Language and Literature

The westerners, especially the poets of Spain, were greatly influenced by Arabic literature. The literature of chivalry, knighthood, metaphor, and marvelous imaginary tales entered western literature through Arabic literature in Andalusia In particular. The famous Spanish writer Abaniz said: “Europe knew nothing of chivalry and its literature before the Arabs came to Andalusia and their knights and heroes spread throughout the regions of the south.”

The extent to which western writers were influenced by Arabic and its literature is proven to us by what Dozy quoted in his book on Islam of the words of the Spanish writer Algharo, who deeply regretted the neglect of Latin and Greek and the acceptance of the language of the Muslims. He said, “The intelligent and eloquent people are bewitched by the sound of Arabic and they look down on Latin. They have started to write in the language of those who defeated them.”

A contemporary of his who was more influenced by nationalistic feelings expressed his bitterness when he said: “My Christian brothers admire the poetry and stories of the Arabs, and they study the books written by the philosophers and scholars of the Muslims. They do not do that in order to refute them, but rather to learn the eloquent Arabic style. Where today – apart from the clergy – are those who read the religious commentaries on the Old and New Testaments? Where are those who read the Gospels and the Words of the Prophets? Alas, the new generation of intelligent Christians does not know any literature and language well apart from Arabic literature and the Arabic language. They avidly read the books of the Arabs and amass huge libraries of these books at great expense; they look upon these Arabic treasures with great pride, at the time when they refrain from reading Christian books on the basis that they are not worth paying attention to. How unfortunate it is that the Christians have forgotten their language, and nowadays you cannot find among them one in a thousand who could write a letter to a friend in (his own language). But with regard to the language of the Arabs, how many there are who express themselves fluently in it with the most eloquent style, and they write poetry that surpasses the poetry of the Arabs themselves in its eloquence and correct usage.

Among the brilliant writers of Europe in the fourteenth century and thereafter, there can be no doubt whatsoever concerning the influence of Arabic literature on their stories and writings. In 1349 Boccaccio wrote stories called The Decameron which is an imitation of the Arabian Nights, and from which Shakespeare took the idea for his play All’s well that ends well, and the German playwright Lessing took the idea for his play Nathan the Wise. Chaucer was the foremost English poet and the one who took the most from Boccaccio in his own lifetime. He had met him in Italy, after which he wrote his famous stories known as The Canterbury Tales.

With regard to Dante, many critics affirm that in The Divine Comedy, in which he describes his journey to the other world, he was influenced by Risaalat al-Ghufraan by AIMa’arri and Was! al-Jannah by Ibn al-‘Arabi. That was because he lived in Sicily at the time of the emperor Frederick II, who was fond of Islamic culture and of studying it from its Arabic sources. There were debates between him and Dante concerning the views of Aristotle, some of which were only known through Arabic sources. Dante also knew a considerable amount about the biography of the Prophet (Blessings and Peace be upon him), of which he had read the story of the Isra’ and Mi’raaj and the description of heaven. Petrarch lived during the time of Arabic culture in Italy and France, and he studied at the universities of Montpellier and Paris, both of which based their syllabus on the books of the Arabs and their students in the universities of Andalusia.

The development of the European story was influenced by the storytelling arts of the Arabs in the Middle Ages, which were the maqamat (a genre of Arabic rhythmic prose) and tales of chivalry and knightly adventure for the sake of glory and love. After the Arabian Nights were translated into European languages in the twelfth century, it had a great impact in this field. From that time until the present it has been published in more than three hundred editions in all the languages of Europe. A number of European critics think that Swifts’ Gulliver’s Travels and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe are indebted to the Arabian Nights and the letter of Hayy ibn Yaqaan to the Arab philosopher Ibn lufay!’ No one can doubt that this huge number of editions of the Arabian Nights is indicative of westerners’ love for this book and therefore of its influence on them. There is no need for us to mention the Arabic words, having to do with various aspects of life, that have entered different European languages but which still are pronounced much as in Arabic, such as cotton, damask silk, musk, syrup, jar, lemon, zero, and countless others.

It is sufficient for us here to note the words of Professor Mikhail: “Europe is indebted, in its storytelling literature, to the Arab lands and to the Arab peoples living in the Syrian plateau. It is indebted, for the greater part or primarily, to those active forces which made the Middle Ages in Europe different in spirit and imagination.”


The divine scriptures are God’s beacons to the world. Surely God offered His trust to the heavens and the earth, and the hills, but they shrank from bearing it and were afraid of it. And man undertook it.
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