Freedom of expression and censorship in medieval Arabic literature

Freedom of expression and censorship in medieval Arabic literature

By Zoltan Szombathy

Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies, Vol. 7 (2007)

Abstract: This article explores the restraints placed upon literary production in medieval Arabic literature (particularly poetry) and the ways in which such control was effected. After surveying the various ways of controlling the production of texts, which ranged from mild self-censorship to the actual execution of authors by state authorities, we will try to find general patterns in the data, with a special emphasis on the different treatment of lèse-religion and lèse-majesté respectively.

Introduction: This study must begin with some observations on the problems raised by the title that precedes it. Certainly, having to justify the choice of title may alert the reader to the inherently problematic nature of the terms used. Indeed, some of them that I employ above and below are used only for want of better alternatives. ‘Freedom of expression’ and ‘censorship’ are two brief terms, familiar enough to a modern readership, but their inadequacy for describing the medieval Arabic situation is all too apparent. My intention is thus to apply them in as abstract a sense as possible, although it would perhaps be naïve to suppose that such loaded terms could ever be entirely devoid of their modern connotations. The noun ‘censorship’ is meant here to refer to any attempt, successful or ineffective, to control the speech or writing of other people by any means, usually by causing the author to alter or suppress parts or the whole of the work, or else by destroying the work irrespective of the author’s consent or even knowledge. ‘Freedom of expression’ is simply taken to be a lack of such efforts or their failure, and therefore covers very diverse phenomena ranging from a mere lack of interest by the authorities in controlling some works of art in any sense (possibly for the perceived insignificance thereof) to the inconspicuousness of an author’s works owing to their limited circulation in the public arena, to the ability of some poets or prose writers to evade attempts at controlling them ‘from above’.

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