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Abdallah ibn al-Mu'tazz

Abdallah ibn al-Mu'tazz (861 – 908) (Arabic: عبد الله بن المعتز‎ / ALA-LC: ‘Abd Allāh bin al-Mu‘utaz) was persuaded to assume the role of caliph of the Abbasid dynasty following the premature death of al-Muktafi. He succeeded in ruling for a single day and a single night, before he was forced into hiding, found, and then strangled in a palace intrigue that brought al-Muqtadir, then thirteen years old, to the throne. Ibn al-Mu'tazz is best known, not as a political figure, but as a leading Arabic poet and the author of the Kitab al-Badi, an early study of Arabic forms of poetry. This is considered one of the earliest works in Arabic literary theory and literary criticism.[1]

Born in Samarra into a privileged family, as the great-great-grandson of Harun al-Rashid, Ibn al-Mu'tazz had a tragic childhood in the Byzantine intrigues of the Abbasid caliphate. His grandfather, the caliph al-Mutawakkil, was assassinated when Ibn al-Mu'tazz was only six weeks old, and eight years later his father, Caliph al-Mu'tazz was also murdered. The boy was spared the purge of the palace by fleeing to Mecca with his grandmother.

Upon returning to Baghdad soon after, he distanced himself from politics and lived the hedonistic life of a young prince. It was during this time that he wrote his poetry, devoted to the pleasures with which he was so familiar. His Kitab al-Badi, which was also composed at this time, laid the groundwork for future studies of poetry by Arabic scholars.

Despite his reluctance, Ibn al-Mu'tazz was persuaded to assume the caliphate following the death of his cousin al-Muktafi. It was hoped that he would put an end to the intrigues that had plagued the dynasty for decades. The Vizier, however, favoured another descendant of al-Mu'tazz to assume the throne. Ibn al-Mu'tazz was forced from the palace in Baghdad and strangled. Almost prophetically, he had once written as a poet:

A wonderful night, but so short
I brought it to life, then strangled it.

And another:

Abandon sins, big and small – that is Tawqa (خل الذنوب صغيرهاو كبيرها ذاك التقى)
And be like the one who walks on a thorny path, he is cautious of what he sees (و اصنع كماش فوق أرض الشوك يحذر ما يرى)
Do not belittle the small sins; truly mountains are made from pebbles (لا تحقرن صغيرةً إن الجبال من الحصى)


  1. ^ van Gelder, G. J. H. (1982), Beyond the Line: Classical Arabic Literary Critics on the Coherence and Unity of the Poem,  

Further reading

  • G.B.H. Wightman and A.Y. al-Udhari, Birds through a Ceiling of Alabaster: Three Abbasid Poets, Penguin Books, 1975 (ISBN 0-14-044305-3).
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