The term adab fundamentally denotes a custom or norm of conduct. In the early centuries of Islam, the term came to convey either an ethical implication of proper personal qualities or the suggestion of the cultivation and knowledge of a range of sensibilities and skills. In its plural form, adab acquired the meaning of rules of conduct, often specified for a particular social or occupational group, like the aadaab (pl.) of the legist or the prince. In addition, adab specified the accomplishments that made one polished and urbane, an expert in the arts not subsumed under the category of religious learning. Often, in recent times, adab has meant simply literature in the narrow sense.
Underlying the concept of adab is a notion of discipline and training, indicating as well the good breeding and refinement that results from such self-control and training. In all its uses, adab reflects a high value placed on the employment of the will in proper discrimination of correct order, behavior, and taste. The term implicitly or explicitly distinguishes cultivated behavior from that deemed vulgar, for example, from pre-Islamic custom. The term's root sense of proper conduct and discrimination, of discipline, and moral formation, especially fostered in the Sufi tradition, has been brought to the fore in many modern reform movements. In that sense, adab is often coupled with akhlaq ("manners," "ethics") and is now understood to be within the reach of ordinary people and not only educated or holy specialists.
Gabrieli, F. "Adab." In Vol. 1, Encyclopedia of Islam. 2d ed. Leiden: Brill, 1960.
Metcalf, Barbara D., ed. Moral Conduct and Authority: The Place of Adab in South Asian Islam. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
Barbara D. Metcalf