Modern Arabic literature has gone through 1500 years of evolution to reach its current diverse and engaging state.
It was born out of the experiences, worldview, and dreams of groups of people who originally inhabited a particular part of the world.
But since then, it has evolved. Themes have emerged and faded away. It has been touched by numerous outside influences that have grown to push out or encompass more traditional forms.
Modern Arabic literature has produced works and authors known around the world – and others that deserve much greater recognition than they currently receive.
But that may be changing as more people come to understand the value of the unique viewpoints and creativity of this rich and growing literary sphere:
Historical context and influences in Arabic literature
A deep dive into the historical context and influences of Arabic literature is beyond the scope of any single article (although the Islamic Research Foundation International gives it a good shot).
However, it’s worth touching on some of the key elements if we want to get a flavour of what we’re talking about:
1) The desert
It would be a huge mistake to view Arabic literature as purely related to “men looking out over the desert, camels, and veiled women”.
Yet, like all creative arts, Arabic literature partly owes its origins to the world the artists inhabited. For the earliest creators on the Arabian peninsula, this meant the desert.
Like in many cultures, oral traditions – singing while walking, in this case – later became poems and the first literature. The desert environment was a key inspiration.
2) Critiques of community
One of the most famous threads in pre-Islamic Arabic poetry was exemplified by the su’luk, a group of poets from outside society. Their work commented on or critiqued tribal life.
Sometimes this was genuine criticism, but more often it was designed to remind the listener of all the good things they had and the benefits of their particular community.
The “hung poem” collection of these early works is known as the Mu’allaqat and there is also a wider selection known as the Mufaddaliyat. Both are still incredibly highly regarded today.
3) Warfare by other means
One of the earliest themes in Arabic literature has been called a kind of “satire” aimed at enemy tribes.
A zajal was a kind of poetry competition that could at times replace an actual war. To a modern audience, it wouldn’t be a million miles away from a “rap battle”.
The poets of one group would create boastful lines about their own tribe or insulting verses aimed at another. The poets of the enemy group would write a mocking response.
Also not unlike modern rappers, some pre-Islamic poets who espoused this tradition – sometimes referred to as sha’ir – achieved great social cache.
4) The spread of Islam
Arabic literature had its first heyday as far back as the 5th and 6th centuries. This was before the spread of Islam, so writing from this period is sometimes viewed as “purely” Arabic in nature.
The spread of Islam in the 7th century did away with what are sometimes referred to as the “paganistic” themes of pre-Islamic Arabic literature.
5) The Qur’an and religion
Comparatively little literature was created during the initial spread of Islam on the Arabian peninsula. However, during the Islamic Golden Age of the 8th-13th centuries, Arabic literature again rose to societal prominence.
However, the themes it now touched on were very different. The influence of the Qur’an was huge. Religious thoughts and ideas became one of the key themes of Arabic poetry and literature throughout this period.
6) Islamic expansion and external influences
In the century following the death of the Prophet Muhammad, the Arab Muslims coming out of the peninsula expanded to rule a swathe of the world comparable with the Roman Empire.
People from as far afield as northern Spain, northern Africa, India, Persia, and modern Greece and Turkey all became part of one of the largest empires the world has ever seen.
The literature of these varied cultures slowly began to influence the Arab literary world. The most significant influence was the concept of literary prose.
Sometimes called adab, the idea of this kind of prose – a kind of exploration of philosophical concepts like good etiquette and moral behaviour – seems to have entered Arabic literature from Persia.
The influence of other philosophies and an expansion into secular themes and the sciences grew during this period too.
Modern Arabic literature – key themes and literary genres
Through greater exposure beginning during the 1800s, “Western” genres such as novels and plays began to be seen among more traditional Arabic literary forms.
Modern Arabic literature has a diverse array of themes and genres. These range from political discourse to cultural identity to romance. Some of the most striking and important include:
1) Romantic love
Romance has always been a feature of Arabic poetry. Traditional love poems are known as ghazal, and run the full gamut between chastity, coquetry, and… conspicuously blatant.
The love story of Antar and Ablah is often described as “the Arabic Romeo and Juliet” for its societal importance, though the stories are very different.
In recent years, romantic stories have been on the rise in Arabic literature in a big way.
2) Contemporary themes
Some of the literary giants who drove the gradual transformation of Arabic literature include:
- Francis Marrash – introduced poetic prose and French romanticism to Arabic. He went so far as to mock traditional forms to try and change the literature as a whole.
- Hafez Ibrahim – discussed anticolonialism and other political ideas.
- Muhammad Husayn Haykal – wrote Zaynab, a famous work widely believed to be the first modern novel in Egyptian Arabic.
Through the influence of the above luminaries and others, the novel began to grow in popularity in the Arabic literary scene.
Narrative prose was already a feature of some classical Arabic literature – the Book of Songs is probably the most famous – but it was by no means widespread.
From the 1930s onwards though, novels by writers including Ibrahim al-Mazini (whose Ibrahim the Writer was a seminal work), popularised the idea of the modern Arabic novel.
Following the Egyptian revolution in 1919, articles in journals and newspapers – often on politics, but ranging widely – became more of a feature of Arabic writing.
Modern Arab theatre probably arose in or around the middle of the 19th century, largely thanks to the work of Maroun Naccache.
It took almost a century for the plays to depart from their French inspiration and translations of “Western” originals and become more “authentically” Arab in nature.
Perhaps the biggest change popularised (though controversially) in plays was the introduction of colloquial Arabic in dialogue. Eventually, the controversy led to a simplified Modern Standard Arabic form that was used in performances.
Notable Arab writers and their contributions
1) (Historical) Imru’ Al-Qays
Al-Qays is often called the “father of Arabic poetry”. This is because many of his themes and conventions inspired (or were imitated by) many other writers.
In life, he was a warrior-poet who wandered Arabia trying to avenge the death of his father and the loss of his kingdom.
A classic trope he established was “ruin poetry”, where the poet starts by describing how he has stopped at a campsite and is remembering a lost love.
2) Ali Jaafar Al Allaq
At the other end of the chronological field of Arabic literature is Ali Jaafar Al Allaq. His 2022 Ila Ayn Ayyathouha Al Kaseedah (translated as Whereto, O Poem?) won the 2023 Sheikh Zayed Book Award for literature.
The work is a memoir, a reflection on his life and the craft of writing. Al Allaq has published more than 20 poetry collections and 11 books in his prolific life so far.
3) Kahlil Gibran
If there is one Arabic writer known in the “West”, it is undoubtedly Kahlil Gibran. His book The Prophet has been adored for over a century, spawning an entire genre of its own and Gibran has been called the “Godfather of the New Age” of Arabic literature.
Only Shakespeare and Lao Tzu have sold more poetry. Though whether The Prophet is really poetry – or perhaps self-help guide or loose philosophical treatise – is a matter of some debate.
In Arabic scholarship, Gibran is widely considered a genius who mixed newer romantic ideas with the traditional – a moderniser. Elsewhere, his writings are sometimes perceived as overly extravagant and sentimental – potentially old-fashioned in leaning.
But they’re also quoted far and wide – including at Nelson Mandela’s funeral – and The Prophet is incredibly popular as a gift. It is a source of the kind of wisdom that everybody sort of feels to be true deep down. It’s nice to have it presented as the author does though.
How translation expands Arabic literature’s global reach
Arabic literature doesn’t need to reach beyond the Arabic-speaking world to have an impact. The Arab world is massive. But modernly, there is an ever-increasing demand for it in the English-speaking world.
The number of Arabic-to-English translations produced in the 2000s was double the total produced in the preceding two decades. Following major geopolitical events, such as the Arab Spring, demand jumps even higher.
Arabic literature translation requires immense skill and cross-cultural knowledge though. Even legendary translators like Humphrey Davis had to work hard to reproduce the original in a way that retains its voice.
For Arabic publishers, this makes finding an experienced translation partner vital. Especially if Arabic literature is to achieve the global recognition it deserves and break from the mould of “desert sands, camels, and veiled women” it is sometimes consigned.
Contemporary trends and future prospects
The global popularity of ebooks is also being felt in Arabic literature. Worldwide ebook revenue topped £12.6 billion in 2021 and it’s predicted only to grow.
Physical books still represent the majority of global book purchases – even more so in Arabic. But this could change in the not-too-distant future.
Amazon added Arabic language support to the Kindle e-reader in 2018. Several specialist publishers are now stocking Arabic ebooks – especially in markets like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE where demand is skyrocketing.
This will be good news for Arabic speakers living in Europe, Australasia, and other places where getting physical copies of Arabic books is difficult too.
Start to explore a rich new literary world
Arabic literature has evolved over a millennia and a half from tribal poetry propaganda through the religiosity of the Islamic Golden Age to the surfeit of genres and formats of modern Arabic literature.
To English speakers, the main appeal of Arabic literature is often how different it is in both geographical and cultural terms from what most “Western” readers are used to. Legends such as Al-Qays journeying across the desert to avenge his father have a fantastical appeal too.
Figures such as Kahlil Gibran have brought just a taste of what Arabic literary traditions have to offer to a global audience. But demand for the translation of Arabic literature in the wider world continues to grow.
Explore some of the names and sources listed above to see more of the rich world that has only just begun to be exposed to non-Arabic speaking eyes.
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