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ARABIC LITERATURE. [This entry comprises two articles on Islamic themes and values in modern Arabic literature. The first presents a general overview; the second focuses specifically on issues of gender in fiction and poetry.]

An Overview

From the beloved pre-Islamic odes, the mu’allaqat, to the contemporary novel, literature written in Arabic spans centuries, continents, and historical periods. Although Arabic literature began during the Jahiliyah (pre-Islamic period), Islam has had a profound influence on its development. The Qur’an itself is a literary tour de force, and down to the present day Islamic texts forming part of the centuries-long turath (the textual tradition of the Arabo-Islamic world) continue to play an important role in the development of contemporary literature. With the award of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1988 to the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz (Najib Mahfuz), Arabic literature became poised to play a larger role on the world literary scene.

The literature of the Jahiliyah was that of a partly Bedouin society and was dominated by poetry; the poet often acted as the oracle of his tribe. The premier art form was the qasidah or ode. The poet was conventionally inspired to compose an ode by the sight of animal droppings that signaled an abandoned encampment. The critic and anthologist Ibn Qutaybah (d. 889) links the creation of the ode to the remnants of this encampment and elucidates the ode’s structure. Although twentieth-century critics have questioned Ibn Qutaybah’s classification of the qasidah, this has by no means

detracted from the significant role that poetry played in the codification of the Arabic language and Arabic grammar by medieval grammarians and lexicographers. Both the male and the female poetic voices existed in the pre-Islamic period; the female poet al-Khansa’ has entered the annals of Arabic literature with the elegies she composed for her brother.

With its powerful imagery and its often incantatory style, the Qur’an joined the pre-Islamic poetic corpus as a literary and aesthetic model as well as a religious one. For Muslims the Qur’an is the direct, unmediated word of God; therefore it is as perfect from a literary standpoint as it is from a religious one. The speech of God is not normal speech, and its inimitability (i’jaz) becomes a topic of central concern for later theorists, both grammatical and literary.

The Arab-Islamic conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries created a multinational empire from Spain to Afghanistan. This cosmopolitan society drew virtually without prejudice from the previous cultures of local regions, spawning a sophisticated literature far exceeding in richness and quantity the literatures of either the classical Mediterranean world or of medieval Europe. Paper had recently been invented in China, and its dissemination through the lands of Islam had much to do with this literary florescence; so too did the opening of cultural channels and the circulation of ideas across an unprecedented geographical expanse. Scholars and writers might begin their careers in what is today Portugal and end them on the banks of the Red Sea or the borders of the Hindu Kush.

Most critics associate classical Arabic literature with poetry. A formalized and detailed metrical system was codified by al-Khalil (d. 791). The panegyric became a highly refined art form, as did the lighter ghazal, a shorter ode. The qasidah survived the passage of time, although its erotic prologue was transformed and adapted to new needs, such as the pastoral and the ascetic. The neoclassical duo of Abu Tammam (d. 845) and al-Buhturi (d. 897) became familiar literary names, as did that of the heroically inclined al-Mutanabbi- (d. 965). Not all poets, however, felt constrained to obey the sacred rules of the poetic genre; thus Abu Nuwas (d. 815) mocked the erotic prologue by addressing the opening of one of his poems to a tavern.

Numerous works have come down to us from the classical period of this highly sophisticated culture. One of the literary genres dominating the Arabic prose corpus is an anecdotal form designed to be at once edifying and entertaining, known as adab. To characterize it as prose can be, however, misleading. In its discourse adab can include Qur’anic verses, poetry, and traditions of the Prophet. These traditions, called hadith, are collections of the sayings and actions of the Prophet intended to serve as guides for the daily life of the Muslim. Generally recognized as the greatest master of Arabic adab is the ninth-century writer al-Jahiz. His Book of Misers (Kitab al-bukhala’) has survived the centuries, and its anecdotes circulate in children’s literature in the contemporary Arab world. The characters who populated medieval Arabic anecdotal works ranged from rulers and judges to misers and party-crashers.

Medieval anecdotal literature had close family relations to two other literary products, the maqdmah and The Thousand and One Nights. The maqamah is an indigenous Arabic form invented by Badi` al-Zaman alHamadhani (d. 1008). His Maqamat (loosely translated as “Seances”), executed in rhymed prose, featured a sort of picaresque hero whose narrative existence centered around his eloquence and his ability to outwit his listeners and gain from them. Al-Hariri (d. 1122) also made his name by writing in this genre, although his literary constructions are more rhetorically fanciful than those of his predecessors. It is his Maqdmdt that would serve as the model for nineteenth-century writers anxious to reenergize Arabic literature.

The Thousand and One Nights is a much more amorphous literary text whose stories were collected over centuries. The Nights is now as much a classic of Western literature as of Arabic. Magic, sexuality, flying carpets, questions of the body: all were part and parcel of the stories associated with the Nights. Shahrazad and her sister Dunyazad, Shahriyar and his brother Shahzaman, are the two couples whose lives set the narrative in motion. Shahrazad weaves the tales that will immortalize her in the annals of world literature, at the same time as she will help resolve the dilemma of the heterosexual couple whose instability opens the narrative. Many of the story cycles from the Nights, like that of Sindbad, reappear in modern guises in twentiethcentury Arabic writings. In these rewritings, the personality of Shahrazad holds pride of place as the female hero who can play in two arenas-classical and modern Arabic literature.

Literature flourished in the Islamic West as it did in the Islamic East. Although the maqamah was invented in the Eastern part of the Arabo-Islamic world, examples of it appeared in Islamic Spain. The hybrid literary population of that region gave birth to a new poetic form, muwashshahat, a complex poem combining Arabic and local linguistic elements. These muwashshahat can be set to music, and one can still hear them sung in the Arab world today. The Andalusian author ‘Ali Ibn Hazm (d. 1064), displays another dimension of anecdotal prose literature in his treatise on the psychology of love, Tawq al-hamamah (The Dove’s Neckring). The special development given to courtly love themes in Hispano-Arabic literature has often been linked to the rise of the troubadours in neighboring Provence.

From quite early in the development of Islamic orthodoxy, echoes of asceticism and mysticism could be heard. Generally these came from individuals dissatisfied with what they perceived to be the loss of the personal dimension in the religious experience, buried under legalistic discussions and ritualized practice. A different sort of mystical and philosophical narrative was woven in Andalusia by the physician-philosopher Ibn Tufayl (d. 1185-1186). His great allegory Hayy ibn Yaqzdn (Alive Son of Awake) had medieval relatives in the Arabo-Islamic philosophical tradition; it is a masterpiece whose literary echoes, from gender to philosophy, can be heard across the centuries down to the contemporary Middle East, where it resurfaces in children’s literature from Egypt to Tunisia. Its appeal lies partly in its plot: an abandoned infant grows up alone on an island and discovers science and mysticism on his own. He then meets another young man who also seeks shelter from his own society, and the two, after an aborted attempt at setting this society on the right path, live happily on their own island.

The competing trends of the mystical and the legal were harmonized by the great thinker Abu Hamid alGhazali (d. 1111), whose autobiography, Al-munqidh min al-dalal (The Rescuer from Error), talks about this dilemma. Al-Ghazali’s autobiography, like that of St. Augustine, recounts a religious quest. But the premodern period also boasted other autobiographical sagas, among them that of the great twelfth-century Syrian warrior-writer Usamah ibn Munqidh. His story takes place during the Crusades, and some of his observations of Western combatants in his Kitab al-i’tibar are by now classic. As an Arabic writer living through the occupation by Western invaders, Usamah has great appeal to modern-day Palestinian writers such as Emile Habiby, who do not hesitate to draw parallels spanning the centuries.

The medieval autobiographical form coexisted with a well-developed indigenous Arabo-Islamic literary form, the biography. The genesis of the biographical dictionary has been linked by some to the science of hadith criticism and by others to Arab genealogical storytelling and poetic traditions. The arrangement of biographical compendia is linked to the concept of tabagdt or classes. In tabaqat collections the biographies were divided into groups that could be arranged according to generations (as with hadith transmitters) or on levels of merit or skill (as with poets). In a possibly later development, this term was also applied to compendia limited to a given type. Biography developed into a diverse and sophisticated historical and literary genre that saw its golden age under the Mamlfiks (c. 1250-I500) and included works devoted to persons with particular physical characteristics, such as the blind. [See Biography and Hagiography.]

To read Usamah’s autobiographical text in which he discusses the Crusaders or the biographical compendia is to realize that Arabic literature is an inherent part of the political and cultural processes in the region. This becomes clearer in the modern period. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the West had a more profound influence on the Middle East than that of mere politics. With Western imperialism came new literary genres, the novel and the short story. Poetry, which has always been one of the mainstays of Middle Eastern culture, continues to be promoted and promulgated in a spirit different from that of prose.

It is generally considered that the first Arabic novel is Zaynab by the Egyptian Muhammad Husayn Haykal, published in 1913. But this point is the culmination of a process that started in the nineteenth century and involved the revitalization of the Arabic literary scene. Here the name of the Syrian Nasif al-Yaziji (d. 18’70 looms large; he penned maqamat in imitation of those of his medieval predecessor al-Harirl. Modern-day travelers who walk the Cairo streets and pick up a copy of the Egyptian monthly magazine Al-hildl may not know that this long-lived periodical owes its existence to this early revitalization movement, in which its founder, Jirji Zaydan (d. 1914), was quite prominent. Other nineteenthcentury intellectuals, such as Rifa’ah Rafi’ al-Tahtawi (d. 1873), traveled in Europe (al-Tahtawi was imam of the Egyptian educational mission in France) and wrote about it in their native Arabic. This early phase of modern Arabic literature also saw other literary experiments, including the early twentieth-century neoclassical prose works of Muhammad al-Muwaylihi (d. 1930), Ahmad Shawgi (d. 1932), and Hafiz Ibrahim (d. 1932). Drawing on the traditional form of the maqdmah, these authors composed texts that were literary masterpieces functioning as well as social criticism. Shawgi and Ibrahim were also famed for their neoclassical odes.

This early twentieth-century neoclassical experiment in poetry was not to last, however. The classical qasidah was doomed to fade away, except among old-fashioned poets. Free verse invaded the Arabic poem, from Iraq and North Africa, and dominated it. Prose poems did not lag behind, and today the field of Arabic poetry is as complicated as the political face of the region. Writers such as Salah `Abd al-Sabfir (d. 1981), Adonis, Mahmud Darwish, and Ahmad `Abd al-Mu’ti Hijazi are those who give Arabic poetry a prominent place on the regional (and world) scene.

The distance that twentieth-century Arabic literature has traveled from the days of neoclassicism to the present postmodern narratives is enormous. The names and works that loom large fill library catalogs. Drama as an independent literary genre (and not as a modern rewriting of the maqamah, as some critics would have it) appears. Because Arabic literature has traditionally been considered to be written in the literary language (fushd), vigorous debates arise over the possibilities of using the vernaculars in this high-cultural product; both authors and audiences must appreciate the artificiality of having a peasant appear on the stage speaking in literary Arabic.

One of the foremost proponents of the pure Arabic language was himself a man of letters. Taha Husayn (d. 1973), an Egyptian scholar and writer, was one of the Arab world’s leading modernizers. He penned an autobiography, Al-ayyam (The Days), that remains one of the most beloved works of twentieth-century literature as well as being a landmark in Arabic letters. The saga it recounts forms part of its appeal: a blind Egyptian boy conquers social and educational barriers to become a professor at the modern university in Cairo. Along the way, he becomes part of the student delegation to France and returns to his native Egypt with a French doctorate and a French wife. His visual handicap only accentuates the drama of this text and the cultural differences it raises between tradition and modernity, East and West. It is no accident that schoolchildren from Syria to the Sudan and from Saudi Arabia to North Africa still read this work. This most dramatic of Arabic stories, the tale of “the Conqueror of Darkness,” has also been made into a film and broadcast for millions of Arab viewers. [See the biography of Husayn.] Taha Husayn lived through the traumatic days of Egypt’s battle for independence, that precious contemporary commodity that was to spread throughout the Arab region. With newfound independence, critics of Arabic literature could now begin to speak of Egyptian literary production in comparison with Syrian or Sudanese; but in fact, tempting as these national categories might be, the major driving force behind literary categories is linguistic. Does a writer write in Arabic, or does he or she write in the colonizer’s language? Literature written in Arabic now stands alongside Franco-Arab literature or Anglo-Arab literature (to take but two examples) that comprise texts written by Arab authors, not in Arabic. The fact that many contemporary Arab writers, whether writing in Arabic or in a Western language, live in exile-combined with the transnational nature of cultural production in the world-generally means that writers from one Arab country are read in many. For example, the prominent Lebanese woman writer Hanan al-Shaykh lives in London, but her novels are available to Arabophone readers the world over. The same is true for the verse of the important Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwish.

Naguib Mahfouz is undoubtedly the name that most Westerners today associate with Arabic literature. The Nobel Prize is crucial here, as are Mahfouz’s novels and short stories portraying Egyptian life, sometimes at its seediest. At the time Mahfouz won the coveted prize, however, there were many other writers whose fame might have suggested that they too should have been laureates. Yusuf Idris (d. 1991 considered by many younger writers to be the shaykh of the short story, is one such writer. Some of Idris’s narratives are among the most powerful in world literature, rife with sexuality and exploitative male-female relationships.

In the modern period more than genres have changed. The female voice is much more important in the contemporary literary production of the Middle East than it was in the premodern period. The male dominance of most classical Islamic literary genres has been replaced by a far greater balance between male and female voices. This is true not only in poetry (where women contributed even in classical times) but also in the novel and short story.

With women’s writings have come women’s concerns, and often feminism. Both male and female literature, of course, also often reflects the political and social issues in contemporary Middle Eastern societies. Many women writers have distinguished themselves, from Morocco to Saudi Arabia, but undoubtedly the most visible Arab woman writer is the Egyptian feminist physician Nawal al-Sa’dawi. Among women writers al-Sa`dawi stands out by virtue of her uncompromising texts, from fiction to autobiography and didactic essays and studies (e.g., The Hidden Face of Eve). She comes closest to her male colleagues in her outspoken fiction, dealing as it does with sexuality and woman’s exploitation. Hers is a searing gender critique added to the class critique, familiar to Arabic readers from the work of Yusuf al-Qa’id. AlQa’Id exposes the less savory aspects of government bureaucracies, imbuing his narratives with a bleak vision that allows his characters no escape (e.g., War in the Land of Egypt). In this al-Qa`id is not too dissimilar from the Palestinian Ibrahim Nasr Allah, whose postmodern fiction (for instance, Prairies of Fever) is a desperate commentary on Arab political and social dilemmas. [See the biography of Sa’dawi.]

Arabic literature today is undergoing profound changes. Metafictional narratives and narratives rich in intertextuality are invading contemporary prose, as they have that of the West. But the new Middle Eastern literary experiment is different. Contemporary writers, whatever their religious or political allegiance, are turning toward the classical tradition, redigesting it, redefining it, and recasting it. The name most often associated with this development is that of the Egyptian Jamal al-Ghitani. He draws on the rich Arabo-Islamic textual heritage, including historical, biographical, and mystical texts, to create modern narratives, demanding that his reader intertextually link his literary universe with that of his medieval antecedents. The intertextual use and reuse of classical Arabo-Islamic materials is not restricted to al-Ghitani; practitioners of the contemporary Arabic metafictional narrative cover the entire geographical range of Arabic letters and include the brilliant Palestinian writer Emile Habiby and the innovative Tunisian author al-Mis’adi, to cite but two.

This attempt to return to the classical heritage and to exploit it in new narrative ways was predominantly, and until recently, the domain of Arabic male writers. Once again it is Nawal al-Sa’dawi who has made the breakthrough: Her two recent novels, The Fall of the Imam and The Innocence of the Devil, are attempts at a redefinition of the rich Arabo-Islamic tradition in both its more secular and its more religious manifestations.

It is one of the ironies of literature that it can be manipulated to various ends. One of the most important international developments to date, the religious revival, has played a significant role in literary developments, changing the face of Arabic literature. Despite its image in the West, the Islamist movement is not just a matter of street demonstrations or sermons in the local mosque. At stake is the control of various forms of cultural production, some of which-such as literature and the arts-have long been in the hands of more secularized and leftist intellectuals. The transnational nature of Islamism means that its ideas and advocates know no borders. Books may be printed in Cairo and Beirut, but one is as likely to find them in bookstores in other Middle Eastern cities as well as in European capitals with large Muslim populations.

This literary movement has been dubbed “Adab Islami,” or “Islamic literature.” Islamic literature is a parallel Islamic literary production that encompasses all the genres hitherto promulgated by more secularly minded intellectuals-plays, novels, short stories, and poetry. Even the terms of the debate are clearly laid out. “Committed” literature is no longer the prerogative of one group. One must extend it, we are told, to the religiously engaged text.

The nexus of literature and the religious revival has still to be fully explored. Oddly enough, this critical occultation comes about because of the unwitting collusion of different academic specialists. On the one hand, most studies of religious movements concern themselves with political and theological questions. On the other hand, Western specialists in Arabic and other literatures of the Middle East confine themselves to the enormous secularized literary production of the region, perceived as it is to be artistically serious and hence more worthy of study.

The Islamist movement is teaching us that literature is as political today as it was in the medieval period. The deep influence of the dual and complementary processes of islamization and arabization is perhaps most visible in North Africa, where many writers once consciously employed the language of the colonizer; now, in an equally conscious move, many of them are switching to Arabic.

Islamic literature is, of course, not neutral. It advocates a way of life-the religious way. (Statistically, in Arab countries, sales of Islamic books far outnumber those of secular ones.) One of the favored modern Islamic literary genres is the autobiography. The major figures of the Islamist movement have indulged themselves here, from the popular television preacher Muhammad Mutawalli al-Sha’rawi to the equally colorful blind Shaykh `Abd al-Hamid Kishk. Kishk’s Story of My Days chronicles not only his religious development but also his saga as a visually handicapped young man. In an ironic twist of literary fate, it calls to mind Taha Husayn’s The Days. [See the biography of Kishk. ]

The Islamist movement has also given rise to many female literary voices. The classic example here remains that of Zaynab al-Ghazali, whose Days from My Life recounts her religious activism and her dramatic imprisonment. In recent years, as veiling has become more popular among the educated elite of the Arab world and North Africa, many women writers are taking the occasion to exhibit not their bodies but their narratives of salvation. These spiritual autobiographies, not too distant in their aim from that of al-Ghazali, now abound on the shelves of Islamic bookstores all over the world. [See the biography of Ghazah.]

Nonetheless, the contemporary autobiography, like its other contemporary generic prose relatives, differs in spirit from its classic antecedent. Whereas it can be argued that classic literary text (be it anecdote or biography, to take but two examples) is more an expression of collective norms, the modern literary text expresses and centers more deeply on the individual. Genres may be superficially similar, but their cultural bases alter their articulation.

Examining this recent literary production that is Islamic literature alongside the intertextual postmodernism of someone like al-Ghitani will show that contemporary Arabic literary discourse is being transformed. The new Arabic discourse is one that synchronically telescopes centuries of previous Arabic literary production. When verses from the Qur’an, sayings from the hadith, or historical incidents from Usama’s chronicle are transposed and embedded into a twentieth-century Arabic creation, a new literary product emerges. Present-day Arabic literature is to be characterized as a complex discourse that partakes of cultural elements from both the rich Arabo-Islamic past and the equally rich Western tradition.

Arabic literature, whether in its more secular or in its more religious guises, is today a major cultural force in the Middle East. Through its relations with other contemporary literature s, especially Western, it participates in an emerging world literary culture. At the same time, through its frequently self-conscious relation to its own immense Arabo-Islamic textual inheritance, it adds its own distinctive flavor.


Allen, Roger. The Arabic Novel: An Historical and Critical Introduction. Syracuse, N.Y., 1982.

Beard, Michael, and Adnan Haydar, eds. Naguib Mahfouz: From Regional Fame to Global Recognition. Syracuse, N.Y., 1993.

Hamori, Andras. On the Art of Medieval Arabic Literature. Princeton, 1974

Malti-Douglas, Fedwa. Structures of Avarice: The Bukhald’ in Medieval Arabic Literature. Leiden, 1985.

Malti-Douglas, Fedwa. Blindness and Autobiography: Al-Ayydm of Tahd Husayn. Princeton, 1988.

Malti-Douglas, Fedwa. Woman’s Body, Woman’s Word: Gender and Discourse in Arabo-Islamic Writing. Princeton, 1991. Malti-Douglas, Fedwa. Men, Women, and God(s): Nawal El Saadawi Writes Arab Feminism. Berkeley, 1995.

Monroe, James T. The Art of Badi az-Zaman al-Hamadhani as Picaresque Narrative. Beirut, 1983.

Stetkevych, Jaroslav. The Zephyrs of Najd: The Poetics of Nostalgia in the Classical Arabic Nasib. Chicago, 1993

Stetkevych, Suzanne Pinckney. Abu Tammdm and the Poetics of the ‛Abbāsid Age. Leiden, 1991.

Stetkevych, Suzanne Pinckney. The Mute Immortals Speak: PreIslamic Poetry and the Poetics of Ritual. Ithaca, N.Y., 1993


Gender in Arabic Literature

Most twentieth-century Arabic fiction is informed by an Islamicate consciousness, yet relatively few authors have chosen specifically Islamic themes. Many writers question the place of tradition in a rapidly modernizing world, but few examine the religion as a social, symbolic system. Those novels and poems that have dealt with Islam specifically have three foci: criticism of the institutions of orthodox Islam; the spiritual role of Islam and of the prophet Muhammad as a counterproject to westernization; and Islamicist activism. Such texts tend to exaggerate traditional conceptions of gender roles and behaviors. Gender is here used to refer to the images, values, interests, and activities held to be important to the realization of men’s and women’s anatomical destiny. As women have added their voices to the corpus of literature on Islam, so have the understandings of gender changed.

It was in the first quarter of the twentieth century that Muslim intellectuals began to write fiction that reflected political and socioreligious concerns. Members of the Egyptian Madrasah Hadithah exposed the oppressive treatment of women and the unchallenged power of religious authorities. Mahmud Tahir Lashin’s 1929 short story “Bayt al-ta’ah” (“House of Obedience”) criticizes men who use what they consider to be an Islamic institution to crush women’s will; the “house of obedience” authorizes the husband of a woman who wants a divorce to become his wife’s jailer. One of the earliest Arabic novels is Taha Husayn’s autobiographical Al-ayydm (published serially in 1926-1927 and as a book in 1929). In this Bildungsroman that traces the triumphs of Egypt’s blind doyen of letters, the pro-Western Taha Husayn criticizes the all-male, tradition-bound al-Azhar system and its hypocritical `ulama’. He constructs himself as a strong man in defiance of social expectations that blind men should be as marginal to society as are women.

While some intellectuals were attacking the corrupt institutions and agents of modern Islam, others were invoking the power at the core of a well understood, timeless faith. The neoclassical court poet Ahmad Shawqi was one of the first to write long poems on Muhammad; his Alhamziyah al-nabawiyah and Nahj al-burdah inspired others to write about Islamic history and the life of the Prophet. The 1930s in Egypt saw the publication of fiction and drama by leading modernist writers lauding the Islamic exemplar and showing that Islam is no obstacle to progress, for example Tawfiq al-Hakim’s unwieldy play Muhammad (1936), Muhammad Husayn Haykal’s Hayat Muhammad, and Taha Husayn’s ‘Ala hamish al-sirah (1937-1943) During the postRevolution period two more important works focusing primarily on Muhammad were published. In 1959 the Egyptian Nobel laureate Najib Mahfuz (Naguib Mahfouz) published Awlad haratina, an allegory based on the lives of several Islamic prophets that was considered blasphemous and was censored. Qasim-Muhammad is the revolutionary with the widest vision, the toughest foe whom the unruly gangs of the alley had yet confronted, yet he like his predecessors was doomed to find his revolution coopted. `Abd al-Rahman al-Sharqawi’s Marxist study Muh, ammad rasul al-hurriyah (1962) presents the prophetic mission as an exploitative obsession. Each Muhammad is at once an ordinary man and a driven reformer. The women characters in the Prophet’s life are presented as at best foils to his greatness.

One of the first attempts to consider Islam in tandem rather than in mutually exclusive competition with modernity was Qindil Umm Hashim (1945) by the Egyptian adib Yahya Haqqi. It tells the by now paradigmatic tale of the rejection of Islam in favor of Western science, the failure of this science, and the recognition of the need to meld the spiritual and the material. Women act as vehicles of each culture’s values and shape Ismail’s decisions.

During the globally troubled decade of the 1960s Arab men and women began to question the role of religion in the rapidly changing life of the modern individual. While Saudi poets like `Abd al-Rahman Salih al`Ashmawi and Tahir Zamakhshari were writing pious poetry, Egyptian secularists were targeting religion. Najib Mahfuz laments the transformation of Islam into an ideology and the concomitant loss of soul in society. Several characters search in vain for an absent fatherfigure, a transparent symbol for God. These desperate quests involve Sufi masters and chaste prostitutes, the latter often providing greater solace than the former. The Sudanese al-Tayyib Salih seems less pessimistic: in Urs al-Zayn (1966), Zayn, the saintly fool, wins the love of the village beauty and assumes his real persona when he becomes united with her. Both writers create women who merely facilitate a man’s access to the spiritual realm.

While some women were writing overtly feminist texts, others turned to Islam to find a legitimate space for women as active agents. In 1966 the leader of the Egyptian Association of Muslim Ladies, Zaynab alGhazali, published Ayydm min hayati, her memoir of six years in prison under Nasser. She describes torture so great that only she, and not the men, could bear it. In a kind of gender reversal, she cites men only to demonstrate her spiritual superiority. At about the same time in Iraq, another pious woman was producing religiously didactic yet also arguably feminist literature. In the 1960s and 1970s Bint al-Huda, also known as Aminah Saar, participated in the Islamicist revivalism in Najaf; in 198o, the Bath regime executed her. She wrote several novels (notably Liqa; fi  al-mustashfd, c. 1970), short stories, and poems in which she created models of ideal behavior for Muslim women. These women are anti Western; they embrace domesticity and advocate the veil, yet they are not subservient to men; and they may work in the public sphere as long as they follow correctly understood Islamic prescriptions. They may even bear arms should the Islamic mission require it.

With the rise of Islamicist movements during the 1970s and 1980s, a few women have chosen to devote their literary talents to Islam. These women do not try to support or oppose gender bias in Islam or its texts. They see rather the hand of patriarchy at work in the misappropriation of scripture to oppress women. The Egyptian feminist physician and novelist Nawal alSa’dawi has written more than twenty novels, of which two concentrate on Islam. The heroine of Suqut al-Imam (1987) is called Bint Allah, or Daughter of God; not only is her name a blasphemy, but she also has dreams of being raped by God. Jannat wa-Iblis (1992) delves into the psyche of the Islamicist movement to expose men’s expedient uses of religion. When God declares Satan to be innocent, the transcendent binary of good and evil is undermined. Sa’dawi’s fearless condemnations of those who abuse religious privilege have earned her a place on the death list of a powerful fundamentalist group. Another Egyptian, but of the next generation, is Salwa Bakr. Her 1986 novella Maqam `Atiyah explores the relationship between Islamic sensibilities and the pharaonic heritage. Should the shrine of Lady `Atiyah be removed to give access to archaeological remains that hold a secret that will transform modern Egypt? Her next novel, Al-`arabah al-dhahabiyah Id tas’adu ila al-samd’ (1931), takes place in the women’s prison, by now a familiar place for readers of Egyptian women’s writings, where a “madwoman” assesses her companions’ eligibility to join her in the golden chariot that will whisk them all off to heaven.

Men and women have both extolled and criticized Islamic texts and institutions throughout the twentieth century. Men have depicted the Prophet as the perfect man who might serve as a model for all, and women have looked into the scriptures for right guidance in their search for power and position in society. However, many have recognized that unscrupulous individuals have used Islam to further their own ambitions. Those who have dared to speak out against such distortions have often had to pay a dear price.

[See also the biographies of Husayn, Ghazali, and Sa’dawi]


Bakr, Salwa. Al-`arabah al-dhahabiyah Id tas`adu ila al-samd’. 1991.

Bakr, Salwa. Maqdm `Atiyah. Cairo, 1986.

Bint al-Huda. Liqa’ fi al-mustashfd. Beirut, ca. 1970. Ghazali, Zaynab al-. Ayydm min hayda. Cairo, 1966. Hakim, Tawfiq al-. Muhammad. Cairo, 1936. Haqqi, Yahya. Qindil Umm Hashim. Cairo, 1945. Haykal, Muhammad Husayn. Hayat Muhammad. Cairo, 1938.

Husayn, Taha. `Ala hdmish al-sirah. Cairo, 1937-1943. Husayn, Taha. Al-ayydm. Cairo, 1926-1927.

Lashin, Mahmud Tahir. “Bayt al-ta’ah.” Cairo, 1929.

Mahfuz, Najib (Mahfouz, Naguib). Awlad haatina Beirut, 1967. Religion and Literature 20.1 (Spring 1988). Special issue devoted to Middle Eastern literature, with an Islamic focus.

Sa’dawi, Nawal al-. Suqut al-Imam. Cairo, 1987. Sa’dawi, Nawal al-. Jannat wa-Iblis. Beirut, 1992. Salih, Al-Tayyib. `Urs al-Zayn. Beirut, 1967. Sharqawi, `Abd al-Rahman al-. Muhammad rasul al-hurriyah. Cairo, 1962.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/arabic-literature/

  • writerPosted On: October 11, 2012
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