Western Literature for the Muslim; Islamic Literature for the West

An Introduction to Approaching a Tradition

When reading Western literature as a Muslim born to the West how should I respond? Surely one would respond to literature in the same way whether it were Western, Eastern, Northern or Southern. No?

Well actually, Western literature has a special significance (as opposed to most of the other ‘types’ indicated above). This is due to how Western literature and the modern world we live in today are by and large structured according to Western culture. The modern world has shaped and has been shaped by Western literature. And throughout this process both have taken conceptions of ‘Western culture’ as its inspiration [1]. So to reiterate, the significance of Western literature is reinforced when we consider how the minds that shaped that literary tradition were precisely the shapers of the Western culture that permeate the modern world and affects (knowingly or unknowingly) everyone on the planet.

Next, what exactly is this Western literary tradition? I’m thinking particularly of Western literature from circa 12th Century to the contemporary period. Indeed, when we talk about Western literary tradition, it might be useful to consider the notion of a ‘Western Canon’ (as articulated by Harold Bloom[2] ). Now, I’m not being dogmatic about this. I don’t believe we need to adhere to this canon ‘religiously’. (This pun is intended – see later). The canon serves us best as a useful guide of the range of literature ‘out there’ that constitutes the ‘Western’ tradition.

And – continuing the religious theme – it is worth mentioning that one of the defining traits of the modern period is the demise of Christian religion in the traditional sense (in Europe, at least) through a process of secularization[3] and in terms of how modernity directs the cultural output and ideologies of the West[4]. It is more appropriate, therefore, to understand how the Western canon might be used to espouse a post-Christian and ideologically ‘secularist’ notion of cultural norms, values and ethics with a Western (Euro-centric) bias[5].

The net result is the proliferation of a kind of monoculture that is global[6]. The question is, is it good for the world to be straight-jacketed to one type of culture or is it better to promote the autonomy and sustainability of authentic world cultures?

Now that these preliminary points have been outlined, we return back to the first question: how should I – a Muslim – respond to the Western canon?

As a matter of fact, when I was a student I used to handle the Western literary tradition in the same manner as ‘other’ people. I believe I never thought that much about it… that is, I never thought more about it than was ‘normal’… At any rate, I do recall in the venture of making sense of phenomena – of my place in the world as I ‘grew up’ (as the expression goes), I began to reflect on the value of things – including the Western literary tradition.

Is there an argument to say that Muslims have different starting points, different frequencies, and notions, different cultural assumptions that will inevitably and significantly shape the framework of their reception to the Western canon? Yes, perhaps so. Conclusions by Muslims about a particular novel might differ considerably to normative Western interpretations – sometimes radically so[7]; sometimes they may not necessarily differ at all – or by much. That being said, it does not mean that I – a Muslim – must necessarily reject the Western canon in entirety as anathema[8].

This notion, that the Western canon receives ‘normative’ interpretations, begs the question as to “whose interpretations are these?” What do we mean by ‘normative’? This question is especially meaningful to this article when we consider that the most prominent, accessible and popular items of literature from this canon line the syllabi of school curricula across the length and breadth of the nation – and indeed throughout the domain of school libraries internationally. Yes, we know literature is a useful method to refine a student’s handling of language. But consider too that we encourage students to engage with a text and not just to enjoy its reading – but to take big bites off the central themes of a book, to digest the clash of characters that might symbolise different ideological perspectives, to chew on the way society works, on the roles people take, to mull over moral themes, ethical issues, and existential questions.

What once was the preserve of (the Christian) religion – to provide a channel for ‘making sense’ and conferring meaning to captivated audiences through faith – the control-room of ideas that assist us to structure and articulate that social, moral dimension is now stationed by the clerics of a new secular, post-Christian order: the English teacher, the Humanities lecturer, the novelist, the comedy-satirist, the popular science writer, the journalist, and the modern media companies, and the like.

It would be wrong to call this output Christian in the old religious sense. But the secular transmission of the Western canon has Christian overtones only in a cultural sense. Residues linger but the religion’s original meaning and relevance is lost on us. What remains feels hollow, vacuous. Complaints emerge that these residues, these voices, like TV shows are but profit-making enterprises, and we, teachers, students, all, are ultra-materialists, easily susceptible to the extreme: either cynical to the core or hyper-sentimentalists, our hearts bleed tears; we surrounded ourselves with melancholy, with violence, with riotous laughter that ends up burning the streets of London, leaving us a bitter taste in our mouths. The old Christians lost the plot when they began to ask how many angels there were on the head of a pin; the moderns are now asking if there is a soul in the Frankenstein’s monster that we have become. Where is that zest for life and innocence, the level-headed realist, that young sparkle that once twinkled in the eyes of the West[9]?

The point is that what is relayed now through the secular transmission of the Western canon is actually a delimited range of (secular) responses that only stunts the healthy growth of a newer, more organic, much wider debate. It is absolutely right that students should be encouraged to reflect, question and interrogate. This is a Quranic imperative anyway[10]. I simply want to enquire: what is the most fruitful (and real) range of perceptive, meaningful standpoints on offer?

I propose that a nuanced reading of the Western canon from Islamic[11] dimensions will not only enable Muslims to be of tremendous benefit to the West by being more positively engaged with modern life, but it will also provide the West with refreshingly vibrant perspectives. That is to say that they will breathe new life and renovate just the good and authentic (while avoiding the bad and misguided) from the traditions the Christian religion used to stand for.

How better than for Muslims to assist the West and by extension, the rest, by helping them to get their ‘sparkle’ back.

How should we respond? That’s how[12].

For a possible starting point (in poem form) read this.

For a poetical introduction to my poems to non Muslims, please read this.

[1] Yes, there is literature outlining how Islamic civilisation has played its part in setting up some of the modern debates in a ‘pre-modern’ context. Similarly, other cultures and civilisations (Indian, Chinese, Roman, Greek, Persian, Egyptian) have played their part too if we want to answer the ‘origins’ question. How far back do you want to go?

[2] Harold Bloom’s ‘The Western canon’ (1994)

[3] The Secularization Debate, Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, Sacred and Secular. Religion and Politics Worldwide, Cambridge University Press, 2004. Chapter 1.

[4] Modernity – amongst other things – can be described as the “age of ideology”. See for instance:“The ideologies of liberalism, socialism, and conservatism are all rooted in the assumptions of modernity, specifically, its belief that human rationality could reshape the world when it is directed to the pursuit of a political vision.” John Schwarzmantel. The Age of Ideology: Political Ideologies from the American Revolution to Post-Modern Times. New York: New York University Press, 1998

[5] Edward Saed’s depiction of ‘Orientalism’ vividly describes how an ideological use of culture can become all pervasive and I posit the notion of how the ‘Western canon’ might be used to that end. ’Orientalism’ is: “a certain will or intention to understand, in some cases control, manipulate, even to incorporate, what is a manifestly different… world; it is… a discourse that is … produced and exists in an uneven exchange with various kinds of power, shaped to a degree by the exchange with power political… power intellectual… power cultural (as with orthodoxies and canons of taste, texts, values), power moral.” [Italics are mine]Page 12 from Orientalism, Edward Saed, 1978, Penguin.

[6] “Contemporary Monoculture” by Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah at Zaytuna College. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GHID13eOTV0

[7] It would be wrong to ignore Salman Rushdie’s predicament in 1989.  I must stress that the extreme position taken by a few Muslims – that Rushdie must die – should be regarded as an ‘extreme’ position. This is not what I meant by ‘radical’, which is an opposing view articulated strongly but in a reasonable and an acceptable form and conditioned by common sense. What strikes me though is the irony of Rushdie’s Muslim antecedents. I guess the question remains, how do we curtail the extreme elements in our own (Islamic) cultural milieu? That is the object of a forthcoming study. I must also add that I am concerned how an individual might be spotlighted for ideological purposes; a question for you: did the press latch onto Rushdie because they actually cared or did they have their own agenda? A bit of both? It doesn’t matter. The best answer is the one that seeks an earnest debate and is closest to the truth.

[8] I might understand the Muslim, Gai Eaton’s perspective of Western Literature (articulated briefly in ‘Islam and the Destiny of Man’), where he states we should throw the whole tradition to the wall and those that stick with the Islamic perspective should be kept and the rest that fall should be thrown out – presumably to the dustbin of history.  Though I understand this point of view, the ‘attitude’ – a kind of cultural insensitivity – troubles me.  Is this how we want non-Muslims to treat our tradition? I believe we need to forge an approach that is at once perceptive and critical if need be – but above all, respectful and graceful.

[9] Much has been written about the alleged ‘demise’ of the West. The most recent and notable documentary is Niall Ferguson’s “Civilisation: Is the West History?”

[10] “Have they not thought about their own selves? God did not create the heavens and the earth and everything between them without serious purpose and an appointed time.” (30:8) the Qur’an (trans. Haleem 2004)

[11] I say ‘Islamic’ rather than ‘Muslim’ as there is a truly massive lack of understanding in the West of what Islam actually is. Islamic literature need to be relayed for what it is so people can decide for themselves. ‘Muslim’ simply designates a people. There are some Muslims that don’t articulate anything ‘Islamic’; there are those minorities receiving maximum air-play that articulate ‘Islamic’ perspectives that are extreme (too severe or too lax). In this case both only offer what is already on the table: nothing new. Ours is the voice of the majority: the (silenced) middle way. For more on this concept, see ‘Between Militarism and Extremism: The Excluded Middle’ from Zaytuna College (to be posted online, forthcoming).

[12] ‘Stay tuned for samples of ‘Islamic’ readings from the canon of English Literature (forthcoming).



Filed under Arif uz Zaman: Article, Education

2 responses to “Western Literature for the Muslim; Islamic Literature for the West

  1. I think your article has touched on a marvellous point, however…….. i think as Muslims we have the right to be completely and absolutely cynical to the core and even highly suspicious…….
    Im not even touching base here with the quran but simple facts that any individual can observe.
    Historians in history usually record facts and major occurrences that change or alter the course of history ( no pun intended.) Islam came and changed the whole world and hardly no mention is made in western books or any western historical account recalling the battle of yarmuk, the conquering of persia or rome…..such incidents are recorded as ‘supposedly ‘allegedly’ òr ‘according to islamic tradition’ and has no significance in major wordlwide history. Did history begin with western civilzation?
    The prophet of ALLAH is seen merely as a religious man who bought a new spiritual way of life, his historical victories, and military pursuits or wordly accomplishments are seen as zero to none, not to mention the caliphs and sahabas and their military expeditions.
    Touching vaguely on the quran, why have the people of aad or thamud never been discovered?
    The buildings carved in stone, in Jordan, why have they never been explained or taught in school?
    The proof of Nuh a.s boat on mount judi mentioned in the quran, where are the archeologist on these matters??? Where are the historians on this?
    Is this not world history?

    It seems like a people hell bent on disproving god and ‘recording’ and promoting historical events relevant enough to keep us fascinated and entertained. Secularism they call it, they are given to it and attributing all findings to themselves, the greatest fasad is to take ALLAH out of everything and they have done just that and have been extremely successful.
    Sounds like a people we find in the quran ‘ ya dhul qurnain inna yajuja wa majuja mufsiduna fil ard ‘
    And definitely ALLAH is the most wise and with him rests all knowledge.

    Just some food for thought!

    Liked by 1 person

    • JazakAllahu khairan for your comment sister. The role of history and its impact on worldviews is an interesting one. Your point about the inherent Eurocentrism in the dissemination of texts on World history is apt. But the most striking feature of this is how with the secularisation of Western civilisation vis-a-vis the modernity project the grand narrative propounded is one of the decline of religious truth in line with a ‘necessary/inevitable’ disenchantment of the world. The questions are 1) what is the validity of the Modernity project? And 2) since a secular presentation can just as well confirm the Islamic narrative, what, therefore, are the parameters of secularism and the Truth?


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