Sheikh Zayed Book Award 2021: shortlists for Arab culture books and translations revealed

The winners will be announced during a virtual ceremony in May

'Impostures by Al-Hariri', translated by Michael Cooperson; 'Arabic Poetics: Aesthetic Experience in Classical Arabic Literature' by Lara Harb; 'Asr Elmany' (A Secular Age) by Charles Taylor, translated by Naoufel Haj Ltaief. Courtesy Library of Arabic Literature, Cambridge University Press, Jadawel Publishing
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Three English works and one French book make up the titles shortlisted for the Sheikh Zayed Award for the Arab Culture in Other Languages category, it was announced on Sunday.

The works, selected from more than 100 submissions, examine the aesthetics of classical Arabic literature, the art of Arabic oration, as well as the history of Islamic civilisation.

The awarding body also announced the shortlist of its Translation category. The shortlist features an English translation of Al-Hariri's Maqamat, a 12th-century Arabic masterpiece, an Arabic version of Charles Taylor's A Secular Age, as well as an Arabic translation of John Freely's Light from the East.

The Publishing and Technology shortlist, meanwhile, includes the Bibliotheca Alexandrina from Egypt, Dar Al Jadeed from Lebanon and Switzerland’s Unionsverlag.

The award aims to honour the outstanding innovators from the literary and cultural sectors. The 15th iteration of Sheikh Zayed Book Award’s Publishing and Technology category saw an increase of 82 per cent in the number of submissions compared to the previous year, with a total of 71 submissions, while the Arab Culture in Other Languages category saw a 41 per cent increase.

The winners will be announced during a virtual ceremony in May, during which the recipient of the Cultural Personality of the Year accolade will accept a gold medal and a certificate of merit, as well as a prize of Dh1 million.

Winners of other categories will receive a gold medal, a certificate of merit and Dh750,000 each.

Arab Culture in Other Languages category

Arabic Poetics: Aesthetic Experience in Classical Arabic Literature by Lara Harb. Courtesy Cambridge University Press

In Arabic Poetics: Aesthetic Experience in Classical Arabic Literature, Lara Harb shows how evoking wonder in the reader was a key intention in medieval Muslim literature.

The aesthetic sensibility, the book’s blurb points out, was first articulated at the turn of the 11th century and “represented a major paradigm shift from earlier Arabic criticism, which based its judgement on criteria of truthfulness and naturalness”.

The 2020 work, published by the Cambridge University Press, charts the development of key literary tropes, as well as rhetorical figures and sentence structure, to unravel how literary works were able to produce an experience of discovery and wonder.

Arabic Oration: Art and Function by Tahera Qutbuddin. Courtesy Brill

With illustrative texts and original translations, Tahera Qutbuddin's Arabic Oration: Art and Function explores how religion, politics and aesthetics consolidated the foundations of the art of Arabic oration in the early Islamic world.

The work, published by Brill in 2019, contains speeches and sermons from the seventh century onwards, attributed to the Prophet Mohammad, Ali, political and military leaders, as well as several prominent women. She examines the various structures, styles and themes in early oral works, studying orator-audience authority dynamics.

The Republic of Arabic Letters: Islam and the European Enlightenment by Alexander Bevilacqua. Courtesy Harvard University Press

The Republic of Arabic Letters: Islam and the European Enlightenment by Alexander Bevilacqua explores how a group of Christian scholars laid the foundations for the modern Western understanding of Islamic civilisation.

The book details how this pioneering community was behind the first accurate translation of the Quran into a European language, as well as translations of several works on Islamic arts and sciences.

The 2018 work, published by the Harvard University Press, draws on multilingual sources to show the lengths the scholars went through to acquire, study, and understand Arabic manuscripts.

L'Empire Islamique: VIIe - XIe siècle (The Islamic Empire: 7th - 11th Century) by Gabriel Martinez-Gros. Courtesy Passés Composés

The Islamic Empire: 7th - 11th Century by Gabriel Martinez-Gros unpacks the history of the first five centuries of Islam, spanning from the death of Prophet Mohammed in 632 through to the rise and fall of the Abbasid, Umayyad and Almohad dynasties.

The French book draws upon the voices of medieval Arab historians, including Ibn Khaldun and Ibn al-Athir.

Published by Passes Composes in 2019, the work is as much an exploration of the history of Islam as it is a reflection of imperial dynamics and on the process of writing history.


Originally written by the Arab poet Al-Hariri of Basra in the 12th century, Maqamat was a work that is known to be notoriously challenging to translate to other languages because of the way it incorporates a medley of linguistic styles, rhymed narratives and idiomatic language.

The work follows the shady adventures of Abu Zayd around the medieval Middle East, taking readers on a wild ride as he impersonates a preacher, pretends to be blind and lies to a judge.

Impostures by Al-Hariri; Translated by Michael Cooperson. Courtesy Library of Arabic Literature

Just as Al-Hariri made use of the disparate styles and idioms of the Arabic language of his time to tell al Saruji's story, Michael Cooperson adopts a buoyant approach to the English language in his translation Impostures.

In this dizzying modern retelling of the masterpiece, he adopts the disparate literary styles of authors such as Geoffrey Chaucer, Mark Twain and Virginia Woolf, as well as global varieties of English including Cockney rhyming slang, Nigerian English and Singaporean English.

Asr Elmany (A Secular Age) by Charles Taylor, translated by Naoufel Haj Ltaief. Courtesy Jadawel Publishing

Naoufel Haj Ltaief's Arabic translation of Charles Taylor's A Secular Age has also made this year's Sheikh Zayed Book Award shortlist.

The original work, published in 2007, traces the development of secularism in Western society.

In the work, Taylor argues against the notion that secularity in society is caused by the rise of science and reason, saying the view was far too reductive, instead offering an in-depth look at how secularism is a development within Western Christianity, stemming from the increasingly human-centric versions of religion that arose from the Reformation.

Noor men Al Sharq (Kayf Saadat Oloom Al Hadarah Al Islamiah Ala Tashkeel Al Alam Al Gharbi) (Light from the East: How the Science of Medieval Islam Helped to Shape the Western World) by John Freely, translated by Ahmed Fouad Basha. Courtesy National Center For Translation

Ahmed Fouad Basha's Arabic translation of John Freely's Light from the East: How the Science of Medieval Islam Helped to Shape the Western World is also in the running for the Sheikh Zayed Book Award for translation.

The work looks at how, as the Western world was ensconced in its Dark Ages, the Arab world was in the peak of its Golden Age, making strides in the fields of knowledge, invention and creativity.

Light from the East tells how Islamic science – beginning with the translation of Greek manuscripts into Arabic in 8th century Baghdad – preserved knowledge acquired from Greece, Mesopotamia, India and China, influenced western thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas and Copernicus and helped to inspire the cultural phenomenon of the Renaissance.