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Arabic Poetry





ARABIC

While most people know that Arabic is the written and spoken language of more than 150 million inhabitants of the Arab world, few realize that the Arabic script is also used by one-seventh of the world's population.


Millions of people in Africa and Asia write their languages in the Arabic alphabet. Farsithe language of Iranand Urduthe language of Pakistan and some parts of Indiaare written in the Arabic script. The Turkish language employed Arabic characters until the 1920's. In addition, Arabic script is used today in Afghanistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, sections of China and even in the Muslim areas of the Philippines and the former Soviet Union.


The reason for the extensive use of Arabic dates back to the emergence of the Islamic faith in 622 A.D. The Qur'an, the Holy Book of Islam, was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad and subsequently, recorded in Arabic. Thus, for the Muslim Arab of that time, as well as today, his language and the language of God (Allah) are identical. Arabic remains the primary vehicle for prayer in Islam.


As the new believers, or Muslims, spread out from the Arabian Peninsula to create a vast empirefirst with its capital in Damascus then, later, in BaghdadArabic became the administrative language of vast sections of the civilized world. It drew upon Byzantine and Persian terms and its own immense inner resources of vocabulary and grammatical flexibility. By the eleventh century A.D., this language was the common medium of expression from Persia to the Pyreneesthe language of kings and commoners, poets and princes, scholars and scientists. Arabic became the principal reservoir of human knowledge, including the repository for the accumulated wisdom of past ages, supplanting previous cultural languages, such as Greek and Latin.
Arabic belongs to the Semitic family of languages, of which Hebrew is also a member; thus, the term "Semite" refers to anyone who speaks a Semitic tongue. Arabic script reads from right to left and its alphabet contains twenty-eight characters. While it is universally written, read and understood in its classical form, spoken Arabic has undergone regional or dialectical variations.


The Arabic language developed through the centuries in what is today Saudi Arabia until, in the era immediately preceding the appearance of Islam, it acquired the form in which it is known today. Arab poets of the pre-Islamic, or Jahiliyyah period, had developed a language of amazing richness and flexibility, despite the fact that many were desert bedouins (nomads) with little or no formal education. For the most part, their poetry was transmitted and preserved orally. The Arabic language was then, as it is now, easily capable of creating new words and terminology in order to adapt to the demands of new scientific and artistic discoveries.


As the Empire spread, the Arabic languageand, indeed, culturewas enriched by contacts with other civilizations: Greeks, Persians, Copts, Romans, Indians and Chinese. During the ninth and tenth centuries, a great translation movement, centered in Baghdad, was in force, in which many ancient scientific and philosophical tracts were transposed from ancient languages, especially Greek, into Arabic. Many were enhanced by the new wisdom suggested by Arab thinkers; other texts were simply preserved, only to re-emerge in Europe during the Renaissance.


Modern European languages, such as Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian and English owe a great debt to Arabic. The English language itself contains many words borrowed from Arabic: algebra, alchemy, admiral, genius, ghoul, mare sherbet, soda and many others.

LITERATURE

Any discussion of Arabic literature must begin with the language itself. While the leading literary figures within the Islamic Empire represented a diversity of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, the non-Arabs among them adopted the language of the Qur'an as their universal medium of expression. Arabs have long considered their language a perfect instrument of precision, clarity and eloquence, as evidenced by the Qur'an itself and by subsequent literary masterpieces. Since the Qur'an was adopted as the fixed standard, a surprisingly vast and rich literature has accumulated over a period of fourteen hundred years.
The earliest known form of Arabic literature is the heroic poetry of the noble tribes of pre-Islamic Arabia. It was there that the standard Arabic verse form, the qasidah, evolved. The qasidah, a long poem, often recounted incidents from the poet's own life or that of his tribesometimes dramatically and, sometimes, with a distinctively epic flavor. Pre-Islamic poetry was transmitted and preserved orally until the latter part of the seventh century A.D. when the Arab scholars undertook a large effort to collect and record verses and shorter compositions that had survived in the memories of professional reciters.
During the Umayyad period (661-750 A.D.), the Arab way of life began to shift from a nomadic mode of existence to a more settled and sophisticated urban style. In accordance with Greek and Persian practices of the time, poetry was often accompanied by music performed by women. In time, the poetic form was simplified: the complex and highly refined meters of the traditional Arabian poetry were replaced by shorter, freer meters which were adaptable to music. Poetry and music became inseparable, giving rise to the ghazal traditions, most strikingly illustrated in the famous Kitab al-Aghani, or "Book of Songs."
Arab literature flourished under the Abbasids, who rose to power in Baghdad in the mid-eighth century. The "golden age" of Islamic culture and commerce reached its zenith during the reigns of Harun al-Rashid and his son, al-Ma'mun. Arabic prose began to take its rightful place along with poetry; secular literature was at home alongside religious tracts. Abbasid authors of this era not only contributed to the splendor of their age but also left an indelible mark on the European Renaissance.
The outstanding genius of Arab prose at that time was Abu 'Uthman 'Umar bin Bahr al-Jahiz (776-869), the grandson of a black slave who, having received a wide education in Basra, Iraq, became one of the period's leading intellectuals. Al-Jahiz is best known for his Kitab al-Hayawan, "Book of Animals," an anthology of animal anecdotes, representing a curious blend of fact and fiction. His Kitab al-Bukhala, "Book of Misers," a witty and insightful study of human psychology, is more revealing of Arab character and society than any other book the time.
The essays of al-Jahiz form a part of the large category of adab, polite literature or belles-lettres. In the second half of the tenth century, a new literary genre appeared. This was known as maqamat "assemblies"amusing anecdotes narrated by a vagabond who made his living by his wits. The maqamat were invented by Badi' al-Zaman al-Hamadhani (d.1008); only fifty-two of his original four hundred maqamat have survived. Al-Hariri (d. 1122) elaborated upon this genre and stereotyped it, using the same format and inventing his own narrator and roguish hero. The popularity of the maqamat was only eclipsed by the rise of modern Arabic.
For many people, Abu al-Tayyib Ahmad al-Mutanabbi, may have been the greatest of all Arab poets. Born in Kufa, Iraq, and educated in Syria, al-Mutanabbi appeared in the early part of the tenth century. His themes recalled the traditional Arab virtues of loyalty, honor, friendship, bravery, and chivalry.
The last great poet of the Abbasid period was Abu al-'Ala al-Ma'arri (973-1057). While al-Ma'arri's poetry reflects the pessimism and skepticism of his particular era, he nevertheless transcended his age to become one of the major figures of Arabic literature, as well as a special favorite of Western scholars.
Towards the end of the ninth century, history began to form a part of belles-lettres. The necessity for collections of data on the countries of the Abbasid empire stimulated geographical writing, mixed with travelers' observations and tales of marvels. Idrisi, in twelfth century Sicily, was commissioned to compile the Book of Roger for the Norman King of Palermo, with accompanying maps. Yaqut (d. 1229) wrote a large geographical dictionary, gleaned from many sources.
The basis of Arabic writings of history was provided by accounts of the life of the Prophet Muhammad. Since the compilation of such biographies was determined by the Arab system of isnadthat is, of quoting all available authorities and establishing their reliabilityArab history-writing was generally characterized by accuracy rather than by creative handling or interpretation of available materials. It, thus, provides the modern historian with a most accurate and comprehensive source of material. The Arabs also produced the man whom modern scholars consider the true father of modern historiography and of the science of sociologyIbn Khaldun (d. 1406).
A native of Tunisia, a government official at the Arab courts of Granada, Morocco and Algeria, Ibn Khaldun became the chief justice of the Mamluk sultans of Egypt. It was in the Maghreb, before settling in the Middle East, that he spent several years in retreat composing his great work: Muqaddimah. While before Ibn Khaldun, historiography was concerned mainly with rulers, battles and straightforward accounts of main events, the great Arab thinker was the first to recognize that events did not happen in a vacuum but depended upon an endless variety of factors previously neglected by historians, such as climate, social customs, food, superstitions and so on. Thus, in his Muqaddimah, he deals extensively with subjects such as the nature of society and occupation, labor conditions, climate and methods of education.
Modern scholarship acknowledges that, thanks to him, latter-day historiography changed fun-damentally. Of his truly revolutionary work Arnold Toynbee wrote, "Ibn Khaldun has conceived and formulated a philosophy of history which is undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time." In a similar vein, Professor George Sarton has said of the Muqaddimah "I do not hesitate to call it the most important historical work of the Middle Ages."


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: 2006-11-12 (44809 )

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