The Qur’an and Modern Arabic Literary Criticism: From Taha to Nasr
THE QUR’AN AND MODERN ARABIC LITERARY CRITICISM – Book Sample
Introduction – THE QUR’AN AND MODERN ARABIC LITERARY CRITICISM PDF
Nowhere is the need for historical research in Arabic more pressing for understanding the present than in studying the Qur’ān. Over the centuries, the Arabic language has experienced morphological and phonological mutations that render the most erudite Arabist dependent on dictionaries and cut off from the past linguistically.
As a result, the breach between classical Arabic and contemporary writings is the widest in the history of Arabic thought. This breach explains much of the intellectual poverty found in challenges to “new” approaches to Qur’ānic exegesis—academic approaches of some of the most discerning twentieth-century scholars in the Arab world. Their work, which marks a sharp departure from so-called “right thinking,” demonstrates that a fresh and unmediated look at Islamic sources can render tradition itself an impetus for a long-overdue change in approaching tafsīr (Qur’ānic explication).
This book investigates modern counter-hegemonic approaches to Qur’ānic exegesis in twentieth-century Egypt, outlining five influential authors whose work had a tremendous impact on the field of modern Arabic and Qur’ānic Studies. Beginning with Ṭāhā Ḥusayn (1899–1973), passing through Amīn al-Khūlī (1895–1966), Muḥammad Aḥmad Khalafallāh (1916–98), ‘Ᾱ’isha ‘Abd al-Raḥmān (Bint al-Shāṭi’) (1913–98), and concluding with Naṣr Ḥāmid Abū Zayd (1943–2010), From Tāhā to Naṣr gives detailed analyses of texts, genres, and events that have, over the decades, inflamed the debate on the validity of literary criticism in approaching the Qur’ān.
A key theological difficulty that comes with rethinking Qur’ānic exegesis in the twentieth century is the closure of all borders that demarcate so-called correct readings or interpretations of the Qur’ān. This ideology, to use a common metaphor, confuses a tree with its surrounding bushes by guarding those bushes, and not the tree, against all that is new and foreign.
The best way to describe this condition is to view it as a parasitical relationship in which derivatives become substance—to put it more bluntly, in which the host human text metamorphoses into a God while God’s original word is relegated to a condition of silence, accessible and mediated only through the lens of those “guarding texts” that claim to protect it against all enemies.
This explains the outcry of intolerance that authors like Ḥusayn, Khalafallāh, and Abū Zayd faced when seeking to reach the tree dūn waṣāṭa (sans médiation), thus provoking the bushes that have become the newly acquired divinity. In the words of the epigraph to this book, “the froth” has come to replace “what benefits people.” Partly because of this critique of intolerance, the ideas that the audacious and risk-taking scholars, who are the subject of this study, bring to the considerations of Qur’ānic explication are fresh, innovative, and worthy of renewed attention by contemporary and global readers.
Of these scholars, Ṭāhā Ḥusayn (known as the doyen of Arabic literature), one of Muḥammad ‘Abduh’s first intellectual inheritors, confronts both the Arabists and Qur’ānic scholars with the strong postulate that there could be no such thing as pre-Islamic poetry, that most of it was forged after the Qur’ān was revealed.
Although Ḥusayn does not attempt an interpretation of the Qur’ān per se, the questions he raises concerning the very existence of pre-Islamic poetry, and hence its relationship to the discourse of Qur’ānic i‘jāz (apologetics/inimitability), have created a contested terrain. In turn, a great divide has emerged between apologists and dissenters in the field of modern Arabic literary thought and Qur’ānic Studies. Yet scholarship in English on Ḥusayn’s significant contributions to the understanding of classical Arabic has been limited.1 Ḥusayn’s controversial book On Pre-Islamic Poetry (1926), one of the most important texts of Arabic literary criticism in the last century, has not been translated; thus, his argument and its ramifications have remained unexplored in recent scholarship.
The great divide in modern Arabic criticism that followed the publication of Ḥusayn’s work has also been largely neglected.
The putative links between the public discontent and uproar that the works of Ḥusayn (1926), Khalafallāh (1948), al-Khūlī (1954), and Abū Zayd (1995) have encountered not only reveal the continuity of violence in Islamist Egypt over the last century, but also pull back the curtain on a robust, yet largely unexplored, anti-mainstream current of literary Qur’ānic Studies. The short-lived school of al-Bayāniyyūn (Rhetoricians) in the 1940s and 1950s, which included al-Khūlī, his wife ‘Ᾱ’isha ‘Abd al-Raḥmān (Bint al-Shāṭi’), and his….
The Return to Philology and the Unmasking of Traditionalism in Amīn al-Khūlī
Of the new generation of scholars who carry on Ḥusayn’s task of making tradition itself an agent for change, the first is Amīn al-Khūlī. Al-Khūlī is a mid-twentieth-century Egyptian Qur’ānic scholar whose work has not yet received critical attention worthy of its significance in the field of Qur’ānic Studies.1 An influential thinker and “an important reformist,” as Naṣr Ḥāmid Abū Zayd has called him, al-Khūlī cultivates a literary approach to the study of the Qur’ān; he outlines this approach in his book Manāhij Tajdīd (Methods of Renovation), which aims to create a functional restructuring of tafsīr (explication) through a rigorous theory that integrates traditional and modern perspectives on exegesis. Al-Khūlī’s fate was similar to that of others motivated by this ambition.
He taught Qur’ānic Studies at Cairo University until he was removed from his post in 1954 and banned, by a presidential decree, from teaching and supervising theses. The government decree, or what is historically known as Ḥaraka-t- al-taṭhīr (the Purification Movement), was mandated by the Free Officers and eventually forced al-Khūlī and many of his colleagues into early retirement. Nevertheless, he remains a potent influence, as will become clearer, I hope, hereafter.
Al-Khūlī’s method invites us to investigate the grand context of colonialism and modernity; but his legacy continues to raise important questions about the relationship between the two. Is his work a clarion call to liberate the “Islamic mind” from the blind spots of its own traditionalism: an attempt to overturn, in the spirit of modernity, a petrified system of Qur’ānic explication?
Or, to the contrary, is it an attempt to reinvigorate tradition, to look backward in order to look forward, to “smoothen out” tradition by rendering it “methodical” and compatible with the so-called liberal, progressive, and secular practices of institutionalized European modernity?
Or perhaps, in the end, is it no more than a hidden form of colonial mimicry, a Manichean transfer of la mission civilatrice in which the colonizer still controls the intellectual trajectories of the Other? We must also consider a broader question, which bears heavily on Al-Khūlī’s method, and on the Descartes-inspired initiative of Ḥusayn as outlined in Chapter 1: If al-Khūlī indeed has a method, and if he is using it to investigate the context of coloniality/modernity, then how does this “method” function as a kind of immanent critique par excellence, as a rewriting and a retooling of the Cartesian method that is itself part and parcel of a project(ion) to be “masters and possessors of nature” and of Other?2
In order to respond to these questions, one has to contextualize al-Khūlī in relation to his age. From Ḥusayn, al-Khūlī imbibed the intellectual turmoil of On Pre-Islamic Poetry, with its doubts, insistence on historical criticism, and sharp interrogation of traditionalism. Confronting political, traditionalist, and Eurocentric tools of knowledge production, al-Khūlī’s philological rationalism makes him one of the most revolutionary anti-colonial intellectuals in the Arab world.
He has challenged, à la Ḥusayn, the intractable rigidness of al-Azhar, the calcified recycling of canonical texts, and the sacralization of said texts above reason. A crucial aspect of his theory is what could be loosely termed “the psychology of reception.” Anchoring the relationship between the Prophet and the Revelation in a psychological state of reception, al-Khūlī has developed one of the last century’s most innovative theories regarding tafsīr in relation to asbāb al-nuzūl (causes/promptings of the Revelation). In so doing, he has withstood the fundamentalism of the Muslim Brotherhood and the despotism of Nasserism while resisting the allure of European modernity.
Like Ḥusayn’s venture in On Pre-Islamic Poetry, one of al-Khūlī’s main objectives is to decolonize the study of the Qur’ān in a way that simultaneously saves it from the recalcitrant mythologies of hegemonic religious discourses. Al-Khūlī’s method of approaching the Qur’ān is literary in that he examines it with a twofold view, addressing both extrinsic and intrinsic components as he actively reads himself into and out of themes, traditions, and texts.
The extrinsic component consists of studying the history of the Qur’ān, including chronicling the geo-history of the Revelation as well as other related Qur’ānic subfields. The intrinsic aspect includes a thorough analysis of figuration, style, The Return to Philology and the Unmasking of Traditionalism in Amīn al-Khūlī 39
etymology, the meaning of words as used in the Qur’ān, and their linguistic specificities. In elaborated form, his literary explication of the Qur’ān comprises the following:
1. Extrinsic Study of the Qur’ān: This study pays close attention to learning the historical, geographical, and sociological circumstances of the first community of Islam when the Qur’ān was revealed, including asbāb al-nuzūl (causes/promptings of the Revelation) as well as the difference between tartīb al-nuzūl (the arrangement of Qur’ānic chapters according to the historical time each chapter was revealed) and tartīb al-tilāwa
(current arrangement of chapters in the Qur’ān as they are recited today, from longest to shortest in verses).
2. Intrinsic Study of the Qur’ān: This study focuses on analyzing Qur’ānic lexicon, word associations, figures of speech, and style. It is also topical in nature, that is, discussing all suwar (Qur’ānic chapters) that address the same topic/theme/prophet, and so on, and finding associations, tensions, and interplay between the syntax, phonology, and meaning therein.
Although he never wrote his own tafsīr of the Qur’ān, al-Khūlī succeeded in developing a theory complete with research tools for approaching Qur’ānic explication, which many scholars draw upon, including his student Muḥammad Aḥmad Khalafallāh, his wife Bint al-Shāṭi’, and his intellectual disciple Abū Zayd. As mentioned previously, al-Khūlī contends that a more informed understanding of the Qur’ān has to include two main principles. The first principle, perhaps not as revealing as the second principle, is the study of the Qur’ān’s historical background.
This principle reflects the critical epistemological approach that clearly draws on the work of Ḥusayn and includes particular reference to the classical Arabic of Quraysh and Medina, that is, to the language of the society unto which the Qur’ān was revealed.3
Through its linguistic demands and unfolding possibilities, the second principle appeals to the critical scholar. Al-Khūlī contends that a scholar embarking on tafsīr must be topical in their approach. They must address all verses in which the Qur’ān discusses a subject (relying on the famous exegetical saying that the Qur’ān explicates itself: al-Qur’ān yufassiru ba‘ḍuhu ba‘ḍan).
So, learning about Mūsá (Moses) will not be sufficient if the topic is discussed with reference to one chapter alone: Moses’s journey is a story that comes full circle only when one reads the whole of the Qur’ān, thereby collecting the totality of dispersed narratives—or, more precisely, the traces of narrative from different verses and different chapters, constantly referring back and forth to one another in dynamic (con)textual interplay.
Both principles involve contextualizing a particular passage in terms of other passages in the Qur’ān. As such, an exegete must exercise a careful handling of every word in the Qur’ān and restore it to its Qur’ānic code, its meaning which is not necessarily related to the root of the word (and its lexical variations) as we find it in Ibn Manẓūr’s dictionary Lisān al-Arab (The Tongue/Dictionary of the Arabs), for instance. Decontextualized lexicography is simply not enough.
In questions of social responsibility, history, time, difference, public and personal relations, and so on, must be considered when we give an account of ourselves, including when we position ourselves vis-à-vis the texts we read.4
Words have different stamps and connotations in the Qur’ān itself, and their various recurrences must be traced and recorded to understand their multiple significations as well as the relationship of those words to their syntactic positions in āyāt (verses) during the very histories in which we read them.
This opens up the possibility of legitimate alternative practices of reading within a tradition. As Mahmoud Darwish writes, “Whenever I searched for myself I found others.”5
This syntactic lexicography of the Qur’ān is key to al-Khūlī as it finally opens the door for the exegete to arrive at al-tafsīr al-nafsī (psychological explication), the status of being able to explain the emotional affect6 of the language of the Qur’ān on the Prophet and on the community of listeners—and by proxy on the exegete. This is a vexing point that Bint al-Shāṭi’, al-Khūlī’s student and spouse, would later approach with great reservation in her early tafsīr work, as I explain in Chapter 4. To al-Khūlī, however, the connection between the psyche and the words of the Qur’ān is what will essentially make i‘jāz a reality to the listener/reader.
It is, he argues, the most needed type of tafsīr in our world today, for it constitutes the heart of the Qur’ān both as a literary text of the highest artistic quality ever possible in the language and as a message of guidance to humankind.7 Al-Khūlī is intentionally terse with his examples, but he nevertheless provides one in this particular context; he refers to the explication of Q 26:193–195: “nazala bihi al-rūḥu al-amīn / ‘alá qalbika li-takūna mina al-mundhirīn / bi-lisānin ‘arabiyyin mubīn (The Trusted Spirit has brought it down / Upon your heart so that you may be among the
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