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Arabic Language and Literature

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

    Arabic Language and Literature

    Arabic, which is the first language of about 181 million people today, ranks fifth worldwide in number of primary speakers. The spread of Arabic, which has influenced many languages and literatures in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, is closely linked to the spread of Islam. Arabic became the official language of the vast Islamic empire and was the universal language of learning during the early Middle Ages. Arabic is the language of the Qur'an and is still today the common language of worship for Muslims throughout the world. It is also, of course, the living language of the Arab peoples.


    Arabic, a language from the Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family, originated in the Arabian Peninsula as early as the 400s B.C.E. It remained a relatively localized language, however, until the spread of Islam in the 600s C.E. As Muslim armies conquered new territories, they brought their language with them. Inhabitants of the regions closest to Arabia whose languages were originally Semitic, as in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) and Syria, became Arabic speakers. So did those in Egypt and North Africa whose languages were originally Hamitic. In other regions, such as Persia (present-day Iran) and India, populations who became Muslim kept their original languages, but adopted many words from Arabic and often used the Arabic writing system.

    Arabic Language and Literature

    Characterized by its bold, angular script, scribes often used the Kufic style of Arabic writing in ornamental carvings on stone or metal. It rarely appeared in manuscripts, except for special copies of the Qur'an, as shown here.

    Werner Forman/Art Resource, NY

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    By the mid-700s, the Muslim empire reached from present-day Afghanistan through the Middle East into North Africa and Spain. While Persian became the dominant literary language in the eastern part of the empire, Arabic became the language of government, law, and religion throughout the western portions of the empire. It was also widely used in trade and commerce in these regions. The leading philosophers, historians, scientists, and physicians of the day wrote their books and treatises in Arabic. Muslim scholars also translated works from other cultures into Arabic. Among these were the works of Greek philosophers, including Plato and Aristotle , as well as writings in Sanskrit, Hebrew, and other languages. Indeed, many European scholars advanced their own learning by studying works written in Arabic. This was especially important in the late Middle Ages, when Arabic translations of these texts passed through Muslim Spain to western Europe and were thus preserved for future generations.

    System of Writing.

    Before the Muslim conquests, Arabic was primarily a spoken language with various local dialects, although a simple system of writing had developed, probably during the 300s. The earliest surviving example of Arabic writing dates from 512 , and is part of an inscription in three languages—Greek, Syriac, and Arabic. Early in the Muslim era, two different types of Arabic writing developed. The Kufic style, noted for its distinctive angular script, appeared in the late 600s. Especially well suited for writing or carving on stone and metal, scribes decorated the walls of mosques with elegantly handwritten religious inscriptions. Although Kufic writing was not often used on paper, it was used for precious manuscript copies of the Qur'an. Today, the Kufic style is obsolete. Modern Arabic writing derives from the naskhi style, which was a more cursive type of writing suitable for use on papyrus or paper.

    As in other Semitic writing systems, Arabic is written from right to left. The Arabic alphabet, which probably derives from Aramaic and Nabataean scripts, contains 28 consonants. The letters alif, waw, and ya represent the long vowels a, u, and i. The shapes of letters depend on whether they are placed at the beginning, middle, or end of a word. Another form is used for each letter when it is written alone. After the Latin alphabet, the Arabic script is the most widely used writing system in the world. It has been adapted to such diverse languages as Persian, Turkish, Spanish, Hebrew, Urdu, Berber, Malay, and Swahili.

    Classical Arabic.

    Because so many diverse peoples adopted Arabic after the Muslim conquest, the spoken language evolved rapidly. Dialects differed significantly from place to place. Concerned that Arabic might shift too far away from the original language of the Qur'an, scholars in Basra (in present-day Iraq) in the 700s, began to codify the language. They studied the pure Arabic that had originated with the tribes in the Arabian desert and worked out the derivations from root words, compiled vocabularies, and established grammatical rules for the language. The scholar Sibawayh used this information to create a comprehensive work of Arabic grammar. Around the same time, scholars compiled Arabic dictionaries. These works helped to establish what is considered classical or pure Arabic.

    Although Arab countries today retain distinctive spoken dialects, they conduct formal spoken and written communication in modern standard Arabic. Based on classical Arabic, this language has added words and phrases that reflect adaptations to the modern age. In some cases, modern standard Arabic has borrowed from Western languages to create words relating to new technologies, such as tilifun (telephone) and tilifizyun (television). Often, however, Arabs today have used existing Arabic roots to form new words. For example, the word thallajah, which means “refrigerator,” comes from the noun thalj (snow, ice). The word matar (airport) derives from the verb tara (to fly).

    In general, modern standard Arabic has kept the basic characteristics of classical Arabic. Though some reformers have suggested that Arabic speakers should modify the Arabic script or use the Latin alphabet, in which En-glish and other Western languages are written, this idea has met with great resistance. Arabs wish to maintain their cultural unity by preserving the language of the Qur'an and all the Islamic culture that has flowed from it.


    The first book written in Arabic was the Qur'an. Because Muslim scholars had worked to preserve the original language of that sacred work, they played a central role in the development of Arabic literature. Scholars in the 700s, beginning to research the origins of the language, wrote down the oral traditions of the Arab tribes. These included poems as well as stories of the Prophet Muhammad and the early Muslim leaders. In this way, the classical poetry of the desert was preserved.

    This poetry began in pre-Islamic times, when Bedouin poets served as oracles for their tribes. The predominant poetic form was the qasidah, or ode. A poet discovering traces of an abandoned camp might be inspired to compose an ode about it. Poetry was always highly valued by Arab peoples, and both men and women composed poems in the pre-Islamic period. For example, al-Khansa's poems commemorating her deceased brother have become part of the rich Arabic literary heritage.

    Classical Period.

    With the rise of Islam, the Qur'an became a model for poetic style. Its rich imagery and repeated rhythmic patterns, as well as its religious message, influenced Arabic literary traditions. At the same time, the styles and ideas from the diverse cultures that were incorporated into the Muslim empire also enriched Arabic literature. By the late 700s, al-Khalil, the creator of the first Arabic dictionary, had codified a detailed metrical system for Arabic poetry. The panegyric became a highly refined art form, as did the ghazal, or shorter ode. In the 800s, the works of poets Abu Tammam (died 845 ) and al-Buhturi (died 897 ) became well known, as did the works of the more satirical Abu Nuwas (died 815 ). The most important poets of the following two centuries were al-Mutanabbi (died 965 ) and Abu al-Ala al-Ma'arri (died 1057 ). Sufi poets from this period used images of intoxication, as with wine or romantic love, to describe the ecstasy of religious experience.

    In addition to traditional poetry, new literary forms emerged during the classical period. Among these was the adab, a short narrative meant to both teach and entertain. Writers used many types of stock characters, ranging from rulers and judges to misers and party-crashers. The adab might include verses from the Qur'an, hadith, and poetry, and often contained adaptations from Persian and Indian traditions as well. Indeed, Persian literature became a significant influence in Arabic writing. The master of the adab was al-Jahiz (died 869 ), whose Book of Misers blends Persian and Arabic elements. Another literary form that emerged this period was the maqamah, invented by Badi al-Zaman al-Hamadhani (died 1008 ). The maqamah was a rhymed prose form featuring a roguish hero who uses his wits to outsmart his rivals. This form was popular in Andalusia (Islamic Spain), where author Ali ibn Hazm (died 1064 ) wrote his treatise on the psychology of love, The Dove's Neckring. The theme of courtly love frequently appeared in Andalusian literature, and has often been linked to the rise of the troubadours. The Maqamat of al-Hariri (died 1122 ), one of the most impressive examples of the form, became a model for writers in the 1800s who were eager to reenergize Arabic literature.

    Mystical works from this period include the great allegory, Alive Son of Awake, by Ibn Tufayl (died 1185 or 1186 ). In this masterpiece of the Arabic-Islamic philosophical tradition, an abandoned infant grows up alone on an island and discovers science and mysticism on his own. He meets another young man seeking shelter from society, and after an unsuccessful attempt to correct societal problems, the two live happily on their island.

    Writers also began to experiment with the autobiographical form during this time. The Deliverer from Error by Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (died 1111 ) recounts a spiritual quest and has been compared to the autobiography of St. Augustine, an early Christian philosopher. More common, however, were accounts of adventurous lives, such as that of warrior Usamah ibn Munqidh, whose writings describe the fighting between Arab and Christian armies during the Crusades.

    Letter writing, secretarial correspondence, and works of history and philosophy flourished in the classical period. Arabic writers developed a literary tradition that emphasized formal and technical skill in the creation of intricate patterns of rhymed prose. Stylistic experimentation and thematic novelty were not considered desirable qualities.

    Perhaps the best-known work from classical Arabic literature is The Thousand and One Nights. This work includes stories that were collected over several centuries. Its framing narrative explains how King Shahryar has each of his wives killed before they can fall out of love with him. His new bride, Shahrazad, is able to postpone her own death each day by promising to tell her husband a new tale that night. Among these tales of adventure, fantasy, magic, and romance are the well known “Voyage of Sinbad,” “Aladdin and the Magic Lamp,” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.” Readers throughout the world have enjoyed the book's tales of flying carpets, hidden treasures, and spirits who grant wishes. Many of the story cycles from The Thousand and One Nights reappear in updated form in Arabic literature of the twentieth century.

    Modern Era.

    In the 1800s, as the Arab empire declined and European powers took control of Muslim territories, Islamic writers reacted to European influences in several ways. Writers such as Muhammad al-Muwaylihi (died 1930 ), Ahmad Shawqi (died 1932 ) and Hafiz Ibrahim (died 1932 ) used the maqamah form to express their opinions on social issues. Free verse developed in Arabic poetry and came to dominate it in the works of the poets Salah Abd al-Sabur (died 1981 ), Adonis , Mahmud Darwish , and Ahmad Abd al-Mu'ti Hijazi . Drama appeared as an independent form. One of the central works of Arabic literature from this period is The Days, the autobiography of Egyptian scholar and writer Taha Husayn (died 1973 ). The book recounts how Husayn, a blind boy, overcame social and educational barriers, studied in France, and became a professor at the modern university in Cairo. The book is admired for the drama of its story and for its descriptions of cultural differences between Arab and Western cultures.

    The first Arabic novel, Zaynab, was written by Egyptian writer Muhammad Husayn Haykal and published in 1913 . The author's reading of French literature from the 1800s inspired this highly romantic work. Naguib Mahfouz (born 1911 ), a native of Cairo, began his career in journalism and also wrote historical novels, but soon he turned to writing works with modern Egyptian themes. The novellas in his Cairo Trilogy follow three generations of an Egyptian family in the early twentieth century and explore issues of social change. His more recent fiction criticizes the old Egyptian monarchy, British colonialism, attitudes toward women and family, and social class. Many of Mahfouz's characters search in vain for an absent father figure—a symbol for the god who seems to no longer exist in their lives. Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1988 , Mahfouz is the first Arabic writer to achieve this honor.

    Another Egyptian writer, Nawal al-Sadawi (born 1931 ), has received both censure and acclaim for her harsh criticism of the position of women in Arab society. A physician, al-Sadawi has written both fiction and nonfiction. Her first book to be translated into English, The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World, begins with a description of how, at age six, she was taken out of her bed in the middle of the night and brought to the bathroom. There, with no anesthesia, she was subjected to ritual female circumcision, in which a part of her sex organs was removed. Later, as a doctor, al-Sadawi saw how such experiences had physically and emotionally scarred many women in the Muslim world. Her novel, The Circling Song, is also about the physical and political degradation of women. For her strong advocacy of women's rights, al-Sadawi served a two-month prison term in 1981 . She received death threats from religious extremists after the publication of her novel Fall of the Imam, which satirizes political hypocrisy.

    In recent decades, postmodern elements have made their way into Arabic novels. Contemporary Muslim writers have responded to this development by returning to classical traditions and redefining them for a new audience. Among these experimental writers is Egyptian novelist Jamal al-Ghitani , who draws on the rich Arab-Islamic textual heritage, including historical, biographical, and mystical writings, to create contemporary narratives. Palestinian writer Emile Habibi and Tunisian writer al-Misadi have also received praise for their similarly innovative approaches to fiction.

    Another recent development is the return to morally instructive literature. Works such as Days from My Life, which describes the imprisonment and torture of Egyptian political activist and author Zaynab al-Ghazali in the 1960s, and the books of Iraqi writer Bint al-Huda convey the author's views of proper behavior for Muslim women. According to Bint al-Huda (a woman), Muslim women should reject Western values, embrace domestic life, and wear the veil in public, but not be subservient to men. They should even bear arms if the Islamic mission requires it.

    Overtly political themes also dominate the work of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (born 1942 ). His poems, influenced by the work of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca , as well as Marxist theory, deal with the anger and pain of the Palestinian people under Israeli occupation. The Israeli government imprisoned Darwish after the publication of each of his books and also placed him under house arrest between his jail sentences. While his early work is descriptive, his later poems communicate a more sophisticated understanding of political realities. Many of these later works criticize Arab regimes and describe their failure to deal effectively with the Arab-Israeli conflict.

    Today Arabic literature is a major cultural force in the Middle East, both in its secular and religious forms. Through its relations with other contemporary literary traditions, especially Western ones, Arabic literature is part of an emerging world literary culture. At the same time, it acknowledges its own unique Arab and Islamic heritage. See also Literature; Qur'an; Women and Reform.

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