Strong resolves come in proportion to men of determination,
and noble deeds come in proportion to magnanimous men.
Little things are deemed great by little minds,
while grave calamities pale into insignificance in the eyes of the great.
Al Mutanabbi – excerpt from a panegyric
Abu al Tayib Ahmad ibn Hussayn, AKA Al Mutanabbi (915 – 965) is the most influential and prominent Arab poet, and his verse is widespread and proverbial throughout the Arab world. Most of his work was odes to patrons, but he was an egomaniac who managed to turn a significant portion of his panegyrics into odes to himself, his talent, and his courage. However, he crafted it with such consummate skill and artistry that he is commonly deemed to have attained a pinnacle unequaled in the Arabic language before or since.
He exhibited a precocious talent for verse that won him a free education. During his childhood, the Qarmatians, a heretical cult that combined Zoroastrianism and Islam, began pillaging the Middle East, and in his teens, the budding poet joined them. Claiming to be a Nabi, or prophet, at age 17 he led a Qarmatian revolt in Syria. The rebellion was suppressed and its teenaged leader was captured and imprisoned until he recanted two years later. The Nabi claim earned him the derisory nickname Al Mutanabbi, or “would-be prophet”, by which he is known to history.
After his release in 935, he became a wandering poet, traveling around the region’s courts and composing poems in praise of their rulers in exchange for patronage. Poems praising patron in exchange for patronage have a long history that cuts across cultures. From ancient Sumer through ancient Greece and Persia, and among the Anglo Saxons, Arabs, Vikings and others, bards and poets sang and recited for supper. But when they sought richer fare, the surest ticket was to compose something that flattered a wealthy and powerful figure.
Al Mutanabbi was often handsomely rewarded with gifts of cash, but his greatest hope was to get appointed a governor. He impressed as an unsurpassed poet, but did not impress as a potential governor as his personality was prickly and his overweening pride was often off-putting. Such traits, combined with the dramatics frequently accompanying creative genius, gave his patrons pause, and his ambitions of ruling a province were never fulfilled.
The flip side of Al Mutanabbi’s praise was his propensity to compose devastating verse insulting those who rubbed him wrong – typically rival courtiers competing for a patron’s attention, but sometimes patrons who failed to reward Al Mutanabbi as richly as he thought he deserved. Such insulting poetry got him killed in 965, when one of the victims of his verse waylaid him near Baghdad. Outnumbered, he sought to flee, but when the pursuers derisively recited some of Al Mutanabbi’s bold lines boasting of his courage, he was stung into turning around to live up to his verse, and was killed in the ensuing fight.