Al-Shanfarā was a semi-legendary pre-Islamic poet, putatively associated with Ṭāif and dying around the mid-sixth century CE, and the supposed author of the celebrated poem Lāmiyyāt ‘al-Arab. He enjoys a status as a figure of an archetypal outlaw antihero, critiquing the hypocrisies of his society from his position as an outsider.
What is known about al-Shanfarā is inferred from the poems which he is believed with confidence to have composed. He seems fairly certainly to have belonged to the Yemenite al-Azd tribe, probably specifically to the Al-Khazraj clan.
Al-Shanfarā attracted a number of pseudo-historical akhbār (reports) in texts like the Kitāb al-aghānī by Abū al-Faraj, al-Anbārī's commentary on the Mufaḍḍaliyāt, mostly focusing on explaining how he came to be exiled from his tribe. He and his companion Ta’bbaṭa-Sharran were thought to be among the few people of pre-Islamic Arabia who could run down an antelope.
Al-Shanfarā is named as the author of a scattering of individual verses as well as a long passage known as The Ta’iyya of al-Shanfarā preserved in the seminal collection of pre-Islamic verse, the Mufaḍḍaliyāt. His works are discussed in at least twenty medieval and early medieval scholarly commentaries.
Al-Shanfarā is most famous for, supposedly, composing the Lāmiyyāt ‘al-Arab. Although its attribution has been disputed ever since medieval times, the memorable first-person figure of the misanthropic brigand celebrating his position on the edge of society that the poem draws has strongly influenced views of al-Shanfarā. We can if nothing else say that if the Lāmiyyāt is a later composition, it positions al-Shanfarā as the archetypal outlaw of a pre-Islamic heroic age, viewed nostalgically from a later era.
Of works considered likely actually to have been by Al-Shanfarā, The Ta’iyya of al-Shanfarā (Mufaḍḍaliyya no. 20) is the most renowned. As translated by Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych, it runs as follows.
- 1. Alas, Umm ‘Amr gathered her resolve and departed;
- she bade no farewell to her neighbors
- when she turned and went away.
- 2. Umm ‘Amr left before us, without warning
- and cast over us the shadows of her camels' necks.
- 3. By my two eyes, she went forth at evening,
- then nighttime and morning;
- then she finished her affairs, and departed and went away.
- 4. How my heart aches for Umayma! After my desire--
- May God grant her a life of ease--she went away.
- 5. Oh neighboress! you are not one to arouse blame
- when she is mentioned, nor one to elicit hatred.
- 6. She stirred my delight, never lowering her veil
- when she walked forth, not glancing left or right.
- 7. At night, after a short sleep, she takes to the neighborwomen
- milk drawn at evening, when gifts are scarce.
- 8. She alights in her dwelling, a place secured from blame,
- when in other dwellings blame alights.
- 9. Modest, as though she had lost something on the ground
- and was intent on finding it; if she speaks to you, she is curt.
- 10. Umayma's mate is not disgraced by her repute;
- when women are mentioned, she is chaste, of high esteem.
- 11. When, in the evening, he goes out, he returns to his eye's delight,
- as a happy man returns, not asking where she's been.
- 12. She was delicate and dignified, full-statured, in full bloom;
- If beauty could change people into jinn, a jinni she would be.
- 13. We spent the night together as if the tent above us were ringed
- in basil, wind-wafted, in the evening, dew-moistened,
- 14. Basil from the lowland of Ḥalya, abloom and redolent;
- from a region untouched by drought.
- 15. Many a fighting band, their bows red from wear, did I call forth;
- he who raids returns at times with plunder, at times without.
- 16. We went out of the river-bed [that lies] between Mish‘al and al-Jabā,
- how far off I led my flock!
- 17. I trek on and on over the earth that will never harm me
- to strike a foe or meet up with my doom.
- 18. I trek on, despite the raid's fatigue and distance;
- each morning and evening bringing me ever closer.
- 19. A mother of many children I have seen feeding them;
- when she feeds them she is niggardly and gives little.
- 20. She fears we will be destitute if she is generous,
- as hungry as we are-how she runs her family!
- 21. It is not that she is stingy with what is in her provision bag,
- but it is because she fears hunger [for us] that she holds back.
- 22. A companion of ṣa‘alik, there is no veil before her;
- she is not hoped for at home till her night-raid is complete.
- 23. A quiver she has of thirty broad-tipped arrows;
- when she spies from afar the first of the foe,
- with excitement she quivers.
- 24. She rushes upon the battle-ready foe, baring her leg to the knee;
- she roves like the he-ass before his herd, circling his she-asses.
- 25. When they panic she lets fly a white cutting [sword];
- she shoots her store of arrows, then draws her blade.
- 26. A keen blade, salt-colored, of unsullied steel,
- cutting, like the ripples of the oft-described pond.
- 27. You see [the swords] swinging to and fro like the tails of
- calves returning from water;
- they have drunk a first draught of blood, and then a second.
- 28. We slew a pilgrim for a pilgrim slain, one leading a beast to
- sacrifice for one with matted hair;
- at Minā where the stones are thrown, in the midst of chanting pilgrims.
- 29. We repaid the Salāmān ibn Mufrij what we owed them;
- for the crimes their hands had committed and their past sins.
- 30. A tribe was congratulated for me, but I brought them no benefit;
- and I became part of a tribe that was not my stock.
- 31. We quenched by [slaying] ‘Abd Allāh part of our burning thirst
- and by [slaying] ‘Awf before the battle-ground when the battle-cry went up.
- 32. When my death comes, I shall not mind;
- my mother's sisters will not weep for me, nor my paternal aunt.
- 33. For had I never stirred from sitting home amid my kin,
- yet death would have come to me between the two tent-poles.
- 34. Let no friend come to tend me; if illness ails me,
- my cure will be to race up Dhū al-Burayqayn's peak.
- 35. I am sweet if my sweetness is desired,
- and bitter when the soul of an inconstant comrade thinks me bitter.
- 36. Disdainful of what I disdain,
- quick to respond to every soul that is inclined to make me happy.
- ‘Abd al-‘Azīz al-Maymanī, Al-T.arā’if al-Adabiyyah (Cairo: Mat.ba‘at Lajnat al-Ta’līf wa al-Tarjamah wa al-Nashr, 1937), 31-42 (most of al-Shanfarā's poetry, excluding the Lāmiyyat al-‘Arab and the Mufaḍḍaliyyah no. 20).
- For editions of the Lāmiyyāt ‘al-Arab, see that entry.
- Fuat Sezgin, Geschichte des arabischen Schrifttums: Bd. 2, Poesie Bis ca. 430 H. (Leiden: Brill 1975), p. 133.
- Wisam Mansour, 'Al-Shanfara's Lamiyyatu’l Arab and the Horrors of Desert Travelling', Ankara Üniversitesi Dil ve Tarih-Coğrafya Fakültesi Dergisi, 45.2 (2005), 45-57 (p. 46 n. 1), http://dergiler.ankara.edu.tr/dergiler/26/1007/12214.pdf.
- Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych, 'Archetype and Attribution in Early Arabic Poetry: Al-Shanfarā and the Lāmiyyat al-‘Arab', International Journal of Middle East Studies, 18 (1986), 361-90 (pp. 367-71), https://www.jstor.org/stable/163382. Fuat Sezgin, Geschichte des arabischen Schrifttums: Bd. 2, Poesie Bis ca. 430 H. (Leiden: Brill 1975), pp. 133-37.
- Classical Arabic Poetry: 162 Poems from Imrulkais to Ma‘rri, trans. by Charles Greville Tuetey (London: KPI, 1985), p. 16.
- Listed in Fuat Sezgin, Geschichte des arabischen Schrifttums: Bd. 2, Poesie Bis ca. 430 H. (Leiden: Brill 1975), pp. 135-37.
- Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych, 'Archetype and Attribution in Early Arabic Poetry: Al-Shanfarā and the Lāmiyyat al-‘Arab', International Journal of Middle East Studies, 18 (1986), 361-90, https://www.jstor.org/stable/163382.
- E.g. Wisam Mansour, 'Al-Shanfara's Lamiyyatu’l Arab and the Horrors of Desert Travelling', Ankara Üniversitesi Dil ve Tarih-Coğrafya Fakültesi Dergisi, 45.2 (2005), 45-57 (p. 46 n. 2), http://dergiler.ankara.edu.tr/dergiler/26/1007/12214.pdf.
- Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych, 'Archetype and Attribution in Early Arabic Poetry: Al-Shanfarā and the Lāmiyyat al-‘Arab', International Journal of Middle East Studies, 18 (1986), 361-90 (pp. 371-73, https://www.jstor.org/stable/163382.