Arabic Literature

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Literature may be defined in numerous ways, but in Arabic literature some of the prominent phenomena that are associated with the modern concept of literature—individual creativity, authenticity of feeling, and fictionality—will not easily be detected by an unaware reader. Arabic literature as well as other non-Western literatures is firmly rooted in its own tradition and can hardly be appreciated otherwise.

Arabic Literature: Notions and Concepts

The modern Arabic equivalent for literature is adab, but in its traditional context this concept also refers to notions like "education," "general knowledge," and "decency." It is derived from the pre-Islamic da˒b (pl. adab) that denotes "good, accepted practice." In medieval Arab society adab can probably be best compared to the concept of "belles lettres." It does not, however, include the most esteemed form of Arabic literature of shi˓r, or poetry, as a category.

To understand the status of shi˓r, its early development within pre-Islamic society has to be discussed. This society was divided along lines of families, tribes, and clans. Within the clan the prominent social characters were the sayyid (chief), the kahin (the soothsayer, expert of the supernatural), and the sha˓ir, the keeper of earthly knowledge memorized in a nonscriptural society. This sha˓ir—or "poet"—knew by heart the clan's history, the affiliations with other clans, and the battle deeds of the clan in skirmishes with other clans. Battle cries, invectives of the enemy, and boasting of the hero were commonly uttered in poetical form and were memorized by the poet, in order to be handed down to the next generation.

In a development for which we have no record, another kind of poetry emerged in this pre-Islamic society called the qasida (or "ode"). These poems, too, were memorized by the poet. In the course of time he started to compose this kind of poetry himself. The practice of memorizing and composing poetry was a craft that was handed down from one generation to next, the poet's apprentice being called rawi or "transmitter" (pl. ruwat).

Pre-Islamic Arabic Poetry

An Arabic poem was composed on the basis of two form principles: meter and rhyme. Each poem had a fixed meter that could be chosen from the sixteen metrical patterns that Arabic prosodical tradition defined, although it has to be said that classical poets were mainly using only six of these. Contrary to Western metrical tradition, the Arabic meters were based on the length of syllables rather then on stress. This does not mean that Arabic poetic language knew no stress, but it was not the principle for metric scansion. The poet is expected to retain the same meter throughout each poem he composes, which may run into dozens of verses.

Apart from this feature, called monometer, the poet uses the same rhyme throughout the poem, which is called monorhyme. The rhyme cluster is always based on one specific consonant accompanied with long or short vowels. In the correct rhyme a limited variation of vowels is allowed. Each line of poetry is divided into two hemistichs, which deceptively makes the poem in print seem like two columns.

This elaborated form requires a high degree of craftsmanship and it suggests a long evolution, but no sources are available for this. It may also seem that in its form Arabic poetry is extremely monotonous, but it is often the subtle play between the formal rules, the listeners expectation, and the poet's elegant solutions that makes this poetry a vibrant art.

Pre-Islamic (or pre-classical) Arabic poetry can be divided thematically into two groups: short, monothematic poems, often "situational" poetry, and long, polythematic poems called qasidas.

Qasida. The qasida is the most prestigious poetical creation throughout Arab history. Even nowadays it is deemed the ultimate work of artistic achievement of Arab culture. It is a tripartite composition that follows a thematic sequence: In the nasib the poet—often in a dialogue with his companions—recalls his memory of a love affair. To give in to his grief meant that the poet broke his self-control (sabr). The immediate occasion he uses to legitimize this is his coming across the remnants of the camp left by the tribe to which his beloved belongs. This description is usually vivid and realistic, although to our modern taste the beloved is hardly portrayed as an actual person.

In the second part of the qasida the poet distances himself from this emotional reminiscence by dwelling on his travels through the desert, describing his mount and the desert environment with its specific fauna (rahil). Sometimes this second part is very short, condensed to the words da˓ dha: "leave that (love affair) behind!"

The final part of the qasida offers the poet a relative freedom in the choice of his theme. He may address the chief of a tribe with a panegyric ode (madih), use his poem as a warning against an enemy, indulge in boasting on his own exploits, or simply offer a vivid description of a natural phenomenon like an all-refreshing shower.

The traditional qasida, its form, and its content, have remained influential not only for Arabic literature, but also for later developments in Turkish and Persian literature.

Marthiya. Apart from the qasida another genre adopted this prestigious form. From a traditional wailing exclamation, probably common to the universal rituals of death, Arab women developed a kind of poetic dirge that kept the middle between "situational" poetry and the qasida. The marthiya was composed in remembrance of a deceased brother, husband, or father, but it followed the formal (not the thematic) requirements of the qasida. The reason for this is that marathi were considered poetry of the public domain, inciting to blood vengeance in case of violent death and helping to reinvigorate social values and the ideal of knightly vigor on which women and children depended for their security. Contemporary to the early emergence of Islam the poetess al-Khansa˒ (d. c. 645) produced a considerable number of such dirges on her brothers in which one might read a stance of opposition toward the social changes that the new religion brought with it against such pre-Islamic virtues as bravery, hospitality, generosity, and tribal loyalty.

Shifting themes and forms. Shortly before the emergence of Islam, Arabic poetry underwent a few thematic innovations: Love poetry gradually became an independent genre, introducing the beloved as taking part in a—probably fictitious—dialogue. In this period one also finds religious poetry reflecting a set of (popular) Christian and Jewish monotheistic concepts among the urban class of traders, as opposed to pagan worship of natural objects or polytheism that were still widespread on the Arabian Peninsula.

In cases where prestigious poetry was not deemed suitable, other literary forms were in use: The meter rajaz served all kinds of "situational" poetry like working songs, invectives, obscene poetry, and exhortations. Later this meter was used for lengthy didactic poems.

Rhymed prose (saj˓) was used for soothsayer predictions and enchantments, for folkloric sayings and proverbs, and, finally, for the text of the Qur˒an.

Poetry in Early Islam and the Umayyad Era

The production of poetry subsided remarkably with the beginning of Islam. First, the prophet Muhammad's attitude toward poetry was ambiguous. He renounced poetry and poets when he was accused of being a "poet" himself. A quote from the Qur˒an runs, "And the poets—the perverse follow them; hast thou not seen how they wander in every valley and how they say that which they do not," a reference to their baseless boasting (Arberry, trans., 26:224–226). On the other hand he realized that his status, comparable with that of a pre-Islamic chief, demanded the presence of a "court poet" as well, in his case the famous Hassan b. Thabit (d. 670). Another reason for the declining popularity of poetry may well have been the general preoccupation of the new Muslims with the expansion and stabilization of the new state. This decline in poetic production, however, was only temporary. The Umayyad era quickly gave an impetus for new developments in Arabic poetry.

Although the polythematic qasida as the masterpiece par excellence never ceased to exist, its parts developed into separate kinds of poetry in the Umayyad era. The nasib developed into love poetry and the rahil with its descriptions of nature into forms of bucolic poetry like descriptions of hunting parties and gardens. Together with older poetic kinds like wine poetry (khamriyya) and the general topic of description (wasf), these parts constituted the plethora of themes that a poet from this era could address.

The dichotomy of early Islamic society, its division into a Bedouin and a trader class, becomes clear in love poetry. In the nasib-part of the qasida, the beloved is mainly a nonpresent entity. She has left with her tribe and all that the poet can do is regret her departure and remember their past afair. Following this tradition the ˓udhri type of love poetry (named after the tribe ˓Udhra) creates an even greater division between the poet and his beloved: She becomes the unreachable projection of the poet's love from which he can only suffer and then whither away from passion. This kind of poetry might best be called "idealistic" and it provided Arabic literature with some almost mythical love pairs like Majnun and his Layla.

With the emergence of Islam and the continued ritualistic pilgrimage to Mecca, the population in the Hijaz cities like Mecca and Medina became gradually more affluent. Once a year they provided an intertribal and international forum where all Muslims could gather. The huge crowds involved in the hajj consisted of both men and women, offering many opportunities for both sexes to meet and have affairs. These paved the way for the so-called hijazi love poetry, in which the poet vividly describes his adventures, and cites extensively from (fictitious) dialogues between his beloved's companions and her or between the protagonists themselves. As opposed to ˓udhri love poetry, this new development can be called "realistic" love poetry.

In many ways the poetic developments of the Umayyad era reflect the development from a tribal society with nonhereditary succession to an urban society with dynastic power and an affluent court life in which the poet serves to embellish the environment of his maecenas.

Poetry in the Abbasid Era

The transition from the Umayyad to the Abbasid dynasty and the transfer of the seat of the caliphate from Damascus to Baghdad can be considered the revolution of the mawali, or second- and third-generation converted Muslims who were not of Arab origin, but descendants of Persian or Byzantine families. Often these families had held high positions in the Sassanid kingdom in Persia.

In the early Abbasid era Arabic poetry consolidated its courtly functions. Most poets were in one way or another attached to the court, the highest-ranking poets being companions of the caliphs themselves.

The bond of Arabic literature with its pre-Islamic, Bedouin basis became more and more symbolic, although one of the greatest poets of this era, Abu Nuwas (d. c. 814), had had his poetic training through living with Arab tribes. His allegiance to the urban lifestyle motivated his utter contempt for those primitive conditions that he expressed in ridiculing Bedouin life. His most famous poems are the khamriyyat (about drinking scenes) and the mujun, more or less obscene poems about (pederastic) love.

In this poetry by Abu Nuwas and by the later Abu Tammam (d. 845), the hijazi tradition of realistic love poetry, of the self-confident individual, lives its triumph. The idealistic ˓udhri love poetry comes to an end with the late-eighth-century poet al-˓Abbas b. al-Ahnaf (b. c. 750). His courtly love poetry has often (but probably not rightly) been interpreted as the source of courtly love poetry in the "Toubadours et Trouvères" tradition in southern France through Arab-ruled al-Andalus (southern Spain).

The poetry of the Abbasid era provided a huge, sparkling collection of love poems, obscene poetry, repentance poetry for unbecomely behavior, semi-religious poetry pondering mortality, and detailed descriptions of gardens and gadgets in everyday life. In short every possible theme that an affluent class of intellectuals can think of was represented. The same period witnessed the emergence of literary theory and literary criticism. Inspired by the "philological" culture that Islamic society was (the Qur˒an being the verbatim reproduction of God's word), both poets and linguists set out to explore the possibilities of the Arabic language, a discipline that inevitably led to mannerism and far-fetched metaphors in poetry.

Abu Tammam and the ninth-century poet al-Buhturi (d. 897/898) opposed this tendency by presenting two collections of poetry (both called Hamasa: courage) for which they selected canonical poetry of the Umayyad and pre-Islamic periods.

During the tenth century the central authority in Baghdad started to lose its grip on some of the outer regions like Egypt and Syria. As a consequence local "kings" established their own courts and court cultures in which one or more poets were essential assets. By this time some poets had reached an independent status, so that they could allow themselves to be hired by the most bidding party, like the famous poet al-Mutanabbi (d. 965) who started his career with Sayf al-Dawla (d. 967), ruler of Aleppo, then moved to the court of Kafur in Cairo and finally joined the Buwayhid court of ˓Adud al-Dawla (d. 983) in Iraq. This mobility shows how poets had gained a role as spokesmen for the rulers of the time, voicing the king's greatness and acting as the laureate poets on important occasions.


The downfall of the Umayyad caliphate had caused one of the members of the Umayyad family, ˓Abd al-Rahman I (d. 788), to flee westward to the Iberian Peninsula where he established the kingdom of Cordoba in 752. This marked the beginning of Andalusian history, an outstanding period in Islamic history. This period is still referred to by Arabs as the multicultural "state" par excellence because it meant the peaceful coexistence of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Al-Andalus soon disintegrated into petty kingdoms like Toledo, Sevilla, and Granada, but this never impeded cultural and intellectual progress. Only periods of foreign rule by orthodox Muslim forces from North Africa could temporarily infringe on it, until finally Granada fell to the Spanish Reconquista in 1492, the formal end of Andalusian history.

At the various courts in the main cities of al-Andalus, literature reached a remarkable apogee. One of the contributions Andalusion poets made to Arabic literature was the innovative form of the muwashshah, a poem with a strophical structure. It is unclear what the origin of this poem was. Certain types of strophic poetry were known in the East by the eighth century, but they never reached the level of prestigious poetry. The origin of the muwashshah, with its rhyme structure divided into stanzas and choruses and its idiosyncratic meter, should probably be sought in local Romance poetic traditions, probably in songs. This is at least suggested by the use of vernacular Arabic, Hebrew, and even the local Romance dialect, for instance, in the last verse of some muwashshahs, as a kind of humorous clue.

The Centuries of Decline: Amateur Poetry

In the classical period the poet was a respected craftsman, famous for composing his art in courtly circles. Meanwhile in urban society the high status of Arabic-Islamic education, with its emphasis on language and the ornate use of it, produced an even greater number of literati who were able to produce verse at any given occasion. A great number of these "occasional" poems concerning every possible aspect of life (but often, of course, on the theme of love) are still to be found scattered in many ˒adab-works on a wide range of subjects, often helping to embellish the context.

It was mainly this class of literati that composed poetry between the thirteenth and eigteenth centuries (the qurun alinhitat, or the centuries of decline in Arab culture). It is hard to name any famous poets of this period, but recent research has shown that poetry probably never stopped to be of high quality and originality. This is, however, a period that needs more attentive study than it has hitherto received.

Arabic Prose

The oldest fragments of Arabic prose are the accounts of intertribal skirmishes on the Arab peninsula. These accounts, interlaced with poetry, may not be very accurate as a reflection of reality, but on the other hand they cannot be regarded as fiction. A second prose collection was the Prophet's biography, the sira, which by its nature cannot be considered fiction. The structure of these stories—chain of spokesmen, followed by the story itself, with short poems in between—remains the same in later prose collections. However, the context often became more frivolous like in al-Isfahani's (d. 967) Kitab al-Aghani (Book of songs), a huge collection of stories about poets and singers. One should be careful to use these for historic purposes because they are of an anecdotal character, representing neither pure historical facts nor pure fiction.

Another development within Arabic prose is the abundant growth of ˒adab literature in the Abbasid era, probably best rendered as "belles lettres," the well-wrought discourse for which any subject could serve as a topic. Al-Jahiz (d. 868), the homo universalis of his time, was the unrivaled champion of the genre.

Apart from these ˒adab-works, Arabic popular culture knew a strong storytelling tradition, but what remained of it is scarce: outlines of heroic adventures and etiologies of personal names.

Bringing the sub-literary storytelling and the ˒adab genre together was an innovation introduced from outside the Arab world, generating "mirrors of princes," like Kalila wa-Dimna, an adaptation into Arabic by Ibn al-Muqaffa˓ (d. c. 760) of the original Indian Pancatantra.

Among the class of the cultural elite in the later Abbasid era a unique genre emerged that used rhymed prose as its form and was composed following a more or less fixed structure with a story of two characters meeting in an urban environment without recognizing each other. After a humorous description of chaos and confusion, recognition occurs and all ends in a kind of comical clue. This maqama remained popular well into the nineteenth century. With time it became less bound to its original structure and could be used for didactic purposes as well.

Fiction in the modern sense of the word entered Arabic culture with the Arabian Nights, in which the frame story and a number of sub-stories are from an Indian-Persian origin and enlarged with a number of Egyptian popular stories.

Modern Arabic Literature

Normally the entering of the Arab world into modern times is identified with Napoleon Bonaparte's temporary occupation of Egypt (1789–1801). The obvious difference in culture, scientific knowledge, and social structure between the two worlds caused Muhammad ˓Ali (1769–1849), an Albanian officer who freed Egypt from Ottoman rule, to direct his attention to the West, mainly France. He sent a mission of scholars to Paris to gather scientific knowledge that could be translated and applied in Egypt. The witness report of this mission, written by al-Tahtawi (d. 1873), is one of the earliest accounts of the new confrontation between East and West.

Another channel of communication between East and West had remained open for much longer: the contacts between the Maronite community in Syria and the Roman Catholic Church of Rome. This contact was parallelled by American-based Presbyterian missionary activities in Lebanon. This new phase in Middle Eastern history, known as the Nahda (sometimes translated as Renaissance), led to the establishment of printing presses and newspapers, to Westernstyle schooling, and to flourishing cultural activities. In the field of literature it proved to be less obvious to copy Western standards and genres. Arab authors initially tried to use old forms, like the maqama, as a substitute for the narrative genre. The theme of these regenerated maqamas often had something to do with the East-West opposition.

In poetry it was even more difficult to adopt Western standards, so that well in the twentieth century the old monorhyme/monometer standard of the qasida remained undisputed. These poets could, however, not escape from expressing modern themes. So-called neo-Classicist poets could well be expected to eulogize the introduction of radio in the 1920s in the most lofty of ways.

The Mahjar

As a result of deteriorating economical, social, and political circumstances in the second half of the nineteenth century in the-then Ottoman province of Syria/Lebanon, a great number of Arabs from these regions migrated to the Americas. Literary aspirations emerged within these Arab communities, resulting in the establishment of Arabic newspapers, literary periodicals, and societies, the most prominent of which became al-Rabita al-Qalamiyya (The Pen Club) in the Boston/New York area (1920). Its most famous member (and its chairman) was Jibran Khalil Jibran (d. 1931).

Far from their homeland, confronted with an alien environment, and having lived through the aftermath of existential shocks like the First World War and the Titanic disaster, these young poets dared to experiment and address ideas, themes, and personal emotions that were hitherto unknown in Arabic literature. The thematical innovations of this Mahjargeneration only had their influence on literature in the homeland much later, if at all.

The Romantic Poets and Apollo

In Egypt the important poets of the 1920s and 1930s were deeply influenced by English romantic poets such as William Blake (d. 1827), Samuel Coleridge (d. 1834), Lord Byron (d.1824), and Percy Shelley (d. 1822). Love, subjectivism, inward concentration, and dreamy nationalism were among the ingredients of this poetry.

At first the young poets in the Diwan group, named after a study in literary criticism, advocated traditional forms, but later another group of poets gathered around the periodical Apollo promoted experiments in the use of form, partly as a consequence of their romantic inspiration, which sometimes came close to escapism.

Arabic Poetry after World War II

The Second World War hardly had a direct impact on the Arab world, but it was all the more influential in its consequences. The divide between capitalism and socialism split the Arab world as well as Europe, not to mention the beginning struggle in many countries for independence from the colonialist powers.

As a reaction to the Romanticism of the twenties and thirties post–World War II poetry became extremely political, the slogan being iltizam: political commitment. A number of these poets gathered around the periodical al-Adab that was published in Beirut. The members of this group became split by the choice between Marxism and Arab nationalism. Iltizam as a concept kept playing a sigificant role until the 1980s.

Another innovation came from Iraq: the Free Verse movement. It advocated the complete abolishment of all traditional forms like meter and rhyme, thereby producing blank verse or prose poetry.

Poetry that was so politically motivated could in the end only produce its counterpart, in this case the group of poets who were being identified with the periodical Shi˓r in Beirut (1957–1969). Their poetry can be qualified as intellectual, highly sensitive, and open to the West. On the other hand symbols that refered to ancient times (Phoenician culture for the poets in Syria/Lebanon; Sumerian and Akkadian culture for those from Iraq) became popular as an expression of nationalist feelings. The most significant poet among this generation was the Syrian ˓Ali Ahmad Said (also known as Adunis (b. 1930), together with Nizar Qabbani (d. 1998), one of the most popular poets until the present period.

Meanwhile in Iraq, but even more so in Egypt, under the influence of socialist ideology, iltizam poetry developed to social realistic poetry, which in its turn paved the way for Palestinian resistance poetry with its strong political bias.

The Arabic Novel

Under the influence of Western fiction, especially by French romantic novelists, the first attempts to write novels can be considered emulations of Western models. The genre of the novel was almost entirely strange to Arabic tradition. Some early attempts were still shaped like the medieval Arabic maqama, but this rhymed prose structure was soon given up.

Just before the beginning of the twentieth century the historic novel emerged, inspired by the works of Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) and Alexandre Dumas (1802–1870). With the rise of nationalism around 1910 in Egypt, the scope of early novels changed to realistic stories placed in the vivid environment of the contemporary Egyptian countryside (e.g., Zaynab by Muhammad Husayn Haykal [d. 1956], considered as the first serious novel in the Arab world, and al-Ayyam by Taha Husayn [d. 1973]).

In the 1920s the influence of French realism and of Russian prose made itself felt in short-story writing, but Arabic prose really went its own way from the 1930s onward, when it obtained the psychological dimension of realistic autobiography, humor, and social criticism. This opened the way to the main directions of post-World War II prose: existentialism (Lebanon), social realism (Egypt, Algeria, Morocco), social criticism (Egypt, Palestine), neo-realism (Egypt), and feminism (throughout the Arab world). A modern generation that started to publish in the 1960s added a lyrical , ironical, and plainly realistic flavor as a result of which modern Arabic prose nowadays complies to international standards, without losing the local color that Arab novelists as real storytellers will never neglect. Nagib Mahfuz (b. 1911) is rightly considered to be one of the great international novelists of the twentieth century.

The main reason for the rapid development of prose should be sought in the fact that—as opposed to poetry—it was a relatively new form in Arabic literature, not burdened by age-old tradition.

In the West, Arabic literature is best known for two creations: the Arabian Nights and the novels of Nagib Mahfuz that earned him the Nobel prize for literature in 1988, although it is paradoxical that neither can be considered as representative of the Arabic literary tradition.

See alsoArabic Language ; Biography and Hagiography ; Historical Writing ; Persian Language and Literature ; Qur˒an .


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Gert Borg