About Muslim Literatures in Context

Detail, marginal illustration attributed to Madhava (16th c.), folio from the Gulshan Album, Bukhara, 1540 (F1954.116; courtesy Freer Gallery of Art)

Literature is one of the oldest and most consistently vital areas of cultural creativity in Muslim societies. Poetry was the chief form of literary expression for centuries in classical Arabic, Persian, Ottoman, Urdu, and other Islamicate traditions, produced and performed in various contexts such as the court, Sufi lodges, coffee houses, and in private gatherings.

With the expansion of Islamic culture – centering on the Qur’an, a universal reminder of the power of the word in both oral and written form – the literatures of Muslim societies developed in important new directions, often borrowing and influencing in turn other literary traditions they came into contact with. Women and non-Muslims were often active participants in the literary cultures of Islamicate societies. Classes of professional poets and men of letters were employed by rulers, princes, and nobles, resulting in extensive networks of people and texts that frequently crossed national boundaries and gave rise to a high degree of cosmopolitanism. The relatively high degree of literacy in turn resulted in the existence of literary salons, a robust book industry of copying and illustrating texts, and projects of translation. The verses of premodern poets such as Abū Nuwās, Mutanabbī, Ferdowsī, Saʿdī, Ḥāfez, Nesīmī, and Ghālib continue to be loved and recited in many societies.

Modern and contemporary literatures engage both with Western ideas and their own classical traditions in terms of genre, form, and style. A thriving culture of producing novels, short stories, plays, and poetry continues to render literature an important activity in Muslim societies. Naguib Mahfouz, Sohrab Sepehri, Orhan Pamuk, and Ismat Chughtai, are names that have become internationally known but there are many others worthy of being read, translated, and studied.

The study of literature is not only concerned with aesthetics per se, but rather taps into deeper cultural and social currents in Muslim societies that are of general humanistic relevance. The study of Muslim literary cultures in their historical and social contexts touches upon large questions of enduring concern, but also allows us access to intensely personal reflections on gender, social role, faith, and identity.