If by the word epic is meant a lengthy poetic narration with the aim of exalting a hero or the ancient endeavors of a nation (e. g., Homer’s Iliad), it must be recognized that classical Arab literature has not cultivated this genre. The medieval translators of Aristotle’s Poetics found themselves seriously embarrassed at being unable to translate the very term epic.
The tales of the tribal wars of the Jahiliyya (preIslamic era), the life of the Prophet Muhammad, the heroic deeds of the champions of Islam, and the epos of the Muslim conquests—all the material that could have become the subject matter of Arabic epics—have in fact developed in a specific fashion. These stories, on the one hand, have not undergone any mythic elaboration, having been accepted as historical fact—or presumed to be so—in the great works of historiography, such as al-Tabari’s Annals; on the other hand, they have taken on the dimension of popular narrative through the work of the storytellers, who have been subject to the censure of the elitist, turban-wearing ‘ulema, the jealous custodians of orthodoxy. Thus, the Arab epic tradition has developed in the form of chivalrous romances, and, because of its semiclassical language (middle Arabic) and its unpretentious style, it has not found its place within the restricted canons of Arabic literature.
Popular Arab epics have found their expression in a longstanding oral tradition in which generations of storytellers have operated and in a written tradition that is comparable, in certain respects, with the romances of the European Middle Ages. The epic cycle is called sira (course of life, biography) or, more generically, qissa (story), whereas single episodes can take the name diwan (collection of poems). The most important sources from which this oral-written corpus has spread are Syria and Egypt. A number of ancient cycles—albeit in their primitive form—are part of the repertoire of the storytellers, such as the story of ‘Antara ibn Shaddad, the pre-Islamic Black hero of the Banu ‘Abs and of his beloved ‘Abla, whose adventures are extended right up to the era of the Crusades; the story of al-Zir Salim, which re-evokes in the form of a legend the war of al-Basus; or the heroic deeds of the Banu Hilal warriors. Other narrative cycles are from the Mamluk era (fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, especially), such as the story of the Yemeni prince Sayf ibn Dhi Yazan; of princess Dhat al-Himma and her son ‘Abd al-Wahhab, in the context of the tribal battles between the Banu Kilab and the Sulaym and Arab expeditions against Byzantium; and of al-Malik al-Zahir Baybars, the Mamluk king of Egypt and Syria whose reign was the backdrop to a whole series of picaresque adventures. These works present an alternation of parts in rhyming prose, in which the singer-narrator describes the scenes and introduces the characters, and parts in poetry, which include the dialogues of the heroes boasting about their achievements and the description of the duel, perhaps the primitive core around which the romances have developed. Their pseudohistorical perspective, however, reveals itself to be fragile, particularly when it re-evokes the intertribal wars of the Ayyam al-Arab (the pre-Islamic ‘‘battle days of the Arabs’’ [al-Zir Salim]), the campaigns for the expansion of Islam (Antara, Dhat al-Himma) or Sayf’s struggle to thwart the Abyssinian plans to control the course of the Nile (whereas the historical Himyarite Sayf liberated the Yemen from the yoke of the Abyssinians in the sixth century). The atmosphere is that of the medieval fur-usiyya, the chivalrous spirit of the Arab hero exalted by the art of the storyteller into a series of astonishing deeds.
The epic cycles became most widespread during Mamluk rule, but it is important to state that each story has its own particular origin and literary development. Whereas for the Sirat Bani Hilal, it is the oral tradition that prevails (even if a later parallel written tradition did exist), for the other epic cycles the problem is a more complex one in that the manuscript tradition would seem to have a more determining importance. One particular concern for scholars is determining whether a textual version is the result of collective creation successively brought together by a rawi (collector-transmitter, possibly the storyteller himself) or whether it is the creation of one or more humble writers interpreting the tastes of the greater public, imitating the art of the storytellers. The circular nature of the relationship between oral and written narrations should not be underestimated, although the multiplicity of versions could be explained by the necessity on the part of the storytellers to invent new plots. This heterogeneous material proves interesting as a documentation of the worldview of the medieval Arab populace. In terms of strictly literary aspects, historians of classical Arabic literature have shown reservations because of the modest tone of these popular narratives, the use of middle Arabic, the continuous repetitions, the disordered accumulation of episodes, and the disarming prolixity (the current printed edition of the story of ‘Antara covers 5,600 pages). It should nonetheless be emphasized that these works were intended for public performances rather than to be read.
The Sirat Bani Hilal, which was already cited by Ibn Khaldun during the fourteenth century, constitutes the continuation of the ancient Bedouin poetic tradition and is probably the only one to possess the characteristics of a true epic. Unfortunately, only fragments of it remain. It narrates the exploits of the Banu Hilal, a Bedouin tribe that abandoned the Arabian Peninsula and eventually succeeded, after various vicissitudes, in conquering North Africa (tenth and eleventh centuries). There are four cycles: (1) the Sira, the ancient story of the Hilali princes in the Arabian Najd and in Yemen; (2) the Riyada, the mission of exploration after the tribe had been decimated by a long famine; (3) the Taghriba, the emigration toward the Maghreb; and (4) the intense wars after the conquest of North Africa. The main characters are the Black hero Abu Zayd, the fierce Diyab, princess Jaziyya, and the king of Tunis, Zanati Khalifa. Their adventures are narrated by a professional ‘‘singer of tales’’ who, in Egypt, where the oral tradition has been particularly strong (as attested to by nineteenth-century writer E. W. Lane’s report), is called sha‘ir (poet) par excellence. He is a wandering minstrel who has specialized in the exploits of the Banu Hilal. He is often an outcast of gypsy origin whose craft continues a family tradition, and he sings his verses accompanying himself with a stringed instrument (rababa) or a tambourine. The art of the storyteller, called muhaddit in Egypt and hakawati in Syria, is quite different: he reads the story of ‘Antara or of Baybars aloud in the cafes of Cairo or Damascus, from manuscripts. Nonetheless, even in this case, his performance is characterized by a dramatization that aims to captivate the public.
Research on Arabic oral epic poetry (on both its actual performance and its context), on the social position of the storyteller, and on the rhetorical peculiarities of the narrations contained in the handwritten texts (mostly from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) has increased considerably after a long period of stagnation. The scholar of comparative literatures will greatly take advantage of the painstaking analysis of M. C. Lyons’s Arabian Epic, which offers a synthesis of the content of each sira, a survey of their narrative motifs, and a comparison with similar motifs in other medieval epic traditions.
See also Chivalry; Epic Poetry; Heroes and Heroism; Musical Instruments; Poets; Popular Literature; Stories and Storytelling; Storytellers