Arabic Literature

Despite the fact that it emerged relatively late, Arabic literature had a major influence on the world’s literature including in the Western. The first Arabic literary works date to the 5th century but literary activity increased only after the writing of the Qur’an in the 7th century.

“Period of Ignorance”

The period before the Qur’an and Islam is in Muslim tradition known as the period of ignorance (Jahiliyyah). It is primarily used in the religious context but little literary works have been created in the pre-Islamic period. There was, however, a rich oral tradition. Also, the late 6th century saw the emergence of written literature which was compiled later in the collections Mufaddaliyat and Mu’allaqat.

The Importance of the Qur’an as Literary Work

The Qur’an had a profound influence on the Arabic culture, similar to the Bible on the Christian world. According to the Muslim beliefs, the texts in the Qur’an are divinely revealed and as such, the work is considered sacred. But besides religious importance, the Qur’an also has a major literary significance. It is the first major work in Arabic language and the most complex Arabic literary work by that time. It contains 114 chapters or suras with 6,236 verses or ayat. In literary aspect, the Qur’an is a type of rhymed prose or Saj.

The Golden Age of Arabic Literature

The period after the Muslim conquests coincides with the golden age of Arabic literature. It was greatly influenced by the Qur’an and the first literary works after the period of ignorance were inspired by the life of Muhammad. Islamic scholars were researching everything related to the Prophet including the people he met. Thus they also went back to the time before the Qur’an. But the research of Muhammad’s life also inspired the first biographies in the Arabic world. Poetry and Saj remained the most widespread form of literature all the way to the 20th century, while the authors mostly used al-fusha or classical (quality) Arabic language rather than al-amniyah or the language that was spoken by the common people.

One Thousand and One Nights

One of the best known Arabic literary works in the West is without a doubt the collection of fiction tales of the One Thousand and One Nights, also known in English translation as the Arabian Nights. When they were created remains uncertain but they were compiled during the Islamic Golden Age. The tales of Aladdin and Ali Baba which are viewed as a part of the popular tales, however, originally were not included in the One Thousand and One Nights.

Decline and Revival

Through the spread of Islam, the Arabic culture profoundly influenced other peoples and their culture but increased contacts with other peoples also affected their own culture and literature. The golden age of Arabic literature was followed by a period of decline which lasted until the 19th century when Arabic literature entered the al-Nahda or Renaissance. Initially mostly limited to Lebanon and Egypt, the revival of the Arabic literature soon spread to other parts of the world including non-Muslim.

Modern Arabic Literature

Just like other authors, modern Arabic authors deal with a large number of subjects but they are mostly focused on the changes in the Arab world and the relationship between the Eastern and Western worlds. Some of the most prominent modern Arabic authors are Sonallah Ibrahim, Naguib Mahfouz, Abdul Rahman Munif, Taha Hussein, Tawfiq al-Hakim, Alaa Al Aswany, Abdul Rahman Munif, Rajaa al-Sanea, Ahmad Shawqi and Tayeb Salih to mention only a few.