Arabic Literatures, ‘Elite’ and ‘Folk’ -
Junctions and Disjunctions
The pre-Islamic Arab’s strongest loyalty was to a tribe. This was essential to his
everyday concerns; but already before Islam he was aware that he and his fellow
tribesmen were part of a wider entity. What was the mainstay of this entity? It was
not a geographic unit: there is no single word for Arabia in Arabic; instead, one
speaks of bilād al-, ‘the settlements (in the plural) of the Arabs’. If not territory, what? Ethnicity, no doubt, as is indicated by the fact that not only tribes but
also some tribal groups claimed a common forefather. But I hold the view–which
I admit is not widely shared by my colleagues–that, to a larger extent than is true
of other peoples, language has been and remains a key constituent of the Arabs’
self-view and self-esteem. My evidence is that when they spoke of their ancestry,
the Arabs distinguished between the ‘Arabiser’ and the ‘Arabised’ Arabs (al- and al-), terms that, when used in conjunction
have virtually always been glossed as denoting a linguistic process. Furthermore,
most of the commonly used derivatives from the <-r-b root denote expressiveness, even when speech is not involved, as when a woman displaying affection
for her husband is said to be . In contrast , the word that pre-Islamic
Arabs used for ‘foreigners’ or more specifically ‘Persians’, comes from a root the
primary sense of which is ‘to chew’, presumably implying that they seem to chew
their words, and most of the other derivatives from <-j-m carry the sense of ‘indistinctiveness’, or ‘obscurity’. And in early Islam, when Arabs had expanded their
reach and had the opportunity to evaluate and assimilate the achievements of other
peoples, one finds in various contexts a readiness to credit each group with high
attainments in one field of human endeavour or another–the Greeks, for example,
being praised for their eminence in philosophy–but always the Arabs are said to
be supreme in eloquence and the ready command of language.1
At all events, linguistic considerations play a decisive part in the distinctions we
need to make and the inter-relationship we want to trace between the ‘elite’ and the
‘folk’ forms of Arabic literature.
This language was first honed in an impressive corpus of orally transmitted
pre-Islamic poetry, some reputedly dating back to the middle of the fifth century
CE, yet already bearing the marks of a long development. And early in the seventh
century it was hallowed in the Holy Book of Islam, which repeatedly describes
itself as an Arabic Qur>ān whose exact wording is never to be altered. Furthermore,
Muslim Orthodoxy from the ninth century onwards asserts it to be the uncreate
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Book title: Exploring Arab Folk Literature.
Contributors: Pierre Cachia - Author.
Publisher: Edinburgh University Press.
Place of publication: Edinburgh.
Publication year: 2011.
Page number: 3.
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