‘Qasida’: Arabic word for poem is filled with intention

A word that dates from the pre-Islamic period is still used today

Qasida is the Arabic word for poem, but not poetry
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Simply put, the word qasida means poem. Not poetry as a genre or a collection of poems, but one single poem.

Under the umbrella of Arabic literature there are two main arms of study and expression: nather, which translates to prose; and she'er, which translates to poetry.

Qasida is a subset of she'er. Usually a qasida will have a specific title and focuses on a single topic. Officially defined as a praising, satiric or mournful poem, a qasida’s form and meaning has changed since its origins during the pre-Islamic period.

Arabic poetry is one of the earliest forms of Arabic literature, coveted as an oral and written art form pre-dating the sixth century. During the pre-Islamic period, a qasida was often a form of public speech recited in praise of a tribe leader, king or nobleman.

This classic form has a single, elaborate rhythmic structure or verse formation and usually runs from 15 to 80 lines and sometimes more than 100.

Due to the wide spread of Islam in the latter half of the sixth century, the form and practice of the qasida also ventured far and wide, and developed into different strains across Turkish, Persian and Urdu languages. Even the word qasida came to mean different forms and practices of the poem.

In Indonesia, qasida refers to Islamic music in general; in Urdu poetry it became a publicly performed verse often recognising significant events. The qasida was taken and vastly developed by the Persians after the 10th century and it was used as a means to explore philosophy, theology and ethics.

Even in its modern use, qasida, as mentioned earlier, is a poem that explores one topic or issue. This single presiding subject is often expressed, developed and concluded within the poem. In many ways, this singular focus could be a result of the root meaning of the word qasida.

The root of the word qasida is qasada, which translates to intention. And so to write and perform a qasida, involves the very act and intent of wanting to express, celebrate or mourn a particular issue or person.

The form and style of the qasida has changed over time to include free verse poems and more modern and contemporary ways of exploring Arabic in poetry.

Arabic poetry has had a great influence on culture and music. Many of the great classic songs of the Arab world are based on famous Arab poems.

One of many celebrated Arabic songs is Qareat El Fengan, which literally translates to Reader of Cup, but a more accurate translation would be The Fortune Teller. The song, recorded and performed by the great Egyptian singer and actor Abdel Halim Hafez in 1976 was originally a poem by the celebrated Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani.

The poem details a man’s visit to a fortune teller who foretells his unhappy journey and voyage in search of love.

Scroll through the gallery below to see The National's pick of Arabic words of the week

Updated: January 06, 2023, 6:02 PM