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Themes in Arabic Literature: Bandits and Outlaws, Fact and Fiction


Admission to the MA Middle Eastern Studies, specialisation Arabic Studies or the MA Middle Eastern Studies (research) is required. Students must hold a BA in Arabic Studies or have an equivalent level of proficiency in Arabic (level B2 European Common Framework, i.e. at least 80 EC = 2240 hs of language courses at BA level). Please, contact the student advisor, if you are interested in taking this course, but NOT a student of one of the above-mentioned MA programmes and/or you are not sure whether your level of Arabic is sufficient.


How do we read pre-modern Arabic literature? How did writers construct texts, how did they manage divides between fact and fiction, and what sorts of meanings and interpretations can we derive from the literature? This course explores these questions through the prism of stories about banditry and social outcasts in literature dating from the pre-Islamic to medieval periods.

Banditry is a familiar topic across many literary cultures: Robin Hood, the Chinese Outlaws of the Marsh, and Pancho Villa are figures memorialised in poetry and verse that merge fact and fiction into enduringly popular tales, and there is now a growing body of research about the literary and social functions of these outlaws. Very similar figures appear in pre-modern Arabic literature, and they established their presence across important genres and in well-known stories. We study the role of bandit and outlaw figures and the ways in which Muslim writers marshalled stories about them to reconstruct history, critique their current society, and how legends about these figures were born.

Through investigating the personae and roles of bandits and outlaws in poetry and prose texts (in Arabic and in translation), and by using theories of social banditry developed in the study of other literatures, we will explore the contexts, narratives and discourses of pre-modern Arabic literary production. We will meet some of Arabic literature’s great protagonists and their stories in both celebrated and lesser-known books, and the encounters will highlight major features of pre-modern Arabic literature: adab, narrative, storytelling, and the array of views expressed about fiction, literature and history in medieval Islam.

The ultimate aim of the course is to use the case studies of bandits as a means to explore the ways students can interpret Arabic literature for graduate research, in order to develop the linguistic skills and theoretical methodologies that can unlock the broad panoply of Arabic writing to new approaches.

Course objectives

The student will:

  1. Gain experience reading a wide array of pre-modern Arabic literary texts;
  2. Develop skills of textual interpretation to enable independent original research from primary texts;
  3. Become familiar with salient features of the main genres of pre-modern-Arabic writing, both poetry and prose, and the key debates about fact vs. fiction in Arabic adab literature;
  4. Develop linguistic skills for reading pre-modern Arabic literature;
  5. Learn about outlaws and their role in Arabic literature, and learn the limits and applicability of employing literary theories developed from the study of other world literatures to interpret Arabic literature.


The timetable is available on the Website of Middle Eastern Studies

Mode of instruction

Seminar: weekly attendance and participation is required. Each week an assignment will be handed out to be prepared for the next class and to be discussed in class. Students are expected to be able to answer the different issues presented in the homework.

Course Load

Total course load: 280 hours

  • Contact hours: 24 hours

  • Preparation for classes, presentation and writing paper: 256 hours

Assessment method

  • Oral presentation: 20%

  • Participation and performance in weekly assignments: 20%

  • Final paper (written; c. 5,000 words): 60%

To complete the final mark, please take notice of the following:
the final mark for the course is established by determining the weighted average

In order to pass the course, students must obtain an overall mark of 5.50 (=6) or higher.

The course is an integrated whole. The final examination and the assignments must be completed in the same academic year. No partial marks can be carried over into following years.

h3. Blackboard


Reading list

Specific readings for each week and primary materials to be translated in class (and translations of Arabic texts for class discussion) will be listed on Blackboard. The below lists the major contributions on the themes and theories of the course. Those marked with a # are recommended pre-reading.

Books and articles on Bandits, Outlaw Theory, Resistance and Narrative:

  • Hobsbawm, Eric, Bandits (Third Edition). London: Abacus, 2001.

  • Bakhtin, Mikhail, Rabelais and His World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009.

  • Ricoeur, Paul, Time and Narrative. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. (especially Vol. 3)

  • White, Hayden, “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality”, Critical Enquiry (1980) 5-27.

Books and articles on Arabic Brigand/Outlaw/Bandits - ṣaʿālīk:

  • “Ṣuʿlūk” in EI2 (by A. Arazi), “Harfūsh” in EI2 (by W. Brinner).

  • Bosworth, C. E., The Medieval Islamic Underworld. Leiden: Brill, 1976.

  • Jones, Allen, Early Arabic Poetry: Volume 1 – Marāthī and Suʿlūk Poems. Oxford: Oxford Oriental Monographs, 1992.

  • Khulayyif, Yūsuf, al-Shuʿarā’ al-ṣaʿālīk fī al-ʿaṣr al-jāhilī. Cairo: Dār al-Maʿārif, 1978.

  • Malti-Douglas, Fedwa, “Classical Arabic Crime Narratives: Thieves and Thievery in adab Literature”, Journal of Arabic Literature 19 (1988), 108-127.

Narrative and Arabic Literature: Fact/Fiction discussed:

  • Leder, Stefan, “The Literary use of the Khabar”, in Stefan Leder (Ed.), Studies in Arabic Literature and Islam. Leuven: Peeters, 2002, 277-315.

  • Leder, Stefan Ed.), Story-Telling in the Framework of Non-Fictional Arabic Literature. Wiesbaden: Harrasowitz, 1998.

  • Kennedy, Philip (Ed.), On Fiction and Adab in Arabic Literature. Wiesbaden: Harrasowitz, 2005.

Bandits in other literary traditions for comparative material:

  • Keen, Maurice, The Outlaws of Medieval Legend. London: Routledge, 2000.

  • Knight, Stephen, Reading Robin Hood. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2015.

  • Phillips, Helen (Ed.), Bandit Territories: British Outlaws and Their Traditions. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2008.

  • Seal, Graham, Outlaw Heroes in Myth and History. London: Anthem, 2011.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.
General information about uSis is available in English and Dutch.

Registration *Contractonderwijs *

Registration Contractonderwijs


student advisor


Students with disabilities

The university is committed to supporting and accommodating students with disabilities as stated in the university protocol (especially pages 3-5). Students should contact Fenestra Disability Centre at least four weeks before the start of their courses to ensure that all necessary academic accommodations can be made in time conform the abovementioned protocol.

Academic Integrity

Students are expected to be familiar with Leiden University policies on plagiarism and academic integrity. Plagiarism will not be tolerated. If you submit any work with your name affixed to it, it is assumed to be your own work with all sources used properly indicated and documented in the text (with quotations and/or citations).