Book Review: “The Mute Immortals Speak,” by Suzanne Stetkevych

What do we know about the Arabs to whom Muhammad was speaking? In truth, not much. Though we have some archeological findings and external testimonies, the transmission of their oral culture was interrupted and overwritten by the transmission of the Quran, the way of Islam, and the Arab conquests. Only a few cultural favorites survived long enough to be preserved as the Arab culture morphed into a literate one, and of these it was primarily the poems that survived. So if I want to know anything about the outlook of Muhammad’s audience, I know I’m going to have to get into their poetry.

First it must be said: I have no talent for poetry. I love language, yet to me poetry looks like the art of writing potent, incomplete thoughts. I’m very basic, just wanting a fun meter and rhyming scheme, and thus have never graduated beyond Shel Silversteen. So what is the likelihood that I’m going to understand the high poetry of another culture, another land, another century? Pht! Arabic classical poetry is full of place and people names, culture references, and trope imagery that I’ve had no exposure to. I know what a hyena is, but do I know what the Arabs of the 600’s thought a hyena was? So I needed a book to guide me and teach me some keys for interpretation. I chose The Mute Immortals Speak: Pre-Islamic Poetry and the Poetics of Ritual by Suzanne Stetkevych.

My review in short: very compelling analysis and insight into the pre-Islamic culture and the post-Islamic memory of it. The book is highly academic and you’ll have to be familiar with lots of specialists and their jargon (or else have to keep Wikipedia open) in order to understand it. Also, you should understand at least the basic logic of the tri-consonantal roots system in order to engage with her analysis of the Arabic, though the more Arabic you know, the better you’ll be able to follow the book’s analysis.

Flyover Content

If you’d like to try at reading some of this poetry, try reading “The Mu’allaqaat,” seven beloved poems that were allegedly hung in the Ka’aba before the rise of Islam. Google Books has a public domain translation available for perusal. If you only read one poem, I’d recommend reading the “Mu’allaqat of Labiid,” on page 26, since that particular poem is really important to Stetkevych’s book and argument. I unfortunately can’t evaluate the quality or character translations, because the Arabic of these poems is too advanced/obscure for me.

Stetkevych starts her book with an explanation and defense of Arabic poetry. The predominant genre of Arabic poetry is the qaṣiidah. Not all Arabic poetry falls into this genre, but it is the equivalent of the symphony in Western art music. It has expected sections in its form and content: start with a scene of romantic nostalgia, transition to a journey/wilderness pastiche, and conclude with tribal boasting whether in the form of daring feats, praise for the leadership, or campfire revelries. These sections are respectively called the nasiib, the raḥiil, and the fakhr. Why this content in this order? Is there any through-line of logic requiring it? Or, like the formula that dictates the classical symphony, is this just the product of tradition and a sense of aesthetic balance? As Stetkevych paints it, modern criticism tends to dismiss Arabic poetry as disjointed, illogical, or “pre-logical.” These critical approaches often suffer from Orientalism, a desire to view Semitic peoples as primitive and tediously convention-bound. Even good-faith literary criticism of Arabic poetry analyzes the smaller mechanics like morphology and rhythm, but does not tackle the question of form, since such a thing was not commented upon by the classical scholars.

Stetkevych’s proposed solution is to understand the form by excavating a “ritual paradigm” from within it. That is, she sees a rite-of-passage arc in the structure, themes, and metaphors that frequent the poetry. Her inspiration for such is similar work done in Western folk tales and mythic stories, and she draws upon the analysis systems applied to Russian, Greek, and general Western storytelling. Her basic assumption is that the Arabs were as fully humans as other culture, thus what might seem superficially arbitrary must have an underlying logic. Though the qasidah lacks a surface narrative, Stetkevych wants to demonstrate that you can unify the sections and images by seeing an underlying pattern evocative of a rite of passage. The form of the qasidah starts with a symbol of failed society where one can no longer live (abandoned camp and failed relationship), then the struggle of solitude and need to find a new society (journey and wilderness scenes), and then concludes with the triumph of society and one’s participation in it (hunting, raiding, revelry and other tribal boasts). Narrative is less important than the order and juxtaposition of scenes that communicate the values of the society. As proposed on page 8, the underlying structure, the “ritual paradigm,” is separation–> initiation –> aggregation.

This is where “The Mu’allaqah of Labid” comes in. Stetkevytch relies upon the poem to establish the viability of her ritual paradigm. The opening scene of the vacant campsite and the departure of the women who lived there represent the failure of a society, and by standing there and mourning it the poet is unproductive and unable to survive. Once he rejects mourning and leaves the campsite, he enters a transitional period of hardship. He reflects upon his camel, by whose strength and resources he’s able to survive the desert, and this leads to comparisons of the camel/journey to the near-death experiences of other desert animals. Stetkevych calls attention to the camel as a symbol of society, for it is by the camel’s strength and not the poets own that he is able to successfully cross the wilderness. He isn’t self-sufficient, and it is through this vestige of tribal living that he can succeed in his journey. This hard journey seems to be interrupted by the triumphant boasts of the poet as a tribal leader, but the boasts are a culmination of the journey scene. Though there is no narrative transition where the poet goes from being a lonely desert-crosser to a tribal chieftain, the point is the contrast of his suffering solitude with the strength and joy of a successful society. The poet starts in a stagnant place where relationships have failed and where to remain would mean death, then he undergoes a painful transition that tests his will to live, and then he ends with pride in his accomplishments as a productive member and life-giver to a strong community and lineage. Stetkevych walks the reader through the poem almost line by line to unpack their symbols, motifs, and cultural background, and by the time she’s done it all feels rather on-the-nose. That is why she starts with this Labid’s mu’allaqah, because it makes a perfect case for her thesis and can represent the “typical.”

Stetkevych is not interested specifically in qasidahs, however, but the underlying structure that informs all pre-Islamic Arab poetry. She expands her view to look at other genres, particularly ṣaʕaaliik, “brigand,” poetry and rithaa’, “elegy” (by women for men). In the case of the brigand poetry, the story is of the anti-hero who never completes his journey across the wilderness and never finds a role to fill in society. His poetic arc is essentially a condemnation of self-sufficiency. The brigand’s poem is full of symbols of stagnation and sterility. Completely separated from society (it is notable that the brigand doesn’t even have the benefit of a camel to carry him through the desert of transition), he becomes a parasite and wild animal who is doomed to be hunted down by the greater strength of tribal men. So from these poems Stetkevych finds the pattern of a “failed” ritual arc. In the case of the elegy, the women are provoking their men to go through the ritual change, to replace their identities as beneficiaries of the deceased with new roles as sustainers of the tribe. From these Stetkevych gleans symbols and patterns that flesh out a specific initiation ritual of blood vengeance, wherein a man must avenge the death of his beneficiary before he can honorably reintegrate into the tribe and take control of the inheritance. She also highlights the gender dichotomy of the poem: women shed tears, men shed blood. The women’s job is to taunt and push men through their rite of passage (specifically blood vengeance) so that the tribe will be protected from the strength of their enemies. There are lots of tropes and symbols related to gender and immaturity in these poems, informing us of their general view of manhood, virtue, and vice.

Though the brigand and elegiac poems contrast the classical qasidah, they also complement its ritual pattern of separation–> initiation –> aggregation. Fail to complete this ritual pattern and you will die alone. Sometimes the initiation is a journey, and sometimes it is the act of vengeance. Having built from her analysis a bank of motifs and tropes, Stetkevych undertakes returning to the qasidah genre and analyzing one final poem. The most famous of the Mu’allaqaat is that of Imru al-Qays, but in form and content it is atypical of the usual qasidah. It has a very long and erotic nasiib, a nearly non-existent raḥiil, and a fakhr with the unusual image of a natural disaster that washes and ravages the wilderness. Through comparison and her compiled vocabulary of motifs and tropes from both the brigand and elegy genres of Arabic poetry, Stetkevych is able to reconcile even this qasidah to her proposed underlying ritual structure. The underlying ritual elements are of a poet who refuses to mature, whose night-of-the-soul reveals him to be almost as lost as a brigand, but whose culminating boasts show overwhelming success and domination –to an extent that is almost as terrible as his early wasteful excess.

Stetkevych also spends considerable time analyzing the contextual stories that traditional scholars provided for these poems. These poems are not preserved in a vacuum, but are traditionally provided with biographical stories about the authors and the events that inspired them. These biographical details are loaded with didactic value, particularly pro-Islam didactic value, and Stetkevych regards them as probably fictional. Moreover, Stetkevych is able to apply her ritual paradigm to these narratives too, finding in them the same motifs and arcs as found in their respective poems, reinforcing that they have a more literary nature than factual. She ends her book with an analysis demonstrating the contrasting fates of the poet of her first chapter, Labid, whose poem demonstrates more suitable Islamic values, and the poet of the last chapter, Al-Qays, whose poem is extremely scandalous and un-Islamic. Labid lived to see the advent of Islam, whereupon he converted, gave up poetry, and lived a remarkably long and happy life. Labid’s biography demonstrates the successful character arc of a man who transitions from a lost identity in a dying community to a new identity in a successful one, and hints that such was possible because his underlying character was always Islamic. Al-Qays (who lived before Muhammad and thus never saw Islam) lived a hedonistic life until the death of his father sent him into an excessive blood-rage, whereupon in his hubris he makes an alliance with the Byzantines and gets killed by them through a robe spun with poison in its fibers. Al-Qays’s biography demonstrates the failed character arc of a man who transitions from his excessive youth into excessive manhood, and who dies ignominiously outside the bounds of proper society (in Byzantine lands and robes, rather than Arab). As Oscar Wilde says, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.”

My Assessment

As I explained, my level of engagement with poetry is pretty low. As such, I’m prone to giving the reigns of interpretation to someone who can make compelling explanations, letting myself sit back and enjoy the rather passive “aha!” experiences they guide me through. It’s like watching any makeover show or unboxing video where I’m just happy to vicariously enjoy someone else’s excitement and inspirations. Stetkevych is very clearly “into” poetry. She draws upon a wide bank of resources that show her commitment to researching and understanding the art and culture. She doesn’t gush or tell you how to feel about it, but her analysis is so full of interesting connections and details that it opens a world open inside you. With this tone and show of expertise, my tendency was to be passive and unquestioning. I mean, she was a little more committed to the idea that the pagans thought carrion birds absorbed souls or became in some way avatars for the deceased than I was ready to accept, but she also is much more studied in poetic and ancient ideas. The carrion-birds-as-soul-eaters wasn’t even the weirdest thing she brought up, and for some of the wilder things she had classical resources providing the ideas. Hyenas, man, the late-antique Arabs had some crazy ideas about hyenas.

Stetkevych’s mastery of Arabic was inspiring to me. I can see the roots in an Arabic word and use one of the many lexicons (Edward Lane’s, generally) available to get a grip on its connotations, which allows me to catch double meanings within words. Stetkevych does that (and it was gratifying to see someone with true expertise do such) but furthermore sees the wordplay between words of different roots. She can better spot the puns, consonant shifts, and relationships of words to each other than I shall be able to do for a long time. All of the poems are provided in Stetkevych’s own translation, which means she spent a lot of time with their vocabulary and knows them intimately. The back of the book includes the fully vowelled text of the Arabic poems and lore that she cites, in case you want to check her translation or practice reading the passages aloud for your own ears.

One thing that makes this book unfriendly to readers is its very academic purpose. It’s part of a broader “Myth and Poetics” series by Cornell University Press. The publishers had no hope of it going to the plebian masses:

This cover was not designed for shop windows

Mute Immortals is dense with High English vocabulary and humanities jargon, whether in the form of theories that are named after their expositor or the terminology specific to those theories. The preface and first chapter start with Stetkevych laying out a lot of technical information from multiple humanities disciplines. Though that section is only a few pages long, I quintupled my reading time with frequent jumps to consult Wikipedia for some entry to help me understand who and what she was talking about. It really is important to get some of the jargon solidified in your mind, because terms like “liminality” and “manqué” will recur so often that you’re putting big holes in your comprehension if you don’t understand their meaning. This unfortunately pigeon-holes your ability to talk about this book, since the language that Stetkevych uses (like “ritual paradigm”) doesn’t communicate to someone who hasn’t engaged with the theory themselves. There are also a lot of recurring Arabic scholars and characters in the traditional Arabic resources, so be sure to look them up and get some sense of who they are as you see them.

Something that makes Stetkevych’s work stand out is that she treats the Arabic culture as one that’s as fully human and developed. Even though the poetry that she analyzes includes some pretty violent or gruesome images, and would be great fodder to gape at and extol as indicative of a primitive or depraved mindset, she does not make any moral comment upon it. Instead, she fleshes out the cultural worldview so that the richness and drama of these things is recognizably human. She spends a chapter comparing the sordid feats of the brigand character to the similar motifs and actions of the Greek character Oedipus. The West holds Greek myths as high art fodder, despite their rather consistently sordid content, and we incorporate their themes and symbols into our arts. Indeed, their sordid nature is part of what makes them compelling drama. By comparing the poetry of Ta’abaṭa Sharran to such, Stetkevych is positioning his poems to her English-speaking audience as valid and artful drama. It also blurs our perception of a cultural divide between east and west, reminding us that these worlds were much more connected and fluid than we tend to think of them.

I also appreciated how much Stetkevych factored in the opinions of traditional Islamic scholars. I tend to hold Islamic representations of pre-Islamic Arabs suspect, given that they have historical reason to defame the earlier culture as primitive, savage, and in need of conquest and administrative “enlightenment.” Stetkevych’s inclusion of Islamic scholarly opinion does help clarify to me the extent to which Muslims, ranging from their earliest literature to the middle ages, really did love this poetry. There probably is some filtration at work as to which poems were allowed to survive (were they Islamic enough to extoll or un-Islamic enough to pillory), but they did treat this material seriously and with much love. Though Stetkevych holds suspect the historicity of some of their claims about the authors and works, and also suspects that many post-Islamic forgeries and redactions were inserted into the canon, she does not debate the points of factuality but focuses on how such supports her theory of the ritual paradigm. After all, even if a poem is a forgery or if a biography is fictional, part of their nature will be to match the character and quality of the original works. It is useful to observe what tropes, patterns, and values a forger thinks are characteristic of the era that he is forging.

As Context for the Quran

In learning about Arabic poetry, my actual aim is for more information with which to interpret the Quran. This book certainly provided a lot of cultural mindset and some trope images. I really did feel a world opening to me, and I plan on finding more of the old poetry to read in order to keep expanding this. I wanted to write here about the things that resonated with my Quran study, but it started taking up too much space and extending beyond the book’s content, so I’ll restrain myself to comment on the things that I didn’t learn, –though I’d hoped for them– and one of the ways in which the poetry informed my perspective on the Quran.

I’d hoped to learn a bit of the mechanics of Arabic poetry, both in the deeper structural aspects and the superficial mechanics of rhyme and meter. Stetkevych’s provided lots of ideas for the former but very little for the latter. Though Stetkevych did a few metrical analyses on some lines, it was all specific to those passages and not connected to broader practices. If there’s one mechanical idea that I learned, it was that Arabic poetry prefers monorhyme, and this monorhyme is pretty pure. The Quran mostly uses very light rhyming schemes; endings don’t have to be exactly same insomuch as they have to sound similar (i.e. for the Quran’s purposes, -iin rhymes with -iim, -iil, -iiz, -iir etc.). The classical poems are much more strict, with every line ending on the chosen syllabic sound. This does clarify to me that the Quran honors a minimal poetic commitment. And of course, the Quran itself would chafe at being held to the standards of poetry at all, despite efforts to include some poetic aesthetic to greater and lesser extents throughout its content.

I was really sad that this book did not help me learn about any pre-Islamic religious views. Though Arab religion is understood to have been quite diverse, external accounts do mention trends in their practices and beliefs. None of the poetry Stetkevych featured had overtly religious scenes or ideas. There were oblique connections to some religious ideas, some of which were just built into the vocabulary (one poem refers to the passage of time by referring to the passing of holy and profane months), and others that were connected to ritual ideas of pilgrimage, purity, and impurity. The motif of circumambulation showed up in many of the poems, but always as a visual cue rather than an explicit ritual event. Stetkevych herself had no insight into what this motif intended since we don’t know what the ritual logic of circumambulation was. Muslims today don’t have any explanation why circumambulation is part of their own ritual life, though they might fill in their own connections and meanings, and instead focus on the idea that the act demonstrates unity. So while this poetry has some religious elements within it, it didn’t help me understand much about the trends of their religion.

So, here’s one example of how this book helped me contextualize the Quran. The zero-sum-game: the idea that one party only gains when another party looses. All gains and losses in the world cancel out. This view of the world was visible in all of this book’s poetry: killing is a must if you are to survive. The camel must be slaughtered in order to feed the tribe. The enemy must be diminished to make room for your tribe. Death in your tribe must be avenged in order so that your loss doesn’t promote their growth. Blood is a symbol of vitality and thus there is a lot of blood-shedding or allegories for it through the poems. It’s not just sacrifice of one’s enemies that must be made for the survival of one’s group, but also sacrifice of one’s self. This poetry always promotes the vitality of a society, particularly one’s kin-group, and not the individual. The individual cannot survive without society, so his value is only to be measured insomuch as it adds to society. The self-centric survivalism of the brigand, who sacrifices for no one, and the wasting self-indulgence of the poet on “The Mu’allaqah of Al-Qays” are both bad because they are a drain upon the strength and future of society. Accepting blood-money instead of blood retribution is scoffed at for being selfish of the one who accepts it (you served yourself and got richer instead of serving your tribe by diminishing the vitality of the enemy). If the individual is to be distinguished, it is for his role in society as its protector and life giver. Exemplary behavior, as shown in “The Mu’allaqah of Labid,” is the act of sacrificing one’s individuality for the good of the tribe. Sacrificing one’s own camel and dividing it up in lots for one’s kin feeds the tribe. “Slaughtering” a wine bag brings revelry and unity of spirit to the tribal celebration. Even giving to those outside the tribe is a thing to boast of because it shows success by absorbing the refugees of other failed polities. Stetkevych observes that hospitality is particularly boasted of in contrast to nature, and that showing hospitality to the refugees of winter harshness is a boast because it contrasts the abundance of the tribe to the paucity of nature. Again, the message is that nature is cruel, and you cannot survive it without the protection of society.

The Quran doesn’t deny this zero-sum tribalism, though it does change the nature of the tribe. The tribe is defined by belief in Islam, which greatly expands its potential for growth and its ability to disrupt the structure of other tribes. But underneath that ideological definition, according to what I understood of the social structure proposed in Surah al-Ahzaab, the familial tribal system was otherwise preserved and consolidated under Muhammad’s leadership. As tribal leader, one can also read Muhammad’s choice of raiding and then conquering his enemies (along with amassing his believers in one location) as a decision to adopt the zero-sum mindset and grow his own polity by diminishing that of others. As revenge, the laws of vengeance amongst believers in Surah al-Baqarah 178 re-affirm the tit-for-tat retributive ideas and social hierarchies of the old culture, including the option to pay money instead of enacting physical retribution. The reform here is that the Quran reverses the old taboo against financial compensation by presenting such as a gift from God. This reframing is good for the broader believing polity by not diminishing their internal vitality through decrease in population. I’ve also considered how much the constant focus on the suffering of hell (both in Islam and Christianity) reflects a desire to elevate one’s own success, which is a very zero-sum habit.

Where the Quran does undermine the zero-sum mindset is on the individual level through the promise of Paradise. Paradise is the cheat code that prevents you the individual from losing, ever. It puts self-interest back into what would be self-sacrificing social behaviors. Sure, you sacrifice to give charity now, but that really is a transaction that buys you more grandeur in Paradise. Sure, you give your resources and life for the cause of furthering Islam and the Ummah, but that buys you a better individual experience in Paradise. Thus you the individual never can suffer a loss in the big picture, you just serve yourself by serving the community. (And yes, this is a very Christian outlook too.) Moreover, upon entering Paradise the zero-sum nature of mortality is obsolete, removing all the blood and competition out of the success. It was through reading Mute Immortals and learning this bloody aspect of pre-Islamic poetry that I interpreted the imagery of Paradise in Surah aṣ-Ṣaaffaat.

If you are wanting to read the Quran with some cultural context in mind, I can recommend reading pre-Islamic poetry, despite its caveats (it was preserved and possibly redacted by Muslims) and limits (it’s about Bedouins, while Muhammad and the early Muslims were mostly settled urbanites). And to those who are already in the midst of explorations, I can recommend Stetkevych’s The Mute Immortals Speak to get a leg up on the poetry. I would not recommend it to someone who is just starting their explorations. It takes some experience and dedication to get deep enough to benefit from it, and I look forward to the increased benefit I’ll get from it through re-reads.

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