Mohammad Salama is Associate Professor of Arabic and Chair of the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures at San Francisco State University. He received his PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2005. His s scholarly interests include comparative literary trends in colonial and post-colonial Europe and the Arab world, French and Egyptian cinema, and modern Quranic exegesis. He has published in a number of scholarly venues, including der Islam, SCTIW Review, JAL, ASJ, ALIF, and AHR. His is the author of Islam, Orientalism, and Intellectual History. His forthcoming work includes The Qur'an and Modern Arabic Literary Criticism and Islam and the Culture of Modern Egypt.
Adab, the Pharmakon of Quranic Exegesis
What we call adab is located in a constellation of historical shifts from the era of the pre-Islamic qaṣīda until now. The emergence and codification of Arabic belles lettres has also resulted in the formation of aesthetic and philological principles that at once elevated adab and distinguished it from non-literary forms of human expression while belittling it in comparison to iʿjāz al-Qur’ān. In this paper, I argue that the aesthetics of adab which eventually resulted in the formation of a host tradition of al-naqd al-adabī, have in modern times created a boomerang effect that brought the tools of literary criticism back to the benefits of Quranic exegesis, rescuing it from the persistence of rigid and inflexible ideologies. This new approach of modern Arabic literary criticism, which was boldly ventured by Taha Husayn in Pre-Islamic Poetry, begins with alienating itself from what it studies, namely becoming the reverse of dogmatism and nationalism in an era infested with both. In this spirit of desacralizing both traditionalism and fanaticism, al-naqd al-adabī prepared the reader to look at sacred tradition both scientifically and historically, that is with a disinterestedness that could only proceed from a methodical linguistic and aesthetic assessment. Regardless of whether this disinterestedness from the text was ever achieved or not in modern Quranic tafsīr, the Mujaddidūn, the mid-twentieth century school pioneered by Amīn al-Khūlī, Muḥammad Aḥmad Khalafallāh and ʿĀisha ʿAbd al-Raḥmān (Bint al-Shāṭiʾ), has managed to establish an adab-inspired dogma-free literary approach to exegesis. In particular, Bint al-Shāṭiʾ’s work, al-Tafsir al-Bayāni lil-Qurʾān al-Karīm [Rhetorical Explication of the Glorious Qurʾān] (1962-1968) offers a philological and rhetorical examination of the Qurʾān’s Meccan chapters in a scholastic approach that sums up the efforts of this school quite effectively. I aim to show how Bint al-Shāṭiʾ’s critical insights and adaptation of a literary approach reinvigorate the synergies between adab and the Qurʾān.