becomes an Alef, as an indication to emphasize and repeat the word Qif (Imam Abdullah 2019).

Meaning 3: noon is a letter that connects to others, whereas Alef does not. So, since the word means ‘stop’, the noon is transformed into an alef as a deliberate choice to further emphasize the stop. Using a letter that stops and doesn’t connect to other letters after it, further reinforces the meaning of the word.  

Through looking at these three interpretations, it seems evident that the letters chosen within a word, have a symbolic reason. Alef looks like a wall and is yours to end the word stop. 


In modern Arabic, mnzl is home and comes from the root to go down (Nzl). In pre-Islamic Arabia, mnzl meant the place where you put your camel and camp. It makes sense that to camp, the camel is the one that must let you down. If you have ever been on a camel, you will know that unlike the horse, the camel must go down itself to let you down. This word for home therefore, cannot be removed from its cultural context where the initial impulse to establish home is co-created with the animal.

Also, what is so poetic is that the modern word for home mnzl, comes from the fact that home for Arabs was wherever they camped. In this sense, we can see that the idea of home, has a transitory feel to it. Home is not one place that you go back to, it changes every time you choose a new place to stay or to ground your feet down in. In other words, home is dependent on your choice of rooting/footing. There is something beautiful about that!


In modern day Arabic, saqt means to fall. In pre-islamic Arabic, Saqt means where the sand ends. It also means what disperses in the air from the fire. We can see that in both those meanings, it depicts an end, or the edges of something (like with the fire). What makes this particularly thought provoking is that the current day word for fall, comes from the tactile and tangible image of sand ending, or the edges of fire dispersing into the air. And so, while this may be a stretch, it seems that the word for fall in Arabic comes not from the image of someone falling as it is in English, but rather, from where they fall into! An in-between space. 


Al-liwa, means sand that bends, circles and spirals. There is a very concrete image to Liwa which is of something that bends. The letter waw is a letter that bends as well. It is also interesting to mention the word law, which means if/suppose, which provokes the visual of something bending, and denote something that could be (if/suppose that). 

Lam Ya’ifu Rasmaha

Lam Ya’ifu means, it was not erased. 

Rasm in current day Arabic means drawing. In pre-Islamic Arabic, Rasmaha, means traces, and specifically means the traces left on the sand from a home that was once there/ a manzel. 

Ya’ifu, in modern day Arabic means to forgive. In this poem, it means to erase, and it is also the same root for forgiveness. This begs the question does the concept of forgiving in Arabic culture mean to completely forget/erase the behavior that required forgiveness in the first place? The connection between forgiveness and erasing/forgetting is really a fascinating one which the poetry connects us with because of how it is using the words.   

Rasm today means drawing, however the drawer in pre-Islamic Arabic was the home itself. The remnants of the home on the sand.  

So the poet here is saying that the mark of the home is still there and is not erased. 

Lama Nasjtha min janoob wa Shamaal: 

This is about the nasj, weaving of the two winds from the north and the south. And what the poet means by this is the following: imagine that there is sand which has the traces of a home that no longer exists, then imagine the wind from the north comes and covers these traces, but then the wind from the south comes and reveals them again since it is going against the wind of the north. So this weaving that the winds make, forms a sort of net on the traces revealing where they were.

The double meaning here is that the love he has for the woman in his heart cannot be erased. 

I also want to add that the word Janoob which means south, goes down phonetically and has the letter waw which reaches down. Whereas the word Shamaal which means north, goes up phonetically and has the letter alif which goes up. It is incredibly how much the way the words sound, and feel is completely intertwined with what they denote and this is uniqe to the Arabic language. 


Alaram are very white gazelles. Aram has a very regal meaning in modern day Arabic language which is derived from the gazelle.


It means a land that has nothing built on it, an empty space. Also the word Yarsoon, means to play and enjoy. Here, there is a double meaning which links space and empty land, with joy and laughter and play and freedom. 


Comes from qa’a which is the land that is leveled. Also, Qa’a Albahr, is the bottom of the ocean. The letter Ayn, has a shape that reflects this bottom, ground concept. 

What is interesting in this verse is that the poet is describing a now barren and empty land where children used to play and laugh and enjoy in, but it is now barren and the only thing that fills it are the white gazelles that look like peppercorns on a field from a distance. This is a beautiful use of language. 


This is a very interesting word, since it means loading up the camel with things to carry. And since the camel is seen as a very patient animal who can withstand/endure a lot of weight and difficulty, the word Tahmal in modern day Arabic also means to endure something difficult. Also the word for pregnant is Hamil, which has a double meaning of carrying something but also enduring. 


Here Matyhum refers to the camels the friends are riding on. What is intriguing is that Mat means to extend/like an elastic that extends. The use of the word mati, to prolong/extend is very interesting for a camel and describes the way that journeys felt at the time… an extension and stretching of time in space. 

La tahlak Asa wa Tajamal: 

Here the friends are saying: don’t perish with pain, and instead be patient. 

The word Asa, which means pain, and also is connected to the word Yas, which means giving up/ surrendering to the pain completely. The association between pain and giving up is very important and revealing of something very particular to Arabic cultural understanding of pain. 

The word Tajamal, comes from the word Jamal (camel) who is known to be a very patient animal. Also it shares the same word with Jameel/jamal, which means beautiful/beauty. We see here the association between beauty and patience, making patience to be something very beautiful. I think this is very unique to the Arabic language. To connect the struggle of patience with beauty.  


Shifaa means healing, shifai means my cure. 

Shfayf means lips! And there is something about lips which can kiss and what we use to drink medicine and to eat food which is connected to the idea of healing.   


This means tears, and it is interesting because Abar (verb) means to pass through/ to cross; and Aber (verb), means to express. Tears are drops that pass through the eyes, and also express emotions. What I find interesting here is again the word for tears does not describe the actual object (the tear) but rather the process and the movement of the object. 


Means to pour. It is similar to the word Muraq which means the passing through/passing by; or Marqa which means the broth that has passed through the chicken and made the stew. 


Means the thing that makes someone cry; the sound of crying; And also means to depend on. Here we see a link between the concept of suffering in Arab culture and dependability or connection. So that the idea of pain is never separated from the idea of connection with another person whom you can express that pain to and who you can depend on to hold, with care, your vulnerability. What makes this significant is the cultural understanding that vulnerability and caring connection are inseparable. To ask for help when suffering, is not a burden or a request for a service, but rather a deep life principle that is integral to the Arab culture.


Means for something to fill up and spill over. In modern day Arabic, faydan is flood; fawda is chaos; fada means to empty, fadaa means space! It is fascainting how all the uses of this world have the connotation of something being filled up so much that it bursts out, and so it is leaving space. 


This word comes from dalal which means spoiling/pleasuring and also connects with daleel (evidence/ proof). Perhaps it connects the idea of showing someone you love them’ proving you love them involves spoiling them/ showing them with affection. 


Again here we see a word that connects to the idea of tajumul/ patience. And here the word connects to the Arabic word Mujamala. Mujamala in modern day Arabic means being polite and going with the flow of someone else without really telling them how you feel/think. It is an act of love, of kindness and of patience with another being. Here the poet is telling her to be patient with his heart and let him down gently if she is going to leave him. 


I find this word to be very interesting. In this line, khaleeqa/ akhlaq refers to mannerisms/ characteristics and comes from the word Khulq which means to create!  The associations of ones mannerisms, with the act of creation almost associate mannerism with something very Godly and profound. And we know that in arab culture, Al-Akhlaq (ones mannerisms) was/is of the utmost importance, and so the association with creation is very relevant. 


Here Sili means to remove, sili also means to bring about joy and ease. So in this one word that means to take away, it also has the dual meaning of (tasali) which is to bring about joy. 


Means clothing but it also means heart. 


Means to unravel, to fall off and also connects with the word suli! 

Here he is saying that if he has bothered his lover with his bad mannerisms, she should unravel her clothing, from his clothing, and let it come apart. The visual here is of yarn attached to yarn then once you unravel it the two bodies in it are naked with each other. I think the use of the word Sili and Tansul is beautiful because they hold the double meaning of taking something away, and also replacing it with pleasure/ the two naked bodies.   

Here in this piece I attempted to explore the space in-between what the Arabic interpretation understands but does not mention, and what the English interpretation does not understand and therefore cannot observe. I would love to explore this further in a larger work of research to continue to unravel what we can learn about the Arabic culture through the words. 


Early Arabic poetry : select poems; edition, translation, and commentary by Alan Jones; Ithaca Press, 2011.

Sharh Almulaqat Alsabu; Imam Hasan bin Ahmad Alzuni; Beirut Lebanon, 2019.