Arabic Literature Through the Ages



9 Questions

What is the meaning of the Arabic word 'Adab' used for literature?

When did Arabic literature emerge?

Which work is widely regarded as the finest piece of literature in the Arabic language?

What is Jahili literature?

When was al-Qarawiyiin University founded?

What was the Nahda period in Arabic literature?

Who are the Romantic poets in Arabic literature?

What is the One Thousand and One Nights?

Who were the pioneers of the philosophical novel in Arabic literature?


History of Written Literature in Arabic Language

  • Arabic literature is the writing, both as 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, had the greatest lasting effect on Arab culture and its literature.

  • Arabic literature flourished during the Islamic Golden Age, but has remained vibrant to the present day.

  • Jahili literature is the literature of the pre-Islamic period referred to as al-Jahiliyyah, or "the time of ignorance".

  • The Qur'an had a significant influence on the Arabic language and marked the beginning of Islamic literature.

  • The Abbasid period is generally recognized as the beginning of the Islamic Golden Age and was a time of significant literary production.

  • Andalusi literature was produced in Al-Andalus, or Islamic Iberia, from its Muslim conquest in 711 to either the Catholic conquest of Granada in 1492 or the Expulsion of the Moors ending in 1614.

  • Fatima al-Fihri founded al-Qarawiyiin University in Fes in 859, recognized as the first university in the world.

  • 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".

  • The revival was a strand of neoclassicism in the Nahda, particularly among writers who believed in the reanimation of Arabic literary heritage and tradition.Arabic Literature: From the Nahda to the Present

  • Translation of foreign literature was a significant element of the Nahda period, with Rifa'a al-Tahtawi and Jabra Ibrahim Jabra being important translators of the 19th and 20th centuries, respectively.

  • The Nahda cultural renaissance was mainly felt in cities in Syria, Egypt, and Lebanon until the 20th century when it spread to other countries in the region, with a growing interest in translating Arabic works into European languages.

  • The use of Arabic language was revived, particularly in poetry, and many of the ornate and complicated tropes of previous literature were dropped during the Nahda.

  • The next generation of poets, the Romantic poets, felt constrained by the neoclassical traditions of the previous generation and began to absorb the impact of developments in Western poetry to a far greater extent.

  • The Mahjari poets were emigrants who mostly wrote in the Americas and began to experiment further with the possibilities of Arabic poetry.

  • Prominent poets of the Nahda were Nasif al-Yaziji, Ahmad Shawqi, Hafiz Ibrahim, Jamil Sidqi al-Zahawi, Maruf al Rusafi, Fawzi al-Ma'luf, and Khalil Mutran.

  • In prose, notable figures of the Nahda were Rifa'a al-Tahtawi, Butrus al-Bustani, Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, Adib Ishaq, Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad Abduh, Ibrahim al-Yaziji, and Mustafa Lutfi al-Manfaluti.

  • The Arabic novel became one of the most important forms of expression in Arabic literature in the late 19th century, with the rise of an efendiyya class giving way to new forms of literary expression.

  • The modern Arabic novel has its roots in a deliberate departure from the traditionalist language and aesthetics of classical adab, and two distinct trends can be found in the Nahda period of revival: a neo-classical movement and a modernist movement.

  • The emotionalism of early 20th-century writers such as Mustafa Lutfi al-Manfaluti and Kahlil Gibran equated the novel as a literary form with imported Western ideas and "shallow sentimentalism."

  • Throughout the 20th century, Arabic writers in poetry, prose, and theater plays have reflected the changing political and social climate of the Arab world.

  • Poetry retains a very important status in the Arab world, with Mahmoud Darwish regarded as the Palestinian national poet and Nizar Qabbani regarded as a cultural icon.

  • Classical Arabic literature consisted of a large proportion of poetry before the 20th century, with themes ranging from high-flown hymns of praise to bitter personal attacks and from religious and mystical ideas to poems on women and wine.Overview of Arabic Literature

  • The best-known works of early Arabic literature are the biographies of the Prophet Muhammad, which also cover the battles and events of early Islam and have numerous digressions on older biblical traditions.

  • Some of the earliest works studying the Arabic language were started in the name of Islam, including the first dictionary of Arabic, Kitab al-Ayn, and al-Kitab, the most respected work of Arabic grammar.

  • Institutions set up to investigate the Islamic religion were invaluable in studying many other subjects, with scholars translating works into Arabic, including Aristotle's correspondence with Alexander the Great and the animal fables of the Panchatantra.

  • More medieval cookbooks have survived into the present day written in Arabic than in any other language, with classical Arabic culinary literature comprised of not only cookbooks but also works of scholarship and descriptions of contemporary foods found in fictional and legendary tales.

  • One of the most common forms of literature during the Abbasid period was the compilation, with collections of facts, ideas, instructive stories, and poems on a single topic, often 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.

  • The most famous example of Arabic fiction is the One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of short stories or episodes strung together into a long tale, easily the best-known work of all Arabic literature and still affecting many of the ideas non-Arabs have about Arabic culture.

  • 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.

  • Love literature is prominent in Arabic literature, including the tragic story of undying love Layla and Majnun, part of the platonic Love genre, and many of the tales in the One Thousand and One Nights, which involve romantic love as a central theme.

  • Several elements of courtly love 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.Overview of Arabic Literature

  • The concept of "love as desire never to be fulfilled" was developed in the early 11th century by Ibn Sina in his Arabic treatise Risala fi'l-Ishq (A Treatise on Love).

  • The earliest known example of a whodunit murder mystery was "The Three Apples", one of the tales narrated by Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights).

  • Satire was introduced into prose literature by the author al-Jahiz in the 9th century, who used a satirical approach to deal with serious topics in anthropology, sociology, and psychology.

  • Puppet theatre and live passion plays known as ta'ziya were popular in the medieval Islamic world, while live theatre and drama has only been a visible part of Arabic literature in the modern era.

  • Ibn Tufail and Ibn al-Nafis were pioneers of the philosophical novel as they wrote the earliest novels dealing with philosophical fiction.

  • The earliest known science fiction novel was The Treatise of Kamil on the Prophet's Biography by Ibn al-Nafis, which dealt with various science fiction elements such as spontaneous generation, futurology, and doomsday, among others.

  • There is a growing number of literary works written in Arabic for young readers, with the Young Readers series of the New York University Press’s Library of Arabic Literature (LAL) offering contemporary and classical texts.

  • Women's literature in Arabic has been relatively little researched and features relatively little in most Arabic-language education systems.


How much do you know about the history of written literature in the Arabic language? Test your knowledge with this quiz! From the emergence of Arabic literature in the 5th century to the modern Arabic novel, explore the significant literary works, movements, and figures that have shaped Arabic literature. Discover the impact of the Qur'an, the Islamic Golden Age, and the Nahda cultural renaissance on Arabic literature, and learn about the diverse genres, themes, and styles that have characterized Arabic literature throughout history.

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