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Shedding Light on Islam

Binding Religion and Politics

Article #: 16589  
Issue Date: 9 / 1997 Start Page: 68
Author: Fedwa Malti-Douglas
Fedwa Malti-Douglas is the Martha C. Kraft Professor of Humanities at Indiana University. She has published widely in Arabic, English, and French on medieval and modern Islamic studies. Her latest academic book is Men, Women, and God(s) (University of California Press, 1995), and her novel Hisland is forthcoming from the State University of New York Press in November 1997. She is currently completing a book-length study of women's spirituality in the Islamist movement.
The relationship between Islam and literature, both secular and religious, is old, complex, and intimate.

       The mere mention of Islam and literature invokes a complex set of issues and ideas spanning centuries and continents. The legal opinion (fatwa) by the Ayatollah Khomeini against Salman Rushdie in 1989 for his novel The Satanic Verses placed the duo of Islam and literature on everyone's lips. It has been almost a decade since this fatwa was issued, bringing in its wake the ugly specter of censorship. Even the word fatwa itself has been redefined, now being used by many journalists and Western writers as synonymous with death threat. This incorrect rendition clouds the issue and obscures the existence of the numerous fatwas that flourish in Muslim lands and cover the entirety of a believer's life, from religious ritual to daily behavior.
       Do Westerners reading about the Rushdie affair imagine the intricacies of the relationship between Islam and literature? Certainly, this relationship is centuries old and has not always been as confrontational as it is today. While Rushdie has been the flag bearer for this confrontation, his saga has unfortunately not been unique: He has been joined by other writers, whose literary production has not pleased conservative religionists.
       We shall meet some of these writers momentarily. What is most fascinating about many of them is that they are nourished by a rich textual tradition, whose roots are closely intertwined with Islam.
       The Qur'an: The relationship between Islam and literature
       Islam was born in the seventh century with the revelation of the holy book of Islam, the Qur'an, to the Prophet Muhammad. This revelation, in rhymed prose, would instigate not only a new religious civilization but a cosmopolitan literary culture as well. The first literature of the Islamic world was in Arabic, the language of the Qur'an. For a few centuries, Arabic remained the sole literary language. But later, literary production developed in Persian, Turkish, and other tongues. These literatures drew from their ancestor, Arabic, as their writers were usually schooled in Arabic letters.
       Arabic literature itself existed before Islam in a period called the Jahiliyya, normally translated as the period of ignorance, implying ignorance of Islam, both the religion and the way of life. This pre-Islamic literature of a partly Bedouin society was dominated by poetry, the poet often acting as the oracle of his tribe. The female poetic voice kept literary company with the dominant male poetic voice of the Jahiliyya. Women generally specialized in elegiac verse, with one of the most famous being surely al-Khansa', whose elegies for her brother have assured her literary immortality.
       The Qur'an, with its forceful imagery and often incantatory style, became, along with the pre-Islamic poetic corpus, a literary and aesthetic beacon as well as a religious one. For Muslims, the Qur'an is the direct, unmediated word of God; as such, it is as perfect from a literary as it is from a religious point of view. The Qur'anic chapters (Arabic suras) are of varied length. One of the most memorable of the longer suras is that of Joseph, universally acknowledged as a literary masterpiece. It tells the story of the biblical Joseph, including his adventures with his brothers and his period in Egypt. Joseph is the paragon of beauty in Islam, and his run-in with the Egyptian ruler's wife (Zulaykha, as she is subsequently known) becomes one of the most haunting incidents exploited in later literary and mystical texts.
       The shifting cultural scene
        The Arab-Islamic conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries created a multinational empire from Spain to Afghanistan. This cosmopolitan society drew virtually without prejudice from the previous cultures of the region, spawning a sophisticated production far greater in richness and quantity than the literatures of either the classical Mediterranean world or medieval Europe. Paper had recently been imported from China and its dissemination through the lands of Islam had much to do with this literary florescence, but so too did the opening of cultural channels and circulation of ideas across an unprecedented geographical expanse. Scholars and writers could begin their careers in what is today Portugal and end them on the banks of the Red Sea or the borders of the Hindu Kush.
       The textual tradition of the medieval Islamic world covered an enormous range. Theology, cosmography, geography, dream interpretation, medicine, biography, philosophy, poetry, travel literature: These are but some of the materials that have survived the ravages of time and enrich the lives of contemporary readers. One of the most popular prose genres from the medieval period is an anecdotal one, known as adab. Adab, designed to be at once edifying and entertaining, was a muftifaceted genre whose discourse included Qur'anic verses, poetry, and traditions of the Prophet. These traditions, called hadith, are collections of sayings and actions of the Prophet, designed to serve as guides for the daily life of a Muslim.
       The other side of this civilizational richness is that the same genre of adab surfaces in Persian, with writers like the thirteenth-century Sa'di (d. 1292), whose fairly racy book, The Rose Garden, has been billed (with some exaggeration, it is true) as "the Persian counterpart to the Kama Sutra" (cover of the English translation). Let us not forget the fourteenth-century 'Ubayd-i Zakani (d. 1371), a satirical writer whose works "were, and continue to be, condemned as self-serving vulgarity" (Sprachman, in Ehsan Yarshater, ed., Persian Literature).
       How did Islam figure in the rich and diversified anecdotal corpus? The characters who populated the majority of medieval anecdotal works ranged from rulers and judges to misers and uninvited guests, all of whom felt very comfortable exploiting Islamic religious materials. Let us take but one example. An uninvited guest could use a verse from the Qur'an to shame an unwilling host into providing him with food. And can one forget the rogue hero of the Maqamat (translated as Sťances) of al-Hamadhani (d. 1008)? A master of wit and disguise, this clever trickster can even fool worshipers in a mosque.
       The maqama genre reappears in the western part of the empire, in Muslim Spain. Hispano-Arabic literature in Andalusia flourished and added its own flavor with courtly-love themes, a development sometimes linked to the rise of the troubadours in neighboring Provence.
       And even religious orthodoxy generated its own countercultures, including that emanating from individuals seeking a more personal religious experience. It is in this context that the great thinker al-Ghazali (d. 1111) left his mark with his classic spiritual autobiography The Rescuer From Error. Like that of Saint Augustine, al-Ghazali's autobiography recounts a deeply moving religious quest. Other great literary names emanate from Islamic asceticism and mysticism, not only in Arabic but also in Persian. And one of the most beloved of stories in Islam, that of Joseph and Zulaykha, was recast in a mystical setting.
       Religion, literature, and politics
        If one understands politics in the largest sense, then Islam, literature, and politics have always been related. One has but to think of the period of the Crusades, when Western invaders occupied parts of the Middle East. One of the most enduring works from that period is the autobiographical venture of the great twelfth-century Syrian warrior-writer, Usama ibn Munqidh (d. 1188). Usama's personal account did not shy away from describing the Western warriors and their strange customs, particularly as these related to women.
       But politics in Usama's case were the politics of foreign invaders, not identical to the politics of the Iranian regime in its fatwa against Rushdie. This twentieth-century government had already made its mark on the cultural scene. One of the first acts of the Khomeini regime had been to ban the eleventh-century Shah Name of Firdawsi. Rich in adventure and romance, this epic chronicles the majestic history of pre-Islamic Iran from its first mythological ruler to the last Sassanian king, defeated by Muslim Arab forces in the seventh century. Firdawsi's work remains a monument to Iranian (as opposed to purely Islamic) cultural identification.
       The Iranian revolution was not the first movement to tie politics to literature. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the West had a much more profound impact on the Middle East than that of mere politics. With the invasion of the West came new literary genres: the novel and the short story, in which both female and male writers indulge.
       Literature as a domain was predominantly in the twentieth century the province of the more secularly minded intellectuals and modernizers. Whether the writer lived in his home country or in exile did not greatly alter this situation. With the advent of the Islamist movement (to use a term that more correctly conveys the confluence of the political and the religious), the textual map begins to change. This movement is effectively teaching us that literature is even more political today than in the medieval period. The deep influence of the dual and complementary processes of Islamization and Arabization is perhaps most visible in North Africa, where many writers had employed the language of the colonizer. Now, in an equally conscious move, many authors are switching to Arabic.
       Islamic literature (as the cultural production of the Islamist movement calls itself) is not neutral. It advocates a way of life, the religious way. (Statistically, in Arab countries, sales of Islamic books far outnumber those of secular ones.) Thus it is that one can find novels, short stories, plays, poetry, and autobiography, all of which illustrate the Muslim way of life. The autobiographical, interestingly enough, is one of the favored literary genres in this fast-growing Islamic literature. Numerous religious figures have indulged themselves here, not the least of whom is the colorful blind preacher, Shaykh Kishk (whom we shall meet again below).
       The Islamist movement has also given rise to many female literary voices. In recent years, as veiling has become more common among the educated elite, many women writers are taking the occasion to exhibit not their bodies but their sagas of salvation. These spiritual autobiographies, not too distant in their aim from the spiritual saga of al-Ghazali, now populate the shelves of bookstores in the Arab world and North Africa as well as the Islamic bookstores of European capitals.
       The two-headed literary beast
        In what might, therefore, seem a rather anomalous situation, the rise of a militant Islam has created an alternate literature that sits alongside the earlier, more secular literature. These two literatures, the more secular and the more religious, operate in a transnational world that defies geographical and linguistic borders. At the same time, the two productions are quasi-independent. Rarely do the more secularly minded intellectuals read the production of their more religiously minded colleagues. Both productions are translated into Western languages, yet their audiences rarely overlap.
       Let us stop for a moment and take a stroll down the Paris street renowned for its Islamic bookstores, the rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud. Numerous bookstores line this street and one can hear emanating from them the sound of the religious videos that form a visual and verbal backdrop for the shoppers and browsers. A quick walk around the narrow shops reveals an interesting collection of material. French translations of classical Islamic works sit alongside contemporary and European-generated material on Islam, including some literary materials. Books attacking Salman Rushdie are also there but not the works of Rushdie himself. This is not atypical. The same scene can be found in other European capitals.
       But if Rushdie only makes an appearance as an object of denunciation, is the situation similar for the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz, the 1988 Nobel laureate in literature?
       The answer is yes. Mahfouz, of course, has been attacked for his novel Awlad Haratina (The children of Gebelawi), considered by conservative Muslims to be denigrating to Islam. The cover of a recent (1994) work by the aforementioned Shaykh Kishk tells the story well. The work is Kishk's response to Mahfouz's contested novel. The artist is the prominent al-Zuhayri, whose artwork figures on many Islamist publications, including the shaykh's numerous books. The two figures are a study in contrast, beginning with their size: The religious man is larger than his secular counterpart. We see the blind preacher dressed in traditional garb with his telltale sunglasses (to cover his blind eyes) holding in one hand a copy of the Qur'an and, in the other, a stick whose tip is a pen. Mahfouz, in Western dress and also wearing his traditional glasses, stands with his arms crossed. His Western clothing is clearly out of place: The pants are much too short, the socks are rolling down his legs to his ankles, and his shirt seems too small as well, barely covering his upper arms.
       If Mahfouz is uncomfortable in his clothing, the shaykh clearly is not. Behind Mahfouz's feet lies a cracked white notice with the word Nobel written in both the Arabic and a carelessly rendered Western script. Kishk is well armed in more ways than one. Not only is the stick/pen held prominently in a position of aggression but the holy book of Islam is there to bolster the religious figure's arguments. Notice that Mahfouz holds no book. He has, in a sense, been denuded of his claim to fame. The only book worth reading would be the Qur'an (and of course the shaykh's book, which this cover adorns). The visual message is clear: Tradition wins out over modernity.
       Recently (May 1997), the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris held a Euro-Arab book fair. When I questioned the bookshop owners on the rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud whether they were participating, they replied in the negative. They would drop in and visit the fair, they intimated, but they did not wish to participate in it. The more secular intellectuals I spoke with who were autographing their books at the fair did not find anything unusual in this situation. Yet one confided to me that he felt the literary and cultural event was being overrun by conservative Muslims.
       Culture and counterculture
        Literature has itself become a pawn in an intricate politicoreligious contest. And the Muslim tradition has an important role to play here. We have seen that the medieval heroes of anecdotal literature felt at home swimming in the Muslim literary and cultural tradition (known today as the turath, the heritage). This turath, in an odd way, forms the bridge between the two trends in literature today--the more secular and the more religious.
       No matter where one turns, cultural production seems imbued with these materials. Contemporary writers, whatever their religious or political allegiance, are turning toward the classical tradition, redigesting it, redefining it, recasting it. On the more secular front, the name most often associated with this development is that of Gamal al-Ghitani, an Egyptian. Al-Ghitani draws on the rich Arabo-Islamic textual heritage, including historical, biographical, and mystical texts, to create modern narratives, thereby inviting his readers to intertextually link his literary universe with that of his medieval antecedents.

       The intertextual use of classical Arabo-Islamic materials is not restricted to al-Ghitani, or to Egypt. The brilliant Palestinian writer Emile Habiby taps into the medieval Arabo-Islamic turath in his fiction. For this Palestinian citizen of Israel (he died in May 1996) the medieval Muslim Usama ibn Munqidh in describing the Christian invaders becomes an eloquent literary ancestor. The fact that Habiby was a communist (and of Christian heritage) only further underlines the complexities of the relations between religion, literature, and politics in the region.
       Al-Ghitani and Habiby are not alone here. They are joined, among many others, by Mahfouz, if one only considers the Arabic production, and by Assia Djebar and Tahar Ben Jelloun, if one wishes to expand into the francophone world. Mahfouz, in a short story cycle, brings al-Hamadhani's rogue hero to life and has him comment on Egyptian history.
       How odd, then, it seems, to place alongside these well-known secular writers someone like the Egyptian born-again television personality, Kariman Hamza. In her fascinating spiritual autobiography, Hamza taps into the medieval textual universe to create an engaging and sophisticated account of her spiritual journey. In her literary world, medieval Muslim male mystics trace the devotional path that she will follow. Of course, Hamza is part of the Islamist movement, and her books adorn the shelves of religious bookstores from Fez to Cairo.
       But these names represent only the written word. Visual languages are equally complex (from the description of Shaykh Kishk's book cover). To look at the contemporary production dealing with children's illustrated materials, to take but one example, is to be faced with a complex universe of visual signs, in which religious materials mix with secular or even completely Western ones. And there also the turath is quite visible, be it in the visual renditions of medieval classics or in illustrated traditions of the Prophet and Islamic history. Perhaps more surprising is the presence of political materials in religious children's magazines. A visual narrative about the intifada in the magazine al-Muslim al-Saghir (The young Muslim) shows armed Israeli soldiers behind Arab schoolchildren.
       Rushdie's cousins
        Does this mean that the turath makes it possible to transcend questions raised by the Rushdie affair, not the least of which is censorship? Not at all. Censorship (both political and religious) is an inescapable feature of the waters in which all writers in the world of Islam and literature are obliged to swim. This is what ties someone like Nawal El Saadawi to the equally feminist Bengali physician/writer, Taslima Nasrin. That the first should write in Arabic and the second in Bengali is almost irrelevant. The religious and political forces that impinge on their feminist literary productions are similar to those that press on male writers like Rushdie or Mahfouz.
       Is there an exit from this impasse? Dr. El Saadawi once confided to me that she practiced self-censorship. She may well do so, but this has not kept her narratives from being highly inflammatory in an Islamic context. Like Mahfouz, El Saadawi has been denounced by more conservative religious thinkers, both male and female. If she has not been physically attacked, her life has been threatened.
       We are far, it would seem, from the world of the medieval uninvited guest who could play with the religious materials with seeming impunity, or even from the universe of the rogue hero who could outwit worshipers in a mosque. But perhaps that was an age that had the cultural self-confidence to allow itself to play. When (or whether) this ludic element will return to the world of Islam and literature remains to be seen.

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