87361 - Ancient and Medieval Arabic Literary Civilisation (1) (LM)

Course Unit Page


This teaching activity contributes to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN 2030 Agenda.

Quality education Gender equality Reduced inequalities

Academic Year 2021/2022

Learning outcomes

By the end of the course students will have acquired a thorough knowledge of Arab civilization in its different historical, cultural and literary expressions. They will be able to approach critically the related literature and its problems, to identify and classify literary works and to develop analytical investigations of the written sources.

Course contents

Images of Africans in Classical Arabic Literature

The course pursues the following main objectives

1. Providing students with an historical outline of the formation and the main historical developments of literature in the medieval Arab world;

2. Analyzing the ideological background of representations of the world and its inhabitants in Medieval Arabic literature, with special focus on religious, sexual, ethnic and phenotypic differences.

3. Introducing students to some key issues in codicology and the critical edition of texts.

4. Introducing students to the main epistemological, phliological and methodological problems connected to the sudy of Medieval Arabic literature and to the translation of Medieval Arabic texts into contemporary European languages. 

The course will be articulated in two interconnected parts:

Introductory Part

Historical outline of the formation and main lines of development of Arabic literature from 7th to 15th century CE

Monographic Part

Images of Africans in Medieval Arab Culture.

This course will focus on the main trends in social representations on Africans in Medieval Arab Culture, on the grounds of a varied range of literary sources spanning from 9th to 16th centuries C.E. In this framework, special attention will be paid to different theories on the origins of phenotypical diversity among the human beings, on the background of the fundamental opposition "Hamitic hypothesis"(explaining blackness as the effect of Noah's curse on his son Ham) vs. "climatic hypothesis" (explaining blackness, and phenotypical diversity in general, as the product of climatic conditions). The connection between representations on "Blackness" and "enslavability" theories will also be taken into account. Also, a special "case study" will be proposed, concerning different representations on Shaykh Yaqut al-Habashi (d. 732/1332), traditionally described as an Ethiopian Black slave who became a Muslim saint and a Sufi master in Early Mamluk Alexandria.

The following items will be paid special attention:

1) the main trends in representation and "classification" of African peoples and the territories they inhabited;

2) different "explanations" proposed by Arab authors regarding the phenotypic diversity among the peoples of the Earth, with particular attention to the debate on the origin of "blackness" (Noah's Curse on Cam or climatic and geographical causes);

3) theories on alleged implications of phenotypic diversity, and particularly of "blackness" on the ethical, religious and socio-political level, with particular attention to the representations of the relationship between Islam and African cultures and the related ideological justifications of slavery and military expansionism;

4) the special and complex position that most Muslim intellectuals gave to the peoples of Ethiopia (Habasha) within the framework of African populations.

5) different historiographic traditions on Shaykh Yaqut al-Habashi (d. 732/1332).

Individual supplementary paths.

For the historical-literary part, Students will have the opportunity to define individual paths with the Teacher , and to report ion them in classroom if they wish.



CECERE, Giuseppe, « From Ethiopian Slave to Alexandrian Sufi Master. Yaqut al-Habashi in Mamluk and Ottoman Sources», North East African Studies 19/1 (2019), pp. 85-137.

FARIAS, Paulo Fernando de Moraes, "Models of the World and Categorial Models: The 'Enslavable Barbarian' as a Mobile Classificatory Label". In Slaves and Slavery in Muslim Africa.Volume I. Islam and the Ideology of Enslavement, Edited with an Introduction by John Ralph Willis, Princenton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985, p. 27-46.

MUHAMMAD, Akbar, "The Image of Africans in Arabic Literature:Some Unpublished Manuscripts". In Slaves and Slavery in Muslim Africa. Volume I. Islam and the Ideology of Enslavement, Edited with an Introduction by John Ralph Willis, Princenton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985, p. 47-74.

WILLIS, John Ralph, "The Ideology of Enslavement in Islam". In Slaves and Slavery in Muslim Africa. Volume I. Islam and the Ideology of Enslavement, Edited with an Introduction by John Ralph Willis, Princenton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985, p. 1-15.

2) Compulsory Additional Biblography for Non-Attending Students:

In addition to the abovementioned texts, students that do not attend at least 70% of the lessons will have to choose one of the following volumes:

GOLDENBERG, 2003. The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Princenton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003 (Introduction).

SERSEN 1985: William John Sersen, “Stereotypes and Attitudes Towards Slaves in Arabic Proverbs: a Preliminary View”, in John Ralph Willis (ed.), Slaves and Slaves in Muslim Africa.
Volume One: Islam and the Ideology of Enslavement, London: Frank Cass, 1985, p. 92-105.


SAID, Edward W., 1978. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978 (First Edition). (Selected sections to be agreed upon with the Teacher).


3) Suggested Preliminary Readings for Students Intending to Attend the Course


PATTERSON, Orlando, 1982. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1982.

PERRY, Craig, 2014. The Daily Life of Slaves and the Global Reach of Slavery in Medieval Egypt, 969-1250 CE. An abstract of a dissertation submitted to the Faculty of the James T. Laney School of Graduate Studies of Emory University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in History 2014.





Teaching methods

Although mostly consisting of lectures, the course follows a fully fledged student-centered approach.

1) First of all, a “context analysis” will be conducted, aiming to identify each student's individual educational needs, as well as their previous knowledge and skills related to Middle Eastern studies, known languages (included in languages other than Arabic) their own favored learning style. This will be done in order to build didactic projects as individualized as possible. 

2) Each lecture will stimulate students' interaction with the teacher and with each other, 

3) A substantial part of the course will be specially devoted to  individual or group presentation by students concerning some specific historical and ideological issues and / or translation of texts previously agreed upon with the teacher

Assessment methods


This course is both an independent 6CFU course for students in Anthropology and the first part of the Integrated Course "Arabic Literary Civilization" (12 CFU) in Historical and Oriental Studies.

The final mark of the Integrated Course will result from the arithmetic average of the results of both the exam of the first part (Ancient and Medieval) and the second part (Modern and Contemporary).

The exam of this course (Ancient and Medieval Arabic Literary Civilization).

Students who attend at least 75% of the lessons are considered to be attending.

The exam consists of an oral test.

This exam will assess the student's command of the material studied in the course. The student will be asked to provide a linguistic and historical commentary on selected texts among those analysed by the teacher during the course and will be judged on his/her ability to summarise and critically discuss topics raised in the course, making use of the exam bibliography and the course tools provided.

The assessment will thus consider the student's:
- competence in commenting on the selected texts, i.e. in identifying, translating and contextualizing them;
- knowledge and understanding of the topics covered;
- ability to summarise and analyse themes and concepts;
- familiarity with the terminology associated with the subject and his ability to use it effectively.

Top marks will be awarded to a student displaying an ability to provide a full-fledged linguistic and historical commentary of the selected texts and an overall understanding of the topics discussed during the lectures, combined with a critical approach to the material and a confident and effective use of the appropriate terminology

Average marks will be awarded to a student who has memorized the main points of the material and is able to summarise them satisfactorily and provide an effective critical commentary, while failing to display a complete command of the appropriate terminology.

A student will be deemed to have failed the exam if he/she displays significant errors in his understanding and failure to grasp the overall outlines of the subject, together with a poor command of the appropriate terminology.

Teaching tools

References provided in the Course Bibliography will be integrated with a wide range of other tools, mostly relying on Arabic sources (audiovisual, press, literary texts, as well as religious, legal, economic and political texts).

Office hours

See the website of Giuseppe Cecere