Monday, September 14, 2009

Re-Introducing Islamic Literature: A Case Study

Nur Sheena Baharudin
Homam Al-Tabaa


This paper confirms and affirms the belief that the role of literature is, and has always literally been, in abundance. Although its importance may be of different degrees in different countries, the fact remains that literature continues to be one of the main factors that contribute to the makings of a nation. Examples can be seen in distinctive and old countries such as Japan, the United States of America, Egypt and Britain, where the production of acknowledged literary classics confirms their place in the world as nations that possess intellectual and creative prowess. At the same time, young post-colonial countries, including Malaysia, aspire and encourage the writing of literature that could be made into national literatures. From here onwards, one notices the literature of a country simultaneously functioning as an approachable source of the nation and its people’s worldview.

Even-Zohar aptly summarizes this desire to belong in a larger unified entity when he states that:

For any individual in a community, the greatness of the nation is also capable of conferring individual greatness: “I am great, because I belong to a nation which has generated Goethe.” This is not at all different from the kind of sentiments involved in any competition: “I am great because I belong to a nation whose basketball team has won the European championship.” It simply “pays” to be member of such a nation, and this bonus becomes a very powerful factor in strengthening and nourishing the sentiment of “belonging.”

Apart from that, the literature of country and people also works as a representation of a specific world view. Here, the term “world view” can be generally understood as the relationship shared between a work of literature and the realities of the present world. For an example, classic works written by William Shakespeare are not only the pride of the English people but also allows readers from all background to explore the culture, history and identity of the English nation. Another example is when a writer writes a novel or a poem. Here, he or she subconsciously writes and explains from a specific point of view cultivated from the writer’s cultural upbringing and education. Whether or not his opinion is regional, universal or both, the writer automatically become the voice of his nation and people. Hence, the writer allows us to see the function of literature in the makings of both national/collective and individual identities.
In his article entitled “The Role of Literature in the Making of the Nations of Europe: a Socio-Semiotic Study” (1996), Itamar Even-Zohar argues that the role of literature within the history of European nations is intrinsically different and unique from the literatures of other continents, displaying a familiar tendency by scholars to prioritise one literature from the others. But at the same time, he also reveals the universal attraction and importance of literature in the history of the civilised world:

Is “literature” in this sense in fact unique to Europe? This is not an easy question. There are perhaps no known organized societies which do not have some sort of “literature,” or in other words, an activity during which texts are recited or read, to or by their members, either publicly or privately. It is true, however, that certain societies have had a reputation which would seem to make them more qualified than others to create and transmit such texts… Khalifs and Kings, Emperors and Czars, as well as “simple people,” were all known to attend performances of verse and prose literature in numerous times and places. Moreover, in such states as China, writing poetry according to accepted models was a mandatory qualification required for an administrative position.

Hence, it would be easy to conclude that such rich civilisations would possess a definite knowledge of their literature. As how Even-Zomar highlights the unique phenomenon of European literature, we would naturally assume that the Islamic civilisation would possess the same confidence with its sources of literature. Unfortunately, it is not as simple as we would want it to be. Unlike the literatures mentioned above, the study of Islamic Literature proves to be challenging as there is the risk of either over-simplifying the repertoire of Islamic literary classics or vice versa. What over-simplifying means is the division of Islamic Literature into only three namely the Holy Qur’an, the Prophet’s Hadeeth and Sunnah (SAW), and the oral traditions of the Prophet’s companions, followers and students. On the other hand, there is the risk of generalising Islamic Literature as the works written by Muslims, period. This is where this paper’s objective i.e. to define Islamic Literature comes in.

Defining Islamic Literature

The need to re-introduce Islamic Literature as an accessible and structured study course is pivotal. But before one could begin looking into the meaning and the weight behind the term, there is a need to look into the traditional opinions of what Islamic Literature is considered to be. Firstly, the major element in the traditional definition of Islamic Literature relies upon its strong roots in the history of the Islamic civilisation.

The Aspect of Time

Classical Arab scholars have long related the literature of Islam to the beginning of Islam as a religion itself. By the end of the first century of the Hijra or the pilgrimage taken by the Prophet (SAW) and his followers from Mecca to Medina, Islamic literature took form as works written by Muslims as opposed to the writings of the Jahiliya period. By dividing their writings into pre and post-Islam, Islamic Literature at that time became a literature of time rather than unifying themes. But soon enough, Islamic Literature grew at the same momentum as the fast expansion of the Islamic states from the humble beginnings of Saudi Arabia to the golden ages of its civilisation that reached the European soils.

Beginning with the Prophet’s era, three illustrious sessions of caliphates later ruled the Islamic empire and influenced the production of intellectual and religious writings. Firstly is the reign of the four Patriarchal Caliphs (632-661) i.e. Saidina Abu Bakar al-Siddiq (r.a.), Saidina Umar al-Khattab (r.a.), Saidina Uthman ibn Affan (r.a.) and Saidina Ali ibn Abi Talib (r.a.) followed by the Umayyads (661-750), and finally the Abbasids (750-1258). After the fall of the Abbasids in the hands of Ottoman Empire in 1258, several separate dynasties continued to rule and exist in other parts of Spain and Africa. A rich source of information on these successors of the Islamic empire is available specifically during the first four periods as introduced before. However, beginning from the 18th century onwards, specifically with the rise of the Western colonial empires, the resources began to shrink and limit itself to selected body of texts that lack the intensity of the generations of writers before them.

Hence, the need to re-introduce Islamic Literature begins by widening the scope of publications that include not only the renaissance of the Muslim people but also writers from the 20th century onwards.

The Aspect of Place

There was a tendency for most Orientalists and Western scholars to generalise Islamic Literature as a body of literary works produced by individuals from the Middle East. However, agreeing to this statement would only undermine the vast Muslim empire that included not only the Middle East region but the Asian continent, Central Asia and parts of Europe too. Hence, Islamic literature should not be and is not exclusively Middle Eastern as presumed in the former days. Further attention and research should be made on the period of de-colonialisation where many former colonies of the Western powers gained their independence. A substantial number of these young nations regard themselves as an Islamic country or possess a significant number of Muslims living in the country. An apt example of this is the country of Kosovo where the majority of its people are strictly practising Muslims.

The Aspect of Language

Along with the expansion of the great Islamic empire is the expansion and adoption of the Arabic language, which is synonymously known as the language of the Qur’an and the first generation of Muslims during the time of the Prophet. For a long period of time, Arabic became the language of literature for many Islamic states and continued to be esteemed as the language of Islam. Even when the Islamic empire was beginning to disintegrate, the force of Arabic continued to influence the native language such as in Persia where the Arabic alphabets were used to replace the Persian’s alphabetic system.

Thus, it’s not surprising that several scholars have placed the Arabic language as a prerequisite in writing a substantial work of Islamic literature. This could have been relevant during the 19th and 20th century but at a time when technology has bridged the gap and barriers between countries, the diversity of languages and cultures requires a more approachable definition of Islamic Literature.

Hence, the modern definition of Islamic Literature should clarify the importance of the Arabic language within the Islamic world but writers of other languages shouldn’t be discriminated as well. Only then will the field of Islamic Literature become more universal and unifying in its allegiance to the religion of Islam, rather than divisive factors such as politics, language, race and nations.

Islamic Literature and Modern Literary Theories

The application and study of Islamic Literature automatically places it in the field of literary theories. Theories have the main responsibility to provide a better understanding and further appreciation for a literary work. There are many examples where a scholar would analyse a novel or a series of poem using a specific literary theory that would shed more insight for the reader. By conceptualising the theory of Islamic Literature and constructing the characteristics that would then define a body of text as Islamic literary work, this paper suggests the possibilities of providing better assistance to those interested in pursuing or teaching the field of poetry, prose, novels and drama written by Muslims and courses pertaining to Islamic themes and issues.

At the same time, it also provides an opportunity for scholars, writers and readers to read and study a work of Islamic literature from the various points of literary theories. Several theories that will be introduced and explained below have been chosen not only to exemplify the flexibility of Islamic Literature in the field of theories but also to prove its contemporary relevance to the modern world:

1. Formalism

This theory highlights the significance of literary form in shaping the meaning by isolating the literary work from such questions relating to historical, biographical, and social questions. At the same time, the author and reader’s opinions and responses are considered immaterial to the real meaning of the text. What matters most is the text’s arrangement and construction, choice of diction, and the use of specific literary devices such as figurative language, paradox and irony.

Within the realm of Islamic Literature, the application of this theory is possible considering its strict dependence on the text per say. For an example, taking in many poems written by poets from the Abbasid or the Umayyad caliphates, a poem can be appreciated from the complexity of the form and use of language within the stanzas. Considering the supreme role of the Arabic language in the Muslim empires, one’s delicate and knowledgeable use and manipulation of the language often contributes to a poet’s popularity in his society.

2. Reader-Response Criticism

In this critical theory, what matters most to the theorist is the reader’s interaction with the text as this interaction is considered central to the work of interpreting the literary text. In the sub-field of reader-response, a work of literature such as poems and novels is understood as a chain of threads divided by gaps. These gaps have to be filled by the readers using their own knowledge and experiences. Hence, what the readers felt and interpreted after that contributes and shapes the meaning of the text itself.

As texts that are related to the field of Islamic Literature deals with the universal themes of Islam, hence the universality and relevance of the texts to the readers should be highlighted using this form of criticism. The reader-response theory places the role of the reader as central to the process of understanding the full meaning of the text as the text itself.

3. Sociological Criticism

In this theory, what defines the meaning of a literary text is its relation to the social context in which it was created. A work of literature is seen and accepted as a product of the society it came from and thus derives its main characteristics from the situations that have occurred during that specific time.

4. Marxist Criticism

This famous theory has its early origins in the politics of socialism. It was first introduced by Karl Marx who began promoting his series of social theories that would later become his masterpiece entitled Das Kapital. Socialism later acquired further support when Marx’s close colleague and coauthor Friedrich Engels published his work entitled The Communist Manifesto. From then since, the followers of these works began forming various theories that would help further understand the society including the literary theory of Marxist Criticism. Based on this theory, readers and students are able to analyse the literary works of any writers from any historical periods as the product of the ideology, or system of principles and beliefs, that supports the status of the cultural elite while subjugating the working class at the same time.

5. New Historicism

In this theory, the basis of its understanding is simple. According to these New Historicists, literary texts are intimately and integrally related to its contexts of history, culture and the events that have occurred within the period in which the texts were created. At the same time, the power structure of the society in which the text was produced in is also considered central to the interpretation of history as found in the structure and meaning of the text.

Re-Introducing Islamic Literature as a Study Course

The objective of this paper is to highlight the importance of having a carefully designed and stimulating Islamic Literature study course in any universities, but specifically in the International Islamic University Malaysia. What concerns the paper is the current trend of separating the course of Islamic Literature from the rest of the contemporary theoretical schools. Hence, the need to re-design and re-introduce a more current and effective course of study in the undergraduate level is required.

The process of designing a suitable study course for Islamic Literature requires several stages of defining and structuring its syllabus:


There have been many attempts to define what constitutes a work of Islamic Literature. In 1987, Dr. Naquib Khilaini states that Islamic Literature is:

“a moving and beautiful artistic expression that stands from the believing self expressing life, humanity and the universe according to the Muslim’s belief principles. It also stirs joy and brings benefit, moving the heart and the mind, and also encouraging one to take stances and take actions.”

From this definition above, we can summarise that Islamic Literature are the literary works composed by Muslims (believing self) related to themes of life, humanity and the universe as according to Islam. Hence, the themes and ideas are based on the principles laid down in the Qur’an and in the Hadeeth.

However, another scholar i.e. Sayyed Qutub defines it in a slightly different way when he states that it is an:

“Inspiring expressions of living values that the writer feels. These values differ from one person to the other and from one environment to the other, from age to age, but in anyways, it stems from a certain worldview. The association in these values is between the human and the universe, and between the human amongst themselves.”

What matters most to Sayyed Qutub is the worldview from which writers write their literary works in. He didn’t specify whether the writers are Muslims or not, but rather that these inspiring values as propagated by the writers are concerned with the harmonious relationship shared between human and the universe, and the humans with their own kind. Confirming the universal values of Islam, the quote above relates Islamic Literature to the contents of literary works rather than the authors who write them.

Muhammad Qutb also expresses a similar kind of understanding when he states that Islamic Literature is a “beautiful expression of the universe and life and men through the Islamic perspective of the universe, life and men.” Again, the litmus test of what constitutes Islamic Literature is the Islamic perspective of the work’s content and intention.

Next, Dr. Imadudin Khalil sets Islamic Literature apart from the other form of literatures when he defines it as a “moving aesthetic expressions through words about the Islamic conception of the universe.” What this definition implies is that the literature should be a work of literary elegance relating to creationism i.e. how God creates the universe and the living things around it.

A more recent definition is provided by the International League of Islamic Literature where Islamic Literature is defined as a “purposeful artistic expression of life, the universe, meaning from an Islamic perspective.” Again, the keywords that can be extracted from this sentence are ‘purposeful’ meaning having a defined set of morals as instructed in Islam, ‘artistic’ meaning that it requires skills and sophistication, and ‘Islamic' meaning the principles underlying the religion itself.

Place and Time

The aspects of place and time should be contemporary and all encompassing. This means that Islamic Literature shouldn’t be limited to a specific time or geographical frame. It should begin from the time of the Prophet (SAW) until the present 21st century. However, the significant period of the Islamic renaissance shouldn’t be neglected as the wealth of Islamic Literature comes from this period of Muslim excellence. These works of literary masterpieces can and should be the point of references for those interested in writing and studying Islamic Literature.

The Range of Islamic Literature

1. The Prophet’s Times until the Four Patriarchal Caliphs:

The most important writings during these times were the Hadeeth, the compilation of the sayings and deeds of Muhammad as provided by those who were close to the Prophet, including the four Caliphs. By the 9th century, the Hadeeth had been acknowledged as a body of religious sources to which no new inputs were added.

2. The Umayyad Caliphate

This was a time of civil wars between the Muslim population and the constant existence of sectarian favoritism. The troubled times contributed to the emergence of poetry as the preferred form of literature for expressing different divergent points of view.

The two of the most popular poets of this period used their expertise to support their political groups. First is Al-Akhtal was a Christian who was an ardent supporter of Mu'awiyah al-Jarir and was famous for his use of the traditional qasida form. Secondly is `Umar ibn Abi Rabi`ah was a poet from Mecca who used the ghazal form and contributed to its influence as a love poem.

3. The `Abbasid Caliphate

After the Umayyad’s reign of the Islamic empire, the `Abbasid caliphate ruled for more than 500 years. It was during the ‘Abbasid’s times that the Islamic Renaissance began.

The major poets and theorists of the `Abbasid period were Ibn al-Mu`tazz, Ibn Da'ud, al-Mutanabbi, and al-Ma`arri. It was also during this time that literary prose began to make a place in literary circles and many compilation and translation of scholarly and philosophical works from many different cultures and languages were translated into Arabic. Famous writers include Ibn al-Muqaffa` al-Jahiz of Basra, Abu Hayyan at-Tawhid, Al-Hamadhani, and Al-Hariri of Basra.

4. Spain

The field of philosophy and mysticism rose to incredible heights in the Muslim kingdom of Spain where the famous Muslim philosophers either wise known as Avicenna and Averroës. In the field of mysticism on the other hand, Al-Ghazali and Ibn al-`Arabi obtained the highest respect of them all.

5. North Africa

The scholars from this region made important contributions to the field of geography and map making from the 10th century onwards. Important contributors included Al-Idrisi who had produced a world map, and the famous traveller Ibn Battutah. North Africa had also produced the famous social scientist, Ibn Khaldun, whose `Muqaddimah' continues to be regarded as one of the most influential philosophies of history ever written.

6. Persia

The most popular and significant writers from this region were Firdawsi, Awhad ad-Din `Ali, al-Biruni, Omar Khayyám, Jalal ad-Din ar-Rumi, Sa`di, and Amir Khosrow.

Common Themes in Literature

A theme is a short, accurate, and forceful presentation of your thoughts, organized around a "central or basic idea." This central idea or theme unifies the paper into a logical whole. Considering the significance of the relationship shared not only among human beings but between human beings and the world around them, the themes that should be in stressed upon in Islamic Literature should include the individual in nature, the individual in society, the individual's relation with Allah SWT, human relations, time, death, heaven and hell and so forth.


Considering that poetry is often the most popular form in Islamic Literature, the development of poetic forms soon grew popular in the Islamic civilisation:

The Qasida consists of a structured ode of from 20 to 100 verses and maintains a single end rhyme through the entire piece. Before Islam, the poem details the adventure of the poet's journey, describing his horse or camel, or the desert. After the coming of Islam, the Qasida served as an instrument of praise to God, eulogies of the Prophet (SAW), songs of praises, or lament for the saints.

The Ghazal is a love lyric of from five to twelve verses which content is mostly religious, secular, or both.

The Qitah is a literary form concerning satire, jokes, word games, and other less serious matters in life.

The Masnavi means "the doubled one," or rhyming couplet. It is very popular it allowed the poet to tell long stories by connecting thousand of verses into one. It’s the closest resemblance to the epic poem developed in the Western literature.

The Roba`i also has its roots in pre-Islamic Persian poetic tradition. Its form is a quatrain (four-line verse) in which the first, second, and fourth lines rhyme. The most famous example of the roba`i is the `Rubáiyát' of Omar Khayyám.

The Maqamah is the most typical expression of the Arabic language in rhymed prose form and it used to tell simple stories in a very complicated style.

Islamic Interpretations of Western Classics

Within the course of Islamic Literature, there should also be a section where Western Classics can be interpreted in an Islamic perspective, applying the method of Islamisation of Knowledge. In the significant work entitled Crisis in the Muslim Mind (1993) written by Abdul Hamid A. Abu Sulayman, he proposed that the best way to revive the Islamic Renaissance is by applying a new method of education i.e. Islamisation of Knowledge. The best way to do this is by using the approach of the contemporary Islamic Asalah. He further explains:

“Contemporary Asalah implies ability, technical experience, and sound methodology…. The methodology of research in Islamic Studies must be restructured so that ot proceeds from experience derived from practical situations related to Islam and its higher purposes, values, and societal and civilisational precepts” (19)

An example of this can be the work of Assoc. Prof. Dr. Nor Faridah Abdul Manaf where she had published a work entitled An Islamic Interpretation of Tragic Hero in Shakespearean Tragedies (2004). By doing this, the students can learn ways to understand Western literature from a different yet more relatable point of view.


This paper concludes by stating the need to re-introduce Islamic Literature not only as a body of literary works by Muslims from the past but as a body of literary works that are not limited to time and geographical borders. At the same time, Islamic Literature should also be a mode of determining whether a text belongs to this field of study or otherwise, turning it into a theoretical field on the same level as other literary theories. Finally, only by re-analysing the purpose behind the learning of Islamic Literature can one asserts the importance of introducing a restructured and reorganized study course specifically to the level of tertiary education.


Abdul Hamid A. Abu Sulayman, (1993). Crisis in the Muslim Mind. International Institute of Muslim Thought: Virginia. (Trans. Yusuf Talal DeLorenzo)

Even-Zohar, I., (1996). The Role of Literature in the Making of the Nations of Europe: a Socio-Semiotic Study in Applied Semiotics/Sémiotique appliquée 1:1 (1996), 39-59.

Nor Faridah Abdul Manaf, (2004). An Islamic Interpretation of Tragic Hero in Shakespearean Tragedies. Research Centre IIUM: Malaysia

* Paper presented by the authors in The Seminar of Higher Education in The Muslim World, 24-25 Mac 2008 in International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM)

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