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Muslims and the Arabic Literature

MIT
4/28/2014
5663 views

The Arabs have known literary skills long before the advent of Islam. And if the origin or start of such literature as Latin and Byzantine literature can be traced and known, that of the Arabic literature cannot, and this is because it is far older than the literary materials and pieces that are found today. Muslims might have learnt a lot from the Romans, only that they never really borrowed anything from their literature, as much as the Arabic literature did not get any significant impact from the Roman.

The Qur'an, the holy book of the Islamic faith, is considered the most outstanding of the first Arabic books. Its style, at once vigorous, allusive, and concise, deeply influenced later compositions in Arabic, as it continues to color the mode of expression of native speakers of Arabic, both in writing and in conversation. Although, there had been a lot of other books before it such as the Mu'alaqqat (the highly ranked poems of the best Arab poets that used to be  hanged on the walls of the Ka'abah).

The language used in the Qur'an is called classical Arabic, and while modern Arabic is very similar, the classical is still the style to be admired. Not only is the Qur'an the first work of any significant length written in the language it also has a far more complicated structure than the earlier literary works with its 114 Surahs (chapters) which contain 6,236 Ayat (verses). It contains injunctions, narratives, parables, direct addresses and instructions from God, and even comments on itself on how it will be received and understood. It is also, paradoxically, admired for its layers of metaphor as well as its clarity, a feature it mentions itself in Surah 16:103.

Although it contains elements of both prose and poetry, and therefore is closest to Saj or rhymed prose, the Qur'an is regarded as entirely apart from these classifications. The text is a divine revelation  and it is eternal or 'uncreated'. This leads to the doctrine of I'ijaz or inimitability of the Qur'an which implies that nobody can copy the work's style.

(أَمْ يَقُولُونَ افْتَرَاهُ قُلْ فَأْتُوا بِعَشْرِ سُوَرٍ مِثْلِهِ مُفْتَرَيَاتٍ وَادْعُوا مَنِ اسْتَطَعْتُمْ مِنْ دُونِ اللَّهِ إِنْ كُنْتُمْ صَادِقِينَ)

"…Say, Bring you then ten chapters like unto it, and call whomsoever you can, other than God, if you speak the truth!" (Q11:13)

The hadith also determined the characteristic form of such works as Ibn Ishaq's Life of the Messenger of Allah, originally written in the middle of the eighth century. In this book, hadith dealing with the life of the Prophet (peace be upon him) are arranged in chronological order, and the comments of the author are kept to a minimum. Events are seen through the eyes of the people who witnessed them; three or four versions of the same event are often given, and in each case the "chain of transmission" of the hadith is given, so that the reader may judge its authenticity.

The practice of prefacing a chain of authorities to each hadith led to the compilation of vast biographical dictionaries, like the Book of Classes of the early ninth century author Ibn Said, which includes a biography of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and a great deal of information on notable personalities in Mecca and Medina during his lifetime. Works such as this allowed readers to identify and judge the veracity of transmitters of hadith; later, the content of biographical dictionaries was broadened to include poets, writers, eminent reciters of the Qur'an, scientists, and the like. These biographical dictionaries are often lively reading, and are a mine of information about social and political circumstances in the Islamic world.

Poetry has always been considered the highest expression of literary art among the Arabs. Long before the coming of Islam, Bedouin poets had perfected the forms of panegyric, satire, and elegy. Their poetry obeys strict conventions, both in form and content, which indicates that it must have had a long period of development before it was finally committed to writing by scholars.

The Muslim poets and scholars contributed greatly to literary studies generally and  Arabic literature specifically in such areas of literature as poem, prose, drama and so on. Great poets such as Imru al-Qais, Antarah bin Shaddad, Zuhair bin Abi Salma, and a host of others wrote the famous anthology of poems known as Mu'alaqaat . The major style used by the desert poets was the Qasidah or ode, a poem of variable length rhyming in the last syllable of each line. Different kinds of prose availed ranging from messages, to oratory, stories and  Maqamat (short stories).

In the Hijaz during the first century of Islam, contemporary with the first hadith scholars, a group of poets broke with the past and introduced new forms and subjects. Men like 'Umar ibn Abi Rabi'ah wrote realistic and urbane verse, and a school of poetry which expressed the themes of Platonic love grew up around the poet Jamil ibn Muiammar, better known as Jamil al-'Udhri. The lives and works of these poets of the Umayyad period are preserved in the entertaining tenth-century anthology by Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani, the Book of Songs.

The Umayyad court in Damascus patronized poets and musicians. It was also the scene of the development of the type of Arabic literature called adab. Adab is usually translated as "belles-lettres," which is slightly misleading.

By the ninth century, Arabic literature had entered its classical age. The various genres had been defined - adab, history, Quranic exegesis, geography, biography, poetry, satire, and many more. Al-Jahiz was perhaps the greatest stylist of the age, and one of the most original personalities. He wrote more than two hundred books, on every conceivable subject; he was critical, rational, and always amusing. He wrote one of the earliest and best treatises on rhetoric and a large number of amusing essays. By the time of his death at the age of ninety-six he had shown that Arabic prose was capable of handling any subject with ease. The most gifted of al-Jahiz's contemporaries was probably Ibn Qutaybah, also a writer of encyclopedic learning and an excellent stylist. His Book of Knowledge, a history of the world beginning with the creation, is the earliest work of its kind and later had many imitators.

The tenth century witnessed the creation of a new form in Arabic literature, the maqamat. This was the title of a work by al-Hamadhani, called Badi' al-Zaman, "The Wonder of the Age." His Maqamat ("Sessions") is a series of episodes written in rhymed prose concerning the life of Abu al-Fath al-Iskandari, a sort of confidence trickster, who takes on a different personality in each story and always succeeds in bilking his victims. These stories are witty and packed with action, and were immediately popular. Al-Hamadhani was imitated by al-Hariri a hundred years later. Al-Hariri was a linguistic virtuoso, and his Maqamat is filled with obscure words, alliteration, puns, and wild metaphors. He too was extremely popular, and many learned commentaries were written on his Maqamat. This purely Arab form can most closely be compared with the Spanish picaresque novels, which it may have influenced.

Rhymed prose, which had come to be used even in government documents, was employed by Abu al-'Ala al-Ma'arri in his Message of Forgiveness, one of the best known of Arabic prose works. Al-Ma'arri lived in the eleventh century, leading an ascetic life in his native Syrian village. Blind from the age of four, he possessed a prodigious memory and great intellectual curiosity and skepticism. The Message of Forgiveness is cast in the form of a journey to paradise; the narrator there interrogates the scholars and poets of the past regarding their lives and works, receiving surprising and often ironic responses. The book is an extended critique of literature and philology, and represents a high point of classical Arabic culture.

One of the other great figures of late classical literature was the poet al-Mutanabbi, whose skill in handling the complex meters of Arabic poetry was probably unsurpassed. His verbal brilliance has always been admired by Arab critics, although it is difficult for those whose

There were also some original works, however. Ibn Battutah, the greatest traveler of the Middle Ages, lived in the fourteenth century, and his Travel provide a fascinating picture of the Muslim world, from the islands of the Indian Ocean to Timbuktu. Ibn Khaldun, like Ibn Battutah a native of North Africa, lived in the later fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. His Prolegomena is a work of brilliance and originality; the author analyzes human society in terms of general sociological laws and gives a lucid account of the factors that contribute to the rise and decline of civilizations. Ibn Khaldun's style is innovative, simple, and very personal, and perfectly suited to the expression of his often difficult ideas.

One of the first leaders of the Arabic literary renaissance was the Lebanese writer and scholar Butrus al-Bustani, whose dictionary and encyclopedia awakened great interest in the problems of expressing modern Western ideas in the Arabic language. His nephew Sulayman translated Homer's Iliad into Arabic, thus making one of the first expressions of Western literature accessible to the Arabic-reading public. Other writers, such as the Egyptian Mustafa al-Manfaluti, adapted French romantic novels to the tastes of the Arab public, as well as writing elegant essays on a variety of themes.

The historical novel, in the hands of Jurji Zaydan, proved immensely popular, perhaps because of the intense interest Arabs have always had in their past, and because of the novelty of a new form. But the first Arabic novel that can rank with European productions is Muhammad Husayn Haykal's Zaynab, set in Egypt and dealing with local problems.

Perhaps the greatest figure in modern Arabic literature is Taha Husayn. Blind from an early age, Taha Husayn wrote movingly of his life and beloved Egypt in his autobiography, al-Ayyam, "The Days." Taha Husayn was a graduate of both al-Azhar and the Sorbonne, and his voluminous writings on Arabic literature contributed a new critique of this vast subject. Traditional forms and subjects were challenged by 'Abbas Mahmud al-'Aqqad, Mahmud Shukri, and Ibrahim al-Mazini, who strove to introduce nineteenth-century European themes and techniques into Arabic, not always with success. Lebanese poets were in the forefront of modernist verse, and one of them, Gibran Kahlil Gibran, proved very popular in the West. Poets are now experimenting with both old and new techniques, although discussions of form have given way to concern for content. The exodus of Palestinians from their native land has become a favorite theme, often movingly handled.

 






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