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Wednesday, March 12, 2008 

I wrote this research paper back in college, during my freshman year. I just finished encoding it, whew. I used an electric typewriter back then, no pc yet wehehe :-P There might be some typo errors, ok? i'll review it later.


Arabic literature is the collective prose and poetry of Arabia. It is approximately fourteen hundred years old. It has had a long history which is marked by an evolution that originated within native Arabia. This evolution was highly affected by various external influences that were able to permeate the cloak of the Arab society throughout the existence of Arabic literature.

Arabic literature began planting its seeds in Arabian soil in the late 5th century, two hundred years before the advent of Islam, a period known as the Pre-Islamic period. M.H. Bakalla calls this period as the Age of Darkness or Ignorance, due to the absence of Islam (113). The origin of Arabic literature is purely Arabic in nature since it started without any external influences whatsoever.

The conditions in Arabia during that time helped in the creation of Arabic literature. Most of the native Arabs lived and earned their living in the desert. Being their immediate environment, the desert became the first theme in Arabic literature or to be more specific, in Arabic poetry, which was the only literary genre present at that time.

Andras Hamori describes the desert as “the true stage for poetry in the Pre-Islamic Period” (4). The Arabs, during their lengthy journeys back and forth across the desert, began singing to themselves songs about the desert, songs which later evolved into poems that kept them company (Huart 4-5). It can be said, therefore, that Arabic literature was born out of the inspiration which the Arabian desert presented.

The political situation in native Arabia prompted the next step of development that Arabic literature was to take. I.M. Filshtinsky tackles this in his book Arabic Literature (9-10). He says that during the 6th century, the bonds that held the primitive- communal system of Arabia together began to weaken, leaving in its wake a number of intertribal war fares and social conflicts. He goes on further to say that this juncture among tribes was responsible for the creation of an Arabic poetry which was largely paganistic in nature and that the society of this time placed high value upon the skills of poets.

The Arabs used poetry as a weapon against their enemy tribes. They used Arabic literature as a silent sword aimed at the hearts of the opposing camp, not with the purpose of drawing blood, but with the goal of insulting the pride of their enemies through words. Clement Huart presented proof for this in his book A History of Arabic Literature. According to him, the poet was expected to compose satires which would consequently provoke the poets of their enemy tribes to come up with retaliating satires (7). Because of this, poetry became a social tool and poets acquired for themselves a highly-respected position in the society. In the Cassell’s Encyclopedia of Literature, it is mentioned that during this time, “the poet was a tribal artist, chronicler, advocate, publicist, philosopher and prophet” (“Arabic literature” 29).

The introduction of Islam during the 7th century shook the social status of the poets during the Pre-Islamic era. Zaki Ali, in discussing the Islamic social order, mentioned that one of the major five cardinal obligations of Muslims is the belief that there is a God and that God is Allah (19). The ideals of Islam, therefore, acted against the paganistic themes which characterized the Pre-Islamic Arabic poetry. This resulted to a temporary standstill in Arabic poetry, taking the limelight away from the poets since the Arabs were no longer as interested in the craft of poetry as before. The few poets left during this period did not do much at all. Reynold Nicholson noted that the poets of this time preferred looking back to the pre-Islamic poetry than creating their own poetry (285).

Eventually, however, there came a revived interest in Arabic literature as Islam acquired a greater following. Arabs began to recognize the Holy Qur’an, the Holy Book of Islam. Many of those who are studying Arabic Literature today are quick to point out the significance of the Holy Qur’an in Arabic Literature.

Eric Ceadel, in the book Literature of the East: A Survey, said that “…to me Koranic studies are the most exacting and satisfying of all the branches of Arabic Literature” (31). H.A.R. Gibb, meanwhile, commented that “the Qur’an is a uniqre production having neither forerunners nor successors in its own idiom” (qtd in Bakalla 137). Another comment was made in the Cassell’s Encyclopedia of Literature saying “…the book (Qur’an) is the center of literary and educational tradition” (“Arabic literature” 30).

The most obvious reason why the Holy Qur’an is considered important in Arabic literature is its contribution to a gradual increase in the number of themes. I.M. Filshtinsky noted that the poets who adopted Islam created poems glorifying the new faith (57). In this case, religion became one of the new themes in Arabic poetry.

The poets who did not accept Islam focused on themes other than religion but they did not focus on paganism either since this theme lost its appeal to most of the Arabs already. One of the new themes, according to H.A.R. Gibb, is the parallel theme, which he described as a “theatrical display of ingenuity and virtuosity, apart from a somewhat monotonous repertoire of personal taunts and indecencies” (Arabic literature 43). It was also during this time that the love poetry emerged, obviously with love as its theme (Bakalla 139).

It is clear to see that with the help of Islam, Arabic literature was already progressing from its roots. Despite the fact that they were isolated from foreign cultures, the Arabs were able to develop Arabic literature on their own. This shows that Arabic literature owes its early development to the Arabs themselves.

After the death of Prophet Muhammad, the person who introduced Islam, the Arabs, along with other Muslims of the East, executed the Islamic expansion and in less than a century, Muslim rule extended from the Atlantic to India (Yates 330). Some of the places which they conquered are Spain, Egypt, the Near East and North Africa. The expansion brought influences from the outside although these influences were not extensive and did not affect Arabic literature directly. What resulted was a gradual absorption of foreign systems of thought into Arabic literature but then again, there were really no outward signs of changes in said literature.

When the Abbasids, one of the powerful families in Arabia at that time, acquired rule over most of the Muslims in 749 A.D., they established their seat of the Caliphate government in Baghdad. According to H.A.R. Gibb, the Abbasids were able to become the ruling dynasty with the support of the Persians and other subject-peoples (Arabic Literature 46). These subject-peoples include the Indians, Aramaeans and the Hellenized people.

The influx of these highly diverse and different races along with their respective cultures mad Baghdad one of the most excellent examples of cultural refinement during that time. F. Roy Willis, in his book World Civilizations, said that “for three centuries Baghdad was a byword for Oriental splendor” (363).

The cultural supremacy which was characteristic of Baghdad during this time was highly conducive to the growth of Arabic literature. It was during this time that Arabic literature reached its Golden Age. For this achievement, foreign influences are largely responsible, for it was their arrival that spurred the Arabs to be interested in other cultures.

One of the most important contributions of foreigners to Arabic literature during the Golden Age was the introduction of literary prose. This signifies that Arabic literature was finally evolving not only in theme but also in style and genre. According to Muhammad Manazir Ahsan (1-2) , this literary prose was given the name Adab. Adab prose dealt largely with morals and etiquette and its introduction to Baghdad can be attributed to Persian scribes who gave ethical instructions and rules of conduct to Arab society. Therefore, Persia must be given credit for the integration of prose into Arabic literature.

According to D.M. Dunlop (20), the Abbasid period or the Golden Age of Arabic literature, is also considered the great period of translation in Islam. Greek works, which the Arabs received at second hand through Syriac translations, were being translated into Arabic. Aside from this, the Bible and books from Persia and India were also being translated.

Due to this contact with various sciences and philosophy, Arabic literature edged away from the standards set by the previous literary periods. It was only natural for Arabic literature to develop in this manner, since the Arabs were probably encouraged to make a conscious effort in the advancement of their literature by the diverse cultures which were introduced to them.

According to M.H. Bakalla (146), other changes that took place during the Golden Age of Arabic literature include the development of secular literature as the widening of the Arabs’ mental horizon provided them with more themes to write about. He also stressed that it was during this time that the Arabs began compiling literary works, especially those on the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad.

Arabic literature did not flourish only in Baghdad but also overseas, especially in Spain. Norman Daniel, in his book The Arabs and Mediaeval Europe, commented that “no one could question that the biggest impact of the Arabs on Mediaeval Europe was in Spain…” (80).

In literature, there emerged a poetry in Spain that came from Arabia but was slightly different because it had some Spanish substance in it. According to James Kritzeck, two forms of Arabic literature which were poetic in nature, the muwashshah and the zajal, were brought to perfection in Spain (141).

It was during this time that Arabic literature was able to give what is perhaps its greatest contribution to Spain and to Europe, in general. This is the role which it played in the transmission of ancient Greek texts. M.C. Howatson made note of this in the book The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature (59-60). He said the Arabs translated the works of Aristotle and these works were studied by other nations in the East. Later, when the Arabs conquered Spain, these works became accessible to the Spaniards, and eventually, to the rest of Europe.

As can be seen, even though foreign influence contributed much to the progress of Arabic literature, it also gave some contributions to foreigners. As time passed by, Arabic literature acquired another purpose, that as a tool for communication.

The Golden Age of Arabic literature ended in 1055 A.D.. The Silver Age followed suit. According to F. Roy Willis, that year marked the capture of Baghdad by the Turks (365). Such an event usually signified unfavorable conditions to the maintenance of any form of culture, literature included.

There was a clear deterioration in the quality of Arabic literature during the Silver Age, but it continued its growth in terms of quantity only, not in quality (Bakalla 137). This is an effect of the political chaos which resulted from the arrival of the Turks. Perhaps the reason why the number of literary works being produced did not decrease was because the Arabs might have thought that by writing the same amount of literary output, they would be preserving Arabic literature. They failed, however, to maintain its degree of quality, and this in itself was a sign of imminent disaster in Arabic literature.

Despite this deterioration in quality of Arabic literature, however, this period would not have been called the Silver Age of Arabic literature for nothing. There were also a number of positive developments during this era.

According to Ziauddin Sardar and Zafar Abbas Malik (96-97), it was then that the poetry of nature was pioneered by a certain Ibn Hamdis. A whole genre of rhymed prose was also initiated by a writer named Fakhr Ad-din Ar-razi.

The development of the narrative also took place and an example of this is the highly popular Arabian nights (“Arabic Literature” 1953 30-31). Aside from this, there was an increased interest in scholastic tradition and theological subjects (Bakalla 174).

Although there were some positive changes that occurred in Arabic literature during its Silver Age, the excellence which it possessed in its Golden Age was never equaled again. Besides, the political disorder in and outside Baghdad was becoming more and more pronounced by the minute, leaving the progress of Arabic literature slower and lesser in quality.

Baghdad became victim to the second batch of invaders, the Mongols, in 1258 A.D. (Willis 365). This resulted to the end of the Caliphate in Baghdad. It lost its political and cultural supremacy in the East. Other Eastern countries were given the opportunity to shine on their own, especially because Baghdad had taken a downfall and no longer overshadowed them.

Persian literature began producing masterpieces in prose and poetry one after the other (Kritzeck 152). In contrast, there was practically no development in Arabic literature aside from its gradual descent into oblivion. This resulted to the stagnation of Arabic literature.

The political instability that infested the Arab society must have preoccupied them and taken all their time, thus hindering them from undertaking any measure that might have alleviated the condition of Arabic literature. At this point, the evolution of the Arabic literature seemed to have take a wrong turn and found itself on a dead end street. Unfortunately, it was destined to be trapped at that dead end for four centuries.

Whatever literary activity that might have occurred during these four centuries, if there was any at all, is one thing that people could only surmise about. Most history books about Arabic literature do not offer much information concerning this era, perhaps an effect of this period’s literary ‘silence.’

If people would take a close inspection of history books on Arabic literature, it can easily be noted that the writers know a lot about literary works produced before this period and practically nothing about the said period itself. When the Arabs noticed that the quality of their literature was sinking lower and lower, they must have taken an interest in the Arabic literature of the Golden and Silver Ages. In the process of studying the literature of their ancestors, they must have preserved the literary works of preceding literary periods, which probably explains why writers of today have much Arabic literary material on which they can base their historical research. James Kritzeck, in his book Anthology of Islamic Literature, mentioned something about this, although he did not make any reference as to whether or not the Arabs were responsible for the preservation of literary works but was only talking about the Arabs’ interest in the Arabic literature that was produced before this time. He said: 

What might seem the most generous view of this period is probably also the truest. These generations were appreciating the excellence of the literature they had inherited and, evidently estimating their own talents quite correctly, did little but try to imitate it. If they failed to create new forms, at least the old ones were not dishonored by their efforts. (261)

This continued interest of the Arabs in Arabic literature, by far, is the best thing that this period has to offer to the evolution of Arabic literature. Because of this, Arabic literature was still a part of their society even if it was the literature of the past that was being valued. And if the Arabs were indeed responsible for the conservation of old literary works because of this interest, then people should be thankful for this since it made classical Arabic literary works available for study today.

Despite this interest among Arabs, however, Arabic literature maintained this kind of monotonous existence for a long time. It was only re-awakened when the Renaissance of Arabic literature took place in the eighteenth century. The Grolier Encyclopedia of Knowledge refers to this period as Nahda, which literally means the 'reawakening' ( "Arabic literature" 62). It must be mentioned that this event is totally different from the more popular European Renaissance. The latter happened at a much earlier date and involved almost all of the arts while the Arabic Renaissance took place centuries later and focused only on Arabic literature.

The Arabic literary Renaissance was a result of the first extensive contact of the East and the West. According to Dale Eickelman, many historians consider Napoleon Bonaparte's expedition to the Muslim Orient in 1978 as very significant in the history of the Middle East, since it was because of this expedition that the Arabs were forced to come face-to-face with European civilizations, leaving the profoundly affected in many aspects (29).

The Arabs thrived in cultural isolation for a long time after the Mongol invasion, since this event made it necessary for them to attend first to more important national matters such as their economy before attempting any interaction with other countries. But because of the arrival of this expedition, the Arabs must have been forced to give up their 'closed' culture. This sudden introduction of yet more difficult cultures must have robbed the Arabs of the indifference with which they treated their culture since the Mongol invasion.

Among the sectors in Arabic culture which were greatly affected by the arrival of the West was of course, literature. Once the Arabs came in contact with European culture, they must have turned to their literature, hoping to uncover anything that might prove to be of equal magnificence with the strange but efficient contributions that were steadily coming in from the West.

The Western contributions which led to a renewed interest among the Arabs not only in their classical literature but also in the creation of a contemporary one include the introduction of the first official press by Napoleon Bonaparte and the establishment of formal institutions whose primary goal was the preservation of Classical literary works ( Bakalla 185). Western influence made Arabic literature evolve into something that is of a national issue and that has become worthy enough to be argued about. It is quite heartening to see a nation which has shown little interest in their culture for four centuries fight over a simple literary matter such as this.

The Renaissance of Arabic literature is probably the best example of the advantages of the introduction of foreign influence into Arab society and ultimately, to Arabic literature. Not only was it responsible for the numerous changes that Arabic literature underwent, it also gave way to a common ground between the Arabs and the Europeans which is of course, literature. Most of all, it reasserted Arabic literature as a major part of the Arab society.

Arabic literature is relatively young in modern standards. Right now, it is undergoing its contemporary period. This period is probably the hardest to discuss concerning the evolution of the Arabic literature. It is characteristically more complicated that the previous periods since it is now more open to external influences. This is only natural in today's world wherein every nation is dependent on others for survival and almost everybody has become tolerant of foreigners. Thus, it is harder to pinpoint which foreign influence is actually responsible for the path that Modern Arabic literature is taking right now and for the direction that it is likely to take in the future.

Another condition that characterizes Neo-Arabic literature is the ongoing conflict between the traditionalists and modernists. This shows that although the West has made a considerable impact on Arabic literature, some sectors of the society consider its effects as harmful. M.M Badawi, in trying to describe the contemporary poets particularly the young ones, commented that"

One revealing feature of the New poets is their very obsession with newness or modernity...That modernity or newness has become a value in itself, is the source of both the strength and weakness of this poetry...So anxious are they to become international that they stand in the danger of working against the genius of the Arabic language. (258-259)

This conflict may be partly responsible for the new level of maturity which Modern Arabic literature has achieved. Both the traditionalists and the modernists work hard to integrate the systems of thoughts which they believe in into their works. By doing so, they are able to cultivate the best of the Eastern and Western worlds, making Arabic literature richer.

Modern Arabic literature is the fruit of fourteen hundred years of evolution. Yet it is not clear what kind of literature it has become. It is still reaping the benefits of its reawakening which happened just a century ago and like what was said before, it is quite young by modern standards. It is still undergoing a state of transition from the classical period to the modern era. H.A.R. Gibb, in attempting to describe Modern Arabic literature, said that:

Neo-Arabic literature is only to a limited extent the heir of the old "classical" Literature, and even shows a tendency to repudiate its inheritance entirely. Its leaders are for the most part men who have drunk from other springs and look at the world with different eyes. Yet the past still plays a part in their intellectual background, and there is a section among them upon whom the past retains a hold scarcely shaken by newer influences. ( Studies on Civilizaiton of Islam 246- 247)

This observation by Gibb does nothing else but reinfore the clear fact that Arabic literature contains both national and international factors in its midst. He does not say, however, what roles each of these factors played in the evolution of Arabic literature.

To paint a clear picture of how these factors contributed to Arabic literature, one must think of the said literature as a castle. Its native Arab origins make up all of the posts and beams which serve as the foundation of the whole structure. The external influences which it encountered throughout time, on the other hand, compose the rest of the castle. The foreign influences obviously make up the larger part and are responsible for giving the castle shape but the structure would not have been completed at all if there were no foundations to start with.

Arabic literature, therefore, is the literature that it is now due to the qualities which it was able to acquire from the two diverse factors that were present throughout its evolution, these two being its purely Arabic roots and the foreign influences that accompanied it throughout its growth. These two might have unequal roles in the development of Arabic literature but their significance should not be judged by how bigger or how smaller their roles were. These two are complementary for Arabic literature would not have come into being or survived at all if any one of them was absent. To put it simply, Arabic literature owes its beginnings to its native origins, its growth to external factors and its entirety to both.


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Nicholson, Reynold. A Literary History of the Arabs. Great Britain: Cambridge UP, 1956.

Sardar, Ziauddin and Zafar Abbas Malik. Introducing Muhammad. U.S.A.: Totem Books. 1994.

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Yates, Kyle, Jr.. The Religious World: Communities of Faith. U.S.A.: MacMillan Publishing Co., 1988.  

Posted by toie at Wednesday, March 12, 2008 

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