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 Muallaqat, Hamasa, Mufaddaliyat, and Kitab al-Aghani. The most esteemed of these poets are Amru al-Kais, Antara, and Zuhair.
With the advent of Islam, the Qur'an 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 Nuwas. 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 Hariri sought to combine
refinement with dignity of style, and brilliancies with jewels of eloquence. Abu al-Ala al-Maarri 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 Nights. The major writers of historical and geographical works in Arabic include Bukhari, Tabari, Masudi, Ibn Khaldun, Ibn al-Athir (d. 1234), and Ibn Batuta. The foremost Arab theologian was al-Ghazali; Avicenna, 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—Avempace, Averroës, and Ibn Tufayl. 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 Mahfouz 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 Aswany, 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 Prize. 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 Darwish, and Adonis.
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).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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