Arabic Oration: Art and Function


Winner of the 2021 Sheikh Zayed Book Award (category: Arab Culture in Other Languages)

Browse a preview of Arabic Oration: Art and Fuction. In Arabic Oration: Art and Function, a narrative richly infused with illustrative texts and original translations, Tahera Qutbuddin presents a comprehensive theory of this preeminent genre in its foundational oral period, 7th-8th centuries AD. With speeches and sermons attributed to the Prophet Muḥammad, ʿAlī, other political and military leaders, and a number of prominent women, she assesses types of orations and themes, preservation and provenance, structure and style, orator-audience authority dynamics, and, with the shift from an oral to a highly literate culture, oration’s influence on the medieval chancery epistle. Probing the genre’s echoes in the contemporary Muslim world, she offers sensitive tools with which to decode speeches by mosque-imams and political leaders today.

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Tahera Qutbuddin, Ph.D. (1999), Harvard, is Professor of Arabic Literature at The University of Chicago. She has published widely on Islamic preaching, Ali’s sermons, Fatimid poetry, Tayyibi Bohra literature, and Arabic in India, including Light in the Heavens: Sayings of the Prophet Muḥammad (NYU, 2016)
Winner of the 2021 Sheikh Zayed Book Award (category: Arab Culture in Other Languages)

"This erudite study is a major breakthrough in our understanding of Arabic oratory. Qutbuddin has painstakingly reconstructed this vast tradition in all its diverse guises and contexts, from the battlefield to the pulpit, from political to legislative speeches. She presents its complexities with lucid precision and scrupulous attention to detail—and it is a truly pioneering work for Qutbuddin’s discussion of women’s orations and her survey of contemporary sermons." - James Montgomery, Sir Thomas Adams Professor of Arabic, University of Cambridge

“For a scholar of Western traditions of political thought, this book is a revelation. The Western canon also begins with oratory and with the ideas of the relation between public speech and politics that lay at the heart of Greek practice. To come to understand how the Arabic tradition thinks of language’s role in shaping communal and political life will significantly advance the capacity of scholars to engage with the political discourse of the Arabic speaking world. This project is of fundamental importance and should transform the capacity of the non-Islamic and Islamic worlds to communicate with each other about political subjects.” - Danielle Allen, James Bryant Conant University Professor, Harvard, and Director, Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics

Arabic Oration: Art and Function undertakes a comprehensive analysis of the Arabic oration, a prominent genre of Arabic literature that has roots in ancient Arab oral tradition. Tahera Qutbuddin presents a masterful survey of the genre, identifying the major sub-categories of the genre and analyzing their formal conventions, themes, rhetorical strategies, and aesthetics. Drawing on examples attributed to orators from the pre-Islamic period, key figures of the nascent Muslim community, and commanders, governors, and other prominent figures of early Islamic history, including women, she addresses the reception of orations and the important functions they served in political, social, and religious life. This ground-breaking work provides essential background for an understanding of Arabic literary history, early Islamic political history, and the history of the Arabic language.” - Devin J. Stewart, Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies, Emory University

"Pious sermons, stirring battle speeches, chilling political rhetoric by stern governors, splendid literary artefacts: they are the subject of this magisterial book on Arabic oratory in which Tahera Qutbuddin deals with Arabic speeches as they have been recorded in the early centuries of Islam. Their stylistic and structural characteristics, their oral nature, their function, their influence even on present-day Friday sermons in Muslim countries, all this is expertly handled, as is the controversial matter of their authenticity. This book about an important but somewhat neglected genre is essential reading for all students of early Islam, its history and its literature." - Geert Jan van Gelder, Laudian Professor of Arabic Emeritus, University of Oxford

"This study has meticulously unearthed the hitherto under-explored elements of an oral cultural heritage of immense value. It is a monumental contribution towards filling the lacuna in scholarly research about Arabic oration in the wider context of world culture, and indeed represents the first detailed investigation of the oldest verbal performances in the Arabic tradition before and after Islam. For those who are interested in the development of the discourse on orality and literacy, as well as audience-speaker interaction in the public sphere, Qutbuddin’s book is a truly indispensable resource." - Amidu Olalekan Sanni, Professor of African and Middle Eastern Studies, and Vice Chancellor, Fountain University, Osogbo, Nigeria in: Journal of Arabic Literature, Volume 52 Issue 3-4(2021), 425–436.

"Qutbuddin’s work will stand as a definitive study of Arabic oration that will surely encourage future scholars to attend to the powerful words that once were uttered from Friday pulpits or from generals leading troops into battle." - Maurice Pomerantz, New York University Abu Dhabi in: Orientalistische Literaturzeitung, Volume 117 Issue 2 (2022).

"Arabic Oration is a magisterial study of early Arabic oratory that is mainly aimed at specialists in the field of Arabic literature. Due to its comprehensive nature, it can serve as an important resource for scholars of early Islamic history. Thanks to the long quotations from primary texts translated into English, it provides much comparative material for scholars in other fields, such as orality, rhetoric, and communication studies. The close analyses of individual texts can also be used in the classroom context. I look forward to seeing the new interest in the study of early Arabic oratory that Qutbuddin’s Arabic Oration should spark." - Pamela Klasova, Macalester College, St Paul, USA in: Al-ʿUṣūr al-Wusṭā, Volume 30 (2022), 644-653.

"This is an original and outstanding piece of scholarship that contributes to the fields of classical Arabic oral and written literature. It also contributes substantially to the field of Islamic Studies by showing the importance of oratory as a primary source for understanding Islamic cultural history." - Linda G. Jones, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona in Journal of the American Oriental Society, 143.2 (2023).


1 The Preservation of Orations
Mnemonics-Based Oral Transmission, Supplementary Writing, and the Question of Authenticity

2 Structure of the Oration
Contextualization of Conventional Components to Strengthen a Religio-Political Message

3 Style of the Oration
The Aesthetics of Orality and Persuasion

4 Orators and Audience of the Oration
Dynamics of Public Space, Authority, and Negotiation

5 The Sermon of Pious Counsel
Human Mortality, a Life of Virtue, and Preparation for the Hereafter

6 The Friday and Eid Sermon
Ritual and Piety, Politics and War

7 The Battle Oration
Horses and Swords, Strategies and Ethics, Urgings and Prayers

8 The Political Speech
Succession and Accession, Control and Policy

9 Additional Categories
Legislative, Theological, Oracular, and Marriage Orations

10 Women’s Orations
Kinship-Based Authority and Silence-Breaking Trauma

11 The Oration’s Influence on Arabic Prose Viewed in a Hybrid Oral-Written Continuum

12 The Influence of the Classical Arabic Oration on Contemporary Muslim Sermons and Speeches

Appendix of Orations: References and Index
Glossary 1: Early Arabic Orators
Glossary 2: Arabic Literary Terms
General Index
The book is aimed at a wide readership: all interested in classical Arabic literature, also Islamic history, Qur’an, government, preaching, Shi’ism, virtue ethics, gender studies, orality, and the contemporary Middle East.
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