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Arabic epic literature encompasses epic poetry and epic fantasy in Arabic literature. Virtually all societies have developed folk tales encompassing tales of heroes. Although many of these are legends, many are based on real events and historical figures.

Epic poetry

Taghribat Bani Hilal is an Arabic epic recounting the Banu Hilal's journey from Egypt to Tunisia and conquest of the latter in the 11th century. It was declared one of mankind's Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by the UNESCO in 2003.

In the 13th century, an Arabic epic poem entitled Antar was created based on Antarah ibn Shaddad, a pre-Islamic Arabian-Abyssinian warrior-poet. In 1898 the French painter Étienne Dinet published his translation of Antar, which brought Antar bin Shaddad to European notice.[1] It has been followed by a number of derivative works such as Diana Richmond's Antar and Abla,[2] which furthered western exposure to the Antar bin Shaddad legends.

Fantasy epic literature

See also: One Thousand and One Nights

"Ali Baba" by Maxfield Parrish.

The One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights) is easily the best known of all Arabic literature and which still shapes many of the ideas non-Arabs have about Arabic culture. A good example of the lack of popular Arabic prose fiction is that the stories of Aladdin and Ali Baba, usually regarded as part of the Tales from One Thousand and One Nights, were not actually part of the Tales. They were first included in French translation of the Tales by Antoine Galland who heard them being told by a traditional storyteller and only existed in incomplete Arabic manuscripts before that. The other great character from Arabic literature Sinbad is from the Tales.

The Thousand and One Nights is usually placed in the genre of Arabic epic literature along with several other works. They are usually, like the Tales, collections of short stories or episodes strung together into a long tale. The extant versions were mostly written down relatively late on, after the 14th century, although many were undoubtedly collected earlier and many of the original stories are probably pre-Islamic. Types of stories in these collections include animal fables, proverbs, stories of jihad or propagation of the faith, humorous tales, moral tales, tales about the wily con-man Ali Zaybaq and tales about the prankster Juha.

The epic took form in the 10th century and reached its final form by the 14th century; the number and type of tales have varied from one manuscript to another.[3] All Arabian fantasy tales were often called "Arabian Nights" when translated into English, regardless of whether they appeared in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, in any version, and a number of tales are known in Europe as "Arabian Nights" despite existing in no Arabic manuscript.[3]

This epic has been influential in the West since it was translated in the 18th century, first by Antoine Galland.[4] Many imitations were written, especially in France.[5] Various characters from this epic have themselves become cultural icons in Western culture, such as Aladdin, Sinbad and Ali Baba. Part of its popularity may have sprung from the increasing historical and geographical knowledge, so that places of which little was known and so marvels were plausible had to be set further "long ago" or farther "far away"; this is a process that continues, and finally culminate in the fantasy world having little connection, if any, to actual times and places. A number of elements from Arabian mythology and Persian mythology are now common in modern fantasy, such as genies, bahamuts, magic carpets, magic lamps, etc.[5] When L. Frank Baum proposed writing a modern fairy tale that banished stereotypical elements, he included the genie as well as the dwarf and the fairy as stereotypes to go.[6]

Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy, considered the greatest epic of Italian literature, derived many features of and episodes about the hereafter directly or indirectly from Arabic works on Islamic eschatology: the Hadith and the Kitab al-Miraj (translated into Latin in 1264 or shortly before[7] as Liber Scale Machometi, "The Book of Muhammad's Ladder") concerning Muhammad's ascension to Heaven, and the spiritual writings of Ibn Arabi.

Science fiction

Al-Risalah al-Kamiliyyah fil Siera al-Nabawiyyah (The Treatise of Kamil on the Prophet's Biography), known in English as Theologus Autodidactus, written by the Arabian polymath Ibn al-Nafis (1213-1288), is one of the earliest known science fiction novels. While also being an early desert island story and coming of age story, the novel deals with various science fiction elements such as spontaneous generation, futurology, apocalyptic themes, the end of the world and doomsday, resurrection and the afterlife. Rather than giving supernatural or mythological explanations for these events, Ibn al-Nafis attempted to explain these plot elements using his own extensive scientific knowledge in anatomy, biology, physiology, astronomy, cosmology and geology. His main purpose behind this science fiction work was to explain Islamic religious teachings in terms of science and philosophy. For example, it was through this novel that Ibn al-Nafis introduces his scientific theory of metabolism,[8] and he makes references to his own scientific discovery of the pulmonary circulation in order to explain bodily resurrection.[9] The novel was later translated into English as Theologus Autodidactus in the early 20th century.

A number of stories within the One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights) also feature science fiction elements. One example is "The Adventures of Bulukiya", where the protagonist Bulukiya's quest for the herb of immortality leads him to explore the seas, journey to the Garden of Eden and to Jahannam, and travel across the cosmos to different worlds much larger than his own world, anticipating elements of galactic science fiction;[10] along the way, he encounters societies of jinns,[11] mermaids, talking serpents, talking trees, and other forms of life.[10] In another Arabian Nights tale, the protagonist Abdullah the Fisherman gains the ability to breathe underwater and discovers an underwater submarine society that is portrayed as an inverted reflection of society on land, in that the underwater society follows a form of primitive communism where concepts like money and clothing do not exist. Other Arabian Nights tales deal with lost ancient technologies, advanced ancient civilizations that went astray, and catastrophes which overwhelmed them.[12] "The City of Brass" features a group of travellers on an archaeological expedition[13] across the Sahara to find an ancient lost city and attempt to recover a brass vessel that Solomon once used to trap a jinn,[14] and, along the way, encounter a mummified queen, petrified inhabitants,[15] lifelike humanoid robots and automata, seductive marionettes dancing without strings,[16] and a brass horseman robot who directs the party towards the ancient city. "The Ebony Horse" features a robot[17] in the form of a flying mechanical horse controlled using keys that could fly into outer space and towards the Sun,[18] while the "Third Qalandar's Tale" also features a robot in the form of an uncanny boatman.[17] "The City of Brass" and "The Ebony Horse" can be considered early examples of science fiction.[19]

Other examples of early Arabic science fiction include certain Arabian Nights elements such as the flying carpet, Al-Farabi's Opinions of the residents of a splendid city about a utopian society, and Al-Qazwini's futuristic tale of Awaj bin Anfaq (circa 1250) about a man who travelled to Earth from a distant planet.[20] Awaj bin Anfaq was one of the first science fiction novels, "the story of a curious alien who arrives on planet Earth to observe human behaviour and finds himself perplexed by the oddities of this apparently sophisticated species."[21]

Influence on modern science fiction

One of the most influential science fiction novels of all time, Dune, was heavily inspired by Islamic and Arabic literature. Many words, titles and names (e.g. the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV, Hawat, Bashar, Harq-al-Ada) in the Dune universe as well as a large number of words in the language of the Fremen people are derived or taken directly from Arabic (e.g. erg, the Arabic word for 'dune', is used frequently throughout the novel). To begin with, Paul's name (Muad'Dib) means in Arabic 'the teacher or maker of politeness or literature'. The Fremen language is also embedded with Islamic terms such as, jihad, Mahdi, Shaitan, and the personal bodyguard of Paul Muad'Dib Fedaykin is a transliteration of the Arabic Feda'yin.[22] As a foreigner who adopts the ways of a desert-dwelling people and then leads them in a military capacity, Paul Atreides' character bears some similarities to the historical T. E. Lawrence.[23]

Star Wars was in turn heavily inspired by Dune. In addition, according to the BBC's Lydia Green: "George Lucas used spiritual elements of Islam, along with other world religions, to convey the universal understandings of good and evil in Star Wars. "Al-Jeddi" is an Arabic term meaning master of the mystic-warrior way."[21]


Here is a list of famous epic or romance literature in the Arabic language:

  • Sirat Antara Ibn Shaddad سيرة عنترة بن شداد
  • al-Sirah al-Hussainyya. Chronicles the biography of Husayn, grandson of Muhammad, and his death.
  • Futuh al-Sham (Conquests of Syria) ascribed to al-Waqidi (disputed)
  • One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights)
  • Sirat al-Zahir Baibars سيرة الظاهر بيبرس
  • Sirat Abu Zeid al-Hilali أبو زيد الهلالي
  • Sirat Adham el-Sharqawi
  • Sirat Dhat al-Himma, Arabic queen tale سيرة ذات الهمة
  • Sirat Bani Hilal تغريبة بني هلال
  • Qissat Zir Salim قصة الزير سالم
  • Sirat Sayf Ibn Dhi Yazan سيرة سيف بن ذي يزن
  • Layla and Majnun in Arabic Majnun layla (مجنون ليلى) romantic epic (also known as Qays wa Laila, "Qays & Laila").
  • Sirat al-amirah Dhat al-Himmah سيرة الأميرة ذات الهمة
  • Qissat Bayad wa Riyad قصة بياض و رياض, Arab-Andalusian love story about Bayad, a merchant's son and a foreigner from Damascus, for Riyad, a well educated slave girl in the court of an unnamed Hajib (vizier or minister) and his daughter.
  • Hayy ibn Yaqdhan حي بن يقظان by Ibn Tufail (Abubacer)
  • Tarikhul Hind wal Sind تاريخ الهند والسند
  • Theologus Autodidactus by Ibn al-Nafis

See also

  • Arabic literature
  • Muhsin al-Ramli, co-founder of Alwah, a journal of Arabic literature


  1. Pouillon, Francois (1997) Les deux vies d'Étienne Dinet, peintre en Islam: L'Algerie et l'heritage colonial Editions Balland, Paris;
  2. Richmond, Diana (1978) Antar and Abla: a Bedouin romance Quartet Books, London, ISBN 0-7043-2162-9
  3. 3.0 3.1 John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Arabian fantasy", p 51 ISBN 0-312-19869-8
  4. L. Sprague de Camp, Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: The Makers of Heroic Fantasy, p 10 ISBN 0-87054-076-9
  5. 5.0 5.1 John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Arabian fantasy", p 52 ISBN 0-312-19869-8
  6. James Thurber, "The Wizard of Chitenango", p 64 Fantasists on Fantasy edited by Robert H. Boyer and Kenneth J. Zahorski, ISBN 0-380-86553-X
  7. I. Heullant-Donat and M.-A. Polo de Beaulieu, "Histoire d'une traduction," in Le Livre de l'échelle de Mahomet, Latin edition and French translation by Gisèle Besson and Michèle Brossard-Dandré, Collection Lettres Gothiques, Le Livre de Poche, 1991, p. 22 with note 37.
  8. Dr. Abu Shadi Al-Roubi (1982), "Ibn al-Nafis as a philosopher", Symposium on Ibn al-Nafis, Second International Conference on Islamic Medicine: Islamic Medical Organization, Kuwait (cf. Ibnul-Nafees As a Philosopher, Encyclopedia of Islamic World [1])
  9. *Fancy, Nahyan A. G. (2006), "Pulmonary Transit and Bodily Resurrection: The Interaction of Medicine, Philosophy and Religion in the Works of Ibn al-Nafīs (d. 1288)", Electronic Theses and Dissertations (University of Notre Dame): 232–3,
  10. 10.0 10.1 Irwin, Robert (2003), The Arabian Nights: A Companion, Tauris Parke Paperbacks, p. 209, ISBN 1-86064-983-1
  11. Irwin, Robert (2003), The Arabian Nights: A Companion, Tauris Parke Paperbacks, p. 204, ISBN 1-86064-983-1
  12. Irwin, Robert (2003), The Arabian Nights: A Companion, Tauris Parke Paperbacks, pp. 211–2, ISBN 1-86064-983-1
  13. Hamori, Andras (1971), "An Allegory from the Arabian Nights: The City of Brass", Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies (Cambridge University Press) 34 (1): 9–19 [9], Error: Bad DOI specified
  14. Pinault, David (1992), Story-Telling Techniques in the Arabian Nights, Brill Publishers, pp. 148–9 & 217–9, ISBN 90-04-09530-6
  15. Irwin, Robert (2003), The Arabian Nights: A Companion, Tauris Parke Paperbacks, p. 213, ISBN 1-86064-983-1
  16. Hamori, Andras (1971), "An Allegory from the Arabian Nights: The City of Brass", Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies (Cambridge University Press) 34 (1): 9–19 [12–3], Error: Bad DOI specified
  17. 17.0 17.1 Pinault, David (1992), Story-Telling Techniques in the Arabian Nights, Brill Publishers, pp. 10–1, ISBN 90-04-09530-6
  18. Geraldine McCaughrean, Rosamund Fowler (1999), One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, Oxford University Press, pp. 247–51, ISBN 0-19-275013-5
  19. Academic Literature, Islam and Science Fiction
  20. Achmed A. W. Khammas, Science Fiction in Arabic Literature
  21. 21.0 21.1 Lydia Green (9 October 2013), Close encounters of the Arab kind, BBC News
  22. Herbert, Frank (1965). "Afterword: by Brian Herbert (2005)", Dune, 40th Anniversary Edition (Dune Chronicles: Book 1). Ace Books, NY, 523–525. ISBN 0-441-01359-7. 
  23. "To name one recent example, the political imbroglio involving T. E. Lawrence had profound messianic overtones. If Lawrence had been killed at a crucial point in the struggle, Herbert notes, he might well have become a new "avatar" for the Arabs. The Lawrence analogy suggested to Herbert the possibility for manipulation of the messianic impulses within a culture by outsiders with ulterior purposes. He also realized that ecology could become the focus of just such a messianic episode, here and now, in our own culture. 'It might become the new banner for a deadly crusade--an excuse for a witch hunt or worse.'
    Herbert pulled all these strands together in an early version of Dune. It was a story about a hero very like Lawrence of Arabia, an outsider who went native and used religious fervor to fuel his own ambitions--in this case, to transform the ecology of the planet." pg 41, O'Reilly 1981 ibid.

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