Modern Arabic literature

The instance that marked the shift in the whole of Arabic literature can be attributed to the contact that took place between the Arab World and the West during the 19th and early 20th century. This contact resulted with the gradual replacement of Classical Arabic forms with the Western ones, as exemplified in plays, novels, and short stories. Although the exact date in which this reformation occurred is not known, the process is usually referred to as the Arabic nahda (revival or renaissance)[1]

The development that Arabic Literature witnessed by the end of the 19th century was not merely in the form of reformation; both Germanos Farhat (1732) and al-Allusi in Iraq had previously attempted to inflict some development on literature in the 18th century. On the other hand, modern Arabic literature fully appeared through the interdependence between two important movements: the revival of the classical Arabic tradition and the translation of foreign literature. Advocates of the former movement began their work at the onset of the 19th century to resist the decline Arabic literature and its styles were facing. High quality traditional literary models were thus disseminated and imitated to create new literary models. Meanwhile, proponents of the translation movement, included authors such as Ibrahim al-Yaziji (1871) from the Levant, Ali Mubarak (1893) from Egypt, and Mahmoud Shukri al-Alusi (1923) from Iraq. Both Mubarak and al-Yaziji wrote the Maqamat (lengthy literary works of rhymed prose) "Alam Eddin" and "Majma' al-Bahrain" [Where Two Seas Meet] respectively, while al-Alusi wrote "Balaghat al-Arab" [The Eloquence of Arabs]. Other factors including journalism and the literature of the diaspora helped in the shaping and development of the Arabic literature.[2]

Translation activities

The translation movement began on the hands of Egypt's Governor Muhammad Ali Pasha while forming his army. He fostered the movement by importing the first printer in 1828 A.D. to Egypt (the second printer was brought later to Syria). Among the most prominent translators during that time was Rif'a Rifa'a al-Tahtawi, who translated many scientific books for the army's use. Al-Tahtawi's influence is mostly recognized, however, in his "Talkhis al-Ibriz" or 'Paris's Profile',[3] in which he documented his visit to Paris. This book, written in a rather modern style, is an account of the political and social conditions in France during that time. Al-Tahtawi was also the translator of the first literary novel into Arabic 'Tilimak' by French writer Fenelon. However, the mark al-Tahtawi left on the literary reformation was witnessed later via his different contributions.[2]

Most of the early novels to have been translated into Arabic were of French works. Famous works including Alexandre Dumas's Le Comte de Monte Cristo, Jules Verne's Cinq Semaines en Ballon, and many others from different genres, were readily translated and Arabized, and found a large readership through their circulation in journals.[4]

Schools that were established in Beirut and Tunisia for authorship and translation affected, and were in turn influenced by, the direct impact of missionaries in Lebanon. These missionaries were led by Butrus al-Bustani (1883), Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq (1887), Ibrahim al-Yaziji (1906), and, from Tunisia, Mohamed Bayram (1889). All of these missionaries helped in the establishment of Arabic journalism, which was the main force (second to the revival of traditional Arabic literature and the translation movement) in initiating the new literary movement. In Egypt, journalism, first aided by intellectuals from the Levant, and later becoming a genuine Egyptian force, was considered the pivotal ingredient that polished new literary styles and helped in the dissemination of ideas and opinions. It was the natural and organic atmosphere for the development of modern Arabic literature.[2]


In the final thirty years of the 19th century, the growth of journalism helped in the emergence of notable figures in literature. It also created a comprehensive image of the stages of the development of the literary prose genres-excluding poetry- until the First World War. On the pages of the newspapers and journals came the powerful classical prose of Muhammad Abduh (1905), and the nationalist-laden expressive prose of Saad Zaghloul in al-Waqa'i' al-Masriyya [Egyptian Affairs] newspaper. We also saw Muhammad al-Muwailihi's rhythmic prose (1930), al-Manfaluti's sweet romantic prose (1924), as well as the works of Jurji Zaydan (1914), Yagob Sarrof (1927), and Qasim Amin (1908) that relied on uniform ideas and lucid expressions to perform social-educational purposes.[2]

As for romantic valor (Hamasah), such as the works of Mustafa Kamil (1908) and Wali Eddin Yakun (1921), it first appeared in journals. Other forms of literary genres such as sardonic narratives mixed with colloquialisms, as in the works of Yaqub Sanu (1912) and Abdullah al-Nadim (1896), gained their socio-literary power from appearing in journals.[2]


From the American diaspora emerged the new Pen League of authors like Gibran (1931) and al-Rihani (1940). The works produced by members of this league quickly spread through the Middle East, as new currents in modern Arabic prose took shape. Gibran, for instance, not only published works in both Arabic and English, but attempted to self-translate some of his works, such as his collection entitled Sand and Foam (1926).[5]

The translation movement also revived on the hands of the literary figures of the league. Although the Pen's translation did not directly affect the development of modern literature (unlike the translations of al-Manfaluti and Othman Jalal); translation, as that undertaken during Ibn al-Muqaffa' and al-Jahiz's time, did, nevertheless, help in finding the true literary essence in both Arabic and foreign literature. Without translation, regardless of its quality, modern Arabic literature would not have reached different horizons.

Translation also influenced the Arabic repertoire of imageries and ideas. Most importantly, it introduced new literary genres, such as novels, plays, short stories, articles, etc. The first effect of translation was in the adaptations of foreign plays. It began with Maroun al-Naqqash's (1855) adaptation of Moliere, and Najib Haddad's (1866) translations of Corneille, Hugo, Dumas, and Shakespeare. However, the most successful attempts in the adaptations of foreign dramas were on the hands of Muhammad Othman Jalal (1898), who adapted from Molière, and Arabized the novel "Paul and Virginie" . Despite all these efforts, the play, as a distinct literary genre, did not reach its full popularity until the 20th Century.[2]

New Literary Genres


Arabic literature was not entirely lacking of narrative prose. There existed many lengthy works of literature such as 'Kitab al-Aghani' [The Book of Songs] by al-Isfahani, 'Qisas al-anbiya'a' [The Stories of Prophets] by al-Tha'alibi, as well as the eloquent maqama. This latter work, characterized by its embellishing rhythmic prose style, is thought to be the invention of al-Hamadani's (1008).[4]

The realization of the novel underwent extensive efforts to reach its full, complete form. The first attempts in writing novels were on the hands of Jurji Zaydan in his historical novel 'Sukot' [Silence], and Farah Antun's (1922) experimentation in the analytical novel. Other writers benefited from the foreign repertoire in discussing social and political matters. Non-fiction Arabic books were hence written to reflect new current concerns as well as the authors' thoughts and convictions. This is clearly present in the writings of al-Kawakibi (1093) in 'Taba'i al-Istibdad wa-Masari' al-Isti'bad' (The Nature of Despotism) and 'Umm al-Qura', as well as Qasim Amin's 'Tahrir al-Mar'a' [The Liberation of the Woman]. Authors like Aisha Taymur (1902) and Malak Hifni Nasif (1918) were also inspired by the foreign cultures but maintained-along with Qasim Amin- an Islamic and didactic spirit.[2]

Poetry, on the other hand, was not affected by foreign models until First World War, and remained in its ridged form that was prevalent since the age of decadence. Nonetheless, poetry was slightly affected by some of the nationalistic issues and debates taking place across the Arab World. Famous poets of the period included Samy el-Baroudy (1904), Ahmed Shawqi (1932), and Hafez Ibrahim (1932) from Egypt. These poets differed in their styles, sense of solidarity, and the degree of involvement in nationalist events.[2] However, their names are usually associated with the rise of the neo-classical movement in poetry.[1]

Ibrahim al-Mazini (1949) was probably among the most prominent authors who employed his style in the production of new literary themes, when he wrote his successful social novel "Ibrahim al-Kateb" [Ibrahim the Writer], which was essentially a description of current social norms. Since then, the novel flourished through the contributions of many authors like: Tawfiq al-Hakim in 'Awdat erroh' [The return of the Spirit] (1933), followed by al-Aqqad's "Sara" (1933), Taymour's 'Nida'a al-Majhoul' [The Call of the Unknown] (1939), while Farid Abu Hadid wrote the all-Arabic novel 'Ibnat al-Muluk' [The Daughter of Kings]. The success this novel attained later supported Zaydan in his own endeavors.[2]

As for the psycho-analytical novel, it was introduced by Taha Hussein for the first time in his autobiographical novel 'Al-Ayyam' [the Days] (1926). This novel was one of the greatest works of modern Arabic literature with its themes, style and depiction of life.[2]

Social themes

Social themes along with reformations in the field of poetry were not greatly affected despite the attempts some poets such as Khalil Mutran to inflict some changes on the genre. Other attempts were made by al-Zahawi (1936) and al-Rasafi (1954) in Iraq, though with little or no implications. This can be due to the fact that poetry in Iraq did not suffer the same decline as it did in Egypt and the Levant, which were under unstable political circumstances.[2]

After the war, modern Arabic literature changed dramatically. Topics such as modernity and social change, and people's interests and doubts, all became the center of the new themes of literature. The first to have undertaken this change are the disciples of Mohammad Abduh, who were advocates of liberated and innovative thought. These students eventually governed 'al-Jaridah' [The Newspaper] and 'al-Siyasah [The Politics], two newspapers which were jointly edited by Lutfy Asyyed and Muhammad Husayn Haykal. These newspapers also proliferated the new literary genres of novels, stories, articles and plays. One of the first successful realizations of these genres was Haykal's novel 'Zaynab' (1914) which demonstrated the difficulty of wielding Arabic rhetoric in writing the social novel. Mohammad Taymour (1921) tried to overcome these difficulties with his novel 'Ma taraho al-Oyon' [What the eyes see], a task that was supported by his brother's (Mahmoud Taymour) efforts. Many others including Issa Obeid, Shahata Obeid, and Taher Lasheen contributed to the novel, yet were never able to reach the elevated stylistic and linguistic abilities of the Taymour brothers in their portrayal of a realistic and vivid life.[2]

Short stories and articles

Authors in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and the American Diaspora all tired their hands out in writing many short stories. However, it was the article, of all genres, that had undergone profound development and change. The reason for that is due to the rise of and the attention journals and newspapers received since the 1919 revolution. The articles changed in style and form and were tailored towards discussing various topics, including social and political issues, literature, religion, etc. It eventually reached the elevated level of its foreign counterpart. Among the important topics discussed in articles were the reformation of the Arabic culture and its comparison with foreign traditions and civilizations, including Latin and Greek traditions.[2]

As for the writers of the 'article', they included Taha Hussein and al-Aqqad, advocates of innovation of style; the conservative Rashid Rida (1935) who wrote for al-Manar Magazine; as well as Farid Wajdi and Mostafa Saadeq al-Rafe'ie (1937). From Syria, there was Muhammad Kurd Ali (1952), and from Lebanon and the Diaspora we had Mikha'il Na'ima (1889). Whether they were supporters of innovative or traditional styles, these authors played an important role in reforming old and new notions of both extreme ends; they founded a balance between the two directions after an extensive filtration of ideas and opinions. In addition, these authors influenced the following current of thought which promoted scientific reasoning in the process of writing the article. Later on, social criticism, which had already become an active element in the article, found its place in the novel. For example, this could be seen clearly in the novels of Tawfiq al-Hakim, Husayn Fawzi's 'The Modern Sindibad", as well as in the works of Naguib Mahfouz, Hassan Kamil, and many more. Subsequent to that, the novel took a turn in realism, disregarded style, and promoted many political currents, particularly after the Second world War.[2]


As is the case with other literary genres, the first accounts of plays during that period were in the form of translations and adaptations of Western works. Gradually, however, the stage, particularly in Egypt, reached its full potency as Egyptian dramatist began writing plays that reflected the current socio-political situation of the country and its people. A major theme that was recurrent in most of the plays was the West-East struggle; an issue that seemed to have both coincided and aggravated the search for an Egyptian national identity.[4]

The shift towards realism that took place in writing the novel extended to the play. Dramatic plays, particularly in Egypt, flourished immensely, and subsequently dominated the rest of the Arab world.[2] In that reals, Mahmoud Taymour was the first to experiment with the social realist play, but it did not reach its full potency except on the hands of Tawfiq al-Hakim, who mastered motifs and mental representations, utilized Pharaonic, Islamic, and Western myths, and wrote remarkable cognitive plays such as 'Ahl al-Kahf' [the People of the Cave], and 'Scheherazade'. He also wrote social plays including 'al-Sultan al-Ha'er' [the Bewildered Sultan]. Shawqi's contributions to the poetic theater, taken up later by Aziz Abaza, are noticeable for their dealing with historical and classical themes.[2]

The employment of colloquial Arabic within the dialogues of the plays was a central issue in studying Arab litterateurs and their motives behind such act. The issue, however, was not as prominent in novels and stories as it was in plays. Nevertheless, al-Hakim and Taymour both tried to utilize colloquialisms in dialogues in both novels and stories, yet their success did not stop the debate that had risen as a result. In fact, it led Taymour to refrain from using colloquialisms in his writings, and he rewrote his previous works by replacing any colloquialisms with Modern Standard Arabic. Despite many efforts to create a distinct colloquial literature, particularly in Lebanon, all attempts failed. Reaching a necessary compromise between the two was done by simplifying the Standard form and elevating the status of the colloquial. However, judgments of this issue and its implications are yet to be explored, although some argue that the use of colloquialism in Arabic drama is a direct result from the interaction with the Western forms of literary production.[1][2]

Both the spread of education and of Standard Arabic offered solutions for the instability the Arabic status was facing. Some of these solutions were due to the journal article as it created a new form of prose, characterized by precision and an ability to portray reality in a way that surpassed eloquent prose, where meaning in the latter is not definite, and gives the sense of the older era of Arabia. Through this new variety of language, the modern author was now able to find in the Standard form of Arabic many specific expressions that allowed him to portray reality.[2]


Poetry made way for prose, particularly after the war. While the influence of Western literature accelerated the production of innovative literary prose in Arabic, poetry was slower in liberating itself from classical poetic forms and creating new rhythms and melodic moods. As classical Arabic poetry held an important position in the literary heritage of the Arabs, it is not surprising that the first attempts in renewing the poetic forms would be by a re-employment of these traditional forms.[1][2]

Insofar as Suleyman al-Boustani's (1925) attempt in introducing new forms by a rather mediocre translation of the Iliad into Arabic, the role it played was weaker than to be mentioned in the movement towards reformation.[2]

Nationalist poetry was an important element in the progression of modern verse, whose doyen is Tunisian poet Aboul-Qacem Echebbi (1934). Echebbi succeeded in using traditional models and imageries to present new and powerful reflections of the current time. Others tried to create psychological effects by playing with rhymes and old structures. Gradually, classical poetic forms were replaced by newer forms. The guiding force behind that change is due to literary schools of thought such as al-Diwan Group, led mainly by poets al-Aqqad, al-Mazini, and Abdel Rahman Shokry (influenced by neo-romanticism); School of Northern Diaspora, known as the Pen League, that include Elia Abu Madi; and the School of Southern Diaspora, known as the Andalusian League, that included Rashid Salim al-Khoury and Fawzi Ma'louf. Members of all these schools called for a change in the poetic production. They also advocated liberating poetry from classical forms, as well as a call for sincerity of emotions, self-inspiration, and portrayal of direct feelings.[2]

The result of these efforts was a powerful Romantic poetry (Ghazal). The pioneers of this type of poetry were the members of the Apollo Group. Led by Ahmed Zaki Abu Shadi (1955), and competing against the New School of Mutran in Egypt, and Abu Shabaka's in Lebanon, the Diwan Poets, and the Leagues, the Apollo Group was more liberated and largely influenced by Western Romanticism.[2] The Apollo Group's contributions to the new, unrestricted forms of poetry is largely manifested in the periodical 'Apollo', a magazine that fostered and proliferated both traditional and innovative styles of poetry.[1]

While al-Aqqad and other poets in Iraq remained faithful to classical forms of poetry, others, including poet Abdel Rahman Shokry, the Northern Diaspora School, and the Apollo Group, all diverted greatly from these traditional forms. In fact, the argument that existed between the proponents of Classical poetry who favored the single-rhyme and meter poem, and those advocated the free verse poem 'shi'r hurr' remains till this day. A few years later, the prose poem appeared in the 1970s. Writers of this hybrid form were Ameen al-Rihani, Onsy Al-Hajj, and Shawqi Abi Shaqra (Lebanon), Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, Tawfiq Al-Sayegh, Ezz Eddin al-Munasira (Palestine), Muhammad al-Maghut (Syria), Sargon Boulus, Fadil Al-Azzawi, Mu'ayyid al-Rawi (Iraq). Al-Rawi is notably recognized for liberating poetry from rhythm and metre, and replacing that with inner music, while maintaining the original imageries, creating in this way a new genre in Arabic poetry.[2]


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 Starkey, Paul (2006). Modern Arabic Literature. UK: Edinburgh University Press. pp. 23, 25, 42, 46, 68.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 Ghirbal, Mohammed (1965). Al-Mauso'a al-Arabiya al-Muyassarah [Simplified Arabic Encyclopedia]. Egypt: Franklin Institution for Publishing. pp. 161–167.
  3. Newman, Daniel (2011). An Imam in Paris: Al-Tahtawi's Visit to France (1826–31). London: Saqi Books. ISBN 978-0-86356-346-1.
  4. 1 2 3 Badawi, Muhammad Mustafa (1993). A Short History of Modern Arabic Literature. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. pp. 91–93, 248.
  5. Le Gassick, Trevor (1970). "Modern Arabic Prose Literature: An Introduction". Michigan Univ. , Ann Arbor: 116 via Eric.
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