Literature as Part of Islamic Culture

  June 29, 2021   Read time 3 min
Literature as Part of Islamic Culture
It would be almost impossible to make an exhaustive survey of Islamic literatures. There are so many works, of which hundreds of thousands are available only in manuscript, that even a very large team of scholars could scarcely master a single branch of the subject.

Islamic literatures, moreover, exist over a vast geographical and linguistic area, for they were produced wherever the Muslims went, from their heartland in Arabia through the countries of the Middle East as far as Spain, North Africa, and, eventually, West Africa. Iran (Persia) is a major centre of Islam, along with the neighbouring areas that came under Persian infl uence, including Turkey and the Turkic-speaking areas of Central Asia.

Many Indian vernaculars contain almost exclusively Islamic literary subjects; there is an Islamic content in the literature of Malaysia and in that of some East African languages, including Swahili. In many cases, however, the Islamic content proper is restricted to religious works—mystical treatises, books on Islamic law and its implementation, historical works praising the heroic deeds and miraculous adventures of earlier Muslim rulers and saints, or devotional works in honour of the Prophet Muhammad. The vast majority of Arabic writings are scholarly— the same, indeed, is true of the other languages under discussion. There are superb, historically important translations made by medieval scholars from Greek into Arabic; historical works, both general and particular; a range of religiously inspired works; books on grammar and on stylistics, on ethics and on philosophy.

All have helped to shape the spirit of Islamic literature in general, and it is often difficult to draw a line between such works of “scholarship” and works of “literature” in the narrower sense of that term. Even a strictly theological commentary can bring about a deeper understanding of some problem of aesthetics. A work of history composed in florid and “artistic” language would certainly be regarded by its author as a work of art as well as of scholarship, whereas the grammarian would be equally sure that his keen insights into the structure of Arabic grammar were of the utmost importance in preserving that literary beauty in which Arabs and non-Arabs alike took pride. In this treatment of Islamic literatures, however, the definition of “literature” is restricted to poetry and belles lettres, whether popular or courtly in inspiration. Other categories of writing will be dealt with briefly if these shed light on some peculiar problem of literature.

Although Islamic literatures appear in such a wide range of languages and in so many different cultural environments, they are united by several commonalities, including their intellectual and religious underpinnings. The area of Islamic culture extends from western Africa to Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines; but its heartland is Arabia, and the prime importance and special authority of the Arabic language was to remain largely unquestioned after the spread of Islam. The Arabic poetry of pre-Islamic Arabia was regarded for centuries afterward as the standard model for all Islamic poetic achievement, and it directly influenced literary forms in many non-Arab literatures.

The Qur’an, Islam’s sacred scripture, was accepted by pious Muslims as God’s uncreated word and was considered to be the highest manifestation of literary beauty. A whole literature defended its inimitability (i‘jaz) and unsurpassable beauty. Because it was God’s own word, the Qur’an could not legitimately be translated into any other language; the study of at least some Arabic was therefore required of every Muslim. Arabic script was used by all those peoples who followed Islam, however much their own languages might differ in structure from Arabic. The Qur’an became the textbook of the Muslims’ entire philosophy of life; theology, lexicography, geography, historiography, and mysticism all grew out of a deep study of its form and content; and even in the most secular works there can be found allusions to the holy book. Its imagery not unexpectedly permeates all Islamic poetry and prose.

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