The Arabic zajal (known in Spanish as the zéjel) was
a popular verse form that originated in Muslim
Spain in the 12th century. Like the muwashshah (see
KHARJA), the zajal was a strophic form—that is, it
was built of several stanzas, usually five to six or
more. The opening stanza introduced a theme that
was developed in subsequent stanzas, and the poem
ended with a repetition of the rhyme scheme of the
opening stanza. A kharja, or refrain, might also be
part of the poem.What particularly distinguished
the zajal from the muwashshah was that the latter
was written in classical Arabic,while the zajal was in
colloquial Arabic, and therefore also included Spanish
vocabulary, particularly in the kharja.
The zajal, therefore, was influenced by the non-
Arab speech of the poet’s everyday world. The
name zajal seems to derive from a word meaning
“to utter a cry or happy noise.” The inventor of the
genre, at least as a literary rather than a purely popular
oral form, was the wandering singer Ibn Quzman
(ca. 1078–1160), who used the form for all
kinds of poetry, including eulogizing his patrons.
The zajals were composed to be sung, and the earliest
zajal music manuscripts date from the 13th
century. The form eventually became popular
throughout the Arab world. It also became a popular
Spanish form of the late Middle Ages, where
it was called the zéjel. It was imitated, as well, by
Hebrew poets in Spain and elsewhere.
Irwin, Robert, ed.Night and Horses and the Desert: An
Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature. Woodstock,
N.Y.: Overlook Press, 1999.
Stern, Samuel Miklos.Hispano-Arabic Strophic Poetry.
Edited by L. P. Harvey. Oxford: Clarendon Press,