Johannes Stephan: Literature without adab? Rethinking Arabic Literary History through a Scrutiny of Early Modern Self-Narratives.

My contribution ventures into a reappraisal of the concepts of literature and adab by studying Arabic textual production from the early modern period. The traditional divide of Arabic literary history into the classical and the modern, as an outcome of Orientalism and nationalist historiography, bears a strong bias against texts from the early- and mid-Ottoman periods (from the 16th century onward). Although such a bias has been heavily challenged by many scholars in recent decades, it still continues to prevent scholarship from substantially rethinking about literary history and the inclusion of marginal, early-modern narrative pieces.

In order to fulfill this aim, my research critiques the modern normative notion of literature that has been established as adab in the Arabic tradition during the turn  of the 20th century. By endorsing Stephen Greenblatt‘s historical methodology, I will argue for a study of literature as a social distinction, which, in order to grasp its boundaries, necessitates a systematic inclusion of the supposedly ‘non-literary’.

The examples I use are marginal travel narratives and novelistic texts in semi-colloquial idiom from the mid-18th century until the mid-19th century from the Syrian region, including Hanna Dyab’s Book of Travels and an early abridgement from Robinson Crusoe. By adhering to a minor literary tradition in Arabic, I argue that these narratives are to be included into a reconceptualized history of World Literature. Discussing the literariness of these non-canonized texts will lay the groundwork for a reconsideration of (modern) adab (as literature) as a less normative interpretive category and calls for a rewriting of the history of Arabic literature in a Global context.

Johannes Stephan is a postdoctoral researcher in the ERC funded project “Kalīla and Dimna – AnonymClassic” at the Freie Universität Berlin. He studied Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies in Halle an der Saale, Damascus, and Bern. Until 2018 he was a research and teaching associate in the Institute of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Bern where he earned his PhD degree with a thesis on the literariness of early modern travelogues in Arabic, most prominently the Book of Travels by the Arabian Nights storyteller Hanna Dyab (1764). In recent years he has published on Arabic literary and intellectual history of the 18th and 19th centuries and taught classes on Arabic travel literature, historiography, and the modern history of the Middle East.


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