SOAS University of London

Centre of Islamic Studies

Poetic Geographies: Regional Identity in Pre-Islamic Arabia

Nathaniel Miller

Date: 7 February 2018Time: 1:00 PM

Finishes: 7 February 2018Time: 2:00 PM

Venue: Paul Webley Wing (Senate House) Room: S209

Type of Event: Seminar

In the traditional account of Islam’s emergence, early Arabic poetic culture is emblematic of polytheism, barbarism, and tribalism in a chauvinist sense. Islam’s urban cosmopolitanism, textually and socially, was felt to have superseded these values. Drawing on non-Arabic sources, particularly in Greek and Syriac, scholars have in the last couple of decades increasingly emphasised early Arabic culture’s interconnectedness with sedentary polities, particularly the Byzantine and Sasanian empires. On an ecclesiastical, diplomatic, and military level, there is strong evidence for this. However, only a small number of tribes (Ghassan and Lakhm, the leaders of which were clients of the Byzantines and Sasanians respectively) can be concretely related to contemporary non-Arabic sources in this manner. These examples only give a partial picture of Arabian identity in the period, and I propose instead a model of multiple, competing tribal identities, especially among nomadic poets.

The paper highlights in particular two broad regional sensibilities, the Najdi and Hijazi, based respectively in the central highlands of Arabia, bordering on Iraq, and on the mountainous western coast along the Red Sea. While a more or less common Arabic koine was used across the Arabian peninsula for poetry, there were significant formal differences between Najdi and Hijazi poetics. These formal differences developed as the result of several factors, but two are particularly salient: differences in spoken languages and divergent ecological environments. Finally, Najdi and Hijazi poetics, by and large, imagined distinct and relatively autonomous geographies; these lived geographies were structured rhetorically as the basis for the group identity known as ‘tribalism’.

About the Speaker:

Nathaniel Miller is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Cambridge. He received his PhD in Arabic Language and Literature from the University of Chicago in June 2016. His research focuses on premodern Arabic poetry as a social practice, and he is working on his first book, a revision of his dissertation, Tribal Poetics in Early Arabic Culture: The Case of As‘ar al-Hudhaliyyin, on the anthology of the Hudhayl tribe's pre- and early Islamic poets. A second project, supported by the Leverhulme Trust, revolves around the geographically-organised twelfth-century poetry anthology Kharidat al-qasr wa-jarīdat al ‘aṣr (‘The Pearl of the Palace and Annals of the Age’), by Saladin’s secretary, ‘Imad al-Din al-Isfahani  (d. 597/1201). Nathaniel Miller has published in Arabica, the Oxford Dictionary of Late Antiquity, and the Mamluk Studies Review.

Organiser: Centre of Islamic Studies