The Lightning-Scene in Ancient Arabic Poetry: Function, Narration and Idiosyncrasy in Pre-Islamic and Early Islamic Poetry.

Author:van Gelder, Geert Jan
Position::Book review
 
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The Lightning-Scene in Ancient Arabic Poetry: Function, Narration and Idiosyncrasy in Pre-Islamic and Early Islamic Poetry. By ALA AHMAD HUSSEIN. Arabische Studien, vol. 3. Wiesbaden: HARRASSOWRRZ, 2009. Pp. xiii + 302. [euro] 88 (paper).

Lightning is a fearsome thing. "Beware the lightning flashes in the clouds," says Ab[u.bar] 1-'Al[a.bar]' al-Ma'arr[i.bar] in his Luz[u.bar]miyy[a.bar]t (Cairo, 1924, 2: 208), "they are drawn swords of Fate, ready to strike." The thirteenth sura of the Qur'an, called "Thunder," says that "He (God) sends forth the thunderbolts and smites with them whom He wishes" (v. 13). However, it is not an unmixed evil: the preceding verse reads, "It is He who shows you the lightning, for fear and hope": hope, because of the rain and the vegetation that comes with it. Al-Mutanabb[i.bar] compares a patron to a cloud "feared and hoped for: one hopes for rain and fears the thunderbolts" (D[i.bar]w[a.bar]n, Berlin, 1861, 124). In another poem he boasts that he can find his way to water in the desert "without a guide except my counting of the lightning in the clouds" (ibid., 676). The commentators explain that if one counts one hundred flashes (seventy, according to others) one can be sure of rainfall. Counting the flashes of lightning is mentioned in early poetry: a certain 'Amr ibn al-'war praises people who "count the lightning of the clouds in any desert" (ps.-al-'Ukbar[i.bar], Shalt D[i.bar]w[a.bar]n al-Mutanabb[i.bar], Cairo, 1956, 4: 143). There are some impressive descriptions of thunderstorms in pre- and early Islamic poetry, most famously at the end of the Mu'allaqa by Imru' al-Qays beginning a-s[a.bar]hi taro barqan ("My friend, can you see lightning?"), where the destructive power but also the rejuvenating effects are expressed.

The monograph by Ali Ahmad Hussein under review contains a detailed analysis of forty-six passages, from two to fourteen verses, altogether some 321 verses, all taken from longer poems; the word "ancient" in the title connotes pre- and first/seventh-century Islam. A list of further brief references to lightning, not discussed in the book, is provided in an appendix. The "lightning-scene" is defined as the part of the poem in which the poet, awake at night, describes the lightning and the feelings this evokes in him. Thunder, lightning, rain: the three cannot properly be separated, and since rain, because of the food and drink it provides, is ultimately what matters most to the Bedouin...

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