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 Associate Professor of Modern Arabic and Chair of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, San Francisco State University, USA. He is the author of Islam, Orientalism and Intellectual History (2011) and co-editor of German Colonialism: The Holocaust and Postwar Germany (2011).

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