Kevin Blankinship Reviews Sarah R. bin Tyeer’s The Qur’an and the Aesthetics of Premodern Arabic Prose and The Qur’an and Adab edited by Nuha Alshaar
As with most religions, disputing the nature of Islam is a practice nearly as old as Islam itself. But the fact that people have always contended over what faith means can become lost in the quarrels of the day, among tantalizing headlines like The Atlantic’s “What ISIS Really Wants,” and The Washington Post’s “Why Do So Many Americans Believe that Islam is a Political Ideology, Not a Religion,” not to mention the long shadow cast by the Iraq war or vitriolic debates over U.S. immigration policy. Often at issue is how the “Muslim World” relates to the “secular West.” In a recent essay for the London of Review of Books, Malise Ruthven aptly summarizes the unease felt by many westerners if, in fact, Islam turns out to be “much more than a ‘religion’ – a whole, alternative way of being that is at variance with the liberal consensus.” Forgetting that the polemic of current events can distill Islam into a caricature, those who take this view might wonder along with Samuel Huntington whether conflicts of the twenty-first century will be a “clash of civilizations,” not of nations.
But while fears of Islam’s incompatibility with the West may seem like so much hand-wringing, the challenge of multiculturalism now confronts European nations with greater intensity, as the migrant crisis raises questions about sharia law in Britain or whether to hold individual countries responsible for refugee integration. Moreover, as Ruthven’s quote suggests, beneath the policy debates lie pressing questions about religion’s proper role in human life: What is Islam? Is it a private belief? A public order? An ethnic identity? Some combination of these? What does it mean to wear the hijab? When is jihad allowable? What is faith’s role in politics?
Islam has for centuries played proxy to anxieties about political and sociocultural identity, often with real results for millions of people. That is certainly the case in Western Europe, as Edward Said argued so vehemently in Orientalism about the nineteenth-century marriage of academic scholarship to colonial power; while it is no less true that Muslims themselves have long struggled over their own faith, as for example in the seventh-century clashes over succession that led at last to the Sunni-Shi’ite rift, a historical development which continues to impact world politics today, albeit for different reasons.
Never far from these debates is Islam’s holy book, the Qur’an. Within its early milieu of the Middle East, Muslims have historically argued whether to interpret as literal or metaphorical those Qur’anic passages that ascribe human features to God; whether the Qur’an is eternal and removed from human language, or created in time and therefore part of that language, and so on. Meanwhile, in Europe, the book’s very translation was predicated at first upon a polemical basis. Robert of Ketton’s 1143 Latin rendering had the title Lex Mahumet pseudoprophete, “The Law of Muhammad, the False Prophet,” and was completed expressly to refute Islam as a Christian heresy (recall that Dante’s 1320 Divine Comedy consigns Muhammad to bodily dismemberment in the eighth circle of hell).
No less a matter of ongoing controversy is the status of creative expression in Islam. Readers above a certain age will remember the 1989 Satanic Verses affair, in which Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa (Islamic legal decree) ordering Muslims to kill British Indian novelist Salman Rushdie for satirizing Muhammad. More recently, the deaths resulting from satirical cartoons published in 2005 by the Danish Jyllands-Posten and 2015 by the French Charlie Hebdo revived perennial talk of the widespread yet mistaken view that the Qur’an forbids human images, most especially of the Prophet. For some, these events confirm the repressive nature of Muslim culture, while for others, they prove the West’s ignorance and profligacy. In either case, they illustrate how much people disagree whether Islam permits creativity, thereby signaling the need to revisit Islam from a different, more humanizing perspective that accounts for all its rich cultural variety.
Disputes about Islam, secularism, and creative expression form the explicit backdrop of two new books that explore the Qur’an’s impact on Arabic literature: The Qur’an and Adab edited by Nuha Alshaar at the American University of Sharjah; and The Qur’an and the Aesthetics of Premodern Arabic Prose by Sarah R. bin Tyeer at Columbia University. In her preface, Alshaar lays out the first of two goals that drive the volume: “to illustrate that the religious and the secular were constantly intertwined in the context of Arabo-Islamic literary traditions.” More candidly, bin Tyeer sets out in her study to dismantle the “fabricated conflict” between the sacred and profane in Islamic cultural expression, a conflict that stems ultimately from “an imagined and essentialised religious model.” That model, she goes on to say, especially denies a place to humor, which is a stereotype of Islam that holds even today.
Each book responds to the contemporary charge that Islam and its holy book are inimical to music, art, and literature. Their strategy is to suggest an ampler view of Islamic history: studies of premodern Arabic literature as impacted by the Qur’an. These studies attest that Islam has not historically prohibited creative or secular expression, even as they also affirm that, for example, few people in the history of Islam have made the Qur’an itself the object of ridicule. More commonly, its text informs the cultural lexicon through which facets of human life and society are praised, imitated, or satirized. At an even more basic level, it constitutes the bedrock of language and style upon which all premodern Arabic writing is built.
In this last vein, both books stress how the Qur’an has played a signal role in the history of Arabic letters. Its seventh-century debut embodied a sea change already under way in premodern Arab society, in the movement from polytheism to monotheism, and from orality to literacy. One sees this movement in the Qur’an itself, as Alshaar notes, since the narrative voice strives to distinguish between its own text and prior forms of discourse, especially poetry and soothsaying. Bin Tyeer argues that the Qur’an brought about a basic “rupture” in premodern Arabia, since it introduced a new metaphysical paradigm but also “a new way of thinking and expressing life.” To her, the particular prominence in the text of names and signs intimates a newfound importance for Arabic in the Muslim worldview. Its very reception was called by modern Syrian poet Adunis “the linguistic awe.”
The other key preliminary move in both volumes is to redefine literature not as a secular institution, as we moderns might now think of it, but as one with a “humane” aspect. Bin Tyeer cautions against approaching Arabic literature—adab, which also carries the sense of decorum or ethics—apart from its status as “a moral institution encompassing . . . ‘politesse’ and ‘moral behavior.’” Alshaar conjures the vivid allegory of a banquet that both the Qur’an and Arabic literature share, suggesting “’intellectual nourishment’ and . . . an invitation to religion and right behavior”; the link between morality and feasting is borne out by the very word adab, whose etymology derives from a gathering over food, ma’duba. Thus recast, “profane” literature is not so distant from holy scripture. Moreover, Alshaar’s and Bin Tyeer’s efforts to collapse sacred and secular notions of adab correspond to a related trend in Western traditions, about which scholars have argued that what counts as sacred and secular is a product of historical change.
In The Qur’an and the Aesthetics of Premodern Arabic Prose, Bin Tyeer shows persuasively that “Islam” has often been reduced to a caricature of puritanism, and that such a view has prevented people from considering the cultural bounty of the Middle East as owing to Islam, not being in spite of it. In her characterization, this stereotype begins with Islam and the Qur’an as “a yardstick of orthopraxy”—that is, a standard for measuring whether Islam is practiced correctly—which is then opposed to “human creative activity” such as music, art, and literature. This leads in turn to unwarranted surprise upon discovering, for example, that Muslim poets regularly extolled the virtues of alcohol, boasted of romantic conquests both hetero- and homosexual, and spun tales of murder and monsters.
Such shock has, in my own experience, been borne out by teaching Western non-Muslim undergraduates about old Arabic literature in all its strange variety. Their eyes grow wide at the candor with which the eighth-century wine poet Abu Nuwas recounts his trysts with Christian boys, or at the audacity of the blind ascetic Abu l-`Ala’ al-Ma`arri in denouncing faith unguided by reason: “There are two types of people in this world: those with brains and no religion, and those with religion and no brains.” For many American students, these are the first counterpoints to a deeply entrenched narrative that makes all of Islam into a synonym for repression.
To correct this stereotype, Bin Tyeer draws on the Qur’an itself to develop a framework for literary analysis. That framework consists of a principal binary, husn (beauty) and its opposite, qubh (ugliness), with each term carrying clustered associations of balance and reason, or a lack thereof; metaphysical geography also plays a role, since each term is connected to heaven or hell and, by extension, proximity to the divine. Thus both an aesthetic and a moral value proposition come together in husn and qubh, allowing the reader to coax meaning out of Arabic texts from within the Islamic tradition itself. Bin Tyeer’s conceptual scaffolding resonates with a wider effort by scholars of non-Western cultures to expound indigenous frameworks for critical analysis, both to apply them in their own fields and to give greater access to nonspecialists.
The core of Bin Tyeer’s monograph uses the husn–qubh paradigm to study individual texts, a process which bears good fruit. She considers both “popular literature,” especially The Thousand and One Nights, and “canonical literature,” in particular the picaresque Maqamat (Assemblies) of al-Badi` al-Zaman and the heaven-and-hellscape of al-Ma`arri’s prose text, Risalat al-ghufran (The Epistle of Forgiveness). In such works, she demonstrates how the Islamic value system itself finds worth in excess, deviancy, and rogueishness, rather than being the austere foil to which they are opposed.
In the Maqamat, for example, words themselves transform from husn to qubh, as with foul language hurled back and forth during the insult contest portrayed in “Al-Maqamah al-dinariyyah.” The audience’s delight in such mudslinging reveals how the text does in fact devalue language’s communicative potential, but to a humorous—that is to say, positive—effect. Equally, with Risalat al-ghufran, Bin Tyeer cites from the prophet Muhammad himself as well as the Sufi thinker Abu Hamid al-Ghazali to the effect that doubt, far from opposed to Islam, is necessary to the path of faithful. With such remarks, she troubles the waters that supposedly divide Islam from humor and creativity.
But in some places these insights, which are both substantive and thoughtful, get overshadowed by an abrasive ethos. Bin Tyeer bookends her analysis with what amounts to a tirade against scholars singled out by name, some of whom have spent over forty years on their subjects. The following sentence is not an exception: “It is deplorable that the translation and dissemination of a major Arabic literary classic has been tainted with an interview that is full of scholarly distortions and that these distortions have become normative and are considered an acceptable way of speaking about adab, Arabic literature, Islam and Muslim reception, as part of the legitimisation and mainstreaming of this discourse.” Aside from building a straw man, statements like this chill debate and distract the reader from an otherwise thought-provoking study. More importantly, they create one kind of relationship with the scholars named, that of adversaries, rather than another possible one, namely that of colleagues.
But even though the rendering of her message comes across too forcefully at times, that fact does not disaffirm the message itself; that Islam, contrary to its stereotyped depictions in mainstream Western media, does have a rich tradition of creativity, humor, and complicatedness. Recognizing this reality should, says Bin Tyeer, be the starting point for a more generous view of the Islamic cultural tradition. It might also remind us of the noncommittal way that all literature relates to the real world. “That one should read the events [of Arabic literature] as reflective of reality . . . would be absurd. Rather, . . . one should look at how the meanings of certain concepts such as reason, excess, transgression, ugliness, and beauty are interplayed in the creative process itself.” Here is a message too infrequently stated and yet so often needed.
Likewise with The Qur’an and Adab, whose very breadth overruns any denial of a place to secularity and creativity within Islamic culture. The sixteen essays plus introduction bring together leading scholars of Arab-Islamic law, literature, philosophy, mysticism, and history, yet without losing sight of the thread that ties them together. That thread is fitly captured in the contribution by Bilal Orfali of American University at Beirut and Maurice Pomerantz of New York University, when they speak of the Qur’an’s “seemingly inexhaustible productive possibilities latent in the source text, as well as the artistry of the individual authors in incorporating or adapting particular verses on the level of both style and meaning.” Therefore as a “productive source” for new inferences, Islam’s holy book unfolds in significance not all at once but throughout centuries of Arabic writing and rewriting.
This unfolding occurs, for example, when authors build upon the Qur’an as a moral authority. The University of Chicago’s Tahera Qutbuddin demonstrates how Muslim scripture serves mnemonic, liturgical, and testimonial purposes in early Arabic oration (khutba), due to the Qur’an’s status of “authority over Muslims unsurpassed by any other verbal argument.” Authority of a different kind—rulership—is at stake in another genre, “mirrors for princes,” a sort of advice literature for kings and sovereigns studied by Wellesley College’s Louise Marlow. Looking at both Arabic and Persian, Marlow concludes that these texts successfully integrate the Qur’an with non-sacred material under the rubric of hikma (wisdom), forming their own kind of commentary genre that “softens the boundaries” of traditional Qur’anic exegesis (tafsir). Such texts as these betoken the real consequences of Islam as a political structure as well as a system of private worship.
But authoritative content represents just one of the Qur’an’s imprints on the medieval tradition. Another has to do with its shaping of the language itself. Examples from early Arabic literature include the official correspondence of `Abd al-Hamid al-Katib, secretary to the ill-fated Umayyad caliphs at Damascus. As shown by the University of Chicago’s Wadad Kadi, `Abd al-Hamid takes considerable liberty with Qur’anic language, which he deploys when and how it suits him. This stylistic resourcefulness suggests he had not only memorized but “fully interiorized” his source text.
Even more daring is the alleged parody of scripture by Abu l-`Ala’ al-Ma`arri. Devin Stewart at Emory suggests that his al-Fusul wa l-ghayat (Paragraphs and Periods) does resemble the Qur’an but does not equal pernicious intent, based on an expansive, somewhat generous definition of parody as “a self-conscious, creative reworking of the target text.” Here, how one chooses to translate the Arabic word for such a creative reworking, mu`aradah, can play a role in supposing al-Ma`arri’s intent; whereas the English word “parody” connotes mockery or at least a brassy posture toward the source, mu`aradah means at once “to oppose” and “to follow suit,” or even “to emulate.” This coinciding tension between praise and ridicule is as difficult to capture in English as it is vital to knowing what an author like al-Ma`arri might have been up to.
But in fact the same creativity that lets authors push the bounds of decorum may simultaneously be the mechanism that gives the Qur’an its perpetual vitality. United Nations translator Denis McAuley points out that the mystical poems of Ibn `Arabi, each of which takes individual Qur’anic surahs (chapters) as a starting point, move “backwards and forwards between it [the Qur’an] and his own interpretations. Where he imitates the Qur’an’s rhymes, he does so in order to put his readers in the context of the sura and to create something that runs in parallel with it.” In this way, McAuley suggests, Ibn `Arabi continually interfaces with the Qur’an and brings it closer to his audience.
On the point of interacting with the Qur’an, one image in particular stood out to me more than any other while reading The Qur’an and Adab. It comes from the contribution by Steffen Stelzer at the American University of Cairo, who writes about Qur’an interpretation as envisioned by the Persian mystic Rumi. For him, there is a basic metaphor that inspires the reading of scripture: “The Qur’an is like a bride.” By this, Rumi means that a reader enters into an intimate relationship with holy writ, one that requires ongoing care and attention. “Interpreting . . . is an act of marriage or, more precisely, an open series of gestures preparing for and nourished by the hope of marriage.” Also, in the sense that coming to a text includes decorum or appropriateness, as too in marriage, it “cannot be abstracted into a method. It is only in the realization of the relationship.” Such decorum is the meaning of adab, the same word for “literature” and which acts as a moral guide in human relations. Taken as a requirement for understanding the Qur’an, this guide points the way toward a gracious and tender cast of mind that ought to attend the human traces safeguarded within all cultural artifacts.
The ideal of adab as a humanizing approach constitutes the pith and marrow of The Qur’an and Adab, as it does in Bin Tyeer’s The Qur’an and the Aesthetics of Premodern Arabic Prose; the latter vividly captures the sentiment when she says that being a reader amounts to “walking toward the text with unguarded openness.” This outlook uncannily echoes a call by public intellectuals whose expertise lies outside Islam. Witness a pair of Pulitzer Prize winners who have lately urged non-Muslim westerners to spend more time with the Qur’an: Garry Wills, a historian of the American Civil War and author of What the Qur’an Meant: And Why It Matters; and Jack Miles, a religious studies scholar best known for God: A Biography and who has written about the Qur’an in these pages over the last few months. Their unambiguous goal is to stem currents of anti-Muslim feeling by acquainting readers with—that is, by bringing them closer to—all the fullness and historical gravity of Islam’s founding text.
While its status as scripture in the world’s fastest-growing religion means that the Qur’an never quite fades from view, the invitation to discover it afresh, with a spirit of intimacy, wonder, and respect, should be a much needed corrective to disputes over Islam, which even though they might not disappear, can at least start to dissipate.
Kevin Blankinship is a scholar, critic, translator, and assistant professor at Brigham Young University. He researches and teaches Arabic language and literature in the context of the Mediterranean world. Kevin also reviews books for non-academic readers, writes commentary about Middle Eastern culture and society, and works as a freelance Arabic translator.