Foundations in Literature: The Islamic World


A Brief, Wondrous History of Arabic Literature

When I talk about the humanities, and the importance of art, and literature in particular, in the world as a whole, I struggle to articulate any coherent, empirical argument. I can say that it is an essential component of humanity, that there would be no civilization or culture without art, and that it is what makes life worth living, but for many people, nothing is true except statistics and tangible benefit. Well, that’s not the world art exists in, and I’m okay with that, even if it makes arguing my case a little harder.

But difficulty does not imply defeat; art is the foundation of civilization, and perhaps the clearest example of this connection lies in Arabic culture, to whom we owe much of our societal progress to this day. This is a culture founded upon language in the most literal way possible. Arab literature precedes the Islamic religion and caliphates, but achieves its true height and impact with the Prophet Muhammad’s writing of the Qu’ran, in Arabic of course, setting in stone the importance of the Arabic language and poetry within this new culture. Bedouin poetry was an important cornerstone in Arab society, illustrated by the tribal position of rawis, whose only job was to memorize and recite poetry, and this importance lasted into the Golden Age of Islam with the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates and beyond.

The Islamic civilizations that represented human progress for five hundred years in the so called “Dark Ages” were built upon the Qu’ran, a work of poetry in the native language of the land and which inspired massive amounts of study into the grammar of language and the artistry within. From this root grew a culture that studied science and art alike in the House of Wisdom, neglecting neither philosophy or poetry while unraveling the mysteries of astronomy and medicine. Poetry was written for all people, of all classes, and the guiding force of the Islamic religion, which was truly the driving force behind this explosion of progress, was born of the poetry of the Prophet Muhammad.

Although we may not be able to so clearly delineate the impact of literature and art on our current society, its import is no less apparent. Without art, there is no culture, no civilization, no soaring skyscrapers or impassioned speech or entertainment or social contract or beauty or wisdom or purpose. We are artistic beings, attempting to create a world according to our own image in the ultimate act of artistic expression, and we are undeniably informed by the art we produce ourselves that observes the nature of reality, truth, beauty, and humanity.

How long, O man, how long, O universe, will you erect mansions in honour of those who cover the face of the earth with blood, and ignore those who give you peace and joy and the beauty of themselves? How long will you glorify murderers and tyrants who have bent necks with the yoke of slavery, and forget the men who spend the light of their eyes in the darkness of the night to teach you the glory of daylight, those that spend their life a prey to misery so that no pleasure may pass you by? And you, O poets, who are the very essence of life, you have conquered the ages despite the cruelty of the ages; and you have won the laurels of glory plucked out from the thorns of vanity; you have built your kingdom in the hearts, and your kingdom has no end.

-Gibran Khalil Gibran

The Poet

Image courtesy of at Deviant Art


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