Teaching with Arabic Literature in Translation: ‘Survey of Arab-Islamic Civilization’

Adjunct to our series on Teaching with Arabic Literature in Translation, American University in Kuwait associate professor Raymond K. Farrin writes about teaching with Arabic literature in a survey course called “Survey of Arab-Islamic Civilization”:

Raymond K. Farrin

This course surveyed Arab-Islamic civilization from the pre-Islamic period to the modern era. It used my Abundance from the Desert: Classical Arabic Poetry (Syracuse UP, 2017) as a main text, as well as a variety of supplemental readings.

After a brief introduction on the geography of the Arabian Peninsula and the history of the Arabic language, we read two poems by Labid and al-Khansa’ exemplifying the pre-Islamic tribal spirit. The first, Labid’s Mu‘allaqa, underscores the importance of individual sacrifice for the common good, in this case regarding the breaking of a romantic attachment to a woman from another tribe, and the second celebrates the virtues of a fallen warrior, the poet’s brother. We also contrasted the lifestyles of the two main groups in Arabia, the Bedouins and the sedentary people, and sought to make connections to contemporary Kuwaiti society.

Two weeks into the course, we took a break to watch a film: The Message: The Story of Islam (1977), directed by Mustafa Aqqad. This film mesmerized the class, and afterward we discussed it and identified elements of continuity and change between the pre-Islamic ethos and the Islamic worldview. Informing the discussion were observations from Angelika Neuwirth’s essay, “From Tribal Genealogy to Divine Covenant: Qur’anic Re-Figurations of Pagan Arab Ideals based on Biblical Models” (Scripture, Poetry and the Making of a Community: Reading the Qur’an As a Literary Text, 2014).

Our segment on the Umayyad Era used Philip Hitti’s chapter on Damascus in Capital Cities of Arab Islam (1973) to set the background. We then read the chapter on Jamil Buthayna in Abundance from the Desert and discussed the emergence of udhri love, contrasting it to the sensual Hijazi affairs of the same period (as reflected in the poetry of Umar ibn Abi Rabi‘a). We also referred to the popularity of ribald satire during the era, as in the garrison town of Basra, though we did not read any examples.

Coming to the Abbasid Era, we again started with Hitti’s chapter (on Baghdad) for background. Here, we eschewed the poetry of Abu Nuwas, though he was mentioned as a main figure, focusing instead on prose. We read selections from Kalila wa Dimna (trans. Saleh Sa‘adeh Jallad, 2002), as well as Hilal al-Sabi’s Rusum Dal al-Khilafah (trans. Elie Salem, 1977) on Abbasid court etiquette. We also spoke about the importance of papermaking in the creation of an information revolution (see Jonathan Bloom, Paper before Print: The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World, 2001). At this point, we took our midterm exam.

We opened the second half of the semester with a segment entitled “Confronting Byzantium.” We backtracked and reviewed the campaigns against Constantinople from the times of the first caliphs (see Robert Hoyland, In God’s Path: The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire, 2015). Next, we read from Nadia El Cheikh’s Byzantium Viewed by the Arabs (2004) and spoke about the continuation of certain East-West stereotypes to this day. We concluded this segment by discussing al-Mutanabbi’s poem about a military expedition (950) by Sayf al-Dawla of Aleppo into the Byzantine heartland.

Here, we turned our attention West for about two weeks and remembered al-Andalus. We started with Hitti’s description of Córdoba in the 10th century. Briefly we spoke of the three main cities: Córdoba, Seville, and Granada (the names of which have been given to sections of Kuwait). For poetry, we read selections from Ibn Zamrak’s description of the Alhambra Palace in Granada. As we read lines on the Hall of the Two Sisters and the Fountain of the Lions (translated in James T. Monroe, Hispano-Arabic Poetry: A Student Anthology, 2004), we viewed images of these architectural wonders on the screen at the front of the class. We also read the famous ritha’ from 1248 about the fall of a key part of al-Andalus (translated in my “Seville, Where Mihrabs Weep and Pulpits Lament: Al-Rundi’s Elegy in the Classical Poetic Tradition” from The Study of Al-Andalus: The Scholarship and Legacy of James T Monroe, 2018).

Finally, we returned East. We started with Hitti’s chapter on Cairo and followed it with the chapter on Baha’ al-Din Zuhayr (“To Egypt with Love”) in Abundance from the Desert. As we moved into a brief survey of the Mamluk era, we devoted classes to “The Sufi Way” and “Performing the Hajj with Ibn Battuta.” For the former, we read from Ibn al-Farid’s poetry in Abundance; for the latter, we read Ross Dunn’s evocative description in The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: a Muslim Traveler of the 14th Century (2005).

The course concluded with a few salient points about the Ottoman period and a discussion of three Muslim reformers of the modern period: Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad Abduh, and Rashid Rida. For the discussion on these reformers, we read passages from Albert Hourani’s Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798-1939 (1997). We compared their ideas and discussed their relevance to today.

Overall, I enjoyed teaching this course. When I offer it again—hopefully next spring—I would like to make room as well for popular literature, bringing in selections from 1001 Nights and passages from Remke Kruk’s The Warrior Women of Islam: Female Empowerment in Arabic Popular Literature (2014).

Raymond K. Farrin, Ph.D., is professor of Arabic language and literature at the American University of Kuwait.