Pre-Islamic literature

The structure of the Arabic language is well-suited to harmonious word-patterns, with elaborate rhymes and rhythms. The earliest known literature emerged in northern Arabia around 500 AD and took the form of poetry which was recited aloud, memorised and handed down from one generation to another. It began to be written down towards the end of the seventh century. The most celebrated poems of the pre-Islamic period were known as the mu'allaqat ("the suspended"), reputedly because they were considered sufficiently outstanding to be hung on the walls of the ka'ba in Makkah.

The typical poem of this period is the qasidah (ode), which normally consists of 70-80 pairs of half-lines. Traditionally, they describe the nomadic life, opening with a lament at an abandoned camp for a lost love. The second part praises the poet's horse or camel and describes a journey, with the hardships it entails. The third section contains the main theme of the poem, often extolling the poet's tribe and villifying its enemies.

The poets of Arabia – selections

Classical Arabic prose

The birth of Arabic prose as a literary form is attributed to the Persian secretarial class who served under the Abbasid caliphs (750-1256) in Baghdad. Ibn al-Muqaffa' (died 757) was a convert to Islam who translated classical Persian works into Arabic. He became famous as the author of Kalila and Dimna, a series of didactic fables in which two jackals offer moral and practical advice.

al-JAHIZ (776-869) developed Arabic prose into a literary vehicle of precision and elegance. Born in Basrah, he was noted for his wit and became one of Baghdad's leading intellectuals during the early Abbasid period. The most famous of his 200 works were:

  • Kitab al-Hayawan ("The Book of Animals"), an anthology of animal anecdotes.

  • Kitab al-Bayan wa al-Tabyin ("The Book of Elucidation and Exposition"), ostensibly about rhetoric but also covering history and science.

  • Kitab al-Bukhala’ ("The Book of Misers"), amusing but perceptive observations on psychology.

ABU AL-FARAJ al-Isfahani (c 897-967), from Aleppo, wroteKitab al-Aghani ("The Book of Songs"), in 24 volumes. A model of simplicity and clarity in its writing, the book gives a comprehensive picture of Arab culture and society, including songs and poems which were popular in Baghdad under the Caliph Harun al-Rashid. A vizir (government minister) of the time is said to have taken 30 camel-loads of books whenever he travelled - until he received a copy of the Book of Songs. He then felt able to dispense with all the other books.

al-HAMADHANI (died 1008) is credited with inventing the genre known as maqamat ("assemblies") - dramatic anecdotes narrated by a witty but unscrupulous rogue which poke fun at all levels of society. Elaborately written in rhyming prose, they exploit the unique capabilities of the Arabic language to the full. Out of 400 original maqamat, 52 survive.

The trend towards linguistic virtuosity led, ultimately, to a triumph of form over content. al-HARIRI (c 1054-1122) took themaqamah to new heights (or extremes) in order to demonstrate his prowess with word-play and his seemingly inexhaustible vocabulary. In one work, he used only those letters of the alphabet which have no dots or do not join to the following letter in a word. Even so, for more than seven centuries, al-Hariri'smaqamat were regarded as the greatest literary treasure of Arabic, after the Qur'an. According to some readers, wholesome moral values and subtle criticisms of the existing social order underlie al-Hariri's decorative language.

Examples of al-Hariri's maqamat 

The invention of paper

Paper was introduced to the Arab world long before it became available in Europe - and this partly accounts for the early development of Arabic literature.

Parchment or papyrus was generally used until the 8th century when the first Chinese paper was imported into Iraq, probably along the silk route via Samarqand. Shortly afterwards, the first paper mill was established in Baghdad, and others followed. By the end of the 10th century, paper had  replaced parchment and papyrus in the Arab world.

The Muslim conquest of Spain brought paper-making into Europe. The English word "ream" (meaning 500 sheets) is derived through Spanish and French from the Arabic rizmah ("a bundle").