My dissertation attempts to open up a Muslim perspective within the field of Religion and Literature, taking up the split between the religious and the secular as that split is encountered in the circumstances of the Arab world during and after their colonial experience, and offers an approach to reading that can transcend the difficulty of imagining a relation to one’s history past the sudden leap to modernity which can obscure that relation. The dissertation treats this obscurity as a common problem for readers of both the Qur’an and the novel, and proposes metaphor as a medium through which belonging is constructed across the two types of text, where metaphor is both the source of cohesion within the text, and expressive of the reader’s ability to imagine a world of which she is part.
To investigate the possibilities of metaphor for readers of the Qur’an, I first examine the pre-modern exegete Al-Biqāᶜī, and his attempt at reading cohesion in Sūrat Al-Nisā’, and show that his search for cohesion through metaphors is motivated by his political perspective as well as limited by it, in that his politics do not permit him the scope to posit the world towards which his metaphors might point. I then attempt my own reading of Surat al-Nisā’, in which I explore the scope for extending its metaphors, and reflect on the way those extensions point to a possible world. To investigate the possibilities of metaphor for readers of the novel, I offer a reading of Abdul Rahman Munif’s Al-Tīh, and Hoda Barakat’s Malakūt Hādhihi al-Arḍ, as novels portraying the failure of nation at the individual level, and offering the reader the opportunity to construct metaphors that may both acknowledge and overcome the social divisions that led to that failure.
In offering my reading of Surat al-Nisā’ and of these novels side by side, I hope to show that despite the different kinds of limits and possibilities that an attempt to read metaphor will encounter with these different kinds of texts, the reward of reading can be similar and mutually enlightening. Whether it is the place of women in society as a question encountered in the Qur’an, or the place of citizens in a new nation as encountered in the novels, the need for a successful reading of either to imagine the world of which the individual is part, makes it difficult to contain the reward of reading either under the rubric of “religion” or “literature” alone. This dissertation would like to point to the way in which the overlap becomes productive, where it is acknowledged not only that the world is shared, but that the mediums through which it is imagined and re-imagined may also be.