Laila Akhyaliyya – Female Voice Of Antiquity


by Dorothy Disse

Laila Akhyaliyya, a member of a noble family of the ‘Uqail (in what is now Iraq), lived in the later 600s, and knew two of the Umayyad caliphs whose dynasty led the Islamic world from 661 to 750. She may have been married to a man named Sawwar, but many of her poems are laments for Tauba ibn Humayyar (d.674), a fellow poet and perhaps her lover, who apparently died an outlaw. Tradition describes her as often wittily holding her own in debate with Umayyad authorities who criticized her for her defense of Tauba.

Laila’s diwan (poetry collection), like that of Khansa earlier in the century, was preserved by Islamic scholars who studied seventh century Arabic literature in order to understand the language of the Qur’an. Some of Laila’s poems praise the gift-giving caliphs (normally done only by professional male poets), others are parts of exchanges of invective with other poets. However, much of her poetry continues to perform the traditional woman poet’s role in the pre- and early-Islamic society: to record the life and deeds of her tribe and to mourn the dead.

On this page you’ll find:

Links to helpful sites online.

Excerts from translations in print.

Information about secondary sources.



1. Translated poems:

(a) In a 2004 biography of Laila, by Ma’n Abul Husn, passages from three poems, translated by Arthur Wormhoudt: “O eye, weep tears continually flowing”; “O, bravo the man you were, Tawba;” and “We are those that came early at dawn.”
(b) “At Tauba’s death I swore,” translated by Willis Barnstone; it is followed by several excerpts from Wormhoudt, including one not given above, “The curve of grouse watering in a flock.”

2. For historical background:

(a) The Wikipedia entry on Laila’s tribe, the Banu ‘Amir (you can link to a brief entry on Laila).
(b) Wikipedia entries on the two caliphs whom Laila knew and praised in her poetry: Marwan ibn al-Hakam (623-685), and Abdul Malik Bin Marwan (646-705).
(b) A 2003 essay by Jonathan A.C. Brown, “The Social Context of Pre-Islamic Poetry: Poetic Imagery and Social Reality in the Mu c allaqat,” which, although its chief focus is on a group of seven long poems written by men from c.550-c.630, describes the world in which Laila lived.



[Arthur Wormhoudt has translated Laila’s diwan (along with that of a male poet). He presents 44 of her poems (including some fragments). Wormhoudt speaks briefly of Laila in his foreword; the notes are of limited help. This is not a book to be found in all libraries, but you can get it via interlibrary loan:]

Diwan Antara ibn Shaddad ibn Qurad al Abs. Diwan Laila Akhyaliyya / translated by Arthur Wormhoudt (An Arab translation series). [Oskaloosa, Iowa]: William Penn College, 1974. (128 p.)
LC#: PJ7696.A53 A27 1974

“We left no joy for the stragglers.”

[Laila praises the fierceness of her tribe. The words are Wormhoudt’s; some line-breaks are changed and punctuation added:]

We are those that came early at dawn
attacking steadily on Nukhail’s day.
We destroyed the Malik al Jahjaha
forever; we stirred mourners for him.
We left no joy for the stragglers,
neither camps nor dripping blood.
We are Banu Khuwailid without compare;
the battle does not lie nor trifle.        [p.108]

“They press to belly and breast the wings and hover a little at a favorite pool.”

[She describes the creatures of her world — here, adult grouse and their young:]

The curve of grouse watering in a flock
They near the pool water in all haste….

They stay intoxicated at the springs as if
Drinkers dependent on Persian lords
They took a little drink and hurried to
Take it away between Shibak and Tandib
The night in a desert and morning as guests.

There at brood places in a hungry flock
They press to belly and breast the wings
And hover a little at a favorite pool
Then they slow the beating of wings to end
At their sides shoulder to shoulder.

So they hear their sounds and hungry cries
And give them back from that as echo
They bend to the naked heads as if they
Are boy’s balls made of rabbit’s skin
When the dark leaves them they give them
a drink of the pool nearby never empty.

The name of harshness is theirs and chicks
Make an uproar that is not understood….       [ll.13, 15-23; p.105]

“…from the pure grammar and the rhymes like spearheads….”

[Many of Laila’s poems mourn the death of her lover:]

O eye, weep tears continually flowing,
weep for Tauba in hidden fear;
for a man of Banu Sa’id that I suffer for.

What was it that took him to a stony grave,
from the pure grammar and the rhymes
like spearheads and a thing not shared?        [ll.1-3, p.123]

“He reached the heights of things with ease.”

[Laila searches for images to praise Tauba:]

He reached the heights of things with ease
when they tired every bounteous noble.

He was honey—no, I see a beehive his likeness,
with the liquor of reddest Baisan wine.       [p.108]

“Things perfectly done deny for you the blame of men.”

[But Tauba had died as an outlaw, not as a respected tribal leader, so Laila’s poems must defend him as well as praise him; the last lines show the union of Islamic with pre-Islamic thought:]

O, bravo the man you were, Tauba,
when the high points met and the low one were raised.
Bravo the man you were, O Tauba,
not being surpassed on a day you were attempting it.
O bravo the man you were, Tauba, as the fearful
came to you for defense, bravo the bravery.

Bravo the man, O Tauba, as neighbor and friend.
Bravo the man, O Tauba, as you excelled.

By my life, you are a man whose loss I weep
as ancestors, though gossips complain of him.
By my life, you are a man whose loss I mourn
increasing my waking for him no end.
By my life, you are a man whose loss I mourn
when great things multiply for the dying.

Things perfectly done deny for you the blame of men,
O Tauba, each time you are recalled.
Bounty for widows’ shelter deny for you the blame of men,
O Tauba, every time you are recalled.

Had Allah not removed you, O Tauba,
yet you had met death’s dart, and death is swift.
Had Allah not removed you, O Tauba,
yet on you would a dark morning cloud shower.       [p.118]


[This anthology has three of Laila’s poems (one a part of a longer work), translated by Willis Barnstone. (See the book’s table of contents online.):]

A Book of women poets from antiquity to now / edited by Aliki Barnstone & Willis Barnstone. Rev. ed. New York: Schocken Books, c1992. (xxiv, 822 p.)
LC#: PN6109.9 .B6 1992;   ISBN: 0805209972
Includes indexes.



[This collection includes Dana Sajdi’s essay, “Revisiting Layla Al-Akhyaliyya’s Trespass,” which translates and discusses a 36-verse ode (qasida) in which Laila uses a traditionally male form in such a way as to present female voices and a woman’s view. Sajdi also looks at how Laila was viewed by contemporaries and later Arab scholars. (For Wormhoudt’s translation of part of the qasida, see above, “The curve of grouse watering in a flock.”). Another essay, Marle Hammond’s “Qasida, Marthiya, and Differance,” includes Hammond’s translation (with the Arabic original) of a 45-line elegy for Tawba, followed by a comparison of each section of Laila’s poem with two others written by women. (See the book’s table of contents online.):]

Transforming loss into beauty: essays on Arabic literature and culture in honor of Magda Al-Nowaihi / edited by Marle Hammond, Dana Sajdi. Cairo: New York: American University In Cairo Press, c2008. (xxvi, 404 p.: port.)
LC#: PJ7503 .T62 2008; ISBN: 9789774161025
Includes bibliographical references
[Sajdi’s essay in the above collection is an enlargement of an earlier article, “Trespassing the Male Domain: The Qasidah of Layla Al-Akhyaliyyah,” which unlike the 2008 essay, gives the poem’s Arabic text in an appendix: Journal of Arabic Literature, 31 (2000), 121-143; LC#: PJ7501 .J63;  ISSN: 0085-2376 (See online the issue’s table of contents.)]

[Although she does not deal specifically with Laila in her study, Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych’s chapter “The Obligations and Poetics of Gender: Women’s Elegy and Blood Vengeance” discusses the purpose of women’s elegy in pre- and early Islamic poetry:]

Stetkevych, Suzanne Pinckney. The mute immortals speak: pre-Islamic poetry and the poetics of ritual (Myth and poetics). Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993. (xvi, 334 p.)
LC#: PJ7542.Q3 S75 1993;   ISBN: 0801427649
“Appendix of Arabic texts”–P. 287-317. Includes bibliographical references (p. 319-327) and index.


Updated by Dorothy Disse 09-02-12

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