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Arabic literature,literary works written in the Arabic language. The great body of Arabic literature includes works by Arabic speaking Turks, Persians, Syrians, Egyptians, Indians, Jews, and other Africans and Asians, as well as the Arabs themselves.
The first significant Arabic literature was produced during the medieval golden age of lyric poetry, from the 4th to the 7th cent. The poems are strongly personal qasida, or odes, often very short, with some longer than 100 lines. They treat the life of the tribe and themes of love, fighting, courage, and the chase. The poet speaks directly, not romantically, of nature and the power of God. The qasida survive only through collections, chiefly the MuallaqatMuallaqat
, Pre-Islamic Arabic anthology compiled by the scholar Hammad al Rawiya (d. c.775). comprised of poems that were written in gold letters and hung on the walls of the Kaaba in Mecca during annual fairs.
..... Click the link for more information. , HamasaHamasa
[Arab.,=valor], one of the great anthologies of Arabic literature. It was gathered together in the 9th cent. by Abu Tammam when he was snowbound in Hamadan, where he had access to an excellent library. There are 10 books of poems, classified by subject.
..... Click the link for more information. , MufaddaliyatMufaddaliyat
, great Arabic anthology compiled by the celebrated philologist Al Mufaddal ad-Dabbi (d. c.775). It contains 126 poems, some complete odes, others fragmentary.
..... Click the link for more information. , and Kitab al-AghaniKitab al-Aghani
[Arab.,=book of songs], collection of poems in many volumes compiled by Abu al-Faraj Ali of Esfahan. It contains poems from the oldest epoch of Arabic literature down to the 9th cent. The poems were put to music, but the musical signs are no longer readable.
..... Click the link for more information. . The most esteemed of these poets are Amru al-KaisAmru al-Kais
, fl. 6th cent., Arabic poet. His verse, like much of the poetry of the pre-Islamic period, is intensely subjective and stylistically perfect. He was esteemed by Arabs as the great model for erotic poetry.
..... Click the link for more information. , AntaraAntara
, fl. 600, Arab warrior and poet, celebrated in his own day as a hero because he rose from slave birth to be a tribal chief. His poetry is represented by one poem in the Muallaqat.
..... Click the link for more information. , and ZuhairZuhair
, fl. 6th cent., Arab poet. Zuhair is often considered the greatest writer of Arabic poetry in pre-Islamic times. His work is represented in the Muallaqat. Zuhair's poems deal with raids and other subjects of nomadic desert life. There are several European translations of his works.
..... Click the link for more information. .
With the advent of Islam, the Qur'anQur'an
[Arab.,=reading, recitation], the sacred book of Islam. Revealed by God to the Prophet Muhammad in separate revelations over the major portion of the Prophet's life at Mecca and at Medina, the Qur'an was intended as a recited text, and was not compiled
..... Click the link for more information. became the central work of study and recitation. Extra-Qur'anic poetry underwent a decline from which it recovered in a far different form. The Qur'an supplanted poetry by becoming the chief object of study of the Muslim world. Poetry regained some prestige under the Umayyads, when al-Akhtal (c.640–c.710) and al-Farazdaq (c.640–732) wrote their lyric works.
Under the Abbasids (750–1258), Hellenic, Syrian, Pahlavi, and Sanskrit works became available in translation, and the Arabic language further developed as a vehicle of science and philosophy. Among the pioneers of Arabic prose were Ibn al-Muqaffa, the translator of the Indian fables of Kalila wa Dimna, and al-Jahiz (d. 868), an influential figure in the establishment of the belles-lettres compendia (adab) as a dominant literary theme.
The next great period of Arabic literature was a result of the rise of the new Arabic-Persian culture of Baghdad, the new capital of the Abbasids, in the 8th and 9th cent. Philosophy, mathematics, law, Qur'anic interpretation and criticism, history, and science were cultivated, and the collections of early Arabic poetry were compiled during this period.
At the end of the 8th cent. in Baghdad a group of young poets arose who established a new court poetry. A prominent court poet was Abu NuwasAbu Nuwas
, c.750–c.810, Arab poet, b. Ahvaz, Persia. He spent most of his life in Baghdad. High in favor with the caliphs Harun ar-Rashid and Amin, he lived a courtier's life; his exquisite lyric poetry celebrated wine and the extravagance of this life.
..... Click the link for more information. . Asceticism, not yet developed into Sufism, evolved into a poetic genre with Abu al-Atahiya. Among the most popular of Arabic poets, Mutanabbi (915–65) wrote some of the most complex, and most eloquent, Arabic poems. The poet HaririHariri
(Abu Muhammad al-Kasim al-Hariri) , 1054–1122, Arab writer of Basra. His principal work is one of the most popular of Arabic books. It is called Makamat [literary assemblies], the name of a literary genre that was much affected at this time.
..... Click the link for more information. sought to combine "refinement with dignity of style, and brilliancies with jewels of eloquence." Abu al-Ala al-MaarriAbu al-Ala al-Maarri
, 973–1057, Arab freethinking poet. He was born and lived most of his life in Maara, S of Aleppo. He was blind from childhood. Brilliantly original, he became one of the literary reformers who discarded classicism for a modern intellectual urbanity.
..... Click the link for more information. was an outstanding Syrian poet of great originality. The greatest mystic poet of the age was Omar Ibn al-Faridh (1181–1235).
The influence of India and Persia is seen in Arabic prose romance, which became the principal literary form. The greatest collection is the Thousand and One NightsThousand and One Nights
or Arabian Nights,
series of anonymous stories in Arabic, considered as an entity to be among the classics of world literature. The cohesive plot device concerns the efforts of Scheherezade, or Sheherazade, to keep her husband, King Shahryar (or
..... Click the link for more information. . The major writers of historical and geographical works in Arabic include BukhariBukhari, Muhammad ibn Ismail, al-
(c.810–70), Arabic scholar, b. Bukhara. He traveled widely over Muslim regions and made an authoritative collection of the hadith, the traditional sayings of the Prophet.
..... Click the link for more information. , TabariTabari
(Abu Jafar Muhammad ibn Jarir at-Tabari) , c.839–c.923, Arab historian and commentator. The name Tabari was given him because he was born in Tabaristan, Persia. He traveled widely in Syria and Egypt, setting finally in Baghdad.
..... Click the link for more information. , MasudiMasudi, Abd al-Hasan Ali ibn al-Husayn
, d. 956, Arab historian, geographer, and philosopher, b. Baghdad. He traveled in Spain, Russia, India, Sri Lanka, and China and spent his last years in Syria and Egypt.
..... Click the link for more information. , Ibn KhaldunIbn Khaldun
, 1332–1406, Arab historian, b. Tunis. He held various offices under the rulers of Tunis and Morocco and served (1363) as ambassador of the Moorish king of Granada to Peter the Cruel of Castile.
..... Click the link for more information. , Ibn al-Athir (d. 1234), and Ibn BatutaIbn Batuta
, 1304?–1378?, Muslim traveler, b. Tangier. No other medieval traveler is known to have journeyed so extensively. In 30 years (from c.1325) he made a series of journeys recorded in a dictated account.
..... Click the link for more information. . The foremost Arab theologian was al-GhazaliGhazali, al-
, 1058–1111, Islamic theologian, philosopher, and mystic. He was born at Tus in Khorasan, of Persian origin. He is considered the greatest theologian in Islam.
..... Click the link for more information. ; AvicennaAvicenna
, Arabic Ibn Sina, 980–1037, Islamic philosopher and physician, of Persian origin, b. near Bukhara. He was the most renowned philosopher of medieval Islam and the most influential name in medicine from 1100 to 1500.
..... Click the link for more information. , the great physician, wrote on medicine. The central Asian scholar al-Faralsi, wrote fundamental works on philosophical and musical theory. In the field of belles-lettres, essays and epistles of great wit and erudition, known as risalas, were composed on subjects as diverse as science, mysticism, and politics. Chief practitioners of the genre include Ibn al-Muqaffa (d. 757), the unsurpassed al-Jahiz, and Ibn Qutayba (d. 889).
The Western center of Arab culture was Spain, especially Córdoba under the Umayyads. The Spanish Arabs produced fine poets and scholars, but they are less important than the great Spanish philosophers—AvempaceAvempace
, Arabic Ibn Bajja, d. 1138, Spanish-Arab philosopher. Little is known of his life, but he was born in Zaragoza and died in Fès, Morocco. Developing the tradition of Islamic Aristotelian-Neoplatonism begun in the east by al-Farabi, Avemplace was the first
..... Click the link for more information. , AverroësAverroës
, Arabic Ibn Rushd, 1126–98, Spanish-Arab philosopher. He was far more important and influential in Jewish and Christian thought than in Islam. He was a lawyer and physician of Córdoba and lived for some time in Morocco in favor with the caliphs.
..... Click the link for more information. , and Ibn TufaylIbn Tufayl
, d. 1185/86?, 12th-century Spanish-Arab philosopher and physician, b. near Granada. His chief work was a philosophical romance, Hayy ibn Yaqzan, describing the development of a hermit, who, after long seclusion on an island, attains knowledge of the divine.
..... Click the link for more information. . Their works became known in Europe chiefly through the Latin translations of Jewish scholars. Since 1200 in Spain and 1300 in the East, there has been little Arabic literature of wide interest.
During the 19th cent., printing in Arabic began in earnest, centered in Cairo, Beirut, and Damascus. Newspapers, encyclopedias, and books were published in which Arab writers tried to express, in Arabic, their sense of themselves and their place in the modern world. Simultaneously with a reaction against Western models in Arabic literature, the novel and the drama, forms never before used, developed. The first modern Arabic novel is generally recognized to be Zaynab (1912) by the Egyptian Muhammad Husayn Haykal. Arabic fiction was virtually unknown in the West, with fewer than five novels translated into English by the 1950s. Interest in modern Arabic literature increased after 1988 when the Egyptian novelist Naguib MahfouzMahfouz, Naguib
, 1911–2006, Egyptian novelist and short-story writer, b. Cairo. After his graduation (1934) from Cairo Univ., he worked in various government ministries until his retirement in 1971.
..... Click the link for more information. won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Other notable 20th- and 21st-century writers in Arabic include the novelists Abdelrahman Munif, Sonallah Ibrahim, Yahya Hakki, Ghassan Kanafani, Alaa Al AswanyAl Aswany, Alaa,
1957–, Egyptian author, b. Cairo. The son of a novelist-lawyer, he was trained as a dentist at Cairo Univ. (grad. 1980) and the Univ. of Illinois at Chicago (M.S., 1987) and has combined an active dental practice with a successful literary career.
..... Click the link for more information. , Elias Khoury, and Mahmoud Saeed and the short-story writers Mahmud Tymur and Yusuf Idris. Interest in Arabic fiction has been further stimulated by the establishment (2007) of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, an award aimed at securing recognition, readership, translation, and publication of outstanding contemporary Arabic fiction. Funded the the Emirates Foundation of Abu Dhabi, it is modeled after the Booker PrizeBooker Prize,
an award of £50,000 (originally £5,000) for the best novel of the year published in English in Great Britain; prior to 2014, it was only given to a British, Irish, or Commonwealth writer.
..... Click the link for more information. . Notable playwrights in Arabic include Ahmad Shawqi and Tawfiq al-Hakim; notable poets, Hafiz Ibrahim, Badr Shakir as-Sayyab, Nazik al-Malaika, Abdul Wahab al-Bayati, Nizar Qabbani, Mahmoud DarwishDarwish, Mahmoud,
1941–2008, widely considered the Palestinian national poet, b. Barwa, Palestine (now in Israel). He was born to middle-class Sunni Muslim farmers, who were displaced when soldiers from the newly formed state of Israel occupied (and later destroyed) his
..... Click the link for more information. , and AdonisAdonis
pen name of Ali Ahmad Said Esber, 1930–, Syrian poet and essayist, generally considered the Arab world's greatest living poet. He began writing poetry in the 1950s.
..... Click the link for more information. .
See H. A. Gibb, Arabic Literature: An Introduction (2d ed. 1963); A. J. Arberry, Modern Arabic Poetry (1950, repr. 1967); R. A. Nicholson, A Literary History of the Arabs (2d ed. 1969); J. A. Haywood, Modern Arabic Literature, 1800–1970 (1972); R. Allen, ed., Modern Arabic Literature (1987); J. Ashtiany, ed., Abbasid Belles Lettres (1989); F. Ajami, The Dream Palace of the Arabs (1998); D. Johnson-Davies, ed., The Anchor Book of Modern Arabic Fiction (2006).