It is impossible, in the space at our disposal, to do more than give a very brief sketch of some of the main features of classical, or medieval,1 Arabic literature; for a fuller account, the reader is referred to the works listed in the Bibliography to the present volume.2 However, no survey of 'modern' Arabic literature that fails to take account of the Middle Eastern literary background could be regarded as anything but incomplete. In the following section, therefore, I shall outline some of the main features of what is variously called 'classical' or 'medieval' Arabic literature, drawing attention to some of its main features by way of background to the account of the modern period that follows.
We should again begin with a few definitions. Like the literature of classical Greece, the origins of Arabic literature are literally lost in time; and because (again, as in Greece) the first specimens of literature derive from an oral rather than a written culture, the history of the first beginnings is inevitably somewhat speculative. For practical purposes, however, we may say that 'classical' Arabic literature makes its first appearance around the middle of the sixth century AD, when we find a corpus of tribal Bedouin poetry emerging in and around the Arabian Peninsula, with well-developed metrical and rhyme schemes indicating a considerable period (several centuries, presumably) of prior development. This corpus of poetry is usually described as 'pre-Islamic poetry' (though in fact it straddles the transition to the Islamic period) and forms one of the two primary starting-points for the subsequent development of most 'classical' Arabic literature; the other starting-point is provided by the revelation of the Qur'ān, the sacred book of Islam revealed to the Prophet Muḥammad over a period of approximately twenty years between AD 610 and AD 632. The subsequent evolution of the classical Arabic literary tradition, and indeed of the Arabic language itself, took place in the shadow of these two seminal literary events: for while Arabic poetry developed in a variety of ways over the succeeding centuries, the metrical and rhyme schemes developed by the pre-Islamic poets remained, with a few exceptions, essentially unchanged in the hands of most poets until the twentieth century, and the seven pre-Islamic Mu'allaqāt3 have continued to be upheld