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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century


    Throughout the Islamic world, literature has always been held in high esteem. The Islamic world did not produce prose in the forms familiar in the West—novels, short stories, and dramas—until modern times. Instead, Muslim writers commonly used poetry, essays, and anecdotes to communicate their ideas.

    As the Muslim empire spread across the Middle East into Asia and across North Africa into Spain, it incorporated diverse groups of people. The literary traditions of these groups, many of which were based on ancient cultures and languages, became part of the rich body of Islamic literature. This entry covers Persian, Turkish, Urdu, and African literature as well as contemporary Muslim works.

    Persian Literature

    With the expansion of the Muslim empire, Arabic became the dominant literary language in many areas. Over time, however, local languages regained favor as the medium of artistic expression. This was especially true in Persia (present-day Iran), whose literary tradition has influenced many surrounding regions. Outside of Iran, Persian literature has come from Afghanistan, the Indian subcontinent, Central Asia, and Turkey.

    Poetic Forms.

    Some of the most important verse forms associated with Arabic poetry originated in Persia. These include the masnavi or mathnawi (a rhyming couplet) and the roba'i or ruba'i, a type of quatrain (four-line verse). Poets used the masnavi to compose very long stories with thousands of verses, including romances, legends, and histories. The best-known example of the ruba'i is The Rubaiyat of Umar Khayyam (died ca. 1129 ).

    Persian literature also adapted Arabic literary forms. The qasidah, which comes from pre-Islamic Arabia, became the chief poetic form in Persian works. The qasidah consists of 20 to 100 verses and maintains a single end rhyme through the entire piece. This type of poem begins with a brief introduction, usually about love, which is followed by the description of a journey. Poets end a qasidah by praising their patron, tribe, or themselves. The ghazal, a love poem of 5 to 12 verses, probably originated as an extended version of the opening portion of the qasidah.

    Regional Muslim rulers, such as the Samanids ( 819 – 1005 ), the Ghaznavids ( 977 – 1186 ), and the Seljuks ( 1038 – 1194 ), often sponsored the work of Persian poets, whose panegyrics helped to legitimize Islamic regimes. Persian court poets did not create works as a means of expressing personal experience or original insights. Rather, they used poetry as a way of demonstrating their skill at handling familiar subjects and forms.

    Rudaki (died 940 ), a poet of the Samanid court, is considered the father of the new type of Persian poetry that emerged after the spread of Islam. Daqiqi (died ca. 980 ) is another major poet of this period, one who excelled in describing events from daily life. In fact, Daqiqi was the first poet to attempt a verse adaptation of the Shahnameh (Book of Kings), the epic history of Persia's kings from mythical times to the reign of Khosrow II ( 590 – 628 ) and the overthrow of the Sassanians by Arab forces. Daqiqi completed only 1,000 verses, though, before his violent death. Firdawsi ( ca. 935 – 1020 ), considered the greatest of the Persian poets, incorporated Daqiqi's work into his own version of Shahnameh, which he completed in 1010 . This poem, which contains almost 60,000 verses in short rhyming couplets, remains one of the most celebrated works of Persian literature. Anvari ( 1116 – 1189 ) earned particular renown for panegyrics in the qasidah form. His Tears of Khorasan laments the destruction of Khorasan (largely in northeastern Persia) by invaders and the fading glory of the Seljuk dynasty.

    Poets in the Azerbaijan region favored the themes of courtly romance. In their works, heroes are consumed by thoughts of physical passion but channel their love into the worship of an ideal but unattainable woman. A common motif involves the unfulfilled lover whose only comfort is wine. Nizami (died 1209 ) is considered the most important poet of this genre. His famous Khamsah (Quintet) includes the story of Majnun, whose intense desire for the unattainable Layla drives him mad. Nizami's work introduced everyday language into the elevated tradition of Persian poetry. One of the greatest Persian-language poet in India was Amir Khosrow ( 1253 – 1325 ). Sometimes called “the parrot of India,” he wrote numerous works, including five long poems in the style of Nizami.

    Devotional Poetry.

    Beginning in the 900s and 1000s, Sufi poets wrote works expressing their longing for divine inspiration and connection. They used the imagery of secular love poetry, including wine and drinking, to convey their love of God. During the early 1200s, Muslims developed the first major genre to focus on religious devotion. The mawlud, a poem recited on the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, usually depicts the marvelous events that surrounded the birth of the last messenger of God. A mawlud may also describe the miracles or special qualities of the Prophet. In addition to the mawlud, devotional poetry can take the form of a narrative ballad that recounts the acts of Muhammad, the first four caliphs, or Sufi saints.

    The most renowned Persian mystic poet is Jalal al-Din Rumi ( 1207 – 1273 ). Rumi wrote more than 70,000 verses of poetry, using ordinary language to convey God's presence in all of creation. His six-volume masterpiece, Masnavi, includes spiritual exclamations, stories, and parables. This work gained enormous popularity in the Persian- and Turkish-speaking world, and it has been widely translated. Sufis sometimes refer to the Masnavi as the “Qur'an in Persian.”


    Persian culture also introduced prose to the Islamic artistic tradition. Adab literature, usually short narrative works meant to both teach and entertain, originated in Persia. Writers used many types of stock characters, ranging from rulers and judges to misers and party-crashers. A work of adab might include verses from the Qur'an, poetry, or passages from the hadith. The master of adab literature was al-Jahiz (died 869 ), whose Book of Misers blends Persian and Arabic elements.

    In addition to romances, myths, and fables, Persian prose included histories, commentaries on the Qur'an, legal texts, and scientific works. Al-Biruni ( 973 – 1048 ), a distinguished scholar, knew Hebrew, Turkish, Sanskrit, Persian, and Syriac as well as Arabic. He wrote works of history, astrology, and astronomy. Umar Khayyam , best known for his poetry, was also a scientist and mathematician. He wrote works of philosophy, law, history, medicine, astronomy, and mathematics, but few of his prose works have survived.

    Turkish Literature

    Throughout history, speakers of Turkic languages have inhabited the lands from present-day Mongolia to the north coast of the Black Sea, the Balkans, eastern Europe, Anatolia, Iraq, and part of North Africa. Pre-Islamic Turkish literature developed as an oral tradition and dealt primarily with such themes as nature and natural disasters, historical legends, war, heroes, and love.

    After the Turks began to convert to Islam during the early 900s, Turkish writers incorporated Arabic and Persian elements into their work. Even so, some early works from this period emphasize the distinctiveness of the Turkish language. The Kutadgu Bilig, written by Yusuf Has Hacib during the 1000s, presents views on religion, politics, and education. Written almost entirely in Turkish, the book contains very few Arabic or Persian terms. Similarly, Kasgarli Mahmud created Divan-i Lugat-it Turk (The Dictionary of Turkish Languages) to prove that the Turkish language was the literary equal of Arabic. The book includes 7,500 words from different Turkish dialects, gleaned from ancient legends and poems.

    Select Audience.

    From the 1000s to the mid-1800s, Turkish literature developed along two different paths. Divan literature, which relied heavily on Persian and Arabic influences and used complicated language, was popular among the members of the educated upper class. Folk literature, by contrast, addressed the concerns and interests of the common people.

    Divan literature is considered the most important literary contribution of the Ottoman period ( ca. 1300 – 1918 ). The writers of this genre produced mostly poems but also wrote histories, letters, and travel books. Fuzuli ( ca. 1495 – 1556 ) is the best-known Divan poet. Dehhani , Kadi Burhaneddin , Nesimi , and Ahmedi were the earliest masters of this literary form.

    Beginning in the 1400s, elements of Persian poetry became evident in Divan literature. Mevlut, a religious poem written by Suleyman Celebi , is a well-recognized example of this period. During the 1500s, the Ottoman capital of Istanbul became a celebrated cultural center that attracted large numbers of visitors and immigrants. The influx of foreigners not only enriched the Turkish literary tradition, but also eventually transformed Turkish into the Ottoman language, which was more complex and difficult to understand.

    By the 1700s, Divan poetry began to adopt more elements of common language and experience, increasing its appeal among the Turkish masses. The poet Nedim, the most celebrated Divan writer of this period, produced works that expressed the poetic elements of daily experience. Prose works, too, sought a simpler language. In practice, however, this language differed considerably from regular speech. By the 1800s, the influence of Western culture had seriously weakened the Divan tradition, which was gradually replaced by modern Turkish literature.

    Wide Appeal.

    The folk literary tradition reflected the influence of Islam, especially the mystic philosophy of the Anatolian Sufis. Folk literature relied on pre-Islamic literary elements, simple Turkish language, and sometimes, musical accompaniment. Important folk works include the Dede Korkut Stories, believed to have originated with the minstrel (singer of verses) Dede Korkut . The twelve stories in this collection refer to the early years of Islam in Turkey. They include elements of Muslim and shamanistic beliefs, as well as references from ancient Turkish legends and Greek mythology.

    The folk tradition also produced religious works, known as Tasavvufi (Sufi) folk literature. The mystic poet Yunus Emre, who lived during the 1200s, is considered the most important writer in this tradition.

    Urdu Literature

    By the 1000s, northwestern India and the region that is now Pakistan had experienced a flowering of Islamic literature in the Persian language. However, in the military camps, Urdu developed as a new language that combined elements of Persian with Hindi, a northern Indian language. Early works of poetry and prose in Urdu drew heavily from Persian sources and models. Mirza Ghalib ( 1797 – 1869 ), considered the greatest Indian poet of his period, wrote in Urdu as well as in Persian. Ghalib specialized in ghazal, masnavi, and qasidah. His work questions the hardships of the physical world, but acknowledges the absolute power of God in all creation. Ghalib became poet laureate of India's last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah II , in 1850 .

    During the 1800s and 1900s, Muslim writers from the Indian subcontinent produced a wide range of works dealing with Islamic themes. Many advocated socio-political reform in response to their loss of power to Great Britain and to a perceived sense of spiritual and religious decline within the Islamic community. In 1879 Altaf Husayn Hali published the Musaddas, an epic poem that contrasts the past achievements of Islamic civilization with its status under colonial rule. The poem introduced a new stage in the history of Urdu poetry in which the themes of revivalism and political romanticism dominated. Reformist writer Nazir Ahmad (died 1912 ) was a pioneer in the development of the Urdu novel. His most famous book, Mir'at al-arus (The Bride's Mirror), focuses on the plight of women in Muslim society.

    The events leading up to the establishment of Pakistan as a separate Islamic state also influenced Urdu literature. The work of poet and political writer Muhammad Iqbal (died 1938 ), who was known as the spiritual founder of Pakistan, had a profound impact on the Muslim community. Iqbal wrote in a direct style that appealed to Indian Muslims. Among his major poems in Urdu are Shikva (The Complaint), Javab-i shikva (Answer to the Complaint), and the collection entitled Bang-i dara (The Call of the Caravan Bell).

    African Literature

    When Islam spread through North Africa during the mid- to late 600s, the region became Islamized and Arabized—that is, the local peoples of the area adopted the Arab language and customs. North Africa produced several important literary figures. Arab geographer al-Idrisi ( 1100 –ca. 1165 ) wrote a travel book titled The Delight of Him Who Wishes to Traverse the Regions of the World. The Egyptian poet Sharaf ud-Din al-Busiri (died 1296 ) composed two long poems in praise of the Prophet Muhammad, the Burdah and the Hamziyah, which became famous throughout Africa and are still recited. Ibn Battutah ( 1304 –ca. 1368 ) explored India and other parts of Asia as well as the Niger region of Africa. Scholars believe that he visited almost every Muslim country of his time, covering some 75,000 miles. In 1353 he arrived in Morocco, and at the request of the sultan, he recounted his adventures to a scribe. The resulting work, Rihla (Travels), describes the people, places, and events of his journeys. Rihla provides important geographical and historical information about the medieval Muslim world.

    Arab and Persian traders and missionaries brought Islam to East Africa beginning in the 700s. As the native Bantu people mixed with the Muslim population, they incorporated numerous Arabic and Persian words into their language. Eventually, a distinctive language and culture known as Swahili emerged. Swahili literature, which dates to the early 1700s, became one of the first traditions in equatorial Africa to develop the epic. It also developed devotional forms, especially for Muslim sung worship. In addition, Swahili literature produced scholarly works of history, law, theology, and ethics.

    Modern Trends

    In the modern era, literature from the Islamic world has adapted to deal with new genres and themes. Fiction became prominent during the 1800s and 1900s, and writers began to use the novel to explore broad social themes such as urbanization, nationalism, migration, and women's rights. Other genres, such as drama and screenplays, also appealed to Muslim writers.

    Muslim writers in Western countries, such as the United States and Great Britain, have attracted considerable literary attention. Contemporary Arab American poets write in a wide array of voices and styles and deal with such themes as cultural identity and immigrant status. Samuel Hazo , a poet of Lebanese and Syrian ancestry, founded the International Poetry Forum in 1966 , and in 1993 , he became the State Poet of Pennsylvania. Younger Arab American poets compete in poetry “slams” and have even experimented with rap forms. In 1999 the first Arab American Writers Conference, held in Chicago, drew a wide range of literary figures.

    Salman Rushdie , a native of India who moved to Great Britain and then to the United States, has earned both acclaim and harsh criticism for novels with political themes, such as Midnight's Children. In 1988 Rushdie published The Satanic Verses, a novel that recounts the adventures of characters representing the Prophet Muhammad and his family. Denounced as a parody and blasphemy by the Islamic community, the novel led the Ayatollah Khomeini to issue a fatwa calling for Rushdie's assassination. Hanif Kureishi , a native of Great Britain, has written short stories, screenplays, and novels that deal with the challenges of the British Asian community. His short story “My Son the Fanatic,” which concerns the conflict between a secular immigrant and his ultra-conservative Muslim son, was adapted as a critically acclaimed film. See also Arabic Language and Literature; Iqbal, Muhammad; Khayyam, Umar; Rumi ; Rushdie, Salman; Sufism.

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