Al-Shanfarā (considered to have lived and died around the mid-sixth century CE) was a semi-legendary pre-Islamic poet tentatively associated with Ṭāif, and the supposed author of the celebrated poem Lāmiyyāt ‘al-Arab. He enjoys a status as a figure of an archetypal outlaw antihero (su'luk), critiquing the hypocrisies of his society from his position as an outsider.
The name Al-Shanfara means "he who has large lips." What is known about al-Shanfarā is inferred from the poems which he is believed with confidence to have composed. He seems fairly certainly to have belonged to the Yemenite al-Azd tribe, probably specifically to the Al-Khazraj clan.
Al-Shanfarā attracted a number of pseudo-historical akhbār (reports) in texts like the Kitāb al-aghānī by Abū al-Faraj, al-Anbārī's commentary on the Mufaḍḍaliyāt, mostly focusing on explaining how he came to be exiled from his tribe. He and his companion Ta'abatta Sharran were thought to be among the few people of pre-Islamic Arabia who could run down an antelope.
Al-Shanfarā is named as the author of a scattering of individual verses as well as a long passage known as The Ta’iyya of al-Shanfarā preserved in the seminal collection of pre-Islamic verse, the Mufaḍḍaliyāt. His works are discussed in at least twenty medieval and early medieval scholarly commentaries.
Al-Shanfarā is most famous for, supposedly, composing the Lāmiyyāt ‘al-Arab. Although its attribution has been disputed ever since medieval times, the memorable first-person figure of the misanthropic brigand celebrating his position on the edge of society that the poem draws has strongly influenced views of al-Shanfarā. We can if nothing else say that if the Lāmiyyāt is a later composition, it positions al-Shanfarā as the archetypal outlaw of a pre-Islamic heroic age, viewed nostalgically from a later era.
Of works considered likely actually to have been by Al-Shanfarā, The Ta’iyya of al-Shanfarā (Mufaḍḍaliyya no. 20) is the most renowned. As translated by Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych, it runs as follows.
- 1. Alas, Umm ‘Amr gathered her resolve and departed;
- she bade no farewell to her neighbors
- when she turned and went away.
- 2. Umm ‘Amr left before us, without warning
- and cast over us the shadows of her camels' necks.
- 3. By my two eyes, she went forth at evening,
- then nighttime and morning;
- then she finished her affairs, and departed and went away.
- 4. How my heart aches for Umayma! After my desire--
- May God grant her a life of ease--she went away.
- 5. Oh neighboress! you are not one to arouse blame
- when she is mentioned, nor one to elicit hatred.
- 6. She stirred my delight, never lowering her veil
- when she walked forth, not glancing left or right.
- 7. At night, after a short sleep, she takes to the neighborwomen
- milk drawn at evening, when gifts are scarce.
- 8. She alights in her dwelling, a place secured from blame,
- when in other dwellings blame alights.
- 9. Modest, as though she had lost something on the ground
- and was intent on finding it; if she speaks to you, she is curt.
- 10. Umayma's mate is not disgraced by her repute;
- when women are mentioned, she is chaste, of high esteem.
- 11. When, in the evening, he goes out, he returns to his eye's delight,
- as a happy man returns, not asking where she's been.
- 12. She was delicate and dignified, full-statured, in full bloom;
- If beauty could change people into jinn, a jinni she would be.
- 13. We spent the night together as if the tent above us were ringed
- in basil, wind-wafted, in the evening, dew-moistened,
- 14. Basil from the lowland of Ḥalya, abloom and redolent;
- from a region untouched by drought.
- 15. Many a fighting band, their bows red from wear, did I call forth;
- he who raids returns at times with plunder, at times without.
- 16. We went out of the river-bed [that lies] between Mish‘al and al-Jabā,
- how far off I led my flock!
- 17. I trek on and on over the earth that will never harm me
- to strike a foe or meet up with my doom.
- 18. I trek on, despite the raid's fatigue and distance;
- each morning and evening bringing me ever closer.
- 19. A mother of many children I have seen feeding them;
- when she feeds them she is niggardly and gives little.
- 20. She fears we will be destitute if she is generous,
- as hungry as we are-how she runs her family!
- 21. It is not that she is stingy with what is in her provision bag,
- but it is because she fears hunger [for us] that she holds back.
- 22. A companion of ṣa‘alik, there is no veil before her;
- she is not hoped for at home till her night-raid is complete.
- 23. A quiver she has of thirty broad-tipped arrows;
- when she spies from afar the first of the foe,
- with excitement she quivers.
- 24. She rushes upon the battle-ready foe, baring her leg to the knee;
- she roves like the he-ass before his herd, circling his she-asses.
- 25. When they panic she lets fly a white cutting [sword];
- she shoots her store of arrows, then draws her blade.
- 26. A keen blade, salt-colored, of unsullied steel,
- cutting, like the ripples of the oft-described pond.
- 27. You see [the swords] swinging to and fro like the tails of
- calves returning from water;
- they have drunk a first draught of blood, and then a second.
- 28. We slew a pilgrim for a pilgrim slain, one leading a beast to
- sacrifice for one with matted hair;
- at Minā where the stones are thrown, in the midst of chanting pilgrims.
- 29. We repaid the Salāmān ibn Mufrij what we owed them;
- for the crimes their hands had committed and their past sins.
- 30. A tribe was congratulated for me, but I brought them no benefit;
- and I became part of a tribe that was not my stock.
- 31. We quenched by [slaying] ‘Abd Allāh part of our burning thirst
- and by [slaying] ‘Awf before the battle-ground when the battle-cry went up.
- 32. When my death comes, I shall not mind;
- my mother's sisters will not weep for me, nor my paternal aunt.
- 33. For had I never stirred from sitting home amid my kin,
- yet death would have come to me between the two tent-poles.
- 34. Let no friend come to tend me; if illness ails me,
- my cure will be to race up Dhū al-Burayqayn's peak.
- 35. I am sweet if my sweetness is desired,
- and bitter when the soul of an inconstant comrade thinks me bitter.
- 36. Disdainful of what I disdain,
- quick to respond to every soul that is inclined to make me happy.
- ‘Abd al-‘Azīz al-Maymanī, Al-T.arā’if al-Adabiyyah (Cairo: Mat.ba‘at Lajnat al-Ta’līf wa al-Tarjamah wa al-Nashr, 1937), 31-42 (most of al-Shanfarā's poetry, excluding the Lāmiyyat al-‘Arab and the Mufaḍḍaliyyah no. 20).
- For editions of the Lāmiyyāt ‘al-Arab, see that entry.
- Fuat Sezgin, Geschichte des arabischen Schrifttums: Bd. 2, Poesie Bis ca. 430 H. (Leiden: Brill 1975), p. 133.
- Arazi, A. "al-S̲h̲anfarā". Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Retrieved 2020-01-14.
- Wisam Mansour, 'Al-Shanfara's Lamiyyatu’l Arab and the Horrors of Desert Travelling', Ankara Üniversitesi Dil ve Tarih-Coğrafya Fakültesi Dergisi, 45.2 (2005), 45-57 (p. 46 n. 1), http://dergiler.ankara.edu.tr/dergiler/26/1007/12214.pdf.
- Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych, 'Archetype and Attribution in Early Arabic Poetry: Al-Shanfarā and the Lāmiyyat al-‘Arab', International Journal of Middle East Studies, 18 (1986), 361-90 (pp. 367-71), https://www.jstor.org/stable/163382. Fuat Sezgin, Geschichte des arabischen Schrifttums: Bd. 2, Poesie Bis ca. 430 H. (Leiden: Brill 1975), pp. 133-37.
- Classical Arabic Poetry: 162 Poems from Imrulkais to Ma‘rri, trans. by Charles Greville Tuetey (London: KPI, 1985), p. 16.
- Listed in Fuat Sezgin, Geschichte des arabischen Schrifttums: Bd. 2, Poesie Bis ca. 430 H. (Leiden: Brill 1975), pp. 135-37.
- Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych, 'Archetype and Attribution in Early Arabic Poetry: Al-Shanfarā and the Lāmiyyat al-‘Arab', International Journal of Middle East Studies, 18 (1986), 361-90, https://www.jstor.org/stable/163382.
- E.g. Wisam Mansour, 'Al-Shanfara's Lamiyyatu’l Arab and the Horrors of Desert Travelling', Ankara Üniversitesi Dil ve Tarih-Coğrafya Fakültesi Dergisi, 45.2 (2005), 45-57 (p. 46 n. 2), http://dergiler.ankara.edu.tr/dergiler/26/1007/12214.pdf.
- Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych, 'Archetype and Attribution in Early Arabic Poetry: Al-Shanfarā and the Lāmiyyat al-‘Arab', International Journal of Middle East Studies, 18 (1986), 361-90 (pp. 371-73, https://www.jstor.org/stable/163382.