Arabic literature (Arabic: الأدب العربي / ALA-LC: al-Adab al-‘Arabī) is the writing, both prose and poetry, produced by writers in the Arabic language. The Arabic word used for literature is "Adab", which is derived from a meaning of etiquette, and which implies politeness, culture and enrichment.
Arabic literature emerged in the 5th century with only fragments of the written language appearing before then. The Qur'an, widely regarded as the finest piece of literature in the Arabic language, would have the greatest lasting effect on Arabic culture and its literature. Arabic literature flourished during the Islamic Golden Age, but has remained vibrant to the present day, with poets and prose-writers across the Arab world, as well as rest of the world, achieving increasing success.
The Qur'an had a significant influence on the Arab language. The language used in it is called classical Arabic, and while modern Arabic is very similar, the classical has social prestige. Not only is the Qur'an the first work of any significant length written in the language, but it also has a far more complicated structure than the earlier literary works with its 114 suras (chapters) which contain 6,236 ayat (verses). It contains injunctions, narratives, homilies, parables, direct addresses from God, instructions and even comments on itself on how it will be received and understood. It is also admired for its layers of metaphor as well as its clarity, a feature it mentions itself in sura 16:103.
The word Qur'an means 'recite', and in early times the text was transmitted orally. The first attempt at an authentic written version was during the reign of the third 'Rightly Guided Caliph', Uthman (576-656).
Although it contains elements of both prose and poetry, and therefore is closest to Saj or rhymed prose, the Qur'an is regarded as entirely apart from these classifications. The text is believed to be divine revelation and is seen by Muslims as being eternal or 'uncreated'. This leads to the doctrine of i'jaz or inimitability of the Qur'an which implies that nobody can copy the work's style.
Say, Bring you then ten chapters like unto it, and call whomsoever you can, other than God, if you speak the truth!— 11:13
This doctrine of i'jaz possibly had a slight limiting effect on Arabic literature; proscribing exactly what could be written. Whilst Islam allows Muslims to write, read and recite poetry, the Qur'an states in the 26th sura (Ash-Shu'ara or The Poets) that poetry which is blasphemous, obscene, praiseworthy of sinful acts or attempts to challenge the Qu'ran's content and form is forbidden for Muslims.
And as to the poets, those who go astray follow them
Do you not see that they wander about bewildered in every valley? And that they say that which they do not do
Except those who believe and do good works and remember Allah much and defend themselves after they are oppressed; and they who act unjustly shall know to what final place of turning they shall turn back.— 26:224-227
This may have exerted dominance over the pre-Islamic poets of the 6th century whose popularity may have vied with the Qur'an amongst the people. There were a marked lack of significant poets until the 8th century. One notable exception was Hassan ibn Thabit who wrote poems in praise of Muhammad and was known as the "prophet's poet". Just as the Bible has held an important place in the literature of other languages, The Qur'an is important to Arabic. It is the source of many ideas, allusions and quotes and its moral message informs many works.
Aside from the Qur'an the hadith or tradition of what Muhammed is supposed to have said and done are important literature. The entire body of these acts and words are called sunnah or way and the ones regarded as sahih or genuine of them are collected into hadith. Some of the most significant collections of hadith include those by Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj and Muhammad ibn Isma'il al-Bukhari.
The other important genre of work in Qur'anic study is the tafsir or commentaries Arab writings relating to religion also includes many sermons and devotional pieces as well as the sayings of Ali which were collected in the 10th century as Nahj al-Balaghah or The Peak of Eloquence.
The research into the life and times of Muhammad, and determining the genuine parts of the sunnah, was an important early reason for scholarship in or about the Arabic language. It was also the reason for the collecting of pre-Islamic poetry; as some of these poets were close to the prophet—Labid meeting Muhammad and converting to Islam—and their writings illuminated the times when these events occurred. Muhammad also inspired the first Arabic biographies, known as Al-Sirah Al-Nabawiyyah; the earliest was by Wahb ibn Munabbih, but Muhammad ibn Ishaq wrote the best known. Whilst covering the life of the prophet they also told of the battles and events of early Islam and have numerous digressions on older biblical traditions.
Some of the earliest work studying the Arabic language was started in the name of Islam. Tradition has it that the caliph Ali, after reading a copy of Qur'an with errors in it, asked Abu al-Aswad al-Du'ali to write a work codifying Arabic grammar. Khalil ibn Ahmad would later write Kitab al-Ayn, the first dictionary of Arabic, along with works on prosody and music, and his pupil Sibawayh would produce the most respected work of Arabic grammar known simply as al-Kitab or The Book.
Other caliphs exerted their influence on Arabic with 'Abd al-Malik making it the official language for the administration of the new empire, and al-Ma'mun setting up the Bayt al-Hikma or House of Wisdom in Baghdad for research and translations. Basrah and Kufah were two other important seats of learning in the early Arab world, between which there was a strong rivalry.
The institutions set up mainly to investigate more fully the Islamic religion were invaluable in studying many other subjects. Caliph Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik was instrumental in enriching the literature by instructing scholars to translate works into Arabic. The first was probably Aristotle's correspondence with Alexander the Great translated by Salm Abu al-'Ala'. From the east, and in a very different literary genre, the scholar Abdullah Ibn al-Muqaffa translated the animal fables of the Panchatantra. These translations would keep alive scholarship and learning, particularly that of ancient Greece, during the Dark Ages in Europe and the works would often be first re-introduced to Europe from the Arabic versions.
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A large proportion of Arabic literature before the 20th century is in the form of poetry, and even prose from this period is either filled with snippets of poetry or is in the form of saj' or rhymed prose. The themes of the poetry range from high-flown hymns of praise to bitter personal attacks and from religious and mystical ideas to poems on women and wine. An important feature of the poetry which would be applied to all of the literature was the idea that it must be pleasing to the ear. The poetry and much of the prose was written with the design that it would be spoken aloud and great care was taken to make all writing as mellifluous as possible.
In the late 9th century Ibn al-Nadim, a Baghdadi bookseller, compiled a crucial work in the study of Arabic literature. Kitab al-Fihrist is a catalogue of all books available for sale in Baghdad and it gives an overview of the state of the literature at that time.
One of the most common forms of literature during the Abbasid period was the compilation. These were collections of facts, ideas, instructive stories and poems on a single topic and covers subjects as diverse as house and garden, women, gate-crashers, blind people, envy, animals and misers. These last three compilations were written by al-Jahiz the acknowledged master of the form. These collections were important for any nadim, a companion to a ruler or noble whose role was often involved regaling the ruler with stories and information to entertain or advise.
A type of work closely allied to the collection was the manual in which writers like ibn Qutaybah offered instruction in subjects like etiquette, how to rule, how to be a bureaucrat and even how to write. Ibn Qutaybah also wrote one of the earliest histories of the Arabs, drawing together biblical stories, Arabic folk tales and more historical events.
The subject of sex was frequently investigated in Arabic literature. The ghazal or love poem had a long history being at times tender and chaste and at other times rather explicit. In the Sufi tradition, the love poem would take on wider, mystical and religious importance. Sex manuals were also written such as The Perfumed Garden, Ṭawq al-Ḥamāmah or The Dove's Neckring by ibn Hazm and Nuzhat al-albab fi-ma la yujad fi kitab or Delight of Hearts Concerning What will Never Be Found in a Book by Ahmad al-Tifashi. Countering such works are one like Rawdat al-muhibbin wa-nuzhat al-mushtaqin or Meadow of Lovers and Diversion of the Infatuated by ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah who advises on how to separate love and lust and avoid sin.
Aside from the early biographies of Muhammad, the first major biographer to weigh character rather than just producing a hymn of praise was al-Baladhuri with his Kitab ansab al-ashraf or Book of the Genealogies of the Noble, a collection of biographies. Another important biographical dictionary was begun by ibn Khallikan and expanded by al-Safadi and one of the first significant autobiographies was Kitab al-I'tibar which told of Usamah ibn Munqidh and his experiences in fighting in the Crusades. This time period saw the emergence of the genre of tabaqat (biographical dictionaries or biographical compendia).
Ibn Khurdadhbih, an official in the postal service wrote one of the first travel books and the form remained a popular one in Arabic literature with books by ibn Hawqal, ibn Fadlan, al-Istakhri, al-Muqaddasi, al-Idrisi and most famously the travels of ibn Battutah. These give a view of the many cultures of the wider Islamic world and also offer Muslim perspectives on the non-Muslim peoples on the edges of the empire. They also indicated just how great a trading power the Muslim peoples had become. These were often sprawling accounts that included details of both geography and history.
Some writers concentrated solely on history like al-Ya'qubi and al-Tabari, whilst others focused on a small portion of history such as ibn al-Azraq, with a history of Mecca, and ibn Abi Tahir Tayfur, writing a history of Baghdad. The historian regarded as the greatest of all Arabic historians though is ibn Khaldun whose history Muqaddimah focuses on society and is a founding text in sociology and economics.
In the medieval Near East, Arabic diaries were first being written from before the 10th century, though the medieval diary which most resembles the modern diary was that of Ibn Banna in the 11th century. His diary was the earliest to be arranged in order of date (ta'rikh in Arabic), very much like modern diaries.
Literary criticism in Arabic literature often focused on religious texts, and the several long religious traditions of hermeneutics and textual exegesis have had a profound influence on the study of secular texts. This was particularly the case for the literary traditions of Islamic literature.
Literary criticism was also employed in other forms of medieval Arabic poetry and literature from the 9th century, notably by Al-Jahiz in his al-Bayan wa-'l-tabyin and al-Hayawan, and by Abdullah ibn al-Mu'tazz in his Kitab al-Badi.
In the Arab world, there was a great distinction between al-fus'ha (quality language) and al-ammiyyah (language of the common people). Not many writers would write works in this al-ammiyyah or common language and it was felt that literature had to be improving, educational and with purpose rather than just entertainment. This did not stop the common role of the hakawati or story-teller who would retell the entertaining parts of more educational works or one of the many Arabic fables or folk-tales, which were often not written down in many cases. Nevertheless, some of the earliest novels, including the first philosophical novels, were written by Arabic authors.
The most famous example of Arabic fiction is the One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights). It is easily the best known of all Arabic literature, and still affects many of the ideas non-Arabs have about Arabic culture. A good example of the lack of popular Arabic prose fiction is that the stories of Aladdin and Ali Baba, usually regarded as part of the Tales from One Thousand and One Nights, were not actually part of the Tales. They were first included in French translation of the Tales by Antoine Galland who heard them being told by a traditional storyteller and only existed in incomplete Arabic manuscripts before that. The other great character from Arabic literature Sinbad is from the Tales.
The One Thousand and One Nights is usually placed in the genre of Arabic epic literature along with several other works. They are usually collections of short stories or episodes strung together into a long tale. The extant versions were mostly written down relatively late on, after the 14th century, although many were undoubtedly collected earlier and many of the original stories are probably pre-Islamic. Types of stories in these collections include animal fables, proverbs, stories of jihad or propagation of the faith, humorous tales, moral tales, tales about the wily con-man Ali Zaybaq and tales about the prankster Juha.
Maqama not only straddles the divide between prose and poetry, being instead a form of rhymed prose, it is also part way between fiction and non-fiction. Over a series of short narratives, which are fictionalised versions of real-life situations, different ideas are contemplated. A good example of this is a maqama on musk, which purports to compare the feature of different perfumes but is in fact a work of political satire comparing several competing rulers. Maqama also makes use of the doctrine of badi or deliberately adding complexity to display the writer's dexterity with language. Al-Hamadhani is regarded as the originator of the maqama and his work was taken up by Abu Muhammad al-Qasim al-Hariri with one of al-Hariri's maqama a study of al-Hamadhani own work. Maqama was an incredibly popular form of Arabic literature, being one of the few forms which continued to be written during the decline of Arabic in the 17th and 18th centuries.
A famous example of romantic Arabic poetry is Layla and Majnun, dating back to the Umayyad era in the 7th century. It is a tragic story of undying love. Layla and Majnun is considered part of the platonic Love (Arabic: حب عذري) genre, so-called because the couple never marry or consummate their relationship, that is prominent in Arabic literature, though the literary motif is found throughout the world. Other famous Virgin Love stories include Qays and Lubna, Kuthair and Azza, Marwa and al-Majnun al-Faransi and Antara and Abla.
The 10th-century Encyclopedia of the Brethren of Purity features a fictional anecdote of a "prince who strays from his palace during his wedding feast and, drunk, spends the night in a cemetery, confusing a corpse with his bride. The story is used as a gnostic parable of the soul's pre-existence and return from its terrestrial sojourn".
Another medieval Arabic love story was Hadith Bayad wa Riyad (The Story of Bayad and Riyad), a 13th-century Arabic love story. The main characters of the tale are Bayad, a merchant's son and a foreigner from Damascus, and Riyad, a well-educated girl in the court of an unnamed Hajib (vizier or minister) of 'Iraq which is referred to as the lady. The Hadith Bayad wa Riyad manuscript is believed to be the only illustrated manuscript known to have survived from more than eight centuries of Muslim and Arab presence in Spain.
Many of the tales in the One Thousand and One Nights are also love stories or involve romantic love as a central theme. This includes the frame story of Scheherazade herself, and many of the stories she narrates, including "Aladdin", "The Ebony Horse", "The Three Apples", "Tale of Tàj al-Mulúk and the Princess Dunyà: The Lover and the Loved", "Adi bin Zayd and the Princess Hind", "Di'ibil al-Khuza'i With the Lady and Muslim bin al-Walid", "The Three Unfortunate Lovers", and others.
There were several elements of courtly love which were developed in Arabic literature, namely the notions of "love for love's sake" and "exaltation of the beloved lady" which have been traced back to Arabic literature of the 9th and 10th centuries. The notion of the "ennobling power" of love was developed in the early 11th century by the Persian psychologist and philosopher, Ibn Sina (known as "Avicenna" in Europe), in his Arabic treatise Risala fi'l-Ishq (Treatise on Love). The final element of courtly love, the concept of "love as desire never to be fulfilled", was also at times implicit in Arabic poetry.
The earliest known example of a whodunit murder mystery was "The Three Apples", one of the tales narrated by Scheherazade in the One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights). In this tale, a fisherman discovers a heavy locked chest along the Tigris river and he sells it to the Abbasid Caliph, Harun al-Rashid, who then has the chest broken open only to find inside it the dead body of a young woman who was cut into pieces. Harun orders his vizier, Ja'far ibn Yahya, to solve the crime and find the murderererer within three days, or be executed if he fails his assignment. Suspense is generated through multiple plot twists that occur as the story progresses. This may thus be considered an archetype for detective fiction.
In Arabic poetry, the genre of satirical poetry was known as hija. Satire was introduced into prose literature by the author al-Jahiz in the 9th century. While dealing with serious topics in what are now known as anthropology, sociology and psychology, he introduced a satirical approach, "based on the premise that, however serious the subject under review, it could be made more interesting and thus achieve greater effect, if only one leavened the lump of solemnity by the insertion of a few amusing anecdotes or by the throwing out of some witty or paradoxical observations." He was well aware that, in treating of new themes in his prose works, he would have to employ a vocabulary of a nature more familiar in hija, satirical poetry. For example, in one of his zoological works, he satirized the preference for longer human penis size, writing: "If the length of the penis were a sign of honor, then the mule would belong to the (honorable tribe of) Quraysh". Another satirical story based on this preference was an Arabian Nights tale called "Ali with the Large Member".
In the 10th century, the writer Tha'alibi recorded satirical poetry written by the poets As-Salami and Abu Dulaf, with As-Salami praising Abu Dulaf's wide breadth of knowledge and then mocking his ability in all these subjects, and with Abu Dulaf responding back and satirizing As-Salami in return. An example of Arabic political satire included another 10th-century poet Jarir satirizing Farazdaq as "a transgressor of the Sharia" and later Arabic poets in turn using the term "Farazdaq-like" as a form of political satire.
The terms "comedy" and "satire" became synonymous after Aristotle's Poetics was translated into Arabic in the medieval Islamic world, where it was elaborated upon by Arabic writers and Islamic philosophers, such as Abu Bischr, his pupil al-Farabi, Avicenna, and Averroes. Due to cultural differences, they disassociated comedy from Greek dramatic representation and instead identified it with Arabic poetic themes and forms, such as hija (satirical poetry). They viewed comedy as simply the "art of reprehension", and made no reference to light and cheerful events, or troublous beginnings and happy endings, associated with classical Greek comedy. After the Latin translations of the 12th century, the term "comedy" thus gained a new semantic meaning in Medieval literature.
While puppet theatre and passion plays were popular in the medieval Islamic world, live theatre and drama has only been a visible part of Arabic literature in the modern era. There may have been a much longer theatrical tradition but it was probably not regarded as legitimate literature and mostly went unrecorded. There is an ancient tradition of public performance amongst Shi'i Muslims of a play depicting the life and death of al-Husayn at the battle of Karbala in 680 CE. There are also several plays composed by Shams al-din Muhammad ibn Daniyal in the 13th century when he mentions that older plays are getting stale and offers his new works as fresh material.
The most popular forms of theater in the medieval Islamic world were puppet theatre (which included hand puppets, shadow plays and marionette productions) and live passion plays known as ta'ziya, where actors re-enact episodes from Muslim history. In particular, Shia Islamic plays revolved around the shaheed (martyrdom) of Ali's sons Hasan ibn Ali and Husayn ibn Ali. Live secular plays were known as akhraja, recorded in medieval adab literature, though they were less common than puppetry and ta'ziya theater.
The Moors had a noticeable influence on the works of George Peele and William Shakespeare. Some of their works featured Moorish characters, such as Peele's The Battle of Alcazar and Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Titus Andronicus and Othello, which featured a Moorish Othello as its title character. These works are said to have been inspired by several Moorish delegations from Morocco to Elizabethan England at the beginning of the 17th century, ignoring the fact that The Merchant of Venice and Titus Andronicus were both penned in the 16th century. In 2016, opera singer and actor David Serero performed Othello in a Moroccan adaptation in New York.
The Arab Islamic philosophers, Ibn Tufail (Abubacer) and Ibn al-Nafis, were pioneers of the philosophical novel as they wrote the earliest novels dealing with philosophical fiction. Ibn Tufail wrote the first Arabic novel Hayy ibn Yaqdhan (Philosophus Autodidactus) as a response to Al-Ghazali's The Incoherence of the Philosophers. This was followed by Ibn al-Nafis who wrote a fictional narrative Theologus Autodidactus as a response to Ibn Tufail's Philosophus Autodidactus. Both of these narratives had protagonists (Hayy in Philosophus Autodidactus and Kamil in Theologus Autodidactus) who were autodidactic individuals spontaneously generated in a cave and living in seclusion on a desert island, both being the earliest examples of a desert island story. However, while Hayy lives alone on the desert island for most of the story in Philosophus Autodidactus (until he meets a castaway named Absal), the story of Kamil extends beyond the desert island setting in Theologus Autodidactus (when castaways take him back to civilization with them), developing into the earliest known coming of age plot and eventually becoming the first example of a science fiction novel.
Ibn al-Nafis described his book Theologus Autodidactus as a defense of "the system of Islam and the Muslims' doctrines on the missions of Prophets, the religious laws, the resurrection of the body, and the transitoriness of the world." He presents rational arguments for bodily resurrection and the immortality of the human soul, using both demonstrative reasoning and material from the hadith corpus to prove his case. Later Islamic scholars viewed this work as a response to the metaphysical claim of Avicenna and Ibn Tufail that bodily resurrection cannot be proven through reason, a view that was earlier criticized by al-Ghazali. Ibn al-Nafis' work was later translated into Latin and English as Theologus Autodidactus in the early 20th century.
A Latin translation of Ibn Tufail's work, entitled Philosophus Autodidactus, first appeared in 1671, prepared by Edward Pococke the Younger. The first English translation by Simon Ockley was published in 1708, and German and Dutch translations were also published at the time. These translations later inspired Daniel Defoe to write Robinson Crusoe, which also featured a desert island narrative and was regarded as the first novel in English. Philosophus Autodidactus also inspired Robert Boyle, an acquaintance of Pococke, to write his own philosophical novel set on an island, The Aspiring Naturalist, in the late 17th century. The story also anticipated Rousseau's Émile in some ways, and is also similar to the later story of Mowgli in Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book as well the character of Tarzan, in that a baby is abandoned in a deserted tropical island where he is taken care of and fed by a mother wolf. Other European writers influenced by Philosophus Autodidactus include John Locke, Gottfried Leibniz, Melchisédech Thévenot, John Wallis, Christiaan Huygens, George Keith, Robert Barclay, the Quakers, and Samuel Hartlib.
Al-Risalah al-Kamiliyyah fil Sira al-Nabawiyyah (The Treatise of Kamil on the Prophet's Biography), known in English as Theologus Autodidactus (which is a phonetic transliteration of the Greek name Θεολόγος Αὐτοδίδακτος, meaning self-taught theologian), written by the Arabian polymath Ibn al-Nafis (1213–1288), is the earliest known science fiction novel. While also being an early desert island story and coming of age story, the novel deals with various science fiction elements such as spontaneous generation, futurology, apocalyptic themes, the end of the world and doomsday, resurrection and the afterlife. Rather than giving supernatural or mythological explanations for these events, Ibn al-Nafis attempted to explain these plot elements using his own extensive scientific knowledge in anatomy, biology, physiology, astronomy, cosmology and geology. His main purpose behind this science fiction work was to explain Islamic religious teachings in terms of science and philosophy. For example, it was through this novel that Ibn al-Nafis introduces his scientific theory of metabolism, and he makes references to his own scientific discovery of the pulmonary circulation in order to explain bodily resurrection. The novel was later translated into English as Theologus Autodidactus in the early 20th century.
A number of stories within the One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights) also feature science fiction elements. One example is "The Adventures of Bulukiya", where the protagonist Bulukiya's quest for the herb of immortality leads him to explore the seas, journey to the Garden of Eden and to Jahannam, and travel across the cosmos to different worlds much larger than his own world, anticipating elements of galactic science fiction; along the way, he encounters societies of jinns, mermaids, talking serpents, talking trees, and other forms of life. In another Arabian Nights tale, the protagonist Abdullah the Fisherman gains the ability to breathe underwater and discovers an underwater submarine society that is portrayed as an inverted reflection of society on land, in that the underwater society follows a form of primitive communism where concepts like money and clothing do not exist. Other Arabian Nights tales deal with lost ancient technologies, advanced ancient civilizations that went astray, and catastrophes which overwhelmed them. "The City of Brass" features a group of travellers on an archaeological expedition across the Sahara to find an ancient lost city and attempt to recover a brass vessel that Solomon once used to trap a jinn, and, along the way, encounter a mummified queen, petrified inhabitants, lifelike humanoid robots and automata, seductive marionettes dancing without strings, and a brass horseman robot who directs the party towards the ancient city. "The Ebony Horse" features a robot in the form of a flying mechanical horse controlled using keys that could fly into outer space and towards the Sun, while the "Third Qalandar's Tale" also features a robot in the form of an uncanny boatman. "The City of Brass" and "The Ebony Horse" can be considered early examples of proto-science fiction.
During the 19th century, a revival took place in Arabic literature, along with much of Arabic culture, and is referred to in Arabic as "al-Nahda", which means "the Renaissance". This resurgence of writing in Arabic was confined mainly to Syria, Egypt and Lebanon until the 20th century when it spread to other countries in the region. This Renaissance was not only felt within the Arab world but also beyond, with a great interest in the translating of Arabic works into European languages. Although the use of the Arabic language was revived, particularly in poetry, many of the tropes of the previous literature which served to make it so ornate and complicated were dropped.
Just as in the 8th century, when a movement to translate ancient Greek and other literature had helped vitalise Arabic literature, another translation movement would offer new ideas and material for Arabic. An early popular success was The Count of Monte Cristo, which spurred a host of historical novels on Arabic subjects. Two important translators were Rifa'a al-Tahtawi and Jabra Ibrahim Jabra.
Throughout the 20th century, Arabic writers in both poetry and prose have reflected the changing political and social climate of the Arab world in their work. Anti-colonial themes were prominent early in the 20th century, with writers continuing to explore the region's relationship with the West until the present day. Internal political upheaval has also been a challenge, with some writers suffering censorship. There are many contemporary Arabic writers, such as Mahmoud saeed (Iraq) who wrote Bin Barka Ally, and I Am The One Who Saw (Saddam City). Other contemporary writers include Sonallah Ibrahim and Abdul Rahman Munif, who were imprisoned by the state for their anti-government work. At the same time, others who had written works supporting or praising governments were promoted to positions of authority within cultural bodies. Non-fiction writers and academics have also produced political polemics and criticisms aiming to re-shape Arabic politics. Some of the best known are Taha Hussein's The Future of Culture in Egypt, which was an important work of Egyptian nationalism, and the works of Nawal el-Saadawi who campaigns for women's rights. Tayeb Salih and Ghassan Kanafani are two other writers that explored identity in relationship to foreign and domestic powers, the former focusing on colonial/post-colonial dynamics and the latter on the Palestinian struggle.
Beginning in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as part of what is now called "the Arabic renaissance" or "al-Nahda", poets like Francis Marrash, Ahmad Shawqi and Hafiz Ibrahim began to explore the possibility of developing the classical poetic forms. Some of these neoclassical poets were acquainted with Western literature but mostly continued to write in classical forms, while others, denouncing blind imitation of classical poetry and its recurring themes, sought inspiration from French or English romanticism.
The next generation of poets, the so-called romantic poets, had begun to a far greater extent to absorb the impact of developments in Western poetry, and felt constrained by neo-classical traditions which the previous generation had tried to uphold. The Mahjari poets were emigrants who mostly wrote in the Americas, but were similarly beginning to experiment further with the possibilities of Arabic poetry. This experimentation continued in the Middle East throughout the first half of the 20th century.
After World War II, there was a largely unsuccessful movement by several poets to write poems in free verse (shi'r hurr). Iraqi poets Badr Shakir al-Sayyab and Nazik Al-Malaika (1923-2007), are considered to be the originators of free verse in Arabic poetry. Most of these experiments were abandoned in favour of prose poetry, of which the first examples in modern Arabic literature are to be found in the writings of Francis Marrash, and of which two of the most influential proponents were Nazik al-Malaika and Iman Mersal. The development of modernist poetry also influenced poetry in Arabic. More recently, poets such as Adunis have pushed the boundaries of stylistic experimentation even further.
Poetry retains a very important status in the Arab world. Mahmoud Darwish was regarded as the Palestinian national poet, and his funeral was attended by thousands of mourners. Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani addressed less political themes, but was regarded as a cultural icon, and his poems provide the lyrics for many popular songs.
Two distinct trends can be found in the nahda period of revival. The first was a neo-classical movement which sought to rediscover the literary traditions of the past, and was influenced by traditional literary genres—such as the maqama—and works like One Thousand and One Nights. In contrast, a modernist movement began by translating Western modernist works—primarily novels—into Arabic.
In the 19th century, individual authors in Syria, Lebanon and Egypt created original works by imitating classical narrative genres: Ahmad Faris Shidyaq with Leg upon Leg (1855), Khalil Khoury with Yes... so I am not a Frank (1859), Francis Marrash with The Forest of Truth (1865), Salim al-Bustani with At a Loss in the Levantine Gardens (1870), and Muhammad al-Muwaylihi with Isa ibn Hisham's Tale (1907). This trend was furthered by Jurji Zaydan (author of many historical novels), Khalil Gibran, Mikha'il Na'ima and Muhammad Husayn Haykal (author of Zaynab). Meanwhile, female writer Zaynab Fawwaz's first novel Ḥusn al-'Awāqib aw Ghādah al-Zāhirah (The Happy Ending, 1899) was also influential. According to the authors of the Encyclopedia of the Novel:
Almost each of the above [works] have been claimed as the first Arabic novel, which goes to suggest that the Arabic novel emerged from several rehearsals and multiple beginnings rather than from one single origin. Given that the very Arabic word "riwaya", which is now used exclusively in reference to the "novel", has traditionally conjured up a tangle of narrative genres [...], it might not be unfair to contend that the Arabic novel owes its early formation not only to the appropriation of the novel genre from Europe [...] but also, and more importantly, to the revival and transformation of traditional narrative genres in the wake of Napoleon's 1798 expedition into Egypt and the Arab world's firsthand encounter with industrialized imperial Europe.
A common theme in the modern Arabic novel is the study of family life with obvious resonances of the wider family of the Arabic world.[according to whom?] Many of the novels have been unable to avoid the politics and conflicts of the region with war often acting as background to intimate family dramas. The works of Naguib Mahfuz depict life in Cairo, and his Cairo Trilogy, describing the struggles of a modern Cairene family across three generations, won him a Nobel prize for literature in 1988. He was the first Arabic writer to win the prize.
The musical plays of Maroun Naccache from the mid-1800s are considered the birth of not only theatre in Lebanon, but also modern Arab theatre. Modern Arabic drama began to be written in the 19th century chiefly in Egypt and mainly influenced and in imitation of French works. It was not until the 20th century that it began to develop a distinctly Arab flavour and be seen elsewhere. The most important Arab playwright was Tawfiq al-Hakim whose first play was a re-telling of the Qur'anic story of the Seven sleepers and the second an epilogue for the Thousand and One Nights. Other important dramatists of the region include Yusuf al-Ani from Iraq and Saadallah Wannous from Syria.
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In the words of Clarissa Burt,
Whilst not playing a major attested part in Arabic literature for much of its history, women have had a continuing role. Women's literature in Arabic has been relatively little researched, and features relatively little in most Arabic-language education systems, meaning that its prominence and importance is probably generally underrated.
In the estimation of Tahera Qutbuddin,
(The main modern anthology of medieval Arabic women's writing in English translation is that of Abdullah al-Udhari.)
Pre-Islamic women's literature seems to have been limited to the genre of marathiya ('elegy'). The earliest poetesses were al-Khansa and Layla al-Akhyaliyyah of the 7th century. Their concentration on the ritha' or elegy suggests that this was a form deemed acceptable for women to work with. However, the love lyric was also an important genre of women's poetry. The Umayyad and 'Abbasid periods saw professional singing slave girls (qiyan, sing. quayna) who sang love songs and accompanied these with music; alongside panegyric and competitive verse-capping, qiyan also sang love-poetry (ghazal). In his Risalat al-Qiyan (Epistle of the Singing-Girls), al-Jahiz (d. 255/868×69) reckoned that an accomplished singer might have a repertoire of 4,000 songs. Pre-eminent 'Abbasid singing-girls included: 'Inan (paramour of Harun al-Rashid, r. 786-809); Arib al-Ma'muniyya (concubine of Al-Ma'mun, r. 813-17); and Fadl Ashsha'ira (d. 871; concubine of Al-Mutawakkil, r. 847-61). Meanwhile, Harun al-Rashid's half-sister ‘Ulayya bint al-Mahdī (777-825) was also known for her poetic skills, as was the mystic and poet of Basra Rabi'a al-'Adawiyya (d. 801). Women also had an important role in pre-modern periods as patrons of the arts.
Writings from medieval moorish Spain attest to several important female writers, pre-eminently Wallada bint al-Mustakfi (1001–1091), an Umawi princess of al-Andulus, who wrote Sufi poetry and was the lover of fellow poet ibn Zaydun; the Granadan poet Hafsa Bint al-Hajj al-Rukuniyya (d. 1190/91); and Nazhun al-Garnatiya bint al-Qulai’iya (d. 1100). These and other women writers suggest a hidden world of literature by women.
Despite their lack of prominence among the literary elite, women still played an important part as characters in Arabic literature. Sirat al-amirah Dhat al-Himmah, for example, is an Arabic epic with a female warrior, Fatima Dhat al-Himma, as protagonist, and Scheherazade is famous for cunningly telling stories in the One Thousand and One Nights to save her life.
The Mamluk period saw the flourishing of the Sufi master and poet 'A'isha al-Ba'uniyya (d. 1517), who was probably the Arabic-speaking world's most prolific female author before the twentieth century. Living in what is now Egypt and Syria, she came from the al-Ba'uni family, noted for its judges and scholars, and belonged to the 'Urmawi branch of the Qadiriyya order. 'A'isha composed at least twelve books in prose and verse, which included over three hundred long mystical and religious poems.
The earliest prominent female Arabic writer of the modern period during which the Arab cultural renaissance (Al-Nahda) took place is Táhirih (1820–52), from what is now Iran. She wrote fine Arabic and Persian poetry.
Women's literary salons and societies in the Arab world were also pioneered during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, initially by Christian Arab women, who tended to have more freedom and access to education than their female Muslim counterparts in the Ottoman Empire at the time. Maryana Marrash (1848−1919) started what is now believed to have been the first salon including women, in Aleppo. In 1912, May Ziadeh (1886-1941) also started a literary salon in Cairo and in 1922, Mary 'Ajami (1888−1965) did the same in Damascus. These salons supported the emergence of women's writing (both literary and journalistic) and women's presses through increased interaction in the male-dominated world of Arab literature.
A quote by Clarissa Burt on modern Arab poetry by Female Arab authors:
Unlocked from the constraints of the traditional ode, several of these and other women have had long careers of poetry writing, entering into areas of expression of women's experience that had not been presented in print before. In many ways, this poetic work has gone hand in hand with the growth of critical discourse about women's role, status, and experience, and women's desires to be fully participating members of public society. [...] With few exceptions, critical reception in the Arab world of these and other women poets has been lukewarm at best, for the most part, often filled with criticism of their adherence or lack thereof to poetic principles that have been held as prescriptive in mahy schools of Arabic literary criticiam.
Alongside Maryana Marrash, May Ziadeh, and Mary 'Ajami, pioneering figures in women's writing in Arabic during this time period are Zaynab Fawwaz (modern Lebanon/Egypt, 1846–1914), who arguably wrote the first novel in Arabic and was the first woman to write a play in that language as well; Aisha Taymur (modern Turkey/Egypt, 1840–1902); Malak Hifni Nasif (under the pseudonym Bahithat al-Badiyya, Egypt 1886-1918); Anbara Salam Khalidy (modern Palestine/Lebanon, 1897-1988) Anbara Salam Khalidy (modern Palestine/Lebanon, 1897–1986) and Salma al-Kadhimiyya (Iraq, 1908–1953, under the pseudonym Umm Nizar).
Since the Second World War, Arabic women's poetry has become markedly more prominent. Nazik Al-Malaika (Iraq/Egypt, 1923-2007) was daughter of Salma al-Kadhimiyya, who in her own right was a poet and a vanguard of the early nationalist movement. Al-Malaika alongside Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, can be considered the initiator of the Free Verse Movement in Arabic poetry. Al-Malaika's poetry is characterised by thematic variations and the use of imagery. She also wrote The Case of Contemporary Poets which is considered a major contribution to Arab literary criticism.
Other major post-war poetic voices include Fadwa Touqan (Palestine, 1917-2003), Rabāb al-Kāẓimī (Iraq, b. 1920), Jalīla Riḍa (Egypt, 1920-2001), Salma Khadra Jayyusi (Palestine, 1926-), Lami'a 'Abbas 'Amara (Iraq, b. 1927).
Saniya Salih's (Syria 1935-85) poetry appeared in many well-known magazines of her time, particularly Shi’r and Mawaqif, but remained in the shadow of work by her husband, the poet Muhammad al-Maghout. Her later poems often address her relationship with her two daughters, and many were written during her illness as she died of cancer.
Moreover, other Arab post-war poetesses include: Zubayda Bashīr (Tunis, 1938-); Ghada al-Samman (Syria, 1942-), known not only for poetry but also for short stories and novels, Su'ad al-Sabah (Kuwait, 1942-) and Hamda Khamis (Bahrain, 1946-) who is regarded as Bahrain's first female free-verse poet.
More recent Arabic literature has seen an even greater number of female writers' works published: Suhayr al-Qalamawi, Ulfat Idlibi, Layla Ba'albakki, Zuhrabi Mattummal, Hoda Barakat and Alifa Rifaat are just some of the novelists and prose writers. There has also been a number of significant female authors who also wrote non-fiction work mainly exploring the female condition in Muslim Societies, which includes authors such as Zaynab al-Ghazali, Nawal el-Saadawi and author/Sociologist Fatema Mernissi.
Women writers in the Arab world have unavoidably courted controversy. Layla Ba'albakki, for instance, was charged with obscenity and "endangering public morality" a few months after she published her collection of short stories titled Tenderness to the Moon (1963). The Lebanese vice squad actually traveled to every bookstore where the book was sold to confiscate all remaining copies because of its erotic content.
In Algeria, women’s oral literature used in ceremonies called Būqālah, also meaning ceramic pitcher, became a symbol of national identity and anti-colonialism during the War of Independence in the 1950s and 60s. These poems are usually four to ten lines in Algerian Arabic, and cover topics from the everyday, like love and work, to the political, like the struggle for independence. Since speaking Algerian Arabic was considered cultural resistance in itself at the time, these poems took on a revolutionary implication.
Suffice to say although female Arab authors still risk controversy by discussing explicit themes or taboo topic in their works, it is a theme explored more explicitly and with more vigour due to greater outreach thanks to social media and more international awareness of Arab literature. More current Arab female writers include Hanan al-Sheikh, Salwa al-Neimi (writer, poet and journalist), Joumanna Haddad (journalist and poet), Assia Djebar. Ahdaf Soueif and Yasmine El-Rashidi amongst others who confront less-talked about topics such as sex, prostitution, homosexuality and political censorship and prosecution within the Arab diaspora and also internationally in relation to Arab emigration.
Contemporary female Arab writers/poets/journalists alongside producing literature and non-fiction works often take on an activist role in their careers in order to highlight and improve the female condition in Arab society. This concept is embodied in female figures such as Mona Eltahawy, who is an award-winning Egyptian columnist and international public speaker. She is best known for her unconventional comments on Arab and Muslim issues and her involvement in global feminism. In 2015, she released her book Headscarves and Hymens in which she argues the need for a sexual revolution in the Middle East.
Contemporary Arab women's literature has been strongly influenced by the diaspora of Arabic-speakers, who have produced writing not only in Arabic but also in other languages, prominently English, French, and German. The Internet is also important in furthering the reach of literature produced in Arabic or Arab regions:
It is among the younger generation of poets that the Internet has become a platform for mounting collections and sharing poetry. Some of these poets have their own websites, while others are included on ever growing web anthologies being posted by young Arab computer geeks dedicated to the construction of web archives for Arabic poetry and poetic history. Similarly, critical treatment of these women's poetry, while now well established in on-line resources and web-based sites for major paper publications throughout the arab world, has yet to produce clearly defined critical means of articulating emerging values for poetry, for measuring the critical worth of some of these new productions, and for encouraging the production of Arab women's poetry which will have weight, depth, and acclaim comparable to the work of some of the major Arab male poets of our day.
Early on in the Arabic literary world, there has been a culture of academic criticism. The poetry festivals of the pre-Islamic period often pitched two poets against each other in a war of verse in which one would be deemed winner by the audience. Literary criticism also grew into theology, and thus gained a more official status with Islamic study of the Qur'an. Although nothing which might be termed 'literary criticism', in the modern sense, was applied to a work held to be i'jaz or inimitable and divinely inspired, an analysis was permitted. This study allowed for a better understanding of the message and facilitated interpretation for practical use, all of which help the development of a critical method important for later work on other literature. A clear distinction regularly drawn between works in literary language and popular works has meant that only part of the literature in Arabic was usually considered worthy of study and criticism.
Some of the first studies of the poetry are Qawa'id al-shi'r or The Rules of Poetry by Tha'lab and Naqd al-shi'r Poetic Criticism by Qudamah ibn Ja'far. Other works tended to continue the tradition of contrasting two poets in order to determine which one best follows the rule of classical poetic structure. Plagiarism also became a significant idea exercising the critics' concerns. The works of al-Mutanabbi were particularly studied with this concern. He was considered by many the greatest of all Arab poets but his own arrogant self-regard for his abilities did not endear him to other writers and they looked for a source for his verse. Just as there were collections of facts written about many different subjects, numerous collections detailing every possible rhetorical figure used in literature emerged as well as how to write guides.
Modern criticism at first compared the new works unfavourably with the classical ideals of the past but these standards were soon rejected as too artificial. The adoption of the forms of European romantic poetry dictated the introduction of corresponding critical standards. Taha Hussayn, himself keen on European thought, would even dare to challenge the Qur'an with modern critical analysis in which he pointed out the ideas and stories borrowed from pre-Islamic poetry.
Literature in Arabic has been influential outside the Islamic world. One of the first important translations of Arabic literature was Robert of Ketton's translation of the Qur'an in the twelfth century but it would not be until the early eighteenth century that much of Arabic's diverse literature would be recognised, largely due to Arabists such as Forster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot and his books such as Arabic Authors: A Manual of Arabian History and Literature.
Antoine Galland's translation of the Thousand and One Nights was the first major work in Arabic which found great success outside the Muslim world. Other significant translators were Friedrich Rückert and Richard Burton, along with many working at Fort William, India. The Arabic works and many more in other eastern languages fuelled a fascination in Orientalism within Europe. Works of dubious 'foreign' morals were particularly popular but even these were censored for content, such as homosexual references, which were not permitted in Victorian society. Most of the works chosen for translation helped confirm the stereotypes of the audiences with many more still untranslated. Few modern Arabic works have been translated into other languages.
However, towards the end of the twentieth century, there was an increase of translations of Arabic books into other languages, and Arabic authors began to receive acclaim. Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz has most if not all of his works translated after he won the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature. Several other writers, including Abdul Rahman Munif and Tayeb Salih have been taken quite seriously by Western scholars, and both Alaa Al Aswany's The Yacoubian Building and Rajaa al-Sanea's Girls of Riyadh attracted significant Western media attention in the first decade of the twenty-first century.
|Wikisource has the text of a 1905 New International Encyclopedia article about Arabic literature.|