The Riddle of the Thread: On Arabic ghazal
Keywords:Ghazal, nasīb, textiles, gazelles, Semitic languages, Arabic morphology, ʿAmr ibn Qamīʾa
Ghazal is the Arabic word for “amatory verse”, and in other languages of the Islamic world it designates a sonnet-like poetic form. The notion that the word stems from Arabic ghazl “spinning thread” is widely held, despite the absence of support for this in classical lexicography and poetry criticism. Comparison to Semitic cognates points to an alternative derivation of ghazal from a verb of speaking – specifically, speech that is ambiguous and suggestive – by way of attraction to the gazelle (Arabic ghazāl), an ancient Near Eastern idiom for the beloved. While ghazal poetry emerged in Western Arabia during the first century of Islam, the genesis of ghazal as a term of art predates the literary record, as may be appreciated in a poem by ʿAmr ibn Qamīʾa (6th century CE) that has been called the earliest complete qaṣīda in Arabic manuscript tradition.