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  • From Jāhiliyyah to Badīciyyah:Orality, Literacy, and the Transformations of Rhetoric in Arabic Poetry
  • Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych (bio)


This essay1 offers a speculative exploration of the transformations in the form and function of rhetorical styles and devices at three distinctive points of Arabic literary history. It takes as its starting point the mnemonic imperative governing the use of rhetoric in pre- and early Islamic oral poetry and proposes that in the later literary periods rhetorical devices, now free of their mnemonic obligation, took on further communicative or expressive functions. It then turns to the effect of literacy on the “retooling” of the no longer mnemonically bound rhetorical devices to serve as what I term the “linguistic correlative” of Islamic hegemony as witnessed in the High cAbbāsid caliphal panegyrics of the rhetorically complex badīc style. Finally, it attempts to interpret what seems to modern sensibilities the rhetorical excess of the post-classical genre of badīciyyah (a poem to the Prophet Muḥammad in which each line must exhibit a particular rhetorical device) as a memorial structure typical of the medieval manuscript (as opposed to modern print) tradition.

Rhetoric as Ritual in the Early Arabic Qaṣīdah

The Arab-Islamic literary tradition is rooted in the pagan era that preceded the advent of Islam, termed the Jāhiliyyah, the Age of “Ignorance” or “Impetuousness.” The preeminent literary form was the qaṣīdah, the formal mono-rhymed and mono-metered polythematic ode of praise, boast, invective, or elegy, as practiced by the warrior aristocracy of tribal Arabia and in the courts of the Arab client-kings to the Byzantine and Sasanian empires. Dating from around 500-620 CE, these odes, as the tradition tells us, were orally composed and transmitted, and were not put into writing until the massive tadwīn movement of collection and compilation of the second and third Islamic centuries—ca. 750-800 CE—based on the oral transmission of Bedouin informants. The oral-formulaic nature of these poems in terms of the Parry-Lord theory was definitively demonstrated by James Monroe (1972). Although Monroe is concerned primarily with identifying and quantifying verbal formulae rather than with issues of mnemonics as they affect transmission, he also addresses the need to modify elements of the Parry-Lord theory, especially in regard to the composition and memorization of the short lyrical, and therefore more textually stable, Arabic ode. The pre-Islamic Arabic qaṣīdah situation is not, as Monroe well realized, one of poets merely re-creating in performance a single “epic.” He realized that a shorter lyric[-heroic] form like the Arabic ode may well have been memorized in a way that oral epic is not. As he notes, the role of the rāwī or “transmitter” of poetry, that is, a younger, usually would-be poet who memorizes the poems of his mentor, often in the service of his own poetic apprenticeship, certainly points to the idea of a poet having distinct poems each with its own individual identity; and to individual poets and tribes (or families of poets) sharing certain stylistic features (39-41).

My own work (1993, 1994, 2002), in which I have sought to establish the ritual structure and function of the Arabic ode in the pre-Islamic and Islamic periods, has accepted Monroe’s conclusions and made some initial attempts to integrate further work on orality and literacy theory, notably the work of Walter J. Ong (1982) and Eric Havelock (1982, 1986), into the discussion of Arabic poetry.

I recapitulate here some of my earlier work, with a shift in emphasis from the ritual aspects of the structure of the pre-Islamic qaṣīdah to the ritual dimension of its rhetorical devices. I take as my starting point Havelock’s (1982:116-17) conclusion that virtually all the linguistic features that we classify as “poetic”—rhyme, meter, assonance, alliteration, antithesis, parallelism, “poetic diction”—and in particular those figures of speech that we term “rhetorical devices”—metaphor, simile, metonymy, antithesis—are originally and essentially mnemonic devices that serve to stabilize and preserve the oral “text” (Stetkevych 1993:chs. 5, 6). And, at the same time, I accept...

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