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A seeker of humanity

Professor Mohsin J. Al Musawi sheds light on misconceptions about Islamic history and what modern nation states ignore at their peril

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Mohsin J. Al Musawi advocates a deeper engagement with cultures
Gulf News

Professor and thinker Mohsin J. Al Musawi is a literary critic of international renown and a scholar of classical and modern Arabic literature, comparative and cultural studies. He was the recipient of the Owais Award in Literary Criticism (2002). In an exclusive interview with Weekend Review, he discussed his forthcoming projects, his interests and also his cultural expectations. Excerpts:

You have been contracting publishers for your new book, “Politics of the Medieval Islamic Republic of Letters”. Doesn’t the title imply that you believe there was an “Islamic Republic of Letters” in the middle period, ie from 1258 to the early 19th century? What is the basis for this belief, which not many might share?

“Politics of the Medieval Islamic Republic of Letters” explores the complex cultural make-up of the middle and pre-modern period (also called the Postclassical period). It argues against the early Islamic modernists’ contention that it was a period of decline like the European Middle Ages. It shows how this culture conveys or critiques the impact of the political order under centralised and decentralised Islamic states across the Arab world and Asia, from Herat (Afghanistan) to India and Khurasan (modern-day Afghanistan). It looks upon this encyclopaedic and lexicographic bent as one among many instances of discussion and communication. Communications avenues were open not only in assemblies, chancery sites and public spaces but also through auditions, authorised transmission and correspondence. Philosophical and speculative theological discourse and historical and political discussions proliferated, enlisting the participation of theologians, logicians, scientists and rhetoricians who were not always satisfied just to know about each other and took the pain of travelling to Cairo, Damascus and Khurasan to hold debates that often demonstrated rigorous thought and methodology.

New subgenres and forms spilt into compendiums that represented an age of dynamic communication. Rather than a period of cultural failure, the middle and pre-modern periods offer significant contributions to the modern scene than has hitherto been recognised. Through a more nuanced engagement with that culture, we can better understand the role of the communities, their beliefs, practices, and expectations that have been left out by the elites of the nation state. In an ironic twist, the jurist of the middle period is reborn in satellite TV channels and social media to impact societies and raise the same old questions anew.

Let us move a little to the present, as I read also that you have been working on what you call the “Arab Street”. Is this a different conceptualisation from what we know of Al Bayati and Al Sayyab as prominent poets who wrote about the common man and the street? Didn’t the Iraqi lawyer Mahmoud Al Abta write around 1957 about the “man of the street”, meaning the common person?

What is noticeable in the densely populated regions is the increasing interaction with social media. This has its positive and negative sides. The positive is the widening horizons of interaction with the outside world; the negative comes from the amount of noise that accompanies any phenomenon. It may lead to distraction, loss of touch with real culture, reification and a disintegrated social fabric. On the other hand, we have accelerated street activity. The street here doesn’t mean the physical street, but its symbolic and semiotic presence as a venue for interaction. I look at the “Arab Street” differently — as basically a reconfiguration of life in a physical space where there is a possibility to integrate better. If well grounded in the historicity of culture, this street awareness can lead to social integration, solidarity and better family life. Satellite and media venues have to play a more constructive role, however, to lead people in that direction.

Your book “Islam on the Street” received high acclaim and was pronounced by Choice as the Outstanding Academic Title for 2010. What is it that makes this book so readable?

The book was published in 2009, and it predicted significant changes in Muslim societies. It explores what it sees as failure in leadership, not because the educated class was unprepared to lead, but because there was one model that was imitated, without due understanding of local societies, traditions, needs of people, possible changes and expectations. Predicated on the European modernity model for long, the Arab awakening or Nahda ended up in colossal state formations that paid lip service to the masses and their beliefs while alienating them in practice. The model is not unique to the Arabs, for it has had similar repercussions elsewhere. The nation state forged a social programme that is no less divested of and often opposed to local traditions and rural culture. Only after 1967, following the unsettling experience of total bankruptcy, intellectuals began to seriously question the binaries of science/religion and progress/tradition. New writing finds substance and faith that has been ignored for long under cultural dependency. These works receive due attention in relation to theoretical studies that may help increase readers’ critical insights. The projected outcome is towards a substantial social and cultural understanding of Arab society, politics and structures of feeling and faith.

As usual, with your work, you move back and forth in your reading of Arab and Muslim societies, and their cultures in particular. Your book, “The Islamic Context of the Thousand and One Nights”, comes to mind. We know that the book was popular in Europe, more so than in Muslim societies. Some think that the book is a global commodity. But you argue differently.

Although the tales of the “Thousand and One Nights” unfold, like any other cultural production, in a mixed climate of Islamic ideology and Utopia, they rarely subscribe to any polarised position or stance. Navigation along the lines of pairing of opposites is the most distinctive aspect of a narrative that resists absolutes. Growing and taking shape in the early Abbasid period, the tales were also reciprocal with and opposite to the rising tendency among jurists to establish a codified discourse that was best represented in a series of hisbah (market inspection) manuals and epistles, along with books on kharaj (land revenue and tax). To regulate the emerging urban population in the Islamic centres, these define professions and groups and ways of assessment that administer both economy and morals. The tales convey this awareness in narratives of professionals, markets, domestic life and also spaces that fall outside the reach of authority. But in the end, you get the feeling of some localisation, an Islamic one that has more of a popular touch in it than belletristic writing.

You always leave some space for Arabic poetry, as your book “Arabic Poetry: Trajectories of Modernity and Tradition” (2006) shows. Do you think poetry has any appeal to Arabs and Muslims?

There is a poetic appeal that cannot die. Poetry connects well to the human need for love and affection. The rationale behind this book is many-sided. Primarily it plans to meet the demands of the field for a comprehensive reading of Arabic poetry, its configurational sides of modernity and tradition, wherein convergence, friction and antagonism generate acute tensions. It is not concerned, therefore, with the history of movements and trends; nor does it focus on regional poetic scenes and figures. Yet, the book makes territorial claims whenever there is a crossroads, a threshold or a meeting ground among texts and addresses that navigate between tradition and modernity. It cares for the poetic in its cultural complexity as pertaining to issues of selfhood, individuality, community, religion, ideology, nation, class and gender.

You believe that culture and politics work together, and that to see either as separate from the other will lead to failed analysis. I noticed this argument in your book “Reading Iraq: Culture and Power in Conflict”.

The subtitle was the publisher’s choice. There is more than one reason to prioritise culture in the reading of Iraq despite the increasing emphasis of politicians and social scientists on the state of Iraq, its natural resources and its place and performance in a world order led and envisioned by the United States.

The Iraqi poet and activist in the 1920 revolution, Mohammad Mahdi Al Basr, looked on moral and cultural factors as more important than material ones. In “Tarikh Al Qadiyyah Al Iraqiyyah” (Baghdad, 1923), he expressed his surprise at the sudden change in the British Acting Commissioner’s discourse, for, in his farewell speech of September 1920, Arnold Wilson asserted cultural factors as largely informing consciousness, an assertion that ran counter to his notorious emphasis on force. But instead of being condescending to Eastern and Muslim culture whose value he recognised, he highlighted the idea of nationhood as a newly emerging Western concept that reached the East only recently.

History as a record of imperial achievement receives expedient attention, and empires complacently bequeath their legacies to each other, for in 330BC Alexander the Great seized Babylon, promising to regain Babylon’s glory as the centre of the civilised world. The Mongols made no such promises when invading Baghdad in 1258, but were driven there by an ambition to be at the centre of the Islamic world, causing enormous cultural destruction and racial cleansing. Their Ottoman successors in 1534 were just as brutal, but they were there for the wealth of Iraq despite some efforts by their Iraqi appointees to rebuild the country as a state once more. In the struggle between them and Iran to dominate Iraq, the country passed through turmoil, suffering and destruction. Centuries later, on March 11, 1917, General Maude was lavish in his promises. The British imperial discourse had such markers as the absolute faith in the need to stay in Iraq, the claim that “the average Arab” realised “that he would lose rather than gain in national unity if we [the British] relinquish effective control”, and that Iraq under domination could present a “model for the rest”. (November 14, 1918).

These ideas permeated the communications of Colonel Wilson, the acting civil commissioner in Iraq, to the secretary of state for India. Like many other servants of the empire, Colonel Wilson strongly believed in his civilisational mission, to bestow justice, efficient administration, liberation and security on Iraqis. These administrators, in the paraphrase of Philip Ireland, looked upon counter-political aspirations as no more than “… vagaries of ungrateful extremists or to be repressed as firmly as wayward thoughts in any adolescent youth”. Colonial legacies are always the same and they emanate from expediency, greed, and ignorance.

Your other works include literary ones such as “The Postcolonial Arabic Novel”. Do you think these books sell in the West? Are they for the academia or for the public?

Both. I write for the academia, but also opt to reach out to the reading public. These books are meant to acquaint this public with Arab and Muslim culture. They are deeply grounded in knowledge and aspire to cultivate the mind and make culture accessible to Western readers and readers of English elsewhere.

Shakir Noori is a Dubai-based journalist and author.

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Mohsin J. Al Musawi taught for over two decades at universities in the Arab world before moving to Columbia University. He is the author of 28 books (including four novels) and more than 60 scholarly articles. He has been the editor of the “Journal of Arabic Literature” since 2000. He was once the secretary-general for Iraqi writers (2003-2009) and was in charge of cultural and translation projects throughout that period. He initiated a highly acclaimed series of translated texts from Russian, English, German and Spanish. Professor Al Musawi’s teaching and research interests span several years and genres. His books include: “Scheherazade in England” (1981); “The Society of One Thousand and One Nights” (2000); “Anglo-Orient: Easterners in Textual Camps” (2000); “The Postcolonial Arabic Novel: Debating Ambivalence” (2003); “Arabic Poetry: Trajectories of Modernity and Tradition” (2006); “Reading Iraq: Culture and Power in Conflict” (2006); “The Islamic Context of The Thousand and One Nights” (Columbia University Press, 2009); and “Islam in the Street: The Dynamics of Arabic Literary Production” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009). He is also editor of and contributor to “Arabic Literary Thresholds: Sites of Rhetorical Turn in Contemporary Scholarship”( 2009). He wrote the introduction and notes to the Barnes & Noble edition of “The Thousand and One Nights”, published in 2007.