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Index by Period

Arabic Literature of the Middle Ages

The rise and development of Arabian literature occurs at an epoch when the rest of Europe was struggling through a period of transition. From the middle of the sixth to the beginning of the eleventh century, at a time when the Roman dominions were overrun by Northern hordes, and the Greek Nation was groaning under the Byzantine power, when both Greek and Latin literature was exposed to the danger of extinction, the splendor of Arabian literature reached its zenith and through the mingling of the Troubadours with the Moors of the Peninsula, and of the Crusaders with the Arabs, it began to influence the literature of Europe.

Arabia, peopled by wandering tribes, had no history other than the songs of the national bards, until after the rise of Mohammed in the sixth century. The desire of the prophet was to bring his people back from idolatry and star worship to the primitive and true worship of God. He studied the Old and New Testament, the legends of the Talmud and the traditions of Arabian and Persian mythology, then he wrote the Koran, which became the sacred book of the Arabians, and in which is traced in outline the true plan of man's salvation--Death, Resurrection, the Judgment, Paradise and the place of torment. Good and evil spirits, the four archangels, Gabriel, Michael, Azrael and Izrafeel, are all found in the Koran; but clothed with a true Oriental fancy. Besides the angels there are creatures, partly human and partly spiritual, called Genii, Peris (or fairies) and Deev (or giants). The Genii have the power of making themselves seen or invisible at pleasure. Some of them delight in mischief, and raise whirlwinds, or lead travellers astray. The Arabians used to say that shooting stars were arrows shot by the angels against the Genii when they approached too near the forbidden regions of bliss.

This fairy mythology of the Arabians was introduced into Europe by the Troubadours in the eleventh century, and became an important factor in the literature of Europe. From it, and the Scandinavian mythology spring all the fairy tales of modern nations. And these romances of the Koran form the groundwork of the fabliaux of the Trouveres, and of the romantic epics of Boccaccio, Tasso, Ariosto, Spenser and Shakespeare. Mohammed's teaching unified the different tribes of Arabia, and fostered a feeling of national pride, and a desire for learning. So rapidly did this develop that in less than a century the Arabian power and religion, as well as its language, had gained the ascendency over nearly half of Africa, a third of Asia, and a part of Spain; and from the ninth century to the sixteenth, the Arabian literature surpassed that of any nations of the same period.

This people, who, in a barbarous state had tried to abolish all cultivation in science and literature, now became the masters of learning, and they drew from the treasure houses of the countries that they had acquired by conquest, all the riches of knowledge at their command.

The learning of the Chaldeans and of the Magi, the poetry and fine arts of Asia Minor, the eloquence and intellect of Africa, all became theirs.

Greece counts nearly eight centuries from the Trojan war to the summit of her literary development. From the foundation of Rome till the age of Augustus the same number of centuries passed over the Roman world; while in French literature the age of Louis XIV was twelve centuries removed from the advent of Clovis; but in Arabian literature, from the time of the family of the Abassides, who mounted the throne in 750--and who introduced a passionate love for poetry, science and art--until the time of Al Mamoun, the Augustus of Arabia, there elapsed only one hundred and fifty years, a rate of progress in the development of literature among a nation that has no parallel in history.

Tournaments first originated among the Arabs, and thence found their way into France and Italy. Gunpowder was known to them a century before it appeared in Europe, and they were in possession of the compass in the eleventh century, and this notwithstanding the fact that a German chemist is supposed to have discovered gunpowder a century after the Arabs made use of it, while the compass is more frequently supposed to be a French or Italian invention of the thirteenth century.

Botany and chemistry were more familiar to them than they were to the Greeks or Romans. Bagdad and Cordova had famous schools of astronomy and medicine, and here in the tenth and eleventh centuries the Arabians were the teachers of the world. Students came to them from France and other parts of Europe; and their progress, especially in arithmetic, geometry and astronomy, was marvellous. The poetry of the Arabs is rhymed like ours, and is always the poetry of passion and love; but it is in their prose works, the Arabian tales of the Thousand and One Nights, that they have become most famous. Their richness of fancy in these prose tales is different from that of the other chivalric nations. The supernatural world is identical in both; but the moral world is different. The Arabian tales, like the old chivalric romances, take us to the realms of fairyland, but the human beings they introduce are very unlike. Their people are less noble and heroic, more moved by love and passion, and they depict women by turn as slaves and divinities. The original author of the Arabian Nights is unknown; but the book has become a household possession in every civilized country in the world.


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