You may know that 193 countries make up the United Nations (UN), but did you know that there are 6 official languages for the UN? Arabic, Chinese, English, Spanish, French, and Russian are the official languages. This means all official UN documents and announcements are available in each language. In 2010, the Department of Global Communications established language days to celebrate multilingualism and cultural diversity.
Arabic Language Day is December 18 in honor of the 1973 decision to make Arabic an official UN language. Today, we’re recognizing Arabic books and authors that have shaped the literary landscape.
1) Ibn Qutaybah (828–889 CE)
Ibn Qutaybah was a teacher and qadi (judge) during the Abbasid Caliphate. He wrote over 60 books on a variety of subjects, including literary criticism, Qur’anic interpretation, philosophy, law, grammar, history, astronomy, and agriculture. Ibn Qutaybah wrote multiple reference texts, including Kitab ‘uyūn al-akhbar (Book of Choice Narratives), one of the earliest encyclopedias ever, which set the style and pattern of later encyclopedias.
His other notable works include: Kitab al-‘Arab, one of the earliest histories of the Arabs; Kitab adab al-kātib, an encyclopedia of Arabic vocabulary and usage; and Kitab al-shi‘rwas al-shu‘arā’, an anthology of Arabic poetry.
2) Ibn Abd Rabbih (860–940 CE)
Ibn Abd Rabbih was a Moorish writer and poet, best known for Al-‘Iqd al-Farīd (The Unique Necklace). The book is divided into 25 chapters, each named after a precious jewel, with chapter thirteen being the middle jewel of the ‘necklace.’
The Unique Necklace is adab, or Islamic, literature. Historically, the term adab refers to proper Islamic behavior or etiquette. Therefore, adab literature should include the necessary information a person must have to successfully navigate society. The Unique Necklace presents a world of knowledge about Arabic culture. Topics covered include warfare, proverbs, sermonizing, genealogy, viziers, caliphs, Arabic history, poetry, and false prophets.
3) Ibn al-Nafis (1213–1288)
Ibn al-Nafis was a Muslim physician and writer who first described the pulmonary circulation of blood. He wrote over 100 medical works but one of his most famous works is the philosophical novel Theologus Autodidactus.
Theologus Autodidactus is one of the first Arabic novels, but it is also considered one of the earliest science fiction novels due to elements like spontaneous generation, the origins of humanity, doomsday, resurrection, and the afterlife. Ibn al-Nafis used his own scientific background to provide rational explanations for ‘supernatural’ occurrences, establishing that humans can discover natural truths about the universe through logical thought.
4) Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406)
Ibn Khaldun was an Arab historian whose family previously moved to Tunisia from Seville. His most famous work is the Maqaddimah, the introductory book to Khaldun’s history of the world. The observations recorded in the Maqaddimah reveal it to be a foundational work towards modern sociology, economics, the scientific method, historiography, and political theory.
Ibn Khaldun introduced the concepts of ‘asabiyyah and the Laffer curve. He accurately observed how supply and demand determined the price of goods and introduced an early idea of labor theory of value. His efforts to record history accurately and as unbiased as possible (as opposed to exaggerating the size of an army during a battle) were unusual for his time.
5) One Thousand and One Nights
One Thousand and One Nights is a collection of folk tales gathered over multiple centuries, with many of these tales originating from India or Persia. Scheherazade, daughter of the royal vizier, is married to the king and tells him a story each night, which she leaves unfinished so as to prevent her execution.
The oldest tales from One Thousand and One Nights date to the early ninth century. We can observe early forms of many modern literary devices in the tales, including frame stories, embedded stories, dramatic visualization, foreshadowing, formal pattering, and thematic patterning. The captivating nature of the embedded stories also introduced elements of Arabic mythology, many of which are now common in fantasy literature, as well as elements of crime fiction. “The Three Apples” is one of the earliest known examples of a “whodunit” murder mystery.
One Thousand and One Nights was commonly known during its time, as we can trace records of the book by name from booksellers, but poetry was far more popular than fiction, which was often dismissed as “lowbrow” writing. It’s translation into French in 1704 by Antoine Galland introduced One Thousand and One Nights to Europe and America. From there, it became a sensation, with multiple language translations over the next century.
One Thousand and One Nights has influenced countless writers, including Salman Rushdie, W. B. Yeats, Italo Calvino, and Naguib Mahfouz, and still influences many perceptions about Arabic culture. Without this collection of tales from the Islamic Golden Age, a crucial part of Arabic oral history would be lost forever.