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. Farsi—the language of Iran—and Urdu—the language of
Pakistan and some parts of India—are 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 empire—first with its capital in Damascus then, later,
in Baghdad—Arabic 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 Pyrenees—the 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 language—and, indeed, culture—was
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.
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 tribe—sometimes 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
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 isnad—that is,
of quoting all available authorities and establishing their
reliability—Arab 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 sociology—Ibn 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
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