The Age of Voice (622–750 CE)
An oral, Arabic literary efflorescence marked the first century of Islam.
Arabic is an ancient language related to Hebrew, Syriac, and Aramaic. Pre-Islamic Arabic civilizations included the Nabatean city of Petra (in present-day Jordan) and South Arabic cultures (in present-day Yemen). The Arabic that burst forth from Arabia at the time of Muhammad, what we now call “classical Arabic,” represented a major historical change: it grounded itself in a scripture believed to be the word of God and saw itself extending beyond the boundaries of political rule. A century after the death of Muhammad, Arabic had emerged with remarkable intensity into a galaxies of literary creativity.
Muhammad taught the Qur’an by word of mouth. His followers memorized both the content of his recitations and the manner in which he recited them and passed on the Qur’an in turn, orally, to a new generation. Tradition holds that Muhammad may have gathered a written text of the Qur’an before his death, and that the third Caliph `Uthman (d. 656 CE) supervised an official version of the Qur’an. Yet even after written texts began to circulate, the Qur’an was learned orally and read primarily out loud as recitation.
Other shaykhs (scholarly elders) passed on oral reports (akhbar) concerning topics such as the battles of the Arabs, the lives, loves, and fates of the early poets, and the words and exemplary deeds of the prophet Muhammad. The akhbar concerning Muhammad became known as hadith, a word that can refer to a single report or to the entire tradition consisting of thousands of reports, the second most authoritative source for Islamic law and tradition.
The heritage of the poetry of Bedouin nomad Bards (rawis in Arabic) was an important part of Arabian culture that flourished before and during the time of Muhammad. The poetry centered on the Qasida, an ode composed in meter and rhyme and that could include a number of key themes or movements, including the poet-lover’s remembrance of his lost beloved, his solitary journey or quest through the desert, his emergence as a tribal hero through boasts of his own or his king’s virtues, songs of tribal pride, and poetic mockery of opponents. Classical poetry became, along with the Qur’an, one of the two wellsprings of Arabic literature.
John Henry Barrows Professor of Islamic History and Literature, Divinity School, The University of Chicago
1. When was the Age of Voice, and what two major areas of concern dominated the Age of Voice?
2. How did literary traditions reflect tension between different empires in the Middle East from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries CE?
3. What kind of impact has conflict between Middle Eastern and other cultures had Middle Eastern literary movements, both in the early part and final centuries of the second millennium CE?