Islamic Literature Analysis

The Issue

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The prophet Muhammad’s teaching is the foundation of the Islamic religion, the religion with the second largest number of adherents in the world. Muslims, or followers of Islam, adhere to the Koran, often referred to as the foremost example of literature in Arabic.

Early Islamic Literature

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Early Islamic literature, including prose and poetry, was intended to be read aloud. Written and oral folk literature illustrates Islamic civilization and is often based on religious considerations. Scholars of the time frowned on folk literature, including the masterpiece Alf layla wa-layla (fifteenth century c.e.; The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, 1706-1708), because such narratives do not observe the established literary style. The literary style established by the Koran has had overwhelming influence on Islamic literature. Much Islamic literature has come to the West through Spain, which Arab peoples occupied from 711 to 1492. Islamic scholars and philosophers such as Avicenna and Averroës were widely influential in the West as well as in Arabic-speaking regions.

Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

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In the United States, interest in Islamic literature began to emerge in the late 1800’s and again after World War I and World War II. A small group of scholars knew of Muslim literature, but the general public did not. Scholars concluded that familiarity in the West and in the United States with Islamic literature could build an intellectual bridge between the East and West. During the mid-1800’s, libraries initiated collections of Islamic literature from the Middle Ages forward. Living poets and writers gained an audience in translation; for example, the author and critic Taha Hussein established a reputation in the West. After World War II, interest in the Islamic world grew as a result of the desire for political and commercial paternership. American studies of Islamic literature are geared toward providing greater understanding of and tolerance for what has often been viewed as religious and cultural systems that are at odds with the West and with America.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Adult and juvenile nonfiction Islamic literature of North America includes several biographical books on Malcolm X and on Elijah Muhammad, a religious leader of a Muslim sect. Informational books on Muslims and Islam are widely available. Nonfiction books on the Koran, the role of women, political difficulties, subgroups within Islam, and the differences between Fundamentalist Muslims and non-Fundamentalist Muslims abound. One example is Guests of the Sheik: An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village (1965) by Elizabeth Fernea, which depicts differences in the lives of men and women in Iraq. Najmeh Najafi’s Persia Is My Heart (1953) describes holiday traditions, festivals, and rules binding courtship and marriage.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Diana Abu-Jaber’s novel Arabian Jazz (1993) recounts the interplay of many identities. It employs Magical Realism to tell the story of Jemorah and Melvina Ramound, Arab Americans who live in a poor white community. Their aunt continues to try to arrange for a marriage between Jemorah, who does not want to be thus married, and a cousin in Jordan. Abu-Jaber’s father was a pilot in the Royal Jordanian Air Force, her mother a European American Catholic. Her family, she has stated, comprised “a great jumble of cultures and religions . . . each segment fairly insistent on its unique identity.” Arabian Jazz was praised by critics and won an Oregon Book Award in 1994.

The Islamic version of Adam and Eve’s banishment from Paradise was initiated by the clever Iblis; a children’s version of this story is enhanced by Ed Young’s illustrations in Iblis (1994), as retold by Shulamith Levey Oppenheim. The Tales from the Land of the Sufis (1994; translated by Mojdeh Bayat and Mohammed Ali Jamnia) deals with relationship to self, relationship to society, and relationship to God. The stories often have sad endings and have a didactic purpose. The classic Twilight in Delhi (1940) by Ahmed Ali (a story writer, poet, translator, and critic) incorporates many important aspects of Islam in daily life.

The encounter of traditional Islam with Western secular modernism is represented in many works by Turkish woman writer Resat Nuri Guntekin. Other works on this topic include Zuqaq al-Midaqq (1947; Midaq Alley, 1966, 1975), by the Egyptian Nobel Prize-winner Naguib Mahfouz, which depicts daily life in Egypt, and his Bayna al-qasrayn (1956; Palace Walk, 1990), which describes the decline of traditional Islamic social values in the years 1917-1919.

Sadly, a substantial amount of Islamic literature has not been translated into English. Perhaps the most widely read book written in English that may be said to reflect Islamic mysticism is The Prophet (1923), by Lebanese American Kahlil Gibran.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Allen, Roger. The Arabic Novel: An Historical and Critical Introduction. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1982.

Mikhail, Mona N. Studies in the Short Fiction of Mahfouz and Idris. New York: New York University Press, 1992.

Young, Barbara. This Man from Lebanon: A Study of Kahlil Gibran. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945.