Reclaiming an Imamite Poet: Abu Tammam and His Ode for Imam Ali (as)

Ḥabīb ibn Aws al-Tā’ī (188-231 AH), better known by his nickname Abū Tammām, is widely regarded as one of the most celebrated and highly esteemed Arab poets of the Abbasid era. His status in Arabic literature is such that he is easily regarded one of the most prolific Arab poets of all-time, ranking up with al-Mutanabbī and al-Buḥturī as the “Lāt, Manāt, and ‘Uzza of Arabic poetry.”[1] His prowess over the Arabic language was so deep that despite being a poet of the post-Islamic period (al-muḥdath), some grammarians such as al-Zamakhsharī would rely on his couplets as linguistic evidence of Arabic idiom.[2] In addition to his copious poetry, he was the composer of a famous anthology entitled “Kitāb al-Ḥamāsah,” which assembled 884 specimens of early Arabic poetry in 10 volumes and quickly became a classical work in Arabic literature to the present-day.

Up until recently, great speculation existed regarding his religious views, although several Shī’ah biographers have clearly mentioned that he was an Imāmite.[3] These doubts existed because his printed diwan has suffered from significant manipulation, to the extent that his poetry expressing clear wilāyah for the Ahl al-Bayt had either been completely removed or distorted.[4] Nonetheless two adept Iranian researchers, Habib Rasi Tehrani and Azra Yazdi Mehr, recently extracted three important qaṣīdahs praising the Ahl al-Bayt from 11 ancient manuscripts of Abū Tammām’s diwan, the earliest of which is transcribed from a copy dated to 381 AH.[5] In addition to the below qaṣīdah regarding Imām ‘Alī (as), which we have translated in rhyming verse, Abū Tammām has two other qaṣidahs that are specifically for the Ahl al-Bayt and leave no shadow of doubt about his Imāmite persuasion.[6] As usual, we have attempted to adhere as closely to the original meanings as possible, and furnished footnotes to our translation derived from our own observations as well as the authors’ Persian commentary of the poem.[7]

أظبيةُ حيث استنّت الكثب العفر

رويدك لا يقني لك اللوم والزجر

Oh gazelle midst where the antelopes venture
Take heed lest you’re slain by ire and censure![8]
أسرّي حذارا أن يفيدك رده

ويحسر من ماء محاسنك الهذر

Conceal and beware, lest you fall to its coup
And scoffing strips clean your virtue’s dew;
أراك خلال الأمر والنهي ثرّة

عداك الردى ما أنت والنهي والأمر

Through hests and bans, I see that you frolic
May death smite you not, for you’re not of such logic![9]
سيشغلني عما فرغت لمثله

حوادث أشجاء لصاحبها نكر

Yes I’d tread in your mold, if I’d not been besieged
By woes that do leave their victim aggrieved![10]
ودهر أساء الصنع حتى كأنما

يقضّي نذورا في مساءتي الدهر

By a Fate that doles such strife at a rate
One would think it’s avowed in sealing my fate;[11]
وما زلت ألقى ذاك بالصبر لابسا

رداءيه حتى خفت أن يجزع الصبر

But I don’t cease in donning twain cloaks of serenity
Such that Patience herself near waived her identity![12]
هم الناس سار الذمّ والحوب بينهم

وقيّد أن يغشاهم الحمد والأجر

Midst a folk who are wont towards vice and reproach

With whom worth and merit can never be broached;

أريني فتى لم يقلِه الناس أو فتى

يصحّ له عرض وليس له وفر

Pray show me a lad who isn’t abhorred
Or a lad that holds rank despite being poor!?[13]
وإن الذي أحذاني الشيب للذي

رأيت ولم تكمل لي التسع والعشر

For my hair has turned white by this what you spy,
Though of years—ten plus nine—I’m still yet shy[14]
طغى من عليها واستبدّ برأيه

فقولهم إلا أقلّهم الكفر

Earth’s folk have erred, so rigid in view

Ingrate of persuasion, excepting a few:

طويتم ثنايا تخبؤون عوارها

فأنّى لها خبء وقد ظهر النشر

By gnashing your teeth you’ve hid their decay
But where will you hide now that all’s on display?[15]
فعلتم بأبناء النبي ورهطه

أفاعيل أدناها الخيانة والغدر

On the Prophet’s folk, as such you were driven
To wreak crimes, no less than abject treason![16]
ومن قبلها أجلبتم لوصيّه

بداهية دهياء ليس لها قدر

And prior to that, wrought on his successor

A scheme so conniving, beyond every measure

فجئتم بها بكرا عوانا ولم يكن

لها قبلها مثل عوان ولا بكر

You unleashed on him wars, one after another
The likeness of which there was none before, ever![17]
أخوه إذا عد الفخار وصهره

فلا مثله أخ ولا مثله صهر

While all the while, for the Prophet no other
Was both son-in-law and his cousin-brother;[18]
وشدّ به أزر النبي محمد

كما شدّ من موسى بهارونه الأزر

By whom the Prophet Muḥammad was backed
Exactly how Moses by Aaron was backed[19]
هو السيف سيف الله في كلّ مشهد

وسيف الرسول لا دادن ولا دثر

He’s the Sword—God’s sword, in every skirmish
And the Prophet’s sword, not blunted nor tarnished![20]
فأي يد للذمّ لم يبر زندها

ووجه ظلام ليس فيه له أثر

So which guilty hand did he not cleave asunder
And which darkened face beheld not his wonder?
بأحد وبدر حين ماج برجله

وفرسانه أحد وماج بهم بدر

In Badr and Uḥud, when soldiers and knights
Were stormed by hordes of many in flights
ويوم حنين والنضير وخيبر

وبالخندق الثاوي بعقوته عمرو

And then in Ḥunayn, Naḍīr, and Khaybar
Followed by Khandaq where ‘Amr he sabered![21]
سما للمنايا الحمر حتى تكشّفت

وأسيافه حمر وأرماحه حمر

He raced to red fates, till their point of extinction:
His swords and spears were dyed in their crimson,
مشاهد كان الله شاهد كربها

وفارجه والأمر ملتبس إمر

At sites whose woes God Almighty had witnessed
And brought forth His Succor amidst the tempest![22]
ويوم الغدير استوضح الحقّ أهله

بفيحاء لا فيها حجاب ولا ستر

On that Day of Ghadīr, truth showed itself certain,
In a spacious plain, with no veils nor curtains;
أقام رسول الله يدعوهم بها

ليقربهم عرف وينآهم نكر

There stood God’s Apostle and thereupon summoned
To bring virtue forth and shun all perversion:
يمد بضبعيه ويعلم أنه

وليّ ومولاكم فهل لكم خبر

He raised both his hands and ‘Alī did show
As your chief and master: yet still you don’t know?![23]
وكان له جهر بإثبات حقّه

وكان لهم في بزّه حقَّه جهر

But just as he claimed ‘Alī’s right so clear,
Their seizing his right was surely as clear![24]
كما سأل القوم الألى ملكا لهم

تسدّ به الجلّى ويطّلب الوتر

Like a folk before them, who sought a king
To avenge their blood and victory bring,
فلما رأوا طالوت عدّوا سناءهم

عليه وما يغني السناء ولا الفخر

Then when Saul they beheld, they began in their bicker
While theirs was no right to be so embittered
عمى وارتيابا أوضحت مشكلاته

وقيعة يوم النهر إذ وُرد النهر

In blindness and doubt, until being exposed
By the river’s trial, when upon it they closed![25]
لكم ذخركم إن النبي ورهطه

وحبّهم ذخري إذا التُمس الذخر

Your riches do keep, for the kin of the Prophet
And love for them is what I deem profit:[26]
جعلت هواي الفاطميين زلفة

إلى خالقي ما دمت أو دام لى عمر

To Fāṭimah’s spawn I do grant my fervor
And in them, as long as I live, seek my Maker!
وكوّفني ديني على أن منصبي

شآم ونجري أيّة ذكر النجر

For indeed I am Kūfan in this: my religion
Although I be Shāmī in birth and condition![27]
فكم ليلة قضّيتها متململا

إلى أن زقت أطيار سحرتها الزفر

How many a night I toss and I turn,
Till owls of morn do croak in their spurn![28]
أفكر في أحلامكم أين عزّبت

فيصرعني طورا وأصرعه الفكر

On your lives, I ponder: how you were so shunned
And I wrangle this thought till we both succumb![29]
وأعلم أن الذكر فيه بصيرة

لكم وهدى لو أنه فُهم الذكر

And I know that God’s Book alludes to your mention
If only one truly had paid it attention!
وأعلم أن لن تتركوا مخزياتكم

ولم يترك المكروه من شوكه السدر

But I know this ilk will not leave your rancor,
For one fraught with thorns is wont to injure,[30]
إذا الوحي فيكم لم يصركم فإنني

زعيم لكم أن لا يصوركم الشعر

For if they’ve neglected God’s words so sublime

Then I’m sure they’ll not heed my message in rhyme![31]


[1] Al-Mathal al-Sā’ir fī Adab al-Kātib wa al-Shā’ir, volume 1 pages 13-14

[2] As such, al-Zamakhsharī states in his al-Kashshāf:
وهو -أي: أبو تمام- وإن كان محدثًا لا يستشهد بشعره في اللغة، فهو من علماء العربية، فاجعل ما يقوله بمنزلة ما يرويه

“Therefore, he—that is Abū Tammām—even though he be of the novel poets whose poetry is not used to evince linguistic idiom, is indeed a scholar of the Arabic language. Hence I will deem what he states as poetry equal to what he narrates (from his predecessors).”

[3] Among these Shī’ah scholars are Āghā Bozorg al-Tehrānī, Sayyid Muḥsin al-‘Āmilī, ‘Allāmah Ḥillī, ibn Shahr Āshūb, ibn al-Ghaḍā’irī, and al-Najāshī, the last of whom asserts that al-Jāḥiẓ identified Abū Tammām in his Kitāb al-Ḥayawān as “among the prominent personalities of the Rāfiḍah” (although this phrase does not appear in published editions of al-Jāḥiẓ’s work). However, some have cast aspersions on these biographers’ claims because they are all Shī’ite and prominent Sunnī biographers such as Abū Bakr al-Ṣūlī have not mentioned Abu Tammām as being of an Imamite persuasion.

[4] Unfortunately, this has been a common trend in many published poetry collections: poems which express clear affinity for the Ahl al-Bayt are systematically and deliberately either elided or manipulated. Therefore, you will not find Ḥassān ibn Thābit’s poem about Ghadīr in his diwan, despite it having been narrated copiously by both Shī’ah and Sunni biographers. You also do not find the couplet of al-Mutanabbī which he composed for Imam ‘Alī (as) mentioned at all in his 4-volume diwan. Another poem which we translated before on this site, composed by the Sunni Muhammad Majdhūb comparing the graves of Imam ‘Ali (as) and Mu’āwiyah, was also removed from his diwan (

[5] For advanced readers, this book can be found under the heading سه چکامه ولائي از ابو تمام الطائي  (Three Odes on Shi’ism by Abu-Tammam) published in 2021; this work also provides lithographs of the poems from all of the original manuscripts. The work is a testament to the vital importance of manuscriptology in uncovering Shī’ah literature. I am indebted to my friend Sayyid Muḥsin al-Kashmirī for procuring a copy of this important work for me.

[6] The first, known as al-Mīmiyyah al-Imāmiyyah professes wilāyah for all the Imams up to the 10th Imam (as), to whom Abu Tammām was contemporaneous (although Abu Tammām lived until the time of the 11th Imam (as), it appears this qaṣīdah of his was composed during the time of Imam al-Jawad). The other qaṣīdah is in praise of Banū Hāshim and lampooning of Banū Umayyah. Interested readers may refer to the full book cited above for more details.

[7] The actual full poem is 76 couplets however we have abridged it here to 37 couplets which still yet convey the gist of the entire poem.

[8] Abū Tammām employs a classical Arabic rhapsodization trope (al-tashbīb) at the start of his qaṣīdah in addressing an elegant gazelle; while this was an important attention-grabber device for Arabs, it also ties directly into the thrust of Abū Tammām’s composition, as we will explain in the coming footnotes.

[9] In other words, the poet envies that the gazelle moves freely without regard for societal commands and prohibitions; this line employs several poetic devices, including benediction (al-du’ā) and antithesis between command and prohibition (al-ṭibāq).

[10] This is the transition point of Abū Tammām to switch his lament towards a social critique of the hardships of life and human society. This will then be leveraged into reflecting on how society displayed treachery to the Prophet’s household. We see another example of antithesis employed here by contrasting فرغ  (to be free) with شغل (to be busy).

[11] This is an example of epanalepsis (radd al-‘ajz ‘ala al-ṣadr), which we have tried to preserve in translation by employing the word “fate” as a translation of al-dahr. Epanalepsis refers to a rhetorical device wherein a word is repeated in the beginning of a couplet and at its end.

[12] This is an example of personification (al-isti’ārah al-makniyyah), whereby the speaker personifies patience as an individual that herself despairs at the extent of his tribulation. There is a use of the dual form (al-muthannā) for the sake of emphasis.

[13] Abū Tammām bewails the sorry state of his society, in which materialism, hypercriticality, and judgmentalism pervade to the extent that social repute can only be garnered through procuring wealth or enjoying seniority. He employs a rhetorical device here known as grammatical person shift (al-iltifāt), going to a command in the second-person feminine singular here (arīnī). His address is going back to the gazelle in the opening couplet of his qaṣīdah.

[14] This evinces that the author’s age when composing this specific poem was under the age of nineteen, a testament to his prodigious talent.

[15] A complex metaphor (al-tashbīh al-tamthīlī) is employed here, whereby the poet likens those who sought to cover the rights of the Ahl al-Bayt to those who would grit their teeth in great consternation to hide their cavities, although the consequences of rejecting the Ahl al-Bayt’s rightful authority are now so dire that they cannot be hidden any longer. There is again a use of antithesis here between the words ṭawaytum (folding) and al-nashr (unfolding).

[16] The poet likely alludes here to the crimes of systematic murder and/or poisoning of the progeny of Imams Ḥasan and Ḥusayn (as).

[17] The meaning of the Arabic word “bikr” here is a war that is started from scratch while ‘awān implies a war that perpetuates itself after an initial assault. Therefore, the implication is starting wars that were both pre-emptive and reactive. Abū Tammām is undoubtedly alluding to the three wars that Imam ‘Alī (as) faced during his 4-year caliphate: Jamal, Nahrawān, and Ṣiffīn in quick succession.

[18] In this line, there is an intertextual allusion (al-iqtibās) to the reliable Ḥadīth al-Mu’ākhāh (The Narration of Brotherhood), wherein the Holy Prophet (saw) paired the Muhājirūn and Anṣār together in brotherhood pacts, but spared Imam ‘Āli (as) for himself. There is also an allusion to the status of Imam ‘Alī as the husband of Sayyidah Fāṭimah (as).

[19] This is a case of intertextuality (al-iqtibās) from both the Holy Qurān and the Prophetic ḥadīth. The speaker alludes to Sūrah Tāhā verse 31 as well as the famous Ḥadīth al-Manzilah, wherein the Prophet declared Imam ‘Ali (as) as his appointee over Madīnah during his venture to Tabūk.

[20] This appears to be a reference to the famous statement recorded in the history books, “There is no sword except Dhū al-Fiqār and there is no youth except ‘Alī.”

[21] The heroics of Imam ‘Alī (as) during the battles of Badr, Uḥud, Ḥunayn, Khaybar, and Aḥzāb are well-documented and can be found in the relevant sources. As for the Battle of Banū Naḍīr that Abū Tammām mentions here, this may refer to the incident narrated by al-Mufīd in his Kitāb al-Irshād, wherein Imam ‘Alī (as) singlehandedly attacked and dispersed a flock of ten men from the tribe of Banū Naḍīr who ambushed the camp of the Holy Prophet (saw) during its conquest.

[22] There is an intertextual reference here to Qurānic verses 25-27 of Sūrah al-Tawbah. Of note, out of the 28 battles in the Holy Prophet’s lifetime, the only one that Imam ‘Alī (as) did not feature in was the Battle of Tabūk, as he was appointed by the Prophet (saw) to preside over Madīnah during his absence. There is a case of incomplete alliteration (al-jinās) here between the words al-amr (the affair) and imr (dire).

[23] The rhetorical statement “are you not aware?” is an allusion to the fact that the Ḥadīth of Ghadīr is mutawātir and it is impossible for anyone who has even a superficial knowledge about the Holy Prophet’s life to not be aware of this event.

[24] This is one of the most iconic and poignant lines of the poem, wherein several parallelisms are employed while still preserving a meaning that is quite profound. First, there is epanalepsis (radd al-‘ajz ‘alā al-ṣadr) of the Arabic word jahr. Then there is parallel sentence structure between the two stanzas (al-muwāzanah). Finally, there is repetition of words (al-takrār), such as of the word ḥaqq to add further emphasis on the right of Imam ‘Alī (as).

[25] This is a highly masterful intertextual reference (al-iqtibās) to the story of the children of Israel in the Qurān as narrated in Sūrah Baqarah, verses 246-249. Abū Tammām likens Imam ‘Alī (as) here to Tālūt (Saul), who was criticized by the Jews after being appointed their king as not being worthy of leadership. The reference to the river is clever, as while it certainly refers to the story of the river in the story of Saul, it is also an allusion to the Battle of Nahrawān which Imam ‘Alī fought against the Khawārij and their ranks were sifted. A similar mention of this Qurānic-derived argument has been exposited by the Shī’ah scholar Abū al-Fatḥ Muḥammad ibn ‘Alī al-Karājukī (d. 449 AH) in his al-Ta’ajjub min Aghlāṭ al-‘Āmmah fī Mas’alah al-Imāmah:
بل من العجب: اعتذارهم في تأخير الفاضل بما قد اعتذروا به مع سماعهم قصّة طالوت المذكورة في القرآن‌، و تلاوتها عليهم ما اتّصلت الأيام [و بقي الأنام‌]، و لا ينتبهون بها من رقدة الضلال، حيث كرهه الناس و قالوا: أَنَّى يَكُونُ لَهُ الْمُلْكُ عَلَيْنا وَ نَحْنُ أَحَقُّ بِالْمُلْكِ مِنْهُ وَ لَمْ يُؤْتَ سَعَةً مِنَ الْمالِ‌ فلم تمنع كراهتهم له من تقديمه، و أخبر اللّه سبحانه عمّا أوجب رئاسته عليهم و تقدّمه ف: قالَ إِنَّ اللَّهَ اصْطَفاهُ عَلَيْكُمْ وَ زادَهُ بَسْطَةً فِي الْعِلْمِ وَ الْجِسْمِ وَ اللَّهُ يُؤْتِي مُلْكَهُ مَنْ يَشاءُ فأخبرهم أنّ الذي آتاه ‌من علمه و قوّته اقتضى تقديمه في حكمته‌، فكيف لم يعتبروا بهذا من قول اللّه سبحانه و تعالى فيعلموا أنّهم على ضلال في تقديم من عرف ضعفه في علمه و جسمه، على من [قد] حصل الإجماع على أنّ اللّه تعالى قد جعله في بسطة من العلم و الجسم كطالوت في قومه.

“Rather, what is even more astonishing is their (i.e. the Ahl al-Sunnah’s) making excuses in deferring the most meritorious individual from asserting the caliphate (i.e. Imam ‘Alī), despite their having heard the story of Saul mentioned in the Qurān and their copious recitation of it. Yet still, they do not awaken from the slumber of their deviance. For the Qurān clearly mentions that the Children of Israel said, “How can he have the kingdom over us when we are more worthy of the kingdom, and he has not been given wealth in abundance?” As is apparent, their dislike for Saul did not stop him from being preferred for leadership over them. Furthermore, God clearly elucidates why Saul was preferred for leadership where He states: “Indeed God has preferred him over you and increased him in his scope of knowledge and physique, and God grants His kingdom to whomever He wills.” Therefore, God clarifies here that what He gave Saul of knowledge and physique dictated his preference over them in God’s Wisdom. Therefore, how is it that they (i.e. the Ahl al-Sunnah) did not take a lesson from this verse of God the Almighty, and realize that they are on deviance in preferring one for caliphate who was recognized to be flimsy in both his knowledge and physical prowess? On the other hand, there is unanimity among Muslims that God had granted ‘Alī (as) an abundance of knowledge and physical strength.”  

[26] We have adopted a homonym here in English between “profit” and “Prophet” to mimic the repetition of the word dhukhr (treasure) in the Arabic.

[27] The reference to Abū Tammām’s being Kūfan of persuasion is a clear admission of his Shī’ism. In his Risālah ilā al-Fatḥ ibn Khāqān fī Manāqib al-Turk wa ‘Āmmat Jund al-Khilāfah, al-Jāḥiẓ mentions:
وأما الكوفة وسوادها فقد غلب عليها علي وشيعته (As for Kūfa and its surrounding areas, then ‘Alī and his partisans have grown dominant over it). Interestingly, this phrase has been elided out from the edition of the book by ‘Abd al-Salām Muḥammad Hārūn, although it was present in the 1903 Leiden edition.

[28] As noted before, Abū Tammām was likely very young at the time of composing this poem, and at that time he lived in Egypt, likely in difficult financial circumstances.

[29] This line includes a peculiar rule of Arabic grammar known as al-tanāzu’ (grammatical conflict), wherein a word that occurs at the end is governed by two verbs simultaneously. Herein the word “al-fikru” (thought) is simultaneously the subject of “fayuṣri’unī” (so it wrestles me) and the referent object of “uṣri’uhū” (and I wrestle it). According to the Kūfan school of grammar, when grammatical conflict occurs the first governing verb should exert its effect; therefore, it is fitting that Abū Tammām employs their opinion in this line, especially owing to his previous admission of being Kūfan in persuasion.

[30] This is a beautiful rhetorical device known in Arabic as ḥusn al-ta’līl (fantastic etiology), wherein the reason Abū Tammām identifies for why the nawāṣib cannot stop hating the Ahl al-Bayt is because they are like a tree that is embedded with thorns: it has become their nature to hurt and injure.

[31] Although the second person pronouns are used here in the Arabic, we have chosen to change them to the third person, as rapid shifts in grammatical referents are not natural in English.