Mystery! Science Fiction! Romance! Many people are surprised to find that you can find each of these genres (and more) just by perusing the classical Arabic literature aisle in a bookstore. Upon hearing the phrase “Arabic literature” many folks are inclined to draw a blank. Certainly, most are familiar with the Quran, the Islamic holy book-which is a fair summation, as the religious text plays a vital role in understanding Arabic literature-but beyond that the head scratching ensues.
The fact is, there is so much more to Arabic literature. You’ll find daring heroes, beautiful maidens, and brave warriors between the page of a classic Arabic text. What more could you ask for? Any linguaphile is in for a real treat; Arabic literature, al-Adab al-Arabi, literally draws its name from the word “Adab”, which is rooted in the words for “culture” and “ettiquette”. You don’t want to pass these classic reads up!
Remember how we said that the Quran is instrumental in understanding the majority of Arabic literature? Well, there’s a reason for that. The book, which is believed to be written over 23 years in the 7th century, is a magnificent piece of literature written (and recited) in the classical Arabic language. Like all holy books, the Quran is believed to be divinely inspired, and therefore infallible, but more importantly-inimitable. Within the nonlinear 114 suryas and 6236 ayats of the book, sometimes stylized as the Koran or Q’uran, the doctrine of i’jaz resides, which proclaims that no written word is capable of surpassing the Quran. I’jaz influenced much of Arabic literature after the 7th century, and many works mimic the holy book’s “rhymed prose” and employ religious themes.
If you’ve never read any Arabic poetry, then you are in for a big treat when you start. Even when translated into other languages, the poetry of Arabic literature is a singularly beautiful experience. There are two main types of poetry (though they aren’t the only types) that know budding poet should be unfamiliar with; ghazals and the Sufi poetry that is inspired by them.
Ghazals originated in the 6th century, and have a very specific form: they are composed of rhyming couplets and a refrain in metered verse. While all ghazals revolve around themes of love, calling them love poems is a gross understatement. The exploration of illicit relationships, bittersweet unrequited love, and the pain of separation are an art form unto themselves.
Sufism is a mystical sect of Islam that explores the allegorical love between God and his creation: man. Sufi poetry largely came to be in the 13th century and is both raw and sweet, even all of these years later. Don’t just take our word for it, though. Consider this poem by Rumi, a famous Persian Sufi poet and philosopher:
Dance, if you’re broken open.
Dance, when you’ve torn the bandage off.
Dance, in the middle of the fighting.
Dance in your blood.
Dance, when you’re perfectly free.
Biography and History
If something in the nonfiction stacks is a little more up your alley, then the vast collections of historical and biographical accounts found in Arabic literature is just the ticket. The Islamic Golden Age stretched all the way from the 8th to 13th centuries, and it is thanks to books like the Kitab al-I’tibar, or The Book of Learning by Example, that we know what we do about that time.
Written by Usamah ibn Munqidh, a 12th century poet, diplomat, hunter, soldier, and courtier, the book is an autobiography that details life in the Egyptian court with all of its scandals, excess and luxuries and relays the author’s experience of war as a soldier and a firsthand view of life with Christian crusaders.
The book is full of interesting insights and anecdotes that are both fascinating and amusing, such as Usamah’s bemusement for the crusading Franks that he interacted with in the Middle East, whom he considered to be a bit backwards. Take this observation he penned about their justice system, in which a man was tried by being submersed in a cask of water with the belief that if he drowned he was innocent and that if he floated he was guilty:
“This man did his best to sink when they dropped him into the water, but he could not do it. So he had to submit to their sentence against him -may Allah’s curse be upon them!”
Even if you aren’t the biggest history geek, picking up one of these autobiographical tomes from Arabic literature is definitely a good idea; they’re certainly a far cry from dry and dusty textbooks.
All epics make for juicy reading, and the epics of Arabic literature are certainly no different. These tales of adventure and intrigue readers of all stripes, and you are likely already familiar with the most famous collection of epic stories in Arabic literature; One Thousand and One Arabian Nights.
A collection of many stories that are familiar to any westerner’s ear-Aladdin and Sinbad among them-have a tangled provenence. They likely originated in India or Persia, but only in kernel form-once they were translated into Arabic in the 8th century, the collection grew into what we know it as today.
The main framing story revolves around a cuckolded and bitter king, Sharyar. Sharyar, distrustful of women after his queen strays, marries and subsequently executes one new queen a night. Enter Scheherazade, our brave heroine, who marries the king and then stalls her own execution by beginning a new story every night-stories of jinnis, thieves, demons, and erotica-before ending on a cliffhanger. The king stays her execution for 1,001 nights before pardoning her for good out of love.
You’ve likely already heard a few of the stories of 1,001 nights as a child–many iterations make it into fairy tale collections. Not all of the stories from the Nights collection are child-friendly, however, which is why the collection warrants a reread once you’re all grown up–you can finally read the juicy stuff!
Ah, romance. Despite the limiting effect that the i’jaz had on romantic literature, some tales of “virginal love” (in which the lovers never marry or make love) persisted through the ages, and no examination of Arabic literature would be complete without the tragic tale of Layla and Majnun, lovers as star-crossed as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
The story goes like this:
Layla and Qays are children together, and as they grow love blossoms between them, especially for Qays, who begins to feverishly woo Layla with heartfelt poems. His enthusiasm quickly earns him the nickname “Majnun” or madman. In a cruel twist, when the time comes for Majnun to ask for Layla’s hand in marriage he is rejected by Layla’s father, who fears the stigma of marrying his daughter to an unbalanced man. She marries another, and Majnun is left to wander the desert, descending into genuine madness. Layla, heartsick, soon dies of sorrow and is buried in that very desert where Majnun, coming across her grave, dies of a broken heart as well.
There are many versions of this story, and each are worth a read, especially if you love a good tearjerker.
Science fiction? In classical Arabic literature? Why, yes, absolutely. If you’ve ever been so gripped by tales of science fiction or fantasy that you’ve wanted to try your own hand at writing a novel in that genre, you have Ibn al-Nafis to thank for it. Born in Damascus in the early 13th century, he was a prominent physician who penned what many consider the first science fiction novel: Al-Risalah al-Kamiliyyah fil Sira al-Nabawiyyah, or The Treatise of Kamil on The Prophet’s Biography.
It isn’t just the title that’s a doozy, either. The story follows Kamil, a feral, spontaneously generated child who lives on a desert island until he is one day discovered by castaways and introduced to civilization at large. Kamil’s tale morphs into a bildsroman, or coming of age tale and ends with an all-out doomsday-style apocalypse. It’s this climax that classifies it as science fiction. Kamil is an autodidact–a self-taught learner–and he uses his empirical knowledge of physics, earth science, and biology to predict and explain the doomsday, resurrection, and afterlife. Many scholars consider this to be Ibn al-Nafis’ attempt to reconcile science and religion, all wrapped up in a gripping novel. Eat your heart out, Jules Verne!
Modern Arabic Literature
While it’s true that Arabic literature blossomed for centuries before declining in the 1400s, the 19th century brought with it the al-Nahda, or Arabic Renaissance in regards to literature, with a resurgence in Arabic poetry, theatre, and novels.
Take The Cairene Trilogy, for instance. Written in the 1950s by Naguib Mahfouz, who would eventually go on to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988. The trilogy is made up of three novels, Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar Street, all named for actual streets in Cairo, Egypt. The series follows three generations of a family headed by patriarch Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad from the Egyptian Revolution to the End of the second World War. It explores colonialism, familial relationships, social progress, all around the central motif of the unstoppable passage of time. Of course, no author’s magnum opus would be complete without the investigation of that most evasive and age old question of all; “why are we here, and what is our purpose?”.
The book is still relevant today, and if you’re the type of person who can’t help but ponder the greater mysteries of life and purpose, you’ll have to put it on your summer reading list for sure.
There is so much more to Arabic literature that we’ve only just scratched the surface with this list of genres and works. There truly is something for every taste and reader, and with all of the excellent translations available to us today, each of these great works is well within reach. Of course, something will always be lost in translation, which is why learning Arabic can help you enjoy Scheherazade’s cliffhangers as Sharyar would have heard them. Or perhaps, while reading the poetic ayats of the Quran, you’ll be inspired to delve into the complex of theology of Islam. Maybe Rumi’s couplets of mystical devotion will stir your inner poet–if it does, you’ll want to learn what you can about writing poetry. Whatever piece of Arabic literature you get your hands on, one thing is for certain; you’re in for an experience that will broaden your literary horizons. Happy reading!