How to Write an Arabic Poem

The formal elements of classical Arabic poetry

Farid Alsabeh


al-Farahidi, an Arab scholar who greatly standardized the study of poetry in the 8th century

Subscribe to my email list to receive notifications about future articles

Every work of art is a balance, a mindful negotiation, between convention and creativity. Too much convention, and the artist’s vision is stifled by restrictions. But without adherence to style, creativity risks becoming too freeform and self-indulgent.

Classical Arabic poetry is a masterful fusion of convention and creativity. Its formal structure places stringent requirements on the composer. But these are tempered by the fact that Arabic comports very well to them, leaving the poet with many avenues for artistic expression.

The result is an unmatched cultural achievement, equally satisfying to the ears and the heart, which has rightfully made poetry the ‘register of the Arabs’. In this article, we’ll explore the main features of Arabic poetry, including:

  • Their titles: What are Arabic poems called?
  • Their lines: How are Arabic poems organized?
  • Their rhythms: What meters do Arabic poems use?
  • Their rhymes: How do Arabic poems use rhyming?

The title

Traditionally, Arabic poems don’t have titles — at least, not in the typical sense. Their composers didn’t give them names, nor did subsequent reciters invent any for them. Instead, they’re usually identified by their opening words: an uninspired system, but quite practical.

Hence, for example, a poem by the mystical Sufi poet Ibn al-Fāriḍ is known by its first line, qalbī yuḥaddithunī bi’annaka mutlifī “My Heart Tells Me That You’re Ruining Me”. This is a fairly accurate representation of the poem overall, which conveys the soul-wrenching passions of a man in love.

A central theme of Sufi poetry is the transcendent, ego-destroying effect of infatuation with a beloved

In other cases, the poem’s name will derive from the consonant of its terminal rhyme. For example, the poet as-Samaw’al composed a certain well-known poem which ends in the Arabic letter lam. It therefore became known as lāmiyyat as-Samaw’al — roughly, “The Lam-Poem of