By Way Of Comparison: Literature In Arabic
The semantic range of the Arabic word adab, which in modern usage designates literature in the specialized sense of artistic writing, has shifted considerably over time. As an intellectual standard of cultivation, the notion of adab came into being after the emergence of poetry, the cardinal genre of Arabic literature, called "the register of the Arabs" (Allen, p. 104). The Arabic ode in the pre-Islamic era, originating in oral forms and possibly in song, followed an aesthetic that appealed primarily to the listener and had tightly codified tropes. The figure of the poet was associated with "divine inspiration"; the poet was seen as the tribal spokesperson, one who praised the tribe's illustrious past and hurled invective at its enemies. The connection between poetry and patronage, which predates Islam, grew after the establishment of the new religion: the shift to urban life and the espousal of eulogistic poetry by rulers and the administrative aristocracy as an enhancement of their prestige and power modified without at first annulling the role of the tribal poet. This new poet was the client of a given court, and poetry began to address new themes. It is speculated that etymologically adab referred to standards of conduct, to customs, and to enrichment. But the word "came to mean 'high quality of soul, good up-bringing, urbanity, courtesy' … corresponding to the refining of bedouin ethics and customs as a result of Islam," as well as urbanization, the emergence of a city-bred elite and administrative class, and contact with other cultures (Gabrieli, p. 175). The term gradually acquired an additional "intellectual meaning" and "came to imply the sum of knowledge which makes a man courteous and 'urbane'" (Gabrieli, p. 175). Such "profane culture" was "at first strictly national" and later, through contact with other cultures, developed from "Arab humanitas, into humanitas without qualification" (Gabrieli, p. 175). Although its primary significance is now homologous with the modern idea of literature in English—that is, imaginative writing—adab can still also be used to denote "good manners" and "refinement."
Derived from early prose antecedents, such as the compilations of the Prophet Muhammad's biography and of traditions associated with the pre-modern corpus, adab (the tradition of belles lettres written in classical Arabic) includes poetics, biography, historical and geographical writings, travelogues, rhetoric, compilations of entertaining anecdotes, and monographs. Debate about the origin of the modern Arabic novel has hinged on whether it is an imported genre or one that draws on indigenous antecedents, especially elite ones, such as the maqamah ("assembly," a form of fictional narrative in rhyming prose; also poetry and quotations from poetry). Scholarly discussions have tended to overlook popular antecedents such as The Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Arabian tales of unknown origin probably collected in Egypt in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries with a Persian frame narrative that is first mentioned in the tenth century C.E. In his study of the origins of modern Arabic narrative discourse (a term he uses to cover the short story, novel, and drama), Sabry Hafez approaches the issue through "intertextuality" rather than "genealogy." Tracing the "cultural revival" in modern Egypt and the Levant back to the eighteenth century, before Napoléon's occupation of Egypt, Hafez demonstrates that these new genres emerged through a complex and dynamic process based in socioeconomic and cultural changes. These included increasing urbanization, improved means of transport, the printing press, and education as well as "the rise of national and political consciousness, journalism and the contact with European culture and thought," largely through translation (Hafez, p. 64). The result was a new reading public with a different worldview and a demand for narrative texts. Such conditions encouraged writing that drew on a wide range of codes and literatures, writing that would eventually lead to the emergence of modern narrative forms.
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