Culture Society and Politics in Classical Arabic Literature

Key information

Start date
End date
Year of study
Year 4
Module code
FHEQ Level

Module overview

The module provides a guided inquiry into the history and genres of classical Arabic literature, both poetry and prose. Students will examine critically the range of themes and techniques found in this literature, sharpening their awareness of the relationship between language and thought, and eqipping 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.


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

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

At the end of the module, students should be able to:

  • Demonstrate a rounded knowledge and critical understanding of the major themes and genres of classical Arabic poetry and prose
  • Analyse structures and imagery in selected texts by leading authors
  • Relate literary transformations to contemporary political and cultural changes
  • Articulate the ways in which language, literature and thought are interrelated
  • Exercise time management skills in the production and substantiation of an argument


This module is taught over 20 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. Conceptions of the role of the poet
2. The criticism of poetry and Arabic literary criticism
3. Language practices: disentangling poetry and prose
4. Politics, aesthetics and ethics in Adab Compendia, anecdotal and narrative forms of storytelling
5. Allegory in The 1001 Nights
6. Story as history in Arabic epics
7. Literature as performance: epistolarity
8. Performativity of language: Pre-modern Arabic drama

Method of assessment

  • Two essays (1,500 words each) (30% each)
  • One Virtual Presentation (15 minutes) (40%)

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