Abdulrazak Gurnah was born on 20 December 1948 in the Sultanate of Zanzibar, which is now part of present-day Tanzania. He left the island at the age of 18 following the overthrow of the ruling Arab elite in the Zanzibar Revolution, arriving in England in 1968 as a refugee. He is of Arab heritage. Gurnah has been quoted saying, "I came to England when these words, such as asylum-seeker, were not quite the same – more people are struggling and running from terror states."
From 1980 to 1983, Gurnah lectured at Bayero University Kano in Nigeria. He went on to become a professor of English and postcolonial literature at the University of Kent, where he taught until his retirement in 2017, and where he is now professor emeritus of English and postcolonial literatures.
Alongside his work in academia, Gurnah is a writer and novelist. He is the author of many short stories, essays and ten novels.
While his first language is Swahili, he has used English as his literary language. However, Gurnah integrates bits of Swahili, Arabic, and German throughout most of his writings. He has said that he had to push back against publishers to continue this practice, while they would have preferred to "italicize or Anglicize Swahili and Arabic references and phrases in his books." Gurnah has criticized the practices in both British and American publishing which want to "make the alien seem alien" by marking 'foreign' terms and phrases with italics or by putting them in a glossary.
Gurnah began writing out of homesickness during his 20s. He started with writing down thoughts in his diary, which turned into longer reflections about home; and eventually grew into writing fictional stories about other people. This created a habit of using writing as a tool to understand and record his experience of being a refugee, living in another land, and the feeling of being displaced. These initial stories eventually became Gurnah's first novel, Memory of Departure (1987), which he wrote alongside his Ph.D. dissertation. This first book set the stage for his ongoing exploration of the themes of "the lingering trauma of colonialism, war and displacement" throughout his subsequent novels, short stories and critical essays.
Consistent themes run throughout Gurnah's writing. These include exile, displacement and belonging, alongside colonialism and broken promises on the part of the state. Most of his novels focus on telling stories about social and humanitarian issues, especially about war or crisis affected individuals living in the developing world that may not have the capability of telling their own stories to the world - or documenting their experiences. 
Much of Gurnah's work is set on the coast of East Africa, and all but one of his novels' protagonists were born in Zanzibar. Though Gurnah has not returned to live in Tanzania since he left at 18, he has said that his homeland "always asserts himself in his imagination, even when he deliberately tries to set his stories elsewhere."
Literary critic Bruce King posits that Gurnah's novels place East African protagonists in their broader international context, observing that in Gurnah's fiction "Africans have always been part of the larger, changing world". According to King, Gurnah's characters are often uprooted, alienated, unwanted and therefore are, or feel, resentful victims". Felicity Hand suggests that Gurnah's novels Admiring Silence (1996), By the Sea (2001), and Desertion (2005) all concern "the alienation and loneliness that emigration can produce and the soul-searching questions it gives rise to about fragmented identities and the very meaning of 'home'." She observes that Gurnah's characters typically do not succeed abroad following their migration, using irony and humour to respond to their situation.
Novelist Maaza Mengiste has described Gurnah's works, saying: "He has written work that is absolutely unflinching and yet at the same time completely compassionate and full of heart for people of East Africa [...] He is writing stories that are often quiet stories of people who aren’t heard, but there’s an insistence there that we listen."
On 7October 2021, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2021 "for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fates of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents". Gurnah was the first Black writer to receive the prize since 1993, and the first African writer since 2007. While author Giles Foden has called him "one of Africa's greatest living writers", prior to winning the prestigious award Gurnah's writing had not achieved the same commercial success of other Nobel winners.
Gurnah lives in Canterbury, England, and has British citizenship. He maintains close ties with Tanzania, where he still has family, and where he says he goes when he can: "I am from there. In my mind I live there."
^Bosman, Sean James (3 July 2021). "'A Fiction to Mock the Cuckold': Reinvigorating the Cliché Figure of the Cuckold in Abdulrazak Gurnah's By the Sea (2001) and Gravel Heart (2017)". Eastern African Literary and Cultural Studies. 7 (3): 176–188. doi:10.1080/23277408.2020.1849907. ISSN2327-7408. S2CID233624331.