Imam al-Hadi’s Poem in the Court of Mutawakkil

It is narrated by Al-Mas’ūdī in Murūj al-Dhahab that al-Imām ‘Alī ibn Muḥammad al-Hādī (as) was called into the court of the Abbasid caliph al-Mutawakkil while the latter was indulging in alcohol and merrymaking. Al-Mutawakkil called him to partake of it, but the Imām abstained stating “My flesh and blood can never mingle with alcohol.” Then al-Mutawakkil asked the Imām whether he fancies poetry, to which he replied, “I am not a poet.” Nonetheless, Mutawakkil insisted to hear the Imām compose, perhaps in an attempt to humiliate him. The Imām responded impromptu with a legendary sonnet so eloquent that al-Mutawakkil and his entire entourage broke down in profuse tears. The poem is well-known, however it has never been translated into metered rhymed English poetry, which we have endeavored to do while preserving the meaning. The poem is matchless in Arabic eloquence and our English translation can only approximate its spell-binding power. It should be noted that the poem may be considered a beautiful linguistic intertextual exposition (al-iqtibās) of verse 78 in Sūrah al-Nisā’: أَيْنَمَا تَكُونُوا يُدْرِككُّمُ الْمَوْتُ وَلَوْ كُنتُمْ فِي بُرُوجٍ مُّشَيَّدَةٍ (“Wherever you may be, death will reach you; even should you be in lofty towers!”).

In order for the readers to better appreciate the immaculate literary prowess in this poem, we have added our own detailed footnotes that expound on the delicate points of Arabic eloquence (al-balāghah) latent in these lines—points which unfortunately escape English translation. These will hopefully be especially useful to those who have studied Arabic to a sufficient level to be able to appreciate its literature. It should be noted that there is even more linguistic beauty to expound, but for the sake of brevity we have limited ourselves to only this extent, inshā’ Allah.

باتوا على قللِ الاجبـال تحرسُهـم

غُلْبُ الرجالِ فلم تنفعهمُ القُلـلُ

و استنزلوا بعد عزّ عـن معاقلهـم

  و أودعوا حفراً يابئس مـا نزلـوا

ناداهمُ صارخٌ من بعد مـا قبـروا

أين الاسرّةُ و التيجـانُ و الحلـلُ

أين الوجوه التـي كانـتْ منعمـةً

من دونها تُضربُ الأستارُ و الكللُ

فافصـحَ القبـرُ عنهم حيـن ساءلـهـم

تلك الوجوه عليهـا الـدودُ يقتتـلُ

قد طالما أكلوا دهراً و ما شربـوا

فأصبحوا بعد طول الأكلِ قد أكلوا

و طالما عمّـروا دوراً لتُحصنهـم

ففارقوا الدورَ و الأهلينَ و ارتحلوا

و طالما كنزوا الأموال و ادّخروا

فخلّفوها على الأعـداء و انتقلـوا

أضحت منازلُهـم قفـراً معطلـةً

و ساكنوها الى الاجداث قد رحلوا

سـل الخليفـةَ إذ وافـت منيتـهُ

أين الحماة و أين الخيلُ و الخـولُ

اين الرماةُ أمـا تُحمـى بأسهمِهـمْ

 لمّا أتتـك سهـامُ المـوتِ تنتقـلُ

أين الكماةُ أما حاموا أما اغتضبوا

أين الجيوش التي تُحمى بها الدولُ

هيهات ما نفعوا شيئاً و ما دفعـوا

عنك المنية إن وافى بهـا الأجـلُ

فكيف يرجو دوامَ العيش متصـلاً

من روحه بجبالِ المـوتِ تتصـلُ



They camp on the peaks of mountains surveilled

By hardened men, yet their guards won’t avail[1]

Debased after pomp from their lofty stations

And into their pits, what pitied destinations![2]

A shouter does call them while they lie in graves

Where are beds, crowns, and lavish displays?![3]

Where are the faces well-caked in their glamor

That once took curtains and garlands as armor?![4]

The answer emerges from deep in their caskets:

Now those dear faces are grub for the maggots![5]

How long it had been that they ate and drank endlessly

Having eaten so long, now they are the specialty!

How long they had furnished their homes for protection

Only to leave them for lands of dejection!

How long they had treasured their wealth and did store

They leave it for rivals and move to the fore![6]

Their dwellings are voided of all operation

Its dwellers to tombs have taken vacation![7]

Ask the Caliph, while Fate did summon his soul

Where’s your guards, your horses, your chattel and gold?[8]

And where are the archers; won’t they cast a volley?!

When arrows of death catch you in your folly?![9]

And how go the troops; are they not enraged?

Oh where are those legions that stood at your stage?!

Far be it that they should ward off or curtail

Mortality’s throes as your term hits the pail[10]

For how can you hope for your lifestyle forever

When your soul is strapped to Death’s fated lever?![11]



[1] The word “qulal” in Arabic is a plural form that can mean both “the peaks of mountains” (sing. القُلَّة al-qullah) and “groups [of men]” (sing. القِلَّة al-qillah). Hence, with this single word, the Imām is negating the benefit of both the mountain peaks and the hardened men in protecting their pompous benefactors. This is why we have chosen to render this word in its second occurrence within this couplet as “guards.”

[2] There is a highly acclaimed Arabic literary device in these lines call radd al-‘ajz ‘alā al-ṣadr. While this doesn’t have a clear English translation, it refers to a type of specialized pun in which a poet uses the same word root in different morphological derivations within a single line, once in the beginning of the line and once in the end. In this case, the Imam uses the words استنزلوا (ustunzilū) and نزلوا (nazalū), both of which derive from the root ن ز ل (na za la). This type of literary device can also be found in the Qur’an where Prophet Nūḥ says in verse 10 of Sūrah Nūḥ: فَقُلْتُ اسْتَغْفِرُوا رَبَّكُمْ إِنَّهُ كَانَ غَفَّارًا (“So ask forgiveness from your Lord, indeed He is Most Forgiving”), where the word derivations of غ ف ر are used both in the beginning of the verse and in its ending. This is very difficult to translate into English so instead we have used a play on words between “pit” and “pitied” to convey some sense of the original. The semantic function of this style of repetition is for emphasis (al-tawkīd); in this case, the Imām is emphasizing the absolutely miserable descent that they will undergo.

[3] The Imām utilizes the literary device of al-tankīr (ambiguation) repeatedly in this poem which lends it further rhetorical power. For instance, in the first stanza he uses the pronoun “they” without referencing whom he is referring to; he does the same here with “a shouter.” In Arabic, al-tankīr is used for several purposes and one of them is to frighten by rendering an air of anonymity to the threat or challenger, as seen here. Of course, it also serves to protect the Imām from al-Mutawakkil by making his address less direct.

[4] In these lines, the Imām utilizes rhetorical questions (al-istifhāmāt al-istinkārīyah) for several purposes: to belittle the pomp and glamor of this world (al-taḥqīr), to mock the excessively ostentatious (al-tahakkum), and to cast wonder at how transient the glitter and status of this world really is (al-ta’ajjub).

[5] This is known in Arabic rhetoric as al-isti’ārah al-makniyyah, where the grave is personified as though a human, answering the questions of the mysterious caller. The second part of the line can be rendered more literally as “those faces—now the worms fight over [them]!”

[6] In these three couplets, the Imām brilliantly uses the literary device of antithesis (al-ṭibāq): eating and being eaten, furnishing and abandoning, hoarding and leaving behind, etc. Another beautiful linguistic device is the use of elaboration (al-iṭnāb); in other words, the Imām could easily have said here in a single line that they long tarried here but now went off to their graves; however, he states it instead three times in a row emphasizing different aspects of their pomposity. This serves to structurally embody into his very words how long and elaborately they had planned for their dunyā and how each of their aspirations fell apart.

[7] There is a very peculiar and powerful use of al-af’āl al-nāsikhah (abrogating verbs) in this poem. Those who are well-acquainted with Arabic will recall that the word كان  (“to become”) has some temporal sisters: أصبح (“to become” while in the morning), أضحى  (“to become” while at mid-day), and بات  (“to become” while at night), among others. We see in the poem that all three of these verbs are used in a very unique pattern: in the first line, the pompous royalty camps out at night in their fortified heights in the protection of their men (باتوا); then they awaken in their caskets in the morning (أصبحوا); by noon (أضحت), their homes are abandoned and emptied of all their wealth. By use of temporal forms in this way, the Imām creates a powerful imagery regarding the sudden and unexpected way that death seizes upon a person, leaving all he has built for himself to be dispersed and bequeathed to others within the span of less than a day after one’s demise.

[8] This command (al-amr) falls under the purview of the requisitive prescriptive style (uslūb al-inshā’ al-ṭalabī) in Arabic, and therefore does not imply a true command to “ask the Caliph” per se. Rather, as is expounded in the science of Arabic semantics (علم المعاني), the meaning of a command can be figurative and serve other purposes. Here, it is for the purpose of taking a lesson (al-i’tibār) from the crisis of the Caliph, whereby his ample resournces don’t ward off death from him. Other beautiful linguistic features in this line include the personification (al-isti’ārah al-makniyyah) of Fate as a summoner and the alliteration in خيل (khayl, lit. “horse”) and خول (khawal). It should be noted that the word خول means most literally, “slaves and property,” which we have rendered here as “chattel and gold” to facilitate rhyme and meter.

[9] There is a beautiful figurative expression (al-isti’ārah) embodied here when the Imām mentions the arrows of death in juxtaposition with the arrows of the archers. A subtle Arabic morphological point that should not be lost on those who are well-acquainted with the language is the way the Imam uses different broken plurals for سهم  (sahm, lit. “arrow”). He uses سهام  (sihām) for the arrows of death while he uses أسهم  (ashum) for the arrows of the archers. The former is the broken plural that expresses a larger quantity (jam’ al-kathrah) while the latter is the broken plural which expresses a smaller quantity (jam’ al-qillah). Therefore, even the way that the Imām uses these plurals is flawless, as the word construction immediately lends itself to the connotation that the arrows of the archers are vastly outnumbered and completely powerless against the metaphorically more numerous arrows of death.

[10] There is again elaboration (al-iṭnāb) in these repeated rhetorical questions to emphasize the sheer number of guards that the Caliph has at his disposal while negating in a one-by-one manner their complete powerlessness. Again, the semantic style is one of mockery here (al-tahakkum). It’s also an allusion back to the first couplet which mentions the “hardened men” that watch over the Caliph yet they are all insufficient in the face of the Caliph’s mortality. There is also prominent alliteration (al-jinās) in these lines between the words دفعوا and نفعوا. We have rendered a more idiomatic rendering of “as your term hits the pail,” as a more literal translation of “as your term completes itself into death” (إذ وافى بها الأجل) would betray a sense of elegance.

[11] The end of this poem is perhaps the most powerful and memorable, embodying the principle of a perfect ending (ḥusn al-khitām) in Arabic eloquence. There is also a double entendre (al-tawriyah) in the phrase جبال الموت  (jibāl al-mawt). The singular جبل (jabal) in Arabic means both “natural design” (as in مجبول عليه, “naturally predisposed to [something]”) and “mountain.” Given that death is a non-physical entity, one might therefore assume that the meaning of جبال الموت  is “the natural designs of death,” or “Death’s fated lever,” as we have rendered it. However, the true meaning here which resists translation is actually literally “mountains of Death” and is meant as a juxtaposition to the opening line where peaks of mountains are sought as encampments to escape from Death. In essence, the Imām is saying that the soul is inevitably attached to the very mountains of Death by its very nature, and therefore those physical mountains sought for protection are utterly powerless. To emphasize this further, we observe that in the opening line, the Imām uses the plural of small quantity (jam’ al-qillah) أجبال  to refer to the physical mountains while here for death he uses the plural of large quantity (jam’ al-kathrah) جبال for the mountains of death to morphologically signify that the mountains of Death have the upper hand over physical mountains. In addition to this powerful linguistic flourish, the line also carries another case of alliteration between تتصل  and متصل.