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Themes in Arabic Literature: From Letters to Literature


Admission requirements

Open to students in the MA Middle Eastern Studies or the MA Middle Eastern Studies (research) programme who 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).
If you are not a student in the MA Middle Eastern Studies programme, and are interested in this course, please contact the student advisor, Dr. Nicole van Os, or the instructor Dr. P. Webb prior to registration.


The rise of Arabic prose literature is a unique story. No literary prose survives from pre-Islamic times, and the Qur’an makes a bold emergence as the earliest substantial literary expression in Arabic. But since the Qur’an is considered the word of God, and not entirely prose either, Arabic writers in the centuries following Muhammad faced the challenge of creating an Arabic literary tradition from meagre origins. They would be very successful: within 200 years, Arabic was established as the Middle East’s major literary language, with distinct styles and tastes developed consciously within the shadow of the Qur’an. We can see this process at work in very early Islam through the study of letters, and this course will examine both extant letters on papyrus and more flowery letters ascribed to some of the most famous early belles-lettrists preserved in later books. Through this study, we will trace the emergence of Arabic literature, the aesthetics of high style which continue to guide Arabic prose to the present day, and we will also examine historical questions about what is knowable about the process in which Arabic became a literary language.

The course is divided into two components. Part I will focus on ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd al-Kātib, secretary to the Umayyad Caliphs and a towering figure in the Arabic prose tradition. A wide range of themes in ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd’s writings will be studied, concerning their relation to the development of Arabic literature and the early Muslim state. Part II will turn to examine both physical evidence of letters, on papyrus and paper, and writers following ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd who developed his techniques into some of the most accomplished writing and rhetoric of the early Middle Ages.

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. Gain knowledge and understanding of the history of Arabic-speaking peoples and culture, contemporary issues relevant to the Arab world, Arabic literature and rich manuscript traditions. This also includes a thorough understanding of Islam;
  4. Learn about the history of Arabic literature and development of letter writing.



Mode of instruction


Attendance and participation are obligatory for seminars. Students are required to 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. Being absent without notification can result in a lower grade or exclusion from the term end exams and a failing grade for the course.

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: 10 EC x 28 hours = 280 hours

  • Contact hours: 24 hours

  • Preparation for classes, translating Arabic texts and reading secondary literature: 120 hours

  • Presentation and writing paper: 136 hours

Assessment method

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). It is also unacceptable for students to reuse portions of texts they had previously authored and have already received academic credit for on this or other courses. In such cases, students are welcome to self-cite so as to minimise overlap between prior and new work.

Students must submit their assignment(s) to the blackboard through turnitin, so they can be checked for plagiarism. Submission via email is not accepted.

Assessment and weighing

Partial Assessment Weighing
Oral presentation 20%
Participation and performance in assignments during semester 20%
Final paper (approximately 5,000 words) 60%

Final Paper
The final paper is written in two stages: a first version which will be commented on and a final version. Students who do not meet the deadline for the first version will lose the right to get comments and will only be graded based on their final version.

Late submissions of the final version will result in a deduction of paper grades as follows: 1-24 hrs late = -0.5; 24-48 hrs late = -1.0; 48-72 hrs late = -1.5; 72-96 hrs late = -2.0. Late papers will not be accepted more than four days after the deadline, including weekends and will be graded with 1.0.

The final mark for this course is formed by 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. All assessment parts must be completed in the same academic year. No partial marks can be carried over into following years.


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 (60%). 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.

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

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 of the course..

Ihsan ‘Abbas, ‘Abd al-Hamid al-Katib wa-ma tabaqqa min rasa’ilihi wa-rasa’il Salim Abi l-‘Ala’ (Amman: Dar al-Shuruq, 1988). [the textbook for the first component of the course]

Latham, J.D, “The beginings of Arabic prose literature: the epistolary genre”, in A.F.L. Beeston, T.M. Johnstone, R.B. Serjeant and G.R. Smith, Arabic literature to the end of the Umayyad Period. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983.

Pellat, Charles, “Ṣāḥib ibn ʿAbbād”, in Julia Ashtiany, T.M. Johnstone, J.D. Latham, R.B. Serjeant and G. Rex Smith, ʿAbbasid Belles-Lettres. Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 1990.

Serjeant, R.B., “Early Arabic Prose”, in A.F.L. Beeston, T.M. Johnstone, R.B. Serjeant and G.R. Smith, Arabic literature to the end of the Umayyad Period. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983.


Students are required to register through uSis. To avoid mistakes and problems, students are strongly advised to register in uSis through the activity number which can be found in the timetable in the column under the heading “USIS-Actnbr.”. More information on uSis is available in Dutch and English. You can also have a look at the FAQ.

Not being registered, means no permission to attend this course. See also the webpage on course and exam enrolment for registration deadlines and more information on how to register.

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable.


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.