Blog Post

English-Language Resources for Arabic Poetics

Arabic poetics—the theories of criticism of poetry and eloquence in classical (mediaeval) Arabic scholarship—has a great deal to offer the contemporary reader and critic. This post is an iterative and discursive bibliography, intended to provide non-specialists with an introduction and orientation to over a millenium of sustained engagement with poetry by an intellectual culture that tended towards theory and had a predeliction for language-centered enquiry.

The Arabic poetic tradition is not well-known, and despite its echoes in Persian (and the echoes of Persian in Europe—think Hegel), and its better known (and better transmitted into Europe) counterpart tradition of logic and Hellenic philosophy (think Averroes), it is often not even known to exist. It is sometimes a known unknown, and sometimes an unknown unknown... 

This post comes out of fruitful discussions at the Workshop in Poetics in Stanford's Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages, and will be part of my contribution to the Worlding Literary Theory seminar at the ACLA (thanks to Corinne Scheiner for the invitation!).

My hope is that readers of poetry and literary criticism will be moved to consider the resources available in Arabic when they deal with a question such as "how does a metaphor work?". Alternatively (and much less ambitiously) I hope to provide a handy guide for those scholars of the history of literary criticism who are already, for some reason, looking for Arabic ideas. I will be asking my colleagues in Arabic studies to provide criticism and addition, and so at the time of posting (late March 2013) the list should be considered a draft (as of August 2015 I am making additions in the comments section below). A good starting point is, I think, the only complete open access resource on the list, an encyclopedia entry by Wolfhart Heinrichs (full disclosure: my dissertation advisor at Harvard), who will reappear more than once below (testament to his sustained engagement with these questions).

Heinrichs, Wolfhart. "Arabic Poetics [classical]." In The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, edited by Roland Greene and Stephen Cushman, 62-64. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012.

The second place to turn is Geert J. van Gelder and Marlé Hammond's review of Arabic theory on how the imagination works in poetry. The book combines well-translated and well-selected passages of Arabic poetics with introductory essays and contextualising notes. Surprisingly, this has not been done very much before. Rebecca Gould, in her review, called it "a watershed in the study of classical Islamic literary theory".

van Gelder, Geert Jan, and Marlé Hammond. Takhyīl: the Imaginary in Classical Arabic Poetics. Cambridge: Gibb Memorial Trust, 2008. This major reference work for Arabic literature has not been placed online (yet?), but the Routledge Encyclopedia of Arabic Literature contains a wealth of accurate and concise information on all the major figures, movements, and techniques in the classical tradition (as well as reference to modern works up to its time of publishing in 1998). Heinrichs' entries on rhetorical figures provide good orientation to the detail in Arabic poetics.

Heinrichs, Wolfhart. "Rhetoric and Poetics." In Encyclopedia of Arabic Literature, edited by Julie Scott Meisami and Paul Starkey, 651-656. London: Routledge, 1998.

Heinrichs, Wolfhart. "Rhetorical Figures." In Encyclopedia of Arabic Literature, edited by Julie Scott Meisami and Paul Starkey, 656-662. London / New York: Routledge, 1998.

All of Abdelfattah Kilito's literary criticsm is fluent, accessible, and methodologically resilient. His most important books are Thou Shalt Not Speak My LanguageThe Clash of Images, and directly on classical arabic:

Kilito, Abdelfattah. The Author and his Doubles: essays on classical Arabic culture. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2001.


Two things might well pop up from reading in the above sources. First, the theories of ʿAbd al-Qahir al-Jurjani (d. 1078) loom large. Second, apart from theory there is a great deal of scholastic taxonomy of different rhetorical figures.

On al-Jurjani, the standard reference is Kamal Abu Deeb's 1977 study, which attempted to bring his work into conversation with Western discourses on language. From my conversations with colleagues outside Arabic, Abu Deeb does not seem to have succeeded (though this should not be taken as criticism of his analyses).

Abu Deeb, Kamal. Al-Jurjānī's Theory of Poetic Imagery. Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1979.

An excellent 25-page introduction to al-Jurjani's theory of eloquence is to be found in Helmut Ritter's English-language introduction to his edition of Asrar al-Balagha (albeit marred by the odd aggressive generalization about "the oriental poet" etc).

Ritter, Helmut. "Introduction". Asrār al-Balāgha: The Mysteries of Eloquence. Istanbul: Istanbul Government Press, 1954 (and reprints). 1-26.

Margaret Larkin was uncomfortable with Abu Deeb's attempts to take al-Jurjani out of his context, and her monograph placed him within the discussions about theology and language taking place in the eleventh century.

Larkin, Margaret. The Theology of Meaning: ʿAbd al-Qāhir al-Jurjānī's Theory of Discourse. New Haven: American Oriental Society, 1995.

The historical predecessors of al-Jurjani's theories, with regard to the single central technique/model of the "loan metaphor" (istiʿāra) have been laid out by Heinrichs.

Heinrichs, Wolfhart. The Hand of the Northwind: opinions on metaphor and the early meaning of istiʼāra in Arabic poetics. Mainz: Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft, 1977.

We are, ironically, better served with translations of taxonomy than we are with translations of theory. The lists of Abu Hilal al-ʿAskari have been well-studied by George Kanzai.

Kanazi, George J. Studies in the Kitāb aṣ-Ṣināʿatayn of Abū Hilāl al-ʿAskarī. Leiden: Brill, 1989.

And those of his contemporary al-Bāqillānī translated by Gustave von Grunebaum.

Abū Bakr Muḥammad b. aṭ-Ṭayyib. A Tenth-Century Document of Arabic Literary Theory and Criticism: the sections on poetry of al-Bāqillānī's Iʿjāz al-Qur’ān translated and annotated. Translated by Gustave E. von Grunebaum. edited by Gustave E. von Grunebaum  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1950.

Wen-Chin Ouyang has profitably investigated the role that taxonomy, and the discourse on the divisions of the sciences, played in the development of literary criticism as a discipline.

Ouyang, Wen-chin. Literary Criticism In Medieval Arabic-Islamic Culture: The Making of a Tradition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997.

Mansour Ajami wrote two good surveys of autochthonous debates in the 1980s, and Muḥammad ʻAlī Abū Ḥamdah's published Oxford dissertation reviews the genre of comparing poets to other poets. William Smyth's unpublished 1986 NYU dissertation compares Persian and Arabic poetics.

Ajami, Mansour. The Neckveins of Winter: the controversy over natural and artificial poetry in medieval Arabic literary criticism. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1984.

Ajami, Mansour. The Alchemy of Glory: the dialectic of truthfulness and untruthfulness in medieval Arabic literary criticism. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1988.

Abū Ḥamdah, Muḥammad ʻAlī. Al-Muwāzana (balance) As a Critical Approach In Arabic Literature: the achievement of Al-Āmidī. Amman, Jordan: Dar al-Bashir, 1994.

Smyth, William Earl. Persian and Arabic Theories of Literature: a comparative study of al-Sakkâkî's Miftâḥ al-ʻulûm and Shams-i Qays' al-Muʻjam fî maʻâyîr ashʻâr al-ʻajam. Ph.D. Thesis. New York University, 1986.


Two further relevant dynamics must be addressed. First, the controversy in scholarship between those who are comfortable with the mediaeval scholars' atomisation of classical poetry by quoting single lines or couplets, and those who feel that this presents a barrier to our understanding of the whole poems themselves. Second, the relevance, or otherwise, of the Greek tradition.

The question of poems' unity does not strictly concern me in this post, my aim here being to orient the reader in the autochthonous study of poetry, not in the poetry itself. But any discussion of classical Arabic poetry must include the work of Suzanne Stetkevych, as well as James Montgomery's The Vagaries of the Qaṣīda (Cambridge: Gibb Memorial Trust, 1997).

Van Gelder's monograph on how the classical critics dealt with unity came out in 1982, and has been recently engaged with by Raymond Farrin.

Gelder, G. J. H. van. Beyond the Line: Classical Arabic Literary Critics On the Coherence and Unity of the Poem. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1982.

The story of Arabic poetics is, to a large extent, the story of its stalled engagement with Aristotle's Poetics and Rhetoric, and the primary reason for that stalled engagement is that Arabic literary critics in the middle ages saw no need for Greek theories of how a foreign language and an unfamiliar (tragedy?!) literature worked when they had functional and effective theoretical resources of their own. Resources on the stalling include the new edition of the Poetics that takes into account the Arabic and Syriac transmissions, and the work of Deborah Black and Uwe Vagelpohl.

Aristotle. Aristotle Poetics: editio maior of the Greek text with historical introductions and philological commentaries. Edited by Leonardo Tarán and Dimitri Gutas. Leiden: Brill, 2012.

Black, Deborah L. 1990. Logic and Aristotle's Rhetoric and Poetics in Medieval Arabic Philosophy. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Vagelpohl, Uwe. Aristotle's Rhetoric in the East: the Syriac and Arabic translation and commentary tradition. Leiden: Brill, 2008.

In an alternative approach, the scholar of philosophy (and Kant therein) Salim Kemal's book is a thorough engagement with the claims and consequences of al-Farabi and Avicenna's writing about poetry. See review by Thérèse Ann Druart.

Kemal, Salim. The Philosophical Poetics of Alfarabi, Avicenna and Averroës: the Aristotelian reception. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003.


And to round off the bibliography, which I stress again is in progress, Vincente Cantarino's fluidly translated (but somewhat problematic in its guiding assumptions) 1975 selection of texts.

Cantarino, Vicente, Arabic Poetics In the Golden Age: Selection of Texts Accompanied by a Preliminary Study. Leiden: Brill, 1975.

Seeger Bonebakker's collection from the same year.

Bonebakker, Seeger Adrianus, and Abū ʻAlī Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥasan Ḥātimī. Materials for the History of Arabic Rhetoric: from the Ḥilyat al-Muḥād̤ara of Ḥātimī (Mss 2934 and 590 of the Qarawiyyīn Mosque in Fez). Napoli: Istituto orientale, 1975.

Sasson Somekh's collection of essays, which makes highly valid comparisons to the Hebrew tradition.

Somekh, Sasson. Studies in Medieval Arabic and Hebrew Poetics. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1991.

Iqbal Husain's concise introduction to classical Arabic poetics.

Nadvī, Muḥammad Iqbāl Ḥusain. Classical Arabic poetics: an introduction. Hyderabad: Centre for Arabic Studies, Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages, 2003.

 And Adonis' engagement with the classical tradition:

Adonis. An Introduction to Arab Poetics. London: Saqi Books, 2003.


Alexander Key's picture
Alexander Key is a scholar of Classical Arabic literature, working on comparative poetics.