Exploring Arab Folk Literature

By Pierre Cachia | Go to book overview
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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

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