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The 132 poems, most of which here make their English-language debut, represent the three major languages of medieval Islam--Arabic, Persian, and Turkish--with the remainder from Hebrew. They span more than a thousand years, from the seventh to the early eighteenth century, when poetry, like so much else, was shattered and reshaped by the impact of the West. They range from panegyric and satire to religious poetry and lyrics about wine, women, and love. Lewis begins with an introduction on the place of poets and poetry in Middle Eastern history and concludes with biographical notes on all the poets.
This treasure trove of verse is aptly summed up by a quote from the ninth-century Arab author Ibn Qutayba: ''Poetry is the mine of knowledge of the Arabs, the book of their wisdom, the muster roll of their history, the repository of their great days, the rampart protecting their heritage, the trench defending their glories, the truthful witness on the day of dispute, the final proof at the time of argument.''
In one hand the Qur'vn, in the other a wineglass,
Sometimes keeping the rules, sometimes breaking them.
Here we are in this world, unripe and raw,
Not outright heathens, not quite Muslims.
--Mujir (12th century)