The grammarian Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Nahhas (d. 949 CE), says expressly in his commentary on the Mu'allaqat: "The true view of the matter is this: when Hammad Ar-Rawiya (Hammad the Rhapsodist) saw how little men cared for poetry, he collected these seven pieces, urged people to study them, and said to them: 'These are the [poems] of renown.'" This agrees with all our other information, firstly the recitation of poems was his profession. Hammad (who lived in the first three quarters of the 8th century) was perhaps of all men the one who knew most Arabic poetry by heart. To such a rhapsodist the task of selection is in every way appropriate; and it may be assumed that he is responsible also for the somewhat fantastic title of "the suspended".
There is another fact which seems to speak in favour of Hammad as the compiler of this work. He was a Persian by descent, but a client of the Arab tribe, Bakr ibn Wa'il. For this reason, we may suppose, he not only received into the collection a poem of the famous poet Tarafa, of the tribe of Bakr, but also that of another Bakrite, Harith, who, though not accounted a bard of the highest rank, had been a prominent chieftain; while his poem could serve as a counterpoise to another also received the celebrated verses of Harith's contemporary 'Amr, chief of the Taghlib, the rival brethren of the Bakr. 'Amr praises the Taghlib in glowing terms: Harith, in a similar vein, extols the Bakr ancestors of Hammad's patrons.
The collection of Hammad appears to have consisted of the same seven poems which are found in our modern editions, composed respectively by Imru' al-Qais, Tarafa, Zuhayr, Labid, 'Antara Ibn Shaddad, 'Amr ibn Kulthum, and Harith ibn Hilliza. These are enumerated both by Ibn Abd Rabbih (860–940 CE), and, on the authority of the older philologists, by Nahhas; and all subsequent commentators seem to follow them. We have, however, evidence of the existence, at a very early period, of a slightly different arrangement. Certainly we cannot now say, on the testimony of the Jamharat Ash'ar al-Arab, that two of the most competent ancient authorities on Arabic poetry, al-Mufaddal (d. c. 790) and Abu 'Ubaida (d. 824 CE, at a great age), had already assigned to the "Seven" (i.e. "the seven Mu'allaqat") a poem each of al-Nabigha and al-A'sha in place of those of 'Antara and Harith. For meanwhile it has been discovered that the compiler of the above-mentioned work who, in order to deceive the reader, issued it under a false name is absolutely untrustworthy. However, the learned Ibn Qutaiba (9th century), in his book Of Poetry and Poets, mentions as belonging to the "Seven" not only the poem of 'Amr, which has invariably been reckoned among the Mu'allaqat (ed. de Goeje, p. 120), but also a poem of 'Abid ibn al-Abras (ibid. 144). In place of which poem he read this we do not know; and we are equally ignorant as to whether he counted other pieces than those indicated above among the seven.
Now Nabigha and A'sha enjoyed greater celebrity than any of the poets represented in the Mu'allaqat, with the exception of Imru' al-Qais, and it is therefore not surprising that scholars, of a somewhat later date, appended a poem by each of these to the Mu'allaqat, without intending by this to make them an integral part of that work. This is clear, for instance, from the introductory words of Tibrizi, Yahyá ibn Ali (d. 1109 C.E.) to his commentary on the Mu'allaqat. Appended to this he gives a commentary to a poem of Nabigha, to one of A'sha, and moreover one to that poem of 'Abid which, as we have just seen, Ibn Qutaiba had counted among the seven. It is a pure misunderstanding when Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406 CE) in his Muqaddimah speaks of nine Mu'allaqat; and we ought hardly to lay any stress on the fact that he mentions not only Nabigha and A'sha, but also 'Alqama ibn 'Abada, as Mu'allaqa poets. He was probably led to this by a delusive recollection of the Collection of the "Six Poets", in which were included these three, together with the three Mu'allaqat poets, Imru' al-Qais, Zuhayr and Tarafa.
The lives of these poets were spread over a period of more than a hundred years. The earliest of the seven was Imru' al-Qais, regarded by many as the most illustrious of Arabian Mu'allaqa poets. His exact date cannot be determined; but probably the best part of his career fell within the midst of the 6th century. He was a scion of the royal house of the tribe Kindah, which lost its power at the death of its king Harith ibn 'Amr in the year 529. The poet's royal father, Hojr, by some accounts a son of this Harith, was killed by a Bedouin tribe, the Banu Asad. The son led an adventurous life as a refugee, now with one tribe, now with another, and appears to have died young. The anecdotes related of him which, however, are very untrustworthy in detail as well as his poems, imply that the glorious memory of his house and the hatred it inspired were still comparatively fresh, and therefore recent. A contemporary of Imru' al-Qais was 'Abid ibn al-Abras, one poem of whose, as we have seen, is by some authorities reckoned among the collection. He belonged to the Banu Asad, and is fond of vaunting the heroic dead of his tribe the murder of Hojr in opposition to the victim's son, the great poet.
The Mu'allaqa of 'Amr hurls defiance against the king of Hira, 'Amr son of Mundhir, who reigned from the summer of 554 until 568 or 569, and was afterwards slain by our poet. This prince is also addressed by Harith in his Mu'allaqa. Of Tarafa, who is said to have attained no great age, a few satirical verses have been preserved, directed against this same king. This agrees with the fact that a grandson of the Qais ibn Khalid, mentioned as a rich and influential man in Tarafa's Mu'allaqa (v. 80 or 81), figured at the time of the battle of Dhu-Qar, in which the tribe Bakr routed a Persian army. This battle falls about 610 CE.
The Mu'allaqa of 'Antara and that of Zuhayr contain allusions to the feuds of the kindred tribes 'Abs and Dhobyan. Famous as these contests were, their time cannot accurately be ascertained. But the date of the two poets can be approximately determined from other data. Ka'b, son of Zuhayr, composed first a satire, and then, in the year 630, a eulogy on the Prophet; another son, Bujair, had begun, somewhat sooner, to celebrate Muhammad. 'Antara killed the grandfather of Al-Ahnaf Ibn Qays, who died at an advanced age in 686 or 687; he outlived 'Abdallah ibn Simma, whose brother Duraid was a very old man when he fell in battle against the Prophet (early in 630 CE); and he had communications with Ward, whose son, the poet Urwah ibn al-Ward, may perhaps have survived the flight of Muhammad to Medina. From all these indications we may place the productive period of both poets in the end of the 6th century. The historical background of 'Antara's Mu'allaqat lies somewhat earlier than that of Zuhayr's.
To the same period appears to belong the poem of 'Alqama ibn 'Abada, which, as we have seen, Ibn Khaldun reckons amongst the Mu'allaqat. This too is certainly the date of Al-Nabigha, who was one of the most distinguished of Arabic poets. For in the poem often reckoned as a Mu'allaqat, as in many others, he addresses himself to No'man, king of Hira, who reigned in the two last decades of the 6th century. The same king is mentioned as a contemporary in one of poems of 'Alqama.
The poem of al-A'sha, sometimes added to the Mu'allaqat, contains an allusion to the battle of Dhu Qar (under the name "Battle of Hinw", v. 62). This poet, not less famous than Nabigha, lived to compose a poem in honour of Muhammad, and died not long before 630 CE.
Labīd is the only one of these poets who embraced Islam. His Mu'allaqat, however, like almost all his other poetical works, belongs to the Pagan period. He is said to have lived until 661, or even later; certainly it is true of him, what is asserted with less likelihood of several others of these poets, that he lived to a ripe old age.
The seven Mu'allaqat, and also the poems appended to them, represent almost every type of ancient Arabian poetry in its excellences and its weaknesses. In order rightly to appreciate these, we must translate ourselves into the world of the Bedouin and seek to realize the peculiar conditions of his life, together with the views and thoughts resulting from those conditions. In the Mu'allaqat of Tarafa we are repelled by the long, anatomically exact description of his camel; but such a description had an extraordinary charm of its own for the Bedouins, every man of whom was a perfect connoisseur on this subject down to the minutest points; and the remaining parts of the poem, together with the other extant fragments of his songs, show that Tarafa had a real poetic gift. In the Mu'allaqat of 'Amr and Harith, for the preservation of which we are especially grateful to the compiler, we can read the haughty spirit of the powerful chieftains, boastfully celebrating the splendours of their tribe. These two poems have also a certain historical importance. The song of Zuhayr contains the practical wisdom of a sober man of the world. The other poems are fairly typical examples of the customary qasida, the long poem of ancient Arabia, and bring before us the various phases of Bedouin life. But even here we have differences. In the Mu'allaqat of 'Antara, whose heroic temperament had overcome the scorn with which the son of a black slave-mother was regarded by the Bedouins, there predominates a warlike spirit, which plays practically no part in the song of Labid.
It is a phenomenon which deserves the fullest recognition, that the needy inhabitants of a barren country should thus have produced an artistic poetry distinguished by so high a degree of uniformity. Even the extraordinary strict metrical system, observed by poets who had no inkling of theory and no knowledge of an alphabet, excites surprise. In the most ancient poems the metrical form is as scrupulously regarded as in later compositions. The only poem which shows unusual metrical freedom is the above-mentioned song of 'Abid. It is, however, remarkable that 'Abid's contemporary Imru' al-Qais, in a poem which in other respects also exhibits certain coincidences with that of 'Abid, presents himself considerable licence in the use of the very same metre one which, moreover, is extremely rare in the ancient period. Presumably, the violent deviations from the schema in 'Abid are due simply to incorrect transmission by compilers who failed to grasp the meter.
The other poems ascribed to 'Abid, together with all the rest attributed to Imru' al-Qais, are constructed in precise accord with the metrical canons. It is necessary always to bear in mind that these ancient poems, which for a century or more were preserved by oral tradition alone, have reached us in a much mutilated condition. Fortunately, there was a class of men who made it their special business to learn by rote the works either of a single poet or of several. The poets themselves used the services of these rhapsodists (rawi).
The last representative of this class is Hammad, to whom is attributed the collection of the Mu'allaqat; but he, at the same time, marks the transition of the rhapsodist to the critic and scholar. The most favourable opinion of these rhapsodists would require us to make allowance for occasional mistakes: expressions would be transposed, the order of verses disarranged, passages omitted, and probably portions of different poems pieced together. It is clear, however, that Hammad dealt in the most arbitrary fashion with the enormous quantity of poetry which he professed to know thoroughly. The seven Mu'allaqat are indeed free from the suspicion of forgery, but even in them the text is frequently altered and many verses are transposed. The loose structure of Arabic poems was extremely favorable to such alterations. Some of the Mu'allaqat have several preambles: so, especially, that of 'Amr, the first eight verses of which belong not to the poem, but to another poet. Elsewhere, also, we find spurious verses in the Mu'allaqat. Some of these poems, which have been handed down to us in other exemplars besides the collection itself, exhibit great divergences both in the order and number of the verses and in textual details. This is particularly the case with the oldest Mu'allaqat—that of Imru' al-Qais—the critical treatment of which is a problem of such extreme difficulty that only an approximate solution can ever be reached. The variations of the text, outside the Mu'allaqat collection, have here and there exercised an influence on the text of that collection. It would be well if our manuscripts at least gave the Mu'allaqat in the exact form of Hammad's day. The best text in fact, we may say, a really good text is that of the latest Mu'allaqat, the song of Labid.
The Mu'allaqat exist in many manuscripts, some with old commentaries, of which a few are valuable. They have also been several times printed. Special mention is due to the edition of Sir Charles James Lyall with the commentary of Tibrizi (Calcutta, 1894). Attempts to translate these poems, verse for verse, in poetical form, could scarcely have a happy result. The strangeness, both of the expression and of the subjects, only admits of a paraphrastic version for large portions, unless the sense is to be entirely obliterated.
Perhaps the oldest passage where this is stated that the poems were hung up occurs in the 'Iqd al-Farid (The Precious Necklace) of the Spanish Arab, Ibn Abd Rabbih. We read there: "The Arabs had such an interest in poetry, and valued it so highly, that they took seven long pieces selected from the ancient poetry, wrote them in gold on pieces of Coptic linen folded up, and hung them up (allaqat) on the curtains which covered the Ka'ba. Hence we speak of 'the golden poem of Imru' al-Qais,' 'the golden poem of Zuhayr.' The number of the golden poems is seven; they are also called 'the suspended' (al-Mu'allaqat)." Similar statements are found in later Arabic works. But against this we have the testimony of al-Nahhas, who says in his commentary on the Mu'allaqat: "As for the assertion that they were hung up in the Ka'ba, it is not known to any of those who have handed down ancient poems." This cautious scholar is unquestionably right in rejecting a story so utterly unauthenticated.
The customs of the Arabs before Prophet Muhammad are pretty accurately known to us; we have also a mass of information about the affairs of Mecca at the time when the Prophet arose; but no trace of this or anything like it is found in really good and ancient authorities. We hear, indeed, of a Meccan hanging up a spoil of battle on the Ka'ba (Ibn Hisham, ed. Wiistenfeld, p. 431). Less credible is the story of an important document being deposited in that sanctuary (ibid. p. 230), for this looks like an instance of later usages being transferred to pre-Islamic times. But at all events this is quite a different thing from the hanging up of poetical manuscripts. To account for the disappearance of the Mu'allaqat from the Ka'ba we are told, in a passage of late origin (De Sacy, Chrestom. ii. 480), that they were taken down at the capture of Mecca by the Prophet. But in that case we should expect some hint of the occurrence in the circumstantial biographies of the Prophet, and in the works on the history of Mecca; and we find no such thing.
That a series of long poems was written at all at that remote period is improbable in the extreme. Up to a time when the art of writing had become far more general than it was before the spread of Islam, poems were never or very rarely written, with the exception, perhaps, of epistles in poetic form. The diffusion of poetry was exclusively committed to oral tradition. Moreover, it is quite inconceivable that there should have been either a guild or a private individual of such acknowledged taste, or of such influence, as to bring about a consensus of opinion in favour of certain poems. Think of the mortal offence which the canonization of one poet must have given to his rivals and their tribes. It was quite another thing for an individual to give his own private estimate of the respective merits of two poets who had appealed to him as umpire, or for a number of poets to appear at large gatherings, such as the fair of Oqaz as candidates for the place of honour in the estimation of the throng which listened to their recitations.
No better is the modifications of the legend, which we find, at a much later period, in the Muqaddimah of Ibn Khaldun, who tells us that the poets themselves hung up their poems on the Ka'ba (ed. Paris iii. 357). In short, this legend, so often retailed by Arabs, and still more frequently by Europeans, must be entirely rejected. The story is a pure fabrication based on the name suspended. The word was taken in its literal sense; and as these poems were prized by many above all others in after times, the same opinion was attributed to "the [ancient] Arabs," who were supposed to have given effect to their verdict in the way already described. A somewhat simpler version also given by Nahhas in the passage already cited is as follows: "Most of the Arabs were accustomed to meet at 'Oqaz and recite verses; then, if the king was pleased with any poem, he said, 'Hang it up, and preserve it among my treasures.'" But, not to mention other difficulties, there was no king of all the Arabs; and it is hardly probable that any Arabian king attended the fair at Oqaz.
The story that the poems were written in gold has evidently originated in the name "the golden poems" (literally "the gilded"), a figurative expression for excellence. We may interpret the designation "suspended" on the same principle. It seems to mean those (poems) which have been raised, on account of their value, to a specially honourable position. Another derivative of the same root is 'ilq, "precious thing." A clearer significance attaches to another name sometimes used for these poems assumut, "the strings of pearls." The comparison of artificially elaborated poems to these strings is extremely apt. Hence it became so popular that, even in ordinary prose, to speak in rhythmical form is called simply nagm "to string pearls." The selection of these seven poems can scarcely have been the work of the ancient Arabs at all. It is much more likely that we owe it to some connoisseur of a later date.