The Arabic language has a rich history of literary criticism and theory, starting from the 8th century ce up to the 21st century. This literary criticism and theory engages with a poetic tradition that dates back to pre-Islamic times. The inquiry into literary quality was motivated by an interest in evaluating poetry, a general concern with eloquent speech, whether in verse or prose, and by the desire to articulate the beauty of the Quran. The transmission of Aristotle’s Poetics into Arabic also spurred interest in the poetic, particularly in Arabic philosophy. The study of eloquence crystallized into a standardized science by the 13th century ce, with branches focusing on (1) the role of syntax in literary beauty (the science of meanings); (2) simile, metaphor, and metonymy (the science of elucidation); and (3) rhetorical figures (the science of rhetorical figures). The aesthetic developed in the early criticism of the 9th and 10th centuries was concerned with articulating the merits of an idealized classical style of pre-Islamic poetry, from which the “modern” poets of the early Abbasid period diverged. This classically oriented aesthetic was dominated by a concern with the truthfulness and naturalness of poetry, typical of the style of the “ancients,” on the one hand, and the limits of unrealistic imagery and affected artificiality, which characterized the more ornate modern Abbasid style, on the other. This binary outlook shifted after the 10th century, however, to an aesthetic of wonder. A theory of aesthetic experience began to develop, therefore, which was based on the ability of poetic language to evoke wonder in the recipient. As a result, wonder-enhancing characteristics such as strangeness, the unexpected, and the rare became essential components of aesthetic judgment. Moreover, the ability of language to make meaning manifest in ways that allow for an experience of discovery and hence wonder, became the foundation of aesthetic inquiry in post-10th century Arabic literary theory.
The Arabic literary tradition is a long one, stretching back to undocumented beginnings in the Arabian Peninsula in the pre-Islamic (pre-7th century) era. The study of that heritage in Western academe began as a subset of the philological traditions of biblical and ancient Near Eastern scholarship, with their primary focus on the preparation of textual editions, compendia, dictionaries, and translations into European languages. In the specific context of studies devoted to the Arabic literary tradition, the study of the Qurʾān set the stage for the emergence of similar philological approaches to the variety of literary generic categories created within the increasingly widespread Arabic-speaking Islamic communities. The shift from the more philological approach to that of a more theoretically founded discipline of Arabic literature studies is a gradual one. Terry Eagleton notes (Literary Theory, 1983) that the discipline of literature studies—involving the interpretation of literary materials and their theorization—traces its beginnings to the early decades of the 20th century. In the case of the Arabic literary tradition, the shift can be traced to the second half of the same century, and as the result of a number of factors. In the Arabic-speaking regions themselves (in President Jamāl ʿAbd al-Nāṣir [Gamal Abdel Nasser] of Egypt’s terms, “from the [Atlantic] Ocean to the [Persian / Arabian] Gulf), changes in regimes led to the emergence of new political and social configurations, duly reflected in literary production. In the anglophone Western academic context, a consideration of the consequences of World War II led the governments of both the United States and Britain to establish commissions that led to the fostering of new approaches to the study of the regions of West Asia and North Africa and to the provision of funding for the creation of new centers and programs devoted to the modern period (however that was to be defined). Among the consequences of these new emphases was the need to offer instruction in the modern Arabic language and its dialects, thus providing students with skills that enabled them to avail themselves of opportunities to study at institutions in the Arabic-speaking world and to engage with Arab littérateurs and critics. The results of these various trends in Arabic literature studies during the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st, including the development of increasingly close affiliations with comparative literature studies, have shown themselves in a number of ways. As new centers of literary activity have emerged in different parts of the Arabic-speaking region (with the Gulf States as a primary example) and as Arab littérateurs have explored fresh genres and modes of expression (including media of a wide variety often expressed in colloquial dialect), so has literature scholarship set itself to apply new theoretical and critical approaches to the rapidly expanding publication sector. With the theorization of the discipline has come the need for a greater focus on individual genres, regions, and critical approaches and a concomitant move away from attempts to subsume “Arabic literature” under a single rubric. Such studies are not only opening up new avenues of inquiry, but are also demanding a re-examination of some of the principles and parameters governing the composition of Arabic literary history, both modern and premodern.
Orientalism in the Victorian era has origins in three aspects of 18th-century European and British culture: first, the fascination with The Arabian Nights (translated into French by Antoine Galland in 1704), which was one of the first works to have purveyed to Western Europe the image of the Orient as a place of wonders, wealth, mystery, intrigue, romance, and danger; second, the Romantic visions of the Orient as represented in the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, George Gordon, Lord Byron, and other Romantics as well as in Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh; and third, the domestication of opium addiction in Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater. Victorian Orientalism was all pervasive: it is prominent in fiction by William Thackeray, the Brontë sisters, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Joseph Conrad, and Rudyard Kipling, but is also to be found in works by Benjamin Disraeli, George Eliot, Oscar Wilde, and Robert Louis Stevenson, among others. In poetry Edward Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat is a key text, but many works by Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning also show the influence of Orientalist tropes and ideas. In theater it is one of the constant strands of much popular drama and other forms of popular entertainment like panoramas and pageants, while travel writing from Charles Kingsley to Richard Burton, James Anthony Froude, and Mary Kingsley shows a wide variety of types of Orientalist figures and concepts, as do many works of both popular and children’s literature. Underlying and uniting all these diverse manifestations of Victorian Orientalism is the imperialist philosophy articulated by writers as different as Thomas Carlyle, John Stuart Mill, and Karl Marx, supported by writings of anthropologists and race theorists such as James Cowles Pritchard and Robert Knox. Toward the end of the Victorian era, the image of the opium addict and the Chinese opium den in the East End of London or in the Orient itself becomes a prominent trope in fiction by Dickens, Wilde, and Kipling, and can be seen to lead to the proliferation of Oriental villains in popular fiction of the early 20th century by such writers as M. P. Shiel, Guy Boothby, and Sax Rohmer, whose Dr. Fu Manchu becomes the archetypal version of such figures.