How Arabic poetry influenced the world

In naming 2023 the ‘Year of Arabic Poetry’, Saudi Arabia is celebrating its impact and the pivotal role it plays in Arab culture

Arabic poetry had a profound impact on human civilisation and enjoys a deservedly high status in world art and literature.
Oscar Perez
Arabic poetry had a profound impact on human civilisation and enjoys a deservedly high status in world art and literature.

How Arabic poetry influenced the world

Saudi Arabia has designated 2023 the ‘Year of Arabic Poetry’ in the Kingdom, reflecting the historical importance of this literary art and the status it occupies in the hearts and minds of Arabs around the world.

The work of Arabic poets over the years has reached the highest heights of artwork, with immortal compilations such as the Muʻallaqāt, a group of seven long Arabic poems, which together represent almost every type of ancient Arabian poetry.

The Arabic language could be said to have reached its zenith with the Muʻallaqāt, its letters having been written in gold on pieces of Coptic linen before the verse was hung from the curtains of the Kaaba in Mecca.


Emanating from the Arabian Peninsula, Arabic poetry has also had a big impact on other languages and literature, particularly European poetry, giving the world a new angle on love, chivalry, and morals.

The Arab miracle

The emergence of the Arabic language is shrouded in mystery. French orientalist Ernest Renan said it was “unknown at first, but suddenly appeared so perfectly that it has not undergone the slightest modification to this day, as it has neither a childhood nor old age”.

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Ernest Renan (1823-1892), French philosopher and writer, inside his study, engraving from a photograph by Dornac, from L'Illustrazione Italiana, year 19, no 41, October 9, 1892.

In agreement with Renan was his compatriot Louis Massignon, a Catholic scholar of Islam, who expressed gratitude for the impact of Arabic on European thought, liberating it from the legacies of the Greek era. He said of Arabic that it was “able to develop the sublime ability to express abstract thought”.

Massignon added that it had “a concise linguistic structure that allowed focus and control”, which has helped all manner of fields, from physics and mathematics to land exploration. He also said that it had “the ability to delve into the dreams and secrets of the human soul”.

Arabic has the sublime ability to express abstract thought, with a concise linguistic structure that allows focus and control.

He felt that the scientific method in Western civilisation had, through Arabic, abolished the pagan spherical and geometric example of closed shapes that constrained Greek science for a long time.

It has also disposed of the lines that were added to solve mathematical equations with the use of the number zero, just as it did the polygon with ornamentation.

"The international resurrection of the Arabic language is an essential factor in spreading peace among nations in the future," said Massignon, "as it is the language of supreme freedom, and the revelation of love, desire, and reverence for God".

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Louis Massignon

Year of Arabic poetry

In naming 2023 the 'Year of Arabic Poetry', Saudi Arabia is celebrating its impact and the pivotal role it plays in Arab culture. It also wants to "highlight the role of the Arabian Peninsula in the emergence and renaissance of Arabic poetry".

This renaissance is described as "transforming this wonderful art form into an anthology for Arabs, harvesting the fruits of their minds through its rhythmic structures, methods, and poems, documenting great thoughts and exploits, and expressing feelings, ideas, and aspirations towards goodness, life, and beauty".

The aim is to highlight the ancient history of Arabic poetry and show both its impact on human civilisation and its deservedly high status in world art and literature.

The aim this year is to highlight the ancient history of Arabic poetry and show both its impact on human civilisation and its deservedly high status in world art and literature.

Among the most indelible marks made by Arabic poetry in literature is its contribution to the formation of European poetry, which relied on Arabic rhyme and was inspired by the principles, spirit, values, and traditions of Arabic verse.

In his book 'Arab Civilisation', French polymath Gustave Le Bon said Europeans "borrowed the art of rhyme from the Arabs", something with which many other writers have concurred.

Moreover, the source of Spanish and Provençal poetry is directly attributed to the influence of Arab Andalusian poets, said Le Bon. "This opinion appears to me as strong as the previous opinion."

Depth of presence

Le Bon highlighted both the importance and persistence of poetry "for the duration of [Arab] civilisation", saying: "Every cultured man used to compose poetry, whether he was a politician, astronomer, or doctor.

"It was not trivial for them to say, 'The Arabs alone wrote more poetry than the nations of the world altogether.' It was due to the Arabs' love of poetry that they began to compose books on monotheism, philosophy, and algebra in verse. Whoever reads their stories notices most of them mixed with poetic works."

Philosopher and researcher Abdel Rahman Badawi helped to trace the impact of Arabic literature on the formation of European poetry in his book, 'The Arab Role in Forming European Thought.'

In it, he describes how the influence of Arabic poetry on the emergence of modern European poetry in Spain and southern France remains a hot topic among researchers, with new information confirming its impact emerging almost daily.

Zajal as template

He showed how Andalusian Arabic poetry in the form of the Muwashahah and Zajal influenced the first stage of Spanish poetry itself.

The Andalusian Zajal is a traditional form of Arabic literature. In Al-Andalus, it was developed by Mozarabic people and described as "the finest kind of song in Muslim Spain because it influenced both the Andalusian Jewish people's poetry and singing and the Castillian one, including words in the romance language". In other words, it was the first model for Spanish poetry.


The Zajal was described as 'the finest kind of song in Muslim Spain' and influenced Andalusia's Jewish and Christian poetry, using the language of romance.

Furthermore, given that the Zajal and Muwashahah were popular with the Arab public and spread faster by word-of-mouth, poets opted to copy these same patterns of rhyme, partly for their ease and partly because people enjoyed them, whether in private or in public.

Great writers excelled within this new format. Among the most famous were Ibn Abd Rabbih, author of 'The Unique Necklace,' Ibn Zahr, Ibn Sahl, Lisan ad-Din Ibn al-Khatib, author of 'Briefing in Granada News,' and the famous Muwashshat: "Good rain would befit you… O time of our interaction in Andalus."

Badawi says "these two types of versifications invented by the people of Andalusia are the ones that influenced the emergence of European poetry".

From Andalusia to Provence

Expounding this theory was Julián Ribera, a Spanish orientalist who studied Spanish songs and poetry, as well as the music of the 'Troubadours' and the 'Trouvères' (the wandering poets of medieval Europe), and the 'Minnesingers' (love poets).

He concluded that the Muwashahah and Zajal were "the wondrous key that reveals the secret of the formation of the templates in which the poetic styles that appeared in the European world in the Middle Ages were poured," and proved the transmission of Arabic poetry and Arabic music to Europe.

Arabic poems were the secret to the formation of templates in which Europe's earliest poetry took form

This is because the troubadour poets, who belonged to the region of Provence in the south of France, used the oldest templates of Andalusian Zajal as their model.

This can be traced all the way back to the words of the first troubadour, Guillaume IX, Duke of Aquitaine, considered the first poet in modern European languages. Writing almost 950 years ago, his poems consist of paragraphs similar in form to those of the Arabic Zajal.

This style of poetry then spread across Europe and flourished in church poetry composed by Franciscan writers in the 13th and 14th centuries, and in European carnival songs in the 15th century.


The Spanish connection

Francisco Villaspasa, a Spanish poet, once wrote that "no people were affected by the divine gift of poetry as much as the Arabs", noting their cultural yearning for freedom and heroism that gave their poetry a special identifying character.

"The victory of Islam is a victory for Arab poetry as well," he wrote. "The spirit of chivalry that prevailed in the Middle Ages has turned the barbarism of wars into horseback caresses in the fields of games.

No people were more affected by the divine gift of poetry than the Arabs… The victory of Islam is a victory for Arab poetry as well.

"From love, it has produced high literature; and from women, an idol worshipped. It is a spirit that was created by Arabic poetry, carried to the world on the wings of its Muwashshat. The world was filled with beautiful ornate literature that preceded Romanticism by a few generations."

If Arab poetry's influence has been felt anywhere, it is Spain, he said, where more than a quarter of the Spanish vocabulary has a link to Arabic, and where Arabic literature "has ignited our imaginations, warmed our blood, driven us to adventures and to great gain".

Infusing European literature

This presence and impact can be seen in the tales of knights, such as 'Don Quixote', a Spanish epic novel by Miguel de Cervantes. Published in two parts, in 1605 and 1614, it is considered a founding work of Western literature.

According to Villaspasa, "most of our novels and our poetry have been influenced by a purely Arabic style that merged into it, so that the eight iambic octameters were originally a meter that our poets took and organised based on one rhyme, which is repeated in the sentence of the verses in a manner that is familiar in Arabic poetry."

The role of Arabic poetry on European literature, particularly on the establishment of modern European poetry, is both long and deep. It goes beyond the provision of mere templates and structures, to the very meanings of thought and core values.

With its solid structural foundation, Arabic poetry has utilised the full range of principles, creativity, and ideas to influence world cultures.It is a story of authentic inspiration – and a tale worth contemplating.

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