Literature and Music in the Golden Age of Muslim World

Literature and Music in the Golden Age of Muslim World
Literature and Music in the Golden Age of Muslim World

Arabic literature developed and dominated the Islamic cultural scene during the eighth to the 13th century and beyond, from Baghdad to Córdoba in the Andalus. Arabic language, the youngest and the most widely spoken of the ancient Semitic languages, is the language of the Qur’an—the sacred book of Islam that culturally unified not only the Arab people, but also non-Arab Muslims.

Islamic teaching presented in the text of the Qur’an and the Hadith, the sayings of the prophet Muhammad, encouraged learning and praised learned people and the quest for knowledge. The Arabic language has a peculiar regularity and coherent grammatical and structural system that lend to it the ability to express in creative and diverse literary forms such as Shir (poetry), Nathr (prose), Adab (a genre of socioethical literature), Balaghah (eloquence), and Maqamah (assembly).

In pre-Islamic times the Arabic language was the medium of communication especially in the transmission of oral tradition, poetry, and stories. As early as the fifth century, odes or Qasidah (plural Qasaid) were composed and the most celebrated were called Al-Muallaqat (the suspended), for they were honored and recognized by being displayed on the walls of the Ka’aba in Mecca.

Famous among the pre-Islamic poets are Imru al-Qays, Tarafa ibn al-Abd, Zuhayr ibn abi Salma, Labid, Amr ibn Kulthum, Antara, and al-Harithah ibn Hillizah. During the early Umayyad dynasty celebrated poets emerged with diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds who composed masterpieces of Arabic poetry such as Al-Akhtal, Jarir, and al-Farazdaq.

With the expansion of the Islamic empire during the Umayyad and throughout the Abbasid dynasty, Arabic became the literary language of the era, the liturgy language of Islam, and a powerful literary vehicle to disseminate Arabic culture. Many talents contributed to the legacy of Arabic literature; scholars, linguists, writers, and poets of Arab and non Arab descent wrote in the Arabic language.

During the Umayyad and Abbasid periods scholars gathered and collected the sources for Qur’anic studies and the collections of the Hadith. Ibn Ishaq (d. 767) wrote Sirat Rasul Allah (Life of the messenger of God), which was later revised by Ibn Hisham (d. 834).

Umayyad Period Literature

With the expansion of Islam the Arabic language was refined, first during the Umayyad era with Abu al-Aswad al Duali (d. 688), who founded the Arabic grammar and diacritical color-coded points Tashkeel. The dotting system and vowels signs developed by AlKhalil ibn Ahmed al-Farahidi (d. 786) soon replaced that system.

Al-Farahidi was the first Arab philologist who compiled the first Arabic dictionary; he was credited with the formulation of the rules of Arabic prosody. His major work was Kitab al-Arud (Book of prosody). His student Sibawayh (d. 793) codified grammatical rules. Later Al-Mubarrad (d. 898) wrote al-Kamil fi al-Lughah wa al-Adab, which was an invaluable collection of references to Arabic philology through poetic quotations.

His rival al-Thaalibi also contributed to this field with his major work Yeteemat al-Dahr, a bibliography of poets and writers of Arabic. Another outstanding scholar in this field was the Andalusian linguist Ibn Malik (d. 1274), who composed the famous Alfiyah in which he compiled and analyzed all Arabic grammatical rules in 1,000 verses of poetry composed in a single poetical masterpiece.

Other scholars worked on the subjects of jurisprudence, theological discourse, fundamentals of Arabic grammar, lingual terminology, rhetoric, and adab. Bayt al-Hikmah in Baghdad was the departing center for the quest of Hellenistic and Eastern knowledge in science, mathematics, philosophy, geography, astronomy, and literature.

Historians and biographers worked diligently on documenting the history of the Islamic state, pre-Islamic period, and ancient civilizations. Early transmitters of accounts are Kab al-Ahbar, Hammad al-Rawiyah, and Wahb ibn Munabbih from the eighth century.

The list of important early historians includes Ibn al-Kalbi (d. 820) and his major work Kitab al-Asnam (Book of idols) Al-Waqidi (d. 823), who was affiliated with the Abbasid court in Baghdad and who wrote Kitab al-Maghaz (Book of the raids of the prophet); Ibn Sad (d. 845) was al-Waqidi’s secretary and wrote a major biographica dictionary called Kitab al-Tabaqat (The book of classes [of persons]); Al-Azraqi (d. 865), a native and historian of Mecca, wrote an extensive history of Mecca Akhbar Mecca. Al-Bukhari (d. 870) was a historian and the famous Hadith compiler and interpreter.

His major work was the collection of the sayings of the prophet Muhammad known as al-Jami al-Sahih; Al-Baladhur (d. 892) was a great historian and companion of the Abbasid caliph al-Mutawakkil and wrote many treaties; the most famous was Futuh al-Buldan (History of the Muslim conquests).

Al-Yaqubi (d. 897), a historian and geographer, wrote a history of the world known as Tarikh al-Yaqubi, and Kitab al-Buldan (Book of countries). Al-Tabari (d. 923) was another noted historian, lexigrapher, and scientist. His major work is Tarikh al-Rusul wa al-Muluk (History of the world); Al-Masudi (d. 956) was born and lived in Baghdad and traveled widely; most of his works were lost and only one survived: Muruj al-Dhahab wa Maadin al-Jawhar (Fields of gold and mines of jewels), which was a short history of the world down to the end of the Umayyad period; Ibn al-Nadim (d. 990) was the son of a book dealer born in Baghdad.

His massive work al-Fihrist was intended to be an index of all books written in Arabic from early Islam up to Ibn al-Nadim’s time. The vast majority of the books mentioned in his Fihrist are given with information on the authors and subjects.

Ibn Khaldun was perhaps the most famous Arab historian and sociologist, who changed the course of interpreting historical events and set the mode for modern methodology in historiography with his influential book al-Muqaddimah (Introduction).

Arabic prose flourished in Baghdad with Ibn al-Muqaffa (d. 757), who translated many Pahlavi works and was famous for his Kalila wa Dimna, a collection of didactic fables in which two jackals offered moral and practical advice. Originally derived from the Sanskrit Fables of Bidpai, Kalila wa Dimna was the inspirational source for La Fontaine’s Fables.

From Basra came Al-Jahiz (d. 869), who developed Arabic prose into a literary vehicle of precision and elegance and was one of Baghdad’s leading intellectuals. He wrote over 200 works; the most famous of them were Kitab al-Hayawan (Book of animals), al-Bayan wa alTabyeen, and al-Bukhala.

Equally important was Abu al-Faraj al-Isbahani (d. 967), also called al-Isfahani, who was an Arab historian, intellectual, and poet. His monumental book Kitab al-Aghani (Book of songs) is an anthology of songs and poems from the earliest epoch to the author’s own time. These were especially those were popular in Baghdad during Harun al-Rashid’s reign.

Abbasid Period Literature

The early Abbasid period witnessed the birth of new genres in poetry where politics, eroticism, and blasphemy mingled. The emergence of a political trend geared toward undermining the dominant Arab culture in what came to be called Shuubism, or anti-Arabism, led to a new genre of literature.

An adamant leader in this trend was the renowned blind poet Bashshar ibn Burd (d. 783). Other poets also excelled in various genres such as Muti ibn Iyas (d. 787), Abbas ibn al-Ahnaf (d. 808), Muslim ibn Walid (d. 823), Abu Nuas (d. 813), and ibn al-Rumi (d. 896).

Many poets revived classical Arabic poetry such as Abu Tammam (d. 843), al-Buhtari (d. 897), al-Mutanabbi (d. 956), and al-Maarri (d. 1057). The art of the genre Maqamat, an assembly of rhymed prose of amusing anecdotes narrated by a vagabond who made his living by his wit, was associated with two famous names, al-Hamadhani (d. 1008), who invented the genre, and al-Hariri (d. 1122), who elaborated on the style and excelled in composing linguistic virtuosity where the literary form was more important than the content. The talented visual artist Mahmoud bin Yehya al-Wasiti, who established a distinct and influential artistic style in 13th century Baghdad, illustrated al-Hariri’s Maqamat.

Storytelling literature had flourished since the early period of Islam. Storytellers were street preachers who used old Arab folk tales mixed with religious flavor; they spoke to enthusiastic and attentive audiences in mosques and other public places. Remains of this folk art are found in the form of al-Hakawati in present-day Cairo, Damascus, and Marrakesh. A favorite literary subject of these storytellers was the epic tale of Arab bravery presented in such work as Sirat Antara.

Out of this type of oral tradition and sometime around the 15th century evolved the most famous Arabic literary work in the West: Alf laylah wa Laylah (Thousand and One Nights, or Arabian Nights). It revealed a blend of legends, fables, and fairy tales derived from many cultures such as the Mesopotamian, Persian, Greek, Indian, Chinese, Turkish, and Arabic, traditions integrated and reintroduced through tales and legacies correlated with Abbasid times.

In the western part of the Islamic state al-Andalus, a similar cultural revolution took place and built widely on the eastern Islamic prototype. One particular form of literature was distinctly Andalusian, al-Muwashshahat, which was a love poem performed with singing and music.

Among the brilliant names associated with this art are Ibn Sahl, Ibn al-Khatib, and Ibn Hazm. As early as the 12th century Muslim Spanish academies, similar to Bayt al-Hikmah in Baghdad, were opened for translating Arabic into Latin. Scholars from France, England, Germany, and northern Europe converged in the Andalus to study Arabic literature and other subjects.

As early as the second half of the ninth century a new type of literary work emerged throughout the Abbasid Empire, that is, geohistorical writing accentuated with traveler observations and accounts. Major examples of this type were Ibn Fadhlan, Abbasid ambassador to the Viking kingdom, and his account Rihlat ibn Fadhlan (Travels of Ibn Fadhlan) in 922; in Baghdad, Ibn Hawqal (d. 969) wrote Surat al-Ardh (Description of the Earth), where he described Spain, Italy, and the Byzantine territories. In 1154 Al-Idrisi was commissioned by the Norman king Roger II in Palermo and composed a geographical account of the world called Nuzhat al-Mushtaq fi Ikhtiraq al-Afaq also known as Kitab Rodjar.

Yaqut al-Hamawi (d. 1229) wrote a major geographical dictionary, Mujam al-Buldan, which contained significant biographical, cultural, and historical data on the known world. Al-Qazwini (d. 1383) wrote in Baghdad his cosmographic work Ajaib al-Makhluqat wa Gharaib al-Mawjudat (Marvels of things created and miraculous aspects of things existing).

The book was very popular and was translated into Farsi and Turkish and was often illustrated lavishly. Al-Qazwini also wrote an important geographical account. Ibn Batuta traveled extensively through Africa, Europe, and Asia and recorded his accounts in his Rihlat Ibn Batuta (Travels of Ibn Batuta), a classic in Arabic literature.

The Arabs learned papermaking technology from the Chinese in the eighth century and substituted mulberry bark and other organic matter with linen as raw materials, and the first papermaking factory was established in Baghdad in 793.

This was a turning point in the spread of education and the development of Arabic literature throughout the Islamic world. Expensive parchment and fragile papyrus were replaced by paper that was affordable, practical, and durable. Libraries were common and were open to the public.

Booksellers gathered around major mosques and markets with their shops stocked with volumes of desirable works; shops became popular gathering places for scholars and writers. Specialized workshops of manuscript copying were manned with professional and efficient copyists, calligraphers, illustrators, and linguists.

The fall of Baghdad to the Mongols in 1258 marked the beginning of the decline of the golden age of Arabic literature as well as other scientific activities. However the massive destruction of books by the invading armies of Genghis Khan, Hulagu Khan, and later Timurlane (Tamerlane) prompted Arab scholars to compile, digest, codify, and abridge major encyclopedic and collection works, hence preserving Arabic literary heritage with such authors as Al-Qazwini, Yaqut, Ibn Malik, Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Batuta, Abu al-Fida, and Al-Zabidi.

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