by Mehnaz Sahibzada (Author),
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The story of Islamic poetry is a story that spans continents, languages, and time periods. It is a narrative marked by various tones and considerations: satiric and elegiac, laudatory and mystical. A diverse cast of characters populate this story and the plot twists lean on political, social, and spiritual upheavals. For the Muslim reader and for those familiar with the values and traditions of Islam, the conflicts presented in Islamic poetry are clothed in familiar figures, images, and diction: allusions to the Prophet Muhammad; metaphorical references to the Ka’ba; and words such as adhan (call to prayer), hijra (migration), and jihad (struggle), which mark the basics of iman (faith). From Asia and Africa to Europe and beyond, Islamic poetry has emerged in various forms and dialects, a testament to Islam’s ability to speak to and through the forces that bind and characterize the various cultures that have been influenced by it. The concerns of Muslim poets span the gamut from a longing for Allah and janna (paradise) to liberation from oppression and the judgmental gaze of others. In sum, the story of Islamic poetry is at once a romantic and philosophical tale, and each chapter introduces an inquiry into a new language in which it is written, a different region that adds itself to the chronicle of a building exposition. It is a narrative so labyrinthine in its complexity that any attempt to summarize its overarching plot is ambitious. Still each perspective adds something worthy: an invitation toward deeper study and analysis.
There are many paths into this subject, and the path taken here will consider three topics broadly: (1) the elements that might define Islamic poetry; (2) the two dominant classical languages in which it is written (Arabic and Persian); and (3) the place of Islamic poetry in the digital age. This overview is at once a secular and sacred telling, for the story of Islamic poetry is a story that delves into the cultural history of Islam and Muslim peoples, and how Islam has both impacted and been shaped by human creativity and imaginative expression. Muslim poets, both classic and modern, whose writings have contributed to this category have been activists and Sufis (mystics). They have been refugees and immigrants. They are writers who have both questioned and embraced their faith through their poetry, sometimes using provocative metaphors, like drunkenness and lust, to express their spiritual zeal. Whether writing to enlighten, engage, or entertain, they have contributed to the story of Islamic poetry in distinct yet overlapping ways. Here is one perspective on their story.
Figure 1. Colored Map of the Middle East. Source: Yorkfoto/Getty Images
At its most basic definition, Islamic poetry is poetry written by Muslims. However, this definition is inadequate in its broadness and limitations, for could a South Asian American poet who identifies as an atheist, raised in a Muslim family, writing chiefly about their passion for cooking, for instance, be considered a Muslim poet? Perhaps, but this inclusion might be a categorical one, based on the upbringing of the writer rather than the thematic focus of their work and contribution to Islamic artistic expression. To explore the problem of defining Islamic poetry and the poets who are included in this category, let us begin with the broader question of what constitutes Islamic literature.
Is Islamic literature a counterpoint to Christian literature, in that it is theological literature or literature that focuses on religious themes (Werho 1986)? Or is Islamic literature a reference to literature produced in Arabic, the language primarily associated with Islam and the Quran, the Muslim holy book? Could non-Muslim writers composing novels and poems in Arabic also be classified under the broader category of Islamic literature? And how might one rationalize the success of the renowned thirteenth-century Persian Sufi poet Jalal-ud-din Rumi, whose mystical verses, translated into English, have earned him the status as one of the best-selling poets in America, where he is often marketed as the guru of universal love rather than a Muslim poet? Moreover, what of Anglo-American and European writers emulating traditional poetic forms associated with Islam and the Middle East, for instance, the ghazal: could their writings be included in a broader classification of Islamic literature today? And non-Muslims who sincerely explore Muslim themes in free verse—do they contriubte to a subcategory of Islamic literature? Consider the 1989 poem, “Ex-Embassy” written by former poet Laureate of California, Carole Muske-Dukes, with the lines, “A For Sale sign likens it / to a house on a cloud, / a sunrise mosque. It has / patterned tiles with sickles / of wheat or hashish” (1989). This poem appears on the Poetry Foundation website under the heading “Poems of Muslim Faith and Islamic Culture.” However, a traditional scholar of Islam may not identify this as a conventional example of Islamic poetry.
Figure 2. The Holy Quran. Rehman Asad/Getty Images
Islamic literature as a category includes both Islamic and literary components, and it is a form of expression which emerges from the perspective of a Muslim in any age, decade, or setting (Osman 2008). Secular Muslims writing about strictly secular concerns and non-Muslims writing in classically Islamic languages (Arabic, Persian, and Urdu) as well as in English, may represent a subset of Islamic literature in a discipline that is more closely associated with literary studies rather than religious studies. However, one thing is for certain: Islamic literature, as a category of analysis, deserves more attention by literary critics around the globe (Al Areqi 2016). It has largely been ignored in the field of literary studies. This may be due to the fact that not enough Muslims engage in the field of literary theory and criticism with an emphasis on Islamic literature, or scholars of literature have not generally pursued a study of Islamic literature. Early Islamic writings, during the time of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) were written in Arabic, the language associated with the Quran and synonymous with Islam itself. Consequently, the categories of Islamic studies and Islamic literature were essentially the same. Over time, with the spread of Islam across cultures, languages, and time periods, the body of literary work has grown. It is becoming more important to create a space for the study of Islamic literature as a subcategory of both Islamic studies and literary studies.
Within the broader category of Islamic literature, Islamic poetry falls into the realm of at least three disciplines: Islamic studies, literary studies, and poetics. Moreover, the ambiguity of defining what constitutes Islamic poetry begins with the core text of Islam itself, the Quran. The extraordinary eloquence of the Quran has been likened to poetry, and it is true that the Quran’s stylistic techniques, such as the use of repetition, symbolism, and rhyme, from a literary studies perspective, would classify the holy book as a text of sacred poetry. However, despite the poetic prose of the Quran, whose forms and aesthetic have been compared to the poetry of pre-Islamic Arabia, to classify the Quran as a work of poetry would be, to say the least, problematic for many Muslims—if not blasphemous. For instance, in his article, “The Literary Miracle of the Quran,” published in the International Journal of Humanities and Social Science in 2016, Dr. Meraj Ahmad Meraj, Assistant Professor in the Department of Arabic at Aliah University in Kolkata, India, argues that although the Quran is a literary miracle, it is not a work of literature:
The Quran is known as a momentous literary masterpiece of Arabic literature yet its verse was at many times revealed for specific circumstances and events that occurred […]. All literary masterpieces have undergone revision and deletion to ensure literary perfection, however the Quran was revealed instantaneously. The Noble Quran was not granted to any other prophet. Its linguistic superiority, style, clarity of message, strength of argument, quality of rhetoric, and the human inability to match even its shortest chapter till the end of time grant it an exquisite uniqueness. This conviction is as strong for believers of today as it has been for believers of the past. As the tradition of truth is distinguished from falsehood, the authenticity of the Quran has been challenged today as it has been in the past. The Quran is the eternal miracle. It is the word of Allah which no human anywhere will ever be able to compose something like it in times to come and everywhere. It continues to be a literary source of such stature that no literary figure has been able to produce anything resembling it.
In this summary by Meraj, the Quran is described as a miracle, and the word of Allah surpasses any literary composition by a human. The superior stylistic sophistication of the Quran is testament to its stature. Its inability to be emulated proves the Quran’s veracity, and therefore, it may not be compared to human compositions, especially poetry. Meraj goes on to explicitly emphasize the fact that it would be incorrect to classify the Quran as poetry:
The Quran is not poetry. [Accusations] were made during the lifetime of the prophet that it was poetry. The accusation was based on the usage of a particular style employed by the Quran which is very close to Saj’ [a form of rhymed prose Arabic]. Apart from the fact that Saj’ is not as sophisticated as poetry. The accusation was motivated to allege that the message of the Quran was not of Divine origin. [They] refuted the accusation and said: “This is verily the revealed word of an honored messenger. It is not the word of a poet.” Arabic poetry usually dealt with pure fantasy and with matters which hardly [have] any basis in wisdom. The Quran, on the other hand, is a book of pure wisdom. Furthermore, Poetry usually dealt with ephemeral matters, whereas the Quran emphasizes matters of everlasting values and eternal life. Arabic poetry combined truth and falsehood in such a way that there was an inability to distinguish between the two, whereas the Quran is absolute truth. Moreover, poetry was usually an array of words which impressed the listeners with its artistic beauty. The impact of such poetry, however, was only short lived, whereas the Quran is devoid of exaggeration and ephemeral matters […]. The Quran is not authored by any human being. It was presented by [the] Prophet of Islam but he himself made it very clear that he was not its author and that Allah had bestowed it through revelation.
The passage above reveals that from the perspective of many faithful Muslims, classifying the Quran as a work of literature, specifically poetry, is to categorize a divine work in human terms. However, Meraj’s faith-based arguments also reveal that people have raised this question since the inception of Islam and continue to do so, necessitating a defense and explication of the Quran’s distinct status as a divine literary miracle revealed to humanity rather than a literary work composed by a poet. So what does the Quran itself have to say about poets and poetry? The Quran encourages poetry that reflects Islamic values and morals. However, when poetry veers away from such concerns, it can be a destructive force, such as the poetry of those poets who guide people toward sin: “As for those [pagan] poets, only the perverse follow them. Do you not see that they go too far in every direction and say things, which they cannot do?” (Ash-Shu’ara/The Poets 26:224–6 quoted in Islam and the Quran 2014).
A study of Islamic poetry involves balancing an Islamic studies approach, which emphasizes the perspective of the believer, with a literary studies/secular approach, which might frame the Quran as a work of prose poetry and the finest example of classical literary Arabic. In the next section, we will examine the two dominant classical languages in which Islamic poetry has been composed: Arabic and Persian. Although there are other significant languages in which Islamic poetry has been celebrated (Urdu, Punjabi, and Bengali, for instance), Arabic and Persian are most closely associated with the inception and early development of Islamic writing and poetry. A basic understanding of these forms is essential before delving into the regions, dialects, and aesthetic elements that mark the broader story of Islamic Poetry.
Islam emerged in the seventh century CE in the modern-day region of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Since its inception, the Islamic tradition has expanded across nations and continents, becoming the dominant religion in over twenty-five countries, including regions as diverse as Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and Malaysia. Although Arabic, the language in which the Quran is composed, is considered the sacred language of Islam, the countries today with the highest population of Muslims include Indonesia, India and Pakistan—all non-Arabic speaking countries. Consequently, Islamic religious poetry has been composed in a wide range of tongues, from Arabic to Chinese. Regional dialects and aesthetic forms have blended with Islamic faith to produce poetry that is an extension of the region in which it is produced, but these poems share overlapping forms and themes. In this section, we will consider the two dominant classical languages of Islamic poetry: Arabic and Persian.
According to the Islamic tradition, the Quran (which literally means “recitation”) was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) beginning the year 610 CE in Mecca. As discussed in the previous section, from the perspective of the faithful Muslim, the Quran is considered to be a divinely inspired book, the unadulterated word of God, a message sent to Muhammad via the Angel Gabriel, revealed over time to be shared with the broader community. As there was a well-developed tradition of poetry before Muhammad’s revelation, when he began reciting the eloquent teachings that would comprise the Quran, many of his critics accused him of being a poet, a charge that implied the illegitacy of the Quran as a divinely inspired sacred text. Yet the poetic ingenuity of the Quran is often cited as proof of its veracity by Muslims. Still it is important to note that the story of Islamic poetry begins with Quranic revelation in a culture and context where poetry was a dominant art form and where poetic oral expression was valued (Encyclopedia.com n.d.). The Quran was both shaped by these pre-Islamic poetic traditions and contrasted against them.
In pre-Islamic Arabia, poets enjoyed a celebrated status. Viewed as having a connection to other worldly beings, such as jinns and spirits, their oral compositions held spiritual significance. One of the most popular poetic forms of this time was the ode or qasida. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “[The Qasida] is a laudatory, elegiac, or satiric poem that is found in Arabic, Persian, and many related Asian literatures. The classic is an elaborately structured ode of 60 to 100 lines, maintaining a single end rhyme that runs through the entire piece” (Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica 2017). However, with the emergence of Islam and the accusation of critics that Muhammad was a poet, not a prophet, pre-Islamic poets were at times shunned by Muslim readers for promoting pagan ideals and values. For instance, sura (chapter) 26 of the Quran distinguishes between poets who write from a place of ego and those, like Muhammad, who are conduits for God’s message (Encyclopedia.com n.d.). But as Busrui and Malarkey point out in their article, “A Brief Wondrous History of Arabic Literature: Truth, Beauty and the Poetry of Islam,” the Quran, as both a spiritual and literary masterpiece, is embedded in Arabic culture: “Nowhere else [than in the Quran], perhaps, is the symbiosis between religion and literature so clear-cut as in the culture of the Arabs.” Moreover, they state that “the most essential point about Arabic literature is that it stems directly from the Holy Qur’an—pre-Islamic poetry notwithstanding” (Busrui and Malarkey 2015). Prior to the rise of Islam, there is little to no evidence of writings in Arabic. Poems were transmitted orally and illiteracy was the norm. But as noted by Busrui and Malarkey, “This was, however, no bar to a fundamental appreciation of poetry among the Bedouin nomads.” Following the death of the Prophet Muhammad, the suras of the Quran were written down. And in the centuries that followed, marked by the rise and spread of Islam, Arabic became a dominant literary language, as “Muslim poets adapted the pre-Islamic genre of the qasida, the monorhyme praise poem, for religious purposes” (Encyclopedia.com n.d.). The qasida became for Muslim writers a form in which to write laudatory poems about Allah and to eulogize the Prophet or religious martyrs. Many qasidas were composed and written down in the eighth and ninth centuries CE.
The emergence of Sufism or Islamic mysticism also saw the expression of Islamic Arabic poetry deepen and develop as Muslim ascetics began composing mystical love poetry focused on their devotion to god. These poems focused on the challenges of loving from a distance: suffering in separation, desiring union, and the relinquishment of self in the other. Sufi poets, like the notable Iraqi mystical poet Rabia al-’Adawiya (707 to 801 CE), a woman deemed to be a saint for her extreme piety, dedication to God, and refusal to wed, wrote didactic poems about her dedication to God that inspired other mystics to embrace the notion of Divine Love. Rabia’s poem “[Oh my Lord]” (1994) is an example of her ecstatic love for God.
At the end of the poem, in her claim to be “alone with You,” the word “You” is generally interpreted to refer to God. Rabia’s brief poem expresses her direct connection with God.
Between the tenth and thirteenth century, Sufi poetry in Arabic experienced a temporary decline, until emerging Sufi writers, such as the Egyptian Ibn al-Arabi (1165–1440 CE), began working in the form. His poem, “A Garden Among the Flames,” translated by Michael A. Sells and quoted in a piece entitled “The Poetry of Ibn Arabi,” emphasizes the Sufi ideal of universality and love:
A Garden Among the Flames
a garden among the flames!
My heart can take on
a meadow for gazelles,
a cloister for monks,
For the idols, sacred ground,
Ka’ba for the circling pilgrim,
the tables of the Torah,
the scrolls of the Qur’ān.
I profess the religion of love;
wherever its caravan turns along the way,
that is the belief,
the faith I keep.
In Ibn Al-Arabi’s poem, the imagery of Islam is combined with the Sufi idea of a self beyond the confines of conventional religious practice. He employs the mystical notion of universality to “profess the religion of love.”
The use of metaphor in poetry captures well the mystical goal of reconciling or transcending false dualisms that structure language and rational thought such as self and other or earthly and divine.
While Arabic poetry was experiencing a resurgence in the thirteenth century, Persian poetry had been thriving in various Muslim regions and was quickly becoming the dominant language of religious and mystical poetry. Although the qasida form had been adopted and developed by Persian poets, they popularized another form that has become as traditional and respected among Muslim poets as the sonnet is in the west: the ghazal. The ghazal is a lyric poem told in a series of rhyming couplets that often focus on love. Although composed in Arabic, in the eighth century the ghazal found a home in Persian, a language in which it was developed and refined stylistically, later to spread in popularity through the Indian subcontinent, and more recently, in the West. In Persian, the number of couplets in a ghazal was expanded from seven to fifteen, a refrain (or repetition) was added as a constraint to the form, and the use of the poet’s name in the final sher or stanza became traditional (Rahman 2019).
Figure 3. People visit Mevlana Museum, the mausoleum of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, the father of Sufism who lived in the thirteenth century, in Konya, central Turkey. Source: ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images.
The most well-known Muslim poet in the West, Jalal-ud-din Rumi (1207–1237 CE) was born in Balkh (the modern-day region of Afghanistan). Perhaps the greatest Persian language poet and mystic, he is known both for his Masnavi (spiritual couplets) and his ghazals. Traveler, Sufi, and romantic, Rumi’s ecstatic verses emphasize yearning, mysticism, and universal love. In 1244, Rumi met a wandering dervish named Shams Tabriz, whose influence would forever shape him both metaphysically and creatively. The two worked closely together, neglecting those around them, until Shams suddenly disappeared in 1246 never to return. Overwhelmed by grief, loss, and love, Rumi wrote a series of ghazals and quatrains (four-line poems) that captured the joys and sorrows of love, including the anguish of being separated from one’s beloved. Rumi’s poem “The sky has never seen such a moon” (2017), translated by Brad Gooch and Maryam Mortaz, which appeared in a 2017 issue of World Literature Today, is an example of one of the ghazals composed by Rumi as he processed the loss of his beloved mystical companion Shams.
Figure 4. Mosque silhouette in night sky with crescent moon and star. Source: Salvator Barki/Getty Images.
As a poetic genre, the ghazal focuses on unrequited love. Due to the structural form of the ghazal, which involves rhyme and repetition, poets often use familiar images (veiled women, wine, rose gardens, and attractive men) to explore ambiguous themes using sensual and familiar images that veer into the provocative. Though the ghazal form is loosely translated into English, “The sky has never seen such a moon” uses nature and wine imagery as metaphors for love.
Two other important figures of note in classical Persian poetry include Omar Khayyam (1048–1131 CE) and Hafez (1310–1390 CE). Khayyam, a mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher, was born in the modern-day region of northeastern Iran; he was known during his time for scientific achievements, but in the West, he is known for his quatrains collected in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Hafez was raised in Shiraz, listening to his father recite Quranic passages from memory. He worked as a copyist, a teacher, and a court poet for Abu Ishak. He is a celebrated poet of Persian literature, known for his ghazals, in particular, and his writings remain influential today.
Poets and poetry of every epoch seek to evoke the imagination and stir the emotions. In writing a poem, a poet seeks to express their concerns lyrically, with beauty in mind. Writing poetry involves alchemy, and Islamic poetry has historically leaned on mystical perspectives to inspire transformation. The discussion above has provided a brief introduction to the story of Islamic poetry, as well as an overview of the qasida and ghazal in Arabic and Persian, the two classical languages of Islamic writing. The Quran’s stature as a literary work has been discussed as well as the work of classical mystical poets, such as Rabia and Rumi. This broad foundation is a starting point for the study of Islamic Poetry, a multifaceted genre that is composed of poets writing in a vast range of languages, contexts, and aesthetics. Muslim poets writing today, whether religious, spiritual, or secular, have been shaped by or continue to shape the disciplines of Islamic literature and poetics.
There are many modern poets and singers who have contributed to the genre of Islamic poetry in the twentieth century and beyond. Two notable poets from the twentieth century include Muhammad Iqbal (1877–1938, India/Pakistan), an influencial poet and philosopher credited with proposing a separate Muslim state for Indian Muslims, an idea which was later realized in the formation of Pakistan; and Mahmoud Darwish (1942–2008, Palestine), author of over thirty collections of poetry, who faced imprisonment for his activism and lived in exile. Furthermore, three vocalists who have popularized Islamic poetry through their performances include Umm Kulthum (1904–1975, Egypt), a twentieth-century icon, singer and film star, who mesmerized Arab societies with her soulful renditions of famous poems, including qasidas; Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (1948–1997, Pakistan) who is considered one of the greatest vocalists of qawwali music, a form of Sufi devotional music marked by improvisations and forceful rhythms aimed at inspiring a trancelike state in the audience (Gorlinski 2020); and Munni Begum (1965–, Pakistan) singer and vocalist, who released an album of ghazals in the 1970s and gained popularity, in part, due to the romantic simplicity of her lyrics.
Figure 5. Tomb of Allama Iqbal, the National Poet of Pakistan. Source: NurPhoto/Getty Images.
In addition, a select list of diasporic Muslim poets who have contributed to the genre of Islamic poetry include Agha Shahid Ali (1949–2001), a Kashmiri American Muslim who wrote ghazals in English as well as political and romantic poems about longing and loss; Moniza Alvi (1954–), a Pakistani British poet who was raised in England and has written several collections on her cultural duality, displacement, and the partition of India; Kazima Ali (1971–), born in the United Kingdom to Indian Muslim parents, a poet and professor who has lived in the United States, France, India, and the Middle East, writing both poetry and fiction; and Naomi Shihab Nye (1952–), born in the United States to a Palestinian refugee father and American mother, she has authored several poetry collections on cultural duality. Finally, many Muslim poets coming of age today have embraced social media and hybrid aesthetic forms as a way to express their religious identity and political concerns via spoken word, online platforms, and print (for instance, Mohamed Hussan, Fatimah Asghar, and Hanif Adurraqib).
As we embrace the digital age, we are seeing the rise of online poetry and its ability to connect communities across borders while giving public space to writers and poets who have not been traditionally acknowledged by mainstream publications. This has led to a renaissance of sorts, with poets sharing their work across digital platforms and social media. This is one of the strengths of our epoch as well as one of its drawbacks. The twentieth-century Urdu poet Muhammad Iqbal (1877–1938) has written that “Love for the Prophet runs like blood in the veins of the community” (Iqbal quoted in Encyclopedia.com n.d.). Whether writing in the classical languages of Islamic poetry or in Bengali, Urdu, or Chinese, odes to the Prophet Muhammad have been sung by Muslim poets in every language and in every century. Those writers who have contributed most significantly to the canon of Islamic poetry have written actively about the experience of being Muslim and have sincerely engaged and problemitized Islamic motifs, principles, and aesthetics.
Poetry in the digital age continues to thrive and Islamic poetry is no exception. Never has there been a period in history where ideas across cultures have been so readily exchanged and the concept of a Muslim ummah or community been more permeable. Iqbal’s quoted simile, understood within the context of Islamic poetry and history, clearly uses “Prophet” to refer to Muhammad and “community” to refer to faithful Muslims. However, taken out of context and stumbled upon by the casual non-Muslim reader searching the internet today, the same quotation could be interpreted more broadly and applied to various contexts. As people’s literal bodies have migrated and moved across borders, so have their less tangible ideas through websites, forums, and social media, where Instapoets thrive and audio options allow online poetry to be consumed aurally. Not only are the boundaries between the writer and the written being blurred in an age where anyone can post their work, at any moment, for public consumption, but the boundaries of writing genres, forms, and communities have also become more permeable than ever.
The translated work of classical and mystical Muslim poets, such as Rumi and Hafez, is appearing on popular poetry websites in English. Oftentimes these writers, when consumed by a broader Western audience, are praised for their universal messages on spirituality and love rather than their insight into Islamic culture specifically. There are contemporary Muslim poets (secular, religious, and political) who are writing in every language today—sometimes blending languages. They are often responding to the cultural concerns that relate to the specific region in which they live, at times engaging with their religiosity and drawing from the classical heritage of Islamic poetry, as well as grappling with the broader psychological and social issues that confront the world as we try to process a digitally connected global reality where information is being produced and posted constantly.
This brief discussion has revealed that the story of Islamic poetry has always been a complex issue within Islam, subject to debate, controversy, and shifting dialects. It has also been an important space for mystics, immigrants, and intellectuals to process their spiritual and secular realities. As a category for literary analysis in the digital age, the boundaries of what constitutes Islamic poetry seem more flexible. This is an area of academic study that needs more attention by literary scholars. However, in the field of Religious Studies, those poets most relevant to the canon of Islamic literature are poets who engage their religious heritage and identity, promote mystical positions lyrically, and draw from the wealth of images familiar to Islamic ritual and practice. Even poets who argue with the tradition, who raise questions about Islamic history, critiquing elements of faith and culture, play a significant role in elucidating Islamic discourse through an imaginative lens. Whatever position these Muslim poets take, when influenced by Islamic thought and motifs, they contribute to shaping and reshaping the story of Islamic poetry, and consequently, the narrative of Islamic thought.
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