Dissertation Defense: Hatem Alzahrani

Candidate Name: Hatem Alzahrani

Major: Arabic and Islamic Studies

Dissertation Advisor: Suzzane P. Stetkevych, Ph.D.

Title: The Poet’S Self-Image Versus Authority in Arabic Poetry: Between Classical and Modern

This project studies the ways through which poets form their self-image and design its relationship with authority. In its exploration of how poets respond to the authority of tradition, it will focus on the roles the poet’s self-image plays in the negotiation of prophetic authority, given the latter’s centrality in Arabo-Islamic culture and its encapsulation of a multiplicity of authority forms, including the linguistic, aesthetic, socio-cultural, mythological, and the symbolic.

After establishing its theoretical framework, chapter 1 looks at al-Mutanabbī’s (d. 965) self-image versus authority as portrayed in his poetry and, most importantly, in his reception and counter-reception, classical and modern. After that, chapter 2 examines the poet versus the Prophet question but not isolated in the timeframe of the classical period when the actual encounter between these two authority figures took place. Rather, I explore the classical poet’s engagement with the text that established the prophetic authority, the Qurʾān, in light of the reception of this engagement in modern Arabic poetry. The poets studied in this chapter are two classical and one modern, namely Kaʿb b. Zuhayr (d. mid 7th cent.), Tamīm b. Muqbil (d. after 656), and the Palestinian poet Maḥmūd Darwīsh (1941-2008).

The first two chapters will form the foundation for the study of the modernist project of the Saudi poet Muḥammad al-Thubaytī. The latter’s poetry will serve as an example of how the poet’s self-image expresses the anxiety of the modern text in its relationship with tradition, its challenge of a hegemonic narrative, and its disputation with the meaning of the modern, by, first and foremost, secularizing the prophetic experience and harmonizing tradition with modernity.

Chapters 3 and 4 are devoted to the modernist movement in Saudi Arabia, represented by al-Thubaytī’s oeuvre, vis-à-vis the authority of the religious and oil-based identity of modern Saudi Arabia. It presents an interpretation of selected poems from al-Thubaytī’s third and fourth collections to argue that his project is centered on a metapoetics that proposes to identify the poet with autochthonous cultural elements, most importantly the sand and palm-trees. I suggest that al-Thubaytī’s project presents a new imagining of the cultural self through the identification of the poet, as a secular prophet, with the natural and cultural landmarks of Arabia, hence offering a space where the temporal and religious realms dissolve into one coherent autochthonous culture.

By placing the poet’s self-image vis-à-vis authority as exemplified in the project of one of the most prominent modernist poets of the Arabian Peninsula against the representation of this relationship in the oeuvre of the quintessential panegyrist of Arabic poetry, al-Muatanbbī, and in two classical poems and their reception in a modernist poem belonging to the so-called “literary center,” this study aims to: 1) better grasp the transformations Arabic poetry has undergone in its articulation of the location of the poet vis-à-vis authority; 2) shed fresh light on an understudied corpus of poetry, i.e., the modern poetry of the Arabian Peninsula, and place it in the continuity of Arabic poetry; and 3) show the benefits of studying Arabic poetry as one continues tradition rather than adhering to the Eurocentric notion of the inevitable break between tradition and modernity.

Friday, May 24, 2019 at 9:30am to 11:30am

Edward B. Bunn, S.J. Intercultural Center, CCAS Boardroom, 2/F
37th and O St., N.W., Washington

Event Type

Academic Events, Dissertation Defense


Arabic and Islamic Studies, Georgetown College, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences



Open to the public and the press?


Event Contact Name

Stephanie Hakeem

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