SOAS University of London

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

Arabic Poetry and Criticism

Module Code:
Module Not Running 2020/2021
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Taught in:
Full Year

The module takes the form of a guided inquiry into the history and genres of classical Arabic poetry, the emergence of modern poetry and the transformation of poetic language, structures and imagery as embodied in selected texts by leading poets. Students of Comparative Literature will find it particularly interesting for the study of poetry and its response to the shaping forces of the age in a comparative context. The module has an important comparative constituent because of the historical influence of Arabic poetic practices and genres on world poetry (e.g. Troubadour poetry, German Gazell and Muslim Indian devotional poetry) and to the continued presence and influence of primarily Western (but also Asian and African) poetic traditions on modern Arabic poetic experiments.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

At the end of the module the student will be familiar in general terms with the range of themes, techniques and genres to be found in Classical, Modern and Contemporary Arabic poetry and will have been introduced to the principal critical works on the subject. 

The objective of the module is to introduce students to one of the richest and most rewarding areas of Arabic literature, and to relate the processes of change and search for personal and cultural identity on the literary level to the projects of change in the political and social spheres. 

The ultimate aim is to sharpen students’ awareness of the significance of poetry to the understanding of vital cultural, social and political processes in Arab societies. This aim can only be achieved, however, by attending first to the peculiarities of poetic voice, technique and metrical systems and to the closely allied complexities of self-insight and self-presentation, as well as to the relation to history and tradition. Students are expected to be able to apply a range of critical theories to the literature in question and to demonstrate this in their course-work essays.


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

Scope and syllabus

Module readings and discussions will be guided by the following major themes:

  • Language, Poetry and Identity: Pre-Islamic Poetry 
  • Conceptions of the Role of the Poet 
  • Language Practices: Disentangling Poetry and Prose 
  • Expansions and Transitions: Early Islamic and Umayyad Poetry 
  • The Criticism of Poetry and Arabic Literary Criticism 
  • The Golden age of Experimentation: The Tenth-Century 
  • Nature and Dimension of the Experience of Modernity and its relation to the romantic consciousness and imagination (and romanticism) and to the traditional mind-set (and neo-classicism). 
  • Crucial Relation to and Understanding of Time, Tradition, the City, Love and Society. 
  • Question of Influence and the Revivalist Attempts: the nature and extent of Western (e.g., Whitman, T. S. Eliot, Baudelaire, Mallarmé) and Eastern (e.g., Tagore) influence on modern Arabic poetry and the concomitant attempts at reviving certain Arabic poetic genres. 
  • Questions of Dramatic and Narrative Forms and of the Prose Poem 
  • Question of 'Amiyya Poetry and the Appropriation of Other Speech Genres 
  • Proper Definition of Terms, Practices and Forms and the Question of Historical Development 


Essays are based on supplementary texts which may be read in English translation, and are expected to take account of relevant critical literature. 

Students are also introduced to key concepts of poetics and literary theory and will receive training in applying a variety of critical paradigms to their material. 

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

  • Abu-Deeb, Kamal. "Cultural Creation in a Fragmented Society," in The Next Arab Decade: Alternative Futures, ed. Hisham Sharabi. Lonodn: Mansell, 1988.
    • "The Perplexity of the All-Knowing," Mundus Artium, Vol. I, No. X (Houston: University of Texas Press, 1977). 
  • Adonis ('Ali Ahmad Sa'id). The Blood of Adonis, selected and translated by Samuel Hazo. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1971. 
    • An Introduction to Arab Poetics. Trans. Catherine Cobham. Austin: The University of Texas at Austin Press, 1990. 
    • Mirrors, trans. Abulla al-Udhri. London: TR Press, 1976.
    • Transformations of the Lover, trans. Samuel hazo. Cleveland: Ohio University Press, 1983. 
  • Asfour, John Mikhail, trans. and ed. When the Words Burn: An Anthology of Modern Arabic Poetry: 1945-1987. Dunvegan, Ontario: Cormorant Books, 1988. 
  • Badawi, M. M., ed. An Anthology of Modern Arabic Verse. Oxford: oxford University Press, 1970. 
  • Cachia, Pierre. Arabic Literature: An Overview. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002. 
  • DeYoung, Terri. Placing the Poet: Badr Shakir al-Sayyab and Postcolonial Iraq. New York: State University of New York Press, 1998. 
  • Gelder, G. J. van. The Bad and the Ugly: Attitudes Towards Invective Poetry (Hija') in Classical Arabic Literature (Leiden, 1988). 
  • Grunebaum, G. E. von, ed., Arabic poetry: Theory and Development (Wiesbaden, 1973). 
  • Hamori, A. The Art of Medieval Arabic Literature (Princeton, 1974). 
    • The Composition of Mutanabbi’s Panegyrics to Sayf al-Dawla (Leiden, 1992). 
  • Harlow, Barbara. Resistance Literature. New York: Methuen, 1987. 
    • - and Ferial J. Ghazoul. The View from Within: Writers and Critics on Contemporary Arabic Literature. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 1994.
  • Hourani, Albert. Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age 1798-1939. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970. 
    • A History of the Arab Peoples. London: Faber and Faber, 1991. - Al-Jayyusi, Salma al-Khadra, ed. Modern Arabic Poetry: An Anthology. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988. 
    • Trends and Movements in Modern Arabic Poetry. 2 vols. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1977.
  • Kennedy, Philip F. The Wine Song in Classical Arabic Poetry: Abu Nuwas and the Literary Tradition (Oxford, 1997).
  • Al-Khazin, William. Al-Shi'r wa al-Wataniyya fi Lubnan wa al-Bilad al-'Arabiyya Min Matla' al-Nahda ila 'Am 1939. Beirut: Dar al-Mashriq, 1979. 
  • Kurpershoek, M., Bedouin Poets of the Dawasir Tribe: Between Nomadism and Settlement in Southern Najd, Leiden, 1999. 
    - Lyons, M. C., Identification and Identity in Classical Arabic Poetry (1999). 
  • Al-Messiri, A. M., ed. The Palestinian Wedding: A Bilingual Anthology of Contemporary Palestinian Resistance Poetry. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1982. 
  • Montgomery, J. E. The Vagaries of the Qasidah: The Tradition and Practice of Early Arabic Poetry (1997). 
  • Moreh, S. Modern Arabic Poetry 1800-1970: The Development of its Forms and Themes under the Influence of Western Literature. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1976. 
  • 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. 
  • al-Nowaihi, Magda. The Poetry of Ibn Khafajah: A Literary Analysis (Leiden, 1993). 
  • Reynolds, Dwight Fletcher, Heroic Poets, Poetic Heroes, Ithaca, 1995. 
  • 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. Ab‚ 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). 
  • Zwettler, Michael. The Oral Tradition of Classical Arabic Literature: Its Character and Implications (Columbus, 1978).


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules