1. European Literature in the Dark Ages.—2. The Arabian language.—3. Arabian Mythology and the Koran.—4. Historical Development of Arabian Literature.—5. Grammar and Rhetoric.—6. Poetry.—7. The Arabian Tales.— 8. History and Science.—9. Education.
1. EUROPEAN LITERATURE IN THE DARK AGES.—The literature, arts, and sciences of the Arabs formed the connecting link between the civilizations of ancient and modern times. To them we owe the revival of learning in Western Europe, and many of the inventions and useful arts perfected by later nations.
From the middle of the sixth century A.D. to the beginning of the eleventh, the interval between the decline of ancient and the development of modern literature is known in history as the Dark Ages. The sudden rise of the Arabian Empire and the rapid development of its literature were the great events which characterize the period.
At the beginning of this epoch classical genius was already extinct, and the purity of the classical tongues was yielding rapidly to the corruptions of the provinces and of the new dialects. Many other causes conspired to work great changes in the fabric of society, and in the manifestations of human intellect. Throughout this period the treasures of Greek and Latin literature, exposed to the danger of perishing and impaired by much actual loss, exerted no influence on the minds of those who still used the tongues to which they belong. Greek letters, as we have seen, decayed with the Byzantine power, and the vital principle in both became extinct long before the sword of the Turkish conqueror inflicted the final blow. The fate of Latin literature was not less deplorable. When province after province of the Roman dominions was overrun by the northern hordes, when the imperial schools were suppressed and the monuments of ancient genius destroyed, an enfeebled people and a debased language could not withstand such adverse circumstances. During the seventh and eighth centuries Latin composition degenerated into the rudeness of the monkish style. The care bestowed by Charlemagne upon education in the ninth century produced some purifying effect upon the writings of the cloister; the tenth was distinguished by an increased zeal in the task of transcribing the classical authors, and in the eleventh the Latin works of the Normans display some masculine force and freedom. Latin was the repository of such knowledge as the times could boast; it was used in the service of the church, and in the chronicles that supplied the place of history, but it was not the vehicle of any great production stamped with true genius and impressing the minds of posterity. Still, genius was not altogether extinguished in every part of Europe. The north, which sent out its daring tribes to change the aspect of civil life, furnished a fresh source of mental inspiration, which was destined, with the recovered influence of the classic spirit and other prolific causes, to give birth to some of the best portions of modern literature.
At the memorable epoch of the overthrow of the Roman dominion in the West (476 A.D.), the seats of the Teutonic race extended from the banks of the Rhine and the Danube to the rock-bound coasts of Norway. The victorious invaders who occupied the southern provinces of Europe speedily lost their own forms of speech, which were broken down, together with those of the vanquished, into a jargon unfit for composition. But in Germany and Scandinavia, where the old language retained its purity, song continued to flourish. There, from the most distant eras described by Tacitus and other Latin writers, the favorite attendants of kings and chiefs were those celebrated bards who preserved in their traditionary strains the memory of great events, the praises of the gods, the glory of warriors, and the laws and customs of their countrymen. Intrusted, like the Grecian heroic minstrelsy, to oral recitation, it was not until the propitious reign of Charlemagne that these verses were collected. But, through the bigotry of his successor or the ravages of time, not a fragment of this collection remains. We are enabled, however, to form an idea of the general tone and tenor of this early Teutonic poetry from other interesting remains. The “Nibelungen-Lied” (Lay of the Nibelungen) and “Heldenbuch” ( Book of Heroes) may be regarded as the Homeric poems of Germany. After an examination of their monuments, the ability of the ancient bards, the honor in which they were held, and the enthusiasm which they produced, will not be surprising.
Equally distinguished were the Scalds of Scandinavia. Ever in the train of princes and gallant adventurers, they chanted their rhymeless verse for the encouragement and solace of heroes. Their oldest songs, or sagas, are mostly of a historical import. In the Icelandic Edda, however, the richest monument of this species of composition, the theological element of their poetry is shadowed out in the most picturesque and fanciful legends.
Such was the intellectual state of Europe down to the age of Charlemagne. While in the once famous seats of arts and arms scarcely a ray of native genius or courage was visible, the light of human intellect still burned in lands whose barbarism had furnished matter for the sarcasm of classical writers.
Charlemagne encouraged learning, established schools, and filled his court with men of letters; while in England, the illustrious Alfred, himself a scholar and an author, improved and enriched the Anglo-Saxon dialect, and exerted the most beneficial influence on his contemporaries.
The confusion and debasement of language in the south of Europe has already been alluded to. But the force and activity of mind, that formed an essential characteristic of the conquering race, were destined ultimately to evolve regularity and harmony out of the concussion of discordant elements. The Latin and Teutonic tongues were blended together, and hence proceeded all the chief dialects of modern Europe. Over the south, from Portugal to Italy, the Latin element prevailed; but even where the Teutonic was the chief ingredient, as in the English and German, there has also been a large infusion of the Latin. To these two languages, and to the Provencal, French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese, called, from their Roman origin, the Romance or Romanic languages, all that is prominent and precious in modern letters belongs. But it is not until the eleventh century that their progress becomes identified with the history of literature. Up to this period there had been little repose, freedom, or peaceful enjoyment of property. The independence and industry of the middle classes were almost unknown, and the chieftain, the vassal, and the slave were the characters which stood out in the highest relief. Throughout the whole of the eleventh century, the social chaos seemed resolving itself into some approach to order and tranquillity. The gradual abolition of personal servitude, hardly accomplished in three successive centuries, now began. A third estate arose. The rights of cities, and the corporation-spirit, the result of the necessity that drove men to combine for mutual defense, led to intercourse among them and to consequent improvement in language. Chivalry, also, served to mitigate the oppressions of the nobles, and to soften and refine their manners. From the date of the first crusade (1093 A.D.) down to the close of the twelfth century, was the golden age of chivalry. The principal thrones of Europe were occupied by her foremost knights. The East formed a point of union for the ardent and adventurous of different countries, whose courteous rivalry stimulated the growth of generous sentiments and the passion for brave deeds. The genius of Europe was roused by the passage of thousands of her sons through Greece into Asia and Egypt, amidst the ancient seats of art, science, and refinement; and the minds of men received a fresh and powerful impulse. It was during the eleventh century that the brilliancy of the Arabian literature reached its culminating point, and, through the intercourse of the Troubadours with the Moors of the peninsula, and of the Crusaders with the Arabs in the East, began to influence the progress of letters in Europe.
2. THE ARABIAN LANGUAGE.—The Arabian language belongs to the Semitic family; it has two principal dialects—the northern, which has, for centuries, been the general tongue of the empire, and is best represented in literature, and the southern, a branch of which is supposed to be the mother of the Ethiopian language. The former, in degenerated dialects, is still spoken in Arabia, in parts of western Asia, and throughout northern Africa, and forms an important part of the Turkish, Persian, and other Oriental languages. The Arabic is characterized by its guttural sounds, by the richness and pliability of its vowels, by its dignity, volume of sound, and vigor of accentuation and pronunciation. Like all Semitic languages, it is written from right to left; the characters are of Syrian origin, and were introduced into Arabia before the time of Mohammed. They are of two kinds, the Cufic, which were first used, and the Neskhi, which superseded them, and which continue in use at the present day. The Arabic alphabet was, with a few modifications, early adopted by the Persians and Turks.
3. ARABIAN MYTHOLOGY AND THE KORAN.—Before the time of Mohammed, the Arabians were gross idolaters. They had some traditionary idea of the unity and perfections of the Deity, but their creed embraced an immense number of subordinate divinities, represented by images of men and women, beasts and birds. The essential basis of their religion was Sabeism, or star-worship. The number and beauty of the heavenly luminaries, and the silent regularity of their motions, could not fail deeply to impress the minds of this imaginative people, living in the open air, under the clear and serene sky, and wandering among the deserts, oases, and picturesque mountains of Arabia. They had seven celebrated temples dedicated to the seven planets. Some tribes exclusively reverenced the moon; others the dog-star. Some had received the religion of the Magi, or fire-worshipers, while others had become converts to Judaism.
Ishmael is one of the most venerated progenitors of the nation; and it is the common faith that Mecca, then an arid wilderness, was the spot where his life was providentially saved, and where Hagar, his mother, was buried. The well pointed out by the angel, they believe to be the famous Zemzem, of which all pious Mohammedans drink to this day. To commemorate the miraculous preservation of Ishmael, God commanded Abraham to build a temple, and he erected and consecrated the Caaba, or sacred house, which is still venerated in Mecca; and the black stone incased within its walls is the same on which Abraham stood.
Mohammed (569-632 A.D.) did not pretend to introduce a new religion; his professed object was merely to restore the primitive and only true faith, such as it had been in the days of the patriarchs; the fundamental idea of which was the unity of God. He made the revelations of the Old and New Testaments the basis of his preaching. He maintained the authority of the books of Moses, admitted the divine mission of Jesus, and he enrolled himself in the catalogue of inspired teachers. This doctrine was proclaimed in the memorable words, which for so many centuries constituted the war-cry of the Saracens,—There is no God but God, and Mohammed is his prophet. Mohammed preached no dogmas substantially new, but he adorned, amplified, and adapted to the ideas, prejudices, and inclinations of the Orientals, doctrines which were as old as the race. He enjoined the ablutions suited to the manners and necessities of hot climates. He ordained five daily prayers, that man might learn habitually to elevate his thoughts above the outward world. He instituted the festival of the Ramadan, and the pilgrimage to Mecca, and commanded that every man should bestow in alms the hundredth part of his possessions; observances which, for the most part, already existed in the established customs of the country.
The Koran (Reading), the sacred book of the Mohammedans, is, according to their belief, the revelation of God to their prophet Mohammed. It contains not only their religious belief, but their civil, military, and political code. It is divided into 114 chapters, and 1,666 verses. It is written in rhythmical prose, and its materials are borrowed from the Jewish and Christian scriptures, the legends of the Talmud, and the traditions and fables of the Arabian and Persian mythologies. Confusion of ideas, obscurity, and contradictions destroy the unity and even the interest of this work. The chapters are preposterously distributed, not according to their date or connection, but according to their length, beginning with the longest, and ending with the shortest; and thus the work becomes often the more unintelligible by its singular arrangement. But notwithstanding this, there is scarcely a volume in the Arabic language which contains passages breathing more sublime poetry, or more enchanting eloquence; and the Koran is so far important in the history of Arabian letters, that when the scattered leaves were collected by Abubeker, the successor of Mohammed (635 A.D.) and afterwards revised, in the thirtieth year of the Hegira, they fixed at once the classic language of the Arabs, and became their standard in style as well as in religion.
This work and its commentaries are held in the highest reverence by the Mohammedans. It is the principal book taught in their schools; they never touch it without kissing it, and carrying it to the forehead, in token of their reverence; oaths before the courts are taken upon it; it is learned by heart, and repeated every forty days; many believers copy it several times in their lives, and often possess one or more copies ornamented with gold and precious stones.
The Koran treats of death, resurrection, the judgment, paradise, and the place of torment, in a style calculated powerfully to affect the imagination of the believer. The joys of paradise, promised to all who fall in the cause of religion, are those most captivating to an Arabian fancy. When Al Sirat, or the Bridge of Judgment, which is as slender as the thread of a famished spider, and as sharp as the edge of a sword, shall be passed by the believer, he will be welcomed into the gardens of delight by black-eyed Houris, beautiful nymphs, not made of common clay, but of pure essence and odors, free from all blemish, and subject to no decay of virtue or of beauty, and who await their destined lovers in rosy bowers, or in pavilions formed of a single hollow pearl. The soil of paradise is composed of musk and saffron, sprinkled with pearls and hyacinths. The walls of its mansions are of gold and silver; the fruits, which bend spontaneously to him who would gather them, are of a flavor and delicacy unknown to mortals. Numerous rivers flow through this blissful abode; some of wine, others of milk, honey, and water, the pebbly beds of which are rubies and emeralds, and their banks of musk, camphor, and saffron. In paradise the enjoyment of the believers, which is subject neither to satiety nor diminution, will be greater than the human understanding can compass. The meanest among them will have eighty thousand servants, and seventy-two wives. Wine, though forbidden on earth, will there be freely allowed, and will not hurt or inebriate. The ravishing songs of the angels and of the Houris will render all the groves vocal with harmony, such as mortal ear never heard. At whatever age they may have died, at their resurrection all will be in the prime of manly and eternal vigor. It would be a journey of a thousand years for a true Mohammedan to travel through paradise, and behold all the wives, servants, gardens, robes, jewels, horses, camels, and other things, which belong exclusively to him.
The hell of Mohammed is as full of terror as his heaven is of delight. The wicked, who fall into the gulf of torture from the bridge of Al Sirat, will suffer alternately from cold and heat; when they are thirsty, boiling water will be given them to drink; and they will be shod with shoes of fire. The dark mansions of the Christians, Jews, Sabeans, Magians, and idolaters are sunk below each other with increasing horrors, in the order of their names. The seventh or lowest hell is reserved for the faithless hypocrites of every religion. Into this dismal receptacle the unhappy sufferer will be dragged by seventy thousand halters, each pulled by seventy thousand angels, and exposed to the scourge of demons, whose pastime is cruelty and pain.
It is a portion of the faith inculcated in the Koran, that both angels and demons exist, having pure and subtle bodies, created of fire, and free from human appetites and desires. The four principal angels are Gabriel, the angel of revelation; Michael, the friend and protector of the Jews; Azrael, the angel of death; and Izrafel, whose office it will be to sound the trumpet at the last day. Every man has two guardian angels to attend him and record his actions, good and evil. The doctrine of the angels, demons, and jins or genii, the Arabians probably derived from the Hebrews. The demons are fallen angels, the prince of whom is Eblis; he was at first one of the angels nearest to God's presence, and was called Azazel. He was cast out of heaven, according to the Koran, for refusing to pay homage to Adam at the time of the creation. The genii are intermediate creatures, neither wholly spiritual nor wholly earthly, some of whom are good and entitled to salvation, and others infidels and devoted to eternal torture. Among them are several ranks and degrees, as the Peris, or fairies, beautiful female spirits, who seek to do good upon the earth, and the Deev, or giants, who frequently make war upon the Peris, take them captive, and shut them up in cages. The genii, both good and bad, have the power of making themselves invisible at pleasure. Besides the mountain oL Kaf, which is their chief place of resort, they dwell in ruined cities, uninhabited houses, at the bottom of wells, in woods, pools of water, and among the rocks and sandhills of the desert. Shooting stars are still believed by the people of the East to be arrows shot by the angels against the genii, who transgress these limits and approach too near the forbidden regions of bliss. Many of the genii delight in mischief; they surprise and mislead travelers, raise whirlwinds, and dry up springs in the desert. The Ghoul lives on the flesh of men and women, whom he decoys to his haunts in wild and barren places, in order to kill and devour them, and when he cannot thus obtain food, he enters the graveyards and feeds upon the bodies of the dead.
The fairy mythology of the Arabians was introduced into Europe in the eleventh century by the Troubadours and writers of the romances of chivalry, and through them it became an important element in the literature of Europe. It constituted the machinery of the Fabliaux of the Trouveres, and of the romantic epics of Boccaccio, Ariosto, Tasso, Spenser, Shakspeare, and others.
The three leading Mohammedan sects are the Sunnees, the Sheahs, and the Wahabees. The Sunnees acknowledge the authority of the first Caliphs, from whom most of the traditions were derived. The Sheahs assert the divine right of Ali to succeed to the prophet; consequently they consider the first Caliphs, and all their successors, as usurpers. The Wahabees are a sect of religious reformers, who took their name from Abd al Wahab (1700- 1750), the Luther of the Mohammedans. They became a formidable power in Arabia, but they were finally overcome by Ibrahim Pacha in 1816.
4. HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT OF THE ARABIAN LITERATURE.—The literature of the Arabians has, properly speaking, but one period; although from remote antiquity poetry was with them a favorite occupation, and long before the time of Mohammed the roving tribes of the desert had their annual conventions, where they defended their honor and celebrated their heroic deeds. As early as the fifth century A.D., at the fair of Ochadh, thirty days every year were employed not only in the exchange of merchandise, but in the nobler display of rival talents. A place was set apart for the competitions of the bards, whose highest ambition was to conquer in this literary arena, and the victorious compositions were inscribed in golden letters upon Egyptian paper, and suspended upon the doors of the Caaba, the ancient national sanctuary of Mecca. Seven of the most famous of these ancient poets have been celebrated by Oriental writers under the title of the Arabian Pleiades, and their songs, still preserved, are full of passion, manly pride, and intensity of imagination and feeling. These and similar effusions constituted the entire literature of Arabia, and were the only archives of the nation previous to the age of Mohammed.
The peninsula of Arabia, hitherto restricted to its natural boundaries, and peopled by wandering tribes, had occupied but a subordinate place in the history of the world. But the success of Mohammed and the preaching of the Koran were followed by the union of the tribes who, inspired by the feelings of national pride and religious fervor, in less than a century made the Arabian power, tongue, and religion predominant over a third part of Asia, almost one half of Africa, and a part of Spain; and, from the ninth to the sixteenth century, the literature of the Arabians far surpassed that of any contemporary nation.
After the fall of the Roman empire in the fifth century A.D., when the western world sank into barbarism, and the inhabitants, ever menaced by famine or the sword, found full occupation in struggling against civil wars, feudal tyranny, and the invasion of barbarians; when poetry was unknown, philosophy was proscribed as rebellion against religion, and barbarous dialects had usurped the place of that beautiful Latin language which had so long connected the nations of the West, and preserved to them so many treasures of thought and taste, the Arabians, who by their conquests and fanaticism had contributed more than any other nation to abolish the cultivation of science and literature, having at length established their empire, in turn devoted themselves to letters. Masters of the country of the magi and the Chaldeans, of Egypt, the first storehouse of human science, of Asia Minor, where poetry and the fine arts had their birth, and of Africa, the country of impetuous eloquence and subtle intellect—they seemed to unite in themselves the advantages of all the nations which they had thus subjugated. Innumerable treasures had been the fruit of their conquests, and this hitherto rude and uncultivated nation now began to indulge in the most unbounded luxury. Possessed of all the delights that human industry, quickened by boundless riches, could procure, with all that could flatter the senses and attach the heart to life, they now attempted to mingle with these the pleasures of the intellect, the cultivation of the arts and sciences, and all that is most excellent in human knowledge. In this new career, their conquests were not less rapid than they had been in the field; nor was the empire which they founded less extended. With a celerity equally surprising, it rose to a gigantic height, but it rested on a foundation no less insecure, and it was quite as transitory in its duration.
The Hegira, or flight of Mohammed from Mecca to Medina, corresponds with the year 622 of our era, and the supposed burning of the Alexandrian library by Amrou, the general of the Caliph Omar, with the year 641. This is the period of the deepest barbarism among the Saracens, and this event, doubtful as it is, has left a melancholy proof of their contempt for letters. A century had scarcely elapsed from the period to which this barbarian outrage is referred, when the family of the Abassides, who mounted the throne of the Caliphs in 750, introduced a passionate love of art, of science, and of poetry. In the literature of Greece, nearly eight centuries of progressive cultivation succeeding the Trojan war had prepared the way for the age of Pericles. In that of Rome, the age of Augustus was also in the eighth century after the foundation of the city. In French literature, the age of Louis XIV. was twelve centuries subsequent to Clovis, and eight after the development of the first rudiments of the language. But, in the rapid progress of the Arabian empire, the age of Al Mamoun, the Augustus of Bagdad, was not removed more than one hundred and fifty years from the foundation of the monarchy. All the literature of the Arabians bears the marks of this rapid development.
Ali, the fourth Caliph from Mohammed, was the first who extended any protection to letters. His rival and successor, Moawyiah, the first of the Ommyiades (661-680), assembled at his court all who were most distinguished by scientific acquirements; he surrounded himself with poets; and as he had subjected to his dominion many of the Grecian islands and provinces, the sciences of Greece under him first began to obtain any influence over the Arabians.
After the extinction of the dynasty of the Ommyiades, that of the Abassides bestowed a still more powerful patronage on letters. The celebrated Haroun al Raschid (786-809) acquired a glorious reputation by the protection he afforded to letters. He never undertook a journey without carrying with him at least a hundred men of science in his train, and he never built a mosque without attaching to it a school.
But the true protector and father of Arabic literature was Al Mamoun, the son of Haroun al Raschid (813-833), who rendered Bagdad the centre of literature. He invited to his court from every part of the world all the learned men with whose existence he was acquainted, and he retained them by rewards, honors, and distinctions of every kind. He exacted, as the most precious tribute from the conquered provinces, all the important books and literary relics that could be discovered. Hundreds of camels might be seen entering Bagdad, loaded with nothing but manuscripts and papers, and those most proper for instruction were translated into Arabic. Instructors, translators, and commentators formed the court of Al Mamoun, which appeared to be rather a learned academy, than the seat of government in a warlike empire. The Caliph himself was much attached to the study of mathematics, which he pursued with brilliant success. He conceived the grand design of measuring the earth, which was accomplished by his mathematicians, at his own expense. Not less generous than enlightened, Al Mamoun, when he pardoned one of his relatives who had revolted against him, exclaimed, “If it were known what pleasure I experience in granting pardon, all who have offended against me would come and confess their crimes.”
The progress of the Arabians in science was proportioned to the zeal of the sovereign. In every town of the empire schools, colleges, and academies were established. Bagdad was the capital of letters as well as of the Caliphs, but Bassora and Cufa almost equaled that city in reputation, and in the number of celebrated poems and treatises that they produced. Balkh, Ispahan, and Samarcand were equally the homes of science. Cairo contained a great number of colleges; in the towns of Fez and Morocco the most magnificent buildings were appropriated to the purposes of instruction, and in their rich libraries were preserved those precious volumes which had been lost in other places.
What Bagdad was to Asia, Cordova was to Europe, where, particularly in the tenth and eleventh centuries, the Arabs were the pillars of literature. At this period, when learning found scarcely anywhere either rest or encouragement, the Arabians were employed in collecting and diffusing it in the three great divisions of the world. Students traveled from France and other European countries to the Arabian schools in Spain, particularly to learn medicine and mathematics. Besides the academy at Cordova, there were established fourteen others in different parts of Spain, exclusive of the higher schools. The Arabians made the most rapid advancement in all the departments of learning, especially in arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. In the various cities of Spain, seventy libraries were opened for public instruction at the period when all the rest of Europe, without books, without learning, without cultivation, was plunged in the most disgraceful ignorance. The number of Arabic authors which Spain produced was so prodigious, that many Arabian bibliographers wrote learned treatises on the authors born in particular towns, or on those among the Spaniards who devoted themselves to a single branch of study, as philosophy, medicine, mathematics, or poetry. Thus, throughout the vast extent of the Arabian empire, the progress of letters had followed that of arms, and for five centuries this literature preserved all its brilliancy.
5. GRAMMAR AND RHETORIC.—The perfection of the language was one of the first objects of the Arabian scholars, and from the rival schools of Cufa and Bassora a number of distinguished men proceeded, who analyzed with the greatest subtlety all its rules and aided in perfecting it. As early as in the age of Ali, the fourth Caliph, Arabian literature boasted of a number of scientific grammarians. Prosody and the metric art were reduced to systems. Dictionaries of the language were composed, some of which are highly esteemed at the present day. Among these may be mentioned the “Al Sehah,” or Purity, and “El Kamus,” or the Ocean, which is considered the best dictionary of the Arabian language. The study of rhetoric was united to that of grammar, and the most celebrated works of the Greeks on this art were translated and adapted to the Arabic. After the age of Mohammed and his immediate successors, popular eloquence was no longer cultivated. Eastern despotism having supplanted the liberty of the desert, the heads of the state or army regarded it beneath them to harangue the people or the soldiers; they called upon them only for obedience. But though political eloquence was of short duration among the Arabians, on the other hand they were the inventors of that species of rhetoric most cultivated at the present day, that of the academy and the pulpit. Their philosophers in these learned assemblies displayed all the measured harmony of which their language was susceptible. Mohammed had ordained that his faith should be preached in the mosques;—many of the harangues of these sacred orators are still preserved in the Escurial, and the style of them is very similar to that of the Christian orators.
6. POETRY.—Poetry still more than eloquence was the favorite occupation of the Arabians from their origin as a nation. It is said that this people alone have produced more poets than all others united. Mohammed himself, as well as some of his first companions, cultivated this art, but it was under Haroun al Raschid and his successor, Al Mamoun, and more especially under the Ommyiades of Spain that Arabic poetry attained its highest splendor. But the ancient impetuosity of expression, the passionate feeling, and the spirit of individual independence no longer characterized the productions of this period, nor is there among the numerous constellations of Arabic poets any star of distinguished magnitude. With the exception of Mohammed and a few of the Saracen conquerors and sovereigns, there is scarcely an individual of this nation whose name is familiar to the nations of Christendom.
The Arabians possess many heroic poems composed for the purpose of celebrating the praises of distinguished men, and of animating the courage of their soldiers. They do not, however, boast of any epics; their poetry is entirely lyric and didactic. They have been inexhaustible in their love poems, their elegies, their moral verses,—among which their fables may be reckoned,—their eulogistic, satirical, descriptive, and above all, their didactic poems, which have graced even the most abstruse science, as grammar, rhetoric, and arithmetic. But among all their poems, the catalogue alone of which, in the Escurial, consists of twenty-four volumes, there is not a single epic, comedy, or tragedy.
In those branches of poetry which they cultivated they displayed surprising subtlety and great refinement of thought, but the fame of their compositions rests, in some degree, on their bold metaphors, their extravagant allegories, and their excessive hyperboles. The Arabs despised the poetry of the Greeks, which appeared to them timid, cold, and constrained, and among all the books, which, with almost superstitious veneration, they borrowed from them, there is scarcely a single poem which they judged worthy of translation. The object of the Arabian poets was to make a brilliant use of the boldest and most gigantic images, and to astonish the reader by the abruptness of their expressions. They burdened their compositions with riches, under the idea that nothing which was beautiful could be superfluous. They neglected natural sentiment, and the more they could multiply the ornaments of art, the more admirable in their eyes did the work appear.
The nations who possessed a classical poetry, in imitating nature, had discovered the use of the epic and the drama, in which the poet endeavors to express the true language of the human heart. The people of the East, with the exception of the Hindus, never made this attempt—their poetry is entirely lyric; but under whatever name it may be known, it is always found to be the language of the passions. The poetry of the Arabians is rhymed like our own, and the rhyming is often carried still farther in the construction of the verse, while the uniformity of sound is frequently echoed throughout the whole expression. The collection made by Aboul Teman (fl. 845 A.D.) containing the Arabian poems of the age anterior to Mohammed, and that of Taoleti, which embraces the poems of the subsequent periods, are considered the richest and most complete anthologies of Arabian poetry. Montanebbi, a poet who lived about 1050, has been compared to the Persian Hafiz.
7. THE ARABIAN TALES.—If the Arabs have neither the epic nor the drama, they have been, on the other hand, the inventors of a style of composition which is related to the epic, and which supplies among them the place of the drama. We owe to them those tales, the conception of which is so brilliant and the imagination so rich and varied: tales which have been the delight of our infancy, and which at a more advanced age we can never read without feeling their enchantment anew. Every one is acquainted with the “Arabian Nights Entertainments;” but in our translation we possess but a very small part of the Arabian collection, which is not confined merely to books, but forms the treasure of a numerous class of men and women, who, throughout the East, find a livelihood in reciting these tales to crowds, who delight to forget the present, in the pleasing dreams of imagination. In the coffee-houses of the Levant, one of these men will gather a silent crowd around him, and picture to his audience those brilliant and fantastic visions which are the patrimony of Eastern imaginations. The public squares abound with men of this class, and their recitations supply the place of our dramatic representations. The physicians frequently recommend them to their patients in order to soothe pain, to calm agitation, or to produce sleep; and these story-tellers, accustomed to sickness, modulate their voices, soften their tones, and gently suspend them as sleep steals over the sufferer.
The imagination of the Arabs in these tales is easily distinguished from that of the chivalric nations. The supernatural world is the same in both, but the moral world is different. The Arabian tales, like the romances of chivalry, convey us to the fairy realms, but the human personages which they introduce are very dissimilar. They had their birth after the Arabians had devoted themselves to commerce, literature, and the arts, and we recognize in them the style of a mercantile people, as we do that of a warlike nation in the romances of chivalry. Valor and military achievements here inspire terror but no enthusiasm, and on this account the Arabian tales are often less noble and heroic than we usually expect in compositions of this nature. But, on the other hand, the Arabians are our masters in the art of producing and sustaining this kind of fiction. They are the creators of that brilliant mythology of fairies and genii which extends the bounds of the world, and carries us into the realms of marvels and prodigies. It is from them that European nations have derived that intoxication of love, that tenderness and delicacy of sentiment, and that reverential awe of women, by turns slaves and divinities, which have operated so powerfully on their chivalrous feelings. We trace their effects in all the literature of the south, which owes to this cause its mental character. Many of these tales had separately found their way into the poetic literature of Europe, long before the translation of the Arabian Nights. Some are to be met with in the old fabliaux, in Boccaccio, and in Ariosto, and these very tales which have charmed our infancy, passing from nation to nation through channels frequently unknown, are now familiar to the memory and form the delight of the imagination of half the inhabitants of the globe.
The author of the original Arabic work is unknown, as is also the period at which it was composed. It was first introduced into Europe from Syria, where it was obtained, in the latter part of the seventeenth century, by Galland, a French traveler, who was sent to the East by the celebrated Colbert, to collect manuscripts, and by him first translated and published.
8. HISTORY AND SCIENCE.—As early as the eighth century A.D., history became an important department in Arabian literature. At later periods, historians who wrote on all subjects were numerous. Several authors wrote universal history from the beginning of the world to their own time; every state, province, and city possessed its individual chronicle, Many, in imitation of Plutarch, wrote the lives of distinguished men; and there was such a passion for every species of composition, and such a desire to leave no subject untouched, that there was a serious history written of celebrated horses, and another of camels that had risen to distinction. They possessed historical dictionaries, and made use of all those inventions which curtail labor and dispense with the necessity of research. Every art and science had its history, and of these this nation possessed a more complete collection than any other, either ancient or modern. The style of the Arabian historians is simple and unadorned.
Philosophy was passionately cultivated by the Arabians, and upon it was founded the fame of many ingenious and sagacious men, whose names are still revered in Europe. Among them were Averrhoes of Cordova (d. 1198), the great commentator on the works of Aristotle, and Avicenna (d. 1037), a profound philosopher as well as a celebrated writer on medicine. Arabian philosophy penetrated rapidly into the West, and had greater influence on the schools of Europe than any branch of Arabic literature; and yet it was the one in which the progress was, in fact, the least real. The Arabians, more ingenious than profound, attached themselves rather to the subtleties than to the connection of ideas; their object was more to dazzle than to instruct, and they exhausted their imaginations in search of mysteries. Aristotle was worshiped by them, as a sort of divinity. In their opinion all philosophy was to be found in his writings, and they explained every metaphysical question according to the scholastic standard.
The interpretation of the Koran formed another important part of their speculative studies, and their literature abounds with exegetic works on their sacred book, as well as with commentaries on Mohammedan law. The learned Arabians did not confine themselves to the studies which they could only prosecute in their closets; they undertook, for the advancement of science, the most perilous journeys, and we owe to Aboul Feda (1273- 1331) and other Arabian travelers the best works on geography written in the Middle Ages.
The natural sciences were cultivated by them with great ardor, and many naturalists among them merit the gratitude of posterity. Botany and chemistry, of which they were in some sort the inventors, gave them a better acquaintance with nature than the Greeks or Romans ever possessed, and the latter science was applied by them to all the necessary arts of life. Above all, agriculture was studied by them with a perfect knowledge of the climate, soil, and growth of plants. From the eighth to the eleventh century, they established medical schools in the principal cities of their dominions, and published valuable works on medical science. They introduced more simple principles into mathematics, and extended the use and application of that science. They added to arithmetic the decimal system, and the Arabic numerals, which, however, are of Hindu origin; they simplified the trigonometry of the Greeks, and gave algebra more useful and general applications. Bagdad and Cordova had celebrated schools of astronomy, and observatories, and their astronomers made important discoveries; a great number of scientific words are evidently Arabic, such as algebra, alcohol, zenith, nadir, etc., and many of the inventions, which at the present day add to the comforts of life, are due to the Arabians. Paper, now so necessary to the progress of intellect, was brought by them from Asia. In China, from all antiquity, it had been manufactured from silk, but about the year 30 of the Hegira (649 A.D.) the manufacture of it was introduced at Samarcand, and when that city was conquered by the Arabians, they first employed cotton in the place of silk, and the invention spread with rapidity throughout their dominions. The Spaniards, in fabricating paper, substituted flax for cotton, which was more scarce and dear; but it was not till the end of the thirteenth century that paper mills were established in the Christian states of Spain, from whence the invention passed, in the fourteenth century only, to Treviso and Padua. Tournaments were first instituted among the Arabians, from whom they were introduced into Italy and France. Gunpowder, the discovery of which is generally attributed to a German chemist, was known to the Arabians at least a century before any trace of it appeared in European history. The compass, also, the invention of which has been given alternately to the Italians and French in the thirteenth century, was known to the Arabians in the eleventh. The number of Arabic inventions, of which we enjoy the benefit without suspecting it, is prodigious.
Such, then, was the brilliant light which literature and science displayed from the ninth to the fourteenth century of our era in those vast countries which had submitted to the yoke of Islamism. In this immense extent of territory, twice or thrice as large as Europe, nothing is now found but ignorance, slavery, terror, and death. Few men are there capable of reading the works of their illustrious ancestors, and few who could comprehend them are able to procure them. The prodigious literary riches of the Arabians no longer exist in any of the countries where the Arabians or Mussulmans rule. It is not there that we must seek for the fame of their great men or for their writings. What has been preserved is in the hands of their enemies, in the convents of the monks, or in the royal libraries of Europe.
9. EDUCATION.—At present there is little education, in our sense of the word, in Arabia. In the few instances where public schools exist, writing, grammar, and rhetoric sum up the teaching. The Bedouin children learn from their parents much more than is common in other countries. Great attention is paid to accuracy of grammar and purity of diction throughout the country, and of late literary institutions have been established at Beyrout, Damascus, Bagdad, and Hefar.
Such is the extent of Arabic literature, that, notwithstanding the labors of European scholars and the productions of native presses, in Boulak and Cairo, in India, and recently in England, where Hassam, an Arabian poet, has devoted himself to the production of standard works, the greater part of what has been preserved is still in manuscript and still more has perished.