The Poem of the Cloak, known as the Burda in Arabic, is arguably the most memorized and recited poem in the Muslim world. Its subject is the meritorious character and exalted rank of the Prophet Muhammad, upon him blessings and peace. Written between 1260 and 1268 CE in Mamluke Egypt by the poet, scholar, and spiritual master, Imam Sharaf ad-Din al-Busiri, the poem is sublime in its Arabic. The ratified and celestial Arabic language provided its author with a linguistic vehicle for its subtlety and loftiness.
From The Introduction
I felt compelled to translate the Burda after a trip to Mauritania having realized it was everywhere, on everyone’s tongue, always ready to alter the ambience, enhance the state, bring the presence of the beloved into the gathering. Once, sitting with one of my teachers, Abd Allah Ould Ahmadna, I heard for the first time a line from Imam al-Busiri’s other great poem, the Hamziyya: “If God places a people in the service of the blissful, then they too become blissful.” Those words penetrated my heart because they emanated from the poet’s heart and “what comes from one’s heart pierces another’s.”
That is the quintessence of poetry: penetrating human insight that only a poet can justly put into words powerful enough to reach another’s heart enabling the listener to realize the same insight. Sometimes the poetry acts as a catalyst for insights even the poet did not intend or see. Poetry is a breeze from one heart blown into another by the force of its meanings. In the middle of the Sahara, the Burda blew cool breezes into our heart-gatherings, meanings that added insight to our lives, reminding us of our beloved, more importantly why we loved him. I wanted to share that with others.
Poetry has always been enhanced by music. Homer recited with lyre accompaniment. No doubt the relationship between the two is of shared womb, sisters competing in beauty. I was first introduced to the Burda as song in Morocco and have since heard it sung in many places. In Fez a group of us were transported to another world, a perfect world, free of sin, free of vice, free of temptation, and upon leaving the gathering, felt as if, once again, we were exiled from the Garden.
I have seen Yemenis filled with the same joyful spirit, singing the Burda in their own unique way, like innocent children freed from fear while praising the one who, on the day all have fear, shows none. Once in Madina, two Sudanese men sang a section of the Burda in a way that returned it to its home, Africa. While sung in every country in the Muslim world and now even in Europe and America, it is and always will be from Africa. The Burda is like Africa: it is as deep as the oceans that surround her, as powerful as her Nile, as vast as her Sahara, and contains as many celestial lights as a starry desert night in Niger.