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  • Registers of Arabic Literary History
  • Nadia Al-Bagdadi (bio)

I. Introduction: Borderlines of Literature

Faithful to the idea that “Literature in its broadest sense comprises all that mankind imprinted in verbal form to be transmitted to memory,” Carl Brockelmann’s monumental History of Arabic Literature sought to collect and catalog all of Arabic writing he considered to be of literary relevance.1 The German Orientalist, though, was conscious of the fact that a philosophical history of Arabic Schrifttum, the ultimate aim of his endeavor, was still out of reach and that his aspiration for a “Literaturwissenschaft im höheren Sinne” had to await further study at the beginning of the twentieth century (1:2). Exhaustive knowledge of the literary material and refined methodology were still in their infancy in comparison to the advance in the study of Islamic religion and tradition initiated by the Hungarian scholar Ignaz Goldziher. Brockelmann, who was aware of the difference between what constitutes “literature” for the Arabs and the modern meaning of “literature,” operated with two different concepts of literature. One stems from Arabic tradition and usage, one from a modern, universal one: “Thus the historian of Arabic literature needs to consider all these emergences and may only in the Modern period, which gradually aligns the world of Islam as well to European culture, restrict himself to art of literature (Wortkunst) proper” (1:1f).2

But as demodé as Brockelmann’s definition of literature and his attempt to provide an all-embracing literary history may appear, they curiously come closer to our present understanding of literature. At the turn of the long nineteenth century, an epoch marked by the height of European colonialism in the Arab world and the triggering of an imperial global age with far-reaching consequences for Arab and other local cultures and traditions, the challenges Brockelmann faced one hundred years ago are not unfamiliar to those obstacles historians and critics of Arabic literature encounter today. In principle, these problems relate to defining the nature of the material called “literature,” the definition of parameters of periodization, and the specification of geographic and linguistic boundaries over time. The imperative for literary studies in the [End Page 437] Anglo-Saxon world today is to rethink under conditions of the global age (a) the parameters of literature in terms of its genres, (b) the spatial expansion of boundaries hitherto clearly defined as national boundaries, and (c) the new dimensions of intertextuality between hitherto independent literary traditions. While this situation imposes on English, French, and comparative literature studies a fundamental self-inquiry, Arabic literary studies were concerned with these problems much earlier. Questions of what constitutes the nature of literature as distinct from other forms of utterance, text, and truth, and of what defines its forms and functions, already occupied the minds of Arab scholars, poets, and critics of the early Islamic period. With the spread of Islamic civilization, there emerged the issue of geographic and cultural unity and diversity, and their changes through history. Islamic civilization, to quote Brockelmann again, reached “from the shores of the Pontus to Zanzibar, von Fez and Timbuktu to Kasgar and the Sunda Islands.”3

It is a truism that shifts of cultural centers, access of new social groups to the realm of literacy and culture, and other changes within literary traditions cannot be explained with reference to literary developments alone, but require external factors of explanation. The pervasive global transformations, occasioned by a hitherto unprecedented compression of time and space, reinforced in turn the necessity to rethink the very foundations of modes of thought and academic disciplines, of society and culture. Inquiries into social, economic, and cultural conditions and contingencies favored the reemergence of concepts such as civilization as more appropriate units to study large-scale historical masses in a comparative manner.4 The concept of globalization as it is most widely used, understood as a progressive move from the local to the world level, has become a concept fashionable not only in sociological, economic, or political studies, but of late in the humanities and literary studies. These inquiries have not left entirely untouched studies on culture and literature in the Arab world. In comparison, however, to what a...


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