Congratulations on your conditional offer of a place to study Arabic at Oxford! We are so excited to welcome you to St John’s this autumn, and we have put together this page of resources to help you prepare for the start of your course.
Before you start your BA, you’ll want to read around the language and the subject, but until you’re enrolled as an undergraduate, you won’t have access to the Bodleian Libraries’ online resources, and your local library may not have much to offer. In this document, you will find a very short introduction to the course. We have split the document into two. First, you can find resources and information about the language side of your course. Below, you will find further information regarding history, literature, art and religion, all of which, at some point or other, you will study as part of your degree.
For those of you take Arabic and Islamic Studies (or a subsidiary language), you will take the first year Islamic Culture and History paper. This paper will follow two streams. On the historical stream, you will learn about the early spread of Islam, the art and architecture of the Muslim world, the Ottomans, the Safavids/Qajars and the Modern Middle East; on the cultural stream, you will be introduced to themes in the study of Islam, Arabic, Persian and Turkish literatures, and modern Middle Eastern anthropology.
These disciplines (the study of history, literature, religion and art) will be picked up again by all students of Arabic in their third-year studies. For this reason, it would be a very useful idea to have a brief read around the subject before your arrival here at Oxford, in order to give you a base level of knowledge from which to work!
Before you start studying the detail of the language with us, you’ll find it helpful to have an overview of it. Many modern languages, including English, have distinctly different formal and informal versions, but there’s a certain amount of mixing and mingling, in writing as well as orally. Arabic is rather different. Mixing and mingling happen orally, but not in writing, and a lot of “oral” Arabic, especially the kind that you’ll be taught, is actually formal Arabic spoken from a written script, as in news broadcasts. This formal language, whether written or spoken, is known as Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), or literary Arabic, or Classical Arabic (CA). This is the language that you’ll study, not the vernacular dialects, which don’t have a written form; with a formal knowledge of MSA, you will be able to pick up vernacular dialects easily on your year abroad!
A concise overview, which is designed for self-teaching and is also handy for reference, is:
- David Cowan, Modern Literary Arabic (1958 and reprints) – this can be accessed for free here: https://archive.org/details/AnIntroductionToModernLiteraryArabic
- Much larger, but designed for the same purposes, is: JA Haywood and HM Nahmad, A New Arabic Grammar of the Written Language (1965 and reprints) – this can be accessed for free here: https://www.academia.edu/44725158/A_New_Arabic_Grammar_of_the_Written_A
In all languages, Arabic included, handwriting is different from typeface. You need to learn to read and write handwriting from the start, and you can start to do this independently of learning the language! It’s a good thing to do over the summer. If you come equipped with good handwriting, you’ll be able to take notes more quickly and more accurately, understand what’s written on the whiteboard, and generally have a head start.
- Here is a FREE online resource which teaches written forms, not imitations of print, and guides you through the steps of combining and linking letters: http://www.bitesizearabic.com/downloads/BSA-writing-workbook.pdf
There are plenty of other free resources you’ll find online! Make sure you’re learning how to handwrite – it’s much easier (and more normal-looking) than imitating print! While you’re learning to write Arabic, why not learn to type it too? If you use a Mac and most PCs, you can simply add the Arabic keyboard to your computer in the settings app.
- You may way to purchase a keyboard cover, such as this one: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Kuzy-Language-Keyboard-MacBook-SiliconeWhite/dp/B00AVBLGZG which will allow you to add stickers to your keyboard or lay a cover over it with the Arabic letters in the correct place. This will make typing much easier!
If not, Microsoft Word now has Arabic versions (e.g. Arabic QWERTY) that come free as part of the package. Find a version and add it to your pull-down menu. Word will join up the letters for you. On the other hand, adding vowel signs is rather laborious.
You’ll probably find that you type much more slowly in Arabic than in English, but it’s a valuable skill! Increasingly, we are asking students not to transliterate in their essays, but to write in Arabic script, so you will get more practised at using it over time!
As for the other components of this degree – History, Literature, Religion, Art – you may like to have a look in your local library. Modern Middle Eastern History, for example, ought to be something on which you could find a fair few resources! Otherwise, we have listed a couple of titles each below which can be bought quite cheaply online:
- Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples (1991 and later edns.)
- Eugene Rogan, The Arabs: A History (Revised and Updated; 2018)
- Hugh Kennedy, The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates: The Islamic Near East from the 6th to the 11th Century (2004 and later edns.)
- Malise Ruthven, Islam: A Very Short Introduction (2000 and later edns)
- Nile Green, Global Islam: A Very Short Introduction (2020)
- Michael Sells, Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations (2022; and earlier edns)
- The Qur’an (Oxford World Classics), tr. M.A.S. Abdel-Haleem (2008; and other edns); you could also read www.quran.com for a free (albeit not scholarly) translation!
- Khamseen. Islamic Art History online is a University of Michigan free access portal: https://sites.lsa.umich.edu/khamseen/
It has presentations and videos made by experts on topics from early Islamic architecture to contemporary art.
Otherwise, you might like to go and visit a museum local to you which might have a gallery dedicated to the art of the Islamic world. The Ashmolean, here at Oxford, has a small gallery; other (sometimes larger) galleries can be found at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Museum, the Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge), the Artz-i Islamic Art and Gifts Gallery (Bradford), The Manchester Museum (Manchester), Leeds City Museum (Leeds) and several others. Have a look online and see if there are any exhibitions coming up!
The Library of Arabic Literature is a project which produces facing-text Arabic editions and English translations of Arabic writing of all genres and all places and periods stopping short of the twentieth century (poetry, cookery, law, sufism, history, storytelling, philosophy, travel). You can buy many of its titles for about £15 online.
More importantly, however, its blog is a treasure trove of writing and ideas about the books that have been translated and it’s completely free! Beyond that, the best two anthologies that we would recommend are:
- Robert Irwin (ed.), The Penguin Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature (2006)
- Geert Jan Van Gelder (tr.), Classical Arabic Literature: A Library of Arabic Literature Anthology (2013)
Other classic texts are being translated frequently. You may want to have a browse of any of the following titles:
- Tale of the Princess Fatima, Warrior Woman (tr. Melanie Magidow)
- The Travels of Ibn Battuta (ed. Tim Mackintosh Smith) Arabian Nights’ Entertainment (OWC edition) (tr. Robert L. Mack) – for really interested students, you might instead opt for the 3 volume Penguin edition!
- Al-Jahiz, The Book of the Misers (tr. Robert Serjeant)
- Al-Nuwayri, The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition (tr. Elias Muhanna)
There are not many free resources for modern Arabic literature. You might like to have a browse of ArabLit Quaterly, which includes articles and interviews about the subject. You might also want to have a listen to the Bulaq podcast, which features interviews and discussions about modern Arabic literature.
Beyond that, below is an excellent anthology of modern Arabic literature:
- Sabry Hafez and Catherine Cobham, A Reader of Modern Arabic Short Stories (2001)
Otherwise, head down to your local bookshop or library and have a look out for translated fiction or poetry. Some recent(-ish) excellent titles and some classics include:
- Jokha Alharthi, Celestial Bodies (tr. Marilyn Booth)
- Ahmed Saadawi, Frankenstein in Baghdad (tr. Jonathan Wright)
- Hassan Blasim, The Iraqi Christ (tr. Jonathan Wright)
- Tayyib Salih, Season of Migration to the North (tr. Denys Johnson-Davis)
- Tayyib Salih, The Wedding of Zain and Other Stories (tr. Denys Johnson-Davis)
- Khalil Gibran, The Prophet
- Naguib Mahfouz, The Cairo Trilogy (tr. Various)
- Sonallah Ibrahim, Zaat (tr. Anthony Calderbank)
- Ghada al-Samman, Beirut Nightmares (tr. Nancy Roberts)
- Ghassan Kanafani, Men in the Sun (tr. Hilary Kilpatrick)
- Mahmoud Darwish, Unfortunately, It Was Paradise (Selected Poems)
- Nizar Qabbani, On Entering the Sea (tr. Lena Jayyusi and Sharif Elmusa
Finally, the below is a good introduction to the study of modern Arabic literature:
- Paul Starkey, Modern Arabic Literature (2006)
Study skills for incoming undergraduates
As an Oxford student, you have many great opportunities ahead, but studying here can also be very challenging. To help you prepare for this, we have put together some resources that will help you develop your study skills before you start at Oxford, no matter your subject.
Starting at Oxford
Starting a course at Oxford can be very daunting, but there are many resources out there to help you succeed! Here are some useful guides from across the University that you might want to check out:
- Study skills and training: Here you can find advice on academic good practice including avoiding plagiarism, managing your time, reading, note taking, referencing and revision.
- Student life: It’s not all about academics at Oxford; here you can find out about the range of other opportunities available to you as a student, as well as tips on how to navigate student life with your workload. If you prefer podcasts, much of this information is available in that form here!
- Managing the cost: Undergraduate students Helena, Joe and Dan, have teamed up with the University’s Undergraduate Admissions team to discuss the financial support available to students and how they manage the cost of studying at Oxford.
If you have any questions that aren’t answered on this page, you can get in touch with the following people:
|Contact||Questions they can answer|
|Admissions Office: Sarah Jones||Anything to do with offers, visas, UCAS issues, reading lists and preparatory materials|
|Domestic Office||Accommodation, what to bring, insurance, electoral roll issues|
|Bursary||All things financial|
|College Office||Practical arrangements, bank letters, etc.|
|Disability enquiries: Elaine Eastgate||Any issues relating to disability or special requirements|