Scarcity of works of fiction in medieval Arab literature


The most striking aspect of medieval Arab literature is the almost total absence of works of fiction. The novel and the short story only entered literary genres in habits very late, with the Nahda, borrowed directly from the West.

Overall, Kalila and Dimna, the genre called maqâmât (sessions), which we will see later and the Arabian Nights are the only works that could be called “fiction” in the modern sense of the term. Nevertheless, the immense medieval literature is rich from the point of view of the subjects tackled, often without “censorship” or taboos.

The Kitab-al-Fihrist, work of a Baghdâdî bookseller, Ibn al-Nadim is a catalog of all the books available for sale in Baghdad and it gives a fascinating overview of the state of literature of this period . One of the most frequent forms of literature during the Abbasid period was – as we have seen – compilation. They were collections of facts, ideas, poems and instructive stories dealing with one theme at a time and covering subjects as diverse as home and garden, women, free riders, the blind , jealousy, animals and greed. The last three of these compilations were written by al-Jahiz, an undisputed master of the genre.

These collections were very useful to the nadim (companion of a chief or a nobleman) whose role was often to delight their master with stories and news used to distract or to advise. Another type of work was closely associated with the collections: the manual, in which writers like ibn Qutaybah gave instructions on subjects such as etiquette, how to govern, to be a good bureaucrat and even to write. Ibn Qutaybah also wrote one of the earliest stories of the Arab people, drawing both from biblical stories and folk tales, but also and above all by referring to historical events.

The topic of sexuality was frequently explored in Arabic literature. The ghazal or love poem has a long history, being sometimes tender and pure, and at other times much more explicit. In the Sufi tradition, love poems will have a wide mystical and religious significance. Sexual guides were also written, like “The scented garden”, the Tawq al-hamamah (“Collar of the dove”) by ibn Hazm and the Nuzhat al-albab fi-ma la yujad fi kitab (“Jubilation of hearts concerning this which will never be found in a book “) by Ahmad al-Tifachi. Other works will oppose such works, such as Rawdat al-muhibbin wa-nuzhat al-mushtaqin (“The meadow of lovers and the distraction of distraught lovers”) by ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, who gives advice on how to separate love and lust and thus avoid sin.