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.
Arabic Literary Theory
Form and History in Modern Arabic Poetics
Modern Arabic poetic forms developed in conversation with the rich Arabic poetic tradition, on one hand, and the Western literary traditions, primarily English and French, on the other. In light of the drastic social and political changes that swept the Arab world in the first half of the 20th century, Western influences often appear in the scholarship on the period to be more prevalent and operative in the rise of the modernist movement. Nevertheless, one of the fundamental forces that drove the movement from its early phases is its urgent preoccupation with the Arabic poetic heritage and its investment in forging a new relationship with the literary past. The history of poetic forms in the first half of the 20th century reveals much about the dynamics between margin and center, old and new, commitment and escapism, autochthonous and outside imperatives. Arabic poetry in the 20th century reflects the political and social upheavals in Arab life. The poetic forms which emerged between the late 1940s and early 1960s presented themselves as aesthetically and ideologically revolutionary. The modernist poets were committed to a project of change in the poem and beyond. Developments from the qas̩īdah of the late 19th century to the prose poem of the 1960s and the notion of writing (kitābah) after that suggest an increased loosening or abandoning of formal restrictions. However, the contending poetic proposals, from the most formal to the most experimental, all continue to coexist in the Arabic poetic landscape in the 21st century. The tensions and negotiations between them are what often lead to the most creative poetic breakthroughs.
Gender, Authorship, and Translation in Modern Arabic Literature of the Mashriq
Among the many challenges facing Arabic literature in translation, the question of gender has historically been one of the most fraught, particularly as it presses upon Arab women writers. The persistence of Orientalist tropes such as the veil and the harem; the continual othering of the exotic and supposedly untranslatable East; the frequent lumping together of Arab, Muslim, and Middle Eastern identities; the slippage between memoir, or autobiography, and fiction; and the tendency to isolate gender issues from their political, historical, and social contexts—these are some of the many phenomena that scholars and translators have examined in the Western academy. Some issues, such as the burden of mimesis, the tendency to depoliticize the work of controversial authors, and the continual association of Arabic with the Qurʾān (and thereby with the untranslatable and the sacred), face all works of Arabic in their translation for the English-language marketplace. Other issues, such as the stereotyping of Arab women as either helpless victims, exceptional escapees, or deluded pawns of Arab patriarchy, in Mohja Kahf’s reading, affect Arab women’s writing (and literature featuring Arab women characters) with particular force. Many scholars have highlighted the division between the simplistic, flattening representations of Arab women writers offered in mainstream Western publishing and the more nuanced, literarily sensitive presentations in translated works published by small, specialist, and university presses. Pressing issues of genre are also at play: the desire among American publics for a sociological, ethnographic “glimpse behind the veil” of Middle Eastern society has created a preference for both documentary memoirs and mimetic–realist works of fiction that has drawn attention away from works of experimental prose and—most notably—from poetry. Whereas male poets such as the Palestinian Maḥmūd Darwīsh (Mahmoud Darwish) and the Syro-Lebanese Adūnīs (Adunis) have multiple discrete volumes in English translation, Arab women tend to be confined to the realm of anthologies, where one or two poems are meant to represent an entire life of variegated poetic creation, and where the emphasis on their personal identity (“Arab woman”) is highlighted above their role in a more complex literary, social, and historical world. Although several contemporary poets have managed to break from the anthology loop, early-21st-century works in translation suggest that the stereotype of the Muslim woman in need of “saving” has not yet gone away. Still, scholars and translators have also offered numerous strategies and tactics for “rewiring the circuits” that govern the representation of Arab women in the West.
Race and Blackness in Premodern Arabic Literature
The signal works of poetry that prominently feature racialized Blackness in early Arabic literature (c. ad 500–1250) include works composed by authors of Afro-Arab heritage as well as by Arab authors who satirized and panegyrized Black subjects. These poets include the pre-Islamic author ʿAntarah ibn Shaddād and the ʿAbbasid-era figures al-Mutanabbī and Ibn al-Rūmī, and thus reflect the shift, across an extensive timeline, from a local, Bedouin poetics to a self-styled cosmopolitan, courtly aesthetic characterized as muḥdath, or modernist. The works are situated not only within the changing conventions of genre, but also within an arc that traces the emergence of new race concepts and racialized social institutions in the transition from the pre-Islamic era to Islam and from the early conquests to ʿAbbasid imperialization. Critical instances of these works’ intertextual movements demonstrate how racial logic accretes in various Arab-Muslim textual traditions, showing how poetry intersects with popular epic as well as high literary geographical, ethnological, and commentarial corpuses. As verse moves across a myriad of later literary forms, its context-specific representations of racial difference are recontextualized and received in ways that contribute to a broader transregional and transtemporal discourse of racialized Blackness.