Benjamin Koerber

Benjamin Koerber is Assistant Professor in the Department of African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian Languages and Literatures at Rutgers University.  His work has appeared in the Journal of Arabic Literature, Jadaliyya, Ma3azef, and Wasla.  He is currently at work on a monograph, entitled Conspiracy in Modern Egyptian Literature, under contract with Edinburgh University Press.


Al-Adab al-sirrī in 1990s Cairo: Literary Form and Political Affect

The paper examines two authors of al-Adab al-sirrī : Mahmud ʿAbd al-Raziq ʿAfifi (1951-????) and Muhammad Rabiʿ (1975-2008). Historically, al-Adab al-sirrī is a term that has been applied to a quite wide array of texts – Aljamiado or Judeo-Arabic literatures; political pamphlets; rumors; popular songs; prison literature; graffiti; chain letters; samizdat newspapers; latrinalia; internet erotica. Its use here is confined to imaginative works printed and distributed surreptitiously, or through unconventional means, by authors whose alienation from a perceived cultural establishment is at once the function of their stylistic idiosyncrasies and affinity for the obscene, and the basis for their embrace by a “cult following” of young, mostly male, bourgeois readers.

The paper begins by situating the works of ʿAfifi and Rabiʿ within the broader corpus of al-Adab al-sirrī in Egypt in the second half of the twentieth century.  Our aim is not to bestow a putatively overdue recognition on particular authors, but to determine the textual and extratextual factors that position their works as “secret” or “obscure.” To what extent is “secrecy” here a necessity born of repressive political or moral regimes?  To what extent does authorial affect (social reclusiveness, radical individualism, suspicion, paranoia) determine the form and reception of these works?  And does obscurity represent success, or failure, for these authors? 



Muhsin al-Musawi

Muhsin al-Musawi is a literary critic and a scholar of classical and modern Arabic literature and comparative cultural studies. He taught for over two decades at universities in the Arab world before moving to Columbia University. He is the author of twenty-eight books (including four novels) and over sixty scholarly articles. He has been the editor of the Journal of Arabic Literature [ Brill Academic Publishers] since 2000.

Professor al-Musawi's teaching and research interests span several periods, trends, and genres. His books include: Scheherazade in England (1981); The Society of One Thousand and One Nights (2000); Anglo-Orient: Easterners in Textual Camps (2000); The Postcolonial Arabic Novel: Debating Ambivalence (2003); Arabic Poetry: Trajectories of Modernity and Tradition (2006); Reading Iraq: Culture and Power in Conflict (2006); The Islamic Context of the Thousand and One Nights (Columbia University Press, 2009); and Islam in the Street: The Dynamics of Arabic Literary Production (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009). He is also the editor of and a contributor to Arabic Literary Thresholds: Sites of Rhetorical Turn in Contemporary Scholarship (2009), and wrote the introduction and notes to the Barnes & Noble edition of The Thousand and One Nights, published in 2007. His most recent book is The Medieval Islamic Republic of Letters: Arabic Knowledge Construction (University of Notre Dame Press, April 2015). Professor al-Musawi was the recipient of the Owais Award in Literary Criticism in 2002.

Jeannie Miller

Jeannie Miller is Assistant Professor at University of Toronto, where she teaches premodern Arabic literature. She is currently working on a book examining categories and their exceptions in al-Jahiz’s ninth-century Kitāb al-Ḥayawān.  The book argues that semantic and natural categories are a major intellectual question for al-Jahiz,and that this interest is reflected in the book’s form and more generally in al-Jahiz’s prose style.  This marks an early moment in the dance between lexicographic and Aristotelian notions of semantics in Arabic intellectual history. One of the most significant testing grounds for notions of category in Kitāb al-Ḥayawān is the boundary between human and non-human animals.


Al-Jahiz and Adab

Al-Jahiz is often treated as the first adib, though al-Jahiz does not use this term, and his organizational methods are for the most part not reproduced by those successors who did call themselves udabāʾ. 

Nonetheless, this paper considers his approach to knowledge as a forerunner of “adab” in that it demonstrates a necessarily transdisciplinary knowledge practice, namely comparative debate (tamthīl, muwāzana, muʿāraḍa and other names).  As demonstrated in al-Jahiz’s accounts of disputes like the dog-rooster debate in Kitāb al-Ḥayawān, the early ninth century mutakallimūn engaged in rhetorical disputation as a trans-disciplinary practice. This dispute genre demanded an ability to undercut the opponent by shifting the terms of the debate, switching from one domain of knowledge to another – between historic analysis of poetry, law, theology, medicine, and so on.  This produced a wide-ranging body of learning among practitioners, including a strong focus was on intellectual method.  This oral genre, as reproduced, developed, and theorized in al-Jahiz’s writings, inspired al-Jahiz’s trans-disciplinary approach to knowledge, often referred to (for better or worse) in twentieth-century scholarship as adab and as humanism.  Al-Jahiz’s transdisciplinary practice then is not merely a matter of juxtaposing varied source materials, but rather has a focus on juxtaposing intellectual approaches.  The paper will treat this fore-runner of adab in comparison with his contemporaries, Ibn Qutayba, al-Mubarrad, and Ibn Ṭayfūr.

Yaseen Noorani

Yaseen Noorani is an Associate Professor of Arabic and Persian Literature in the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona. He earned his PhD in Comparative Literature at the University of Chicago and previously taught at the University of Edinburgh. He is the co-editor of Counterhegemony in the Colony and Postcolony and the author of Culture and Hegemony in the Colonial Middle East. His interests lie in the nexus of normative moral and political ideals and literary representation in the modern Middle East. His current book project focuses on the role of aesthetic theory in Islamic political thought in the early to mid-twentieth century, and is entitled “Aesthetic Citizens, Islamic States”.


Adab al-Wijdan and the Islamic Vision of Reality in the Thought of Sayyid Qutb

Sayyid Qutb, in his book on the principles and methods of literary criticism, published in 1948, insisted upon the higher truth contained in the extraordinary heroes of stories and myths. He asserted that this kind of heroic figure manifests the “dream of humanity living in the human conscience, that humanity hopes for in its imagination and senses in its world” and “embodies the truth of the ideal that lives in our imagination.” The next book that he published, Social Justice in Islam (1949), is considered Sayyid Qutb’s first Islamist work. Here Islam is described as “the eternal dream of humanity, embodied in a reality lived out on earth.” These formulations, which may appear to instantiate nothing more than a recurring habit of expression, in fact point to a much deeper concordance in Sayyid Qutb’s thought – the concordance between the secular humanist and Islamist phases of his intellectual career. Sayyid Qutb provides a major illustration of the link between aestheticism and Islamism because we can see clearly in his thought how the conceptual framework of romantic aesthetics, or adab al-wijdan, that he practised and theorized in the first part of his career formed the basis of the Islamist system that he espoused and expounded in the second part of his career. The model of the relationship between the inner sensibility (wijdan) of human beings and the universe that Qutb deploys to theorize greatness in literary works becomes the model first for Qutb’s analysis of the artistic genius of the Quran and then transformed into what he called “the Islamic vision” (al-tasawwur al-Islami) of reality. Romantic conceptions of adab took on liberal and socialist political implications in the work of Qutb’s literary mentors and peers, but in his thought became the foundation for an Islamist political ideology.


Teresa Pepe

Teresa Pepe is a post-doctoral fellow at the Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages at the University of Oslo. She holds a PhD in Middle Eastern Studies and Literature from the University of Oslo and an MA from the University of Naples “L’Orientale”.

Her current research project is entitled “The adīb and adab – Demise, or metamorphosis, of a key figure and of a key concept of the Arab modernist project?” and explores how the role of writers and intellectuals has evolved during the 20th century in Arabic/Egyptian society.

Her forthcoming book, Bytes of Freedom: Writing the Self in the Egyptian Blogosphere, explores the literary features of Egyptian autofictional blogs written between 2005 and 2016, in light of the political events of the 25th January Revolution and of previous autobiographical writings in Arabic Literature. Among her recent publications: “Cultivating the Self and Building Communities in Egyptian Autofictional Blogs”, in La littérature à l'heure du Printemps arabe: analyse et perspectives, ed. Sobhi Boustani and Rashid al-Enany (2016); “When Writers Activate Readers. How the autofictional blog transforms Arabic Literature” in Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies (2015), 15, 73-91.

The Metamorphosis of the Writer/ Intellectual (adīb) in Egypt: A conceptual-historical approach (1890-2017)

This paper sheds light on the conceptual transformation of the term adīb’ as it has been used in Egyptian cultural field from the nahḍa to present times. Recent studies have shown how the nahḍa has witnessed a transformation of the concept of adab’ into ‘literature’. However, they leave open the question of who the ‘adīb’, a subject exhibiting or embodying ‘adab’, is. Indeed, the term transforms significantly over the century, and not necessarily in synchrony with ‘adab’.

The discussion applies the method of conceptual history and K. Mannheim’s theory of the sociology of generations on a number of statements made by Egyptian writers in the historical cultural press, critical essays, and interviews from 1880 until 2017. It shows that different cohorts of writers have theorized the ‘adīb’ in different ways in successive periods of time: from the “man of letters/intellectual” according to the 1919 Generation of writers to the “author of fiction” for the 1952 generation, while it has absorbed also the negative nuance of “pedantic, didactic writer” for the 1990s generation. In the final part, the paper inquires how the same concept is being challenged again and re-imagined anew in the post-Arab Spring scene in the midst of global and local cultural transformations.

Joshua A. Sabih

Joshua A. Sabih (dr.theo/dr.phil), is associate professor in Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Copenhagen. His teaching and research include Arabic, Hebrew, Jewish and Islamic Studies. He has published on subjects covering different fields of inquiry: Literature, Linguistics, Bible, Quran, philosophy, theology, Jewish-Karaite and Samaritan Studies, Jewish-Muslim relations, modern Arab and Jewish critical thought.


Jewish Orientalism: Arabische Literatur der Juden

In the beginning of Jewish  ”adab”- Arabic Literature of the Jews - Jews became Arabs or began changing their Hebrew names into Arabic ones! Thus goes the story - as it is told by Moritz Steinschneider in his introduction to the Arabic literature of the Jews (1902) - of how Jews made their entry into the realm of adab of the Arabs and ended up looking,  speaking and writing like them, though as a difference. In this process, “ Some Arabs have been considered as Jews because their works have been transcribed into Hebrew characters or have been translated into Hebrew language.” states Steinschneider.

In this paper, I shall re-visit the notion of Adab in its polysemic varieties and its representations in  “Judeao-Arabic” literary system, with a especial focus on the early Jewish Orientalist scholarship.  This paper shall also turn its critical gaze towards Steinschneider’s perception of Arabische Literatur der Juden, its genealogy and implications in contemporary debate about notions such as “Judaeo-Arabic”, “Arab-Jew”, “Arab-Jewish symbiosis” and adab.

Mohammad Salama

Mohammad Salama is Associate Professor of Arabic and Chair of the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures at San Francisco State University. He received his PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2005. His s scholarly interests include comparative literary trends in colonial and post-colonial Europe and the Arab world, French and Egyptian cinema, and modern Quranic exegesis. He has published in a number of scholarly venues, including der Islam, SCTIW Review, JAL, ASJ, ALIF, and AHR. His is the author of Islam, Orientalism, and Intellectual History. His forthcoming work includes The Qur'an and Modern Arabic Literary Criticism and Islam and the Culture of Modern Egypt.


Adab, the Pharmakon of Quranic Exegesis

What we call adab is located in a constellation of historical shifts from the era of the pre-Islamic qaṣīda until now. The emergence and codification of Arabic belles lettres has also resulted in the formation of aesthetic and philological principles that at once elevated adab and distinguished it from non-literary forms of human expression while belittling it in comparison to iʿjāz al-Qur’ān.  In this paper, I argue that the aesthetics of adab which eventually resulted in the formation of a host tradition of al-naqd al-adabī, have in modern times created a boomerang effect that brought the tools of literary criticism back to the benefits of Quranic exegesis, rescuing it from the persistence of rigid and inflexible ideologies. This new approach of modern Arabic literary criticism, which was boldly ventured by Taha Husayn in Pre-Islamic Poetry, begins with alienating itself from what it studies, namely becoming the reverse of dogmatism and nationalism in an era infested with both.  In this spirit of desacralizing both traditionalism and fanaticism, al-naqd al-adabī prepared the reader to look at sacred tradition both scientifically and historically, that is with a disinterestedness that could only proceed from a methodical linguistic and aesthetic assessment. Regardless of whether this disinterestedness from the text was ever achieved or not in modern Quranic tafsīr, the Mujaddidūn, the mid-twentieth century school pioneered by Amīn al-Khūlī, Muḥammad Aḥmad Khalafallāh and ʿĀisha ʿAbd al-Raḥmān (Bint al-Shāṭiʾ), has managed to establish an adab-inspired dogma-free literary approach to exegesis. In particular, Bint al-Shāṭiʾ’s work, al-Tafsir al-Bayāni lil-Qurʾān al-Karīm [Rhetorical Explication of the Glorious Qurʾān] (1962-1968) offers a philological and rhetorical examination of the Qurʾān’s Meccan chapters in a scholastic approach that sums up the efforts of this school quite effectively. I aim to show how Bint al-Shāṭiʾ’s critical insights and adaptation of a literary approach reinvigorate the synergies between adab and the Qurʾān.

Anna Ziajka Stanton

Anna Ziajka Stanton is Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature and Arabic Literature at The Pennsylvania State University. Her current book project interrogates the multivalent processes of her own translation praxis to open up a critical zone for rethinking the figure of the Arabic/English translator, present and past, through the theoretical intersections of ethics, affects, and philosophies of embodied reading. She is also interested in mapping how 21st-century Arabic literary prizes are reshaping the ways that contemporary Arabic novels emerge into, and circulate within, today’s world literary marketplace. Publications include “A Whole Imaginary World: The Incomparable Fiction of Waguih Ghali” in the Journal of Arabic Literature (2015) and the English translation of Lebanese author Hilal Chouman’s novel Limbo Beirut (2016).


Adab as Theory: Toward a Corporeal Ethos of Reading

This conference asks us to theorize adab in its many permutations and usages, trans-historically and in full recognition of its interdisciplinary assemblages as a word that conjoins literature and manners, the poetic and the ethical. To bring theory and adab into conversation in this way generates new possibilities not only for the study of the latter, but for literary theory as a set of critical apparatuses figured to help us think literature within a variety of philosophical and formal frameworks. If adab could be refashioned as a theoretical hinge for exposing certain previously overlooked elements of literary texts and the routes through which they circulate, what would it reveal? What new epistemological constellations would be rendered intelligible through the induction of this Arabic signifier into the canon of literary theoretical terminology? To consider a text as adab, I propose, is to explore how this text operates at the boundaries between literature and proper comportment, between the aesthetic and the affective. Thus unsettling the division between the linguistic and the physical, a theory of adab invites us to attend to how a singular work of fiction habituates the reader into modes of being and behaving that enact ethics through embodied practices, à la the Aristotelian notion of ἦθος (ethics) as human potentiality materialized in certain (correct) human activities. Moving away from the equation of taʾdīb with tahdhīb (educating, refining), “adabization” (taʾdīb) is recast as a mode of becoming receptive to the ethical possibilities that literature offers, not as part of a civilizing project of intellectual cultivation but as a series of irreducibly corporeal events that a theory of adab interrogates and makes visible.

Suzanne Stetkevych

Suzanne Stetkevych (Sultan Qaboos bin Said professor of Arabic & Islamic Studies, Georgetown University) is a specialist in classical Arabic literature. She holds an AB from Wellesley College and PhD from The University of Chicago. Her research, which has been supported by Fulbright, NEH, SSRC, ACOR and ARCE, focuses primarily on myth, ritual, ceremony and performance in the Arabic ode and ranges from the pre-Islamic through the neo-classical period. Her books include Abu Tammam and the Poetics of the Abbasid Age; The Mute Immortals Speak: Pre-Islamic Poetry and the Poetics of Ritual; The Poetics of Islamic Legitimacy: Myth, Gender and Ceremony in the Classical Arabic Ode; and The Mantle Odes: Praise Poems to the Prophet Muḥammad in the Arabic Tradition. She is currently working on a book on: Authority and Authenticity: The Two Poetry Diwans of Abū al-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī: Saqṭ al-Zand and Al-Luzumiyyat.


From Umayyad History to Abbasid Biography: Variation, Invention, and the Archeology of an Adab Text

The base text for this study is an account of the Umayyad excavations for the construction of the Great Mosque of Damascus, which tells of the unearthing of an ancient temple with a mysterious inscription from its long-lost builder. The paper proposes to explore the genesis and interpretation of this adab text as it migrates from one literary context to another, from a biographical notice on a celebrated poet and linguist, al-Maʿarrī, to a historical-geographical entry on a famous city, Damascus.

This account first occurs in a notice (tarjamah) on the renowned Abbasid poet, literature and linguist, Abū al-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī (d. 973/1058) in Jalāl al-Dīn Ibn al-Qifṭī’s (d. 646/1248) biographical dictionary of grammarians, Inbāh al-Ruwāh ʿalā Anbāh al-Nuḥāh. There, the account of the Umayyad excavations is recounted in the presence of the blind skeptic, al-Maʿarrī, from whom it elicits an apparently spontaneous and highly ironic poetic response. A virtually identical account—but lacking any reference to al-Maʿarrī--appears in Yāqūt al-Ḥamawī’s (d. 626/1229) geographical compendium, Muʿjam al-Buldān, where it is attributed solely to Ibn al-Qifṭī. It occurs in the Dimashq (Damascus) entry, after the more familiar and historically attested account of al-Walīd’s building the Umayyad Mosque on the site of the Church of John the Baptist.

The study then turns to earlier, cognate and variant historical accounts, from early histories up through Mamluk-era literary compendia. It concludes by extracting and addressing issues essential to our understanding of adab in the Arabic literary tradition. What is the origin of these texts—are they grounded in actual historical events? How are we to explain the blatant anachronisms? The striking repetition of identical motifs or topoi in different historical settings? The cooptation of accounts originally conceived of as “historical” to serve political, ideological or literary critical purposes? How should we categorize, both aesthetically and conceptually, these texts that clearly do not fit under our altogether inadequate categories of “fact” and “fiction”?

Sahar Ishtiaque Ullah

Sahar Ishtiaque Ullah is a PhD candidate of Arabic and Comparative Literature and a Public Humanities Fellow for Humanities New York. She is currently completing her dissertation “The Amatory Prelude in Medieval Arabic-Islamic Poetics." She also has research interests in representations of Islam and Muslims in early modern European literature and representations of the classical in modern Arabic literature. A Literature Humanities Core Preceptor Teaching Award Recipient, Sahar is also a Senior Lead Teaching Fellow at the Center for Teaching and Learning at Columbia University.


In Homage of Adab and the Adīb: al-Ṣafadī’s Introduction to Lāmiyyat al-ʿAjam

The introductions to medieval Arabic texts have often been treated as formulaic embellishment that is not particularly meaning generating but reflective of a conventional structure inherited from a literary tradition. On the other hand, fourteenth century Arabic-Islamic rhetoricians understood that how a statement or verse is expressed has implications for the meanings of the text. Thus, they considered the prolegomena to be literarily significant for both poetry and prose. Arabic-Islamic literary theory significantly impacted the style of pre-modern prolegomena across disciplines of literature. In this paper, I will consider the intersection of the fourteenth century Mamluk biographer, critic, and litterateur Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn Khalīl ibn Aybak al-Ṣafadī’s (d. 1362) introduction to his commentary Al-Ghayth Al-Musajjam fī Shar Lāmiyat Al-`Ajam with the concept of “ingenious beginnings” as conceptualized by the poet-rhetorician Ṣafī al-Dīn al-Ḥillī’s (d. 1350) poem’s Al-Kāfiyyah Al-Badī’iyya. Specifically, I will address how Al-Ṣafadī as a writer constructs through his style of praising adab and the adīb the lens through which he wants his audience to understand the significance of his contribution and his legitimacy as a commentator. By doing so, Al-Ṣafadī deploys the introduction of his work as a space of rhetorical performance while conveying the themes of the text demonstrating his familiarity with the discipline of rhetoric and its sub-discipline`ilm al-badī’ encapsulated by al-Ḥillī.

George Warner

George Warner studied Arabic and Islamic studies at Cambridge University and in Damascus and has recently completed his PhD at SOAS, where he currently teaches the history of Shi’i Islam. His interests include Shi’ism and sectarianism, Arabic and Persian literature (particularly compilation studies), and hadith.


Perfect Speech: Adab as Sectarian Polemic in the Buwayhid Era

Home to many titans of adab literature, the Buwayhid intellectual context also houses intense sectarian dispute. While these two aspects are usually treated separately, this paper will examine their extensive interdependence. In Buwayid adab compendia we find not only recurring registers of inter-sectarian argument, but also efforts by author-compilers to claim ownership of the wealth of adab discourse for their own group. This engenders not only significant, even defining imprints of such disputes on adab literature, but a simultaneous penetration of adab literature’s forms and priorities into canonical works of doctrine.

This paper takes as its starting point two adab compendia of the period: the Shāfiʿī Sunnī al-Māwardī’s Adab al-dunyā wa’l-dīn and the Imāmī Shīʿī al-Sharīf al-Murtaḍā’s Ghurar al-fawāʾid wa durar al-qalāʾid. Both seminal figures in their respective legal-theological traditions, both scholars attempt in these works to negotiate between the usual polyphonous curiosity of the adab compendium, their sources ranging from Abū Bakr to Buzurjmihr, and a shared sectarian concern to routinize authority in a strictly demarcated set of sources. Though called a compendium, al-Māwardī’s work is dominated by his own voice, the book’s colourful array of gobbets subordinated to his own exacting definitions of the concepts that they illustrate and thus, ultimately, to the authority of the qualified scholar. Al-Murtaḍā, meanwhile, is often to be found digressing into assertions of the (sometimes improbable) Shīʿī credentials of his sources, and meanwhile arguing that such wisdom as he narrates from them has nothing to add to that of the imāms. His efforts are reflected in his brother al-Sharīf al-Raḍī’s Nahj al-balāgha, a work in which we see not a collection of ḥadīth as repositories of doctrine but an attempt at an adab compendium composed solely of the imām’s inspired speech.