Ancient Arab literature
Regional, Literature, 4/2/1998
The cradle of ancient Arab literature was in the deserts and steppes of central and northern Arabia, and there Arabic poetry reached an extent of excellence which was subsequently never surpassed.
The people were nomads, their life was desperately monotonous, the prevailing famines were broken only occasionally by a year of plenty, the struggle for existence was desperate and the terrain was forbidding. Yet it was just for those reasons that the language became so highly developed, compelling an inner resource of synonym and variety to compensate for the harshness of the external environment. The first age was in fact the "Heroic Age", lasting from 500 to 622 AD.
Arabic poetry was at first preserved in memory alone in an oral tradition. One reciter was said to have been able to recite two thousand, nine hundred poems.
Arab literature has its Shakespeare, Milton, Browning and all the others. The chief place must be given to Muallaqat, a collection of seven odes which is usually supplemented by three more, Imrul Qays, Antara, Zuheir Bin Abi Sulma, Labid and such names are the glory of ancient Arab literature.
Anthologies such as the Hamasa, al-Mutannabi and the Kitab al-Aghani, among others, are as familiar to the educated Arab as the "Oxford Book of Verse" is to the Europeans. The poets flourished through the era of Arab supremacy, but never again equaled those of the Heroic Age, as in English literature where the Elizabethan age still stands supreme.
The Emerson of Arabic literature is undoubtedly al-Ghazali (1059-1111 AD), who flourished in Baghdad but suddenly halted his far-reaching career for ten years, retiring from the world. Revolting against the scholastic theology of Islam, he turned to mysticism. A great revival of interest in al-Ghazali has promoted European and American scholars to reinterpret his brilliant essays, and Arab thought is today being profoundly impressed by them.
It is curious phenomenon that as literary interest quickened in Europe, a lethargy seemed to settle on the Arabic-speaking world after the Ottoman conquest of 1517. It is not until the time of Napoleon and his campaigns in the Near East that a new spirit began to appear.
Fostered chiefly by Christian missionary education, travel in Europe and America, and the establishment of strong and well-edited newspapers and periodicals, literary interest has revived to an astonishing degree. Among the outstanding Arab poets at the beginning of this century was Ahmad Shawqi and in the name of history the name of Jerji Zeidan deserves mention.
The Arabic press is a powerful medium for the dissemination of literature and knowledge as well as of propaganda. Daily papers of high standards are published in such centers as Cairo, Beirut, Damascus, Jerusalem, Baghdad, Riadh, Mecca and many other cities. In them one may read exceedingly able literature.
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