The cultural flowering of Islam began at the time when Europe was in a state of disintegration-the Dark Ages. When Europe at last began to emerge from the doldrums, it was in great measure due to the efforts of Muslims, who had collected and translated into Arabic many of the ancient scientific works.
The chief literary types, all poetic forms developed according to traditional rules, were the qasida, the ghazel, the qitah, the masnavi, and the roba`i. In prose, the chief genre was the maqamah.
The qasida was developed by pre-Islamic Arabs and has endured in Arabic literary history up to the present. It consists of an elaborately structured ode of from 20 to 100 verses and maintains a single end rhyme through the entire piece. The poem opens with a short prelude, to get the reader's attention. This is followed by an account of the poet's journey, with descriptions of his horse or camel and of desert scenes and events. The main theme, at the end, is a tribute to the poet's patron, his tribe, or even himself. After the coming of Islam, the qasida served as an instrument of praise to God and eulogies of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). It was a type of poem that lent itself to displays of the poet's own knowledge.
The ghazel is a love lyric of from five to 12 verses that probably originated as an elaboration of the qasida's opening section. The content was religious, secular, or a combination of both.
The qitah is a literary form used for the less serious matters of everyday life. Its main function was for satire, jokes, word games, and codes.
The masnavi originated in Persia, a country with its own ancient literary tradition. The term means "the doubled one," or rhyming couplet. The masnavi became very popular because it enabled the poet to tell a long story by stringing together thousands of verses. It was the closest approach to the epic poem that developed in Islamic literature. The Arabs rejected the epic as a form of fiction, which they felt was akin to falsehood.
The roba`i also has its roots in pre-Islamic Persian poetic tradition. Its form is a quatrain (four-line verse) in which the first, second, and fourth lines rhyme. The most famous example of the roba`i is the `Rubáiyát' of Omar Khayyám.
The maqamah is the most typical expression of the Arabic spirit in rhymed prose. It was used to tell basically simple and entertaining stories in an extremely complicated style. Because the maqamah was frequently used to display the author's wit, learning, and eloquence, it often became so tangled in convoluted terminology and grammar that it was quite difficult to comprehend and therefore almost impossible to translate. Only in the late 19th century, under the influence of translations from the European languages, did its style take on a matter-of-fact manner that made it less artificial.
The Range of Islamic Literature
The Muslim empire was enormous in size; it included a great diversity of peoples, many of whom had preserved ancient cultures and languages. For a long period, Arabic became the literary language for many regions of the empire; but as time passed, local influences reasserted themselves and native languages once again came into use. This was particularly true in Persia, where the Arabic alphabet was adapted to the Persian language.
By the 11th century, northwestern India and the region that is now Pakistan had become a center of Islamic literature in the Persian language. Persian remained the language of Muslim India until the 1830s, when it was succeeded by Urdu, which had borrowed heavily from Persian sources in its early period during the 18th century.
Central Asia became part of the Muslim empire after 711. With cultural centers at Samarkand, Bukhara, and Fergana, it was a hub of Islamic literature and scholarship, much of it in the Arabic language, until the Russian invasions of the late 19th century. A great deal of the literature of this region was also written in the Turkic languages; and in later centuries, when the Seljuq and Ottoman Turks conquered much of the Islamic empire, their languages displaced Arabic in some areas. After the 14th century, for example, an elaborate classical Turkish literature developed that was heavily influenced by Persian styles and vocabulary.
In Spain, at the western end of the empire, the Muslims created a highly sophisticated culture that reached its apex in the 10th century and continued to flourish until the Muslims were driven from the country at the end of the 15th century. It was through Spain that so many of the major Arabic works in philosophy and the sciences made their way into medieval Europe.
Periods of Islamic Literature
Three successive caliphates ruled the Islamic empire: the “Rightly Guided” (632-661), the Umayyad (661-750), and the `Abbasid (750-1258). In 1258 the Ottoman Turks invaded and sacked Baghdad, the capital, and murdered the caliph, thus ending Islamic rule in the eastern section of the empire. A weak ` Abbasid caliphate survived in Egypt until 1517, while in Spain and the western part of North Africa separate dynasties continued to rule until the 15th century.
The religious zeal of the early Muslims did inspire the beginning of two significant works. The most important was the hadith, the record of the sayings and deeds of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). The sudden death of the Prophet took the Islamic community by surprise, and within a few years it was deemed necessary to preserve all of the Prophet's words and actions. By the 9th century, the hadith had been solidified into a body of codified material to which few new traditions were added.
The Umayyad Caliphate
The Islamic civil wars and the rise of sectarian rivalries contributed to the emergence of a poetry that became a favorite vehicle for expression of the divergent points of view. The three greatest poets of the Umayyad period were all polemicists who used their verses to support political factions.
Al-Akhtal, though a Christian, was a strenuous supporter of the policies of the Umayyads. Jarir and Tammam ibn Ghalib Abu Firas (al-Farazdaq) were active at the courts of the Umayyad caliphs and their governors and were ardent supporters of the regime. The two were enemies, however, and they delighted rival tribesmen with their stinging satires against each other. The work of these two poets has furnished historians with a rich vein of material on the social and political climate of Islam during the early 8th century. They used the traditional qasida form with great effect, incorporating a wealth of vocabulary and imagination.
The `Abbasid Caliphate
In contrast to the brief 90-year period of the Umayyads, the `Abbasid caliphate endured for more than five centuries. It was during the `Abbasid rule, with its capital at Baghdad, that the golden age of Islamic literature began. In Iraq (ancient Mesopotamia) all the cultural currents of the ancient Near East came together, and members of the Muslim community - centered at the court of the caliphs - began to adapt and rework elements from all the earlier cultures.
The major poets of the ` Abbasid period were Abu Nuwas, Ibn al-Mu`tazz, Ibn Da'ud, al-Mutanabbi, and al-Ma`arri. Al-Mu`tazz, in his `Book of the Novel and the Strange', laid down literary rules governing the use of metaphors, similes, and verbal puns. His concept of poetry involved the richest embellishment of verses by all kinds of figures of speech and rhetorical devices. In time, his advice produced poetry in which the content was overpowered by style and verbiage.
Al-Mutanabbi, one of the greatest Arab poets, was in the mainstream of classical qasida poets, but his work surpassed that of his predecessors in imagination. His compositions were noted for their exaggeration, sound effects, and formal perfection.
The verses of al-Ma`arri, the blind Syrian poet, continue to appeal to some Arab readers today. Yet their vocabulary is so difficult, and meanings so compressed in his double rhymes, that even his contemporaries had to ask him to interpret them. His outlook is deeply pessimistic and skeptical, running counter to the heroic idealism of his time. He taunted the privileged classes of his day and expressed a strong contempt for hypocrisy, injustice, and superstition.
During the reign of the `Abbasid empire, literary prose also began to develop. Writers were consumed by an insatiable curiosity for all kinds of knowledge, a curiosity that led them to compile and translate scholarly works from other cultures.
Ibn al-Muqaffa` translated the fables of Bidpai, an Indian sage, into Arabic. These stories provided Islamic culture with a seemingly inexhaustible fund of tales and parables from the animal world, comparable in some respects to the fables of Aesop and La Fontaine. His translations of writings on ethics and the conduct of government are the prototype of the "Mirror for Princes" literature that flourished during the late Middle Ages in both Iran and the West.
In response to the growing interest in life outside the Islamic world, al-Jahiz of Basra wrote treatises on many subjects. The `Elegance of Expression and Clarity of Exposition' dealt with literary style and the effective use of language. His `Book of Misers' is a collection of stories about the avaricious. Although an intellectual free spirit, al-Jahiz supported government policy by writing "Exploits of the Turks," an essay on the military qualities of Turkish soldiers, upon whose strength the government depended. His `Book of Animals' has little to do with zoology, but it is a mine of information on Arab proverbs, superstitions, and traditions.
One of the most vigorous prose stylists was Abu Hayyan at-Tawhidi. His book denouncing the weaknesses of two of the caliph' s viziers (governors) for their literary ambitions highlights his brilliance and eloquence.
The rhetorical style of rhymed prose found its best expression in the maqamah, which was invented by al-Hamadhani. The master of this form was al-Hariri of Basra, whose 50 maqamahs are closer to the Western notion of the short story than anything else in classical Islamic literature.
Spain and North Africa
Despite its remoteness from the `Abbasid center at Baghdad, Spain experienced a parallel flowering of literature during its Muslim period, one that flourished under its own Umayyad caliphate. The culture of the Western land contains some of the greatest names in Islamic literature.
Arab scholars from North Africa made substantial contributions to geography after the 9th century. The geographer al-Idrisi produced a world map, together with detailed descriptions, in his `The Delight of Him Who Wishes to Traverse the Regions of the World'.
Perhaps the greatest world traveler of his time was Ibn Battutah, a native of North Africa who explored the Far East, India, and the region of the Niger in Africa. In all, it is estimated that he traveled about 75,000 miles (120,000 kilometers) and visited nearly every Muslim country. His `Rihlah' (Travels), written in about 1353, is filled with information about the cultural state of the Muslim world of his time.
The Tunisian Ibn Khaldun was one of the great social scientists of all time. His masterpiece, the `Muqaddimah' (Introduction), is filled with brilliant observations on the writing of history, economics, politics, and education. It has long been regarded as one of the finest philosophies of history ever written.