Idarah e Adabiyat e Urdu, Hyderabad, India, June 6, 2005
M.A.R. Habib

I would like to begin by thanking Dr. Mughni Tabassum for kindly arranging this talk, and Dr. Jafar for his kind help. I would also like to point out that I myself was born in this wonderful city of Hyderabad, and I am returning here by a somewhat long and circuitous route. When I was 3 years old, my parents moved to England, where I grew up and received my education. In 1987 I moved to America where I have been teaching English for many years. I am currently on a Fulbright Scholarship in Islamic Studies in Malaysia for one year, and I have had the fortune now to revisit Hyderabad after an absence of some twenty five years. And so, in many ways, I am in the position of lacking a home country: I cannot claim to be a citizen of India; nor have I been fully accepted in England or America, where I am, both culturally and religiously, in the situation of being a minority, if not a foreigner. And this lack of belonging, I think, informs the way in which I think about the world, and the ways in which I think about literature and criticism. My training is in the field of English language and literature, specifically in the field of literary criticism and theory. But I find myself more interested in Islamic studies, and in the developments occurring in Asia. In this sense, my journey is something of a circle, returning to my roots to my original home, yet looking at these through the eyes of a foreigner. What makes this journey particularly interesting is the discovery of surprising connections between various pursuits and interests. I had not thought that the study of English was in any way related to the study of Islam. But, increasingly, I find that the same strategies which are used to study literary and philosophical texts may be of value in studying the fundamental texts of Islam, and indeed the texts that mediate the connections between the so-called Islamic world and the so-called West. In this talk, then, I would like to say something about the theory and practice of literary criticism, and about the potential application of these to Islamic studies.

If we look at critical approaches to literature over the last hundred years in the Western world, we can perhaps make some generalisations. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the predominant approach to literature was historical and biographical. If, for example, we were looking at a poem of Matthew Arnold’s, and if we had difficulty interpreting the poem, we would go back over some of the details of his life and his historical circumstances to see if we could find answers to our questions. During the 1940s, however, there was something of a revolution in the way that people began to look at literature. The name later given to this revolution was the New Criticism, founded by critics such as I.A. Richards and William Empson in England and John Crowe Ransom and Cleanth Brooks in America. These New Critics believed that when we look at a poem, we should focus on the poem itself, on the words on the page; they rejected the idea that we should go to the poet’s biography or to any source outside the poem. They viewed the poem as a verbal construct, as an independent and autonomous piece of language: it should be judged only by aesthetic criteria internal to the poem, and should not be judged by external criteria imposed by religious or political or educational need. For the new critics, then, a work of literature was an independent artefact, isolated from everything else in the world: from its place and time of composition, from its author’s class, religion, race and gender; from its political and religious circumstances; from its connection with the prevailing power structures of law, education, and economy; and, indeed, from the broader structures of language itself.

Since the advent of the New Criticism, there have been many critical approaches to literature. Perhaps the best way of understanding these approaches is to see them all as reactions against the new criticism. Their common starting point is a rejection of the new critical assumption that the literary work is an isolated and independent artefact. In fact, all of these later approaches attempt to reinstate the connections that were previously destroyed by the new criticism: psychoanalytic criticism attempts to re-establish the connections between text and author; Marxist criticism aims to retrace the connections between a literary text and its social and economic context; feminist criticism endeavours to re-examine the relations between text and gender; reader-response criticism stresses the central role of the audience or listener, thereby redeeming the connections between text and reader; deconstructive criticism renewsw emphasis on the text’s connections with fundamental ideological and intellectual assumptions; the new historicism resituates the text in intricate networks of power; and structuralism situates the text within a broader spectrum of linguistic practices. All of these modern critical tendencies tend to converge in one aspect, namely, their recognition of the importance of language in structuring our world. Russian Formalism and New Criticism held that poetic language was unique and untranslatable into prose. The New Critics tended to view poetic language as non-referential, not somehow expressing or describing any real world but erecting a self-contained verbal structure which had emotive impact. Bakhtin, who combined insights of formalism and Marxism, regarded language as the site of ideological struggle. Structuralism examined literary texts and broader cultural phenomena as patterned after language, as a structure of sign systems. In other words, the very form of those phenomena was linguistic. The analysis of language has been central to the work of Feminists, who have seen it as embodying male modes of thought and oppression, and as potentially transformable to express feminine experience. The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan effectively rewrote much Freudian theory in linguistic terms, and held that the unconscious was linguistic in its structure and operation. For Jacques Derrida, the founder of deconstruction, there was no possible externality to language, nothing beyond the textual nature of all phenomena. For much reader-response theory, the language and meaning of a text were dialogic in their very nature, arising from an interaction of authorial and readerly registers. The New Historicism not only sees literature as one discourse among others, but, following Foucault, Derrida and others, views the social and historical context of literature as itself composed of a network of discourses, of ways of signifying and understanding the world.

Nearly all of the approaches that reacted against the new criticism have come collectively to be known as literary and cultural theory. There has been much debate in the Western world as to the value of theory; and indeed, some of the more conservative academics have stubbornly resisted what they call “theory” in favour of what they imagine to be the “practice” of literary criticism. And yet, it is clear that there can be no sharp separation of theory and practice. If we ask, what is theory, we are compelled to acknowledge that theory is a systematic explanation of practice or a situation of practice in broader framework; theory brings to light the motives behind our practice; it shows us the connection of practice to ideology, power structures, our own unconscious, our political and religious attitudes, our economic structures; above all, theory shows us that practice is not something natural but is a specific historical construct. The essential strategy of theory, then, is to show that literature – in the broadest sense of this term – matters, that it makes A difference to our actual lives by fostering an increased understanding of our world.

Over the last ten years or so, many people have voiced the affirmation that theory is dead. Conservatives wish to regress to A more primitive manner of looking at literature; they wish to reject grand theories and broad totalizing explanations of ideas and events; rather, they wish to return to more piecemeal, empirical and local studies. In the populat media, theory is often satirized as being elitist, irrelevant and frivolous. The major Marxist critic Terry Eagleton has suggested that the days of large scale theory are over; theory has given way to an inordinate emphasis on the study of sexuality and the trivializing study of popular culture.

But is theory really dead? In my opinion, this claim is incoherent. For one thing, theory is more than two thousand years old; it is not a series of movements which arose in the latter half of the twentieth century. Secondly, practice can never be divorced from theory; every practice is implicitly based on certain theoretical assumptions. Moreover, we must move beyond Eurocentric concepts and constraints of theory. It may be that much Western theory has degenerated into trivializing studies of popular culture, or irrelevant and politically marginal studies of issues that are remote from our actual lives; it may be that much Western theory pretends to be radical while effectively aligning itself at the profoundest levels with capitalist ideology; but there is surely much room for theory in Asia, in the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East to avail itself of the chance to say something important, to address issues which are having a profound and immediate impact on people’s lives (Azar Nafisi). These issues include: the question of Palestine; the status of women; the interpretation of shariah law; the compatibility between Islam and democracy; and, perhaps, most importantly, the reading and rereading of the Qur’an and ahadith.

The most important texts of Islam, the Qur_an and the ahadith (the traditions or sayings of the prophet) need to read and appreciated in their status as literature. This reading needs to complement, not supplant, any other status (theological, epistemological) hitherto enjoyed by these texts. What does it mean for the Qur_an, or any text, to be read as literature, to be appreciated for its literariness? To begin with, its language must be assessed not only in terms of transparent meaning but also in terms of its material qualities: its sound patterns, its rhythms, its rhymes and its consequent emotional impact. The text will also be valued in its potential for metaphor and symbolism, and its consequent richness and plurality of meaning, which will be seen as resistant to closure. In short, the text will be appreciated for its aesthetic qualities, whereby its overall impact is far profounder than anything that can be reductively ascribed to its _literal_ meaning. Reading a text will also entail recognising its dialogic nature, whereby it subsists always in interaction with its audience. The Qur_an, in fact, is highly conscious of its audience, in terms of race, gender and religion, and often addresses or comments on it. Finally, reading a text as literature will entail a broader perspective whereby we consider its place in history, and specifically in its intellectual and literary traditions; in short, we will acknowledge the historicity of the text.

The fundamentalist enterprise is precisely to deny all of these attributes of literature and to reduce scripture to an ahistorical and timelessly intelligible text, divorced from interaction with audience or language. The Qur_an itself repudiates such a reductive approach via: its emphasis on parable and metaphor; its attention to its audience; its self-consciousness of its own position in history and the historical import of its own message; its awareness of its own history as a text; and its consciousness of its linguistic force, and of its own potential confusion with other discourses, such as poetry. It is literary criticism which does foreground these repressed qualities, and encourages a reading of the text as harmonising its material, aesthetic and semantic dimensions. The application of literary-critical strategies to theological discourse is of course nothing new. There has been a long tradition of rhetoric and literary exegesis in the Western world which has intersected significantly with religious thinking. What might loosely be called “modernistic” interpretations of Islam, which attempt to reconcile Islamic teachings with modern thought, date back to the late nineteenth century, pioneered by such prominent figures as Jamal al-Din Afghani (1839-97) and his especially renowned disciple Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849-1905) who attempted a reinterpretation of the Qur’an in the light of reason, arguing that Islam is a tolerant and humane religion. In India, Sir Sayyed Ahmed Khan (1817-98) advocated a modern approach to education and helped found Aligarh University with a view to providing access to Western thought within an Islamic context. The Egyptian statesman, scholar and writer Taha Hussein (b.1889) applied modern exegetical methods to Classical Arabic texts, arousing fierce opposition from traditional scholars. Sayyed Amir ‘Ali urged fresh readings of the Qur’an freed from the closed readings of the ‘Ulama or religious elite. He argued, for example, that polygamy was implicitly condemned by the Qur’an.

A major figure in Islamic modernism was Sir Muhammad Iqbal (1876-1938), the greatest Urdu poet of the twentieth century, who also wrote in Persian. His lectures entitled The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (1934) represent an important attempt to recast Islamic doctrine in the light of modern Western thought. Recent modernistic discussions of Islam have included that in Fazlur Rahman’s Islam and Modernity (1982) which argues for a holistic critical and rational rereading of the Qur’an and Hadith in the light of their fundamental intentions, rather than elevating to an inauthentic authority particular statements abstracted from their historical and cultural contexts. Iqbal had already rejected the trite oppositions, such as that between religion and science, which had pervaded so much of nineteenth century Western as well as Islamic debate. The language of literary and cultural theory, also spurning such oppositions, has begun to permeate recent discussions of Islam. Akbar S. Ahmed’s Postmodernism and Islam (1992) explores the connections between Western modernism, postmodernism and Islam, stressing especially the role of the media — and of some Muslim fundamentalists — in offering distorted and essentialist images of Islam. Ahmed offers a fascinating overview of current ideological conflicts underpinning the study of Islam (Ahmed, 1992, 154-191).

In fact, the history of image-construction of Islam has furnished the subject-matter for recent critiques of the Orientalist tradition. The best known work in this mode is EDWARD W. SAID’s Orientalism (1978) which attempts to expose the categories and methods of Orientalist scholarship as not only lacking the impartiality they claim but as being part of a broader Western project to define and effectively construct the “Orient” for its own political, economic and ideological purposes. Said carries this venture into the contemporary political scene in his Covering Islam (1981).

Aziz Al-Azmeh’s more recent Islams and Modernities (1993) might be called deconstructive: it rejects “Islam” as a unifying category of historical or cultural explanation. Such a category is based on an essentialist discourse of identity and irreducible difference which has both led to the study of Islam through transcendental essences such as “Shi’ism” and generated notions of changeless Oriental properties. Culturally specific differences have thereby been reduced to binary structures, assigning the Islamic world qualities such as irrationality, servitude and stagnation, which are opposed to the inclusive European categories generated by the Enlightenment: reason, freedom and perfectibility (Al-Azmeh, 1993, 18-24). Al-Azmeh argues that Islam as a category of Orientalist discourse must be dissolved and the notion of objectivity re-examined in the light of modern theoretical techniques (Al-Azmeh, 1993, 141-43). Islamists, stresses Al-Azmeh, have been equally guilty of promoting an essentialist discourse: they overlook the fact that Islamic law was never a rigid code, that it is not grounded in the actual experience of Muslims and that it has historically enjoyed a wide latitude, being shaped in consonance with the requirements of Islamic ideology (Al-Azmeh, 1993, 8-12).

Prominent among recent feminist studies of Islam are Fatima Mernissi’s The Veil and the Male Elite (1991) and Leila Ahmed’s Women and Gender in Islam (1992). Situating Islam’s prescriptions concerning women in historical context, Mernissi’s stimulating book argues that the spirit of Islam’s intentions was to procure equality for women. Ahmed’s treatment of the subject, to which part of the foregoing account is indebted, is also historical. At the core of her argument is that while Islam secluded women from a range of activities, Islam has embraced a tension between its “stubbornly egalitarian” ethical vision and the hierarchical structures of marriage pragmatically instituted in Islamic societies.

In closing, it is clear that critical theory as developed over the last hundred or so years has profound implications not only for the study of Islam but for the politics of the modern world. The reading of the core texts of Islam – the Qur’an, the Hadith and the Shariah – will have a potential impact on the lives of a billion people. Whatever our religion, and whatever our belief-system, we need to learn to live according to the dictates of a common humanity, as enabled by an informed vision of our spiritual and intellectual lives.