Arabic Literature's Renaissance

From Classical Forms to Modern Influence

The instance that marked the shift in the whole of Arabic literature can be attributed to the contact that took place between the Arab World and the West during the 19th and early 20th century. This contact resulted in the gradual replacement of Classical Arabic forms with Western ones, as exemplified in plays, novels, and short stories. Although the exact date in which this reformation occurred is not known, the process is usually referred to as the Arabic nahda (revival or renaissance).

The development that Arabic Literature witnessed by the end of the 19th century was not merely in the form of reformation; for both Germanos Farhat (1732) and al-Allusi in Iraq had previously attempted to inflict some change on Arabic literature in the 18th century.

On the other hand, modern Arabic literature fully appeared through the interdependence between two important movements: the revival of the classical Arabic tradition and the translation of foreign literature. Advocates of the former movement began their work at the onset of the 19th century to resist the decline Arabic literature and its styles were facing.

High quality traditional literary models were thus disseminated and imitated to create new literary models. Meanwhile, proponents of the translation movement included an array of authors such as Ibrahim al-Yaziji (1871) from the Levant, Ali Mubarak (1893) from Egypt, and Mahmoud Shukri al-Alusi (1923) from Iraq.

Both Mubarak and al-Yaziji wrote the Maqamat (lengthy literary works of rhymed prose) "Alam Eddin" and "Majma' al-Bahrain" [Where Two Seas Meet] respectively, while al-Alusi authored "Balaghat al-Arab" [The Eloquence of Arabs]. Other factors, including journalism and the literature of the diaspora, helped in shaping and developing Arabic literature.

Prominent Nahda Authors

Al Nahda

Through the 19th century and early 20th centuries, a number of new developments in Arabic literature started to emerge, initially sticking closely to the classical forms, but addressing modern themes and the challenges faced by the Arab world in the modern era.

In 1865, Syrian writer Francis Marrash published Ghabat al-haqq, an allegory which deals with ideas of peace, freedom and equality. Aleppine writer Qustaki al-Himsi is considered to have founded modern literary criticism, with one of his works, The researcher's source in the science of criticism.

Maryana Marrash was the first Arab woman in the nineteenth century to revive the tradition of the literary salon in the Arab world, with the salon she ran in her family home in Aleppo.

In 1914, Muhammad Husayn Haykal (1888–1956) published Zaynab, often considered the first modern Egyptian novel. This novel started a movement of modernizing Arabic fiction.

A group of young writers formed The New School, and in 1925 began publishing the weekly literary journal al-Fajr (The Dawn), which would have a great impact on Arabic literature. The group was especially influenced by 19th-century Russian writers such as Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Gogol.

Monument to Shawqi in Villa Borghese, Rome In poetry, the Egyptian Ahmad Shawqi, among others, began to explore the limits of the classical qasida, although he remained a clearly neo-classical poet. After him, others, including Hafez Ibrahim began to use poetry to explore themes of anticolonialism as well as the classical concepts. The Mahjar poets, of whom the most famous is the Lebanese Khalil Gibran (1883–1931), but which included other writers, in South America as well as the USA, further contributed to the development of the forms available to Arab poets.

The Prophet, published in 1923 by the Boston-based Gibran, is perhaps the best known work of the era in the West, but was actually first written in English. Gibran's associate in the Arab-American League of the Pen (al-Rabita al-Qalamiyya), Mikha'il Na'ima (1898–1989) would later return to Lebanon and contribute to the development of the novel there.

One of the main literary innovators in the later stages of al-Nahda was Prof. Taha Hussein (1889–1973), the blind child of an Egyptian peasant family who is today widely considered an intellectual giant of Egypt, and apart from his Qur'anic education at al-Azhar held triple doctorates from Cairo University, the University of Sorbonne and the University of Paris. He served as Minister of Education in Egypt in the 1950s, and was responsible for creating free and mandatory schooling. His best known book is the autobiographical el-Ayyam (The Days).

Modern Arabic Novels

Characteristic of the nahda period of revival were two distinct trends. The Neo-Classical movement sought to rediscover the literary traditions of the past, and was influenced by traditional literary genres such as the maqama and the Thousand and One Nights.

In contrast, the Modernist movement began by translating Western works, primarily novels, into Arabic. Individual authors in Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt created original works by imitating the classical maqama.

The most prominent of these was al-Muwaylihi, whose book, The Hadith of Issa ibn Hisham, critiqued Egyptian society in the period of Ismail. This work constitutes the first stage in the development of the modern Arabic novel.

This trend was furthered by Georgy Zeidan, a Lebanese Christian writer who immigrated with his family to Egypt following the Damascus riots of 1860. In the early twentieth century, Zeidan serialized his historical novels in the Egyptian newspaper al-Hilal. These novels were extremely popular because of their clarity of language, simple structure, and the author's vivid imagination.

Two other important writers from this period were Khalil Gibran and Mikha'il Na'ima, both of whom incorporated philosophical musings into their works. Nevertheless, literary critics do not consider the works of these four authors to be true novels, but rather indications of the form that the modern novel would assume. Many of these critics point to Zaynab, a novel by Muhammad Husayn Haykal as the first true Arabic-language novel, while others point to Adraa Denshawi by Muhammad Tahir Haqqi.

A common theme in the modern Arabic novel is the study of family life with obvious resonances with the wider family of the Arabic world. Many of the novels have been unable to avoid the politics and conflicts of the region with war often acting as background to small scale family dramas.

The works of Naguib Mahfouz depict life in Cairo, and his Cairo Trilogy, describing the struggles of a modern Cairene family across three generations, won him a Nobel prize for literature in 1988. He was the first Arabic writer to win the prize.

Women in Arabic Literature

While not playing a major part in Arabic literature, women have had a continuing role. The earliest poetesses were al-Khansa and Layla al-Akhyaliyyah of the seventh century. Their concentration on the ritha' or elegy suggests that this was a form designated for women to use.

A later poetess Walladah, Umawi princess of al-Andulus wrote Sufi poetry and was the lover of fellow poet ibn Zaydun. These and other minor women writers suggest a hidden world of female literature.

Women still played an important part as characters in Arabic literature with Sirat al-amirah Dhat al-Himmah an Arabic epic with a female warrior as the chief protagonist and Scheherazade cunningly telling stories in the Thousand and One Nights to save her life.

Modern Arabic literature has allowed a greater number of female writers' works to be published: May Ziade, Fadwa Touqan, Suhayr al-Qalamawi, Ulfat Idlibi, Layla Ba'albakki and Alifa Rifaat are just some of the novelists and short story writers.

There has also be a number of significant female academics such as Zaynab al-Ghazali, Nawal el-Saadawi and Fatema Mernissi who among other subject wrote of the place of women in Muslim society. Women writers also courted controversy with Layla Ba'albakki charged with insulting public decency with her short story Spaceships of Tenderness to the Moon.

Modern Arabic Plays

Modern Arabic drama began to be written in the nineteenth century chiefly in Egypt and mainly influenced and in imitation of French works. It was not until the twentieth century that it began to develop a distinctly Arab flavor and be seen elsewhere.

The most important Arab playwright was Tawfiq al-Hakim whose first play was a re-telling of the Qur'anic story of the Seven sleepers and the second an epilogue for the Thousand and One Nights. Other important dramatists of the region include Yusuf al'Ani of Iraq and Saadallah Wannous of Syria.

Ali Pasha Mubarak

Ali Pasha Mubarak was an Egyptian public works and education minister during the second half of the nineteenth century. He is often considered one of the most influential and talented of Egypt's 19th century reformers. Ali Mubarak is known for his contribution in the reconstruction of Cairo's landscape and for founding Egypt's modern educational system.

Naguib Mahfouz

Naguib Mahfouz was an Egyptian writer who won the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature. He is regarded as one of the first contemporary writers of Arabic literature, along with Tawfiq el-Hakim, to explore themes of existentialism. He published 34 novels, over 350 short stories, dozens of movie scripts, and five plays over a 70-year career. Many of his works have been made into Egyptian and foreign films.

Kahlil Gibran

Khalil Gibran was a Lebanese-American writer, poet, visual artist and Lebanese nationalist.