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From Text to Talisman: Al-Būsīrī's Qasīdat al-Burdah (Mantle Ode) and the Supplicatory Ode

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According to popular and literary tradition, when the Mamlūk period poet al-Būsīrī (d. 694-6/1294-7) was stricken with semi-paralysis that confounded his physicians, he turned in despair to compose a poem of praise to the Prophet Muhammad (madīh nabawī). He then saw the Prophet in a dream and recited the poem to him, upon which the Prophet bestowed his mantle (burdah) upon him, and the poet awoke miraculously cured. The present study argues that the story of the miraculous cure, the talismanic uses of various verses of the Burdah, and the extraordinary power of the poem to generate a vast body of imitations, expansions, translations and commentaries, cannot be understood except through a literary analysis of the text of the poem itself. After analyzing the structural and generic differences between the Burdah and the Sufi ghazal of Ibn al-Fārid of which it is technically a contrafaction (mu'āradah), this study argues that the overall ritual-poetic structure of the Burdah, as contained in Parts 1-3 and 9-10 of the poem, is that of the supplicatory panegyric ode as practiced by such poets as the pre-Islamic al-Nābighah al-Dhubyānī or the poet of the Prophet, Ka'b ibn Zuhayr. It then proceeds to demonstrate that the Burdah exhibits the same structural elements as the supplicatory qasīdat al-madh: 1) Lyric-Elegiac Prelude (nasīb); 2) Self-Abasement; 3) Praise of the One Supplicated (mamdūh); and 4) Supplication (including benediction). It notes that in post-classical madīh nabawī the mamdūh is no longer of this world, and therefore the ritual exchange between poet and patron is essentially a spiritual one: what the supplicant is asking for is shafā'ah, the intercession of the Prophet on the Day of Judgment. The myth of the miraculous cure then serves, above all, as a symbol, a physical sign of a spiritual transformation or cure, that is, of the poem's ritual and spiritual efficacy. Taking these stories literally, believers engaged the poem, as text and talisman, to procure a wide range of physical and spiritual boons.


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