About the Translation and Recording of the Prayer of the Oppressed

by Sandala on March 6, 2011

Imam al-Dar’i wrote this prayer in a simple yet enchanting style, using the rajaz meter known to the Arabs as the poet’s donkey because of its facile rhythm and the ease even tyros find in learning it. The desert cameleers, who led the caravans of old, traditionally sang in the rajaz meter and by it spurred on their beasts to move more swiftly toward their destination. Arab poets claim the rhythm of the rajaz imitates the rhythm of the camel’s trot and is, they believe, derived from it.

Rhetorically, the poem displays what the Arabs call, the easy impossible: deceptively simple thought and language which beguiles the listener into believing that such poetry is easy to write; yet upon any attempt at imitation, the aspirant is left thoroughly nonplussed. Poets know this magical aspect of the craft all too well. It would not be an exaggeration to say that there is no invocation in the Arabic language written in such simple yet subtle verse as Imam al-Dar’i’s poetic prayer.

When translating Imam al-Dar’i’s invocation, I first put it into an iambic pentameter (five feet per line), but found great difficulty conveying the meanings precisely. So I decided to use hexameter that is, six feet per line. Hexameter is seldom used in English, because the doubling of the trimeter becomes repetitious and can easily devolve into doggerel. However, I chose to use it so I could convey something of the nature of the original, which is in the Arabic meter closest to our hexameter. Arabic verse is quantitative; the rhythm is produced by the length of syllables, not by their accent, as in English.

After working on it considerably and feeling quite satisfied with the result, I sent it to the American poet Daniel Abdul-Hayy Moore, who had helped so wonderfully in our previous collaboration on the Poem of the Cloak (al-Burdah). Initially, he was troubled by the hexameter, and understandably so; but he decided to work with it and, in my opinion, turned a donkey into a mule, and for that I am deeply grateful. But the original is a thoroughbred, and for those who do not know Arabic, I highly recommend listening to the original as chanted so masterfully by the Fes Singers led by Sidi Mohammed Bennis.

Speaking of the recording, I feel compelled to relate an extraordinary incident, something I consider a miracle really. It is safe to say that this poem is noted for its miraculous nature, and Moroccans who are regular in their recitation of it will confirm that belief. On the night we finished the recording in Fes, it was quiet and still when we emerged from the studio into the cool night air and went for a late dinner. Then, at around three o’clock in the morning, Sidi Abdallateef Whiteman (who also did the cover design and layout for this book) and I set out with Mohammed Bennis and his fellow singers in a car to our hotel to pick up our bags and leave immediately for the taxi stand outside Bab Boujloud. One of the people of goodness in England had entrusted me with a monetary gift to deliver to Sidi Ismail Filali, a sincere servant of God who lives in Fes, spending his days carding wool and his nights calling on God. Because we had to catch an early flight from Tangiers later that day and had a drive of several hours ahead of us, I knew I would not have time to visit him and deliver the gift; so I asked Sidi Mohammed if he would do it. No sooner had I completed the question than we happened to pass by a large, windowless van with a man standing alongside it. It must have been 3:30 AM by now. Sidi Mohammed exclaimed, That looks just like Sidi Ismail!

We swung the car around and went back to find that, sure enough, it was Sidi Ismail. We greeted each other, embracing warmly, and Sidi Ismail exclaimed, Glory to God! We just finished the Burdah and a recitation of the Qur’an in its entirety, and in the closing supplication, I asked God to see you tonight! By God, I swear it is true, and I did not know you were in Morocco. No sooner had I absorbed the import of what he told me than another surprise awaited me. Sidi Ismail opened the back door of the van revealing about twenty spiritual seekers with radiant faces. As if conducting an orchestra, Sidi Ismail raised his hands, and as he brought them down, the entire group broke into a spontaneous rendition of the prayer of Imam al-Dar’i, the very prayer we had just finished recording with the Fes Singers. This much is true: Sidi Ismail had no knowledge that I was in Morocco at that time, nor that we had just completed the recording of the prayer of Imam al-Dar’i. God is my Witness.

Upon returning to the United States with the recording, I asked the very blessed Aishah Holland if she would pen the poem in its original Arabic for me. She has been a student of the American master of calligraphy and most learned and accomplished polymath, Mohammad Zakariyya, who recommended her highly. After she completed her work, my task was largely done, but there remained one missing piece: I had hoped to include the poem’s chain of transmission back to Imam al-Dar’i, for the blessing of its lineage and the barakah of its narrators. I asked a close friend and scholar who had the chain, but a few years passed, and it was not forthcoming. I thought perhaps that I should not put the work out and that it was something not meant to be, as I felt insistent on acquiring the chain as a permission from its author, so to speak.

On a blessed journey to Medina last year with my teacher and dearest friend, Shaykh Abdallah bin Bayyah, a master of both the inward and outward sciences, I happened to mention to him, while riding in a car in the middle of the Arabian desert, that I had translated the poem of Imam al-Dar’i. He smiled and said, He is in my chain from my father. I then boldly requested from him the chain of transmission. He looked at me and said, God willing. Time passed, and no chain came. I was beginning to believe that the poem would remain in my large collection of incomplete works. Then, on a more recent trip, as I was leaving for Medina again from Shaykh Abdallah bin Bayyah’s house in Jeddah, he gave me the chain, and I felt it was time to release this poem.

May God accept it as a work of devotion that benefits believers and gives them solace in their trials and tribulations.

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