The Oud: ‘Never short of melodious song’

By Salma Harland

Three poems from the 10th century celebrating a musical instrument.

Abu al-Fatḥ Maḥmūd ibn al-Ḥusain ibn al-Sanadī ibn al-Shāhik, also known as Kushājim, is a celebrated tenth-century poet, master chef, and polymath. Originally from Ramla in Palestine (near contemporary Tel Aviv), Kushājim lived in Jerusalem, Damascus, Baghdad, and Cairo before finally settling in Aleppo. He served Abu Muḥammad al-Ḥasan ibn Abu al-Ḥaijā’ Abdullāh ibn Ḥamdān al-Taghlibī, more commonly known by his epithet Naṣīr al-Dawla, as a court poet before also serving his brother Alī, commonly known as Sayf al-Dawla.

Kushājim wrote extensively on music, hunting, food, and chess, among other themes. His known works include Adab an-Nadīm (The Necessary Qualities for Boon Companions), Al-Maṣā’iḍ wa al-Maṭāriḍ (Snares and Game), a collection of Epistles, and a diwan of poems. He died in A.H. 360 (A.D. 970).


In one of his longer poems, Kushājim alludes to some classical Arabic motifs, such as the night, the desert, ghazal (love poetry), al-wuqūf ʻalā al-’atlāl (literally “standing by the ruins,” where the poet draws inspiration from the abandoned places of his past), madīḥ (praise), and hijā’ (satire), before concluding:

If I am to compose poetry

     I will seek neither satire nor praise

For I have found poetry

     to be an eloquent translation of the refined ways.

وَلَئِنْ شَعُرْتُ لَمَا تَعَمْمَدْتُ          الْهِجَاءَ وَلَا الْمَدِيْحَهْ

لَكِنْ وَجَدْتُ الشِّعْرَ لِلْآدَابِ          تَرْجَمَةً فَصِيْحَهْ

In his Adab an-Nadīm, he defines adab as the necessary qualities of a courtier, which include the etiquettes of sharing food and wine, singing and playing various musical instruments, entertaining the caliph with nard (a type of backgammon) and dice, and holding forth with good conversations. In a chapter of the same book titled Bab al-Samāʻ (“On Listening”), he writes:


Song caters to the soul without the body, distracting it from what is good for the body, where the pleasures of food and drink cater to the body without the soul.

وذلك أنَّ الغناءَ شيءٌ يخصُّ النفسَ دون الجسم فيشغلها عن مصَالحِ الجسم، كما أنَّ لذةَ المأكولِ والمشروبِ تخص الجسمَ دون النفس.

Of all the musical instruments, Kushājim evidently thought highly of the oud, on which he wrote the majority of his music-themed poems. He writes:

Seek two ouds for [higher] spirits

[. . .]

For the oud is never short of melodious song.

مزاجك للمثنى من العود

. . .

ولو كنت عودا ما افتقرت إلى زمر

Kushājim on a female oud virtuoso and singer, in seven couplets:

Melodious is her song that you presume

     each and every organ in her body has a throat!

When she sang, I was transported with joy

     to the heavens above and beyond.

She speaks of unrequited love akin to my sorrows,

     yet she does not know that of which I suffer.

You see her embracing the oud

     as their words harmoniously entwine

And if her fingers ever cease to play,

     the breeze blows its articulate song into it.

She caresses the oud gently, as if she knows what ails it,

     like a learned doctor takes the pulse of a jilted lover,

Yet when she starts to play,

     her left hand strikes it like lightening and her right like thunder.


وَكَثِيْرَةِ النَّغَمَاتِ تَحْسَبُهَا          فِي كُلِّ عُضْوٍ أُوتِيَتْ حَلْقَا

غَنَّتْ فَظَلْتُ إِخَالُنِي طَرَبًا          أَسْمُو إِلَى الأَفْلاَكِ أَوْ أَرْقَى

تَحْكِي أَنِيْنِي وَهْيَ سَالِيَةٌ          مَمَّا أَجِنُّ وَتَشْتَكِي عِشْقَا

وَتَرَى لَهَا عُودَاً تُعَانِقُهُ          وَكَلاَمُهُ وَكَلاَمُهَا وِفْقَا

لَوْ لَمْ تُحَرِّكْهُ أَنَامِلُهَا          كَانَ الهَوَاءُ يُفِيْدُهُ نُطْقَا

جَسَّتْهُ عَالِمَهً بِحَالَتِهِ          جَسَّ الطَّبِيْبِ لِمُدْنَفٍ عِرْقَا

فَحَسِبْتُ يُمْنَاهَا تُحَرِّكُهُ          رَعْدَاً وَخِلْتُ يَسَارَهَا بَرْقَا

On a Nine-string oud, in four couplets:

Its chords candidly reverberate

     with a longing like that of the homesick

And beauty that wondrously transcends

     that of all neys and drums.

Its body is embellished

     with the skin of a hapless gazelle,

Its nine strings cast like woven nets

     to ensnare hearts.

مُعْلِنَةُ الْأَوتَارِ صَخَّابَةٌ          لَهَا حَنِيْنٌ كَحَنِيْنِ الْغَرِيْبْ

زَادَتْ عَلَى الْمِزْهَرِ طِيْبًا وَقَدْ          تَاهَتْ عَلَى النَّاي بِخَلْقٍ عَجِيْبْ

مَكْسُوَّةٌ أَحْشَاؤُهَا حُلَّةٌ          مِنْ جِلْدِ أَحْشَاءِ غَزَالٍ رَبِيْبْ

كَأَنَّمَا تِسْعَةُ أَوْتَارِهَا          نُصِبْنَ أَشْرَاكًا لِصَيْدِ الْقُلُوبْ

And on the oud and longing, in three couplets:

I remembered you as I embraced my oud

     with tears racing to my eyes.

I clasped it to my chest

     as we entwined

And wondered how it does not burst into flames

     when it nears my kindling heart.

ذَكَرْتُكَ بِالْعُودِ عَانَقْتُهُ          وَدَمْعِي مِنْ مُقْلَتِي يَسْتَبِقْ

أَضُمَّ إِلَى جَسَدِي مَا ضَمَمْتُ          مِنْهُ وَأَلْزَمُهُ مُعْتَنِقْ

وَأَعْجَبُ مِنْهُ إِذَا مَا دَنَا          إِلَى كَبِدِي كَيْفَ لاَ يَحْتَرِقْ

Salma Harland is an Egyptian-born, England-based literary translator who works between Arabic and English. Her literary translations have appeared or are forthcoming in Ancient Exchanges, ArabLit Quarterly, Modern Poetry in Translation, and elsewhere. Her website is and she tweets as @salmaharland.


This article was first published in ArabLit Quarterly, a magazine that focuses on translations of Arabic works, medieval and modern. You can learn more about them through their website, and get their issues by signing up to their Patreon.

Top Image: Playing music in a garden, depicted in a 13th century manuscript – Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana Ms.Ar.368 / Wikimedia Commons