Poetry in Islam: Ibtisam Barakat review


Emaan Khan

Islamic literature is deeply woven in long histories of spirituality and ideology for those who follow its faith. There exists an incessant misconception that Muhammad, and the Quran in entirety, disregard poetry as empty words. This claim commonly arises at the reading of Chapter 26 of the Quran (ash-Shu'ara), which writes, “And the Poets, it is those straying in Evil who follow them: Seest thou not that they wander distracted in every valley?/And that they say what they practice not?” To read this passage as a complete repulsion of poetry is to misinterpret the beliefs of Islam. Poetry that is inspiring, nuanced, and rich is celebrated in Islam- it is the poetry that makes a mockery of its own art that is denounced. The Quran holds art in great respect.

Ibtisam Barakat is a Palestinian, Muslim poet and peace activist. During the Six-Day War in 1967, she fled with her family to the Israeli-occupied West Bank. After studying in West Bank, she traveled to the United States and pursued a master’s degree in journalism and human development. She is most recognizable by her memoir, Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood, which illustrated her early life during the war.  

Her poems often address the circumstances she struggled with in her childhood, and continues to parse. Many are written in Arabic. The following is her poem “Stirrings,” taken from her website

I thank the women
who came before me,
who as they stirred sugar into tea
and lemon into lentil soup
had stirrings of freedom
in their chests. . .
Some spoke of that,
and some served the food
silently. . .
But all the longing
conquered the long road,
fed the ground,
until it grew strong
for me now to stand on it. . .
Stand my ground,
stand,
walk,
and run my ground
as  a master
of my spirit . . .

Barakat writes of the resilient brown women who built the land she can now traverse, as a published poet who is able to illustrate a childhood that goes frequently unheard. The bodies of Palestinian Muslim women are constantly constructed as “most oppressed” as dictated by white, American discourse. Not only does that preclude the validity of Muslim-American women, and brown women at large, but it also deprives the female, Muslim body of its ardor and empowerment. It is time for the Muslim and turbaned-body to not be defined by the acts of those who misunderstand the values of the faith. Islamic poetry carried this belief in the history of its faith, and modern Muslim women poets continue to refuse the labeling of their own bodies by the hands of the American man.