Literary Reflections

'Arabic Literature' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online

About This Resource

This article discusses Arabic literature as background for The Arabian Nights. The article by Fedwa Malti-Douglas, Devin J. Stewart, and Miriam Cooke is reprinted from The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World in the Oxford Islamic Studies Online.



From pre-Islamic poems to the contemporary novel, literature written in Arabic spans over fourteen centuries, several continents, and myriad local cultures and contexts. Although Arabic literature began during the Jāhilīyah (pre-Islamic period), Islam has had a profound influence on its development. The Qurʿān itself is a literary tour de force, and down to the present day Islamic texts form a large part of the rich textual patrimony of the Arabo-Islamic world and continue to play an important role in the development of contemporary literature. With the award of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1988 to the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz, Arabic literature is poised to play a larger role on the world literary scene.

Early Forms. “Poetry is the register of the Arabs,” states a well-worn Arabic aphorism. Arabic literature came to be recorded only after the advent of Islam, but it was already well-established and decidedly dominated by poetry. The literature of the Jāhilīyah era was that of a partly Bedouin, tribal society in which the poet often acted as the oracle of his tribe. The premier art form was the qaṣīdah or ode, a poem in mono-rhyme most often between twenty and fifty verses in length. Several sub-categories of qaṣīdah were well-established ancient genres already by the time Arabic literature was recorded, and included the panegyric (madīḥ), satire (hijāʿ), boast (fakhr), elegy (rithāʿ), hunting poetry (ṭardīyāt), and descriptions of animals and natural phenomena (waṣf ). The poet was conventionally inspired to compose an ode by the sight of traces on the ground that signaled an abandoned encampment. The critic and anthologist Ibn Qutaybah (d. 889 C.E.) links the creation of the ode to the remnants of this encampment and elucidates the ode's tripartite structure, including a nasīb or prelude focusing on themes of lost love, a travel section (riḥlah) describing a difficult journey to a distant goal or patron, and the main section of the poem. The equivalent of Homer's Iliad for Greek literature, or Shakespeare's plays for English literature, are a collection of pre-Islamic odes termed “the suspended poems” (al-muʿallaqāt), because they were supposed to have won an annual contest at the Fair of ʿUkāẓ and were therefore hung up for all to view.

Both male and female poetic voices existed in the pre-Islamic period; the female poet al-Khansāʿ has entered the annals of Arabic literature with the elegies she composed for her brother Ṣakhr who was slain in battle. Pre-Islamic literature also included other forms, such as prose oratory, and among its practitioners, the Christian bishop Quss ibn Sāʿidah was renowned as the ne plus ultra of eloquence. However, this genre and other genres have been overshadowed by poetry, either because they were found more interesting, or because of the ease of memorization in a society where oral transmission was proper. As al-Jāḥiẓ put it, not one-tenth of the rhythmical speech of the Arabs has been lost; and not one-tenth of that which was not rhythmical has been preserved.

With its powerful imagery and its often incantatory style, the Qurʿān joined the pre-Islamic poetic corpus as a literary and aesthetic model as well as a religious one. For Muslims the Qurʿān is the direct, unmediated word of God; therefore it is as perfect from a literary standpoint as it is from a religious one. The speech of God is not normal speech, and its inimitability or miraculous nature (iʿjāz) became a topic of central concern for later theorists and rhetoricians.

The Medieval Period. The Arab-Islamic conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries created a multinational empire from Spain to Afghanistan. This cosmopolitan society drew virtually without prejudice from the previous cultures of local regions, spawning a sophisticated literature far exceeding in richness and quantity the literatures of either the classical Mediterranean world or medieval Europe. Paper had recently been invented in China, and its dissemination through the lands of Islam had much to do with this literary florescence. By the ninth century, both publication and readership exploded in cities like Baghdad, where there were reportedly over one hundred bookshops in the booksellers’ market. Authors could earn a living by writing entertaining works and anthologies for popular consumption, no longer beholden to rulers alone for patronage, and hired professional booksellers and copyists as their publicists. Literary and cultural production was also stimulated by the opening of cultural channels and the circulation of ideas across an unprecedented geographical expanse. Scholars and writers might begin their careers in what is today Portugal and end them on the banks of the Red Sea or the borders of the Hindu Kush.

Most medieval critics associated Arabic literature with poetry. A formalized and detailed metrical system was codified by al-Khalīl (d. 791 C.E.). The panegyric became a highly refined art form, as did the lighter ghazal, a shorter ode usually devoted to themes of love. The qaṣīdah survived the passage of time, although its erotic prologue was transformed and adapted to new needs, such as the pastoral and the ascetic. The neoclassical duo of Abū Tammām (d. 845 C.E.) and al-Buḥtūrī (d. 897 C.E.) became familiar literary names, as did that of the heroically inclined al-Mutanabbī (d. 965 C.E.). Not all poets, however, felt constrained to obey the sacred rules of the poetic genre; thus Abū Nuwās (d. 815 C.E.) mocked the erotic prologue by addressing the opening of one of his poems to a tavern or suggesting, in another parodic twist of conventions, that one should tell the poet who stands at the deserted campsite and weeps over his lost love, “It wouldn't hurt if you sat down.” The irreverence of Abū Nuwās and others went much further, turning the poetry of yearning for a lost and inaccessible loved one on its head, and instead celebrating lust and sex with both men and women.

Numerous works have come down to us from the classical period of this highly sophisticated culture. One of the literary genres dominating the Arabic prose corpus is an anecdotal form designed to be at once edifying and entertaining, known as adab. To characterize it as prose can be misleading, however. In its discourse adab can include Qurʿānic verses, poetry, and traditions of the Prophet. These traditions, called ḥadīth, are collections of the sayings and actions of the Prophet intended to serve as guides for the daily life of the Muslim. Generally recognized as the greatest master of Arabic adab is the ninth-century writer al-Jāḥiẓ (d. 868 C.E.), who, alongside works on law and theology, wrote anthologies on such diverse topics as singers, donkeys, fools, great speeches, the characteristics of ethnic groups such as Turks, and the love of books. His Kitāb al-bukhalāʿ (Book of Misers), describing champion skinflints and penny-pinchers, many from Khorāsān in Persia, satirizes those who lack the primary Arab cultural virtues, generosity and hospitality. The work has survived the centuries, and its anecdotes circulate in children's literature in the contemporary Arab world. The characters who populated medieval Arabic anecdotal works ranged from rulers and judges to misers and party-crashers.

Medieval anecdotal literature was closely related to two other literary genres, the maqāmah and epic book, The Thousand and One Nights. The maqāmah is an indigenous Arabic form invented by Badīʿ al-Zamān al-Hamadhānī (d. 1008 C.E.). His Maqāmāt (loosely translated as “Séances”), executed in rhymed prose, involves a running gag in series of loosely connected episodes. The work features two main characters, Abū al-Fatḥ al-Iskandarī, a picaresque hero whose narrative existence centers around his changing appearance, eloquence, and ability to outwit his listeners and extract money from them, and ʿĪsā ibn Hishām, the gullible narrator who is repeatedly hoodwinked by Abū al-Fatḥ.

Al-Ḥarīrī (d. 1122 C.E.) also made his name by writing in this genre, with two similar characters, the rogue Abū Zayd al-Sarūjī and the narrator al-Ḥārith ibn Hammām, although his literary constructions are more rhetorically fanciful than those of his predecessors, including epistles that could be read both forwards and backwards or in which the dotted and undotted letters of the Arabic alphabet alternated. Al-Ḥarīrī's Maqāmāt were emulated by many later authors, and it is his work that would serve as the model for nineteenth-century writers anxious to reenergize Arabic literature.

The Thousand and One Nights is a much more amorphous literary text whose stories were collected over centuries, involving several layers of text: an originally Persian (or perhaps, even more ancient, Indian) frame tale and collection, called One Thousand Tales by Ibn al-Nadim Hezar Afsan in the tenth century; a Baghdadi cycle involving such characters as the ʿAbbāsid caliph Hārūn al-Rashīd and his vizier, Jaʿfar al-Barmaki; a Cairene cycle, with stories such as Maʿrūf the Cobbler set in late Mamlūk times; and additional stories from other sources added into the collection by Galland and others seeking to satisfy European readers’ thirst for additional nights. The Nights is now as much a classic of Western literature as of Arabic. Magic, sexuality, and flying carpets, all were part and parcel of the stories associated with the Nights. Shahrazād and her sister Dunyāzād, Shahriyār and his brother Shāhzamān, are the two couples whose lives set the narrative in motion. Shahrazād weaves the tales that will immortalize her in the annals of world literature; at the same time she helps resolve the dilemma of the heterosexual couple whose instability opens the narrative. Many of the story cycles that came to be included in the Nights, such as that of Sindbad, reappear in modern guises in twentieth-century Arabic writings.

Al-Andalus. Literature flourished in the Islamic West as it did in the Islamic East. Although the maqāmah was invented in the Eastern part of the Arabo-Islamic world, examples of it appeared in Islamic Spain. Soon after al-Ḥarīrī published his Maqāmāt, al-Saraqusṭī wrote a sophisticated imitation, al-Maqāmāt al-luzūmīyah, with settings in al-Andalus and the Arab West, including a satire of the boorish Berbers of Morocco. The next century, the Jewish writer Yehudah al-Ḥarizi translated al-Ḥarīrī's work into Hebrew and then wrote his own Hebrew maqāmāt text, entitled Sefer Taḥkemoni. The literary success of this work established the maqāmah as a flourishing genre in medieval Hebrew literature. Some authors such as Ibn Saqbel (Neʿum Asher ben Yehudah), al-Ḥarīzī, and Immanuel of Rome (Maḥberot Imanuʿel), followed the form of al-Ḥarīrī's Maqāmāt quite closely. Other Hebrew authors, like their counterparts in the late medieval Arabic literary tradition, broadened the definition of the maqāmah genre considerably to include nearly any text couched in elaborate rhymed prose replete with rhetorical figures and literary conceits.

The hybrid literary population of al-Andalus also gave birth by the eleventh century to a new poetic form, the muwashshaḥ, a strophic poem that often combined Arabic and local Romance linguistic elements; it provides some of the first examples of “Spanish” literature in existence. The poems were often of five stanzas and followed the rhyme scheme AA bbbAA cccAA dddAA eeeAA fffAA GG, though there were many variations. The final couplet (GG), termed the kharjah (roughly, “envoi”), was usually composed in colloquial Arabic or a Romance dialect, in contrast to the literary Arabic of the remaining verses.

The zajal was a related poetic form couched entirely in dialect; both forms gained wide popularity throughout the Arab world. The muwashshaḥ was set to music, and one can still hear them sung in Morocco, Algeria, and elsewhere in the Arab world today. The Andalusian author ʿAlī Ibn Ḥazm (d. 1064 C.E.) displays another dimension of anecdotal prose literature in his treatise on the psychology of love, Ṭawq al-ḥamāmah (The Dove's Neck Ring). The special development given to courtly love themes in Hispano-Arabic literature has often been linked to the rise of the troubadours in neighboring Provence, and one recognizes many close parallels between the theories of love, the stock characters, and the conventions of Arabic love poetry and that of the troubadours. Spain was also a conduit for the entrance of prose literature from the Arab world into European literature. The book of animal fables Kalilah wa Dimnah, originally translated from the Sanskrit Pancatantra into Middle Persian, and then into Arabic in ʿAbbāsid Baghdad by the Persian vizier Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ, was translated into Spanish at the court of Alfonso X. The Sindbad legends were also translated into Spanish as Libro de los Engaños, and the popular work of advice literature, El Conde Lucanor, included a number of stories based on Arabic proverbs.

Philosophical Influences. From quite early in the development of Islamic orthodoxy, echoes of asceticism and mysticism could be heard. Generally these came from individuals dissatisfied with what they perceived to be a loss of the personal dimension of the religious experience, buried as it had become under legalistic discussions and ritualized practice. At the same time, the translation of Greek works and the efforts of authors such as al-Kindī and Ibn Sīnā created a rich philosophical tradition in Arabic. A different sort of mystical and philosophical narrative was woven in Andalusia by the physician-philosopher Ibn Ṭufayl (d. 1185–1186 C.E.), drawing on earlier philosophers’ efforts to use literary allegory as a way of introducing complex philosophical ideas to a wider audience. His great allegory Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān (Alive, Son of Awake) had medieval relatives in the Arabo-Islamic philosophical tradition; it is a masterpiece whose literary echoes, from gender to philosophy, can be heard across the centuries down to the contemporary Middle East, where it resurfaces in children's literature from Egypt to Tunisia. Its appeal lies partly in its plot: an abandoned infant grows up alone on an island and discovers science and mysticism on his own. He then meets another young man who also seeks shelter from his own society, and the two, after an aborted attempt at setting this society on the right path, live happily on their own island.

Autobiography and Biography. Another fascinating and original genre of medieval Arabic literature was the autobiography, including such famous examples as that of Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 1111 C.E.), whose work al-Munqidh min al-ḍalāl (The Rescuer from Error), like that of St. Augustine, recounts the dilemma he faced in his quest for religious truth. The premodern period also boasted other autobiographical sagas, among them that of the great twelfth-century Syrian warrior-writer Usāmah ibn Munqidh. His story takes place during the Crusades, and some of his observations of Western combatants in his Kitāb al-iʿtibār are by now classic. As an Arabic writer living through the occupation by Western invaders, Usāmah has great appeal to modern-day Palestinian writers such as Emile Habiby (Ar., Imīl Ḥabībī), who do not hesitate to draw parallels spanning the centuries.

The medieval autobiographical form coexisted with a well-developed indigenous Arabo-Islamic literary form, the biography. The genesis of the biographical dictionary has been linked by some to the science of ḥadīth criticism and by others to Arab genealogical storytelling and poetic traditions. Biographical compendia were arranged according to ṭabaqāt (classes or generations) and stressed the authority of professional groups in society, such as jurists, theologians, mystics, ḥadīth scholars, and even grammarians or dream interpreters by anchoring their activities in tradition, often tracing their professional lineage to the Prophet Muḥammad. In ṭabaqāt collections the biographies were divided into groups that could be arranged according to generations (as with ḥadīth transmitters) or on levels of merit or skill (as with poets). Perhaps in a later development, this term was also applied to compendia limited to a given type. Biography developed into a diverse and sophisticated historical and literary genre that saw its golden age under the Mamlūks (c.1250–1500 C.E.) and included works devoted to persons with particular physical characteristics, such as the blind, scholars who lived in a particular Islamic century, famous men and women with whom the author was acquainted, famous men and women who had visted a particular city such as Baghdad, Damascus, or Aleppo, and many other types.

The Postclassical Period. Over a period of many centuries, usually understood to begin with the Mongol invasion of Baghdad in 1258 C.E. and ending with Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798, Arabic literature has often been dismissed by modern critics as dull, unoriginal, derivative, repetitive, and of little redeeming value. The period as a whole has therefore been labeled the “Decadence.” This construct is due in large part to modern political culture that recognized the greatness of Arabic literature's Golden Age set in the remote past when Arab rulers held sway over the Middle East and perceived that the conquest of the Arab world by Persian and Turkish rulers led to the cultural backwardness suggested by Europe's very tangible military and technological advantages over the region, as became evident in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the heyday of European colonial power. As a result, the literature of the period has not been studied in depth. Literary production, however, remained prolific, and preliminary studies suggest that while certain genres suffered, creative energies went into new areas.

Arabic literature flourished in outlying areas of the Islamic world such as India, Indonesia, and sub-Saharan Africa. Many authors such as the Damascene scholar Ḥasan al-Būrīnī (d. 1614 C.E.) wrote not only in Arabic but in Persian and Turkish as well, combining several literary traditions creatively in their works. Several post-classical genres of poetry developed, in addition to the muwashshaḥ and zajal mentioned above, including the dū-baytī or quatrain, drawing on the Persian literary tradition. Court panegyrics gave way to more ubiquitous occasional poems of social exchange (ikhwāniyāt), such as poems of congratulation on the birth of a son, the wedding of a daughter, a new position in the chancery or as professor of a law college, not to mention a myriad of poetry and prose texts on love, sex, travel, friendship, political scandals, mystical experiences, and other topics; allegorical texts in which all the characters are birds, flowers, or vegetables; mock epic battles between armies of foodstuffs, and so on. As in earlier periods, a large part of this literary production was devoted to homoerotic and homosexual themes. The beloveds of Arabic love poetry were male as often as they were female; it was often difficult to determine gender because of the convention of using masculine forms even to refer to a female beloved. This is a tradition that lives on, incidentally, in modern Arabic love songs.

European Influences. The European dominance and colonization of the Arab world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries had a profound impact on Arabic literature, radically changing its genres and conventions. The qaṣīdah, maqāmah, and other genres cultivated in the premodern period gave way to the play, the novel, the short story, and free verse. The story of this transformation is complex and involves many individual instances of creative genius and originality on the part of Arab authors, as opposed to mere passive reception.

It is generally considered that the first Arabic novel is Zaynab, by the Egyptian Muḥammad Ḥusayn Haykal, published in 1913. But this point is the culmination of a process that started in the nineteenth century and involved the revitalization of the Arabic literary scene. Here the name of the Syrian Nāṣīf al-Yāzijī (d. 1871) looms large; he penned maqāmāt in imitation of those of his medieval predecessor al-Ḥarīrī. Modern-day travelers who walk the Cairo streets and pick up a copy of the Egyptian monthly magazine al-Hilāl may not know that this long-lived periodical owes its existence to this early revitalization movement, in which its founder, Jurjī Zaydān (d. 1914), was prominent. Other nineteenth-century intellectuals, such as Rifāʿah Rāfiʿ al-Ṭahṭāwī (d. 1873), traveled in Europe (al-Ṭahṭāwī was imam of the Egyptian educational mission in France) and wrote about it in their native Arabic. This early phase of modern Arabic literature also saw other literary experiments, including the early-twentieth-century neoclassical prose works of Muḥammad al-Muwayliḥī (d. 1930), Aḥmad Shawqī (d. 1932), and Ḥāfiẓ Ibrāhīm (d. 1932). Drawing on the traditional form of the maqāmah, these authors composed texts that were literary masterpieces that also functioned as social criticism. Shawqī and Ibrāhīm were also famed for their neoclassical odes. The background to these experiments was the translation movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The plays of Corneille and Molière, the novels of Balzac and Zola, the short stories of Guy de Maupassant, and hundreds of other works were translated into Arabic and served as models for the newly developing genres.

The early-twentieth-century neoclassical experiment in poetry was not to last. The classical qaṣīdah was doomed to fade away, except among old-fashioned poets. Free verse invaded and dominated Arabic poetry from Iraq to North Africa. Prose poems did not lag behind, and today the field of Arabic poetry is as complicated as the political face of the region. Writers such as Ṣalāḥ ʿAbd al-Ṣabūr (d. 1981), Adonis, Maḥmūd Darwīsh, and Aḥmad ʿAbd al-Muʿṭī Ḥijāzī give Arabic poetry a prominent place on the regional (and world) literary scene.

Modern Developments. Twentieth-century Arabic literature has traveled a great distance: from neoclassicism to realism, romanticism, and the present postmodernist trends. The names and works that loom large fill library catalogs. Drama as an independent literary genre (and not as a modern rewriting of the maqāmah, as some critics claim) appears; prominent examples are the plays of Tawfīq al-Ḥakīm. Because Arabic literature has traditionally been written in the classical literary language (fuṣḥā), vigorous debates arise over the possibilities of using the vernaculars in this high-cultural product; both authors and audiences must appreciate the artificiality of having a peasant appear on the stage speaking in literary Arabic.

One of the foremost proponents of the pure Arabic language was himself a man of letters. Ṭāhā Ḥusayn (d. 1973), an Egyptian scholar and writer, was a leading modernizer in the Arab world. He penned an autobiography, al-Ayyām (The Days), that remains one of the most beloved works of twentieth-century literature; it is also a landmark in Arabic letters. The saga it recounts forms part of its appeal: a blind Egyptian boy conquers social and educational barriers to become a professor at the modern university in Cairo. Along the way, he becomes part of the student delegation to France and returns to his native Egypt with a French doctorate and a French wife. His visual handicap only accentuates the drama of this text and the cultural differences it raises between tradition and modernity, East and West. It is no accident that school children from Syria to Sudan and from Saudi Arabia to North Africa still read this work. This most dramatic of Arabic stories, the tale of the “Conqueror of Darkness,” has also been made into a film and broadcast for millions of Arab viewers.

Naguib Mahfouz is undoubtedly the name that most Westerners today associate with Arabic literature. The 1988 Nobel Prize is crucial, as are Mahfouz's novels and short stories portraying Egyptian life, sometimes at its seediest. At the time Mahfouz won the coveted prize, however, there were many other writers whose fame might have suggested that they too should have been laureates. Yūsuf Idrīs (d. 1991), considered by many younger writers to be master of the short story, is one such writer. Some of Idrīs's narratives are among the most powerful in world literature, rife with sexuality and exploitative male-female relationships that raise difficult questions and social issues.

Modern Arabic literature over the past century has been heavily influenced by British, French, and American literature in particular. T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land has inspired many Arabic renditions; the poetry of Adonis draws on that of Eliot, Walt Whitman, and many others. The novels of Naguib Mahfouz, despite his protests to the contrary, show the distinct marks of Balzac, Zola, and Dickens. Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury inspired many Arabic novels that adopt a similar technique of telling one story from several different points of view; these include Naguib Mahfouz's Miramar and Jabrā Ibrāhīm Jabrā's The Ship. Though the influence of Spanish literature is more limited than French or English, the Moroccan Muḥammad Shukrī's picaresque novel al-Khubz al-ḥafī (Plain Bread), which gives an autobiographical account of his destitute youth in northern Morocco, follows closely the model of the premiere example of the Spanish picaresque, Lazarillo de Tormes. Al-Ṭayyib Ṣāliḥ'sMawsim al-hijrah ilā al-shamāl (Season of Migration to the North), considered by many the best Arabic novel yet written, draws extensively and creatively on Shakespeare's Othello, Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Thoman Mann's Dr. Faustus, and Stendhal'sThe Red and the Black. It tells the story of a brilliant young Sudanese man's travel from his village at a twist of the Nile in Sudan to London, the heart of the British Empire, and back again, exposing the hypocritical conventions of colonialism, their fantastic underpinnings, and the trying struggles over identity occurring within the colonial subject. The female voice is much more important in the contemporary literary production of the Middle East than it was in the premodern period. The male dominance of most classical Islamic literary genres has been replaced by a far greater balance between male and female voices. This is true not only in poetry (where women contributed even in classical times) but also in the novel and short story. With women's writings have come women's concerns, and often feminism. Literature written by both men and women, of course, also often reflects the political and social issues in contemporary Middle Eastern societies. Many women writers from Morocco to Saudi Arabia have distinguished themselves, but undoubtedly the most visible Arab woman writer is the Egyptian feminist physician Nawwal El Saadawi (Ar., Nawāl al-Saʿdāwī). Among women writers El Saadawi stands out by virtue of her uncompromising texts, including fiction, autobiography, and didactic essays and studies (e.g., The Hidden Face of Eve). She comes closest to her male colleagues in her outspoken fiction, dealing as it does with sexuality and the exploitation of women. Hers is a searing gender critique added to the class critique, familiar to Arabic readers from the work of Yūsuf al-Qaʿīd. Al-Qaʿīd exposes the less savory aspects of government bureaucracies, imbuing his narratives with a bleak vision that allows his characters no escape (e.g., War in the Land of Egypt). In this, al-Qaʿīd resembles the Palestinian Ibrāhīm Naṣr Allāh, whose postmodern fiction (for instance, Prairies of Fever) is a desperate commentary on Arab political and social dilemmas. 

Arabic literature today is undergoing profound changes. Metafictional narratives and narratives rich in intertextuality are invading contemporary prose, as they have that of the West. But the new Middle Eastern literary experiment is different. Contemporary writers, whatever their religious or political allegiance, are turning toward the classical tradition, reassessing it, redefining it, and recasting it. The name most often associated with this development is that of the Egyptian Jamāl al-Ghīṭānī. He draws on the rich Arabo-Islamic textual heritage, including historical, biographical, and mystical texts, to create modern narratives, demanding that his reader intertextually link his literary universe with that of his medieval antecedents. The intertextual use and reuse of classical Arabo-Islamic materials is not restricted to al-Ghītānī; practitioners of the contemporary Arabic metafictional narrative cover the entire geographical range of Arabic letters and include the brilliant Palestinian writer Emile Habiby and the innovative Tunisian author al-Misʿadī, to cite but two.

Islamic literature is, of course, not neutral. It advocates a way of life—the religious way. (Statistically, in Arab countries, sales of Islamic books far outnumber those of secular ones.) The autobiography is a favored modern Islamic literary genre. The major figures of the Islamist movement have indulged themselves here, from the popular television preacher Muḥammad Mutawallī al-Shaʿrāwī to the equally colorful blind Shaykh ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd Kishk. Kishk's Story of My Days chronicles not only his religious development but also his saga as a visually handicapped young man. In an ironic twist of literary fate, it calls to mind Ṭāhā Ḥusayn's The Days. The Islamist movement has also given rise to many female literary voices. The classic example here remains that of Zaynab al-Ghazālī, whose Days from My Life recounts her religious activism and her dramatic imprisonment. In recent years, as veiling has become more popular among the educated elite of the Arab world and North Africa, many women writers are taking the occasion to exhibit not their bodies but their narratives of salvation. These spiritual autobiographies, similar in aim to that of al-Ghazālī, now fill the shelves of Islamic bookstores all over the world.

Contemporary Arabic literary discourse is one that synchronically telescopes centuries of previous Arabic literary production. When verses from the Qurʿān, sayings from the ḥadīth, or historical incidents from Usāmah's chronicle are transposed and embedded into a twentieth-century Arabic creation, a new literary product emerges. Present-day Arabic literature is characterized as a complex discourse that partakes of cultural elements from both the rich Arabo-Islamic past and the equally rich Western tradition.


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Fedwa Malti-Douglas Updated by Devin J. Stewart

Gender in Arabic Literature

Most twentieth-century Arabic fiction is informed by an Islamicate consciousness, even if relatively few authors have chosen specifically Islamic themes. Many writers question the place of tradition in a rapidly modernizing world, but few examine religion as a social, symbolic system. Those novels and poems that have dealt with Islam specifically have three foci: criticism of the institutions of orthodox Islam; the spiritual role of Islam and of the prophet Muḥammad as a counterproject to Westernization; and Islamist activism. Such texts tend to exaggerate traditional conceptions of gender roles and behaviors. Gender is here used to refer to the images, values, interests, and activities held to be important to the realization of men's and womenʾs anatomical destiny. As women have added their voices to the corpus of literature on Islam, so have the understandings of gender changed.

Muslim intellectuals began to write fiction that reflected political and socioreligious concerns in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Members of the Egyptian Madrasah Ḥadīthah exposed the oppressive treatment of women and the unchallenged power of religious authorities. Maḥmūd Ṭāhir Lāshīn's 1929 short story Bayt al-ṭāʿah (House of Obedience) criticizes men who use what they consider to be an Islamic institution to crush womenʾs will; the “house of obedience” authorizes the husband of a woman who wants a divorce to become his wifeʾs jailer. One of the earliest Arabic novels is Ṭāhā Ḥusayn's autobiographical Al-ayyām (The Days, published serially in 1926–1927 and as a book in 1929). In this Bildungsroman that traces the triumphs of Egypt's blind doyen of letters, the pro-Western Ṭāhā Ḥusayn criticizes the all-male, tradition-bound al-Azhar system and its hypocritical ʿulamāʿ (religious authorities). He constructs himself as a strong man in defiance of social expectations that blind men should be as marginal to society as are women.

While some intellectuals were attacking the corrupt institutions and agents of modern Islam, others were invoking the power at the core of a well-understood, timeless faith. The neoclassical court poet Aḥmad Shawqī was one of the first to write long poems on Muḥammad; his Al-hamzīyah al-nabawīyah (The Hamzīyah Poem in Praīse of the Prophet) and Nahj al-burdah (Trail of the Cape) inspired others to write about Islamic history and the life of the Prophet. The 1930s in Egypt saw the publication of fiction and drama by leading modernist writers lauding the Islamic exemplar and showing that Islam is no obstacle to progress, for example Tawfīq al-Ḥakīm's unwieldy play Muḥammad (1936), Muḥammad Ḥusayn Haykal'sḤayāt Muḥammad (The Life of Muhammad), and Ṭāhā Ḥusayn's ʿAlā hāmish al-sīrah (On the Margin of the Prophet's Life) (1937–1943). During the post-Revolution period two more important works focusing primarily on Muḥammad were published. In 1959 the Egyptian Nobel laureate Najīb Maḥfūz (Naguib Mahfouz) published Awlād ḥāratina (Children of the Alley), an allegory based on the lives of several Islamic prophets that was considered blas1phemous and was censored. Qāsim-Muḥammad is the revolutionary with the widest vision, the toughest foe whom the unruly gangs of the alley had yet confronted, yet he like his predecessors was doomed to find his revolution coopted. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Sharqāwī's Marxist study Muḥammad rasūl al-ḥurrīyah (Muhammad the Messenger of Freedom; 1962) presents the prophetic mission as an exploitative obsession. Each Muḥammad is at once an ordinary man and a driven reformer. The women characters in the Prophet's life are presented as, at best, foils to his greatness.

One of the first attempts to consider Islam in tandem rather than in mutually exclusive competition with modernity was Qindīl Umm Hāshim (The Lamp of Umm Hashim; 1944) by the Egyptian adīb (man of letters) Yaḥyā Ḥaqqī. It tells the paradigmatic tale of the rejection of Islam in favor of Western science, the failure of this science, and the recognition of the need to meld the spiritual and the material. Women act as vehicles of each cultureʾs values; at times they shake Ismailʾs convictions and masculinity, but they also finally shape his decisions.

During the globally troubled decade of the 1960s Arab men and women began to question the role of religion in the rapidly changing life of the modern individual. While Saudis like ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Ṣāliḥ al-ʿAshmāwī and Ṭāhir Zamakhsharī were writing pious poetry, Egyptian secularists were targeting religion. Najīb Maḥfūz laments the transformation of Islam into an ideology and the concomitant loss of soul in society. Several characters search in vain for an absent father-figure, a transparent symbol for God. These desperate quests involve Ṣūfī masters and chaste prostitutes, the latter often providing greater solace than the former. With time, however, the sympathetic women of the earlier fiction disappear. The Sudanese al-Ṭayyib Ṣāliḥ seems less pessimistic: in Urs al-Zayn (Zaynʾs Wedding; 1966), Zayn, the saintly fool, wins the love of the village beauty and assumes his real persona when he becomes united with her. Both writers create women who merely facilitate a manʾs access to the spiritual realm.

While some women were writing overtly feminist texts, others turned to Islam to find a legitimate space for women as active agents. In 1966 the leader of the Egyptian Association of Muslim Ladies, Zaynab al-Ghazālī, published Ayyām min ḥayātī (Days from My Life), her memoir of six years in prison under Nasser. In a remarkable gender reversal, she projects herself as much stronger than her male co-inmates. She describes torture so great that only she, and not the men, could bear it. In a kind of gender reversal, she cites men only to demonstrate her spiritual superiority. At about the same time in Iraq, another pious woman was producing religiously didactic yet also arguably feminist literature. In the 1960s and 1970s, Amīnah Ṣadr, also known as Bint al-Hudā, participated in the Islamist revivalism in Najaf; in 1980, the Baʿth regime executed her. She wrote several novels (notably liqāʿfī al-mustashfā [Meeting at the Hospital], c.1970), short stories, and poems in which she created models of ideal behavior for Muslim women. These women embrace domesticity and advocate the veil, yet they are not subservient to men.

With the rise of Islamist movements during the 1970s and 1980s, a few women chose to devote their literary talents to Islam. These women do not try to support or oppose gender bias in Islam or its texts. They see rather the hand of patriarchy at work in the misappropriation of scripture to oppress women. The prolific Egyptian feminist novelist Nawāl al-Saʿdāwī wrote two novels that concentrate on Islam. The heroine of Suqūṭ al-Imām (The Fall of the Imam; 1987, trans. 2002) is called Bint Allāh, or Daughter of God; not only is her name a blasphemy, but she also has dreams of being raped by God. Jannāt wa-Iblīs (The Innocence of the Devil); 1992, trans. 1994) delves into the psyche of the Islamist movement to expose menʾs expedient uses of religion. When God declares Satan to be innocent, the binary of good and evil is undermined. Saʿdāwī's fearless condemnations of those who abuse religious privilege earned her a place on the death list of a powerful fundamentalist group. Another Egyptian to write about women's role in Islam is Salwā Bakr. Her 1986 novella MaqāmʿAṭīyah (Atiyaʾs Shrine) explores the relationship between Islamic sensibilities and the pharaonic heritage. Should the shrine of Lady ʿAṭīyah be removed to give access to archaeological remains that hold a secret that will transform modern Egypt? Her next novel, Al-ʿarabah al-dhahabīyah lā taṣ ʿadu ilā al-samāʿ (The Golden Chariot Does Not Rise to Heaven; 1991), takes place in the womenʾs prison, by now a familiar place for readers of Egyptian womenʾs writings, where a “mad woman” assesses her companions’ eligibility to join her in the golden chariot that will whisk them all off to heaven.

During the 1990s more Arab women turned to a study of Islam and the Prophet. Algerian Assia Djebarʾs Loin de Médine (Far from Medina; 1991) provides pen portraits of the many strong women who both supported and opposed Muhammad during his life. A story about Fāṭimahʾs rebellion against the Companions’ misogyny reveals the forthrightness of seventh century women in Arabia. The Saudi Arabian Rajaʿ al-ʿAlim has written several novels about women struggling to assert themselves against social expectations in Mecca often using a magical realist approach to her topic.

The events of September 11, 2001 produced an alarming trend: several Muslim women have published auto-ethnographies in which they expose and expand upon their view of the misogyny of Islam. Their sensationalist insider stories have been snatched up by European and American presses and promoted by neoconservative interest groups in the West who use these exposés to bolster their claims of Islamʾs inherent barbarism.

Over the past hundred years, men and women have both extolled and criticized Islamic texts and institutions. Men have depicted the Prophet as the perfect man (al-insān al-kāmil) who might serve as a model for all, and women have looked to the founding moments of Islam and into the scriptures for right guidance in their search for power and position in society. Whereas the pioneers of modern Arabic literature, educated in Enlightenment values and norms, eschewed religious topics, todayʾs littérateurs are finding inspiration for new engagement with Islam.


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Miriam Cooke


Malti-Douglas, Fedwa, Devin J. Stewart and Miriam Cooke. "Arabic Literature." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online,

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"Muslim Journeys | Item #190: 'Arabic Literature' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online", May 21, 2024


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