REVIEW: Religious Perspectives in Modern Muslim and Jewish Literatures

Religious Perspectives in Modern Muslim and Jewish Literatures

 Edited by Glenda Abramson and Hilary Kilpatrick

(Routledge, 2006), 325 pp.

 Reviewed by Muhammad Siddiq, UC Berkeley (siddiq@berkeley.edu)

Although published in 2006, the relevance of this anthology has become only more evident and acute in the ensuing years. This is so, in part, thanks to the recent, historic developments in the Arab world through what came to be known as the Arab Spring, especially perhaps the unprecedented rise to power of Islamic parties and movements in open, free elections in such countries as Tunisia and Egypt.

While they may not be directly implicated in this cataclysmic regional upheaval, neither Israel nor world Jewry is quite immune to its far-reaching consequences. The periodic flare up of sectarian clashes between ultra orthodox Jews and settlers on the one hand, and less orthodox or more secular Jews, on the other, in Jerusalem, Bet Shemesh, and other Israeli towns in recent years confirm what the essays on Jewish literature in this anthology intuit, namely, that the debate over the “authentic” interpretation of Judaism or “Jewishness” is far from settled, in Israel or anywhere else in the world. The chapters on “Muslim” literatures attest to the validity of this generalization in relation to Islam as well. Hence the creative approximations of viable “interpretations” (of both religions) sampled in this anthology.

The uncharted terrain that lies ahead, both in and beyond the Middle East, is bound to reignite fundamental questions akin to those adumbrated by the writers and texts discussed in this anthology. Hence, perhaps, the palpable groping for a semblance of unity in difference that runs through, and lends a unifying touch, to the disparate essays of the anthology, irrespective of the different authors’ choice of genre, medium of expression, style, or any other literary or aesthetic criteria. Foremost among these questions is the extent to which institutionalized Islam or Judaism, or any recognizable composite or variant thereof, is capable of meeting the economic, social, political, and existential challenges of a (post-) modern world shaped and governed largely, if not exclusively, by a secular, materialist worldview.

In their succinct introductory remarks both editors broach the general concerns that arise from yoking the literary imagination to (aspects of) religious dogma in the literature of their respective expertise. Neither, however, turns this necessary editorial mandate into an occasion for theoretical speculation on the fundamental question of whether sincere religious belief, or religious sensibility, is at all compatible with the prerequisite, unconstrained freedom of the literary imagination, at least during the act of artistic creation. Instead, a practical, historical/textual approach seems to inform the readings of the various writers and texts selected for critical examination. In addition to extensive footnotes, each of the sixteen chapters –evenly divided between “Jewish” and “Muslim” literatures–has a relevant supplementary bibliography.

The thematic range and diversity of modes of expression represented in the anthology is quite panoramic. It spans the entire spectrum, from mystical, dramatic, and liturgical poetry to folk literature in the vernacular, and from the recognized genres of drama, short story,  and novel to highly regional and local modes of artistic expression such as women oral songs in Indonesia and adapted fairy tales in Hausaland. The temporal span allotted for the treatment of the broad subject is the last two centuries.

As they stand, the chapters of the anthology tend to induce a contrast of sorts between the two respective religious-literary traditions. Perhaps inevitably, the essays on Jewish literature tend to gravitate in a centripetal direction: towards Hebrew, linguistically, and towards the holy land spatially or geographically. By contrast, the essays on Islamic literature tend to move in a centrifugal direction, that is, away from Arabic, linguistically, and the Arab world, geographically. Thus, while four of the eight chapters on Jewish literature deal with Hebrew texts –chapters 2, 4, 8, and 10– only one of the eight chapters on Islamic literature deals with Arabic texts –chapter 13.

If this observation is indeed accurate, the anthology would seem to break with a long-standing tradition whereby knowledge of, and about, Islam has historically tended to emanate from major  urban centers in the Arab world –Makka, Madina, Damascus, Baghdad, Kufa, Najaf, Cairo– outwardly in ever widening concentric circles of Arab/Muslim readers and, occasionally, interlocutors. Proximity to the “birth place” of both Arabic and Islam has always figured in this noetic economy. Thus, for the medieval literati of the Arab mashriq (East) any literature, or scholarship for that matter, produced elsewhere in the Islamic world had to be an imitation, if not an outright facsimile of the Eastern “original” model. This is the gist of al-sahib ibn ‘abbad’s supercilious remark after merely skimming the magnum opus of the Andalusian ibn ‘abd rabbih, al-‘iqd al-farid, (The Unique Necklace): “This is our merchandise returned to us,” al-sahib is reported to have intoned.   The reconfiguration of the Islamic space through literary representation effected in this anthology amounts, in a sense, to a corrective in the long reigning paradigm.

In a similar vein, the absence of any discernable hierarchical structure or teleological end in the selection and arrangement of chapters in the anthology bespeaks a pluralistic view of both Judaism and Islam, and that, in turn, implicitly questions the stereotypic representation of either Jews or Muslims as undifferentiated monolithic entities. Whatever historical agency these formal features possess is significantly amplified by the intrinsic scholarly and educational merits of the anthology. Among these it is imperative to note not only the wide range and representative diversity of the selections but also the writers’ evident linguistic aptitude and ability to consult the primary sources of their original research. Finally, the fresh approach that informs and animates this anthology makes its significant contribution all the more welcome in many scholarly fields and academic disciplines that resonate with its content, rationale, and approach.

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