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The Arabic Literary Heritage: The Developments of its Genres and Criticism.

Roger Allen, The Arabic Literary Heritage: The Developments of its Genres and Criticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 437 pages, including index. Hardcover $95.00.

"It is with a conscious awareness of the need for an introductory work for a general, non-specialist readership that I have written this book," states Roger Allen in his well-written and thoroughly researched volume on Arabic literature. In The Arabic Literary Heritage, Allen provides the general reader with a highly digestible and extremely useful account of an otherwise intractable, if not quite unmanageable, field of discourse. For the purists among students of Arabic literature, there is always the impressive, multi-volume Cambridge History of Arabic Literature, which is a collaborative effort among many scholars in the field.

Seeking to strike a balance that favors the literary dimension over the historical, Allen posits himself carefully between two famous approaches, Intertextuality and Reception Theory, which accentuate the importance of rediscovery of the relationship to tradition and the reader's societal function. To that end, he applauds the scholarship of such pioneers as Goldziher, Nicholson, Gibb, Blachere, Huart, Brockelmann, and Nallino, among others, who helped bring Arabic literary texts to the attention of the western reader, and whose works clearly delineated the significant role that literature has consistently played in Arab society.

Despite the valiant efforts of these and other like-minded scholars, serious gaps have persisted in the West's understanding and knowledge of Arabic and Islamic studies. Allen quite correctly observes that some of the reasons for these gaps have had more to do with the source culture than with certain approaches adopted, or endeavors undertaken, by students of that culture in the West. He notes, for instance, that a sizable and yet unquantifiable percentage of Arabic manuscripts on all topics pertaining to the early Islamic period remains unpublished and, in some cases, uncataloged. Also, compared to other fields of study, traditionally Arabic and Islamic studies have had very few practitioners in the West. Throughout the years, he argues, these practitioners have had to deal with earlier accounts of Arabic literature which were predominantly the writings of a literate elite that was exclusively male, despite the fact that recent research into Arab women's writings during the last two centuries has revealed t hat a lively literary tradition had existed among women writers all along, albeit mostly behind closed doors. Complicating those scholars' task, as well, was the oral nature of many of the early products, performances, and popular narratives which, by and large, were ignored by critics and, for years, deemed unworthy of the overall Arabic literary canon. It is no wonder, Allen concludes, that elite Arabic literature was considered to be in a 'period of decadence' directly at a time quite clearly characterized by 'efflorescence of popular literature of all kinds.'

The Arabic Literary Heritage is divided into seven chapters. In addition to an opening essay, titled "On Precedents and Principles," and another chapter dealing with the various contexts of the literary tradition (i.e., the physical, linguistic, historical, intellectual), the next four chapters, which comprise the core of the book, examine the major components of the Arabic literary tradition, the Quran, poetry, belletristic prose and narrative, and drama.

In the third chapter, "The Quran: Sacred Text and Cultural Yardstick," the author acknowledges the central role played by the Quran in almost every aspect of the development of Arabic language and literature and gives it prominence as "divinely inspired, as linguistic yardstick, and as motivation for the need to record pre-Islamic poetic tradition in written form." He considers such important elements as the structure of the text, its language and imagery, the pivotal role of sound, and its immense influence on Arabic writings in general. It is the next chapter on poetry, however, that captures the lion's share of the book, extending approximately over one-fourth of the whole book. Not only is this Allen's longest and most detailed chapter, it is also his most vivid and energetic, particularly the final section dealing with the modern era of Arabic poetry. Prefacing this chapter by asserting that Arabic poetry has always been regarded as diwan al-Arab (the register of the Arabs), the author proceeds to illust rate some of the essential structural and stylistic ingredients of Arabic poetry, such as rhyme and meter, qasida (poem) and its antecedent qitca (short poem), sajc and rajz (both early poetic formations), and zajal (a strophic poem which includes non-literary Arabic in its formation); he also expounds the varied thematic types featured in classical and modern Arabic poetry, the most prominent of which are madih (eulogy, panegyric), hija' (lampoon), ritha' (elegy), and wasf (description).

The next two chapters, although considerably shorter than the one on poetry, are no less compelling, however. Chapter Five, on belletristic prose and narrative, surveys the earliest texts in Arabic prose and effectively traces the development and varieties of adab (literature), culminating in the present and future of modem Arabic fiction. Chapter Six sketches the beginning of Arabic drama as a literary genre and pays special attention to the achievements of the Egyptian writer Tawfiq al-Hakim and the works of a generation of his young fellow compatriots after the 1952 revolution; then the chapter closes with a portrait of recent dramatic trends elsewhere in the Arab world: Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, the Maghreb -- Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco--and Iraq and the Gulf states.

Finally, Chapter Seven is devoted to the Arabic critical tradition, ranging from early compilations of critical opinion to recent contacts with the West and the literary aftermath of Arab independence. It examines the tradition of literary criticism that has evolved and marched alongside the literary canon as long as Arabic literary output has been in existence. In his consideration of the modern period of Arabic literary criticism, Allen generously, if deservedly, traces the accomplishments of Taha Hussein and the various significant contributions which the illustrious Egyptian writer has made to the field.

The Arabic Literary Heritage is remarkably unencumbered by the attachment of footnotes to the end of each chapter or at the bottom of each page; instead, each quote is duly and conveniently acknowledged (with citations of author, title, and page number) within parentheses that immediately follow each respective quote. A Guide to Further Reading at the end of the book also proves very useful and puts into perspective the vast literary context in which this outstanding effort was launched. Another attractive feature of this work is an opening comparative chronological chart spanning the duration of 400 AD-the present, displayed on twenty-four successive pages, and outlining carefully selected historical and literary landmarks in the West vis-a-vis their chronological equivalents in the Arab and Muslim worlds on the opposite page.

If there is a criticism to be made of this volume, it is the fact that the reader is left rather yearning for a more elaborate consideration of the Arabic novel than the fairly brief section furnished in the text. As if by design, also the section on the Arabic short story receives nearly half as many of the eleven pages allotted to the Arabic novel. The reader can take solace, though, in the knowledge that there are already other sources which are certain to satisfy one's intellectual hankering in this regard, including Allen's own, The Arabic Novel: An Historical and Critical Introduction (2nd edition, Syracuse University Press, 1995).

At the outset, the author states his concern that in undertaking the difficult task of writing this book he runs the risk that what is left out will always exceed what is included by a large margin. If anything, Allen ought to be wholeheartedly congratulated on this significant addition to a field of study that remains woefully in need of such an incisive and highly informed contribution. His volume will certainly stand as an important building block on the way to addressing a gaping and growing need in this field.

Khalil Barhoum is a Senior Lecturer in the Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages at Stanford University.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Barhoum, Khalil
Publication:Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2000
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