History of Arabic Literature


What we know about the origins of the Arabic literary tradition comes about because of the revelation of the Qur’an to Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, beginning in the late 7th century and the subsequent process of recording the oral pronouncements in written form. The need to interpret the resulting text demanded a knowledge of the origins of the Arabic language and the recording of examples of Arabic that preceded the revelations. The most significant literary forms of expression from this pre-Islamic era, known in Arabic as “al-jahiliyyah” (the period of ignorance), were an elaborate, orally transmitted corpus of poetry, passed down from one generation to another by bards, and highly prized within the tribal environment of the Arabian peninsula.


The earliest examples of Arabic poetry that are available to us today were recorded in writing after the revelation of the Qur’an, but they belong to a tradition of orally performed and transmitted poetry that goes back several centuries; by the very nature of the transfer process—from one poet and bard to the next generation, we have no way of dating the origins of the tradition. The primary context of those poets and their poetry is the desert environment and the tribes who tended their animals there—prime amongst them, camels and horses. The poems, still prized by Arabs today as the major jewels of their literary heritage, are thus full of imagery of the desert—sand, wind, the occasional rain-cloud—and celebrate companionship and tribal solidarity while acknowledging the dangers of desert life and the need for sterling qualities to confront them.

The poets, duly trained to serve as tribal propagandists, recited odes in praise of their tribe and its leaders; they elegized those who had died in battle; and they scoffed at their enemies in cutting lampoons. When tribes met for annual celebrations, there would inevitably be poetic jousts, adjudicated by discriminating audiences made up of the tribesmen themselves and their poets. Most notable among these very early poems in Arabic are the seven (or in some collections, ten) “Mu`allaqat,” polythematic poems celebrating tribal values that were recognized for their length and the authenticity of their vision regarding the tribal life of the desert.

This poetic tradition carries over into the Islamic period (beginning in the year 622 CE), and during the turbulent early decades of the Islamic era. With disputes arising between different groups, many of the purposes and features of the pre-Islamic period continued.

It was the spread of Islam to other regions and cultures that led to changes in purpose, content and form. Themes from the earlier poetry—love (ghazal), hunting, wine, and asceticism—now began to be treated as themes for separate categories of poetry, to be placed alongside the continuing tradition of praise poetry (panegyric) addressed to rulers and patrons, who would increasingly be found at the courts of major Islamic cities: Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, Fez and Cordoba, for example.

This rapid spread of Islam brought the traditions of Arabic literature into contact with other cultures and their literatures; the inevitable consequence of such contacts was a whole series of cultural confrontations and adaptations known in Arabic as the “Shu`ubiyyah,” whereby poets from different cultures asserted the superiority of their traditions and then set about fusing them into a new and dynamic esthetic and critical environment. In that they were much aided by both the advent of paper to the region in the ninth century and the vigorous intellectual community that was fostered by the various disciplines of Islamic studies. The result was a whole series of major poets: Abu Nuwas (d. 813), Al-Buhturi (d. 897), Abu Tammam (d. 845), Ibn al-Mu`tazz (d. 908), Al-Mutanabbi (d. 965) and Al-Ma`arri (d. 1057), to name just a few of the more famous names from the Eastern tradition, to which we need to add Ibn Hazm (d. 1064), Ibn Zaydun (d. 1070) and Ibn Khafaja (d. 1138) from the Andalusian tradition in Spain, where a separate tradition of strophic verse forms also developed and gradually made its way eastward over the course of the ensuing centuries.

This poetic tradition continued, with little variation, for several centuries, and poets continued to be patronized by the rulers of the various dynasties across the Arabic-speaking region. One strand of poetry that was especially vigorous during the period between the 13th and 18th centuries, besides the panegyric dedicated to rulers, was focused on Sufism (Islamic mysticism), with its invocation of the vocabulary of wine and love poetry as a means of expressing the quest for a state of oblivion (Arabic, fana’) through which the believer could aspire to a knowledge of the transcendent.

It was during the 19th and early 20th century that this Arabic poetic heritage, in all its variety, came into contact with the Western cultural tradition of poetry. The first signs of real change occurred outside the Arab world, in the Americas, both North and South, the so-called “émigré” (mahjar) school. Prime amongst the Arab poets involved were Amin al-Rihani (d. 1940), Khalil Jubran (d. 1932), Mikha’il Nu`aymah (d. 1989) and Ilya Abu Madi (d. 1957) in North American, and Fawzi Ma`luf (d. 1930) and Ilyas Farhat (d. 1976) in the South. When the full force of romanticism took hold in the Arabic-speaking world, the primary poets were: the Tunisian Abu al-Qasim al-Shabbi (d. 1934), the Lebanese Ilyas Abu Shabaka (d. 1947), the Egyptians Ibrahim Naji (d. 1953) and `Ali Mahmud Taha (d. d. 1949) and the Sudanese Al-Tijani Bashir (d. 1937).

The aftermath of the Second World War brought tremendous changes to the Arabic-speaking world, and many countries achieved independence in the following decade (the 1950s). The nature of poetry and the role of the poet were radically transformed as part of that process of political and social transformation. It would be possible to mention hundreds of poets who have become famous in the Arabic-speaking world in the last half-century. The following names are among the most famous: the Iraqis Badr Shakir al-Sayyab (d. 1964) and `Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati (d. 1999), the Lebanese Adunis (b. ~1930), the Palestinian Mahmud Darwish (d. 2008), the Egyptians Ahmad `Abd al-Mu`ti Hijazi (b. 1935), Amal Dunqul (d. 1983) and Muhammad `Afifi Matar (b. 1935) and the Moroccan Muhammad Bannis (b. 1948).

Narrative and Essays

As is the case in many world cultural traditions, the origins of what can be termed “prose writing” in Arabic lie in the realm of bureaucracy and especially letter-writing (the chancery). The origins of the movement are closely associated with two phenomena: firstly the translation of works from other cultures (and especially Persian) into Arabic, beginning in the 7th-8th centuries); and secondly the emergence of a discipline called in Arabic “adab,” implying correct behavior and the observance of proper cultural norms.

This community of bureaucrats and scholars provided the creative cultural context within which a large number of essays and compendia of information were now composed and compiled—and on a bewildering variety of topics: manuals for secretaries, information about poets, jurists and Sufis; collections of poetry and anecdote; and so on. From earlier writers like `Abd al-Hamid “al-Katib” (the secretary, d. 750) the tradition was continued by such renowned figures as `Amr ibn Bahr (known best by his nickname, “Al-Jahiz”—d. 868), Ibn Qutaybah (d. 889) and Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi (d. 1023).

In the 10th century a scholar from the city of Hamadhan, whose prowess as a writer earned him the nickname Badi` al-zaman (“wonder of the era,” d. 1008), began to write a series of amusing vignettes (called Maqamat in Arabic) in which a narrator and rogue tour around the Middle East, poke fun at the foibles of mankind and produce pastiches of other types of composition. This form of writing was made yet more elaborate by Al-Hariri (d. 1122), and the tradition was continued in ensuing centuries and carried into the modern period.

One type of narrative which curiously has not been regarded by Arabs as being part of the literary tradition is the repertoire of popular tales and sagas, mostly because they were composed and publicly performed in a level of Arabic language that kept them outside the exclusive realms of literature (as defined by critics). Part of that popular tradition is the world-famous collection of tales known in Arabic as Alf laylah wa-laylah (A Thousand and One Nights) and in the West as The Arabian Nights. In its original form (probably coming to the Arab world from India and Persia) it was complete by the 14th century at the latest, but the translation of the collection into French in the early 18th century led to a huge increase of interest in the collection among Europeans. Other tales, not originally part of the collection were added, and—unfortunately for us—the two tales that are most famous in the West, “Aladdin” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” are both French fakes.

These traditional modes of narrative (and, in some cases, their performance by story-tellers) encountered the Western tradition during the course of the 19th century, and modern Arabic fiction emerged from that combination of sources and influences. The short story was the first narrative genre to achieve maturity, and that process began in the decade of the 1920s with such writers as Yahya Haqqi (d.1993), Mahmud Taymur (d. 1973), Dhu al-Nun Ayyub (d. 11988) and `Ali al-Du`aji (d.1949). Following the Second World War, the short story became a major conduit for social commentary: a short list of major contributors would include: from Egypt Yusuf Idris (d. 1991), Salwa Bakr (b. 1949) and Yahya al-Tahir `Abdallah (d. 1981); from Syria Zakariyya Tamir (b. 1931); from Lebanon Hanan al-Shaykh (b. 1945); from Morocco Muhammad Zifzaf (d. 1945), and from Kuwait Layla `Uthman (b. 1945).

The novel genre took longer to develop, although early examples date back to the mid-19th century. From early 20th century pioneers like Jurji Zaydan (d. 1914, who wrote a series of historical novels) and Muhammad Husayn Haykal (d. 1956), the author of the novel, Zaynab (1913), the genre developed rapidly during the 1930s to achieve its acme with the 1988 Nobel Laureate, Naguib Mahfouz (Najib Mahfuz, d. 2006), most of whose novels are now available in English translation. Since the 1967 June war and its aftermath involving a widespread process of self-examination, Arab novelists have expanded both the range and topics of the longer fiction genre. Once again, it is difficult to select particular authors from among so many regions, styles and subjects, but the following list includes many majors novelists: in Egypt, Jamal al-Ghitani (b. 1945), Ibrahim `Abd al-Majid (b. 1946), `Ala’ al-Aswani (b. 1957), Salwa Bakr, Khayri Shalabi (b.1938); in Lebanon and Syria, Elias Khoury (b. 1948), Rashid al-Da`if (b. 1945), Hanan al-Shaykh, Hani al-Rahib (d. 2000) and Haydar Haydar (b. 1936); in Palestine, Ghassan Kanafani (d. 1972), Emil Habibi (d. 1996), Jabra Ibrahim Jabra (d. 1994) and Sahar Khalifah (b. 1941); in Iraq, Fu’ad al-Tikirli (d. 2008), Muhammad Khudayyir (b. 1940) and Ghanim al-Dabbagh (b. 1923); in Morocco, Muhammad Barada (b. 1938), Ahmad al-Madini (b. 1947), Ahmad al-Tawfiq (b. 1943) and BenSalim Himmich (b. 1948); and in Saudi Arabia, `Abduh Khal (b. 1962) and Turki al-Hamad (b. 1953).


Any discussion of a dramatic tradition in the Arabic-speaking world must start by acknowledging that, if we define “drama” in terms of literary texts in addition to performance, then there is little evidence in the pre-modern period of a kind of “elite” tradition involving performances of texts in a building called a “theater” to compare with the traditions in European countries. What we do find, however, is a lively tradition of popular drama of wide variety: farcical performances poking fun at people’s foibles (and we have a valuable unique collection of three plays of this type by an Egyptian oculist, Ibn Daniyal, d. 1310); shadow plays mocking public officials and bureaucrats; and religious performances of which the “ta`ziyah” rituals associated within the Shi`ite communities of the region (re-enactments of the martyrdom of the Prophet, Muhammad’s, grandson, Al-Husayn, at a battle in the 7th century) is the most prominent.

As with other literary genres, these precedents encountered the phenomenon of Western drama when foreign theatrical troupes visited the Arabic-speaking world, beginning as early as the initial years of the 19th century with travels to Egypt. The origins of what might be termed an indigenous theater movement in the Arabic-speaking world may be traced to the Syro-Lebanon region, where Marun al-Naqqash (d. 1855) put on plays adapted from Molière in his house in the 1840s. Abu Khalil al-Qabbani (d. 1902) managed to stage some plays in more public places in Damascus in the 1880s, but he was eventually forced to leave the country when conservative clerics complained to the Ottoman authorities about such “nefarious” public displays. Egypt was to offer al-Qabbani and many others a more hospitable cultural environment for such experiments.

In the latter half of the 19th century an interesting cultural divide occurred, with, on the one hand, popular forms of dramatic entertainment continuing and expanding—with their emphasis on slapstick and social criticism to the accompaniment of song and dance—and on the other hand, attempts at introducing more Western dramatic forms with much more emphasis on dialogue and character development. The process of turning this lively performance medium into a participant in the literary community of the Arabic-speaking world owes an enormous debt to one author, the Egyptian playwright and novelist, Tawfiq al-Hakim (d. 1987), who, returning from France in the 1920s, proceeded to write a whole series of plays that were rapidly acknowledged as contributions to modern Arabic literature. They include Ahl al-kahf, Shahrazad, Pygmalion and King Oedipus. Al-Hakim continued to be a major figure in Egyptian and Arabic drama until his death, and in that movement he was joined by a large number of other playwrights, especially following the Egyptian revolution of 1952. Among the more accomplished were Nu`man `Ashur (d. 1987), Yusuf Idris, Alfred Farag (d. 2005), Mahmud Diyab (d. 1983), `Ali Salim (b. 1936) and Najib Surur (d. 1978).

While the popular types of drama noted above also existed in other regions of the Arabic-speaking world, the arrival of a more literary form of drama was to follow that of Egypt and, in many cases to be inspired and forwarded by the arrival of Egyptian acting troupes (in such countries as Iraq and Morocco, for instance). Among prominent playwrights who have written for such national traditions in the ensuing decades, the following are the most prominent: in Syria, Sa`dallah Wannus (d. 1997); in Iraq, Yusuf al-`Ani (b. 1927); in Tunis, `Izz al-din al-Madani (b. 1938) and in Morocco, Al-Tayyib al-Siddiqi (b. 1938).


As I write these words in 2011, the world has witnessed an amazing series of political events throughout the Arabic-speaking world—beginning in Tunisia, and spreading to Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria and Libya, and with as yet unforeseeable consequences in many, if not most, cases. One might suggest that readers of modern Arabic literary texts have been prepared and even waiting for events such as these, since literature in the Arab world is still what it has always been, a central and important part of political and social debate. As events ensue, it seems clear that creative writers will continue to play that role which, one might suggest, has been the function and destiny of all those who, throughout the lengthy history of the Arabic literary heritage, have sought to reflect the views of their readers (and listeners) and to advocate, often to their personal cost, the need for change.