The Luzumiyat of Abu'l-Ala/Notes to the Quatrains



To open a poem with a few amatory lines, is a literary tradition among Arab poets. But Abu'l-Ala, having had no occasion to evince such tender emotions, whether real or merely academic, succeeded, as in everything else he did, in deviating from the trodden path. I find, however, in his minor Diwan, Suct uz-Zand, a slight manifestation of his youthful ardor, of which this and the succeeding quatrains, descriptive of the charms of Night, are fairly representative.


"Ahmad," Mohammed the Prophet.


"And hear the others who with cymbals try," etc., meaning the Christians; in the preceding quatrain he referred to the Mohammedans.


Milton, in II Penseroso, also speaks of night as the starred Ethiop queen"; and Shakespeare, in Romeo and Juliet, has these lines:

"Her beauty hangs upon the cheek of night
As a rich jewel in an Ethiop ear."

The source of inspiration is the same to all world-poets, who only differ sometimes in the jars they bring to the source.


The purple, white, and gray garments, symbolizing Man's dreams of power, of love, and of bliss.


The same idea is expressed by Omar Khayyam. Here are the first three lines of the 122nd quatrain of Heron-Allen's literal translation:

"To him who understands the mysteries of the
The joy and sorrow of the world is all the same,
Since the good and the bad of the world all come
to an end."

"Howdaj," a sort of palanquin borne by camels; hence, a wedding or a triumphal procession.


"Thamud" and "'Ad," two of the primitive tribes which figure prominently in the legendary history of Arabia. They flouted and stoned the prophets that were sent to them, and are constantly held up in the Koran as terrible examples of the pride that goeth before destruction.

"Hashem's fearless lad," Mohammed the Prophet.


I quote again from Omar, Fitzgerald's translation:

"And this reviving Herb, whose Tender Green
Fledges the River-Lip, on which we lean—
Ah, lean upon it lightly! for who knows
From what once lovely Lip it springs unseen."

In justice to both the Persian and the Arab poet, however, I give the 43d quatrain of Heron-Allen's, which I think contains two lines of that of Fitzgerald, together with Abu'l-Ala's own poetic-fancy.

"Everywhere that there has been a rose or tulip
There has been spilled the crimson blood of a
Every violet shoot that grows from the earth
Is a mole that was once upon the cheek of


"Zakkum," a tree which, in Mohammedan mythology, is said to have its roots in hell, and from which are fed the dwellers of hell-fire. In one of the Chapters of the Koran, The Saffat, I find this upon it: "And is that a pure bounty, or the Zakkum tree? It is a tree which groweth in hell; its fruits are like unto the heads of the devils, who eat from it, and from it fill their stomachs."

Zakkum is also one of the bitter-fruited trees of Arabia. And the people there speak of "a mouthful of zakkum" when they want to describe an unhappy experience. It is also the name of one of the plants of the desert, whose flower is like the jasmine; and of one of the trees of Jericho, whose fruit is like the date, but somewhat bitter.


"Jannat," Paradise. "Juhannam," Hell.


And Tennyson also says:

"There is more truth in honest doubt.
Believe me, than in all the creeds."


"Mutakallem," disputant. The mutakallemin are the logicians and theologians of Islam.


Hadil is a poetic term for dove. And in Arabic mythology it is the name of a particular dove, which died of thirst in the days of Noah, and is bemoaned until this day.

"Ababil," a flock of birds, who scourged with flint-stones which they carried in their beaks, one of the ancient Arab tribes, noted for its idolatry and evil practices.


I quote again from Omar, Fitzgerald's version, quatrain 44:

"Why, if the Soul can fling the dust aside,
And naked on the air of Heaven ride,
Were't not a shame—were't not a shame
for him
In this clay carcass crippled to abide?"

And from Heron-Allen's, quatrain 145:

"O Soul, if thou canst purify thyself from the
dust of the clay.
Thou, naked spirit, canst soar in the heav'ns.
The Empyrian is thy sphere—let it be thy shame
That thou comest and art a dweller within the
confines of earth."


"The walking dust was once a thing of stone," is my rendering of the line,

"And he concerning whom the world is puzzled
Is an animal evolved of inorganic matter."

This line of Abu'l-Ala is much quoted by his enthusiastic admirers of the present day to prove that he anticipated Darwin's theory of evolution. And it is remarkable how the fancy of the poet sometimes coincides with the logical conclusions of the scientist.


"Iblis," the devil.


"Rabbi," my lord God.


This quatrain is quoted by many of the Biographers of Abu'l-Ala to prove that he is a materialist. Which argument is easily refuted, however, with others quatrains taken at random from the Luzumiyat.


Omar was also a confessed cynical-hypocrite. Thus runs the first line of the 114th quatrain of Heron-Allen's:

"The world being fleeting I practise naught but

And he also chafes in the chains of his sins. Following is the 23d quatrain of the same translation:

"Khayyam, why mourn for thy sins?
From grieving thus what advantage more or less
dost thou gain?
Mercy was never for him who sins not,
Mercy is granted for sins; why then grieve?"

Abu'l-Ala, in a quatrain which I did not translate, goes even farther in his questioning perplexity. "Why do good since thou art to be forgiven for thy sins?" he asks.


"Kaaba Stone," the sacred black stone in the Kaaba at Meccah.


The American poet, Lowell, in "The Crisis," utters the same cry:

"Truth forever on the scaffold,
Wrong forever on the throne."


"And the poor beetle that we tread upon
In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great
As when a giant dies."
—Shakespeare: Measure for Measure.

"To let go a flea is a more virtuous act than to give a dirham to a beggar."—Abu'l-Ala.


Omar too, in the 157th quatrain of Heron-Allen's—

"Had I charge of the matter I would not have
And likewise could I control my going, where
could I go?"


"Thy two soul-devouring angels," the angels of death and resurrection.


 • "Nubakht," one of the opponents of the Prophet Mohammed.


Rabbi," my lord God.


"And like the dead of Ind," referring to the practice of the Hindus who burn their dead.

"Munker" and "Nakir," the two angels who on the Day of Judgment open the graves of the dead and cross-examine them—the process is said to be very cruel—as to their faith. Whosoever is found wanting in this is pushed back into the grave and thence thrown into Juhannam. No wonder Abu'l-Ala prefers cremation.


He wrote his own epitaph, which is:

"This wrong to me was by my father done,
But never by me to any one."


"Izrail," the angel of death.


These will suggest to the reader Shakespeare's lines:

"Imperial Ceasar, dead and turned to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away;
O, that that earth, which kept the world in awe,
Should stop a wall t'expel the winter's flaw."


Compare this with Omar's:

Thou hast no power over the morrow,
And anxiety about the morrow is useless to thee:
Waste not thou the moment, if thy heart is
not mad,
For the value of the remainder of thy life is
not certain."