The Ascendant Field: Critical Engagements with Ottoman Arabic Literature

In: Philological Encounters
Ghayde Ghraowi Department of Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations, Yale University New Haven, Connecticut USA

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Hacı Osman Gündüz (Ozzy) Department of Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations, Harvard University Cambridge, Massachusetts USA

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In his 2005 study of homoerotic poetry in Arabic literature in the early Ottoman period, Khaled El-Rouayheb drew attention to “a remarkable dearth of secondary studies” in literary production of the period between 1500 and 1800 (Ottoman era), and argued that this is not because of a lack of “source-material” but rather due to lack of “modern scholarly interest.”1 Fortunately, since then, there has been a growing interest in Ottoman-era Arabic literature, and while negative value judgments of the period cease to play a serious role (at least explicitly) in modern scholarship, a major issue facing this overlooked subject remains the lack of focused studies of particular litterateurs and their works. Broad overviews of post-classical Arabic literature tend to provide useful guides to particular genres or modes of writing, serving as fruitful starting points for further research and reading. These resources, however, often conflate several political, geographical, and temporal signifiers, inadvertently producing research asymmetries in the field. Moreover, despite their privileging of breadth over concentration, these essential preliminary scholarly efforts generally taper off when their chronologies reach the Ottoman period. What we are left with is a confused pause, pregnant with an excitement for the unexplored.

In response to this pause, and in the midst of a global pandemic, a small group of scholars met at a virtual workshop in October 2020 to present papers precisely on the topic of Ottoman Arabic literature. Hosted by Harvard University and co-organized by Ghayde Ghraowi and Hacı Osman Gündüz (the guest editors of this special issue), this workshop attempted to sidestep the strawman arguments against the so-called ‘decline’ (inḥiṭāṭ) paradigm in favor of focused studies on key figures and texts from the Ottoman period. By insisting on more granular objects of study, these contributions maintained the “critical engagement” aims of this issue’s title, itself a nod to the “deep revision”2 post-classical Arabic literary history has been undergoing for some time now. The workshop witnessed graduate students and early-career scholars presenting alongside eminent co-panelists and moderators. Fortunately, despite the loss of in-person dialogue, participants from six different countries were able to attend the “The Ascendant Field” workshop and share valuable feedback and insight with each other.

This special issue represents the last stage of this project begun in our Zoom meetings several years ago. While not every paper presented at the workshop ultimately appears in this special issue and one contribution was not delivered as a paper at the workshop, we are thrilled to see the independent publication of works presented at “The Ascendant Field.”3 Regardless, the four contributions appearing here present focused studies on a variety of Ottoman Arabic literary texts.

Historians often highlight the multilingual nature of the Ottoman Empire due to its extensive and diverse human geography. However, when it comes to literary and intellectual traditions, the lion’s share of attention is placed on the Ottoman Turkish reception of Arabic and Persian. Following modern scholarly paradigms, to the former belongs primarily the religious sciences (exegesis and law) as well as ṭabaqāt/biographical history writing. From the Persian, however, the Ottomans derived their early poetic and literary prose models. While these cultural trajectories remain fruitful subjects of research, they sideline more lateral sites of transmission. In the first article, Theodore Beers demonstrates his mutual concern for the Persian and Arabic literary traditions by examining Persian-language knowledge among Arabic-speaking litterateurs in seventeenth-century Damascus. By carefully reading Arabic biographical dictionaries and literary anthologies, Beers is able to reconstruct Persian verse in contemporary Arabic translation all the while providing the important cultural historical context that necessitated such transmissions to take place—for instance, political migration between Persianate and Arabophone lands. Beers successfully shows that while familiarity with Persian among Arabic-speaking scholars was not ubiquitous in the Ottoman period, neither was it unheard of, nor undocumented.

One of the foremost poets of Arabic during the Ottoman period, Māmayya al-Rūmī (d. 985 or 987/1577 or 1579), serves as the subject of Hacı Osman Gündüz’s article. Māmayya al-Rūmī’s peculiar background, a soldier-turned-poet of non-Arab stock, makes his rise to literary fame in sixteenth-century Damascus all the more intriguing to modern scholars. Through detailed manuscript research, Gündüz reconstructs parts of Māmayya’s poetic corpus. From pessimistic laments to biting satire, Gündüz reads Māmayya’s poetry as indicative of a vibrant literary community in Ottoman Damascus. In particular, Gündüz’s focus on Māmayya’s panegyric poetry provides insight into one of the key issues animating post-classical Arabic literary history: the nature and role of praise poetry in the supposed absence of formalized court patronage. As Gündüz shows, Māmayya al-Rūmī wrote panegyrics for local officials as well as imperial rulers, and likely did so in expectation of financial reward. Furthermore, like the other authors in this issue, Gündüz pays ample attention to the social historical context of Māmayya’s literary output. The site of the majlis (or salon) helps us explore Māmayya’s identity as an Arabicized Rūmī poet within a highly literate and learned community. Ultimately, Gündüz shows that Māmayya al-Rūmī will prove to be a key figure of Ottoman Arabic literary history, one to whom much future research will undoubtedly be dedicated.

In the third article, Ghayde Ghraowi presents his close reading of the Maqāma Rūmiyya by the Egyptian scholar and anthologist Shihāb al-Dīn al-Khafājī (d. 1069/1659) as a satirical piece that oscillates between jestfulness (hazl) and seriousness (jidd). Al-Khafājī’s maqāma is a scathing parody of the encounters with his Rūmī peers during his sojourn to the seat of Ottoman power. The maqāma of Rūm is adab par excellence with rich intertextuality, and Ghraowi provides the reader with numerous examples of the intertextual and referential structure of the work. He furthermore showcases how al-Khafājī used his maqāma to express his personal concerns and frustrations with Ottoman figures of authority, a theme also present in Gündüz’s article. The work—in line with other samples of the genre—is a challenging read, but Ghraowi has made available translations of selected passages alongside the Arabic original marking the rhyme scheme. Ghraowi’s interpretation of these passages is accompanied by detailed references to political and administrative developments taking place in Istanbul at the time.

Basil Salem, in his contribution, examines Muḥammad Khalīl al-Murādī’s (d. 1206/1791) comprehensive biographical dictionary, Silk al-durar fī aʿyān al-qarn al-thānī ʿashar, as a source which integrated poetry—cited profusely throughout the work—not simply for literary appreciation, but also for fashioning a bridge between the reader and the biographees whereby the reader is cognizant of the cultural moment and reality of a given figure. Poetry selection, far from being aimless, presents the reader with access to the self-image and the intellectual and cultural mentality of al-Murādī’s times. Salem’s article thus is a study of the Silk on its own merit, rather than simply being a reference as it has been so used by historians. Salem treats the Silk as a primary source which mirrors the scholarly milieu from which it emerged. Poetry cited in the Silk amounts to a sizable part of the text and goes beyond being a showcase of a particular figure’s literary prowess. The presence of poetry, Salem argues, serves a historical purpose; it lends the reader insight into a figure’s life story that significantly adds to what is mentioned in the prose part of each entry, consisting of several biographical facts. Salem himself continues the tradition by giving ample examples of poetry in translation alongside the Arabic original.

Completing this special issue is an afterword by Hilary Kilpatrick, a trailblazer in Ottoman Arabic scholarship and the keynote speaker at the Harvard workshop. Her comments helpfully outline future avenues for research in Ottoman Arabic literary history beyond the contributions of this special issue. In particular, Kilpatrick points out that even with our focus on a neglected period we have risked further othering minority groups and authors of Arabic literature. In our near exclusive treatment of Sunni authors in Cairo and Damascus (centers of Ottoman Arabic cultural life) we have eschewed the diverse religious community and greater geographic expanse. Christian and Shīʿī poets from Aleppo and Jabal ʿĀmil as well as Arabic authors from the far corners of the Ottoman Empire (Hijāz and Iraq) and beyond (South Asia) prove to be exciting subjects worthy of scholarly attention. Moreover, Kilpatrick’s point that a systematic bibliography of secondary sources on the period is essential to further the field should motivate scholars of this ascendant field to continue to collaborate and develop a foundation from which to collectively build up Ottoman Arabic literary history.

The workshop in 2020 and this issue would not have been possible without the support of many. Khaled El-Rouayheb has been a source of guidance and encouragement from the outset when we first approached him with the idea of our workshop in 2018. William Granara kindly assisted us in making the workshop possible. Dana Sajdi guided us in finding a venue for the publication of the proceedings. The Department of Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations (NELC), the Center of Middle Eastern Studies (CMES), and the Alwaleed Islamic Studies Program at Harvard University generously provided funds for the workshop. We would like to express our gratitude for their help to Carrie Mountain and Soma Roy of NELC, Elizabeth Flanagan of CMES, and Harry Bastermajian and Meryum Kazmi of the Alwaleed Program. We would also like to thank the contributors and the moderators of the workshop. Finally, it was our privilege to collaborate with the editors of Philological Encounters, Islam Dayeh and Colinda Lindermann, who patiently worked with us and the contributors to bring this issue to fruition.


  • Balda-Tillier, Monica and Adam Talib. “Introduction.” Annales islamologiques 49 (2015): 35.

  • El-Rouayheb, Khaled. “The Love of Boys in Arabic Poetry of the Early Ottoman Period, 1500–1800.” Middle Eastern Literature 8, no. 1 (2005): 322.

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  • Masarwa, Alev. Memory, Mimesis, and the Modern: The Literary Heritage in Māmayh’s Poetry. Münster: Georg Olms, 2022.

  • Özkan, Hakan. Geschichte des östlichen zaǧal: Dialektale arabische Strophendichtung aus dem Osten der arabischen Welt—von den Anfängen bis zum Ende der Mamlukenzeit. Baden-Baden: Ergon, 2020.

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Khaled El-Rouayheb, “The Love of Boys in Arabic Poetry of the Early Ottoman Period, 1500–1800,” Middle Eastern Literature 8, no. 1 (2005): 3.


Monica Balda-Tillier and Adam Talib, “Introduction,” Annales islamologiques 49 (2015): 3.


Hakan Özkan, Geschichte des östlichen zaǧal: Dialektale arabische Strophendichtung aus dem Osten der arabischen Welt—von den Anfängen bis zum Ende der Mamlukenzeit (Baden-Baden: Ergon, 2020); Alev Masarwa, Memory, Mimesis, and the Modern: The Literary Heritage in Māmayh’s Poetry (Münster: Georg Olms, 2022).

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