Hamasa (Abu Tammam)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Hamasa (Abu Tammam)

Hamasa (Abu Tammam) (ca. 845)

An anthology of Arabic verse, the Hamasa (Courage) of the Abbasid poet Abu Tammam Habib ibn Aus, ca. 804-ca. 845, displays a breadth of interests and insights from the medieval Islamic world. Born in Jasim, Iraq, to Theodosius, a Christian wine merchant, Abu Tammam grew up in Hims in central Syria and apprenticed with a weaver. In Cairo, Egypt, he sold water at the Great Mosque and studied among the learned before beginning a career of court writing and reciting battle elegies for audiences in Damascus, Armenia, Baghdad, and Khorasan (present-day Afghanistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan). While snowed in at the home of the Salamas at Hamadan, Iran, near a well-stocked library, he began assembling and categorizing the best of pre-Islamic Bedouin qasida (rhapsodic odes), tribal lays, and fragmentary gems in a 10-book collection organized by topic. At his death in Mosul, where he served as postmaster, the 3,760 verses contained in the Hamasa's 882 entries remained unpublished in the private library of the Salama family. From there it passed to scholars in Baghdad.

Writing a century before the compilation of wonder tales and seduction scenarios in The THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS (ca. A.D. 942), Abu Tammam established a reputation for purity of style and for stark antithesis unclouded by philosophical gray areas. During the Crusades, Arab readers, including the Kurdish general Saladin, valued passages memorized from the Hamasa that counseled right thinking and behavior based on the values of desert nomads. During the Ayyubid dynasty in the 12 th and 13 th centuries, Abu Tammam's romanticized themes of valor, resilience, nobility, and masculinity endeared his writings to Muslim soldiers throughout Egypt and Syria. They quoted and sang tributes to fallen comrades and to the conquest of the fortified city of Amorium, which Caliph al-Mutasim captured in A.D. 838. In the ode “To Washal,” the poet discloses Arab territoriality and militance by extolling the cool mountain spring and vowing to ward off the “base lip” from tasting it (Abu Tammam 1972, 147). Other subjects—fine wines, garden dalliances, and sexual fantasies—suited the needs and yearnings of the imperial warrior far from home.


Abu Tammam. The Hamasa of Abu Tammam. Translated by Felix Klein-Franke. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1972.

Stetkevych, Jaroslav. The Zephyrs of Najd: The Poets of Nostalgia in the Classical Arabic Nasib. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.