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Arabian Language, Literature, and Poetry

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The Arabic language belongs to the Semitic dialects, among which it is distinguished for its richness, softness, and high degree of development. By the spread of Islam it became the sole written language and the prevailing speech in all South-Western Asia and Eastern and Northern Africa, and for a time in Southern Spain, in Malta, and in Sicily; and it is still used as a learned and sacred language wherever Islam is spread. Almost a third part of the Persian vocabulary consists of Arabic words, and there is the same proportion of Arabic in Turkish. The Arabic language is written in an alphabet of its own, which has also been adopted in writing Persian, Hindustani, Turkish, &c. As in all Semitic languages (except the Ethiopic), it is read from right to left. The vowels are usually omitted in Arabic manuscripts, only the consonants being written.

Poetry among the Arabs had a very early development, and before the time of Mahomet poetical contests were held and prizes awarded for the best pieces. The collection called the Moallakât contains seven pre-Mahommedan poems by seven authors. Many other poems belonging to the time before Mahomet, some of equal age with those of the Moallakât, are also preserved in collections. Mahomet gave a new direction to Arab literature. The rules of faith and life which he laid down were collected by Abu-Bekr, first caliph after his death, and published by Othman, the third caliph, and constitute the Koran—the Mahommedan Bible. The progress of the Arabs in literature, the arts and sciences, may be said to have begun with the government of the caliphs of the family of the Abbassides, A.D. 749, at Bagdad, several of whom, as Harun al Rashid and Al Mamun, were munificent patrons of learning: and their example was followed by the Ommiades in Spain. In Spain were established numerous academies and schools, which were visited by students from other European countries; and important works were written on geography, history, philosophy, medicine, physics, mathematics, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. Most of the geography in the Middle Ages is the work of the Arabs, and their historians since the eighth century have been very numerous. The philosophy of the Arabs was of Greek origin, and derived principally from that of Aristotle. Numerous translations of the scientific works of Aristotle and other Greek philosophers were made, principally by Christian scholars who resided as physicians at the Courts of the caliphs. These were diligently studied in Bagdad, Damascus, and Cordova, and, being translated into Latin, became known in the west of Europe. Of their philosophical authors the most celebrated are Alfarabi (tenth century), Ibn Sina or Avicenna (died A.D. 1037), Alghazzali (died 1111), Ibn Roshd or Averroes (twelfth century), called by pre-eminence The Commentator, &c. In medicine they excelled all other nations in the Middle Ages, and they are commonly regarded as the earliest experimenters in chemistry. Their mathematics and astronomy were based on the works of Greek writers, but the former they enriched, simplified, and extended. It was by them that algebra was introduced to the Western peoples, and the Arabic numerals were similarly introduced. Astronomy they especially cultivated, for which famous schools and observatories were erected at Bagdad and Cordova. The Almagest of Ptolemy in an Arabic translation was early a textbook among them. Alongside of science poetry continued to be cultivated, but after the ninth or tenth centuries it grew more and more artificial. Among poets were Abu Nowas, Asmai, Abu Temmam, Motenabbi, Abul-Ala, Busiri, Tograi, and Hariri. Tales and romances in prose and verse were written. The tales of fairies, genii, enchanters, and sorcerers in particular passed from the Arabians to the Western nations, as in The Thousand and One Nights. Some of the books most widely read in the Middle Ages, such as The Seven Wise Masters, the Fables of Pilpay (or Bidpai), and the Romance of Antar found their way into Europe through the instrumentality of the Arabs. At the present day Arabic literature is almost confined to the production of commentaries and scholia, discussions on points of dogma and jurisprudence, and grammatical works on the classical language. There are a few newspapers published in Arabic.—Bibliography: C. Huart, History of Arabic Literature; R. A. Nicholson, Literary History of the Arabs.

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