Cultural Selection: Classical Arabic Literature
We invite you to read our weekly Cultural Selection articles, which adhere to preselected themes. Knowledge and appreciation of these subjects help to preserve, disseminate, and promote elements of our common heritage of the Silk Roads.
Classical Arabic literature was directly influenced by the historical events of its time. As with other literature from regions belonging to the Silk Roads, it is deeply rooted in spatial and temporal realities. Due to sparse documentation and fragmentary evidence of literary works, concrete evidence about the early developmental stages is lacking. Nonetheless, it is known that the literary heritage of the classical period included numerous collections of poetry, maxims and proverbs known as amthal, narrative genre, and rhetorical prose. This development of Arabic poetry can be divided into two demarcated phases. The first phase dates before the 7th century CE, and includes what authors have referred to as Jahiliyya, or the period before Islam, while the second phase dates from 660.
Literary material attributed to the first phase constituted a variety of legends involving fools, cowards, crafty individuals, and accounts of mythical creatures. These were orally transmitted by poets who enjoyed immense public prestige due to their linguistic prowess. Two elaborate forms were implemented that later acquired considerable prestige, eventually being recognized as classic structures of Arabic poetry: the marthiya, strictly reserved for funeral elegies, and quasida (the ode), which served as the framework for the development of this poetry due to its unity of style and tone. Three generations of poets applied a diversity of these elements in their art. Notable pioneers of the first classical phase include Imru’ al-Qais bin Hujr al-Kindi, oftentimes considered the father of Arabic poetry, al-Muhalhil Adi ibn Rabia', Tarafah ibn al-ʿAbd, and Ka‘b ibn Zuhayr. These poets succeeded in imprinting individual sensibilities on poetic discourse that was viewed as an aesthetic, literary model for successive generations.
During the second phase of classical Arabic poetry, the marthiya and the qasida both continued to evolve, reflecting imminent societal concerns. These included the development of Islam, as well as the cultural symbiosis produced by its rapid expansion. Therefore, poetic expression expanded in directions, which encouraged exploration of the self, political commitment, and deeper meditation. As a result, poetic themes transformed, producing three new genres: the love poem (ghazal), the political poem (al-Shi'r al-siyasi), and the ascetic poem (zuhdiyya). Moreover, the development of Arabic poetry at the end of the 7th century and beginning of the 8th century was accompanied by a significant renewal of literary prose. This was evident in an intense diversification of the art of rhetoric, which reflected the eloquence of oratory discourse in a variety of themes. It was also apparent in the creation of a new genre, the epistle, written in a fluid direct style that used picturesque expressions and strongly accented rhythms. Finally, this developmental transformation was evident in the acclimatization of the fable, such as Kalila wa-Dimna, a collection of Indian fables. First written in Sanskrit, with origins possibly dating to the 4th century, it was subsequently translated into Arabic by Ibn al-Muqaffa in the 8th century. Translated into over fifty languages, it is still read in contemporary society. Thanks to the reciprocity of these exchanges, these literary forms also transferred to other languages and cultures, such as Persian and Turkish. Through the originality of their content and elegance of style, these works inaugurated a new literary period that embodied the creative contributions from a diversity of cultures that are shared today.
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