From Holy Text to Sex Manuals in the Medieval Middle East

Module titleFrom Holy Text to Sex Manuals in the Medieval Middle East
Module codeARA2001
Academic year2020/1
Module staff

Dr Emily Selove (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Number students taking module (anticipated)


Description - summary of the module content

Module description

This module will cover some of the most influential texts of the Classical Arabic literary tradition in translation as well as the historical trends necessary to understand this literature. You will begin with the Qur’an, and end with a famous 15th-century sex manual, The Perfumed Garden. You will cover the most important trends in Medieval Arabic literature and its historical contexts, beginning with the oral tradition of the transmission of Hadith (deeds and sayings of the prophet Muhammad) and the impact of this tradition on Medieval literature, culture, and historiography. You will focus especially on the “Carnivalesque” in Arabic literature and poetry, demonstrating how the so-called “marginal” subjects of sex, drinking, and humour were actually central to this tradition. You will also focus on the influence of these literary traditions on European science and culture. 

Module aims - intentions of the module

The module aims not only to give you an idea of the most important themes and authors within a highly influential literary tradition (sc. Classical Arabic literature) and its historical contexts, but also an awareness of issues that are essential to an understanding of all world literature, namely translation theory and practices, the construction of the author’s identity, the manner in which texts signal their truth value (i.e. do they present themselves as fact or fiction), and the effects of cross-genre and cross-cultural influences on literary traditions broadly speaking. These skills are essential to a scholar of history or literature dealing with primary texts in a comparative fashion.

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. Demonstrate specialist knowledge of crucial themes in Classical Arabic literature and Medieval Middle Eastern history, and their relationship to similar themes and trends in Medieval and Renaissance Europe.
  • 2. Demonstrate critical understanding of the intersection between religion, literature, and historiography in the Near and Middle East.
  • 3. Demonstrate an awareness of translation practices in Arabic literature and beyond.

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 4. Critically analyse primary sources.
  • 5. Demonstrate knowledge and application of some central ideas in both literary theory and in historiography.
  • 6. Demonstrate specialist knowledge of critical debates surrounding world literature in general and as applied specifically to the Arabic literary tradition.
  • 7. Collate data from a range of sources, both primary and secondary.

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 8. Apply theory to texts and contexts.
  • 9. Demonstrate critical and analytical skills.
  • 10. Rank sources and structure arguments.
  • 11. Identify a topic; select, comprehend, and organise primary and secondary materials on that topic with little guidance.

Syllabus plan

Syllabus plan

Whilst the module’s precise content may vary from year to year, it is envisaged that the syllabus will cover some or all of the following topics

Translation and the word of God

Bringing the problems of translation into focus with the example of the Qur’an, while also learning about the importance of the Qur’an to literature and culture.

Qur’an, hadith, akhbar-- the hidden author

Considering theories of authorship in light of works that are orally transmitted or whose authorship is otherwise complicated.

Story and History

Considering how texts signal themselves as being fiction or non-fiction while studying the development of historiography in the Middle East as well as in Europe.

Poetry with a purpose?

Considering the importance of Arabic poetry and its pre-Islamic history, as well as the purported magical origins of satire.


Comparing stories from different cultures in which humans have carnal relations with donkeys. Why does this trope recur? What is it used to teach? What is meant by “carnivalesque” and how can we apply that concept here?


Poetry and Piety, a question of reception?

Considering poets who adopt a blasphemous wine-drinking persona while simultaneously professing their piety.


Wandering tricksters, rogues, and scholars—their literary and historical importance.

Mysticism around the world

Mysticism and its shared features in many different cultures, with an emphasis on Sufism.



The Influence of Arabic literature on European literary classics like Dante’s Divine Comedy. The influence of Arabic medicine and science on European medicine and science.

The Centrality of the Marginal

Why are themes of sex, wine-drinking, and foul-mouthed blasphemous humour treated by some modern scholars as marginal when they are in fact so prevasive and central to medieval literature and culture?

Modern traces and Interpretations

What can be seen of the Medieval Middle East in the modern “Western World,” looking everwhere from rides in Disney land to modern medicine.

Learning and teaching

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled Learning and Teaching Activities2211 x 2 hour classes. You will need to complete all readings prior to class and be ready to participate. On some occasions you may be asked to participate.
Guided Independent Study68Reading and research
Guided Independent Study30Completing assignments
Guided independent study30Preparing for assessments


Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
2 x essay plans (500 words)1000 words1,2,3,6Written and verbal feedback

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Thematic analysis of a text/s 1502500 words1-11Written (supplemented with oral as required)
Thematic analysis of a text/s 2502500 words1-11Written (supplemented with oral as required)


Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
Thematic analysis of texts 1Thematic analysis of texts (2500 words) 50% of credit1-11August/September reassessment period
Thematic analysis of texts 2Thematic analysis of texts (2500 words) 50% of credit1-11August/September reassessment period


Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

Allen, Roger. The Arabic Literary Heritage: The Development of its Genres and Criticisms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Irwin, Robert (ed.). Night and Horses and the Desert: An Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature. Woodstock, NY: Peter Mayer, 1999.

Robinson, Chase. Islamic Historiography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Van Gelder, Geert Jan. Classical Arabic Literature: A Library of Arabic Literature Anthology. New York: New York University Press, 2013. 

Module has an active ELE page

Key words search

Literature, Translation, Theory, Medieval History, Sex, Carnival, Arabic, World Literature, Islam 

Credit value15
Module ECTS


Module pre-requisites


Module co-requisites


NQF level (module)


Available as distance learning?


Origin date