The New International Encyclopædia/Arabic Language and Literature

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The New International Encyclopædia
Arabic Language and Literature
Edition of 1905. Written by Morris JastrowSee also Arabic language and Arabic literature on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

ARABIC LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE. The Arabic language forms a branch of the South-Semitic tongues, and with the exception of Aramaic (q.v.) is the only Semitic speech which deserves to be called a living tongue. It is still spoken in Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia, Arabia, Egypt, northern Africa, and Malta, and it is more or less understood in all countries into which Mohammedanism has penetrated. We may distinguish between the so-called (a) classical Arabic of the old poets, the Koran and the schools; (b) the Middle-Arabic of the post-classical period; and (c) Modern Arabic, which is subdivided into the following chief dialects: (1) of Syria and Palestine; (2) of Egypt; (3) of Mesopotamia; (4) of Oman and Zanzibar; (5) of Tunis, Morocco and Algiers; (6) of Malta; and (7) the Mehri in South Arabia, the ancient form of which is preserved in the Minæan and Sabæan inscriptions (see Minæans; Sabæans). The distinguishing features of the language are an exceedingly extensive vocabulary and complicated grammatical forms. The Arabic alphabet, which is derived through the Nabatæan (see Nabatæans) from the ancient Aramaic script, consists of twenty-eight characters, of which eleven, however, are merely distinguished by diacritical points placed above or beneath, so that there are only seventeen distinct characters used. The direction of the writing is from right to left.

Arabic literature may be broadly divided into two periods, the first containing the Arabic national literature, extending to the close of the Ommiad dynasty, c.750 A.D., and the second containing the Islamic literature in Arabic. In the second period four subdivisions may be noted: (a) c.750 to c.1000, when literary activity reached its height; (b) c.1000-c.1258, the post-classical period; (c) c. 1258-1517, the period of decline and decay; and (d) 1517 to the present time. Nothing has survived earlier than the time of Mohammed except in verse, in which the pre-Islamic Arabs attained a high degree of proficiency. They had poetical tournaments, and the poets vied with each other at such annual fairs as that held at Okaz (Ar., ‘Ūkāṣ), near Mecca. The subjects treated were tribal strifes, vengeance, love, friendship, and hospitality. The most celebrated of these are those called Mu‘allaḳāt, comprising the poems of Amru al-Kais, Tarafah, Zuhair, Labid, Amr ibn Kulthum, Antarah and al-Harith, though, according to some collectors, Nabighah and Asha take the place of the last two. Fragments of the productions of more than two hundred pre-Islamic poets, among whom were Jews and Christians, were collected in the tenth century. The largest collections are the Ḥamāsah of Abu Tammam (846); the Kitāb al-Aghānī (Book of Songs) of Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani (967), and the Jamharat ash‘ār al-‘Arab of Abu Zaid (tenth century). A new period began with Mohammed (571-632). The Koran, which gave birth to a religion and which founded the greatest politico-religious system of the Middle Ages, soon dominated all branches of intellectual activity. The earliest products of this domination were grammar and lexicography, the necessary instruments for the exegesis of the Koran. Schools were founded in Basra, Cufa, and Bagdad, where the sciences were studied, especially by Persian Mohammedans. Such a one was the first grammarian of Basra. Abd al-Rahman ibn Hormuzd (c.730). Among the noteworthy grammarians and lexicographers may be mentioned: Abu al-Walid al-Duali (eighth century), the inventor of the diacritical points; al-Khalil, the founder of Arabic metrics and the author of the first Arabic lexicon, Kitāb al-‘Ain; Sibawaihi (796), author of an extensive grammar (translated into German by Jahn, Berlin, 1894); Ibn Duraid (d.934), author of the lexicon al-Jamharah; Ismail ibn Abbad al-Sahib (d.995), author of the lexicon al-Muhīṭ; Ibn Mukarram (d.1311), author of an extensive lexicon. Lisan* al-‘Arab; al-Zamakhshari (d.1143), author of a grammar al-Mufaṣṣal, and a lexicon Assās; and Ibn Malik (d.l273), who wrote a grammar in one thousand verses under the title Kitāb al-Alfīyah.

As all Mohammedan philosophy, theology, law, and statecraft is derived primarily from the Koran, its interpretation became the object of discussion at a very early period. Hence an immense literature of commentaries and super-commentaries grew up, only the most important of which can be mentioned: those by al-Tabari (d.923), al-Hasan al-Nisaburi (d.1015), Mohammed al-Kurtubi (d.l272), of al-Zamakhshari (d.ll43), of Fakhr al-Din Razi (d.1209), of al-Baidawi {d.l286), and Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (d.1505). But Mohammedanism, as a system, rests as much upon the oral as upon the written law. The sayings and doings of Mohammed and his immediate followers form the science of the Hadith or traditions, which vary both as to value and authenticity. Around these there has also grown up a large literature; the three great collections of such traditions were made by al-Bukhari (d.870), Muslim (874) and al-Tirmidhi (892).

As early as the end of the seventh century a school of Mohammedan jurisprudence was founded in Medina by Abd Allah ibn Masud and Abd Allah ibn Abbas. Its decisions were collected toward the end of the eighth century by the distinguished jurist Malik ibn Anas, whose al-Muwaṭṭa’ became the code for the Hejaz, Tunis, Algeria, and Morocco. There are three other recognized codes, of Abu Hanifah (q.v.), of Mohammed al-Shafii (d.820), and of Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d.855). Other codes, to the number of seventy-two, are prescribed as heretical. These have produced an extensive literature of commentaries and pandects, which has not exhausted itself in our own days.

The activity of the Mohammedans was not confined to philological and theological studies. With the accession of the Abbassides a new field was opened by the introduction of foreign civilizations. Learned men were invited from other countries and remunerated in a princely manner. The works of Greek, Syriac, Old-Persian, and Indian writers were translated into Arabic. Schools of philosophy were founded at Bagdad, Cordova, Cairo, etc., where the writings of Aristotle, Plato, and the Alexandrine philosophers were expounded and commented upon. Dogmas, hitherto regarded as sacred, were freely discussed and rejected. (See Mutazilites.) From these schools issued the philosophers al-Kindi (eighth century), al-Farabi (960), Ibn Sina (Avicenna 980-1037), al-Ghazzali (1111), Ibn Badjah (1138), Ibn Tufail (d.1185), and Ibn Roshd (Averroes, 1153-98), whose works, subsequently translated into Latin, were studied for many centuries in European universities.

In mathematics the Mohammedans made great advances by introducing the numerals and other modes of notation, the sine instead of the chord, and by extending the application of algebra. Astronomy was zealously cultivated in the schools of Bagdad, Cairo, and Cordova. According to Ibn al-Nadbi (1040), the library at Cairo possessed two celestial globes and six thousand astronomical works. In the ninth century the three sons of the librarian, Musa ibn Shakr, calculated accurately the diameter of the earth and the precession of the equinoxes. At the same time lived al-Farghani, author of an astronomical encyclopædia, which was translated in the twelfth century by Johannes Hispalensis. In the tenth century al-Battani (Albatagnius) flourished, to whose name is attached the introduction of trigonometrical functions, and the observation of the obliquity of the ecliptic. Among the astronomers whose works were translated into Latin may be mentioned Thabit ibn Kurrah (901), Jabir ibn Aflah, who in 1196 constructed the first observatory at Seville, and Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, the paraphraser of Euclid. Medicine and natural history were cultivated by the Mohanmiedans with a like success. In the seventh century the writings of Galen, Hippocrates, Paul of Aegina, etc., were translated from the Greek into Arabic. Ibn Abi Usaibiah (1203-69) devotes a whole volume to the medical literature in Arabic. Among the medical writers may be mentioned Mohammed al-Razi (tenth century), whose works were translated into Latin; Ali ibn Ridwan (1061); Ibn Sina (Avicenna); Abu al-Kasim (1107), who wrote on surgery and surgical instruments; Abd al-Malik ibn Zuhr (1162), and Abd Allah ibn al-Baitar (1248), whose Materia Medica had great vogue.

History in all its forms was cultivated at an early time by the Mohammedans; several chronicles were written in the days of the Ommiad dynasty. Persian historiography influenced the Arabs to record the events of their past life as a people; and the growing interest in the prophet and his times furnished a healthy stimulus. From the middle of the eighth century we have an uninterrupted series of historians. The earliest of these were Mohammed ibn Ishak (768), whose biography of Mohammed was enlarged by Ibn Hisham (821), and Mohammed al-Wakidi (823), who wrote the history of the prophet at Medina. No less than 140 titles of works written by al-Kalbi (c.819) are mentioned, dealing largely with history and genealogy. It was a Persian, Abu Jafar al-Tabari (838-923), who produced the first universal history in Arabic, beginning with creation. A similar work was produced by Ibn al-Athir (1160-1234). Of the early historians mention must also be made of Ibn Kutaibah (892) and al-Baladhuri (892), who deals especially with the early conquests of the Arabs. In the tenth century wrote al-Hamdani (945), Hamzah al-Isfahani (961), and al-Masudi (956), who has left us a history of civilization. Among the historians of later centuries mention may be made of Ibn Maskawai (1030), al-Makin (1273), Ibn al-Amid (b.1254), al-Biruni (1308), historian of chronology and the Herodotus of India, Abu al-Fida (1331), and Ibn Khaldun (1406), the first to compose a philosophy of history. The chief historians of Spain were Ahmad al-Dhabbi (1195), Ibn Bashkuwal (1182), Mohammed ibn al-Abbar (1259), and Ahmad al-Makkari (1631). Among the noted historians of Egypt were Abd al-Latif (1231) and al-Makrizi (1441). More characteristic of Arabic historiography are the numerous local histories and biographical monographs produced. Among the most remarkable of these are the works of Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (1505), author of 510 works, among which were histories of Cairo and Damascus; of Abu Ubaidah (824), author of 105 monographs, among which are histories of Mecca and Medina; of Ali ibn Asakir (1175), author of a history of Damascus in eighty volumes, and of Baha al-Din ibn Shaddad (1234), author of a history of Aleppo. Mohammed al-Shahrastani (1153) wrote a history of religious and philosophical sects which is still our chief authority on the subject. The most noteworthy biographical writers were Abu Zakariyah, al-Nawawi (1274) and Ibn Khallikan (1282), who treats of 865 persons. Bibliography was treated of by Mohammed ibn Ishak al-Nadim (995), Ali ibn Yusuf al-Kifti (1248), and Hajji Khalfa (1658). With the exception of Ibn Khaldun the Arabic historians lack critical sense; they are mostly mere chronographers. In geography they displayed nnieh greater ability and have left us works of lasting value. The chief geographical writers are Ibn Hisham, Khurdadhbah (912), Masudi, Ahmad ibn Fadlan (921), Abu Ishak al-Istakhri (tenth century), Ibn Haukal (977), al-Mukaddasi (985), the traveller Ibn Batutah (1377), Yakut (1178), who, like al-Bakri (1094), wrote an extensive geographical dictionary, al-Kazwini (1276) and Abu al-Fida.

Besides these advances in the solid branches of knowledge the genius of the Arabs continually flowered into poetry. From Bagdad to Cordova the Mohammedan world was full of sweet singers. Collections of the works of older poets (Dīwāns) were made, of single writers, of the poems of individual tribes, or arranged according to the subject matter of the poems. Umar ibn Rabiah (1328), the Arabian Minnesinger; Abu Nuwas, the Heine of the court of Harun al-Rashid; the royal poets Abd al-Rahman (788) and Al-Mutamid (1095) of Spain; Muslim ibn al-Walid (757); Abd Allah ibn al-Mutazz (1502); Abu Firas (968); al-Tughrai (1120); and the panegyrist of Mohammed, al-Busiri (1279), are a few of the brightest stars. Though much of this poetry was scholastic in form, al-Mutanabbi (965) is considered one of the greatest Mohammedan poets and his Dīwān, with its 289 poems, was always widely read. A new species of poetry was invented, the Makāmāt, a sort of rhymed prose in a finished and most ornamental style and exhibiting merely the literary prowess of the writer. Of such a kind were the writings of Ahmad al-Hamadhani (1007) and Abu Mohammed al-Hariri of Basra (1121). Side by side with this scholastic poetry there grew up a large mass of popular verse, which refused to be bound by the canonical metres and which developed the strophe, otherwise unknown to Arabic literature. A particular form of this was the Muwashshaḥ, or girdle poem. A popular, and at times fantastic popular prose literature also made its appearance, in which the Eastern craving for the wonderful and gorgeous was richly gratified. This was largely influenced by non-Arabic literatures, as in the Fables of Bidpai, translated in 750 by Abd Allah ibn al-Mukaffa from the Persian, in The Seven Wise Masters, and in the Arabian Nights (q.v.). Pure Bedouin romances are the stories of Saif ibn dhi Yazan, of the Banu Hilāl, of al Zīr; and especially the Antar Romance, which gives the most faithful picture of desert life, and which was not without influence upon the romance and chivalry of mediæval Europe.

All this culture of the early centuries of Mohammedanism presents a strong contrast to the decline which is evident from the ascendancy of the Turks in the sixteenth century to our own day. Scholastic discussions on dogmatics and jurisprudence, and tedious grammatical discquisitions became the order of the day. The expedition of Napoleon to Egypt presaged the introduction of Western culture to the East, and a slow intellectual resurrection has commenced. The printing presses of Bulak, Fez, Constantinople, Beirut and of several Indian cities are extremely productive, and edition after edition is quickly exhausted. Newspapers in Arabic are now published all over the East, and even in Western cities, e.g. Paris and New York. Writers have also begun to attempt, with more or less success, to imitate European forms of thought and sentiment. Of these may be mentioned Michael Sabbagh of Syria (La Colombe Messagere, Arabic and French, Paris, 1805); the Sheik Rifaa of Cairo (The Broken Lyre, Paris, 1827); Manners and Customs of the Europeans (Cairo, 1834); Travels in France (Cairo, 1825). But despite all this, the results obtained in Egypt during the period from 1798 down to the English tutelage, in 1882, are meagre. Mehemet Ali introduced the printing-press in 1821, and founded a school for mathematics. Some of the works of the best European writers were translated into Arabic; the vice-regal library was founded in Cairo in 1870. Few great scholars and writers have as yet appeared; and it is questionable whether the attempt to develop the common speech into a literary language will be more successful. The endeavor to substitute the Roman script for the Arabic (furthered notably by Professor W. Fiske) will certainly not aid the regeneration. The following modern poets deserve mention: Hasan al-Attar (1766-1838); Abd Allah Pasha al-Fikri (1834-90); Aisha Ismat Hanun, daughter of Ismail Pasha; and Mohammed Uthman Jalal (b.l829), the translator of Racine and Molière. To these may be added the historians Abd Allah al-Sharkawi (1737-1812), and Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti (d.l826), both historians of the French occupation; Ali Pasna Mubarak (1823-93), the topographist of Cairo and Alexandria; and the great jurist Ibrahim al-Bajuri (1783-1861), rector of the al-Azhar University. In Syria the dearth of literary effort was still greater. The beginnings of a new life are due to European and American efforts. The American Presbyterian missionaries and the French Jesuits (since 1869) have started a new life in Beirut by means of the printing-press and modern schools. A real interest in the old literature has been awakened, many of the masterpieces being reëdited in a critical spirit. In this connection may be mentioned the philologist and poet Nasif al-Yaziji (1800-71), who wrote the critical observations in De Sacy's edition of Hariri (Epistola Critica, Leipzig, 1848); Butrus al-Bistani (1819-1883), author of a dictionary and a general encyclopædia; Ahmad Faris al-Shidyak (d.l884), the grammarian; Khalil Sarkis (1877), the historian of Jerusalem; and Louis Cheikho, the learned editor of the old Arabic poets. In the old home of the faith, Mecca, literary activity still continues to our own day, but upon the old theological and dogmatic lines. Worthy of mention are Ahmad Dablan (c.1880), theologian and historian, the author of more than twenty works, and Mohammed ibn Omar al-Nawawi (c.1885), by origin a Malay, the author of eighteen works upon different subjects. In India European influence in literature is confined to the publications of the Biblica Indica; and to a few writers such as Siddik Hasan, husband of the Sultanee of Bhopa. The same condition prevails in the Maghrib (Northwest Africa). French culture has had no perceptible influence upon Arabic literature in Algiers; Morocco is as dead to European influences as if it were in the heart of Arabia. The productions of the lithographic press at Fez are all confined to the older Islamic theological, legal, and historical literature.

Bibliography. (1) General works: Brockelmann, Geschichte der arabischen Litteratur (Weimar, 1898-1902), and his more popular work (with translations) published under the same title (Leipzig, 1901), in the collection, Die Litteraturen des Ostens in Einzeldarstellungen, vol. vi.; Chauvin, Bibliographie Arabe (Liège, 1892, sqq.); Hammer-Purgstall, Litteraturgeschichte der Araber (7 vols., Vienna, 1850-56; antiquated); Arbuthnot, Arabic Authors (London, 1890); Von Kremer, Culturgeschichte des Orients (Vienna, 1877); Goldziher, Mohammedanische Studien (Halle, 1889-90); Zenker, Bibliotheca Orientalis (Leipzig, 1846; for printed books); Hartmann, Arabic Press of Egypt (London, 1898); Hajji Khalfa, Lexicon bibliograficum (ed. Flügel, Leipzig-London, 1835-58); Ahlwardt, Verzeichniss der arabischen Handschriften der königlichen Bibliothek zu Berlin (Berlin, 1887 sqq.). (2) Poetry: Nöldeke, Beiträge zur Kenntniss der Poesie der alten Araber (Hanover, 1864); Ahlwardt, Ueber Poesie und Poetik der Araber (Gotha, 1856); Schack, Poesie und Kunst der Araber in Spanien and Sizilien (Berlin, 1865); Basset, La poesie arabe anteislamique (Paris, 1880); Jacob, Studien in arabischen Dichtern (i.-iii., Berlin, 1893-95); Hartmann, Das arabische Strophengedicht (Weimar, 1896-97); Carlyle, Specimens of Arabic Poetry (London, 1840); Clouston, Arabic Poetry (London, 1880); Lyall, Ancient Arabic Poetry (London, 1885). (3) History: Wüstenfeld, Die Geschichtsschreiber der Araber (Göttingen, 1882). (4) Geography: Wüstenfeld, Die Litteratur der Erdbeschreibung bei den Arabern (Magdeburg, 1842). (5) Philology: Flügel, Die grammatischen Schulen der Araber (Leipzig, 1862). (6) Philosophy: De Boer, Geschichte der Philosophie in Islam (Stuttgart, 1901); Munk, Mélanges de philosophie juive et arabe (Paris, 1850); Dugat, Histoire des philosophes et des théologiens musulmans (Paris, 1879); Dieterici, Die Philosophie der Araber im X. Jahrhundert (Leipzig, 1876-78). (7) Science: Wüstenfeld, Geschichte der arabischen Aerzte (Göttingen, 1840); Leclerc, Histoire de la médecine arabe (Paris, 1876); Sédillot, Materiaux pour servir a l'histoire comparée des sciences mathématiques chez les Grecs et les Orientaux (Paris, 1845-49); Steinschneider, Die arabischen Uebersetzungen aus dem Griechischen (Leipzig, 1889-93); Wiedemann, Ueber die Naturwissenschaften bei den Arabern (Hamburg, 1890); Suter, Die Mathematiker und Astronomen der Araber (Leipzig, 1900).