SOAS University of London

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

Arabic Popular Literature: Themes, Genres & Theory

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

Arabic popular literature is a very extensive body of texts which has had much influence on non-Arabic literatures in Europe and the Eastern Islamic world, including Muslim India. It forms a vital and indispensable part of the Arabic literary tradition and is hence of major relevance to the MA in Arabic Literature.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

At the end of the course students will be familiar in general terms with the range of themes and genres to be found in medieval and contemporary Arabic popular literature and will have developed a grasp of relevant issues in literary theory and folklore studies. They will have acquired a detailed knowledge of a selected number of texts comprising both poetry and narrative prose, and will be able to comment on the performance setting and social function of the works in question. An advanced level of understanding of the distinct linguistic register of these texts will have been acquired.
Particular attention is given to the interface between popular and canonical literature, and the student will be expected to situate selected popular texts in relation to prior or subsequent canonical counterparts. Students are expected to be able to apply a range of critical theories to the literature in question and to demonstrate this in their module-work essays. Students are also introduced to key concepts of folklore studies and literary theory and given training in applying a variety of critical paradigms to their material. Course-work essays are based on supplementary texts which may be read in English translation, and are expected to take account of relevant critical literature.


This module is taught over 20 weeks with a 2 hour seminar per week.

Scope and syllabus

The module syllabus covers a combination of the following topics:

  1. the prophetic legends (extracts from al-Kisa’i and al-Tha’labi)     
  2. the Arabian Nights (textual history and selected tales)    
  3. the medieval Arabic popular epic (extracts from Sirat Zir Salim and Sirat Sayf Ibn Dhi Yazan)
  4. the contemporary popular epic (extracts from Sirat Bani Hilal) 
  5. the oral Bedouin poetry of Arabia
  6. popular poetry and story-telling in modern Egypt and Iraq

Method of assessment

A 2,000 word essay to be submitted day 1, week 1, term 2 (30%); a 3,000 word essay to be submitted day 1, week 1, term 3 (45%); a 15 minute oral presentation (10%); a 1,000 word textual analysis (15%).

Suggested reading

  • Beaumont, Daniel, Slave of Desire - Sex, Love and Death in the 1001 Nights, Madison (NJ), 2002. 
  • Bettelheim, B., The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, London, 1975. 
  • Campbell, J., The Hero with a Thousand Faces, London, 1988.
  • Dundes, A., The Study of Folklore, Englewood Cliffs, 1965. 
  • George, R.A. and M.O. Jones, Folkloristics – An Introduction, Bloomington, 1995. 
  • Ghazoul, Ferial, Nocturnal Poetics - The Arabian Nights in Perspective, Cairo, 1996. 
  • Heath, Peter, The Thirsty Sword - Sirat Antar and the Arabic Popluar Epic, Salt Lake City, 1996. 
  • Hovanesian, R.G. and G. Sabbagh (eds.), The Thousand and One Nights in Arabic Literature, Cambridge, 1989. 
  • Jayyusi, L., The Adventures of Sayf Ben Dhi Yazan: an Arabian Folk Epic, Bloomington, 1996. 
  • Lyons, M.C., The Arabian Epic: Heoric and Oral Story-Telling (3 vols.), Cambridge, 1995. 
  • Kurpershoek, M., Bedouin Poets of the Dawasir Tribe: Between Nomadism and Settlement in Southern Najd, Leiden, 1999. 
  • Norris, H.T., ‘Fables and Legends in pre-Islamic and early Islamic times’, in A.F.L. Beeston et al. (eds.), Arabic Literature to the End of the Umayyad Period, Cambridge, 1983. 
  • Norris, Harry T., Folk Epic in the Wilderness - Arabia and the Nordic World, Dublin, 1987. 
  • Propp, Vladimir, Theory and History of Folklore, Manchester, 1984. 
  • Ranelagh, E.L., The Past We Share: the Near Eastern Ancestry of Western Folk Literature, Quartett Books, London, 1979. 
  • Reynolds, Dwight Fletcher, Heroic Poets, Poetic Heroes, Ithaca, 1995. 
  • Sadan, J., ‘Harun al-Rashid and the Brewer: preliminary remarks on the Adab of the elite versus Hikayat’, in S. Ballas and R. Snir, Studies in Canonical and Popular Arabic Literature’, Toronto, 1989. 
  • Sowayan, A., Nabati Poetry: the Oral Poetry of Arabia, Berkeley, 1985. 
  • Schwarzbaum, H., Biblical and Extra-biblical Legends in Islamic Folk-Literature, Walldorf-Hessen, 1982.
  • Shoshan, B., ‘On Popular Literature in Medieval Cairo’, in Poetics Today, vol. 14:2, pp. 349-65. 
  • Sallis, Eva, Shehrazade through the Looking Glass - The Metamorphosis of the 101 Nights, Richmond, 1999.


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