The Most Famous Poem Ever Written: Examining the Burda of Imam al-Busiri
 
 

The Most Famous Poem Ever Written: Examining the Burda of Imam al-Busiri on

Iyad Ammar

This article is part of a new series of commentary on the Burda. It was translated from Arabic into English by Ibrahim Mansour. 

The Place of The Burdah in the Lives of Muslims

The Burdah of al-Būṣīrī is from among the most famous poems composed in honor of the Prophet Muḥammad ﷺ. It has been adored by Sufis who have written commentaries upon it, abridged and augmented it, and composed poems imitating its distinctive rhythmic patterns. Scores of commentaries and books about the Burdah have been composed not only in Arabic but in the diverse languages of the Muslim world.

Among many of the Sufi orders, The Burdah has been adopted as one of the awrād (litanies) recited in the mornings and in the evenings with utmost reverence and with the deepest solemnity. To this day its verses are recited for protection and as an appeal to the divine for the restoration of health, as well as during the lowering of bodies into their final abodes. Meticulous rules have been devised for its proper recitation, such as having wuḍūʾ (ritual ablution), orienting oneself towards the qiblah (i.e. the Kaʿba in Mecca), and so forth.

Imām Ibn Ḥajar al-Haytamī (d. 974/1567)1, a mere couple of generations removed from al-Būṣīrī, wrote of the Burdah that, “its popularity has grown to the degree that people study it in their homes and mosques as they do the Qurʾān”. For this reason famous gatherings were convened to recite The Burdah in the Levant, in Egypt, and in the Maghreb, especially on Thursday nights. During such gatherings, one person would be designated to recite the poem either meter by meter or verse by verse, punctuated by the entire gathering’s synchronized recitation, in one voice, of the famous chorus:

Mawlāya ṣalli wa-salim dāʾimān abadān/ʿalā ḥabībika khayr al-khalqi kullihimi

“Our Master, send Your Everlasting, Eternal prayers and salutations/upon Your Beloved, the Best of Creation in all of its entirety”

Indeed, Muslims over the centuries have continued to teach their children the blessed Burdah alongside the noble Qurʾān in the makātib (neighborhood schools devoted primarily to the teaching of Arabic and to the memorization of the Qurʾān). In this way, they sought to fuse in the youngest of minds and in the tenderest of hearts the noble Qurʾān – which is the fount of all knowledge – with The Burdah, which articulates the purest, most intense feelings of affection towards the Prophet ﷺ. It was in this fashion that traditional Muslim societies sought to establish the foundations of a firm, unshakeable faith in the hearts and minds of their young – a faith which they well knew could not be established except upon the basis of deep, profound love.

Al-Būṣīrī

Imām Sharaf al-Dīn Muḥammad ibn Saʾīd ibn Ḥammād al-Ṣanhājī al-Būṣīrī (born Shawwāl 1, 608/March 7, 1213­  – died 695/1295) is the doyen of Prophetic praise literature.

Imām Sharaf al-Dīn Muḥammad ibn Saʾīd ibn Ḥammād al-Ṣanhājī al-Būṣīrī became famous on account of his poetry venerating the Prophet ﷺ, which has become famous in every corner of the earth. His poetry is distinguished by its pure spirit and sincere sentiments, its beautiful meanings and arresting imagery, its meticulous language and charming form, and by its skillful arrangement. His poetry is such that it has became something of an institution – a school – in and of itself, demonstrating and instructing later poets. His poems serve as models to be emulated by poets, who seek to compose in its style and to adopt its approach and manner. In al-Būṣīrī’s wake, and inspired by the outstanding beauty of his poetry, many poems were composed in praise of the Prophet Muḥammad2 which enraptured the minds and hearts of millions of Muslims over the ages – but which always bore witness to the precedence of al-Imām al-Būṣīrī and of his peerless mastery of this art.

Al-Būṣīrī’s Early Life and Lineage

Al-Būṣīrī was born in the village of Dalāṣ in the modern-day province of Beni Suef in Upper Egypt, on the first of Shawwāl, 608 AH (March 7th, 1213) to a family with origins reaching back to the Ṣanhājah Berbers. He was raised not far from his birthplace in the village of Būṣīr, before moving to Cairo where he became a fixture of its mosques, studying the religious sciences; various linguistic sciences such as grammar, morphology, and prosody; Arabic literature; and Islamic history, particularly the Sīrah of the Prophet ﷺ.

Al-Būṣīrī embarked upon the path of knowledge from a very young age, memorizing the Qurʾān in his early childhood and becoming a student of several eminent scholars. Al-Būṣīrī lived in exceptional times and was a contemporary of such distinguished poets as ʿUmar ibn al-Fāriḍ (d. 632/1235)3 Ibn Maṭrūḥ (d. 649/1251)4, and al-Bahāʾ Zahīr (d. 656/1258)5. Just as he drew inspiration from an environment populated by such figures, al-Būṣīrī likewise influenced important figures who narrated his poems, among them two notable scholars from al-Andalus: Abū Hayyān al-Gharnāṭī (d. 745/1344)6 and Abū al-Fatḥ ibn Sayyid al-Nās al-Yaʿmarī  (d. 734/1334)7. Al-ʿIzz ibn al-Jamāʿah (d. 767/1366)8 also narrated from al-Būṣīrī, as did many other notable figures.

Professional Life and Career

Al-Būṣīri initially became famous for his exceptional calligraphy, the fundamentals and basic principles of which he learned at the hands of the skilled master Ibrāhīm ibn Abī ʿAbd Allāh al-Miṣrī. From the latter a large number of disciples studied, reportedly numbering over one thousand each week.

Al-Būṣīrī bounced from office to office and from post to post, both within Cairo and throughout the various provinces of Egypt. He worked in his youth as a secretary and scribe and even rose at one point to assume the administration of the province of al-Sharqiyya in the Nile Delta. During this time, however, he found himself surrounded by employees who astounded him with their unscrupulous and unethical behavior. After the full extent of their dishonesty and corruption became apparent to him, he composed a number of poems satirizing their behavior, recounting their vices and divulging their myriad transgressions. This, unsurprisingly, evoked their ire and enmity, leading them to hatch various plots, devise several ordeals, and openly slander al-Būṣīrī. Things reached such a point that al-Būṣīrī was no longer able to tolerate either his appointment or the employees surrounding him. He decided to resign from the world of official positions and political appointments altogether, and instead attached himself to Taqī al-Dīn Abī al-Ḥasan ʿAlī ibn ʿAbd al-Jabbār al-Sharīf al-Idrīsī al-Shādhilī (d. 656/1258) and his disciple Shaykh Abī al-ʿAbbās al-Mursī Aḥmad ibn ʿUmar al-Anṣārī (d. 686/1287).

Al-Būṣīrī the Sufi Ascetic

Al-Būṣīrī studied Sufism with his Shaykh, al-Imām Abī al-ʿAbbās al-Mursī, who was the disciple of al-Imām al-Shādhilī, and received instruction alongside none other than Ibn ʿAṭāʾillāh al-Iskandarī (d. 709/1309), who authored the Ḥikam. There was between Abī al-ʿAbbās al-Mursī and al-Būṣīrī a relationship of deep love. Al-Būṣīrī became famous on account of his broad knowledge of the scriptures of the People of the Book, as he would read extensively from the works of the Christians and the Jews. This knowledge compelled him to debate their beliefs and doctrines, which he did with great depth and understanding.

Imām al-Būṣīrī lived through difficult times and endured tremendous tribulations. He was an ascetic from among the people of spiritual aspiration (himma) and worldly contentment (qanāʿah). He was simultaneously afflicted with severe poverty, a great many dependents, and an ill-mannered and hostile spouse. Nonetheless, he never became exasperated or disheartened because the teachings of the Sufis blocked the windows of despair in his soul and instead opened the doors of hope and of loftier ambitions that transcended worldly motivations and concerns.

Al-Būṣīrī began his literary life as all poets then did, by endearing himself to those in power and to the affluent, seeking their patronage and benefaction, covetous above all of their attention and support. Once al-Būṣīrī embarked upon the path of Sufism, however, his soul came to detest this lifestyle, and he instead devoted himself to praise of the Prophet Muḥammad ﷺ, to praise of the family of the Prophet Muḥammad ﷺ, and to praise of the Sufis from among his contemporaries and teachers, such as Abī al-ʿAbbās al-Mursī and Abī al-Ḥasan al-Shādhilī, may God have mercy upon them all.

Al-Būṣīrī as a Pioneer in the Art of Prophetic Praise Poetry

Al-Būṣīrī was particularly absorbed by the Sīrah of the Prophet ﷺ, reading all available literature on him ﷺ – from the short, individual reports conveying the finest of details about the Prophet ﷺ to the larger compilations aggregating his blessed biography ﷺ. He committed his energies, and devoted his poetry and artistic mastery, to praising the Prophet ﷺ. Among his most famous poems is al-Kawākib al-Durriyyah fī Madḥ Khayr al-Bariyyah (“Celestial Lights in Praise of the Best of Creation”), better known simply as al-Burdah, which is from among the jewels of Arabic poetry and from among the most exquisite poems exalting the Prophet ﷺ. It is the crown jewel of the vast genre of poetry composed over the centuries in praise of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, bestowing inspiration upon countless poets over the ages. It is a long poem which spans 160 verses, and its prelude is from among the most striking opening lines of any Arabic poem.  It is said that al-Būṣīrī suffered a stroke which debilitated him, so he composed the Burdah as an appeal to the Divine for the restoration of his health. After composing the poem, al-Būṣīrī lay down to rest, only to see the Prophet ﷺ in a dream. After reciting his poem to the Prophet ﷺ, the Prophet wiped his honorable hand upon al-Būṣīrī’s afflicted body. Al-Būṣīrī awoke and arose from his sleep to find himself, with the permission of God, completely healed.

Imām al-Būṣīrī passed away in Alexandria in 695 AH/1295 AD at the age of 87. Raḥimahu Allāhu Taʿala.


1. Abu al-ʿAbbās Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad ibn ʿAlī ibn Ḥajar, Shihāb al-Dīn al-Haytamī al-Saʿdī was a student of Zakariyyāʾ al-Anṣārī (d. 926/1520). Collectively, his teachers constituted an extraordinary generation of scholars who studied under both Ibn Ḥadjar al-ʿAsḳalānī (d. 852/1449) and Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī (d. 911/1505). In his early youth, al-Haytamī studied the Islamic sciences as well as medicine. Precocious and outrageously gifted, he was given ijāza (formal authorization) to teach and even issue fatwās by his venerable teachers while still a teenager. (Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, s.v. “Ibn Ḥad̲j̲ar al-Haytamī” (by C. van Arendonk-[J. Schacht])).

2. One would be remiss here not to mention the famous, oft-repeated line of Hassān ibn Thābit (d. c. 40/659) in this regard:

وَمَا مَدَحْتُ مُحَمَّداً بِمَقَالَتِى     وَلٰكِنْ مَدَحْتُ مَقَالَتِى بِمُحَمَّدٍ

“It is not Muḥammad who is exalted by my praise, but rather my praise which is exalted by Muḥammad!”

3. ʿUmar b. ʿAlī b. al-Murshid b. ʿAlī Ibn al-Fāriḍ al-Saʿdī, known as sulṭān al-ʿāshiqīn, “the sultan of lovers.” Ibn al-Fāriḍ was an authority in ḥadīth and poetry, both of which he taught in Cairo, Egypt at al-Azhar. His name has become virtually synonymous with mystical poetry of the highest grade – his Khamriyya (Wine Ode) and Naẓm al-Sulūk (Poem of the Ṣūfī Way, often called al-Tāʾiyyā al-Kubrā or Longer Ode Rhyming in Tāʾ) are masterpieces of the genre, and have each inspired Arabic, Persian, and Turkish commentaries. He forged original styles of mystical expression, appropriating the symbolism of profane love to portray the relationship of the servant to the Divine, and of wine and inebriation to describe the all-pervasive, overpowering state of the one immersed in dhikr (the recollection of God). (Encyclopaedia of Islam, Three, s.v. “Ibn al-Fāriḍ” (by Th. Emil Homerin)).

4. Jamāl al-Dīn Abū l-Ḥusayn (or Abū l-Ḥasan) Yaḥyā ibn ʿĪsā Ibn Maṭrūḥ was an important statesman during the rule of the Ayyubid Sultan al-Malik al-Ṣāliḥ (who ruled from 637–47/1240–9), serving as the inspector-general (naẓīr) of the Ayyubid army and wazīr (vizier) in Damascus. In addition to being a high level functionary in the imperial administration of the Ayyubids, Ibn Maṭrūḥ’s poetry was highly regarded by his contemporaries and featured in anthologies long after his death. His most famous poem recounts the assault of Louis IX (r. 1226–70) of France, who led a Crusade and attacked Egypt in 1249, but who was defeated and captured after the Battle of Fāriskur on 3 Muḥarram 648/7 April 1250. He was eventually freed in return for Damietta (Dumyāṭ) and a substantial ransom. (Encyclopaedia of Islam, Three, s.v. “Ibn Maṭrūḥ” (by Adam Talib)).

5. Bahāʾ al-Dīn Abū l-Faḍl Zuhayr ibn Muḥammad ibn ʿAlī al-Muhallabī al-Azdī was, like his close fried Ibn Maṭrūh (mentioned above), a high-level dignitary remembered for his excellent poetry. He served as the confidential secretary to the Ayyūbid prince al-Ṣāliḥ before the latter became sultan in 637/1240, after which al-Bahāʾ Zuhayr became vizier. After al-Ṣāliḥ’s death in 647/1249 al-Bahāʾ Zuhayr was unable to ascend to the upper echelons of the political realm once more, though it was also at this point that he became famed for his poetry, which described all aspects of life, culture, and society in the late Ayyūbid period. (Encyclopaedia of Islam, Three, s.v. “Bahāʾ al-Dīn Zuhayr” (by Jawdat Rikabi, revised by Th. Emil Homerin).)

6. Abū Ḥayyān Athīr al-Dīn Muḥammad b. Yūsuf al-Gharnāṭī (654–745/1256–1344) was an outstanding grammarian and celebrated poet who born in Granada but later moved to Cairo. He was a scholar of the Qurʾānic sciences as well as of grammar in Egypt and authored over fifty works, though only half have survived to our day; of those, only 13 have been published thus far. His works span the fields of grammar, Qurʾānic studies, ḥadīth, jurisprudence, history, biography, and poetry. In addition to his fascination with and mastery of Arabic, he also wrote on Turkish, Ethiopic, and Persian, and knew Sībawayh’s (d. 180/796?) Kitāb by heart. (Encyclopaedia of Islam, Three, s.v. “Abū Ḥayyān al-Gharnāṭī” (by Sidney Glazer & Th. Emil Homerin); (Encyclopaedia Islamica, s.v. “Abū Ḥayyān al-Gharnāṭī” (by Enayatollah Fatehi-nezhad, tr. Rahim Gholami).)

7. Ibn Saiyid al-Nās, Fatḥ al-Dīn Abu ’l-Fatḥ Muḥammad ibn Abī Bakr Muḥammad al-Yaʿmarī al-Andalusī, was born in Cairo, studied in Egypt and Damascus, and then became a professor of ḥadīth in the Ẓāhirīya in Cairo. He wrote a biography of the Prophet ﷺ entitled ʿUyūn al-Athar fi Funūn al-Maghāzī al-Shamāʾil wa ’l-Siyar as well as a number of qaṣīdas in praise of the Prophet ﷺ, collected under the title Bushra ’l-Labīb fī Dhikra ’l-Ḥabīb. (Encyclopaedia of Islam, First Edition, s.v. “Ibn Saiyid al-Nās”.)

8. ʿIzz al-Dīn ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz Ibn Jamāʿa belonged to an extraordinary family of Shāfiʿi jurists – the Banū Jamāʿa – who originated in northern Syria and who dominated the position of chief qādī of Egypt during the Mamlūk period. ʿIzz al-Dīn Ibn Jamāʿa was the intendant of the treasury (wakīl bayt al-māl) of Egypt for eleven years before being appointed the Shāfiʿī chief qāḍī of Egypt in 738/1340, a position which he held for 25 years. (Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, s.v. “Ibn D̲j̲amāʿa” (K.S. Salibi).)


By Iyad Ammar , 02 Aug 2018

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