In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Arabic Language and Literature

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Early Islamic Period
  • The Umayyads in Al-Andalus
  • Fatimid Literature (909–1171)
  • The Ottoman Empire (1281–1922)
  • Premodern Period (1805–1920)
  • The Mahjar School
  • Culture Clash and Generation Confrontation
  • Anglophone by Choice

African Studies Arabic Language and Literature
Aida Bamia
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0125


There is a general tendency to confuse Arab and Muslim identities. While the majority of Arabs are Muslim, most Muslims are not Arabs. There are also non-Muslim Arabs. The first Arab conquests aimed at spreading Islam caused the Arabs to settle outside the Arabian Peninsula, extending their control over the Levant, North Africa, Mesopotamia, and the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula. The military conquests contributed to a gradual process of Arabization, even among non-Muslims. While all Muslims are required to pray in Arabic, they use their native languages to communicate among themselves, and to read and write. Some of those languages, Farsi, Urdu, and Pashtun, to cite only a few, are written in the Arabic script to this day. Two other languages, Swahili and Turkish (Ottoman), abandoned Arabic script, the former in the 20th century, with the advent of colonialism, and the latter in 1928, under Kemal Ataturk’s rule. The requirement for Muslims to pray in Arabic contributed to the safeguard of the language during the years of political turmoil, and under French colonialism in particular. An extreme example is Algeria, where Arabic was declared a foreign language, and it is thanks to the teaching offered in the zawiyas and the madrasas that Arabic survived in that country. This survey article examines the development of Arabic language and literature from pre-Islamic times, the Jahiliyya, to the contemporary period. It introduces the various literary genres of Arabic literature, including Francophone and Anglophone literatures written by Arab writers and the literature of the Mahjar. The area covered will be referred to as the Arab world, a more accurate name than the Middle East, which includes countries and cultures that are not Arabic. The Arab world consists of twenty countries, members of the Arab League established on March 22, 1945, and stretches over two continents, Africa and Asia. The literature of the Arab world will not be referred to as Islamic literature, as was the practice among some Orientalists. The approach to this coverage is historical, following Arabic literature and language in their trajectory throughout the Arab world, from the Jahiliyya, moving through the Islamic period, the Umayyads in Damascus, the Abbasids in Baghdad, the Umayyads in Andalusia, the Fatimids in Egypt, the Ottoman Empire, and ending in the contemporary period.

General Overviews

Though there is no shortage of sources in English on Arabic language and literature, the majority of primary sources are in Arabic. Despite an active translation movement, from Arabic into English, the bulk of the production has not been translated yet. It is important to approach Arabic literary texts, prose and poetry, with a solid background knowledge of Arab history. To this end, Hourani 1991 provides a general overview of the political and social history of the Arab world from pre-Islamic times to the modern period. A background on Islam would be beneficial, and Armstrong 2000 is an excellent introduction to the basics of Islam. The author points out the similarities between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Jahili literature was well served by Western scholars, and there is an abundance of published research on the topic, with a sizeable amount of translations despite the challenges of translating classical poetry, as explained in Irwin 1999, which offers a frank assessment of the difficulties in his anthology. The Cambridge History of Arabic Literature offers an in-depth coverage of classical and Modern Arabic literature. The Encyclopedia of Islam (Fleet, et al. 2007–), which is constantly updated in its online version, is an excellent resource on culture, religion, and literature. The Encyclopedia of Arabic Literature (Meisami and Starky 1998) offers quick access to the modern literary production. Déjeux 1973 is a comprehensive study of Francophone Maghrebi writers. Julian 1972 provides the required historical background for any researcher embarking on the study of the Maghreb.

  • Armstrong, Karen. Islam: A Short History. New York: Modern Library, 2000.

    The author provides a concise history of Islam, its political empires, and its confrontations with the West, including the Crusades and colonialism. She provides a definition of a modern Muslim state. The book provides a useful list of books on the subject.

  • Cambridge History of Arabic Literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983–2006.

    A six-volume series that provides in-depth surveys of Arabic literature and culture from the Jahiliyya to the modern period. The essays are authored by specialist in their fields. The titles of the six volumes are as follows: Arabic Literature to the End of the Umayyad Period; ʿAbbasid Belles-Lettres; Religion, Learning and Science in the ʿAbbasid Period; Modern Arabic Literature; The Literature of Al-Andalus; and Arabic Literature in the Post-Classical Period.

  • Déjeux, Jean. Littérature Maghrébine de Langue Française. Montreal: Editions Naaman, 1973.

    Déjeux was the first researcher to take an interest in the publications of Francophone Maghrebi writers. His presence in Algeria made it possible for him to collect works that soon became out of print. Déjeux shared his experience and advice with the researchers who sought his help.

  • Fleet, Kate, Gudrun Kramer, Denis Matringe, John Nawas, and Everett Rowson, eds. Encyclopaedia of Islam. 3d ed. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007–.

    This very useful reference work, now in its third edition, is constantly revised and updated online. For those who are not familiar with the Encyclopaedia of Islam it is important to mention that the subjects covered are not limited to religious topics. The second edition of the Encyclopaedia of Islam will be translated into Arabic by The National Translation Center of Tunisia. There is already a French version of the encyclopedia.

  • Hayes, John R., ed. The Genius of Arab Civilization, Source of Renaissance. 3d ed. New York: New York University Press, 1992.

    This wonderful book offers a wealth of information on Arabic culture, literature, and art. It includes excellent and concise essays on Arabic literature from pre-Islamic times to the modern period. Two guides for further readings, one in English and another in Arabic, constitute an added bonus.

  • Hourani, Albert. The History of the Arab Peoples. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1991.

    This is a history book concerned with the Arab peoples, their lives and culture, and the external and internal historical events that have shaped their lives. It covers the political and social history of the region from pre-Islamic times to the modern period. A series of maps illustrate the historical changes in the region. The style used in the narrative makes the book accessible to the specialist and the nonspecialist.

  • Irwin, Robert, ed. Night and Horses and the Desert: An Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature. London: Penguin, 1999.

    The book highlights the challenges facing a translator of classical Arabic poetry. The anthology begins with the classical period and ends with the formation of the Ottoman Empire. The book has a rich bibliography for the reader interested in an in-depth study of the subject.

  • Julian, Charles-André. L’Afrique du Nord en Marche: Nationalismes Musulmans et Souveraineté Française. Paris: Julliard, 1972.

    A must read for any researcher dealing with the Maghreb, for an in-depth understanding of the history of the region.

  • Meisami, Julie Scott, and Paul Starky. Encyclopedia of Arabic Literature. London: Routledge, 1998.

    This encyclopedia is limited to the literature of the Arab world and includes medieval and modern authors writing in Arabic. Exceptions were made for some francophone Maghrebi writers. Most entries are followed by a useful “Further Readings” list and “Text Editions” wherever applicable. It is a useful reference work for both students and specialists.

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