SOAS University of London

Department of the Languages and Cultures of the Near and Middle East

Culture Society and Politics in Classical Arabic Literature

Module Code:
Module Not Running 2018/2019
Year of study:
Year 4
Taught in:
Full Year


Successful completion of year abroad programme, or equivalent knowledge of Arabic.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

The objectives of the module are to provide a guided inquiry into the history and genres of classical Arabic literature (poetry and prose); to examine critically the range of themes and techniques found in this literature; to sharpen students’ awareness of the relationship between language and thought, and provide them with the necessary skills to relate the significance of literature to the main cultural, social and political issues, movements and changes in the pre-modern Arabic-Islamic world.

At the end of a module, a student should be able to demonstrate a rounded knowledge and critical understanding of the major genres and themes of classical Arabic poetry and prose.  S/he will have been introduced to the principal critical works on the subject, and become familiar with the development and transformation of literary language, structures and imagery as embodied in selected texts by leading authors.  S/he will be able to relate literary transformations to contemporary political and cultural changes.  S/he will also acquire the critical language to articulate the ways in which language, literature and thought are interrelated.


This module is taught over 22 weeks with 2 hours classroom contact per week.

Scope and syllabus

Module readings and discussions are guided by, but not exhaustive of, or exclusive to, the following major themes:

  1. Language, poetry and Identity: pre-Islamic poetry
  2. Conceptions of the role of the poet
  3. Expansions and transitions: early Islamic poetry
  4. The criticism of poetry and Arabic literary criticism
  5. The Golden Age of experimentation: the tenth century
  6. Women poets
  7. Language practices: disentangling poetry and prose
  8. The emergence and development of various genres of prose writing: Arabic prosaics
  9. Politics, aesthetics and ethics in Adab Compendia, anecdotal and narrative forms of storytelling
  10. Allegory in The 1001 Nights
  11. Story as history in Arabic epics
  12. The art of argumentation: critical and literary essays
  13. Literature as performance: epistolarity
  14. Performativity of language: Pre-modern Arabic drama
  15. Language and thought: classical Arabic critical theory and thought
  16. Word, sound, image: classical Arabic Literature and the other Arts

Method of assessment

One three-hour written examination taken in May/June (50%); one essay of 2,500 - 3,000 words to be submitted on the day of teaching, week 2, term 2 (25%); one essay of 2,500 - 3,000 words to be submitted on the day of teaching, week 1, term 3 (25%).

Suggested reading

  • Bakhtin, Mikhail, The Dialogic Imagination. Texas Press, 1981.
  • _________. Speech Genres & Other Late Essays.  Texas Press, 1986.
  • Bal, Mieke, Introduction to the Theory of Narrative, 2nd edition. Toronto, 1999.
  • Bray, Julia, ed. Writing and Representation in Medieval Islam. Routledge, 2006.
  • Gelder, G. J. van. The Bad and the Ugly: 1000 Attitudes Towards Invective Poetry (Hija’) in Classical Arabic Literature. Leiden, 1988.
  • _________. Of Dishes and Discourse: Classical Arabic Literary Representation of Food. Richmond, Surrey, 2000.
  • Genette, Gerard, Figures of Literary Discourse, tr., J. E. Lewin.  Ithaca, 1980.
  • Grunebaum, G. E. von, ed., Arabic Poetry: Theory and Development. Wiesbaden, 1973.
  • Hameen-Anttila, Jaakko, Maqama: A History of A Genre. Wiesbaden, 2003.
  • Hamori, A. The Art of Medieval Arabic Literature. Princeton, 1974.
  • _________. The Composition of Mutanabbi’s Panegyrics to Sayf al-Dawla. Leiden, 1992.
  • Kennedy, Philip F. The Wine Song in Classical Arabic Poetry.  Oxford, 1997.
  • _________. On Fiction and Adab in Medieval Arabic Literature.  Harrassowitz, 2005.
  • Kilpatrick, Hilary, Making the Great Book of Songs.  Routledge, 2003.
  • Leder, Stefan, ed., Story-telling in the Framework of Non-fictional Arabic Literature.  Wiesbaden, 1998.
  • Lyons, M. C. Identification and Identity in Classical Arabic Poetry. 1999.
  • Meisami, Julie Scott.  Structure and Meaning in Medieval Arabic and Persian Poetry.  Routledge, 2003.
  • Monroe, J. T., The Art of Badi‘ al-Zaman al-Hamadhani (Beirut, n.d.).
  • Montgomery, J. E. The Vagaries of the Qasidah: The Tradition and Practice of Early Arabic Poetry (1997).
  • Moreh, Shmeul, Live Theatre and Dramatic Literature in the Medieval Arab World. Edinburgh, 1992.
  • al-Nowaihi, Magda. The Poetry of Ibn Khafajah: A Literary Analysis. Leiden, 1993.
  • Ouyang, Wen-chin, Literary Criticism in Medieval Arabic-Islamic Culture. Edinburgh, 1997.  
  • Stetkevych, J. The Zephyrs of Nejd: The Poetics of Nostalgia in the Classical Arabic Nasib. Chicago, 1993.
  • Stetkevych, S. P., ed. Reorientations: Arabic and Persian Poetry. Bloomington, 1994.
  • Stetkevych, S. P. Abu Tammam and the Poetics of the ‘Abbasid Age. Leiden, 1991.
  • _________. The Mute Immortals Speak: Pre-Islamic Poetry and the Poetics of Ritual. Ithaca, 1993.
  • Sperl, S. "Islamic Kingship and Arabic Panegyric Poetry," Journal of Arabic Literature 8 (1979), 20-35.
  • _________. Mannerism in Arabic Literature: A Structural Analysis of Selected Texts. Cambridge, 1989.
  • Sperl, S. and Christopher Shackle, eds., Qasida Poetry in Islamic Asia and Africa. Leiden, 1996.
  • Toorawa, Shawkat, Ibn Abi Tahir Tayfur and Arabic Writerly Culture: A ninth century bookman in Baghdad.  Routledge, 2003.
  • Zwettler, Michael. The Oral Tradition of Classical Arabic Literature: Its Character and Implications. Columbus, 1978.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules