The Dubai International Poetry Festival was held the first week of March as a way to open the eyes of the world to poetry and increase global interconnectedness. The festival is significant in a larger religious struggle against fundamentalism and cultural repression in the region as well. Poetry is part of a debate of whether the arts are permissible expressions of worship in Islam.
Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam, has in fact a long and vibrant tradition of poetry, music, and dance. The sufi poet Rumi may sound familiar to foreign ears, for instance. For this reason, sufi tombs are often important cultural epicenters of Muslim communities and have become symbolic of a centuries-long conflict with fundamentalists who have literal understandings of the Koran and want to repress mystical traditions, sometimes violently.
Sufis have been under attack most recently in Pakistan, where the shrine of Rahman Baba has been the target for being a place of idolatry and superstition. According to an article in The Guardian UK Observer by William Diarymple, the shrine of Rahman Baba was blown up earlier this month, just hours after the cricketers in Sri Lanka were attacked. The younger generation of literalists, as Diarymple recounts in stories from Baba’s temple, generally speaking are opposed to poetry and music and calls them unislamic.
These particular groups of youth do not necessarily indicate an inevitable devastation of traditional art forms like poetry in the future. In fact, the television show “The Millions’ Poet” presents an entirely different picture to consider. The show has been called an Arab version of “American Idol,” since performers recite poetry for judges and viewers at home, who in turn vote to determine a winner. In an article from Middle East Online, the ultimate goal of the show differs slightly and:
has been to bring the region’s youth back to its roots by taking the traditions of the Bedouins from the Gulf into the 21st Century by fusing an ancient heritage with modern media tools. This season’s live competition sees 48 poets battle it out through various stages to impress their audiences with their poetry and win the prestigious title of the ‘Millions’ Poet’.
The prize in “The Millions’ Poet” is not only a large stack of cash, but also a symbolic passing of the torch to the narrator of tradition for the next generation. The interesting twist is that the victor could be a Saudi poetress Aydah Al Aarawi Al Jahani. Currently, she is a finalist in the show. You can see her perform in this video:
Producer Mona al Ruwaini joined Public Radio International for an interview about the show and what it means for Aydah to participate despite her extended family’s disapproval. She also says that in the finale:
Ayeda will be competing as one of four poets in the competition. She will be presenting a main poem, and then she will be asked to improvise on the spot to the judges. The judges will be giving her a topic and she will be asked within 2 minutes to recite two lines of poetry about that topic, on the spot.
Local arts festivals and cultural epicenters like the Dubai International Poetry Festival and the shrine of Rahman Baba are important forums for innovation and passing along traditional values, but could television be a new public space for hearing poetry and improvising new poetic forms that articulate modern values? A short history of pre-Islamic poetry on the festival’s site mentions the importance of narrators in passing along the poetic tradition:
There is an important issue related to the famous seven (or ten) poems known as mualaqat. Some Scholars think there is no evidence to prove that it was set high on the walls of Kaaba in Mecca because writing was so limited in that era. In reality, Arabs depended on narrators who used to memorize and narrate good poetry which had imposed itself on them, as Yaqut El-Hamawi puts it. Jahiliyyah poetry was passed down from one generation to another through a series of narrators.
In this original, pre-Islamic set of poems, aesthetics and ethics were passed down and laid out for the next generation. Could the importance of these practices really become lost on posterity as William Diarymple found at the temple of Rahman Baba? Can they be modernized instead? According to producers of “The Millions’ Poet,” the answer is yes. Despite fears about fundamentalism, Aydah Al Aarawi Al Jahani presents a more inclusive evolution of Islamic arts, adding to the mystical tradition a poet from Saudi Arabia, a fundamentalist country in the extreme sense, into the creative mix.
What do you think is the future of Islamic arts? What do you know about the tradition of sufi poetry? Do you have a favorite verse or poem to share? Please leave your thoughts in a comment below or send us an email.