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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 from other programmes are kindly referred to the course description of the regular MA course.
Knowledge of Arabic is required, but check with the convenor for approval to ascertain if you have appropriate level.


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 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 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. Develop linguistic skills for reading Arabic literary texts;
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 timetables are available through My Timetable.

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar

The class will convene two times/week. Discussions of content, the secondary readings and application of critical reading skills to the primary sources constitute the main seminar (2hrs/wk); ResMA students are required, and all students are invited to attend a separate Arabic text reading session where the primary texts will be studied with emphasis on grammar, translation and Arabic reading skills (1.5hrs/wk).
Attendance is compulsory for all sessions. Students must prepare well and contribute to in-class discussion. If a student cannot attend because of illness or misadventure, they should promptly inform the convener. Extra assignments may be set to make up for missed class time, at the convener’s discretion. Absence without notification may result in lower grades or exclusion from assessment components and a failing grade for the course.

Assessment method

Assessment and weighing

Partial Assessment Weighing
Oral presentation 20%
Participation and assignments 15%
Final paper (approximately 4,500 words) 65%

In order to pass the course, students need a pass mark (“voldoende”, i.e. “5.50” or higher) for the course as a whole.

For the final paper, students are to identify a bandit/outlaw from Arabic literature (modern or pre-modern), and critically evaluate the literary traditions about him/her. Students will make their selection in consultation with the convenor, and at the end of the semester, students will prepare an in-class presentation on their topic. On the basis of presentation feedback in class and from the convenor, students will prepare the written version of their final paper for submission in January 2022. (The paper deadline mentioned in the timetable is for administrative purposes only. The actual date will be communicated by the convener.)


Only if the total weighted average is insufficient (5.49 or lower) and the insufficient grade is the result of an insufficient paper, a resit of the paper is possible (65%). In that case the convener of the course will assign a (new) topic and give a new deadline.
A resit of the other partial assessments is not possible.

Inspection and feedback

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

Reading list

Key works on Outlawry
Hobsbawm, Eric, Bandits (Third Edition). London: Abacus, 2001.
Seal, Graham, Outlaw Heroes in Myth and History. London: Anthem, 2011.
Webb, Peter, The Arab Thieves: al-Maqrīzī’s al-Ḫabar ʿan al-Bašar vol.v.2. Leiden: Brill, 2019.

Banditry and Criminality in the pre-modern Arabic world
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.
al-Jawbarī, The Book of Charlatans, ed. Manuela Dengler, trans. Humphrey Davis. New York and Abu Dhabi, Library of Arabic Literature 2020.

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.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.
General information about uSis is available on the website.