Fundamental Reference Works for the Study of Arabic Literature

Arabic literature is a closed book to most of us, and it is hard to know where to start, where to find out what exists. People refer to “the Hadith”, but where would you find this?

In fact there is an incredibly useful summary of the reference works to use, which I came across a couple of days ago, on p.xiii-xiv of P.Y. Skreslet & R. Skreslet, The Literature of Islam: A Guide to the Primary Sources in English Translation, (2006).  The book itself looks excellent, and I have just ordered a copy.  The Google Books Preview is here, but I cannot say how much is visible at any moment.  So here is that basic overview of where to start.

This does not cover Arabic Christian Literature, for which G. Graf, Geschichte der christlichen arabischen Litteratur (5 vols) remains the key source.

Those who share a bibliographer’s concern for the analysis of a given literature should be aware of a few of the indispensable sources in Islamic studies dealing with this discipline.

One of the great bibliographers of all time lived in the city of Baghdad in the tenth century of the Common Era (all dates in this volume are stated according to the Western calendar). He was Muhammad ibn Ishaq al-Nadim (d. ca. 990), son of a prominent bookseller, probably attached to the court or to the libraries of noble citizens as a savant or consultant. Al-Nadim created the first comprehensive bibliography of Arabic literature, meticulously classified according to his own complex system, which was based upon the enumeration of the sciences by the early Islamic philosophers. He called it Fihrist al-‘ulum or Index of the Sciences; it is also known by the title Kitab al-fihrist al-nadim, or Book of the Index of al-Nadim (an-nah-DEEM). The work is divided into ten major classes by subject area, within which authors are listed chronologically; a bio-bibliographical entry for each author provides as much as was known of his full name and genealogy, information and anecdotes about his life, and a listing of all of his extant works. Al-Nadim emphasizes that he is personally acquainted with the vast majority of these works and reports information received from others with attribution. Although regrettably many of the works al-Nadim mentions have not survived, the Fihrist is still an invaluable source for the first three-and-a-half centuries of Islamic learning.

There is a Wikipedia article for this here.  An English translation of the Fihrist was prepared by Bayard Dodge, The Fihrist of Al-Nadim: A Tenth-Century Survey of Muslim Culture, Columbia University Press (1970).

Specialists in Islamic literature must make the effort to become conversant with Carl Brockelmann’s classic of Orientalist scholarship, Geschichte der arabischen Litteratur.2 It is partly a narrative history, but chiefly an encyclopedia of entries on individual Arab writers and their work. Vol. 1 is organized chronologically, then by type/genre of literature (or subject matter), then geographically; vol. 2 organizes first by chronology, then geography, then genre or subject. Indexes for authors, titles, and the European editors of texts are found in the third supplemental volume (after the entries on the modern era up to 1939). Even those who read German easily find Brockelmann’s work challenging to use, thanks to his difficult systems of abbreviation and transliteration, the lack of cross-references, the relationship between the supplements and the original volumes, and the proliferation of addenda and corrigenda.

There are seven volumes of Brockelmann;  vol. 1 (1898); vol. 2 (1902); Supplement vol. 1; vol. 2; vol. 3; and a second edition of the first two volumes, referring to the supplements, in two volumes.  It is indeed impenetrable.  An English translation of the whole thing, cleaned up, expanded and generally made usable, was made by Joep Lameer, History of the Arabic Written Tradition, Brill (2016), in 2 volumes with 4 volumes of supplements.

In the early 1960s Fuat Sezgin, a brilliant Turkish scholar resident in Germany, began to update and revise Brockelmann’s work to incorporate many newly discovered materials and manuscripts. Sezgin ended up writing an enormous and entirely new work, dealing especially with the sciences (mathematics, astronomy, geography/cartography, medicine, chemistry, etc.) and is considered the leading authority on that literature. His nine-volume work, Geschichte des arabischen Schrifttums, was published in 1967-1984, with an index volume in 1995; vols. 10-12 followed in 2000? Of these, vol. 1 is the source for information about the traditional disciplines of Islamic religion: Qur’anic studies, hadith, law, theology, and mysticism (vol. 2 is Poesie). There is a scholarly precis or introduction to each area, then encyclopedia entries on the individual authors; vol. 1 is organized by genre/subject first, then chronology, then geography or theological/legal school of thought. Sezgin’s work is in German, but there are very clear tables of contents and indexes in every volume, and standard editorial conventions are used throughout.

There are 17 volumes in all; vols. 1-9 available from Brill, and vols. 10-17 from the author.  Thankfully Joep Lameer is in the process of translating all this into English also, and volumes 1-3 have appeared from Brill (see here), and volume 4 is in progress.  There is an amusing yet brilliant guide to Sezgin’s work by Richard Heffron here.

Anyone doing research in Islamic culture and religion must learn to use the somewhat cumbersome but indispensable Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd ed. (Leiden: Brill, 1960-2004) and its valuable index volumes. For twentieth-century information, the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World is a must (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995). And for literary figures in particular, the two-volume Encyclopedia of Arabic Literature, edited by Julie Scott Meisami and Paul Starkey (London: Routledge, 1998), is a very convenient source for ready reference, providing concise but informative entries on scholars and writers throughout the centuries. These entries include brief biographical accounts, principal works and their significance, original-language text editions, and some secondary reading. There are also topical articles on literary genres, technical terms, historical movements, and developments, produced by an array of respected contributors.

These works are available in the usual places.

Other useful reference sources are mentioned in the chapter endnotes of this volume and in our bibliography.4

Among these they mention in the latter Margaret Anderson, Arabic Materials in English Translation: A Bibliography of Works from the Pre-Islamic Period to 1977 (1980), about which Google says:

This bibliography, of over 1600 items, represents for the most part English language translations of original Arabic works. A few of the translations listed here, most notably of those of writings by Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Galen, are not originally Arabic, but are translations made of Arabic editions….The aim of the compilation is two-fold: first, to provide both students and the general public with an interest in the Arab world (but with little or no facility in the Arabic language), as full a listing of translated Arabic materials as possible; and also to provide for those doing research in such fields as history and history of science, political science, comparative religion, comparative literature, and law, and touching on the Arab world only occasionally, with a partial substitute for the original materials whose language they have had no previous need to master.

This must be useful also.  The authors modestly do not list their own book, but of course it too looks essential to me.


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