Arabic literature is the documented collection of the creative arts of the Arabs. This includes poetry, orations, proverbs, and writings of the Arabs. Like most literary heritage, it started as oral literary activities before the advent of the art of writing and it dates back to the period before the advent of Islam. It was however the coming of Islam and the civilization it brought that gave an organized structure to Arabic literature. The documentation of pre-Islamic literary efforts was carried out mainly by Arab Muslims who collected the oral traditions of the Arab tribes and preserved them for generations to come.
Literary historians have classified the literary eras in many ways in accordance with social and political trends in the Arab world. These classifications vary but can all be accommodated in the following:
1. Pre-Islamic Era
This period, according to some authorities, covers about one hundred and fifty years before the year of the Prophetic Call, 610 ce. Other opined that the period dates further back to the time of pre-historic inscriptions found in arab lands. It is however established that poetry was the most important literary art among them. The poet at that time was like a demi-god. He was the defender of the people’s honour, the proclaimer of their virtues, the chronicler of their great achievements and the custodian of their history. Any tribe that had a poet among them was respected.
It is reported that the pre-Islamic arabs used to meet at the Ukaz fair to exhibit their literary prowess. During such literary exhibitions, certain poems came to be celebrated as the finest specimen of the poetry of the time. These were known as the mu’allaqat or the suspended odes. Some are of the opinion that they were seven while others maintained that they were ten. These poems were said to have been hung at the Ka’abah for all to see while authorities claim that they were called ‘suspended odes ‘ because of the way they hang on to people’s hearts. Some of the poets of the period include Imru’u’l-Qais, Tarafa, Zuhair, Labid, Amr ibn kulthum, and Nabighah al Dhubyani.
Oration, during the pre-Islamic period was mainly the art of the sages, leaders and tribal heads. Among the popular orators were Quss bn Sa’idah al Iyaadi and Dhul Isba’ al Adawaani.
2. The Early Islamic Era
The advent of slam in the 7th century brought a great revolution to the Arab psyche. It introduced a totally different way of life. Themes glorified in the pre-Islamic literary arts were no longer tolerated. Individual and tribal pride were discouraged. A poet could no longer boast about the exploits of his ancestors and his clan; he could no longer terrorize his detractors with his art; he could no longer sing about drinking den and beautiful girls he fancied; he could no longer collect money from a patron to run down his enemies. A new moral code was in force and the social order had to be maintained.
The revelation of the Qur’an was a major factor in the new literary orientation. Apart from confounding the Arabs who saw themselves as the custodians of pure diction, the Qur’an also challenged them to provide a semblance of it in linguistic beauty and artistic purity. The Qur’an also introduced new dictions into Arabic. Words like Jannah, qiyamah, taqwah, and iman were Arabic words that were not in common use and those that were in use had different connotations.
The early Islamic period covers the advent of the Prophet and his four successors. During this period, oration gained an unprecedented ascendancy because it was the main tool of preaching and spreading the message of Islam. It was used by leaders of the community and emissaries of the rulers. Its use during Jum’ah and the two ‘Ids further gave importance to it while poetry on the other hands lost its appeal as there were no patrons who were ready to pay money to anyone to eulogize them as it was done in the pre-Islamic era.
However, poets like Hassan bn Thabit, Ka’b bn Zuhayr and Abdullah bn Rawahah were like palace poets for the Prophet and they sang their poetry mainly to defend Islam and the Muslims.
Writing thrived during this period as the new nation had to communicate with other nations. Because of the emphasis of Islam on education, the art of writing received a lot of patronage though the writing of the time was limited to letters to rulers and military commanders and instructions to appointed officers.
3. Umayyad Period
The death of Ali bn Abi Talib in 661ce and the rise to power of Mu’awiyyah marked the beginning of the Umayyad dynasty. The Umayyad patterned their rule on ancient Arabian aristocracy and restored the patronage of poets by rulers and noblemen. Arabic literature flourished during this period and it received impetus from the social climate of the time. The ruling Umayyad house had its poets and men of letters while the opposition, mainly the shi’ah and the supporters of the Banu Hashim, had their own too. Socio-political rivalry thus motivated the production of powerful literary works. Towering the poetic scene were the Umayyad poet laureates: Jarir, Farazdaq and Akhtal. While the oratory scene was dominated by Hajjaj bn Yusuf, Hassan al Basri and Umar bn Abdul Aziz, the art of writing had Abdul Hamid al Katib soaring in its firmament.
4. Abbasid Period
During the rule of Abbasids, Baghdad their capital city became a cultural melting point for Persians, Indians, Aramaeans and the Hellenised peoples. The translation of Greek and ancient works at the time of Al Mansur as well as the opening up of the kingdom to foreign arts contributed immensely to the enrichment of Arabic literature.
Because it was during this period that Islam came in contact directly with foreign civilisations, the cross-fertilisation of ideas that occurred added new genres to the inherited ones. Poetry and prose were both affected. Writers of Persian origin like Abdullah bn Muqaffa’ introduced new styles of writing while lovers of philosophy like Jahiz developed other forms. Ibn ul “Amid was also able to create a unique style that later influenced generations after him.
The Abbasid period is usually divided into early Abbasid and later Abbasid periods. The poets of the period were among the most celebrated men of letters in world literature. Men like Abu Tamam, Buhturi, Bashshar bn Burd and Abu Tayyib al Mutanabbi could compete effectively with any poet of any nation.
The dynasty of the Abbasids was a long one and it recorded for Islam its golden era. The institution of caliphate during this period wielded far greater authority than was known of any dynasty in history.
From Caliph Abu al-Abbas al-Saffah (749-754 c.e) to Caliph al-Wathiq (842-847 c.e), the caliphate retained its glory and strength. However, decadence found its way into it from the time of al-Mutawakkil (847-861 c.e) downwards as all those who managed the affairs of the empire proved to be incompetent rulers who were neither good in administration nor well-schooled in soldering. They dealt the first blow on the empire’s fabrics by their pursuits of pleasure and comforts. They left administration to ministers and courtiers and engaged themselves in vain pursuits.
Other factors like the vastness of the empire, inadequate communication system and the ascendancy of Turks in the empire over the Arab and the Persians further brought the empire closer to the brink of self-destruction. These factors brought together, strengthened the religio-political alliances like the Shiites, the Carmathians, the Ismailites, the Assassins and many others who banked on the internal disintegration of the empire to cause unrest at various periods. The ultimate doom of the Empire could not be averted and it came when Hulagu khan crossed the Oxus and laid siege to Baghdad in 1258 c.e and eventually took it in 1259 ce.
5. Era of Mongols and Turks
The period between the fall of Bagdad in 1259c.e. and the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt in 1798 is generally considered by scholars of Arabic literature as one of decline in the quality of literary productions. This decline was occasioned by a number of factors among which are loss of patronage of men letters by rulers, nobles and several others.
In the earlier periods of Arabic literary history, the rulers of the Arabs were Arabs who appreciated the belles-letters of their people and encouraged poets with their patronage of their arts. Their courts were always filled with talented poets who sang their praises or satirized their detractors. During this period of the Mongols, such a phenomenon was not found as the rulers were non-Arabs who could not appreciate the beauty of the language.
The second factor was the absence of strong central government for Islam. This absence of a strong central administration led in most case to a substitution of classical Arabic as the language of administration with other languages in various parts of the Muslim world. The Turkish language for example replaced Arabic from 1517, when the Ottoman Turks established their rule over most parts of the Arab world. The study of the Arabic literary arts was discouraged and knowledge of Arabic was no longer a pre-requisite for government appointments.
The third factor is the loss of contact with the outside world. As a result of the domination of the Arabs by foreigners, it was not possible for the Arabs to maintain contacts with the ancient civilization hence the mutual interaction of culture and civilization became impossible. It was in light of this fact that some people referred to this period as the era of decadence because of the fall in the standard of literary outputs.
This period was characterized by a proliferation of imitation and history of classical works. Large works of commentary, diwan and history were produced. The period saw the production of Wafayat al-A’yan of Ibn Khallikan, al-Mawa’iz wal-‘Ibar fi dhikr al-khitat wal-muluk of Taqiyy-al-din Maqrizi(12). The period also produced some of the finest brains in Arab history like Ibn Khaldun and al-Suyuti. The prose style reflected a marked influence of al-Qadi al-Fadil’s style which itself is an offshoot of Ibn al-Amid’s style. Writers of this period made an extensive use of badi’ figure like Tawriyah (pun), Tibaq (antithesis) and general verbal juggleries. The use of Saj’ (rhymed prose) and other rhetorical figures was also preponderant in their prose works.
In poetry, the inclination was towards artificiality, Emphasis was placed on form rather than content. Rhetorical adornments were given a pride of place and the loftiness of meanings conveyed was under-played. One of the leading poets of the period, Safiyy al-din al-Hilli (1278-1350C.E) is said to have employed one hundred and fifty-one rhetorical figures in one of his panegyrics on Prophet Muhammad and several other revealed in similar ventures.
6. Modern Period
As the sun of the 18th century was setting, the Arab’s literary consciousness was beginning to stir and the factors that placed the literary tradition in doldrums were beginning to slacken gradually. What however hastened the literary reawakening and socio-political rejuvenation was the invasion of Egypt in 1798 by Napoleon Bonaparte.
Napoleon, during his short reign, built laboratories, a library and a publishing house. These brought to the Egyptian psyche the fact that there were so many things that were missing in the Arab knowledge of the time. The French presence in Egypt was however very brief and the government fell back into Turkish hand with Muhammad Ali, the precursor of the Turkish Khedive line, as the ruler. It was at his hand that the first seed of literary renaissance was planted.
One factor that aided the literary renaissance was education. The need for a new orientation in education, particularly, the desire to learn from the West which was occasioned by the ‘Napoleonic’ invasion of 1798. In Muhammad Ali, the Egyptians found a messiah of education who encouraged the training of experts in various fields and also established schools and colleges where they could train others. This pragmatic attitude allowed for incursions into Western culture and ideas, which greatly helped creativity.
Another factor was the foreign scholarship and translation network. To strengthen the new link with west, the need was felt for the translation of the European sciences into Arabic. At first, foreigners were brought to teach these sciences, but the language vacuum necessitated the employment of translators. Initially, people from Syria, Armenia and Maghrib, who had the opportunity of learning the languages of these people undertook the task of translating their works to Arabic while scholars of al-Azhar would edit the translated copies. But when the Egyptian that had gone to Europe for studies returned, they also took part in this translation process. Foremost among these was Rifa’ah Rafi’ al-Tahtawi (1801-1873) who championed the translation of large volumes of French works into Arabic and the intrigues that led to the establishment language school madrasat al-alsun, in 1835.
This exposure to foreign literary productions kindled in the Arabs the zeal to reconnect with their past to bring forth the literary gems of the classical period with a view to modifying them in light of the realities of the modern period. In the field of poetry, it was Mahmud Sami al Barudi that blazed the trail. He was the questing pathfinder that exhumed the treasures of the past by producing poetry that was devoid of the ills of the so called era of decadence. It was at his hand that neo-classical poetry was born. Following him were Ahmad Shawqi who later came to be known as Shakespeare of the Arabs, and Hafiz Ibrahim and several others.
In the field of prose, the advent of journalism greatly enhanced the art of writing. Articles, short stories and dramas began their appearance through newspapers. The Urabi revolution also produced great orators and all these together influenced the change in the social outlook of the people and thus provided the raw materials for writing novels the trail of which was blazed by Haykal’s ‘Zaynab’. Though translations of western novels had begun much earlier and there were attempts to write novels based on the early Islamic history. Towering above this genre were personalities like Ta Ha Husayn, Mustafa Lutfi al Manfaluti, Tawfiq al Hakim and Najib Mahfuz.
Political situation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries later led to mass immigration of arabs from their lands to countries in North and South America. There they also produced the corpus of literary works now known as emigrant literature.
With the coming of the new millennium, some authorities hold that the post-modern has begun. Issues that dominate the literary climate are reflections of the challenges of the time. Terrorism, globalisation, interreligious strife and most recently, the Arab spring.
Arabic literature had fared well in its sojourn. It has been the mirror of Arab experiences over time. When time wore the garment of prosperity, their literature had reflected it and when it wears the gaunt looks of austerity, it has not failed to capture it.