The five centuries of the ʿAbbasid caliphate in Baghdad saw the flowering of Arabic writing over an extraordinary variety of literary fields, from poetry and humane letters to philosophy, law, history and the natural sciences. The second volume of The Cambridge History of Arabic Literature is devoted to belles-lettres in the ʿAbbasid period; the present volume takes as its province the literature of the scholarly disciplines broadly delineated by “religion, learning and science”.
Arabic scholarship began with the study of the Qurʾān, the Ḥadīth and the various fields of learning which were ancillary to these; but the translations from Greek and other languages which began in the second century after the death of Muhammad and which continued through the third/ninth century greatly extended the horizons of Arabic literature, and the resulting proliferation of learned disciplines led a number of Muslim writers to draw up lists classifying the various “sciences” or fields of learning. These classifications differ in many details, but there was a generally admitted distinction between the “religious sciences” and the “foreign sciences”. The former included Quranic exegesis, Tradition, theology, jurisprudence and all those subjects such as philology and historiography which developed from them. The “foreign sciences” included medicine, the natural sciences, mathematics, astronomy, astrology, geography, alchemy and mechanics.
In the present volume the first five chapters deal with the literature of theology and religious experience. ʿIlm al-kalām (theology, or defensive apologia) originated with the dissensions in Islam after the battle of Siffin, but it needed an external stimulus to develop fully, and this stimulus was provided by the disputations with Christian apologists and the influence of Greek thought.