We have a fresh opportunity to reflect on Qur'an and the Lyric Imperative. At this point Richard Serrano isn’t going to speak only about the Qur'an, but he also speaks about the Lyric Imperative, too.
He's professor of French and comparative literature at Rutgers University.
Fields of Research:
Modern French and Francophone poetry; Maghrebi Literature in French and Arabic; Classical, Andalusian and Modern Arabic poetry; Classical Chinese poetry; Korean poetry.
His current research
His current book project is titled Missed Readings: The Unseen Displaced Half-Lost Lyric. In recent years a new category of literary studies calling itself “World Literature” has taken hold in American universities. It purports to further expand the canon of works taught to undergraduates. Missed Readings looks at works still beyond the reach of “World Literature” and theorizes as to why certain kinds of literary texts are ignored by scholars and teachers in the anglophone world. The works I examine are written in Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Korean and Spanish. This new book projects marks a return to my roots in Comparative Literature.
RS: Before we begin, thank you for the opportunity to discuss my new book. Having read the list of illustrious scholars whom you’ve interviewed in the past, I am both honored and humbled.
Q: It's kind of you professor Serrano, first of all I wonder what made you focus on the Qur’an?
RS: After I completed my graduate studies I felt that my ignorance of the Qur’an was a serious impediment to my understanding of Arabic Literature, so I began reading widely in Qur’anic Studies even as I began to delve into the text itself. Like most novice readers of the Qur’an, I needed a great deal of assistance to begin to understand it, so I turned to a few famous medieval commentaries (such as Tabari and Zamakhshari). I was puzzled by the citation of poetry by these commentaries to explain difficult words in the Qur’an, so I began to look for a book that had been written on this topic and, much to my surprise, couldn’t find one, although Issa Boullata’s brilliant article “Poetry Citation as Interpretive Illustration in Qur’an Exegesis” (1991) is so full of insight that it very nearly counts as a book, despite its brevity. I realized that if I were to read such a book I would need to write it, and so began my long apprenticeship in Qur’anic Studies.
Q: No doubt you have been studying the Qur'an I'd like to know how you find the relationship between the Qur’ān, poetry.
RS: Although the Qur’an is completely unambiguous in its rejection of poets and any suggestion that the Qur’an is poetry (and this in a work that is full of ambiguities), by the eighth century poetry has become a vital source for the exegesis of the Qur’an. This is generally understood to be a sort of linguistic archaeology. In other words, since pre-Islamic poetry was composed at roughly the same time as the Qur’an was sent down, the texts share a linguistic context. The relationship between the Qur’an and poetry turns out to be far more complex than this idea suggests, especially since much of the poetry cited in the commentaries is not co-existent with the Qur’an, but instead postdates it, which rules out the notion of poetry citation as merely linguistic archaeology.
Arabic poetry and the understanding of the Qur’an both evolve a great deal, so that by the 11th century the scholar al-Jurjani is comfortable explaining the power of the Qur’an’s language by analyzing its rhetoric exactly as he analyzes that of poetry. What an 11th-century scholar means by poetry is not what a 7th-century poet understood as poetry — and what Euro-American scholars mean by poetry is something else altogether. To some extent, my book is an attempt to come to terms with what poetry is and how it functions in order to make sense of what the Qur’an is and how it functions.
Q: You examine how the voice of the Qur'an paradoxically, but consistently, distances itself from poetry (shi'r),
RS: This distancing was probably inevitable, since the Qur’an set out to replace poetry at the center of Arab culture. Since poetry even today remains a vital part of Arab culture, the Qur’an’s rejection of poets and poetry now seems anomalous. This may be why there are so many stories of Muhammad’s reconciliation with poetry and poets, the most famous of whom is Ka’b ibn Zuhayr, an enemy of the prophet who submits to his authority by presenting him a poem. Muhammad gives him a cloak (usually translated as “mantle”) in return, thereby ending the hostility between poetry and the Qur’an. Although probably apocryphal, the story speaks to the urgency of reconciilng Arab culture’s two most prestigious literary forms. So urgent is this reconciliation that it has to be inserted into the life of the prophet.
Q: Could you elaborate on the relationship among the Qur’ān other genres of Arabic Literature?
RS: Like other scholars who work among various literatures (I have also written on Chinese and French Literature), I am hyper-conscious of how the introduction of genre terms such as “poetry” and “history” into criticism distort our understanding of how literary texts work in non-European traditions. The formidable comparatist Rebecca Gould has written about this in eye-opening articles about the panegyric across cultures, and Ibn Rushd’s notes to Aristotle.
Although the Qur’an is understood by most Muslims to be sui generis or even beyond genre, 19th-century Orientalists tried to understand it through comparison with the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, whereupon it always came up wanting. I try to resituate the Qur’an within its own evolving context in order to understand it within the increasingly complex world of Arab Literature and culture more broadly.
Q:I don’t know why some thinkers think your result is perhaps controversial.
RS: I was astonished by reviews of my first book, Neither a Borrower: Forging Traditions in French, Chinese and Arabic Poetry, that considered it controversial because I sharply criticized French hagiographies of Victor Segalen. I didn’t think anyone would care! I was less surprised by the controversies stirred up by my second book, Against the Postcolonial: ‘Francophone’ Writers at the Ends of French Empire, since it represents my exasperation with postcolonial studies, which proved entirely useless to understanding non-Metropolitan French writers. I attended an MLA panel about that book in which someone in the audience who had not read it stood up to declare it evil and insisted that no one read it or even allow their university libraries to order it! At least he didn’t recommend that it be burned…
My status as an outsider (I am neither Muslim nor a scholar of Islam per se) probably assures that anything I write about the Qur’an will upset many people. How dare I? I was often dismayed when, early on in the project, I presented papers on the topic, because I was invariably attacked, usually by scholars who could not begin to understand how I could read the Qur’an as literature or in tandem with literature. I was shocked by the vituperation heaped on me by a professor of modern Arabic poetry for presuming to give a paper on stories related to how al-Mutanabbi got his nickname. I never really understood why she was so upset, except that somehow Arabic poetry belonged to her and not to me. Scholars of Arabic Literature are either extraordinarily generous or sullenly territorial. Fortunately, I’ve encountered far more of the generous sort.
I’m sure the book will be heavily criticized. I hope that my awe at the beautiful complexity and ambiguity of the Qur’an when juxtaposed with poetry comes through in the book. The humility I express in the final sentences of the book, acknowledging that there are scholars who understand the Qur’an far better than I ever will, is not a pose.
Q: How you find the process of constructing meaning - the interstices between the Qur'an and the verbal corpora traditionally invoked to interpret it.
RS: I think this may be the characteristic of Qur’anic Studies most difficult to explain to non-specialists. Baldly (and no doubt this will upset some people), without this “verbal corpora” the Qur’an is incomprehensible. This is particularly disconcerting to Christians or Bible scholars of the past couple of centuries, since getting back to the text itself is one of the tenets of the strains of Christianity that predominate today (although just how unmediated the Bible as text can be is exaggerated).
One of the reasons the Qur’an strikes the Euro-American reader today as “lyrical” or “poetic” is that it shares certain qualities we’ve come to associate with Modernist Literature. It is elliptical, ambiguous, condensed, evocative, etc etc (of course, this is not at all what poetry meant to Arabs in the 7th century). The exegetical tradition has for hundreds of years done its best to fill in the ellipses, clarify the ambiguities, expand on the condensations and codify the evocative. The Qur’an is merely the most important element of a textual web that includes the hadith (orally transmitted anecdotes about what the Prophet did and said), the Isra’iliyyat (stories from the Hebrew and Christian traditions), the Maghazi (stories of early Islamic battles), the Sirat al-Nabi (the life-path of the Prophet), and poetry.
In the end, Qur’an and the Lyric Imperative is an exploration of these interstices, as you so nicely put it. It is this very process that fascinates me.
Q: Me too, I think you read in the Qur’an: and recite the Qur'an with measured recitation.73:4 Sahih International, and Prophet Muhammad said: He is not one of us that does not sing with Qur’an; others added ‘spoke out of it.’
Ibn Al-A’raabi said the Arabs used to sing when they mounted on camels, as well as when they sat in their yards and in most of their situations. When the Qur’an was revealed the Prophet Muhammad wanted their habit to be reading Qur’an instead of singing.
How do you see what Allah says: And We did not give Prophet Muhammad, knowledge of poetry, nor is it befitting for him. It is not but a message and a clear Qur'an (36:69) Sahih International?
RS: I can’t think of a better quotation to represent the spirit of my approach to reading the Qur’an within the context of Arabic Literature.
Abdalrahman: Thank you very much, professor Serrano.
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