Heroes of Arabia: Hatim Al Tai
June 17, 2017 | 1:28 PM
by Gautam Viswanathan
Hatim Al Tai

There is much that we can learn from those who shaped the landscape and culture of the Middle East to make it what it is today. Hi Weekly’s Heroes of Arabia series provides an insight into some of the legendary men (and women) who continue to act as inspiration for all of us to become better than we are, and still motivate us to do our best in the face of challenges and hardships. This issue, we take a look at Hatim Al Tai, the legendary poet whose name lives on in classical works even today.

Early Life

Hatim Al Tai was born to the very populous Al Tai tribe, which inhabited north-eastern Saudi Arabia, in an area that is today occupied by the city of Ha’il, and lived during the 6th century.

Legend has it, that before Hatim was born, when his mother was newly married, she had a dream, where she was offered a choice: Either she could give birth to ten brave and courageous sons, or she could have just one son, who would surpass everyone else in kindness and generosity. His mother chose to give birth to Hatim.

And lo and behold, that prophecy did indeed come true: One day, when Hatim was sent to take the family’s camels to graze, Hatim returned empty-handed, but with a face that was beaming with pride, as he told his stunned father that he’d given away every one of his camels, no doubt sure of the honour it would bestow on the family name.

But Hatim’s father died early, and he was raised by his grandfather: No easy task for the ageing man, as Hatim would give away whatever was in his possession, and his grandfather’s holdings grew smaller by the day.

Hatim would soon grow up to become chief of the Tai tribe, and this is when his fondness for poetry, which he’d carefully nurtured for so long, came to the fore. Few were the nights on which he would not regale members of his own community, and those of other tribes, with poems whose quality and verse few could match.

Claim to Fame

One night, Hatim was greeted by a group of riders, among whom were three poets, who were off seeking their fortune in exchange for their wordplay. Generous as he was, Hatim offered them his village to set up camp for the night, and then proceeded to slaughter three of his best camels to prepare a feast for his guests, much to the amusement of these poets.

No one knows exactly how long after this meeting did Hatim decide to spread his own power of verse, but it was soon after he met the trio. Little is also known about exactly how far he travelled, but while he may have not taken many strides, word of his fame and his poetry certainly did. Hatim’s poems were the first to mention valorous men who displayed impeccable chivalry, a trait that was then carried over into Western sonnets and ballads about brave knights riding off to save damsels in distress from dragons, ogres, and other such mythical beasts.

In fact, the Italian diplomat and poet Boccadio, probably immortalised Hatim when, in one of his poems, titled The Decameron, he referred to Hatim as Natan, a man who is so generous that his selflessness insults the king himself. Enraged by this, the king calls for Natan’s head, which he freely agrees to, knowing full well that he will be known for being the most generous of men if the king carries out his actions. Realising the folly of his words, the king backs down and allows Natan to go free.


Hatim may have died in the 6th century, but his name today is a byword for kindness and generosity. When an Arab says, you are ‘as kind as Hatim’, he is bestowing upon you the highest praise he can. 200 years later, the Persian author Kashifi wrote a text on Hatim’s life, called — quite simply — Tales of Hatim – and this was later translated into Turkish and presented to Sultan Suleiman of the Ottoman Empire, finally allowing the name of Hatim to reach every corner of the Old World.

Today, Hatim has many books, TV shows, plays and movies written about him, and he continues to be an enduring role model for many across the Arab World.

In addition, many Western scholars have also studied his life in detail — let’s not forget that he gave us the foundations of modern poetry, one which has stood the test of time for nearly 1,500 years — allowing him to be respected across both Arab and Western circles. An accolade freely given to few.

Hatim Al Tai may have died in the 6th century, but his name today is a byword for kindness and generosity across Arabia. [email protected]

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