Arabic Precedents to the Persian Prison Poem

Rebecca Gould

University of Bristol, England

This paper will examine the evidence for tracing the Persian prison poem (absīyyāt) to al-Andalus. As is well known, the genre was inaugurated in Lahore with the poetry of Mascud-I Sacd Salman (d. 1121). It subsequently moved west to the Caucasus, to domains ruled by the Shirvanshahs of Azerbaijan, where the genre flourished in the poems of Khāqānī (d. 1199), Abu’l cAla Ganjevi, and Mujir al-Din Baylaqani.

These well established genealogies are the subject of my prior research, including my dissertation and journal articles. Less understood and examined are the connections between Arabic poets who wrote about imprisonment and exile and the Persian poets who followed in their wake. Can certain aspects of the Persian absīyyāt be traced to al-Andalus, where poets such as Yusuf b. Harun al-Ramadi (d. 1013) composed poetry about imprisonment and exile? This paper examines the evidence in favor of such an argument. In particular, al-Ramadi’s lost collection of prison poems which describe all the species birds known to him, and conclude with “a eulogy on the Prince…entreating him…to intercede with his father for his release” (Jayyusi, The Legacy of Muslim Spain, 1992, p. 330), suggests parallels with the prison poems of Khaqani. Another possible Andalusian precedent for the Persian absīyyāt is Ibn Zaydun, who deployed the topoi of imprisonment in his poetry to his beloved Wallada. Finally, Sulayman al-Musta’in composed qaīdas from prison that lament his condition and defend his poetry much in the spirit of the Persian ḥabsīyyāt.

Although we probably never be able to establish with certainty whether the prison poets of al-Andalus were read by the prison poets of Central and South Asia and the Caucasus, existing archives and scholarship suggest the need for a comprehensive investigation. This paper is one step in that direction.