Ideas, images, and methods of portrayal: insights into classical Arabic literature and Islam

  • Book Title:
 Insights Into Classical Arabic Literature
  • Book Author:
Sebastian Günther
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All seeing is essentially perspective, and so is all knowing. The more emotions we allow to speak in a given matter, the more different eyes we can put on in order to view a given spectacle, the more complete will be our conception of it, the greater our “objectivity.”

Classical Arabic literature is valued both as a source of firsthand insights into key aspects of culture, civilization, and society in the realm of Islam, and for the ample and significant contributions it has made to world literature.

This view is due, in particular, to the fact that classical Arabic writings echo so well the feelings, attitudes, customs, conventions, and ideas current at the time when they were composed. In fact, classical Arabic texts often seem to reflect human circumstances and developments more accurately than any other form of cultural expression in medieval Arabic-Islamic society.

 This assessment holds true regardless of whether these texts belong to belles-lettres or scholarly literature, and whether they are composed in verse or in rhyming, rhetorical, or narrative prose. Hence, it can be argued that the vividness of classical Arabic literature offers the reader an exceptional opportunity to encounter the intellectual world of Islam in which it thrived, to resurrect some of its main figures, and to re-live and learn from their experiences.

This literature permits us, for instance, to listen to the poet’s nostalgic reminiscences about the happiness he shared with his beloved, and the sorrow he feels at her loss; or to picture him paying tribute to his tribe, or to his patron’s life and warfare.

 Through it, we can become acquainted with the eloquence and sophistication of the orator, be amused by the anecdotes of the light-hearted skeptic, moved by the melancholic-philosophical views of the pessimist, or fascinated—and sometimes troubled—by the multitude of voices in the accounts of the Prophetic Tradition that invite us to share in the greatness of the time when the Quran was revealed.

Story-tellers charm us with their refined narrative techniques in relating historical, legendary, and fabulous stories. Medieval Muslim scholars make us participate in their quest for knowledge and engage us in their study circles. In their anthologies and chronicles, they speak of the precious manuscripts and the wealthy libraries they have consulted.

 They inform us about their working methods, professional goals and ideals, or their intellectual and, perhaps, political agendas. Classical Arabic littérateurs and sages simply astonish us with the explicitness of their images, the power of their ideas, and the flow of their arguments, which are so eloquently presented in epistles, treatises, and monographs.

These observations emphasize two points. First, classical Arabic writing —like literature in general—is a practice in which the authors advance or renew literature. In other words, classical Arabic literature is, implicitly, a reflection of itself: its language, rhetorical figures, structures, styles, aesthetics, and methods of argumentation and writing.

This insight is worth noting, for it encourages research to be directed toward the basic characteristics of a text, such as meaning and language; content, form and style; ideas and the means of expounding and promoting them.

Second, classical Arabic literature, with its refreshing diversity of genres and forms of expression, its abundance of concepts, intellectual discourses, and aesthetic implications, constitutes a wealth of human values and accumulated knowledge that merits full attention and appreciation. It thus presents itself as a source of wisdom, intellectual inspiration, and delight that has lost none of its appeal even in the 21st century.

Objectives and approaches

Contemporary literary and cultural theory offers the student of classical Arabic literature a broad spectrum of methodologies and approaches. These range from liberal humanism, structuralism, post- structuralism and deconstruction, and post-modernism, to psychoanalytic and feminist criticism, new historicism, stylistics, and narratology.

A number of findings advanced by these theories and philosophies have proven useful when applied to the topics tackled in this volume. Yet, with regard to the studies presented here, it is also appropriate to specifically mention two more basic—though antithetical— project models of literary research.

The first advocates approaches, methodologies, and theories broadly classed as “socio-historical,” while the second is often characterized as “immanence-based” or “immanence-oriented.”

While the first position rests on critical and theoretical processes that regard knowledge as contextually based, the second position takes the text itself as its object of analysis, and does so irrespective of such contexts as the author’s background, the history of the text’s reception, and so forth.

 In other words, the former view essentially understands literature in a historical context whereas the latter does not and, therefore, occasionally attracts epithets such as “transcendental” and “ahistorical.”2

In recent years, hermeneutics and poetics have played an effective role in grounding the study of classical Arabic literature in a more rigorously defined theoretical framework, a development that is reflected to some degree in this book.

Hermeneutics, as is known, usually starts with texts and asks what they mean; it seeks to interpret or reinterpret texts in order to gain better and, often, new insights into the human condition. It is a theory of interpretation that comes from, and is particularly useful in, the fields of religion and law (where people seek to understand the meaning of authoritative legal or sacred texts in order to decide how to act).

In contrast, poetics is based on linguistics. It starts with attested meanings and attempts to understand how texts achieve the effects that they do.

Theoretical positions of this kind direct attention to some of the trajectories taken in this book. In fact, they help us to determine more precisely a number of the major issues that this volume wishes to address. These are as follows:

  1. the genesis of selected classical Arabic texts as the products of certain milieus that include the authors’ intellectual, religious, and societal frameworks;
  2. the implications that these texts had for the reality of early and medieval Islamic society and the effects they had on it;
  3. the ideas which the classical Arabic scholars addressed and communicated in these texts, and the images which they presented;
  4. the form and content of these texts, as two main carriers and promoters of ideas in literature, and the relationship between them.

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