The Black Knight of Arabia: Antarah ibn Shaddad
And the Origins of Chivalry in Pre-Islamic Arabia
A terrific but more edited version of this article was originally published on Ancient Origins at: Antarah ibn Shaddad and the Origins of Chivalry in Pre-Islamic Arabia | Ancient Origins (ancient-origins.net). Consider this the “author’s cut”, albeit one of the few articles I’ve published on Medium with American spelling.
When you think of concepts like honor, courtly love, and noblesse oblige, you likely conjure up images of European knights in steel-plate armor, mounted on giant destriers. European dress, European arms, and European mounts. These knights (in their real and fictional forms) may be dueling for a lady’s honor, saving a damsel in distress from a dragon, helping the poor, showing mercy to their enemies, or giving their lady-loves roses whilst waxing poetic about their eyes. In short, they’re adhering to the concept of noble chivalry. The idea that mounted warriors who are trained well in their craft should also adhere to an exalted standard of personal ethics which compels them to show courage, martial skill, generosity, kindness to all, general courtesy to men of noble station, exceptional courtesy to all women, along with piety, honor, and a strong commitment to their promises and vows.
The reason you conjure up this image is that the English language now dominates the world, and thus, so does the English historical perspective of chivalry. The traditional English historical narrative heralds the arrival of the chivalric perspectives of generosity, honor, courtly love and noblesse oblige in Europe during the 13th century, sometime around 1200 AD. Yes, I still use AD, I’m not a woke bae. Anyhow. The more adventurous of these erstwhile English historians may stretch the origins of traditional chivalry to the 11th century AD. Before that, they say, minor nobles and mounted warriors were much the same as regular warriors and commoners with regards to honor, piety, love, and generosity. They were not expected to adhere to the standard we now know as chivalry, even as a naïve social idea. Because at that point, chivalry did not even exist.
Or did it? Those stalwart English folks are not completely wrong. They’re just very centric in their views. Not even Euro-centric. More like “Western-Euro-Centric”. I would be remiss if I did not mention that some younger generations of English-speaking historians have posited a new, somewhat less narrow idea that has not yet been successfully opposed. That the chivalric ideals which came to Western Europe in the 11th to 13th century diffused into Western Europe from the Iberian Peninsula to the south, specifically from lands in the modern-day states of Spain and Portugal. Apparently, the development of the chivalric movement for these neighbors reached its zenith sometime around the 10th century or so. Ok fine, you caught me. I don’t remember if it was the 9th or 10th century and I’m too lazy to check. Anyway, these progressive historians make this connection, then tend to stop there.
Why is that worthy of commentary? Because the clearly lineal connection between the rise of chivalry in the lands of the Iberian peninsula and the Arab/North African presence in the Iberian peninsula is completely ignored. Courtly and poetic love, noblesse oblige, gallantry, generosity of spirit, and chivalry, are all evidently present in Arabian culture since at least the early 6th century AD, around the year 500 or 501. How evidently present? Well, the Anglicized word “chivalry” -pertaining to horses- which has roots in other European languages (see French “cheval” for horse), is a direct translation of the Arabic word for the knightly martial accomplishments and code of honor, known collectively as “furusiyyah”, as in, pertaining to horses, the Arabic word for horse being “faras” and the Arabic word for “Knight” being “Fares”. Literal translation “Horseman”. See the German “Ritter”, the French “Chevalier”, and the Spanish “Caballero”. That’s how evident the lineal connection is.
Also, because about a gazillion things that came to Europe were historically proven to have come from contact with the Arabs and North Africans in the Iberian Peninsula from Arabia, North Africa, and other lands with a significant Muslim presence. I’m not sure why chivalry is the one that’s so frequently overlooked. Perhaps because it’s so firmly tied to the ethical constructs of Western Identity?
The most famous examples of these knightly warrior poets who undertook epic quests are Imru’ Al Qais, and Antara ibn Shaddad. A less famous example amongst westerners and westernised Arabs is Salem Al Zeer, also known as Al Zeer Salem, or “Salem the Companion”. Of these three though, the closest to the ideal of a true knight is Antara ibn Shaddad.
While all three of these men were true knights and inspiring figures for chivalric tradition, both Imru’ Al Qais and Salem the Companion were reportedly notorious womanizers. The idea of them remaining faithful to one woman as history presents them is almost laughable. In fact, the Companion Salem was so titled because his older brother, King Wael, also known as “Kulaib” was incensed at his brother’s carefree ways and lack of assistance in governing, so he often derisively called him “Zeer Al Nisaa”- Sitting Companion of Women, which Salem shamelessly admitted. He would later swear off both wine and women in an epic quest to avenge his brother, but the name stuck.
Incidentally, both Salem and Qais were born princes. Well, Al Qais was born a prince. Salem was born a noble and eventually became a prince when his brother attained kingship. Not that every warrior-poet born into a position of power is necessarily a womanizer. Antara however, is a different story. Though noble on both sides, he was born a slave due to unique circumstances. However, upon attaining freedom and position, his faithfulness to his one true lady-love, Abla, his paternal cousin whom he immortalized in verse, is the stuff of legend. Because of his near-perfection, Antara is sometimes called “al fares al kamel”. “The complete knight”. Which is probably where the European archetype of “a perfect knight” comes from. The reason you may recognize the expression is that the archetype was somewhat popularized by the 2005 film, Kingdom of Heaven. In modern terms, women would call him “The whole package”.
Antara ibn Shaddad [Antara son of Shaddad], also known as Antar ibn Shaddad, was born to Shaddad, a lord of the Banu Abs clan of Arabia, and his father’s concubine, an African princess taken as a slave during a raid on the kingdom of Axum, known amongst her captors as “Zabiba”, which means raisin. Her birth name is unknown. As a result of this mixed heritage, Antara was born a slave. Ultimately, he would embrace this heritage like a badge of honor, sometimes taking up the battle cry “I am the half-breed Antarah!”, to the complete terror of his enemies on the battlefield. He would remain a slave until his father acknowledged him as a son, which he was initially “too proud” to do, though it was common knowledge.
Slaves in Arabia came from various racial and ethnic backgrounds, since Arabs had a custom of enslaving captives without regard to their ethnic origins. Once slaves were taken however, there were various stereotypical and discriminatory attitudes which shaped their lives. Slaves with visual African or part-African heritage stood apart from other slaves more clearly, which left more room for discrimination against them. Readers of Arabic literature will often read the word “black slave” as though the epithet “black” is being used in a pejorative context. That’s because it often was. Which is why Antara’s story is all the more amazing.
Antara’s mixed heritage notwithstanding, or maybe even because of it, he grew into an exceptional warrior. Enormously strong, ferocious, and quick, skilled in all of the martial arts in lance, sword, and horse. Antarah was a warrior to be feared. Antarah would join his tribe’s warriors on raids sometimes but was too proud to accept payments of a “slave’s share” in the spoils of war, even though theoretically he could have saved enough to buy his own freedom from his “father”, under the loosely enforced customs of the time.
Antara’s resentment of his father’s refusal to acknowledge him showed in his poetry and spoken verse, which he was enormously talented in. Today, Antara’s martial prowess aside, he is considered one of the greatest Arab poets in the history of Arabic literature. Eventually, his resentment of his unfair status as a slave boiled over, and he refused to fight for the tribe on raids, fighting being a “noble pursuit.” Instead, he tended his father’s flocks of livestock, as a slave should. Poetry then was a terrific medium for word to get around. Antara sullenly laying down his sword was expressed by him in verse, and other tribes got word of it. This was an excellent chance for the enemies of Banu Abs to raid them.
When Banu Abs’s enemies came for them, Antara’s father urged him to fight for the honour of his tribe, to which Antara responded with something to the effect that if he is not Shaddad’s son, then the Banu Abs were not his tribe. His father further urged him to “charge upon the enemy” to which Antara responded. “I am but your slave my lord, and slaves do not charge well. Slaves are excellent for tending to flocks, and milking goats.” Exasperated, his father responded, “Then charge as a free man!”
Let me digress for a second here because my inner literalist is killing me. The literal translation here is “Then charge and you are free”. But it deceptively makes it seem that his freedom was conditional upon him charging the enemy. In Arabic, the word “and” can also be used in a similar context as “while”. So “Then charge while you are free”, with free being used in the masculine form is a more accurate explanation. But nobody wants to read all this convoluted stuff I just made you read anyway so I translated to convey the closest meaning rather than the closest words. “Then charge as a free man!”
That single sentence is one of considerable fame within Arabic literature. Following his father’s freeing of him, Antara drove off the enemies in what the accounts seem to describe as a single-handed effort, since apparently he was one man who made such a difference. Historical inaccuracies notwithstanding, we can agree that by all accounts, Antara showed remarkable martial prowess.
Now free and acknowledged, Antara was officially a knight and a poet. His former status as a slave gave some people pause, but the vast majority of Arabians would have been proud to call him an ally. He had the attention of the men and the women. However, Antara wanted only one woman. His cousin, Abla bint Malek [Abla Daughter of Malek]. Born to his father’s brother, Abla was an uncommonly beautiful woman, if Antara’s poetry is to be believed, although if we’re being honest, he is the personification of bias in this case. By any account I’ve ever come across, Abla returned her chivalrous cousin’s affections, although it’s impossible to know if the degree of her reciprocity matched the intensity of his ardor.
Would she have chosen death over the risk of losing him if it came down to it? Somehow, I doubt it, at least in the initial courtship phase. Then again, I’m relying on the most unreliable narrator here. There are poems during which Antara accuses his beautiful cousin of “laying waste to the promises”, with the “love of the past evening to rejection.” We know that despite all his lovesick lamentations, he does eventually win her hand, so who can say, in truth?
The gist is, knight and maiden both dug one another. So Antara did what any man in his position would do. A celebrated knight, a poet, a lord’s son, cousin to his desired bride, and nephew to her father, Antara approached his uncle and asked for Abla’s hand in marriage. Malek, Antara’s proud uncle, was one of the few who could not support giving his daughter’s hand in marriage to his nephew, because of his former status as a slave. At the same time, he dared not directly refuse, for Antara was the closest of Abla’s kin permitted to marry her, and amongst the Arabian clans of old, that made him the most deserving of her hand. Up to this day Arabs deeply rooted in clan customs will sometimes say “The boy is for his cousin and the girl is for her cousin.” More literally “The boy is for his uncle’s daughter and the girl is for her uncle’s son”.
So the old lord came up with a cunning plan. Malek accepted, on the condition that Antara brought a worthy dowry for his daughter. One thousand red camels! Also referred to as “bird camels” to signify their rarity. An astonishing number! In most people’s minds, it was an impossible task. Queens had been dowered for less. The only way to obtain such a large amount of these rare camels was through a king known as “Al Noaman” [Numan]. The Noaman King, whom I will henceforth refer to as King Noaman to make it easier for you. You can read more about him by researching “Al-Nuʿmān III ibn al-Mundhir”. King Noaman was a king of the Mundhir bloodline, and as a Mundhir king, he was the king of a city known as “Al Hira” in Mesopotamia. Al Hira could also mean “the confusion” in Arabic, however, this is not the city’s intended name. Although it has always given my inner-fantasy writer a kick to imagine translating the relevant lore by identifying the ancient Mundhirs as “Kings upon The Confusion”.
The kingdom of Al Hira is not particularly grand in comparison to other kingdoms in history, but for the clans of inner Arabia, it was grand indeed. Any king who had thousands of the rarest camel breeds in existence also had vast wealth, and the correspondingly large number of well-armed and well-trained retainers that naturally followed such wealthy royals. Antara had no gold to offer for these camels, so the most likely way to obtain them was to raid King Noaman’s pastures. A suicide mission, many miles away from home, no more, no less.
Antara however, was not a man to be swayed. Onwards with his knightly quest (For Noaman was not a king towards whom the Banu Abs owed allegiance, so raiding his pastures was not considered petty theft, but an act of valor), Antara travels many miles to Al Hira, facing many challenges on the way. With no soldiers or fellow tribesmen willing to follow him on such a suicide mission, upon reaching Al Hira, desperate to attain the hand of his one true love, Antara undertakes a raid on King Noaman’s pastures single-handedly. King Noaman’s numerous warriors capture him and drag him before the king. King Noaman questions Antara and says he has heard of him. Impressed by his courage, he offers him a deal. To serve him for a time, during which he will make him a great lord and offer him the 1000 camels he desires.
Antara accepts and fights for the Noaman King for a while, the period of “3 years” playing on the strings of my memory. Three years, Antara fought the king’s enemies. Some of you may wonder how Abla waited for him for so long. While dramatized accounts like to portray Antara as having been given up for dead, with Antara arriving in the nick of time to stop Abla’s marriage to another, or that he was thought to have abandoned his quest, having tasted the luxury of King Noaman’s court, that’s probably not true. It is highly likely that Antara’s clan will have heard of the glory he was reaping if it was worth 1000 red camels. So they would know he’s alive.
As a great lord, he would have had plenty of resources to send word that he was fighting for The Noaman to gather his uncle’s required dowry and that he intended to return for his cousin’s hand. No one would have wanted to anger such a famously fearsome warrior who was taking such trouble for his beloved by proposing in his absence. They probably knew how such an adventure would end. Likely on the tip of Antara’s lance, if his sword didn’t find their necks first.
And so three years later, or two, or one, if I remember incorrectly, Antara returned home, laden with gifts, gold, retainers, with 1000 red camels in tow. Having returned victorious, Malek could not deny Antara his cousin’s hand in marriage, and they lived happily ever after. Accounts differ as to whether Antara died of natural causes in his bed or if he died in battle, but most accounts ascribe great age to him at the time of his death regardless of the cause, so let’s just go with the happily ever after.
Of course, I left out a great many stories which comprise various parts of this epic, the challenges Antara faces before and whilst journeying for the red camels, the enemies he faces during his service of The Noaman, the challenges he faces whilst returning home, his other quests, his temptations, other women who desired him and other fathers who sought his hand for their most eligible daughters, details about his half-brother Shayboub, the challenges of his later life, and in general, a whole chunk of things you can research. But I gave you the main gist.
And there, from the 6th century AD, is your archetype of “the perfect knight.” Antara son of Shaddad, the Black Knight of Arabia. Ask me nicely and one day I’ll tell you another origin story found throughout British history that begins in Arabia. The story of the most honorable of all the Arabs. Funny enough, he’s Jewish, but you don’t hear his story a lot in Jewish lore because he’s not of Hebrew descent. He was born to an Arabian family who had converted to Judaism only 2 generations before him. But that’s a story for another day.
*Disclaimer: While I make the very clear connection of chivalry flowing to Europe through Arabia, I am by no means claiming that chivalry originated in Arabia. If anyone can convincingly prove the existence of chivalric ideals which diffused to the Arabs from Mesopotamia or Persia or somewhere else entirely, I am perfectly willing to accept that.