Spiritual Grammar

Genre and the Saintly Subject in Islam and Christianity

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F. Dominic Longo
  • Bronx, NY: 
    Fordham University Press
    , July
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


F. Dominic Longo’s Spiritual Grammar: Genre and the Saintly Subject in Islam and Christianity provides useful insights to the texts of two scholars, one Christian and one Muslim—Jean Gerson and Abd al-Karim Qushayrī. The introduction analyzes the “genre” of spiritual grammar: the intermixing of the religious and the linguistic with special reference to Gerson’s Moralized Grammar and Qushayrī’s The Grammar of Hearts.

The first chapter, “Arabic, Latin, and the Discipline of Grammar in the Worlds of Qushayrī and Gerson,” discusses the sociolinguistic conditions back in the medieval time and how only men were encouraged to learn a “father language”—that is, a dominant language of education and religious discourses, in order to maintain power (28). To be more strong in their spiritual treatises, Gerson and Qushayri used the Arabic and Latin respectively, inspite of the challenges faced by emergence vernacular languages in France, Their texts “place the reading subject in a particular linguistic and spiritual reality” (52). The next chapter, “Genres and Genders of Gerson,” elaborates on Gerson’s use of French the ‘mother tongue’ while he giving sermon in France, , thereby displacing “father language” Latin temporarily, to reach a wider audience. It sketches out Gerson’s thought and sheds light on the manner in which his works must be understood. “One way to understand Gerson’s remarkable range of genres is to regard his texts as performances and the genres he chose as the stages for these performances” (58). Sermon was a central genre of religious literature for Gerson.

Chapter 3, “Gerson’s ‘Moralized’ Primer of Spiritual Grammar,” provides a detailed exposition of Gerson’s literary techniques in his Moralized Grammar. Interestingly, his text is crafted in a manner such that without the abandonment of “theological sophistication,” it appeals to “unsophisticated readers” (116). Gerson’s creative approach to crystalizing the Christian moral and spiritual life while transforming Aelius Donatus’s Ars Minor, which was foundational to the education in the West for many years in the West, is laudable.

The fourth chapter entitled “From the Names of God to the Grammar of Hearts,” examines Qushayrī’s literary genre. This chapter situates Qushayri historically to set the stage for a close reading of his The Grammar of Hearts. Chapter 5, “Forming Spiritual Fuṣaḥā’,” provides an explanatory ground for reading Qushayrī’s Grammar of Hearts, by invoking familiar grammatical terms to proceed to spiritual matters. Combining prescriptive and descriptive grammar, Qushayrī’s text aims to develop Sufi grammatical competence, appealing to the “heart” of the reader. It has striking similarities to Sībawayhi’s Kitāb, which is the masterpiece of Arabic grammar. Traces of “systematic theological concepts” (185) can also be found in Qushayrī’s work.

The concluding chapter, “The Fruits of Comparison,” illustrates the modus operandi of Gerson’s and Qushayrī’s texts by comparing them, and lays the groundwork for a productive theological interpretation of spiritual grammar for today’s world. “Spiritual grammar, then, has to do both with the great story that pertains to all of us, as in Moralized Grammar, and with the personalized interactions that individuals can have with God, as in The Grammar of Hearts” (202). Longo traces the history of spiritual grammar from early times and situates it in the works of modern times.

Spiritual Grammar juxtaposes the nuances of spirituality with the nuances of linguistics. It is a treatise for anyone interested in the history of grammar as a subject of study in medieval Christian and Islamic cultures.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Muhamed Riyaz Chenganankkattil is a doctoral fellow in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi.

Date of Review: 
January 15, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

F. Dominic Longo is assistant professor of theology and co-director of the Muslim Christian Dialogue Center at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.


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