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THE GENIUS OF ARABIC LITERATURE
(AN INTRODUCTION BY SHEIK FAIZ-ULLAH-BHAI)
“Poetry is the record of the Arabs.”
- OLD ARABIC PROVERB.
THE GENIUS OF ARABIC LITERATURE
few who have so large a treasure of sublime poetry and so abundant a stock of useful literature to boast of as the old nation of Arabia. The Arabs have always been remarkable for the great pride they have taken in the excellence of their language, the perfection of their literature, the sublimity of their poetry, the purity of their race, and the integrity of their moral character. Pure justice, free from bias or prejudice, fully admits that they have reason to feel this pride, and accords them a very high place among the civilized and literary nations of the Ancient World. These facts are well borne out by evidence derived from the history of the progress of literature, especially during the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries of the Christian era.
During the period alluded to, the literary genius was almost entirely monopolized by the Aryans, represented then by the Indians and the Persians in the East, and by the Romans in the West. The Indian literature was, however, confined only to a limited number of Shastris and Brahmins, and was inaccessible to the other castes, or the numerically much stronger public. The Persians had long cultivated and enriched their literature with a good deal of learning, borrowed from the Greeks and the Indians. Among the Semitics, the Syrians possessed a Hebrew literature of a superior character, which was not, however, cultivated to a very vast extent, and was confined only to a few Rabbis. These litterateurs, moreover, had risen to their greatest height and were now only hanging on the verge of decline, and were more or less giving way to the Romans, who, at the time we speak of, held their own against all the nations of the world, both in the political as well as in the literary realm. Their literary supremacy was, however, the result of a long working of the schools, established by Cicero, Virgil, and Livy, on the lines of the learning they had inherited from that defunct Grecian world which had long given way to the sway of the triumphant Roman arms. The Roman poetry, oratory, and rhetoric were merely offshoots engrafted on those of Homer, Demosthenes, and Aristotle. Much credit is certainly due to the Romans for the great improvement they made on the teachings of their mother-school, which elevated them to a high pitch of literary fame, and placed them at the top of the category of the civilized and refined nations of the time. But their achievements, though very noble and excellent in themselves, were merely parasitic, and had little originality to boast of.
About this time we find a new nation rushing upon the scene, and steadily progressing with long strides to the front of the literary world, neither by means of any learning borrowed from other nations, nor by any set examples to guide them, but solely by dint of the growth of their own natural faculties. This was the Arabian nation, which, living obscurely in a solitary peninsula, was cut off from the chief seats of learning and debarred by its own seclusion from all the advantages of a close contact with the civilized nations of the day, who regarded it merely as a degraded and barbarous nation. Notwithstanding its starting with such local and social disadvantages, this nation, which was destined by God to rise to great importance later on, and to succeed the Romans in pre siding over the destinies of a great part of the world, bravely stemming the tide of adverse circumstances, deserves all praise for the high state of culture, civilization, and advancement which its people attained by means of self-development of those superior literary faculties with which it had pleased God to endow them.
Although the Arabic language was as old as any of the noble languages of the world, yet its literary fame was kept by God in store for a later generation. The history of its literature, properly speaking, dates only from as early as the beginning of the sixth century. Yet, within so short a period of time, extending indeed over not more than two centuries,
the Arabs succeeded in carrying their literature to such an elevated pitch as earned them an immortal name among the most refined nations of the literary world.
Their progress was marvelously rapid in every department of literature — poetry, oratory, rhetoric, politics, history, moral and mental philosophy. The greater part of their early literature, however, consisted of poetry, which was the principal and almost the only record the ancient Arabs possessed, and it is said with perfect truth that “Poetry is the record of the Arabs." Poetry was the record of their usages, their customs, their habits, their ways of living, their wars, their virtues, their vices, their domestic affairs, their social advancement, their mercantile dealings, their creeds and beliefs, their sentiments, their moral progress, and in short all that would interest both a historian and a moralist.
The Arab minds were cast by nature in poetical moulds of the best type, and their speeches even were mostly poetical, or such as could readily be converted into rhythmical numbers. They had at that time no rules of grammar or versification to guide them; and yet their verses were scrupulously accurate and hardly ever went wrong. They had neither any fixed criterion of rhetoric, nor any canons of criticism; yet their idioms, expressions, images, similes, and metaphors were as accurate, as clear, as lucid, and as perspicuous as any of the subsequently established schools of the Post-Islamic times. One of the distinctive features of the primitive literature of the Arabs was that it possessed the real and rare beauty of being à faithful representation of nature, inasmuch as their images were derived directly from nature, and their composition was merely a real expression of their real feelings and a true reflection of their mental workings. False fame, vainglory, flattery, and empty praise were motives not known to those early Arabs, who led a simple and innocent life in the lap of nature, invested with all its concomitant virtues — bravery, courage, gallantry, truthfulness, innocent and sincere love, fidelity, generosity, liberality, charity, hospitality, and a hatred of cruelty and oppression. With the Arabs of those times poetry was a gift of nature, commonly bestowed