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The Influence of Islam on Arabic Prose

If language is to be viewed as a social phenomenon, then it must be admitted that, like all other such phenomena, it adheres to the changes which occur in a particular society. Social transformation, especially at the time of revolutions, or cultural upheavals, first, causes a restriction in communication systems and subsequently results in linguistic changes. In fact, some are of the opinion that ethnological changes undergone by a language lead to a transformation in the conceptual elements of the society, which follow in the footsteps of more superficial changes in terminology. Islam effected a fundamental transformation in the Arab ethnological landscape, with consequent widespread changes in terminology and meaning. The only area unaffected by this development was Arabic grammar, backed by heritage of jahili adab (literature). 

The factor behind all of the ethnological changes which took place in Arabic language was, no doubt, the Holy Qur`an which, apart from being a divine revelation as well as the most magnificent work of Arabic literature, was the impetus behind the creation of a considerable portion of this literature. In fact, the Qur`an not only served as a foundation for one of the greatest civilizations on earth, it also gave rise to a wide spectrum of intellectual and literary currents. Another important contribution of the Qur`an has been to lend stability to Arabic language during the past 1,400 years. 

All this, however, should not lead to the impression that the Arabic literature has a monolithically religious or Qur`anic context; the absence of which may be attributed to a number of factors. From the earliest times, two key elements prevented uniformity from taking hold in the Arabic literary sphere. The first was the tribal spirit (asabiyyah) of the Umayyads, who were intent on keeping alive the ancient traditions of the Arab people. The second factor was the onslaught of alien cultures into the Arabic language. In numerous traditions we encounter eminent personalities advising the people to use the Qur`an and Hadith as means of expressing their emotions and to steer clear of non-Islamic proverbs. For instance, Imam `Ali (PBUH) prohibits Jarir b. Sahm from reciting the poem of Aswad b. Ya`far, upon Jarir’s arrival at Mada’in, and calls on him to use, instead, a verse from the Qur`an. The same tradition has been reported in the case of `Umar b. `Abd al-`Aziz. However, from the time of the Umayyads onwards, a body of solid and distinguished literature started to be created, alongside the purely religious literature, which managed to last for several centuries, owing to the strength of its moral and literary virtues, which were comparable to those of its religious counterpart. 

Apart from the Qur`an, there are very few early works of prose in Islam. Prophetic traditions, even their spurious ones, are couched in a lucid and unadorned prose style which differs from the colloquial. On the other hand, sermons, including that of Hajjat al-Wida` and those of Imam `Ali (PBUH), are more melodic and quasi-versified. Letters, treaties and the like should be placed in the category of the religious, though their contents gravitate more toward the social and the political. Throughout the 1st century AH, Arabic prose remained within these confines, except in the sphere of politics which lost its religious color, at the same time that religio-political schools acquired increasing religious fervor. The local elements, such as the qussas (i.e. story tellers), were as yet too short of material to be able to impart richness to the Arabic language, which was in wait for a movement that would provide it with the flexibility which would, in turn, enable it to become a vehicle for giving expression to the cultures that had infiltrated the Islamic society. 

The Arabic prose of the early 2nd century AH may be depicted as follows: a body of ancient Arabic traditions were still in vogue though be it in a revised form partaking of both traditional and modern elements, while the political, social and cultural realities of the heterogeneous Iraqi society of the time had given rise to a mode of discourse which had shattered the shackles of erstwhile traditions while being fully prepared to take on the expressive challenge thrown at it by such disciplines as science, philosophy, logic, ethics, history and fiction. This type of idiom which originated with `Abd al-Hamid Katib came into its own with Ibn Muqaffa`, who placed it on a solid footing. After Ibn Muqaffa`, Muslim instructors employed the language in a variety of ways and thus transformed it into a well established literature, which was perpetuated in the masterful works of such eminent scholars as Hafiz, Ibn Qutaybah, Abu ’l-Faraj, Washsha’ and Abu Hayyan, as well as in works of philosophy. 

This type of adab, growing within the Islamic milieu, was inevitably endowed with religious terminology and conceptions. Qur`anic verses were a common occurrence, both as support and as the main topic of discussion. However, the predominant points of departure were notions borrowed from Iranian and Indian cultures, as well as those from Greek science and ancient Arabic traditions, which since dominated by notions of morality became intertwined with religious teachings. It is no wonder that some of the sayings of Imam `Ali (PBUH) have been attributed to Ibn Muqaffa` and a number of his to the Imam. 

Ordinary adab, being bereft of religious advice and injunctions, did not find favor with eminent scholars. Ibn Nuqaffa`, who for long was portrayed by orientalists as a lay scholar, had in fact a claim to being an advocate of “religion in adab”. In the program for men of letters which he outlines in the opening part of his `Uyun, he considers as necessary the acquisition of the knowledge of “the Qur`an, exegesis and fiqh, alongside other sciences”. The fifth chapter of the same work contains a catalogue of the sermons and remarks of the personalities of early Islam. 

The Qur`an’s reflection in this type of adab is of two kinds: implicit, as the ever-present sentiment of a Muslim believer, and explicit, in the form of a vast body of Qur`anic terminology and phrases, which occur mainly at the openings of these works of literature, as well as in their main body. Muslims’ remembrance of Qur`anic verses by heart brought about some significant consequences, most important of all, it created a unified sense of the subject and established and facilitated literary communication among the members of the society. 

It is a well known fact that Sahib b. `Abbad, in his criticism of Ibn `Abdariyyah’s al-`Aqd al-farid, made reference to the Qur`anic verse, “…This our stock-in-trade has been returned to us…” (Yusuf, 12: 65). The critical implication of the verse, which was widely familiar owing to the public knowledge of the Qur`an, rendered it into one of the most famous literary incidents. In many other such examples the import is mainly literary rather than religious. 

In the period succeeding Ibn Muqaffa`, the expansion of religious foundations accorded a more prominent place to religious literature in popular literary encyclopedias. For instance, in the Nihayat al-arab of Nuwayri, out of the five chapters (sing. fann) of the works, one is devoted to religious traditions and stories. 

The influence of religion, however, went far beyond this to where it acquired a more or less independent literary school. From the 2nd century AH, there began a movement of compilation of prophetic hadiths, which provided Muslims with accessible models in the fields of ethical, practical, artistic (especially as Sufis were concerned) and professional literature. None the less, their summum bonum, i.e. salvation in the next world, distinguishes them from their counterparts. Religious literature, thus, entered the 3rd century AH making use of such works as al-Adab al-mufrad of Bukhari, Adab al-nufus of Muhasibi and, toward the close of the century, the vast corpus Ibn Abi ’l-Dunya. The consolidation of this literature was achieved in the coming century by the efforts of a large number of authors, Mawardi in particular. The lay literature of the 5th century AH was completely, or to a great extent, eclipsed by such works of religious literature as al-Adab of Bayhaqi, Bahjat al-majalis of Ibn `Abd al-Birr, and the epitome of Ihya’ al-`ulum, Kimiya-yi Sa`adat, and, especially, al-Adab fi ’l-din of Ghazzali. In the 6th century AH, practical adab also took on a religious garb in the works of such eminent authors as Sam`ani. This led to a situation where the minutest personal and social actions of people were placed within a religious framework. What is noteworthy in Sam`ani’s al-Mala’ al-istima’ is his emphasis on education, teachers and students, as well as the fact that through pointing out intricate matters, he enters technical literature. 

This type of literature was carried on by a group of men of letters such as Abu ’l-Qasim Sumayri and, especially, Ibn Salah Shahrazuri in his Adab al-mufti wa ’l-mustafta. The most attractive discussions of professional literature are devoted to training and education, best manifested in Adab al-muti`allimin of Khwajah Nasir al-Din Tusi, a style which was to be much emulated in the works of the 10th and 11th centuries AH.

 source: Azarnoosh , Azartash "Islam Entry" The Great Islamic Encyclopedia. Ed. Kazem Musavi Bojnourdi.Tehran: The Center of Great Islamic Encyclopaedia , 1989-, V.8 , pp.489- 490

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