Classical Arabic Literature

A Library of Arabic Literature Anthology

496 pages

December, 2012

ISBN: 9780814738269




Geert Jan van Gelder was Laudian Professor of Arabic at the University of Oxford from 1998 to 2012. He is the author of several books on classical Arabic literature, including Beyond the Line: Classical Arabic Literary Critics on the Coherence and Unity of the Poem and Of Dishes and Discourse: Classical Arabic Literary Representations of Food.

A major translation achievement, this anthology presents a rich assortment of classical Arabic poems and literary prose, from pre-Islamic times until the 18th century, with short introductions to guide non-specialist students and informative endnotes and bibliography for advanced scholars. Both entertaining and informative, Classical Arabic Literature ranges from the early Bedouin poems with their evocation of desert life to refined urban lyrical verse, from tender love poetry to sonorous eulogy and vicious lampoon, and from the heights of mystical rapture to the frivolity of comic verse. Prose selections include anecdotes, entertaining or edifying tales and parables, a fairy-tale, a bawdy story, samples of literary criticism, and much more.
With this anthology, distinguished Arabist Geert Jan van Gelder brings together well-known texts as well as less familiar pieces new even to scholars. Classical Arabic Literature reveals the rich variety of pre-modern Arabic social and cultural life, where secular texts flourished alongside religious ones. This masterful anthology introduces this vibrant literary heritage—including pieces translated into English for the first time—to a wide spectrum of new readers.


  • “The perfect collection to launch the Library of Arabic Literature—of interest to the scholar, the student, and the general reader. Its coverage is excellent, both in terms of historical sweep and generic variety.”

    —Richard Sieburth, Professor of Comparative Literature, New York University

  • "The translations of this volume are a marvel, and often a tour de force–precise, highly readable and evocative, with the benefit of well-honed use of iambic and other rhythmic devices. Though Van Gelder reminds us that he is not a native English speaker, his English strikes me as no less superlative than, say, Nabokov’s mastery of the language." 

    The National

  • “Geert Jan van Gelder has strung for us an attractive set of pearls—well selected, handsomely presented, readably translated, and helpfully annotated to guide the reading public gently into the world of a very bibliophilic civilization.”

    —Peter Webb, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Van Gelder succeeds in maintaining a high standard for literary translation… This anthology is remarkable in its attention to the intricate patterns of meter and rhyme in Arabic poetry and in its combination of familiar and unfamiliar texts. Highly recommended."


  • "Ranges over more than seven centuries, and flows with surprises and delights, aching love poems and weird, cruel fables, and Thomas Browneian reflections on the nature of Flies, or the relations between mystics and elephants, all beguilingly rendered and scrupulously commented."

    —Marina Warner, Times Literary Supplement

  • "A welcome anthology of classical Arabic verse and literary prose… Van Gelder's selections have been wisely and aptly made, his translations are elegant, and the whole exercise has been illuminated by his distinguished erudition."

    Review of Middle East Studies

  • "Van Gelder's translations are pleasant and clear, which is no small feat, especially with poetry... A work that will be enjoyed by many scholars and lay readers."

    —Letizia Osti, Middle East Literatures

  • “Promises to be an invaluable mine of knowledge for scholars and general readers who need an introduction to the universal appeal and validity of the enlightening and enlightened literary heritage of the Arabic-Islamic intellectual tradition.”

    Journal of Islamic Studies