Al-Aktal on “halal” food

While reading this post by Nassim Nicholas Taleb yesterday, I encountered the following interesting statement:

.. the 7th Century Christian Arab poet Al-Akhtal made a point to never eat halal meat, in his famous defiant poem boasting his Christianity: “I do not eat sacrificial flesh”

The article is talking about ways in which a minority can impose its values on a culture, and the context is the creeping way in which foodstuffs are made kosher or halal by manufacturers, simply for sales reasons.

But this is not important here. However I can quite imagine the quotation taking on a life of its own, and I’d like to track it down.

We do not tend to think of 7th century Arab poets who were a Christian.  I’d never heard of al-Akhtal.  So who was he?

Via a Google Books preview of an Encyclopedia of Arabic Literature, I found this article by G.J.H. Van Gelder:[1]

al-Akhtal (c. 20- C. 92/ c.640-c.710)

Ghiyath ibn Ghawth al-Akhtal was one of the great poets of the Umayyad period. Although he was, like his tribe, Taghlib, a (monophysite) Christian, he was favoured by leading Umayyad statesmen such as Ziyad ibn Abihi and al-Hajjaj. and even became the most important court-poet of the caliph Abd al-Malik. He was probably born in Hira in Iraq. In his youth he was a close companion of caliph Yazid I, with whom he shared a taste for heavy drinking. The many passages on  wine and drinking in his poems make al-Akhtal an important early bacchic poet. His fame as a poet rests mainly on his panegyric and invective, which are often combined in his numerous poems supporting Umayyad policy and attacking its opponents – state politics being, to a large extent, tribal politics. His career is closely associated with that of his contemporaries al-Farazdaq and Jarir; siding with the former against the latter, he produced a series of flytings or naqa’id in which personal and tribal invective mix with politics. In his poetry, which serves as both political propaganda and literary entertainment, he builds on the diction, themes and forms of pre-Islamic poetry. The panegyric ode of al-Akhtal and his contemporaries acquired a classical status: it became a model for subsequent periods. Not yet affected by the characteristics of the ‘modern poets’ or muhdathun, its language and diction were accepted by philologists and critics as sources of ‘pure Arabic.’

Text editions

Naqa’id Jarir wa-al-Akhtal, Antun Salihani (ed.), Beirut (1922) (the recension incorrectly attributed to Abu Tammam). [Online here]
Shi’r al-Akhtal, Antun Salihani (Salhani) (ed.), Beirut (1891) [Online here]; with supplement, Beirut (1909); Fakhr al-Din Qabawa (ed.), Beirut, (1979).

Further reading

Abbot, Nabia, Studies in Arabic literary papyri, III: language and literature, Chicago (1972). passim.
Jayyusi, Salma K., ‘Umayyad Poetry’, in CHALUP, 387-413.
Kratchkovsky, L, ‘Der Wein in al-Aktal’s Gedichten’, in Festschrift G. Jacob, Leipzig  (1932), 146-64.
Lammens, H., ‘Le chantre des Omiades. Notes biographiques et litteraires sur le poete arabe chretien Aktal’, Journal Asiatique 9, vol. 4 (1894), 94-176, 193-241, 381-459.  [Online here].
Mattock, J., ‘A ba’iyya of al-Aktal in Praise of al-Walid b. ’Abd al-Malik’, Wagner Festschrift, 120-30.

Other materials can be found about Akhtal online, which repeat anecdotes of his role as a poet at the Damascus court of the Ummayad caliphs.  What I was unable to locate was any sign of English translations.  Nor was I able to find any source for the quotation (although I have tweeted an enquiry to the article author).

Let me end instead with an Academia article here by Suzanne Stetkevych which perhaps might illuminate the context in which Akhtal may have made his remark.[2]  The anecdote is by someone named al-Iṣbahānī, Kitāb al-Aghānī:

Al-Akhṭal came before ʿAbd al-Malik ibn Marwān who asked him to recite for him. “My throat is dry,” responded the poet, “Order someone to bring me a drink.” “Bring him some water,” ordered the Caliph. “That’s for donkeys,” said al-Akhṭal, “and we have plenty of it.” “Then give him milk.” “I’ve long since been weaned!” “Then give him honey.” “That’s for the sick!” “Well, what do you want?” “Wine, O Commander of the Faithful!” “Have you ever known me to serve wine, you bastard?! If it weren’t for the inviolable bond between us, O what I would do to you!” So al-Akhṭal left and came upon one of ʿAbd al-Malik’s attendants. “Damn you,” he said to him, “the Commander of the Faithful ordered me to recite, but my voice was hoarse. Give me some wine!” So he did. Then al-Akhṭal said, “Match it with another!” So he did. “You have left the two of them fighting in my stomach, better give me a third!” So he did. “Now you’ve left me listing to one side, give me a fourth for balance.” The servant gave it to him, and al-Akhṭal went before ʿAbd al-Malik and recited:

Those that dwelt with you have left in haste
departing at evening or at dawn,
Alarmed and driven out by fate’s caprice
they head for distant lands.

When he finished the poem, ʿAbd al-Malik said to a servant boy, “Take him by the hand, boy, and help him out, heap robes of honor upon him, and reward him generously.” Then he proclaimed, “Every people has its poet, and the poet of the Banū Umayya is al-Akhṭal.”

The poem is in fact much longer than the single verse given, and endorses the Ummayads at length.  The “transgression” above is for asking the Muslim ruler for wine.  Indeed Akhtal was so visibly drunk by the end that he had to be helped out of the room!  But the importance  to an Arab ruler of being endorsed by an established poet was greater than any newly made-up rules about wine.

It is curious to note that there is no real interest in our society in making Arabic literature  accessible to us all.  A proper handbook of Arabic literature, like Brockelmann’s Geschichte der arabischen Litteratur, but readable and brought up to date, would be a benison.  As it stands, who but specialists can even access this literature?

UPDATE: Well, well.  On p.116 of the Journal Asiatique article are the verses we seek.  The caliph Abd-al Malik was hardly very committed to Islam, but still made the effort.

One day, when Akhtal came to recite a brilliant panegyric, the prince asked, “Why don’t you become a Muslim?”

“I will,” said the poet, laughing, “so long as you grant me the use of wine and an exemption from Ramadan.”

Abd-al Malik, whose proposal was serious, took this ribaldry badly.  “Know,” he said, “that once you become a Muslim, if you neglect even one of the obligations of Islam, I’ll have you beheaded.”

Unfazed, Akhtal responded with these verses:

“No! I will never observe the fast of Ramadan, nor eat the flesh of sacrifices.
Never will I drive a young and robust camel towards the valley of Mecca in the time of pilgrimage.
Never will I cry out like a donkey, “Come! To prayer!”
But I will continue to drink the blessed liquor, and to prostrate myself at daybreak.”

“But,” said the Caliph, “what attraction has this wretched drink for you?”

“Sire,” replied Akhtal, “when I drink then I don’t worry about you any more than about the strap of my sandal.”

“Improvise some verses on this thought,” said the Caliph, decidedly in a bad mood, “or I will lift your head off from your shoulders!” The poet had to comply; but luckily in this matter he was not taken off-guard:

If my wish makes me take two goes to empty three cups of a generous vintage, I get up, dragging the folds of my robe as if I was your master, O Master of the Faithful.[3]

The first reference given is “Divan 156 and 154”.  This appears to be a publication “Divan of Akhtal”, published by the Catholic press at Beirut “last year”.  This is probably an Arabic publication of some kind; at any rate, beyond my ability to locate.  Is it perhaps the “Shi’r al-Akhtal” listed above?

Still good news to find even this much.

UPDATE: See the comments for more information.  I have just added a link to the other edition to the post.

UPDATE: A tweet from Dr Taleb advises me that his source was this online collection of Arabic poetry, and this page here.  This gives the verses:


ولست بصائم رمضانَ طوعاً ولَسْتُ بِآكِلٍ لحْمَ الأضاحي
ولست بقائم أبداً أنادي كمِثْلِ العَيرِ حيّ عَلى الفَلاحِ
ولكني سأشربها شمولاً وأسْجُدُ عِنْدَ مُنْبَلَجِ الصَّباحِ


  1. [1]Edited by Julie Scott Meisami, and Paul Starkey.  1998.  Vol. 1, p.67.  Impossibly expensive to buy, of course.
  2. [2]“Al-Akhtal at the Court of `Abd al-Malik: The Qasida and the Construction of Umayyad Authority”, in: Christians and Others in the Ummayad state, ed. A. Borrut &c., p.133.
  3. [3]Un jour que celui-ci venait de lui réciter un brillant panégyrique : « Pourquoi, lui dit le prince, ne te fais-tu pas musulman ? — J’accepte, répondit le poète en riant, si l’on m’accorde l’usage du vin et la dispense du Ramadan. » ‘Abdalmalik, dont la proposition avait été très sérieuse, prit mal la plaisanterie. «Sache-le bien, répliqua-t-il, une fois musulman , si tu négligeais une seule des obligations de l’islam, je te ferais trancher la tête ! » — Sans se laisser déconcerter, Ahtal répondit par ces vers :
    Non! jamais je n’observerai le jeune du Ramadan, ni ne mangerai la chair des victimes.
    Jamais je ne pousserai vers la vallée de la Mecque an temps du pèlerinage une jeune et robuste chamelle.
    Jamais je n’irai crier comme un âne : Allons ! à la prière !
    Mais je continuerai à boire la bienfaisante liqueur et me prosternerai au lever de l’aurore!
    «Mais, demanda le prince, quel attrait a donc pour toi cette maudite boisson? — Sire, répondit Ahtal, quand j’en ai bu, je ne me soucie pas plus de ta personne que des courroies de ma sandale. — Improvise des vers sur cette pensée, dit le calife décidément de mauvaise humeur, ou je te ferai sauter la tête des épaules! » Le poète dut s’exécuter; heureusement sur cette matière il n’était jamais pris au dépourvu : Si mon commensai me fait à deux reprises vider trois coupes d’un vin généreux, Je me lève, traînant les pans de ma robe, comme si j’étais ton maître, O maître des croyants.

17 thoughts on “Al-Aktal on “halal” food

  1. “It is curious to note that there is no real interest in our society in making Arabic literature accessible to us all.” There must be older works out there, but how to find them? I just used Arabic Poetry as a search term at Internet Archive and am told it found 416 results – a bit of scrolling down required, then!

    But, ere long:

    Early Arabic Odes, chosen and provided with English translations by S.M. Husain, D.Phil. (Oxon.) (U of Dacca, 1938);

    J.D. Carlyle, Specimens of Arabian poetry, from the earliest time to the extinction of the Khaliphat, with some account of the authors (Cambridge UP, 1796);

    Annemarie Schimmel, As Through A Veil: Mystical Poetry In Islam (Columbia UP, 19820 [five lectures full of quotations in translation: Arabic and Persian];

    Henry Baerlain, The Singing Caravan: Some Echoes of Arabian Poetry (London: Murray, 1910);

    R.A. Nicholson, Translations of Eastern Poetry and Prose (Cambridge UP, 1922);

    S.H. Nadeem, A Critical Appreciation of Arabic Mystical Poetry [a typed 1974 University of the Punjab doctoral dissertation, full of quotations in translation] – at which point I stopped, arbitrarily:

    obviously quite a ‘mixed bag’, but probably books full of useful references to various authors and works, also in English translation, and names of scholars and translators to follow up.

  2. For those interested, the citation made by Roger from the “Journal asiatique” is available here:

    The Arabic text of all the poetry of is available here:
    For those more used to Google Books:
    Unfortunately access is limited, in both cases, only to US-based users.

    A bibliographic record of the same book:

    As far as I know, Al Akhtal remains untranslated in any language except a booklet in Arabic and Latin available here:

    For those based in the UK, here is a rundown of the works available in English libraries:

    To conclude, for those like me who don’t speak Arabic here is the meaning of “Diwan”:

  3. Thank you so much, Ezio! Well done for finding the Arabic – I looked but could not find it.

    I have uploaded the 1891 edition of the Diwan of Al-Akhtal to here, so it should be accessible to the world. (The site has chewed up the French, so I will need to edit the metadata once it lets me).

    The COPAC list is interesting. Readers should note that al-Akhtal al-Saghar/Saghir is a different author.

    The “Encomium on the Ummayads” is some 80 lines of verse, in Latin and English, and is probably the poem mentioned above, that Akhtal produced before the Caliph while drunk. I’m afraid the litany of unfamiliar names meant little to me, but I’m sure anyone with a bit of Latin and some knowledge of the history of that tribe could make a translation from it.

  4. Hmm… scrolling down further (all the way!) has not yielded much more in English (there is some German, and a bit of French, judging by the titles), except:

    C.F. Horne (et al.), The sacred books and early literature of the East; with an historical survey and descriptions [1917], Vol. 5. Ancient Arabia: The genius of Arabic literature, The hanged poems, The koran, Torrey, C.C. Bibliography.- Vol. 6. Medieval Arabic, Moorish, and Turkish: The sunan, or Holy traditions of Mohammed, Early history and science, Philosophy and religion, Romance, The poems of Arabia, Moorish literature: Science and History, Love poetry of the Spanish Moors; Turkish literature: Legends and poetry, The travels of Sidi Ali Reis; Torrey, C.C. Bibliography. (Vols. 7-8 are Persian); and

    The Poem of the Way [Naẓm al-sulūk], translated into English verse from the Arabic of Ibn al-Fāriḍ by A. J. Arberry. (Also known as Ibn al-Fāriḍ’s Tā’iyya.) (1952) [which is behaving so oddly for me at the moment I can’t get a proper look at the text!]

  5. Thank you for looking on further down the search results for Arabic poetry. Some of those titles are interesting, aren’t they? But nothing more on al-Akhtal.

  6. Vine (The Nestorian Churches) mentions somewhere that al-Akhtal was invited to grace the court of the caliph Abd al-Malik (685–705), who built the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem to proclaim the dominance of Islam over Judaism and Christianity. Abd al-Malik is one of my least favourite caliphs, but it is interesting to see that so many tyrants also yearned to be thought of as cultured rulers. No doubt al-Akhtal was allowed a certain amount of free speech at the caliph’s court, provided he didn’t cross certain lines. Beyond the cultured circle of the court, of course, the caliph’s agents were knocking down churches or extracting hefty bribes from the downtrodden ‘people of the book’ to spare them from destruction. Still, we musn’t say a word against Islam …

  7. Glad to find this post! I’m in the middle of translating poem no. 1 (“‘Afā Wāsiṭ”) from al-Akhṭal’s dīwān, and it is a tough one. No doubt the difficulty of his work is part of why so little of his work is available in translation. Geert Jan van Gelder has a 22-line invective poem of his in the Library of Arabic Literature anthology of Classical Arabic poetry (NYU Press, 2013), 15-17, and there are also a couple articles by Suzanne Stetkevych with translations of al-Akhṭal’s verse. One is “Umayyad Panegyric and the Poetics of Islamic Hegemony: al-Akhṭal’s ‘Khaffa al-Qaṭīnu,'” for the Journal of Arabic Literature 28:2 (1997), 89-122, and the other is called “Al-Akhtal at the Court of `Abd al-Malik: The Qasida and the Construction of Umayyad Authority,” in Christians and Others in the Umayyad State, ed. Antoine Borrut and Fred Donner (Chicago: Oriental Institute, 2016), 129-155.

  8. Thank you very much for these links. It is good to hear that you are making translations. I imagine that they will get easier if you do more; but the first one will be very hard!

  9. UPDATE: Thanks for the encouragement, Roger, but I just discovered that al-Akhṭal’s’s poem no. 1 too has been translated by Suzanne Stetkevych, appearing in The Poetics of Islamic Legitimacy: Myth, Gender, and Ceremony in the Classical Arabic Ode (Indiana UP, 2002), 121-28. So I think I’m better advised to leave it alone. There are too many untranslated poems out there to knock myself out on one that’s already been done.

  10. Hello Roger. (Or if you were at St. John’s College Nottingham 1978-9, “Hello again Roger”.) I seek English versions not only of al-Aktal but also of his (non-Christianoid) contemporary fellow-poets al-Farazdaq and Jarir, and in due course of some of their successors. Even something as broad as “Arabic Poetry” finds nothing on Amazon. The position seems so desperate that even a list of links to individual poems would be better than nothing. (Not that beggars can be choosers, but the “improvisation while threatened with beheading” is presumably not representative of al-Akhtal his output; nor is the “flyting” between al-Farazdaq and Jarir — apparently all we have of either — of theirs.) Sorry to ramble. Any suggestions?

  11. Not me, I’m afraid.

    It is extraordinary how difficult it is to access Arabic literature. I’m sorry to say that I can’t help. It may exist; but I do not know of it. Very sorry!

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