The Black Knight: ‘Antar and the Arab Epic

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I was doing a little research on a course I’m trying to develop on Muslim societies, slavery and race when I came across an intriguing story. As I was looking for some pre-Islamic literature I stumbled across a familiar, but long overlooked historical character–‘Antar Ibn Shadad. Because I tend to be rather long winded, I thought this brief bio would suffice:

Antara (äntär’ä) [key], fl. 600, Arab warrior and poet, celebrated in his own day as a hero because he rose from slave birth to be a tribal chief. His poetry is represented by one poem in the Muallaqat. His greatness gave rise to many legends over the centuries, and he became the hero of the popular Arabic epic Sirat Antar. In it he represents the ideal of a Bedouin chief, rich, generous, brave, and kind. His name also appears as Antar.

There I found this very thorough book by Peter Heath, analyzing Antar’s epic, Thirsty Sword : Sirat Antar & the Arabic Popular Epic. And H.T. Norris has a translation of the epic itself. I love classic epics, but his story was significant because both race and slavery overlapped. His mother was a Black slavewoman and his father a Bedouin who refused to acknowledge him. Since I have long been interested in Afro-Arabs, this rediscovery of Antar really excited me. I haven’t really found the epic in Arabic literature in Africa, but then again I haven’t looked too hard. But what I found so interesting is the fact that his story resonated for so many Muslims over the centuries. ‘Antar’s was told and retold in Arabic, Farsi, and Urdu.

I became intrigued. While being careful not to insert my own projections, I began to think about the meaning of a mixed race young man, the son of a Black slave woman and Bedouin chieftain raising to become the model of Arab masculinity. It raised so many questions for me, many of them I will continue to explore in my own studies. Here is a translation of his poetry. Reminder for the readers, the English does it no justice

MOALLAKA

The poets have muddied all the little fountains.

Yet do not my strong eyes know you, far house?

O dwelling of Abla in the valley of Gawa,
Speak to me, for my camel and I salute you.

My camel is as tall as a tower, and I make him stand
And give my aching heart to the wind of the desert.

O erstwhile dwelling of Abla in the valley of Gawa;
And my tribe in the valleys of Hazn and Samna
And in the valley of Motethalem!

Salute to the old ruins, the lonely ruins
Since Oum El Aythan gathered and went away.

Now is the dwelling of Abla
In a valley of men who roar like lions.
It will be hard to come to you, O daughter of Makhram.

* * * * *

Abla is a green rush
That feeds beside the water.

But they have taken her to Oneiza
And my tribe feeds in lazy Ghailam valley.

They fixed the going, and the camels
Waked in the night and evilly prepared.

I was afraid when I saw the camels
Standing ready among the tents
And eating grain to make them swift.

I counted forty-two milk camels,
Black as the wings of a black crow.

White and purple are the lilies of the valley,
But Abla is a branch of flowers.

Who will guide me to the dwelling of Abla?
Grayson, David One Hundred and Twenty Asiatic Love Poems

As I read the poems and more and more of Antar’s life and the prolific renderings of his epic, I began to wonder why his story was largely ignored by many Muslims in the West. I have some idea, but I’ll refrain for now. I spoke with a few Muslims and none of them had heard of him. Many Black American Muslims had heard of Jahiz, but why not ‘Antar? Sure he was born in the Jahiliyya time, but there were many stories from ancient times that were retold. I began to wonder if it was some vast conspiracy. Was I thinking along the lines of a renegade Cheikh Anta Diop student? I began to conjure up some grand Arab conspiracy to conceal their African influences in Arab culture, at least by making sure none of us heard of ‘Antar? But then again, translations of the epic have been around, as well as his verses in the Mu’allaqat.

But last week something happened to further dismiss my conspiratorial hypothesis. After I watched the second half of the Arabic version of “The Message” couldn’t bring myself to sleep. So I flipped through the channels at 1:30 in the morning. I stumbled across a few characters who were surprisingly brown. Some were clearly Arab in brown make-up. But one was a man of clear African descent and dignified bearing.

antar-actor-sans-makeup.jpg

As I watched, it dawned on me that this was THE story. I saw ‘Antar and ‘Ablah’s romance unfold. I was so excited. It was was serious production with a number of Arab Ramadan serial heavy hitters. And this was the first time I had seen Faisal Ahmad as the lead character, ‘Antar.

Kuwaiti Times reported:

KUWAIT: Historical TV soap operas are popular and have many audiences as they are valuable pieces of art work. These TV soaps are carried out by more than one country, hence making these show multinational shows. Two of the most popular historical TV soaps broadcasted during this Ramadan were ‘Khalid Bin Al-Waleed’ and ‘Antara Bin Shadad’.

Ghassan Zakariya wrote the serial and Rami Hanna directed it. I’ve been trying to catch the show, to watch it unfold. I’m not saying that it is perfect. I have my own critiques. I’ve been researching the show, trying to find out more about the lead actor, trying to get a sense of the mainstream reaction. So far, the reviews in Arab speaking message boards have been favorable. People in general like Faisal Ahmad.

For me, it is a first time seeing an Afro-Arab take center stage. Earlier productions in the Middle East used Arab actors in Blackface, like these pictured below:
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As Umm Adam warned, we should not impose our western categories on other people. But clearly, the serial demonstrates a construction of blackness and slave status. IAt the same time, it shows how ‘Antar heroic journey was about overcoming anyone’s negative opinion of his slave heritage to become the model of chivalry and courage. I am going to continue to watch this show. Despite its shortcomings–especially the unfortunate Blackface Arabs (knowing that they could have found more Afro Arabs–such as Sudanese actors) and the unnatural make-up for the Black characters, I think the series is worthwhile viewing. For those who don’t have satellite television and can’t get the Algerian station, the epic is still available. It is part of the literary heritage of the Arab and Muslim world after all. And to me seeing someone like ‘Antar as an archetype is important for many of us who are descendants of slaves. There is nothing to be ashamed about, through courage and and good character we become noble. For that, we should continue to tell his story.

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33 thoughts on “The Black Knight: ‘Antar and the Arab Epic

  1. Stuff like this has happened in modern times. Are you aware that Prince Bandr bin Sultan is half African? He was born the son of Prince Sultan and his African slave.

    He was not accepted for years, but once he was finally accepted by the Prince he was given an education and backing of the royal family. He was Ambassadar to the US for 20 some years.

    I am not a fan of the man, but he certainly is a part of the African-Arab historical context.

    For $135 million you can own his former 16 bedroom house in Colorado, complete with 24k gold faucets in the bathrooms.

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  2. Thank you so much for posting this. I never heard of him myself and feel like you’ve opened a major door into afro-arab history. I look foward to more insight on his life when you have time. If you bump into anymore interesting characters please post them. I appreciate all the time you put into your blog. It’s always insightful..

    Sherifah

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  3. i find it difficult to believe u are a thinking black woman, if u were u would not be a muslim and this is coming from a black african whose great grand parents defended our land (yoruba land) against muslim jihadist. What in reality is arab imperialism disguised as a religion. Read the Hadith , Bukhari vol 4 book 53 no 386. I f u still claim to be a muslim after reading this then u cannot claim to be a thinker. Don`t follow a religion blindly.Read the Koran and the hadith

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  4. Thank you very much for revealing the much-used quote “the poets have muddied all the little fountains.” It is used so much in American poetic literature that I’d guess most writers don’t even know its origin.
    Keep up the good works, and put me only on your mailing list (?)

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  5. Thank you for revealing the quote “The poets have muddied all the little fountains,” from the ‘Antara. It is used so much in American literature that I’d guess most writers don’t even know its origin.

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  6. Did you know that Muhammad Ali was slated to play Antar(a) in a film version (opposite Georgina Rizk/Risk, the Lebanese 1971 Miss World, as Abla), with the Brazilian soccer great, Pele, penned to play the ‘Mercutio’-role, that of Shebub/Sheebub, alongside Ali?

    Do you think that the myth has been somewhat ‘occluded’ because of Antar’s ethnic provenance (in comparison, for example, to ‘better’ known Islamic love myths such as Majnu and Leyla), because of its original publication in Jahiliyya times, or for other reasons?

    Thanks…

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  7. Jama,

    I came accross this site accidently on sreachig for Antra’s poems. Antra romance and his poems is famous throughout the middle east, but don’t confuse Islam with Antra who died 25 years before the prohpethood of Mohamed. Antara peradted Mohamed and was so popular that even Mohammed have been reproted to have said” i have never wished to see an Arab (meaning desert Arabs) to wished have seen but Antara”.

    There are many pre-Islamic Afro-Arab poet and warriors and desert pairaes such as Al-Saliik Ibn Sulka, Tabada Sharan, Al-Shanfari.

    It said that the very epic story of Antara was written down by the 9th century poet Al-Asmae during the reign of Harun Al-Rashid for Harun’s black childern from a Nubian wife, either (the Al-Amiin or Al-Mamuun).

    There are 100’s of famouse Afro-Arabs from pre-Islam through Islam and throughout Islam, Abdalla Ibn Rabaah was the Mufti of Mecca less then 50 years after the death of Mohamed a man so just that he refused the Umayat King Malik to cut the line.

    There is Absat court jester Abu-Dulma during Harun Al-Rashid years, there are even Afro-Arab kings such as the leaderof he Akhshidiya kindom in the 11 century , namely King Kafur.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I am what you would consider an afro-arab. My family is from sudan. But this is my first time knowning about Antar… I’m going to do some research on him now.. thanks..

    I also am interested in afro-arabs and their history/lineage and accomplishments. It’s mad cool to me when I hear about indviduals who look like me, who’ve done intersting things… and lol, I know exactly what you are talking about when you talked about arab actors in black face, on the arab soap-operas…its so ridiculous.. to someone who lives in the states im shocked everytime i see it..like “this really still happens?”…

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  9. Forget to add even the black wise prophet of the Quran Luqman The Wise Sage whom a chapter in the Quran is named after. Hell, even the awaited 12th Shiya Imaam the Mahdi (messaiah) is of Nubiyan mother.

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  10. Pingback: Teaching Race and Islam « Just Another Angry Black Muslim Woman?

  11. My Actual name is Antar and i alwayse wanted to know what my name meant… i carry great pride in my name now…it was cool seein where all this came from… Thanks

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  12. i grew up listening to the sirat of antar from the mouths of public storytellers in what we call “halqas’ in my small hometown in central morocco. i saw te first antar adaptation to the big screen. i’m an independent filmamker now and have just completed a screenplay adaptation of the sirat of antar that is a mix of “historical” events inspired from his poetry and the myth surrounding his epic story… hoping to be able to get the project off the ground in the near future…

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  13. I am going to act as Antara at my univercity in front of the author of Thirsty Sword : Sirat Antar & the Arabic Popular Epic. The author peter heath is now the chancellor of my univercity. Wow. Please send me a reply.

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  14. The tanned actor above is extremely attractive. Frankly most Arabs are dark skinned. Who cares about skin colour. No one selects the tone of their skin and besides, it’s just differing shades of brown or tan or dark olive or cocoa. Only the level of iman and taqwa separate one muslim from another.

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  15. قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم (( ما وصف لي أعرابي قط فأحببت أن أراه إلا عنترة )) و هو ولم يدرك الإسلام

    Jama’s rendition: (see above) Mohammed have been reproted to have said” i have never wished to see an Arab (meaning desert Arabs) to wished have seen but Antara”.
    ++++++++

    Peace,
    The Above Prophetic Hadith (saying) is known as Maw-duu3 (i.e PLACED)… Spurious.

    What’s significant here is dat a Muslim (presumably) is willing 2 risk the Hell Fire lying about da Prophet*P for da sake of Antarah!

    I grew up on Antarah in Yemen… But I wasn’t aware that he was loved all over da Arab world.. Back in da 70s, I flew into Damascus, Syria, booked into a hotel in da city center, grabbed a bite 2 eat & went in search of a Tea House 4 a cuppa & was transported back in time… The place was packed. I didna know why! I found a seat near da door and asked 4 a cuppa… In da center of da cafe (a huge one), they had a raised dais.. A Throne & Huge table with one big book! What was going on? Around 8 p.m here comes this old timer flanked by 2 others … Old timers, too… And helped him to his seat.. He opened the book and started reading from the DIWAAN ANTARAH!

    They call him da HAKAWATI… The story teller!

    That’s how BIG Antara is!

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  16. Peace,

    Al-Mutanabbi sed:

    الخيل والليل والبيداء تعرفني
    والسيف والرمح والقرطاس والقلم

    Roughly translated:

    Da Horse, da Night (LOVE) & da Desert do KNOW ME;
    Da Sword, da Spear, da Pen and da Parchment as well.

    This guy was full of himself… But ANTARAH came close to that… He was a Warrior (FARIS.. CHEVALIER), A Lover and a POET “of imagination all compact” (to paraphrase da Bard).

    I think that the West canna appreciate ANTARAH (as their Crusading ancestors once did)is that the Age of Chivalry is gone!

    And it is difficult to explain the concepts of Muruwwa and Shahaamah! (المروة و الشهامة)

    No conspiracy theories here!

    Antarah is well known among da Arabs and if they DARE to forget him, there his clan (da Banu Abs) still extant that will keep reminding them of him.

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  17. Great posting sister. You should check out J.A. Roger’s The World’s Great Men of Color. It is a 4 volume work. In one of them he dedicates a chapter to Afro-Arabs. He did mention Antar. I was aware of this person. However, the spelling of Antar in that book is wrong. In the book the name is spelled Atar, which in Farsi has a meaning that i do not care to repeat. Sad, but true.

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  18. mmmm, it is a part of our Arabian (desert) culture but what i really find it funny that Some of his tribe don’t like to talk about this part of their history!

    even thought Antra is a famous figure in our history pr Islam .

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  19. Antar was only one of the many Black arabs prior to the rise of Prophet Muhammad (saaws). Many of them became Muslims later. The Arabs have historically existed in two branches: the Red and the Black. The Blacks descending from Ismaa’el and his mother Hajar first wife of Abraham, the Red from Esau(Esaa)who merged with them through his marriage to the daughter of Ismaa’el. The Prophet mentions them in his serah saying that he was sent to the Aswad wa Ahmar (Black and Red). The Red branch has always been racist and rebellious. In anciient times they hated the Black Arabs but often had to pay them to fight their wars against other Red tribes. The Blacks were called Ghurabaa and Gharbaa which has several meanings among which is “Black Birds” “Ravens” and “Strangers” and “Black strangers in the West”. Both words are related to the word Al-Maghrib(The West).Many of the African muslims in America descended from them, and the passage in the Bible where God says to Abraham that his “seed” would be strangers in a land not their own where they would be enslaved refers to them and us. The Hebrew word used there for stranger was “Gher” or “Ghar.”

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  20. Pingback: Ruminations on African-Asian History « curiosity killed the eccentric yoruba

  21. In reply to the question as to why Arabs do not want to talk or promulgate the stody of Antar and Abla (which is in par with Quais and Leila and Romeo and Juliette stories of love and devotion and betrayal), one reason is that Antar and Abla narrative has more to do with racism and ethnocentrism of the Arabs. One cannot read his grandiose discursive poetic elation of love to Abla without assuming the utter and virulent racism he encountered with the Pre-islamic arabs of her tribe. Even with his own tribe he faced scourn, hatred and rejection. Even with the rise of Islam as a religion of peace and equality, these ethnocentric tendencies of the Bedouin Arabs were not erased in fact they became more pronounced and had dire consequenses in latter Omahyad and Abbasid dynasties to sustain themselves…. the cultural and social movement called a “Suubiya” can teach a lesson or two to these effect sand the social inequality between the Arabs and the non-arabs (with includes Persians, Chaldeans, Copts and many others…) what was worse was the fact that even those who were born from an Arab fathers and non-arab mothers had experienced discrimination…

    This is not a good subject for Arabs to talk about… i contradicts the very essence of the ideal they uphold about their religion ….

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  22. Pingback: 50. The Black Knight | جامعة جورجيا الشمالية

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