March 19, 2021


A virtual event.

10:00 am – 12:30 pm

Event Organizer

The Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University and the Sheikh Zayed Book Committee

Event Sponsor

ICLS and the Sheikh Zayed Book Committee

Event Co-Sponsor(s)

Foundations and Trans/Formations in Arabic Literary Theory: Prospects and Limits 
a virtual panel discussion
Friday, March 19, 2021, 10:00AM EST New York

Columbia University

Chiara Fontana, Research Fellow, Ca’ Foscari University of Venice
Tahera Qutbuddin, University of Chicago
Suzanne Stetkevych, Georgetown University
Monica Ruocco, Universita degli studi di Napoli L’Orientale
Bilal Orfali, American University Beirut
Wen-chin Ouyang, SOAS University of London
Amidu Sanni, Fountain University, Osogbo, Nigeria
Stefan Sperl, SOAS, London University
Registration is limited. Please register to receive Zoom access:  

The Call for Papers can be viewed here. ]

Hosted by the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University and the Sheikh Zayed Book Committee.

This preliminary panel is the first of three events. It will be followed by an in-person session on *June 27-30, 2021, at the Columbia University Global Center, Reid Hall, Paris and a second in-person session on *December 1-3, 2021, at Columbia University in the City of New York.

*These dates are tentative due to the current health safety crisis

All questions for the organizing committee may be sent to



Tahera Qutbuddin

“Oration as Literature: Oral Aesthetics and Interdisciplinary Functions in the Sermons and Speeches of the 7th– and 8th-century Islamic World”

Is Arabic oration literature? More specifically, can we consider the multi-functional oration (khuba) of the seventh and eighth centuries AD as part of the classical Arabic prose canon? Contemporary Friday sermons, though influenced by the language, themes, and ritual of the early Islamic khuba, march in many aspects to a different tune, and their assessment as literature must be based on different premises. As for the celebrated sermons and speeches attributed to the pre-Islamic Christian bishop Quss ibn Sāʿida, the Prophet Muḥammad, ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib, the Umayyad governors Ḥajjāj and Ziyād, and a handful of prominent women such as Fāṭima al-Zahrāʾ, ʿĀʾisha, and Zaynab bint ʿAlī—these are certainly textual artifacts relating to the fields of history, hadith, law, theology, and gender-studies, among others, but can they be studied as literature? Moreover, how does this category connect with other genres of classical Arabic literature, the Qurʾan, the qaīda, and prose genres like chancery epistles (risāla) and adab anthologies of the Abbasid heyday? How did medieval theorists such as Qudāma and chancery-manual authors such as Ibn al-Mudabbir, Naḥḥās, and Qalqashandī conceive of oration (khaṭāba) vis-à-vis these other genres? Answers to these questions hinge on what we consider to be literature. If our definition includes beautiful language and masterful presentation of themes to evoke response from the audience, the early oration fits the bill. Drawing on ten years of research for my recently published book, Arabic Oration: Art and Function (Brill, 2019), I will discuss these issues in my presentation in terms of aesthetics and utility. Regarding aesthetics, the orality of early Arabic oration is crucial to its theorization, for orality is the primary animator of its art; orality theory, especially the work of Walter Ong and Susan Niditch, provides useful tools for its analysis. With the heavy use of mnemonic devices such as parallelism that drove its pounding rhythm, vivid lifeworld imagery, and citation of poetry and Qurʾan, the orator of the predominantly oral world of early Islam helped to fix ideas and language in the memories of its listeners. Regarding utility—which connects directly with art, for the stronger the artistry of the text, the stronger its real-world impact—the purpose of early Arabic oration was to persuade the audience to a certain mindset, a set of behaviors, or a course of action. As the chief form of public address, it had central administrative, political, social, military, economic, legislative, and devotional functions. I contend that not only is Arabic oration most certainly literature, it is in fact the first major prose genre of Arabic, and it has influenced all the prose genres that have followed. The history of Arabic literature cannot be written without early Arabic oration.

Tahera Qutbuddin – Bio

Tahera Qutbuddin, Ph.D. (1999), Harvard University, is Professor of Arabic Literature at the University of Chicago. Her publications include two monographs, Arabic Oration: Art and Function (Brill, 2019) and al-Muʾayyad al-Shīrāzī and Fatimid Daʿwa Poetry: A Case of Commitment in Classical Arabic Literature (Brill, 2005), and two edition-translation volumes, Light in the Heavens: Sayings of the Prophet Muammad (NYU, 2016), and A Treasury of Virtues: Sayings, Sermons, and Teachings of ʿAlī (NYU, 2013). She has also published articles on Ṭayyibī Bohra literature and Arabic in India. Her research has received fellowship support from the Franke Institute, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Carnegie Foundation, and the Guggenheim Foundation.


Suzanne Stetkevych,

“Steps Along the Way: Toward a Study of the Transformation from High Classical to Post-Classical in the Arabic Poetic Tradition”

The last several decades have seen a concerted attempt to map out and reevaluate the poetry and poetics of what can be broadly termed the Post-Classical Period, including the challenging of this catch-all term to examine the particular characteristics of the various Late ʿAbbāsid, Ayyūbid, Andalusian, Mamlūk, Ottoman, etc., periods and geographies. My own contribution, including my Mantle Odes book (2010) and in three published articles [“From Jāhiliyyah to Badī‛iyyah: Orality, Literacy, and the Transformations of Rhetoric in Arabic Poetry” (2010); “Min al-Badīʿ ilā al-Badīʿiyyah” (2010), and “Rhetoric, Hybridity and Performance in Medieval Arabic-Islamic Devotional Poetry: Al-Kāfiyah Badīʿiyyah of Ṣafī al-Dīn al-Ḥillī” (2018)] has focused on the role of rhetoric (badīʿ) in the transition from qaīdat al-mad  to madī nabawī. The present study proposes a focused examination of the transition process that begins with the late 4th/10th century Late ʿAbbasid Period (that is, after al-Mutanabbī) lyric forms (ghazal, nasīb, etc.) and court qaīdat al-mad and ends with the 6th/13th century florescence of the devotional poetry of Ṣūfī ghazal (Ibn ʿArabī, Ibn al-Fāriḍ) and madī nabawī (al-Būṣīrī, al-Burʿī, al-Ṣarṣarī). Rather than attempting to arrive at generalizations about this two-century formal and aesthetic transformation, the study will look at the emergent poetics and influence of particular works, such as the ijāziyyāt of al-Sharīf al-Raḍī and the nasībs of his student Mihyār al-Daylamī from Būyid Iraq; the elegy to al-Sharīf Ibrāhīm al-ʿAlawī and al-Luzūmiyyā of the Syrian al-Maʿarrī, and the madīh nabawī, al-Lāmiyyah, of the Tunisian al-Shuqrāṭisī. It will then attempt to determine their place on the road to the mature Post-Classical poetics of the 6th/13th century Sūfī ghazal and madī nabawī.

Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych – Bio

Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych is Sultan Qaboos bin Said Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University and Ruth N. Halls Emerita Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at Indiana University, Bloomington. Her research is grounded in Classical Arabic poetry and ranges from Pre-Islamic to Neo-Classical. Recent books are The Poetics of Islamic Legitimacy (2002) on Classical qaīdat al-madī; The Mantle Odes (2010) on madīnabawī; and The Cooing of the Dove and the Cawing of the Crow (forthcoming) on the poetry of al-Maʿarrī. She is currently working on a second volume on milestones of the madī nabawī tradition. She is winner of the Middle East Medievalists Lifetime Achievement Award (2017) and co-winner of Sheikh Zayed Book Awards: Cultural Personality of the Year (2019).


Monica Ruocco

“Is Rila Still a Genre in Contemporary Arabic Literature?”

In the history of Arabic literature the genre of rila contributed to the construction of a political and cultural identity, and became an integral part of the literary creation.

Over the past three decades, a remarkable number of writers – man and women – have enhanced their fictional output with travel accounts very different in itineraries, style, structure, description of places, aims. As in the past, these travelogues are conceived as a mix of personal narrative, description, opinion and anecdote, even if some of these authors combine writing with other artistic media as photography or video.

This paper will share several questions resulting from my initial research on creative travelogues written by écrivains-voyageurs and their place in the very recent Arabic literary panorama.

Monica Ruocco – Bio

Monica Ruocco is full professor of Arabic Language and Literature in the Department of Asian, African and Mediterranean Studies at the “L’Orientale” University of Naples, where she graduated and obtained her Ph.D. She is President of the European Association for the Modern Arabic Literature (EURAMAL) and the Italian Society of Studies on the Middle East (SeSaMO), she is editor of the Series “Letterature del Mondo Islamico” (IPO C.A. Nallino – Roma) and Collana del Laboratorio di Traduzione (UniOr – Napoli). Her research interests focus on a number of issues within the broader field of Arabic literature and drama. Her recent studies are centered on Arabic theater in exile, contemporary travelogues, and the recent developments in Arab fiction. She was awarded the prize of the Italian Ministry of Culture for her activity as a translator. She published Storia del teatro arabo dalla nahda a oggi (Carocci, 2010) and translated into Italian Saadallah Wannus, Murid al-Barghuthi, Adania Shibli, Muhammad Barrada, ‘Abd ar-Rahman Munif, Yousef al-Mohaimeed, Iman Humaydan Younes, Ali Bader.


Bilal Orfali

“The Art of Enumeration in Pre-modern Arabic Literature”

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Enumeration is an often neglected and yet significant device in Arabic literature. Readers of Arabic literature encounter enumerative devices, to give a few examples, in lexical compilations, grammar books, Adab works, travelogues, letters, and poetry. Bringing separate and often disparate items together, enumeration offers an epistemic and aesthetic framework to (re-)interpret and (re-)experience these items. In Arabic, literature lists are often important devices to map the world and make sense of it. This paper points to some epistemic discourses, aesthetic functions, and cultural practices of lists in pre-modern Arabic literature to start a discussion about the formative beginning of the Arabic theoretical frameworks.

Bilal Orfali – Bio

Bilal Orfali is Chairman, Professor, and Sheikh Zayed Chair of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the American University of Beirut and previously held the M.S. Sofia Chair in Arabic Studies at the Ohio State University. He specializes in Arabic literature, Sufism, and Qurʾānic Studies. His recent publications include: The Anthologist’s Art (Brill, 2016), The Book of Noble Character (Brill, 2015), The Comfort of the Mystics (Brill, 2013), Sufism, Black and White (Brill, 2012), In the Shadow of Arabic (Brill, 2011). He is co-editor of Brill’s series Texts and Studies on the Qurʾān, co-editor of Brill’s Encyclopedia of Islamic Mysticism, and serves on the board of several journals, book series, and academic projects across North America, Europe, and the Middle East. He has a BS in Mathematics, a BA and MA in Arabic language and literature from the American University of Beirut, and an MPhil and PhD in Arabic Studies from Yale University.​


Wen-chin Ouyang

“Creativity in Arabic Literary Theory: Originality and Plagiarism, Literariness and Reception”

Seen from the perspective of comparative criticism that takes into account the continuous dialogues between past and present, east and west, and the tension between linear progression and uneven development of thought, creativity may be spoken of as located in the slippage between individualism and communalism, freedom to explore and necessity for discipline, order and chaos, dispositional and social fashioning. This intervention focuses on the idea of culture as the underpinning bedrock of creativity and looks at the ways in which discourses about “plagiarism” (sariqa) developed into those about “originality” (badʿ) which privilege aesthetics over ethics. Starting with Kilito’s insights into classical Arabic criticism (both author focused criticism informed by literary property and literary propriety and text-driven analysis driven by transformations that see the author as either hero and creator or villain and thief or robber, and the text as either created or borrowed, original or plagiarized), I revisit the two Jurjānīs’ discussions of poetics and their location of “strangeness” (gharīb) as difference in language. Moving from the writerly text to the readerly reception, and situating originality, or creativity, in the ways in which the text, not the author, effects “strangeness” through intertextuality, or engagement with the literary tradition, I show that as early as the two Jurjānīs (10th cen 11th centuries), Arabic literary theory anticipated the idea that the “original” writer works with “inherited lexical, grammatical, and semantic counters, combining and recombining them into expressive-executive sequences.”

Wen-chin Ouyang – Bio

Wen-chin Ouyang, FBA is Professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature at SOAS, University of London. She is the author of Literary Criticism in Medieval Arabic- Islamic Culture: The Making of a Tradition (1997), Poetics of Love in the Arabic Novel (2012) and Politics of Nostalgia in the Arabic Novel (2013). She has published widely on The Thousand and One Nights often in comparison with classical and modern Arabic narrative traditions, European and Hollywood cinema, magic realism, and Chinese storytelling. She has been working towards Arabic- Chinese comparative cultural and literary studies, including Silk Road Studies. She is Editor-in-Chief of Middle Eastern Literatures and a member of the editorial board of Bulletin of SOAS. She founded and co-edits Edinburgh Studies in Classical Arabic Literature. She chaired the editorial board of Middle East in London Magazine (2007-2008) and contributes regularly to Banipal: Magazine of Modern Arab Literature


Amidu Sanni

“The Arabic Literary Theory on the Ancients (Qudamā’) and the Moderns (Mudathūn): A New Perspective”

Classical Arabic poetry glories in the hallowed crucible of tradition. Even the earliest, extant, pre-Islamic poetical corpus contains expressions of indebtedness, if not helplessness. Literary legislators, scholars of religion, and language, all essentialized the pre-Islamic and early Islamic poetry as the only ujjah (authority) that is worthy of citation to authenticate linguistic usage in the post-Islamic dispensation. How and when did the bifurcation into Ancients and Moderns emerge in the scholarly, literary, and theoretical locution of the Arabic tradition?

Al-Aṣma‘ī (d. 213/828) was one of the earliest authorities to delimitate artistic efficiency on the basis of chronology for which no theoretical basis was discernible. He would have rated the trio of Jarīr (d. 110/728), al-Farazdaq (d. 110/728), and al-Akhṭal (d. 92/710) high, had any of them lived in the pre-Islamic era. (Cf. D. Cowell 1982). He also considered Bashshār b. Burd (d. 167/784] as the ‘seal’ (khātimat) of the Arab poets to whom he would have accorded priority but for his lateness in appearance.  Poets of the late Umayyad and Abbasid periods contested the chronological criterion among other touchstones that were used in classifying poets into Ancients and Moderns, and in the assessment of works of poetry. Beyond the quotidian argument that the quest for shawāhid (evidential proofs) inspired the bifurcation, some rare passages, for example, in the surviving works by Abū Ḥātim al-Sijistānī (d. 255/869), Ibn al-Mu‘tazz’s (d. 296/908) Rasā’il, among other classical texts offer some insights into other factors that were taken into consideration in the classification. My contribution will examine the trajectory of a theoretical model from the 2ndAH/8thCE until the 5th /11th C and its reflection in the pre-Modern Arabic theoretical cosmos of the Nahḍah era.

Goldziher’s 1896 classic (Abhandlungen I, 122-76) remains, in Western scholarship, the oldest treatment of the subject in any critical and theoretical fashion. Others after him, include, I. Kratschkovsky, H. A. R. Gibb, G. Grunebaum, S. Bonebakker, M. Zwettler, G. E. J. van Gelder, T. Bauer, Muhammad Mandur, Iḥsān Abbas, and Muhammad Ghunaymi Hilāl (d. 1968), the last being generally considered as a pioneer in modern comparative literature and criticism in Arabic. My contribution will show how a theoretical tradition which started as one lacking in order ultimately developed into a system with a far-reaching theoretical paradigm in the pre-Modern Arabic literary and theoretical tradition.

Amidu Sanni  – Bio

Amidu Sanni is a Professor of African and Middle Eastern Studies with the Fountain University, Osogbo Nigeria. He graduated with First Class (Arabic Language and Literature) from the University of Ibadan in 1980 and completed a PhD programme at the School of Oriental and African Studies (London) in 1989 as a British Commonwealth scholar. He taught at the Lagos State University (1984-2018). His research interests cover Arabic literary and linguistic studies and West African manuscript studies. He has won a number of awards, including the Alexander von Humboldt fellowship, the Leiden-Scaliger Fellowship, and the British Chevening Fellowship. He has participated at many international conferences and was a Visiting Professor at some international universities. A fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies, he has over 250 publications to his credit made up of books, journal articles, book reviews, in Arabic and English.


Stefan Spearl

“Arabic Poetry and Neoplatonic Poetics in the Greater Mediterranean”

The presentation begins by presenting Neoplatonism as an integral part of Middle Eastern culture for geographical, historical, and ideological reasons. Points of convergence between Neoplatonism and the Qur’anic message are highlighted to show how the compatibility between the two systems made possible the almost seamless adoption of a Neoplatonising cosmology in early Abbasid poetry, contemporary with the Arabic rendering of Neoplatonic philosophical texts. The presentation is intended to generate a comparative overview of the extent to which Neoplatonist philosophy has permeated poetic forms, styles, themes, and figurative language as well as poetic theory in seven principal languages of the greater Mediterranean region, from late antiquity to the modern period. It will shed light on Neoplatonism’s significance as a cross-cultural phenomenon that links the literary traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Stefan Sperl – Bio

Stefan Sperl is a graduate of Oxford (Arabic) and SOAS (PhD 1977), former staff member of UNHCR (1978-88). He is now Emeritus Professor of Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies at SOAS. His publications include articles on Arabic, Islamic and Refugee Studies, as well as Mannerism in Arabic Poetry: A Structural Analysis of Selected Texts (1989), The Kurds: A Contemporary Overview (with Philip Kreyenbroek (1991), Qasida Poetry in Islamic Africa and Asia (with Christopher Shackle, 1996) and The Cosmic Script: Sacred Geometry and the Science of Arabic Penmanship (with Ahmed Moustafa, 2014), which won the Iran Book of the Year Award (2016). His most recent publication is ‘The Qur’an and Arabic Poetry’ (The Oxford Handbook of Qur’anic Studies, 2020). He is co-editing a forthcoming publication entitled Faces of the Infinite, Neoplatonism and Poetics at the Confluence of Africa, Asia and Europe (with Yorgos Dedes).

 The Heyman Center for the Humanities, Room B-101
74 Morningside Drive
New York, NY, 10027
  (212) 854-4541
  (212) 854-3099