The Disciplines of Arabic Literature
- Roger AllenRoger AllenUniversity of Pennsylvania Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations
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.