Islamicate Literature, Literary Theory, and Criticism

by Claire Chambers

In discussions of postcolonial and diasporic literature, questions of faith and religious identity have until recently tended to be Frantz Fanonsubsumed under such categories as ethnicity, nationality, hybridity, and race. Rae Isles, a character who lectures on Middle Eastern politics in Leila Aboulela's The Translator, accordingly asserts: 'Even Fanon, who I have always admired, had no insight into the religious feelings of the North Africans he wrote about'. In his 1959 essay 'Algeria Unveiled', Frantz Fanon anticipated by almost three decades Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's famous idea of 'white men saving brown women from brown men'. Against the Algerian backdrop, white saviour discourse allowed French colonizers to dismiss Islam as 'a repressive, dehumanizing religion for women'. By contrast, Fanon explored the haïk or veil's subversive aspects of secrecy and concealment. He also debated such issues as modest Muslim dress functioning as a type of uniform, the 'absent presence' of the covered person, and the colonial gaze. Yet, as Rae indicates, Fanon does little to shed light on any of the reasons, other than nationalist resistance, that lead Maghrebi women to wear the haïk. When Islam or religion is mentioned in Fanon's essay, it is construed as the false bestowal by 'Islam specialists' or other colonizers of an irrational belief system on those peoples they keep subjugated. Fanon was not Muslim and nor indeed was he religious in any orthodox sense. Through her character Rae, Aboulela suggests that the theorist underestimates the power of religion in his adopted home of Algeria and in Africa more broadly.

Of postcolonial theory's foundational thinkers, Edward W. Said provides by far the most substantial contribution on Muslims and Edward Saidreligion more broadly. Said's engagement with Islam is still timely and urgent. This is because although the flashpoints and key players have altered since the publication of his groundbreaking book Covering Islam in 1981, unfortunately little has changed in relation to negative representations of Muslims. Writing in his 1997 introduction to the second edition of Covering Islam, Said asserts: 'the term 'Islam' as it is used today seems to mean one simple thing but in fact is part fiction, part ideological label, part minimal designation of a religion called Islam'. This comment has been inspiring for my own work, and that of the field of 'Muslim writing' more broadly. In my first book British Muslim Fictions, I took up Said's identification of Islam as 'part fiction', discussing the extent to which the terms 'British Muslim' or 'Muslim fiction' are illusory. Following Covering Islam's lead, I also argued that many mainstream writers' and journalists' depictions of Islam and of Muslims might themselves be viewed as types of fiction. Similarly, in their virtuosic cultural studies book Framing Muslims, Peter Morey and Amina Yaqin note the importance of Said's contribution to the field, observing that his research enables readers to ponder 'the limited and limiting conceptual framework surrounding Islam' in much depressingly circular current debate.

Said's concept of 'secular criticism' is notable for its resistance to all dogma as well as to totalizing political systems. In The World, The Text, and the Critic, he makes a plea for a socially-engaged, 'worldly' critical outlook in the face of the esotericism of early-1980s poststructuralism. Said appears particularly concerned that academics recognize the extent to which classic texts from the Western 'canon' (note the Christian diction) were shaped by what in his previous book (1978) he termed Orientalism:

The Orient and Islam […] stood for the ultimate alienation from and opposition to Europe, the European tradition of Christian Latinity, as well as to the putative authority of ecclesia, humanistic learning, and cultural community. For centuries Turkey and Islam hung over Europe like a gigantic composite monster, seeming to threaten Europe with destruction.

These Others of Turkey and Islam have, he argues, been silenced, excluded, or 'domesticated' by Western scholarship. Said famously establishes a distinction between filiation – preordained relationships such as those between families and clans – as compared with affiliation, the more active creation of connections based on shared values. He seems to value affiliation above filiation, but then complicates this hierarchy by arguing that apparently radical affiliation can end up being as hidebound and conservative as the filiation it seeks to replace. If 'social affiliation' is broadly viewed as a secular phenomenon and 'instinctual filiation' linked with religion, Said is careful to complicate in this dichotomy. Yet ultimately he positions literary criticism as a secular pursuit: it should be sceptical, self-reflexive, and self-critical, without misconstruing its own enterprise as objective or value-neutral. The keyword he links to criticism other than 'secular' is 'oppositional', and he calls for a critical consciousness that is resistant and suspicious of 'totalizing concepts, […] reified objects, […] guilds, special interests, imperialized fiefdoms, and orthodox habits of mind'. Interestingly, he recognizes the potential coerciveness of secular criticism by highlighting the possibility of it becoming just another kind of doctrine. He also examines the Qur'an sympathetically as a text believed by Muslims to be the direct and unmediated word of God, and positions Islam as a religion that 'gives its adherents genuine nourishment'. Said gestures toward the durable existence of religion, notwithstanding Enlightenment and Marxist assumptions that it would wither away. Finally, he is aware of the multiple meanings and connotations hidden within that bland word 'religion'.

Compared to Said, the other two members of postcolonialism's 'Holy Trinity', Gayatri Spivak and Homi K. Bhabha, have less to say Lecture 8 - Spivakabout this subject. Spivak makes only one direct mention of Islam in A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, the last book she wrote before the World Trade Centre attacks. This passing reference is a harbinger of future global geopolitics, though, for she evokes 'Islamist, Hindu, or yet ethnic nationalisms that, often exacerbated by racist misapprehensions, cannot bode well'. Yet something seems to have changed for Spivak after she witnessed 9/11 first-hand in New York, seeing 'the second plane hit the second tower […] That enclosed object, moving across a sunny sky quickly, with no special effects'. In her subsequent work Spivak makes a conscientious effort to write in an accessible way, to be less wedded to complex technical terms, and to deal with current events like the War on Terror with a clearer ethical thrust. 'Globalicities: Terror and Its Consequences', written in October 2001 and published in 2004, is ostensibly about globalization and global cities, but swiftly progresses into an exploration of the attacks on the United States and the violence this unleashed. In this as well as in other contemporaneous essays such as 'Terror: A Speech After 9/11', Spivak invites readers to imagine (she twice parenthetically intervenes to say 'without condonement, of course') the inner life of the suicide bomber. Many people resist trying to understand the motivations and back-stories of terrorists, and Spivak makes passing reference to 'the many irresponsible criticisms that [her] position has received'. However, she states that there can be no peace until governments and citizens make the imaginative effort to think of those who commit acts of terror as more than just mass murderers. Those best placed to make this effort, Spivak consistently argues, are students and teachers of humanities subjects, for these are the disciplines most invested in empathy and the imagination. In a line of enquiry that overlaps with that of Lila Abu-Lughod in 'Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?' she draws attention to single-issue feminism in the Afghan War and the way assertions of women's human rights have been co-opted into the binary discourse and unthinking patriotism of the broader War on Terror. Ever adept at spawning new concepts, she also offers the phrase 'single-issue nationalism' by way of a critique of those who respond to international strikes by being entirely uncritical of Afghanistan and Islam.

In The Location of Culture, Bhabha briefly, and seemingly reluctantly, alludes to Islam and Muslims. He does so in the chapter 'How Homi K Bhabha Newness Enters the World', where it is unavoidable given the topic of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. Bhabha's larger work in theorizing hybridity, as Spivak suggests, can 'inadvertently legitimize[…] the "pure" by reversal'. This warning against some of Bhabha's less sophisticated followers' starry-eyed visions of hybridity is especially salient in the context of Islam and postcoloniality. Indeed, the distinction that many commentators assume exists between a chutnified, impure, mongrelized literature and pure, austere Islam – a religion which Salman Rushdie and others suggest is the enemy of the imagination − is fallacious. In fact, Muslim religion and culture, far from being opposed to narratives, is replete with them, whether stories that derive from the Qur'an and Sunna (life of the Prophet), or hadiths (sayings about the ways and deeds of Mohammed).

Despite postcolonial theory's relative neglect of Islam, during the last dozen years or so, increasing numbers of scholars are following Amin Malak's suggestion that this lacuna may be due to high theory's unwitting valorization of 'a secular, Euro-American stance'. Muslim literary criticism constitutes a young but increasingly bustling and intellectually curious field of enquiry. Perhaps the earliest work in this area was Byron Porter Smith's Islam in English Literature (1939). Porter Smith traced how the English literature of such authors as Shakespeare, Dryden, and Milton was affected by encounters with Islam. In recent years, however, a group of critics has emerged who train their critical gaze in the opposite direction, analyzing the impact of time spent in the diaspora on Muslim writers. Malak's Muslim Narratives and the Discourse of English (2005) laid the intellectual foundations for those of us working in the field of Muslim writing. His monograph incorporated a relatively broad temporal sweep and encompassed Anglophone literary production by Muslims around the globe. Working together and independently, Rehana Ahmed, Amina Yaqin, and Peter Morey have also produced important work in this area. Their Culture, Diaspora, and Modernity in Muslim Writing was a path-breaking edited collection, while Morey and Yaqin produced the aforementioned Framing Muslims, and in 2015 Ahmed published the most detailed and scholarly volume on South Asian Muslim writing in Britain to date, Writing British Muslims. Geoffrey P. Nash has long been working in this and related areas, and two of his books deserve special mention, Writing Muslim Identity (2012) and the co-edited collection Postcolonialism and Islam. From the United States, Waïl Hassan's Immigrant Narratives, Esra Mirze Santesso's Disorientation, and Santesso's and James McClung's edited volume Islam and Postcolonial Discourse are incisive studies. Outside of Euro-America Alaa Alghamdi, a young scholar based in the Middle East, published Transformations of the Liminal Self in 2011, while in India Abdur Raheem Kidwai brought out two volumes in 2016: Believing and Belonging: Critical Essays on British Muslim Fiction and Orientalism in English Literature: Perceptions of Islam and Muslims.

To conclude, over the last two decades or so, many Muslim and non-Muslim creative artists have taken Islam as their subject. Some Logo - Just Heartof them have managed to do this without shirking evaluation of the social problems the religion has accreted, while simultaneously maintaining a gradated sense of the Muslim community's multifaceted nature. Academics are also increasingly scrutinizing this body of artistic work. What the next decade will bring for Muslim literary studies is open to conjecture. I anticipate that with the publication of Alberto Fernandez Carbajal's eagerly awaited monograph and the findings of the interdisciplinary research project Storying Relationships due in 2019, sexuality will be one hot topic. Another is a digital humanities attempt to map (distant read) as well as analyse (close read) the literary oeuvre, recording such issues as generic category, geographic concentration and the presence/absence of violent extremist(s) or veils. Although the methods and approaches may be novel, I hope that the field's commitment to social justice and human rights, as well as its implacable opposition to racism and Islamophobia will continue to form its primary ideological substratum.