The Qur'an and Modern Arabic Literary Criticism

From Taha to Nasr

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Mohammad Salama
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , May
     192 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Qurʾān and Modern Arabic Literary Criticism treats five 20th century Egyptian scholars who broke, to varying degrees, with traditional approaches to the Qurʾān: Ṭāhā Ḥusayn (1889-1973), Amīn al-Khūlī (1895-1966), Muḥammad Khalafallāh (1916-1991), ʿĀʾisha ʿAbd al-Raḥmān, who wrote under the name Bint al-Shāṭiʾ (1913-1998), and Naṣr Ḥāmid Abū Zayd (1943-2010). The topic is welcome, as there are relatively few secondary sources in European languages on them, and very little treating them as representative of a current of thought in itself. The interest is two-fold. First, the genre of Qurʾān commentary (tafsīr) is, for all its merits, a conservative one seldom the site of innovation. In such a milieu, Salama’s subjects were innovators: they share a “literary” approach to the text of revelation, which means, roughly, an increased attention to rhetorical elements, an attachment to figurative language, and an emphasis on thematic interpretation. Second, their methods led to accusations that they had compromised or even denied the divine nature of the Qurʾān. All but one of them (Bint al-Shāṭiʾ) faced dismissal from academic posts—or worse— as a result of their publications.

There are many affinities among the players. Amīn al-Khūlī was Khalafallāh’s teacher and Bint al-Shāṭiʾ’s husband. Abū Zayd eventually took up the post in literary studies of the Qurʾān left vacant by al-Khūlī. Ṭāhā Ḥusayn is the outlier, but his inclusion here is perfectly reasonable. He was primarily a man of letters, but he once claimed, in a book on pre-Islamic poetry, that just because the Qurʾān mentioned Abraham and Ishmael was no reason to assume that they in fact ever existed, or that the Qurʾānic accounts of them possess any historical validity. (In his other writings, however, Ḥusayn was quite traditional when it came to Islam and its origins.)

One would like to have a work explaining these thinkers’ ideas and the reactions to them, but unfortunately here only Khalafallāh’s book on Qurʾānic narrative gets anything like a coherent and sufficient summary. Mohammad Salama’s passion and enthusiasm seem to have made him overlook the need to give a full account of his subject. Instead, hagiography and polemic are the main modes. The heroes are intellectually daring, masters of the Arabic language and its literatures, struggling valiantly against “ultraconservative Islamist discourse” as well as “the orientalist agenda of colonial modernity and its Eurocentric historical positivism in approaching Islamic history” (3). These enemies are mainly anonymous but uniformly nefarious, their motivations dismissed in a manner I found unhelpful (and at times confused: e.g. “the Salafi current, which reached its acme in the establishment of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928” [45]). 

The new exegetical paths laid out by these thinkers could have been presented in a more informative manner. Statements such as “the human dimension of the Qurʾān needs to be considered” (89) or “Abū Zayd emphasizes that schools of Qurʾānic thought are conditioned by the historical circumstances in which they write” (91) may well be correct, but without further elaboration, they do not take us very far. These generalizations tell us very little about the thoughts and ideas of the scholars under study, and readers not already familiar with the topic will not be much the wiser.

Readers who do have some acquaintance with the topic will have their own questions. Salama rightly presents these Egyptian intellectuals as breaking with tradition, but he attributes to them ideas that are quite conventional. The result is both confusing and misleading. For example, “al-Khūlī maintains that the Qurʾān shocked the Meccan and Medinian communities with completely novel linguistic phenomena” (46) or “al-Khūlī’s emphasis on the Arabic language as the one and only access point to understanding the Qurʾān restores Qurʾānic exegesis to philology” (47). I dispute neither statement (although I confess I don’t understand the second), but it is difficult to see what distinguishes al-Khūlī from generations of predecessors. One might think from reading Salama that Muslims neglected philology and linguistic questions until the 20th century. The opposite is true; if anything, one could argue that they overemphasized philology. So not only do we not know exactly what al-Khūlī, et al wrote, but we are left with a distorted picture of their relation to Arabic literary criticism and Qurʾānic exegesis. I am sure that Salama is aware of these distinctions, and one wishes that he had delineated more precisely how these writers broke with tradition.

Then again, those familiar with Arabic literary criticism and Qurʾānic exegesis will have difficulty recognizing Salama’s judgmental and selective picture of these fields. Any literary tradition has its strengths and weaknesses, but is it fair—or even accurate—to speak, for example, of “Arabic criticism’s inane indifference to both the context and symbolic functions of poetic language” (25)? Or to suggest that Ibn Khaldūn (1332-1406) was the first to argue for the importance of Arabic for Qurʾānic exegesis (128 n. 3)? 

The informed reader might also raise the eyebrows at the liberties taken with Arabic grammar (72-3), lexicography (especially 28, 59), and literary terminology (chapter 6: majāz in this context does not mean just “metaphor”), not to mention history in general. There are, for example, several questionable aspects to the paragraph on “the ideological conflict between the Muʿtazilites and the Ashʿarites” which “reached its climax during the rule of the Abbasid caliph al-Maʾmūn (AH 198-218/CE 813-833),” not least of which is that the founder of Ashʿarism was born only in 873 or 874 (90, also 34, 107). 

The book does contain some new and innovative material, most notably on Ṭāhā Ḥusayn’s fondness for Descartes. Ḥusayn had studied in France, where he developed an enthusiasm for Cartesian skepticism. This skepticism led him to revisit pre-Islamic poetry and to call into question the traditional account of its origins and development, along with the Qurʾānic references to Abraham and Ishmael. Salama is not the first to suggest that Ḥusayn’s Cartesianism was insufficient, but I am pretty sure he is the first to propose that, had Ḥusayn correctly applied Cartesian principles, he would have accepted the existence of a perfect divinity and therefore the literal and historical truth of the Qurʾānic account of Abraham and Ishmael, “no questions asked” (29). However, Salama then goes on to the certainly unexpected conclusion that “Ḥusayn has tricked us all” and his whole project was in fact a defense of Islam, intended “to nip in the bud an emerging Islamophobic discourse” (36).

Salama’s effort to rehabilitate Ṭāḥā Ḥusayn for Islam is indicative of the larger forces at work. His other subjects insisted, at great length and frequently to no avail, that they were faithful to orthodox beliefs and principles, and at a distance, this seems to be correct. It is the ferocity of the responses to them that makes them appear more radical than they really were. 

Is it possible that the real story of The Qurʾān and Modern Arabic Literary Criticism is less the attempts to forge new paths in exegesis than the sheer force of the opposition to those efforts? Salama insists throughout on both the divine origins of the Qurʾān and its unparalleled aesthetic brilliance. In doing so he adheres with great conviction to the standard dogma of the Qurʾān’s nature and its literary inimitability, just as the villains of his monograph claimed to do. He, too, bristles at any perceived slight to Qurʾānic “linguistic brilliance” or any “perverse” suggestion that it might not be divine. Is it surprising that the theology-cum-literary criticism that upholds the absolute perfection of a text produces an extremely conservative attitude towards it? And a deep commitment to protecting it from both corruption and criticism? The theories of Abū Zayd and his Egyptian colleagues may appear intellectually more exciting, but I suspect the opposition to them is more multi-faceted and complex than Salama would have us believe.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Bruce Fudge is Professor of Arabic at the University of Geneva, Switzerland.

Date of Review: 
April 13, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mohammad Salama is Professor of Arabic and Chair of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at San Francisco State University. He is the author of Islam and the Culture of Modern Egypt (2018) and Islam, Orientalism and Intellectual History (2011).


Mohammad Salama

I am grateful for the time and effort spent on reading my book and writing a review. Yet it is important to correct factual errors in the review. 

In writing The Qur’ān and Modern Arabic Literary Criticism, my intention was to draw attention to a crisis and a tension in the field of modern Arabic literary criticism, namely, the development of Qur’ānic exegesis in twentieth-century Egypt. My more specific goal was to introduce to readers of English five important scholars at the heart of this crisis: Ḥusayn, al-Khūlī, Khalafallāh, Bint al-Shāṭiʾ and Abū Zayd. There are other understudied voices in modern and contemporary tafsir discourse, of course; in my view, these five scholars form a distinct school of exegesis worthy of attention. They have opposed the tide of their times, enriching the ancient tradition of tafsir with the insights and approaches of modern literary criticism and theory. At great personal cost, they charted a path between two mutually hostile fundamentalisms that linger in the field of Quranic Studies (and in the world) today: Salafism, with its single-minded adherence to a literalist reading of the Qur’ān; and Orientalism, with its post-colonial denigration both of the Qur’ān’s literary value and of Islam’s historical authenticity. In other words, my book is not about me; rather, it is a story of these five influential scholars who have defied the odds in their studies of the Qur’ān. Hence it baffles me to see the review turn into a personal commentary.

To begin, we note that I am accused of writing with “passion and enthusiasm,” of being dogmatic, “adhering with great conviction to the standard dogma of the Qur’ān’s nature and its literary inimitability,” and even of nursing “an extremely conservative attitude” toward “protecting [the Qur’ān] from criticism.” It is true that Abū Zayd, the topic of the last two chapters, was accused of being a heretic, and he responded by emphasizing the divinity of the Qur’ān. And it is true that I document his response. But since when is presenting the views of an author considered an endorsement of those views? It is ironic that the reviewer recognizes that I see these scholars as being under fire from, on the one hand, the fundamentalist discourse and, on the other, the Orientalist discourse, and yet at the same time he criticizes me for being too much of a “theology-cum-literary” critic. 

To clarify another mistake: it is Ḥusayn’s viewpoint, not mine, that Arabic criticism had an inane indifference to the role of history as well as to both the context and the historical function of poetic language. It was Ḥusayn who drew his reader’s attention to the disregard of history in the modern Arabic literary criticism of the early 1900s. He uses this lacuna as his rationale for writing on Pre-Islamic Poetry, and he repeats the same point in Wednesday Talk, which I also reference (20-24). Knowledge of twentieth-century Egyptian intellectual discourse supports Ḥusayn’s position, a point I make on p. 25, where the reviewer quotes me out of context. Similarly, I have not said, nor could I understand how the reviewer concluded that I “suggested,” that “Ibn Khaldūn (1332-1406) was the first scholar to argue for the importance of Arabic for Qurʾanic exegesis.” This is a basic misreading. Here is n. 3 on p. 128, in full:

3 To be sure, al-Khūlī’s call for moving Arabic into the center of exegetical studies is not new. Ibn Khaldūn had argued in the Muqaddima (Prolegomena), “fa-‘lam anna al-Qur’ān nuzzila bi-lughat al-‘Arab, wa ‘alá asālīb balāghatihim fa-kānū kulluhum yafhamūnahu” (“learn that the Qur’ān was revealed in the language of the Arabs and according to the style of their rhetoric; so all of them understood it”). This argument, however, has never really sat well with many scholars. Even before Ibn Khaldūn [emphasis mine], Ibn Qutayba argued in his treatise Al-Masā’il wa al-Ajwiba (Issues and their Answers) that the Arabs are not equal in knowing everything in the Qur’ān, especially the gharīb (foreign) and the mutashābih (intricate), and some are better than others at assimilating Arabic. This point was not news to Ibn Khaldūn, who contended that there are verses in the Qur’ān in need of explication, and that during his life Prophet Muhammad was the authority in deciphering al-mujmal (the ambivalent), al-mutashābih (the intricate), al-nāsikh (the abrogating verses), and al-mansūkh (the abrogated verses). That is why some scholars contend that a proper study of tafsīr must begin with ḥadīth (collected sayings of the Prophet), which is commonly known as tafsīr al-riwāya (exegesis based on the concatenation of narration detailing the sayings of the Prophet) or tafsīr atharī (exegesis based on the Prophet’s life and legacy). This group of scholars includes Ibn ‘Abbās, al-Ḍaḥḥāk, Ibn Muzāḥim al-Hilālī, and ‘Aṭṭiya ibn Ṣa‘d al-‘Ufī, among others. Regardless of whether Ibn Khaldūn was correct or somewhat presumptuous about all Arabs’ understanding of the Qur’ān, the idea that a divine text deliberately uses the tongue/language of the community in which it is revealed implies that this community will enjoy an easier grasp of the message and fresher access to understanding the book than, say, a community situated 1000 years later, when many words have become obsolete and new words have been invented, or when words have acquired completely different connotations from their intended meaning in the first Muslim community.

Additionally, the reviewer states that I said the following: “‘the ideological conflict between the Muʿtazilites and the Ashʿarites’ which ‘reached its climax during the rule of the Abbasid caliph al-Maʾmūn (AH 198-218/CE 813-833),’ not least of which is that the founder of Ashʿarism was born only in 873 or 874.” This also basically misreads my point. Not only am I aware of who founded Ashʿarism, when he was born, and what influenced his theological thought (53), but in this context I also emphasize the historical emergence and continuity of the theological controversy between the two schools of kalām (pp. 3, 15, 81, 138, 53, 90, 93, 94, 97, 103), a controversy which reached its climax in the period of the Abbasid Caliph al-Ma’mūn. Here is the actual phrasing of the two sentences, on p. 90, again in full:

The ideological conflict between the Mu‘tazilites and the Ash‘arites focuses on the divisive issue of whether the Qur’ān is, as the former holds, makhlūq (created) or, as the latter holds, qadīm (ancient, co-eternal with God). The debate reached its climax during the rule of the Abbasid Caliph al-Ma’mūn (A.H. 198–218/A.D. 813–833), who publicly supported the Mu‘tazilites and almost succeeded in codifying their views; he thus intensified a severe polarization between the two schools of kalām and exacerbated a long-standing conflict involving the interplay of texts, politics, and intellectuals. 

In sum, I attempted to provide a useful and timely intervention whose value will include: suggesting new paths for the field of Quranic Studies; “changing,” as Walid Saleh aptly describes this study, “how we understand the very nature of modern Qur’ān commentary”; understanding the challenges this new school poses to our contemporary definitions of literary theory and tropes, including theories on metaphor; and finally, recognizing the need for an alternative way of understanding the Qur’ān.

And yet, the review concludes with a question highlighting the reviewer’s penetration into what he presumes as the hidden, real, and ultimately conservative ontology of the book—"Is it possible that the real story of The Qurʾān and Modern Arabic Literary Criticism is less the attempts to forge new paths in exegesis than the sheer force of the opposition to those efforts?”—, a note about my “conviction to the standard dogma of the Qur’ān’s nature” and “extremely conservative attitude” toward the Qur’ān, and a “suspicion” that my reading of the five Egyptian scholars is a reduction of their complexity. Taken together, and following the reviewer’s overall dismissal of creativity in tafsir as well as his reading that I am writing “to rehabilitate… for Islam,” these points function to suggest that an interpretation of the Qur’ān from within the Muslim faith is unscholarly—ineluctably traditional. This echoes his introductory claim that commentary on the Qur’ān is “a conservative [genre] seldom the site of innovation.” Thus, the review is based on a binary opposition between conservatism and innovativeness or between traditionalism and open-mindedness in approaching the Qur’ān. It is impossible to examine the proposition of “conservatism” regarding those scholars without first asking whether or not binary definitions of “conservatism” are themselves theoretically credible. I am sure scholars of Qur’ānic Studies would agree that when it comes to the genre of exegesis and its protracted histories, there is no one single category of the essentially “conservative." The very concept of "conservatism" is, of course, ideologically and cognitively conditioned. This binary leaves no room for the fact that some reasonable voices of Islam in the Arab-Muslim world have managed to resist the pressures of both fundamentalism and Orientalism, that these voices are fully capable of producing alternatives. Thus Dr. Fudge misses the call of my book—to listen to these voices in our own fundamentalist and Islamophobic times.

Upon reading the review, we are left with the impression that Muslim readers are apologetical, incapable of an objective critique, and lacking innovation—the opposite of the rigorous, critical, objective, and innovative modern non-Muslim scholars. This repeats one of the most basic Orientalist tropes. In turn, my study is dismissed as “theology-cum-literary criticism,” and—in an argumentum ad hominem—I am presented as an author who is “extreme,” “dogmatic,”  “polemical,” “whose passion and enthusiasm seem to have made him overlook the need to give a full account of his subject.” When one reads Fudge’s opinion, it does not take long to realize that I, the Muslim Other, am the one being reviewed.

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