Ideas, Images, and Methods of Portrayal: Insights into Classical Arabic Literature and Islam

Sebastian Günther, ed., Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2005. 468 pages.

This ambitious collection of sixteen essays (plus an introduction by the editor) ranges widely across Islamic history and scholarly disciplines. The unifying theme is reflected in the title: Muslim texts are examined for their conceptual frameworks as conveyers of a cultural ethos. While some essays are more successful than others in enunciating this theme’s more theoretical aspects, the range of topics covered means that most readers will find something of interest and relevance and will likely be stimulated to apply the methods of analysis to their own area of study.

Memories in Translation: A Life between the Lines of Arabic Literature

Denys Johnson-Davies, Cairo and New York: The American University in Cairo Press, 2006. 139 pages.

The book’s title and subtitle are both concise and apt characterizations. After more than sixty years of work as a translator and a writer, Johnson-Davies takes the reader on a journey through memories told as if relived through writing. The language is clear, fluent, and businesslike. Interspersed in the account are humorous anecdotes about some of his more embarrassing experiences as a translator. The book has a foreword by Naguib Mahfouz (d. 2006), the Nobel Prizewinning (1988) Egyptian writer with whom the author had an acquaintanceship going back sixty years and several of whose books he translated. Twenty-two photographs show the author at various times in his life (1922-2000) at work, with friends, writers, poets, and various personalities. Every photograph is fully documented as regards location, names, date, and other relevant information. The index contains names and terms used in the book, with references.

Intra-Muslim Conflicts: A Linguistic Representation

The global Muslim community is multi-racial, multi-lingual, and multi-cultural. Over the centuries, religious groups emerged due to historical circumstances, political allegiances, interpretation of texts, cultural influences, and varied theological denominations. In some cases, the resulting intra-group rivalry has led to intra-Muslim conflicts characterized by various levels of violence, conflict, rhetoric, and verbal abuse. This article investigates the linguistic trends related to representing intra-Muslim conflicts, the factors and strategies of utilizing linguistic representation, and the classification of common terms within the context of such conflicts. It also analyzes the implications of certain vocabularies, structures, and discourse styles that represent the positions of opposing groups, perceptions of self and others, and how linguistic representation can help resolve intra-Muslim conflict. I use a pragmatic analysis to search for cultural and religious connotations in samples of common terms employed in the conflicts in question.

Although the global Muslim community is multi-lingual, Arabic terms are commonly used in intra-Muslim conflicts. Given this reality, I focus on Arabic terms and present only a few non-Arabic loan words that have been adopted.

Two Souls in Search of an Oasis

This paper studies the quest for self and identity in the works of Muhammad Asad and Kamala Das (known as Kamala Surayya after she embraced Islam) from a broadly comparative perspective. The first section discusses this theme in the context of Muhammad Asad’s epochal The Road to Mecca, and the second section focuses on the poems of Kamala Das. I explore how these two authors, belonging to two disparate geographical and cultural milieus, found refuge in Islamic monotheism from the existential crisis that haunts modern humanity. Questions concerning self and existence have baffled humanity ever since people became conscious that each one of them has a self. Does life make any sense in or beyond itself? Does it have any definable aim or goal? What differentiates human beings from other animals, apart from their status as a “talking biped”? These questions, which arise from issues lying at the core of this concern, are treated with the utmost negativity and skepticism in the works of existentialist authors, who attribute no inherent value or significance to human destiny.

Arab Representations of the Occident: East-West Encounters in Arabic Fiction

Rasheed El-Enany, London and New York: Routledge, 2006. 255 pages.

In his Orientalism (Vintage Books: 1978), literature teacher and cultural critic Edward Said claimed that the entire corpus of academic, literary, and artistic knowledge about the Orient in general and theMuslim world in particular that the West had accumulated and shaped was built up solely to serve its desire to conquer, control, and subjugate the Orient. His thesis was widely discussed and influenced the study of the Middle East and the attitudes of numerous scholars.According to Said, theWest depicts the Orient as stagnant, static, exotic, submissive, and retarded, in contrast to the supposedly enlightened and superior West.

The Qur’anic Talut (Saul) and the Rise of the Ancient Israelite Monarchy: An Intertextual Reading

Using contemporary ideas of intertextuality, this study investigates the Qur’anic story of Talut (2:246-51), the first Israelite monarch, as it is set against the background of the Biblical account. A verse-by-verse analysis yields the Qur’anic sequence of events, which includes Talut’s nomination, the Ark’s appearance, crossing the river, Goliath’s defeat, and David’s succession. The Biblical counterparts, located within the books of Joshua, Judges, and I Samuel, feature such characters as Joshua, Gideon, Samuel, and Saul. The Qur’an is thereby reading the books of Joshua, Judges 6-8, I Samuel 1-7, and I Samuel 8-31 synoptically, and the Talut story is a harmonized account of these narratives. Reading between the two texts enhances the Qur’anic story, showing how it functions as a blueprint for the synoptic reading, in addition to furthering our understanding of Talut, who provides a typological prefiguration for Muhammad. However, the synoptic reading also enhances the Biblical story, showing the skill with which the multiple consecutive narratives implicitly argue for judgeship as opposed to kingship in the post-exilic context. 

Between the Seventh and the Twenty-first: Musings on Texts and Contexts in the Early Twenty-first Century

Monotheistic traditions of the Abrahamic variety have commonly conceived of the Divine interactingwith this world through the Divine Word. No surprise, then, that the Qur’an refers to the Jews, Christians, and Muslims as “People of the Book” (Ahl al-Kitab). Yet the task of seeking and finding God is not as simple as opening a book, even the Book. Reading religious words necessitates some self-awareness about the revelation’s context, the history of interpretations that stands between us and the text, and our own situatedness. What follows is a series of musings on these principles.

The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran: A Contribution to the Decoding of the Language of the Koran

Christoph Luxenberg, Berlin: Hans Schiler, 2007. 349 pages.

Christoph Luxenberg’s (a pseudonym) highly controversial book, now available in English, has caused some to see in him an important ally in the war against Osama bin Laden and others to shake his book off as “orientalism.” There has been, in English at least, little substantive reporting on the actual arguments advanced. I will try to present a critical review of the main contentions and types of arguments Luxenberg offers in support.

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