The Potential of Arabic Literary Studies: (Re)Situating the Field Between ‘Systematic’ Disciplines and Area Studies in Western Academia

تجد/ين هنا النسخة العربية لهذا النص.

By Barbara Winckler (Arabic Studies, University of Münster, Germany)

Barbara Winckler. Photo: private

If the humanities in general are commonly perceived as less apt to address actual challenges or produce ‘utilizable knowledge’ than the social, natural and life sciences,[1] this is even more so for disciplines dealing with fictional works and aesthetics. In our field – Arabic, Islamic or Middle Eastern studies –, students tend to choose topics related to political Islam, social movements or Islamic law, as those seem more likely to provide job opportunities. The broader public discourse, too, is mainly focused on these kinds of topics. In the last twenty years, the number of professorships that are dedicated to the philological discipline ‘Arabistik’ (Arabic studies) has considerably decreased at German universities, with only one professorship currently dedicated to modern Arabic literary studies, to the benefit of ‘Islamwissenschaft’ (Islamic studies), a discipline that mainly uses methods from history, religious studies or social sciences.

On a broader scale, knowledge production concerned with world regions beyond Europe and North America is marginalized, as it is typically not included in the ‘systematic’ disciplines, such as history, philosophy, political science or literary studies, that are mainly focused on Western contexts. These disciplines, as a number of colleagues stated back in 2006, “persist in delegating the study of non-European cultures and societies to regional experts and institutionally small disciplines, such as African, Asian, and Oriental and Islamic Studies”. In the last decades, scholars in area studies have increasingly adopted theoretical and methodological approaches from the ‘systematic’ disciplines, thus contributing, both empirically and theoretically, to the broader field of history, literary studies, etc. Yet, Middle Eastern history, for instance, is still widely disconnected from European history,[2] and Arabic literature is rarely studied as part of world literature.

Arabic literary studies are, thus, doubly marginalized: first, as part of Arabic studies that lag behind the bigger, ‘systematic’ disciplines, and second, as a field that deals with fictional works and aesthetics and, accordingly, remains undervalued in comparison to other, seemingly more utilizable, fields within Arabic studies.

The Potential of Studying and Teaching Literature and the Arts

Most of my students, however, do recognize the potential of literature and the arts for the understanding of the Arab world, past and present. Fictional works are commonly considered to function as a window to the world, and towards other worlds. They are, of course, not to be perceived as simple reflections of political, economic and social conditions but the result of individual engagements with these conditions and, in turn, contribute, openly or subtly, to current debates while reaching out to the public. Reading literature and the arts as an aesthetic intervention and social practice thus requires a solid theoretical and methodological framework, and constant reconceptualization. In recent years, Arabic literary studies have drawn on concepts and approaches originating from various disciplines, research areas and contexts, such as memory and trauma studies, affect theory, Bourdieu’s field theory or reader-response theory.

Scholars from the social sciences, such as development studies, have argued for considering “literary representation as a source of authoritative knowledge”.[3] They have acknowledged the view that literary texts could provide a broader, deeper and more complex understanding of certain aspects of social life.[4] Many works do indeed offer insights, provide analyses and point to “key factors to understanding [a certain] country’s current development” or make for “an important, accessible and useful way of understanding values and ideas in society”.[5] However, just as the Secretary General of the Volkswagen Foundation, Wilhelm Krull, during the international conference “Positioning the Humanities in the 2020s”, argued strongly against the humanities being reduced to a service industry for the sciences – the way liberal arts education is offered as a minor to students majoring in other disciplines –, literary studies should not be seen as simply providing evidence for questions of sociological interest. Literary texts, as well as visual and performative arts, are to be acknowledged as autonomous objects of study.

The fact that literature and the arts can offer something different from what non-fictional sources offer is not a novel insight. While any text or object can be ‘read’ differently, the deliberate choice of a certain form and style to convey meaning is usually more pronounced in literary or artistic works, and much space is given to ambiguity and uncertainty. Aesthetic choices affect the reader or spectator, be it consciously or unconsciously. Moreover, one of the specifics of fictional works is the production of meaning through the imaginary, as literary texts “respond to reality by inventing stories”.[6] It is not only in utopian (or dystopian) writing, but in any kind of fictional writing, that literature can be considered a ‘fictional trial action’ (‘fiktionales Probehandeln’) or a kind of experimental ‘simulation space’ (‘Simulationsraum’, a term used by Dieter Wellershoff in the late 1960s), which enables both the author and the reader to “transcend the boundaries of their practical experiences and routines without taking any real risk” and “makes the reader unfamiliar with the apparently familiar, ambiguous with the unambiguous, conscious of the unconscious, and thus […] allows them to include foreign ways of behavior and thinking in their scope of experience”.[7]

Literature thus encourages and enables us “to take the standpoint of the other”, an attitude that Homi K. Bhabha, with reference to Hannah Arendt, claimed to be a prerequisite for “thinking humanistically and acting ethically”.[8] Studying artistic works from other world regions is “key to unsettle stereotypes, engage in a difficult political context, and communicate aesthetic values without reducing texts to mere representations of a culture or a political situation”. This statement, made by Tarek El-Ariss with regard to the use of humor in Arabic literary texts and films, can be applied to reading literary texts and artworks in general. El-Ariss proceeds arguing that “[u]nderstanding the other by engaging the literariness of his/her text thus implies an understanding of one’s own cultural and historical position”.[9] The same is true for historical distance. While seeking to understand artistic works in their geographical, cultural and historical context, we also quite naturally read them from our personal, cultural and historical perspectives. Bringing in our own concerns – while being aware of our own positionality – and reading them in the light of current debates provide us with insights on both historical and contemporary issues.[10]

Studying modern Arabic literature and arts as an essential constituent of intellectual and cultural history is, in my opinion, highly relevant for all students of Arabic and Islamic studies. From my experience, even students who are primarily interested in political and social phenomena would appreciate the knowledge and reflective skills gained through engagement with literary and artistic works. In view of the lack of critical public discourse in most Arab countries, it is mainly literature and the arts that take on the task of debating controversial issues. By adopting literary and cultural studies approaches, students are able to explore how local actors tackle issues related, for instance, to gender, political repression and dissent, (post)colonial experience, (civil) war and exile, while at the same time reflecting upon the effects of certain forms, genres, narrative styles, intertextual references and media that authors deliberately choose in order to convey a certain meaning.

Studying and teaching literature is, however, of use on a much broader level than merely understanding literary texts. The humanities are commonly not considered application-oriented; their aim is not to ‘solve problems’. Engaging with literature and arts trains students in analytical reading and critical thinking, urging them to ask questions, challenge conventional perspectives and come up with different scenarios. These analytical skills can be applied to fields beyond aesthetic practices. Art historians and educators, for example, have called for an encompassing science of the image, beyond art objects, and the need to acquire a kind of ‘visual literacy’,[11] which is particularly important in view of the actual circulation and strategic usage of images in public and social media.

Institutions Matter: Arabic Literary and Cultural Studies between Area Studies and the ‘Systematic’ Disciplines

At German-speaking universities, Arabic literary studies are usually not part of comparative literature departments (‘Allgemeine und Vergleichende Literaturwissenschaft’) but are placed, instead, in the departments of Arabic, Islamic or Middle Eastern studies. This institutional choice has its advantages and disadvantages.

Teaching Arabic literature in departments of literature would have the advantage of treating Arabic fiction in the same way as any other literary text. Students would be trained more specifically in theoretical approaches and methods applied in literary and cultural studies globally. Subsequently, Arabic literature would become more visible as part of world literature, and brought into dialogue with other literatures, which would create opportunities to challenge and modify existing literary canons, concepts and methods. On the other hand, most of the students would have to rely on translations and lack a thorough knowledge about the historical and cultural background of the literary texts.

In contrast, Area studies programs, such as Arabic or Middle Eastern studies, typically include a broad range of topics related to historical, cultural, religious and linguistic specifics of the region, most often at the expense of a thorough theoretical and methodological training.[12] They tend to teach literature from the region in isolation from global literary trends, which is a result of still prevalent strategies of othering, but it also contributes, albeit inadvertently, to the continuance of these Eurocentric attitudes. On the other hand, these programs offer students the opportunity to learn the language and acquire profound knowledge about the region on various levels. This permits them to work with original sources, observe and analyze stylistic subtleties and consider the specific historical, political, social and cultural context. Moreover, learning and practicing Arabic ideally enables students and established scholars to collaborate and exchange the results of their research with colleagues working in the region, in Arabic. They would become acquainted with diverse academic traditions, which might eventually lead them to a self-evaluation and a rethinking of the knowledge produced in the West. On a broader level, fostering the active usage of Arabic at Western universities works toward counteracting the current monolingualism and dominant anglophone academic traditions in Western as well as global academia.[13]

How could these obstacles be overcome? One option could be in allowing double affiliation for Arabic literature scholars, in both literature and Arabic studies departments, as it is common use with regard to other literatures – for example, a number of professors of French or Russian literature at Freie Universität Berlin have been affiliated to both the comparative literature department and the Romance philology department and the Institute for East European Studies respectively. Teaching across academic disciplines, institutes and study programs, by way of tandem teaching for instance, could open new directions for teaching but also for research. Another strategy is to open our seminars to students from other departments. In recent years, students from other master’s programs have attended my master’s seminars (e.g. from ‘National and Transnational Studies’, ‘British, American and Postcolonial Studies’, both located in the English department, and ‘Kulturpoetik der Literatur und Medien’ (‘Cultural Poetics of Literature and Media’), based at the German department). These students would bring their theoretical and methodological competence in dialogue with our students’ regional expertise, which proved to benefit all participants. In addition, students who do not have any prior knowledge in this field get acquainted with aspects of Arabic literature, culture and history.

Interdisciplinary cooperation, which is much emphasized today, can be very productive. However, the importance of having institutions organized according to academic disciplines cannot be denied either, since students would be trained to use methodological tools and theoretical approaches of the respective field. Applying interdisciplinary and transregional approaches and concepts to specific case studies can also push forward the revision of existing theory and thus advance theory formation.[14] Colleagues from various fields have emphasized the necessity to reorganize the German academic infrastructure and study system. Being aware of the impact of structures and institutional frameworks on research and teaching practices, we can work towards realizing our goals by implementing subtle but effective changes in the academic system.


[1] For a discussion of this aspect, see also Bashshar Haydar’s contribution to this blog series.

[2] See also Jenny Oesterle’s and Julia Hauser’s contributions to this blog series; for the field of modern Arabic philosophy, see Elizabeth Suzanne Kassab’s contribution.

[3] David Lewis, Dennis Rodgers and Michael Woolcock, “The Fiction of Development: Literary Representation as a Source of Authoritative Knowledge”, Journal of Development Studies 44/2, 2008, 198–216, 198, DOI: 10.1080/00220380701789828.

[4] Lewis, Rodgers and Woolcock, “The Fiction of Development”, 209.

[5] Lewis, Rodgers and Woolcock, “The Fiction of Development”, 202 and 208.

[6] Winfried Fluck, “Literature als Symbolic Action”, Amerikastudien 28/3, 1983, 361–371, 364.

[7] Dieter Wellershoff, “Fiktion und Praxis,” in: Literatur und Veränderung: Versuche zu einer Metakritik der Literatur, Cologne: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 1969, 9–32, 22–23 [my translation].

[8] Homi K. Bhabha, quoted in Vera Szöllösi-Brenig, “‘Positioning the Humanities in the 2020s’, Summary Herrenhausen Symposium, September 10–12, 2019”, organized by the Volkswagen Foundation and the German U15 Universities, VolkswagenStiftung.de, p. 2.

[9] Tarek El-Ariss, “Teaching Humor in Arabic Literature and Film”, in: Muhsin J. al-Musawi (ed.), Arabic Literature for the Classroom: Teaching Methods, Theories, Themes and Texts, London and New York: Routledge, 2017, 130–144, 130 and 143.

[10] For a thorough discussion of similar aspects, see also Sabine Schülting’s contribution to this blog series; on questions of relevance of gender and literary studies as well as innovative ways of science communication, see also Andrea Geier’s contribution.

[11] Ernst Wagner, “Bildkompetenz – Visual Literacy: Kunstpädagogische Theorie- und Lehrplanentwicklungen im deutschen und europäischen Diskurs”, Kulturelle Bildung Online, https://www.kubi-online.de/artikel/bildkompetenz-visual-literacy-kunstpaedagogische-theorie-lehrplanentwicklungen-deutschen [accessed: 14.05.2022].

[12] In recent years, several publications and initiatives have worked towards change in this field; see, for instance, Verena Klemm and Beatrice Gruendler (eds.), Understanding Near Eastern Literatures: A Spectrum of Interdisciplinary Approaches, Wiesbaden: Reichert, 2000; Angelika Neuwirth, Andreas Pflitsch and Barbara Winckler (eds.), Arabic Literature – Postmodern Perspectives, London and Beirut: Saqi, 2010; Friederike Pannewick and Georges Khalil (eds.), Commitment and Beyond: Reflections on/of the Political in Arabic Literature since the 1940s, Wiesbaden: Reichert, 2015; Yvonne Albers et al. (eds.), Arabistik: Eine literatur- und kulturwissenschaftliche Einführung, Stuttgart: Metzler, 2021.

[13] On these aspects, and recent initiatives in this field, see Christian Junge’s contribution to this blog series as well as Barbara Winckler and Christian Junge, “Opening Up the Text: Arabic Literary Studies on the Move”, in: Florian Kohstall et al. (eds.), Academia in Transformation: Scholars Facing the Arab Uprisings, Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2018, 69–92, 80–85 and Christian Junge and Barbara Winckler: “Dirāsāt ʿarabiyya fī ghiyāb al-ʿarabiyya? al-ʿArabiyya al-akādīmiyya fī Almāniyā – Muqārabāt mā baʿd al-istiʿmār”, in: ʿAlāʾ al-Jibālī and Ranā Siblīnī (eds.), al-ʿArabiyya wa-l-maʿrifa: Qirāʾāt fī ḥāḍir al-lugha wa-mustaqbalihā, Beirut: Dār al-Mashriq, 2022, 209–232.

[14] Daniel Leese, “Sinologie in Deutschland: Transregionale Fragestellungen bleiben auf die Qualität regionaler Forschung angewiesen”, in: Martin Baumeister, Andreas Eckert and Klaus Günther (eds.), Reimers Konferenzen Revisited: Zum Verhältnis von Disziplinen und Regionalstudien (Areas and Disciplines 3), Bonn 2018, 18–23, 22.


Barbara Winckler is a senior lecturer at the Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Münster. Her research interests cover modern and contemporary Arabic and Francophone literature and arts (particularly war and post-war discourses in Lebanon), Arabic periodicals of the Nahda period, and recent developments in Arabic studies as an academic discipline. She has published numerous articles and two books, Grenzgänge: Androgynie – Wahnsinn – Utopie im Romanwerk von Hudā Barakāt (Moving Across/Along Borders: Androgyny – Madness – Utopia in Hudā Barakāt’s Early Novels, Reichert, 2014) and al-Dirāsāt al-ʿarabiyya wa-intifāḍāt al-rabīʿ al-ʿarabī (Arabic Studies and the ‘Arab Spring’, 2019, coauthored), and co-edited several volumes and special issues, including Arabic Literature – Postmodern Perspectives (Saqi Books, 2010), Thinking through Ruins (Kulturverlag Kadmos 2022) and Media Transitions and Cultural Debates in Arab Societies (a special issue of MEJCC, 2022). She is an alumna of the Arab-German Young Academy of Sciences and Humanities (AGYA) and a co-director of the international summer school program “Arabische Philologien im Blickwechsel / نحو دراسات عربية برؤى متعدّدة ”.


This project is part of the activities of the Arab-German Young Academy of Sciences and Humanities (AGYA). AGYA is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The introduction to this blog series by Nuha Alshaar, Beate La Sala, Jenny Oesterle and Barbara Winckler can be found here.

Further articles in this series:

Bashshar Haydar, The Humanities’ Constant Need for Self-Justification, 25.03.2021

Julia Hauser, Out of the Ivory Tower: Broadening Global History in Germany, 01.04.2021

Christian Junge, Why Non-European Languages Matter to European Humanities: Area Studies and Postcolonial Philology, 08.04.2021

Amro Ali, Bringing Philosophy and Sociology to the Egyptian Public, 15.04.2021

Andrea Geier, Challenges in Literary Studies and Gender Studies or Why I Began to Talk Publicly about Relevance, 22.04.2021

Shereen Abouelnaga, The Urgency of Relocating Gender Studies Politically, 29.04.2021

Antje Flüchter, History: An Important but Potentially Dangerous Part of the Humanities, 06.05.2021

Aisha Deemas, Sharjah Museums: A Case Study on the Transfer of Knowledge in Society, 12.05.2021

Daniel Weidner, Pluralities, Transfers, Memories: Some Reflections on the Humanities Today, 20.05.2021

Haidar Lashkry, The Political Redefinitioin of Memory: The Problem of Studying History in Contemporary Iraq, 27.05.2021

Sabine Schülting, Shakespeare, History, and ‘Cancel Culture’, 03.06.2021

Nadia Bahra, Archaeology in Algeria: Challenges of Multidisciplinary Research and the Identity Question, 10.06.2021

Roman Singendonk, The Museum for Islamic Art in Berlin and Its Quest for Socio-Political Relevance: The Example of the TAMAM Project, 24.06.2021

Amani Albedah, The Humanities in the Age of Digital Information Exchange, 01.07.2021

Abdulhadi Alajmi, History without Debate: A Reading of the Crisis in Arab Historiography, 15.07.2021

Hala Auji, Outside Looking in: On Teaching Art History from the ‘Margins’, 22.07.2021

Marko Demantowsky, “Innovationitis” and Humanities, 23.09.2021

Elizabeth Suzanne Kassab, On Contemporary Arab Philosophy as a Field of Study, 7.10.2021

Azelarabe Lahkim Bennani, How the Values of Modernity Contribute to Cultural Mediation, 14.10.2021

Jenny Rahel Oesterle El-Nabbout, German Medieval Studies and the Arab World: Overcoming Disciplinary and Epistemic Boundaries within the Humanities, 28.10.2021

Marie Elias, Teaching between Spoon-Feeding and Dialogue: My Experience in Institutions of Higher Education and in Interactive Theater,  16.12.2021


Citation: Barbara Winckler, The Potential of Arabic Literary Studies: (Re)Situating the Field Between ‘Systematic’ Disciplines and Area Studies in Western Academia, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 16.08.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/40028



Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Forum Transregionale Studien (2022, 16. August). The Potential of Arabic Literary Studies: (Re)Situating the Field Between ‘Systematic’ Disciplines and Area Studies in Western Academia. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 24. Juni 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/ut58

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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