September 29, 2015

Al-Jahiz on pre-Islamic prayer for rain

In time of severe drought, the early pagan Arabs used fire to beg for for rain. When their tribulations multiplied without abating, and they were obliged to resort to rain-supplication, they would get together and round up as many cattle as they could. To their tails and between their hamstrings, they lashed [sticks of] sala' and 'ushar, and then drove them up to the mountain wastes, where they set fire to them, raising a din with their prayers and entreaties. Their belief was that rain would be induced by this procedure. This is what the poem by Umayya [ibn Abi 'l-Ṣalt, fl. early 7th c.] is about (meter: khafīf):

   Out in the thorn-trees, the folk you see, they of the droning clamor,
         have suffered visitation by a year of biting [drought].
   They who, in times gone by, did not [condescend to] eat
         unleavened things now gobble dry flour.
   Out of the flatlands and up the mountain's side they drive
         emaciated cattle, harrying them with fear of their demise,
   with burning torches tight in the short hairs of their tails,
         tied there so that “seas” be stirred [out of the skies]
   - until they are roasted through, and a cloud rears up above them,
         and another upward-rearing cloud is driven to its side,
   and the divinity sees it mark [the earth] with precipitation
         when a rain-bringing South wind finally blows up for [the tribe].
   The lofty cloud pours down its water – a rain to put
         an end to great [suffering], now averted
   by a quantity of sala'-wood, and 'ushar-wood to match it:
         no easy burden for the cattle burdened with it.

The Book of Animals IV.466-7.