Ibn Hamdis was born in Syracuse, south eastern Sicily, around 447 AH (1056 AD). Little is known of his youth, which can be reconstructed only through a literal reading of scattered verses in his dīwān. His poetry displays a thorough mastery of the Arabic poetic canon, as well as a sophisticated linguistic knowledge, which points to an elite education. It is probable that Ibn Hamdis was raised in a prosperous family, likely landed gentry, who settled the Val di Noto early after the Muslim conquest of Sicily in the 9th century. Ibn Hamdis enjoyed the benefits and reaped the fruits of such privileged upbringing.
However, the prosperity of the Muslims of Sicily was not to last. In the second half of the 11th century the political stability of Muslim Sicily had been severely compromised by decades of internecine struggle. The Kalbid court of Palermo and its ephemeral splendour had long been effaced by squabbles between contender warlords, who had partitioned the island into three fiefdoms. The Normans were taking advantage of this political weakness, and advancing steadily in their conquest of the island. Ibn Hamdis was about five years old when the Norman armies, aided and abetted by the Sicilian Arab warlord Ibn al-Thumna, disembarked at Messina and moved westward to Palermo. When the city fell in 1072, the hopes for a revival of Muslim sovereignty on the island began to wane, and a diaspora of Muslim Sicilians began.
Ibn Hamdis, like so many others, set sail with his wife and sons to North Africa, to reach some of his relatives in Sfax. Not long after, the poet travelled again to al-Andalus, attracted by al-Mu'tamid ibn Abbad's reputation as a generous patron of the arts. Ibn Hamdis made his way to Seville and was received by al-Mu'tamid, who admitted the young poet to his entourage of panegyrists. The poet spent thirteen years in al-Andalus, participating in the political events that involved the taifa kingdoms; the Christian onslaught coming from the North, and the looming Almoravid conquest. In 1091, Ibn Hamdis witnessed, together with the dismayed population of Seville, the arrest and deportation of his patron and friend al-Mu'tamid to North Africa. Also in 1091, as the Andalusian taifas fell to Yusuf ibn Tashufin’s armies, Sicily fell irremediably to the Normans, who, in that year, completed their conquest of the island. The new lords of al-Andalus, the Almoravids (from the Arabic al-murābiṭūn, or “inhabitants of monasteries”) were suspicious of poetry and other urban refinements, deemed religiously reproachable.
Ibn Hamdis elected to leave again. After a perilous sea-journey, in which his boat was shipwrecked, causing his beloved slave-girl, Jawhara, to drown (to her he devoted some of his finest elegies), the poet settled once again in North Africa. He found new patrons at the Zirid court of Mahdiya, in modern-day Tunis. There he eulogized the Zirids Tamim ibn al-Mu'izz (1062-1108), Yahya ibn Tamim (1108–1131), Ali ibn Yahya (1115–1121) and the latter's son al-Hasan ibn Ali (1121–1152). He also praised the Hammadid al-Mansur ibn al-Nasir at Bijaya (modern-day Algeria) although his exact movements between the two courts are not clear. According to Hajji Khalifa's Kashf al-ẓunūn ʾan asāmī al-kutub wa-al-funūn, Ibn Hamdis died in 527 AH (1132/33 AD), aged seventy-seven, in Majorca (to the amir of the island he dedicated two panegyrics), although the many poems on old age penned by Ibn Hamdis suggest that the poet was over eighty years old. He may have been buried close to his old friend of the Seville brigade Ibn al-Labbana (d.1113), and to his compatriot, Abu al-Arab.
The Sicilian scholar Ibn Zafar (d. ca. 1169) states that Ibn Hamdis compiled his dīwān by his own hand. Two manuscript copies of the dīwān are extant and were both used by ʾIḥsān ʿAbbās to establish his edition (Beirut 1960). The first copy is kept at the Vatican Library, Rome (447). The second is preserved in the Asiatic Museum in Saint Petersburg (294). Other scattered poems by Ibn Hamdis are found in Ibn Bassam's Dhakhīra fī Maḥāsin ʾAhl al-Jazīra. Some of these poems are taken directly from the dīwān, others are unique, while others still are variant readings which differ from the dīwān.
- The following entry is partly extracted from the dissertation: "The Poetics of Aging: Spain and Sicily at the Twilight of Muslim Sovereignty" by Nicola Carpentieri (Harvard, 2012), 72-88. https://dash.harvard.edu/handle/1/10381396
- See also Carpentieri. N: "Towards a Poetics of Ageing: Private and Collective Loss in Ibn Ḥamdīs' Late Verse" in Journal of Transcultural Medieval Studies, 3, 1, (2016)
- Ibn Ḥamdīs, Dīwān. Ed. ʾIḥsān ʿAbbās. (Beirut, 1960), 22.
- Granara, W. 'Ibn Ḥamdīs and the Poetry of Nostalgia', The Literature of Al-Andalus. (Cambridge, University Press, 2000), 180-183.
- Ibn Ḥamdīs, Dīwān. Ed. ʾIḥsān ʿAbbās. (Beirut 1960), 22.
- Ibn Ḥamdīs, Dīwān, Ed. ʾIḥsān ʿAbbās (Beirut, 1960), 23.