The Medieval Islamic Republic of Letters

Arabic Knowledge Construction

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Muhsin J. al-Musawi
  • Notre Dame, IN: 
    University of Notre Dame Press
    , April
     456 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Muhsin al-Musawi’s rich study of postclassical Arabic literary production, The Medieval Islamic Republic of Letters: Arabic Knowledge Production offers a compelling and insightful contribution to the study of literary cultures in history that is bound to attract scholars of Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and other non-European literatures. Across the book’s eight chapters, al-Musawi showcases medieval Arabic literary production and the multiple, micro-practices that bound together the Islamic republic of letters—compilation, categorization, commentary, citation, disputation, translation, lexicography, plagiarism, institutionalization, and multilingualism. As al-Musawi explains in his “Preliminary Discourse,” The Medieval Islamic Republic of Letters “argues that the large-scale and diverse production in Arabic in the postclassical era … was the outcome of an active sphere of discussion and disputation spanning the entire medieval Muslim world” (1). To illustrate this point, al-Musawi describes the evolution of Arabic literature, or what he terms the “construction of knowledge through Arabic,” in the context of political fragmentation—particularly in the wake of Baghdad’s destruction—in an effort to overturn prevailing narratives of cultural decline and disintegration during this period (9, 11), and offers the city of Cairo as his literary epicenter par excellence that would rival Casanova’s Paris, if only literary historians would discard the mantle of European exceptionalism.

As the title suggests, al-Musawi pitches his treatment of postclassical Arabic literature as a counterpoint to Pascale Casanova’s The World Republic of Letters (Harvard University Press, 1999]), working in conjunction with the theoretical objectives voiced in Edward Said’s now-canonical Orientalism (Pantheon Books, 1978), and at the same time, challenging the Eurocentrism of Michel Foucault’s discourses on knowledge production in The Order of Things (Éditions Gallimard, 1966). Certainly this objective is worthy of the time and energy al-Musawi invested in this monograph, but the author’s tendency to re-articulate his position, relative to Casanova, in seemingly every chapter hinders his ability to replace the tired narrative of European ascendance—which tends to discredit Arabic literature from the medieval period altogether—with an engaging account of his alternative vision, or to provide the reader with a sense of the rich textures, delightful details, and fascinating tidbits that populate the literature he praises. One explanation for this initial absence of literary titillation is that al-Musawi writes, not to illuminate, but to refute and repudiate. The author’s need to shine a spotlight on the world of Arabic letters and literature comes from his desire to outshine the pride of place European literary production holds in Casanova’s Republic, rather than from his interest in sharing this world with the reader. Whatever its validity, however, such critical score-settling should not detract from the author’s ability to show-case his subject matter.

Beyond these theoretical motivations, al-Musawi’s chief objective is to illuminate the cultural milieu and textual practices that define the Arabic republic of letters. Rather than laboriously tracing, surveying, or outlining the networks of transmission, influence, response, and refutation that enliven Arabic literary production in this period, al-Musawi adopts a scatter-plot approach, forcing the narrative to move from place-to-person-to-text-to-trope in a manner that will confuse the uninitiated at first, but will certainly yield great rewards for the patient reader. The work eschews linear narrative and highlights the author’s breadth and depth of knowledge to paint an impressionistic portrait of literary production, one that resists the temptation to catalog, or to render its subject-matter into encyclopedic order, as an anthology might. The monograph begins with a preliminary discourse in which the author states his theoretical aims and political positions. After this introduction, the author then builds and expands this foundation over the next several chapters. Chapter 1, “Seismic Islamica,” outlines the size and scope of the Islamic republic of letters and articulates the author’s reasons for placing Arabic at the center of this world, despite the growth and expansion of other “Islamic” literatures—Persian, for instance—at the same time. Chapters 2, “A Massive Conversation Site,” and 3, “The Lexicographic Turn in Cultural Capital,” further clarify the author’s method, which privileges the modes of exchange, types of conversations, and signs of influence that guide his analysis and offers language—principally the study of the Arabic language in relation to its cousins and competitors (Turkish, Persian, etc.)—as the unifying thread in that analysis. Chapter 4, “The Context of an Islamic Literate Society,” then shows the reader how to interpret forms of derivation as signs of a flourishing literary sphere.

Once the stage has been painstakingly set, al-Musawi’s narrative shines in its discussion of particular texts and their authors, unpacking for the reader the complex, layered meanings of words, images, and lines of verse. For these reasons chapters 5, “Superfluous Proliferation or Generative Innovation?”, and 6 “Disputation in Rhetoric,” captivate, as they take the reader through disputes and discords that al-Musawi frames as productive, rather than destructive, forces for literary creativity. Here the author’s interest in looking at the idea of the “public” in the production of literature provides a fresh take on the role of literatures and genres previously restricted to elites and those with official appointments. Al-Musawi’s attention to the majlis (meeting) and the streets are two of the thematic contributions that strengthen these chapters. The final chapters continue in this vein, considering institutional structures, with chapter 7,  “Translation, Theology, and the Institutionalization of Libraries,” focusing on the practices that memorialized and preserved literary production, and chapter 8, “Professions in Writing,” looking at the intellectual world of the author—including intriguing discussions on the art and artifice surrounding the littérateur’s life and livelihood. Al-Musawi’s ability to call to mind a striking array of references to substantiate his major points demonstrates his skill and experience as a reader and interpreter of texts. Such examples will undoubtedly provide the unfamiliar with a rich taste of the wonders that Arabic literature has to offer, which is, after all, the point of this project—critical score-settling aside.

In sum, The Medieval Islamic Republic of Letters will be of tremendous value to scholars of Arabic literature, as well as to those who work on related literatures—Turkish, Persian, and perhaps even Sanskrit—and will also attract the attention of comparatists interested in literary production beyond and across the borders of empires and nation-states. The author’s erudition and the book’s dexterous use of citation and literary allusion will likely confine its readership to a scholarly audience, but general readers will certainly find pleasure in the depth of detail it contains.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Elizabeth Lhost is a doctoral candidate in the departments of South Asian Languages and Civilizations and History at the University of Chicago.

Date of Review: 
May 19, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Muhsin J. al-Musawi is professor of Arabic and comparative studies at Columbia University.



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