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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Marije Coster obtains a PhD with research on poetry by contemporaries of Muhammad
11 April 2019
PhD-thesis Marije Coster

For her PhD thesis, Marije Coster studied poetry by contemporaries of Muhammad as a source for the historiography of early Islam. On 18 April she will be awarded a PhD in the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies for her thesis titled The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Allegiance and Authority in the Poetical Discourse of Muḥammad’s Lifetime.

Poems shed light on the context of early Islam

For her PhD Marije Coster studied poetry by contemporaries of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, as a source for the historiography of early Islam. These compositions are to be found in descriptions of battles, covenant agreements and victories in the sira literature (a collective name for Islamic biographies of Muhammad) and also, for example, in poetry collections of tribes or individual poets and in biographical material. These compositions contribute to research on this period because contemporaries express their views of the world and of themselves in them. Coster studied compositions attributed to three poets, two of whom (Ḍirār b. al-Khaṭṭāb and Ibn al-Zibaʿrā) were from Muhammad’s tribe, while the exact descent of the third (al-Ḥuṭayʾa) is unknown: sometimes he claims to belong to the ‘Abs tribe and at other times to the Dhuhl tribe. All three are regarded as ‘professional poets’ and as three of the best poets of their time. In her PhD thesis Coster translates, contextualizes and analyses these poets’ compositions.

The good, the bad, and the ugly

When asked, Coster explains why she chose this intriguing title for her PhD thesis. ‘The title is not original, but it happens to match the three poets I studied for my thesis very well: one poet who clings to ideals from the past and defends his tribe in good times and bad, another poet who – more pragmatically – seems to defend the same ideals, but is also out to defend the position of his group within the tribe, and finally a poet who bore the nickname ‘the ugly one’ with pride and even managed to use it for his own gain.’

Understanding of the historical and social context

The poetry Coster studied is what is known as occasional poetry: in these compositions, which are usually relatively short, the poet responds to an event which he or his tribe had to confront in the recent or not so recent past. Apart from certain compositions which, either on their own or in combination with other poems or sources, provide information that diverges from what we already know on the basis of Islamic tradition, an analysis of the corpus as a whole also provides insights into the historical and social context of Muhammad and his early followers, since the poems not only reflect the poet’s individual feelings and emotions, but also his worldview. This worldview transcends the poet’s individual experiences and is an expression of the collective voice of the group the poet identifies with.


On 18 April Marije Coster will defend her PhD thesis in the presence of her primary supervisor Kocku von Stuckrad, Professor of Religious Studies at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Groningen, and her thesis supervisors Dr Gert Borg and Dr Nicolet Boekhoff-van der Voort, both from Radboud University Nijmegen.

  • When:           Thursday 18 April 2019
  • Starts:           4.15 p.m.
  • Where:          Academy Building
Last modified:09 September 2019 3.17 p.m.
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