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Themes in Arabic Literature: Bandits and Outlaws, Fact and Fiction (ResMA)


Admission requirements

Admission to the MA Middle Eastern Studies (research) or another relevant Research MA. Students must, furthermore, 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 Dr. P. Webb, if you are interested in taking this course, but not sure whether your level of Arabic is sufficient. Students from other departments are kindly referred to the course description of the regular MA course.


Whether as metaphors of resistance, fantasies of urban imagination, or just the inspiration for good stories, outlaws have featured across Arabic literature since its very beginnings, and their tales have been narrated in poetry, popular literature, and high-culture belles-lettres. Banditry is also a a familiar topic in many other 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. This class will use modern theories to 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.

Together, theories of social banditry and analysis of the personae and roles of bandits and outlaws in poetry and prose texts (in Arabic and in translation), will enable us to explore the contexts, narratives and discourses of Arabic literary production. The course will focus on pre-modern texts to reveal the literary traditions of outsiders and liminality in Arabic literature; for the final paper, students may undertake deeper study of topics discussed in class, or apply the theories to analysis of outlaws in the modern Middle East.

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 Arabic literary texts;
  2. Develop linguistic skills for reading Arabic literary texts and skills of textual interpretation to enable independent original research from primary texts;
  3. Become familiar with salient features of the main genres of Arabic literary traditions, both in poetry and prose, and the key debates about fact vs. fiction in Arabic adab literature;
  4. Be trained in the use of academic methods in the field of Middle Eastern Studies and learn how to solve academic problems independently, critically and creatively;
  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.

Students are required to prepare for and attend all sessions. The convenors need to be informed without delay of any classes missed for a good reason (i.e. due to unforeseen circumstances such as illness, family issues, problems with residence permits, the Dutch railways in winter, etc.). In these cases it is up to the discretion of the convener(s) of the course whether or not the missed class will have to be made up with an extra assignment. The maximum of such absences during a semester is two. Being absent without notification and/or more than two times can result in a failing grade for the course.

Course Load

Total course load: 280 hours

  • Contact hours regular MA: 24 hours

  • Contact hours Research MA: 6 hours

  • Preparation for classes, presentation and writing paper: 250 hours

Assessment method


  • Oral presentation

  • Participation and performance in assignments during semester

  • Final paper


  • Oral presentation: 20%

  • Participation and performance in assignments during semester: 20%

  • Final paper (written; c. 7.500 words): 60%


In order to pass the course, students must obtain an overall mark of 5.50 (=6) or higher. Re-sits are only possible if the student obtains an overall mark of 5.49 or lower. No partial re-sits are permitted. Re-sit assignments, if applicable, will be discussed with the professor.

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.

Exam review

If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the exam/paper results, an exam/paper review will be organized.


Blackboard will be used for:

  • Distributing copies of primary source texts (in Arabic and translation)

  • Distributing key secondary readings
    Note: there is no separate Blackboard page available for this ResMa course. Please subscribe to the Blackboard page of the regular MA course.

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.

For the Research MA students additional readings will be determined by the convener at a later stage taking into account the students’ fields of interest. Extra sessions will be organized to discuss this extra literature.


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

Registration à la carte or contractonderwijs

A la carte nor contractonderwijs is possible for this course.


Dr. P. Webb


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).