Some responses to “Qur’anic Reading as Embodied Practice”

I had a few responses to Summar Shoaib’s “Qur’anic Reading as Embodied Practice“.

The first response concerns the opposition which the piece creates between traditional Islamic and so-called “Western” modes of reading. These two great abstractions (the traditional Islamic and the Western) are of course immensely problematic – within each are a vast array of particular positions taken in respect of authoritative religious texts – but what I understand Summar’s central opposition to entail is a “traditional” and “submissive” posture versus a “rational” and “analytic” one. There are, of course, certain moments in the history of the West – within a certain academic discussion initiated by figures such as Hume, Kant, Hegel, and Schopenhauer, in which reason was elevated above tradition in discourse about religion – a trajectory that finds popular expression, even wide acceptance, among a wider Western public especially from the 1960s onwards. By framing the comparison, however, between “traditional Islam” and “the West” – always already problematic groupings in many ways – the West is turned into something of a fall guy, a patsy. For the same “submissive” approach to authoritative religious texts has dominated the history of the West and is still prevalent in the West today. We might note that the very (Western) discourse of emodiment, mentioned by Summar, while a corrective to certain other strands of Western thought – the Cartesian, etc, is itself a Western academic discourse. Or that academic, mainly modernist readings of the Qur’an are being performed by Muslim academics, too (e.g. Faziur Rahman Malik, Muhammad Arkoun, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd).

Undoubtedly there is an impossible distance between any traditional interpretation of an ancient religious text and a modern, academic interpretation of it – whether “Western” or “non-Western”. John Caputo, for example, discusses Anselm’s development of what is now termed “the ontological argument for the existence of God”. What interests Caputo, in reading Anselm’s argument, is not Anselm’s logic (nor his lack of logic, for that matter), but “the choreography … – that Anselm is conducting this argument on his knees, in a loving reverence and a faithful love of the God beyond God.” Caputo goes on to note that “things could not have changed more dramatically when this argument was rehearsed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Whether Anselm’s argument is defended or rebutted in modernity, the choreography is ignored, all the candles are blown out, and the animating religious spirit has been drained out of it. The prayers and tears of St. Anselm are replaced by dry-eyed, bare bones logic. The monastery chapel, the spare but gorgeous Gregorian chant, and monk’s prie-Dieu have all disappeared. The argument is labeled by Kant the ‘ontological’ argument …. But that is the last thing it is for Anselm” (On Religion, 41-42). Moshe Idel makes a similar argument in respect of Judaism in Old Worlds, New Mirrors: On Jewish mysticism and twentieth-century thought. The mode of interaction between reader and text is fundamentally different in modernity, at least in this respect.

A second, resulting response. If there is some validity to this nuancing of “Western” modes of interpretation, this point challenges not only the modern reader, but the religiously “submissive” reader as well. Contrary to the religious insider’s claims, their reading does not provide a “full” reading of the text. Their reading is only “deeper” in respect of their restricted definitions of deepness. If I dig a shallow, one-foot-deep hole, I might be able to claim that I stand in the deepest part of it – but I could also keep digging! There is thus a sense in which, within any “open” or “writerly” text – which describes almost any ancient or pre-modern religious text – a full reading cannot be reached by being submissive to the limitations of that one religious tradition.  Sure, submission to a particular tradition may achieve “fullness” according to a restricted measure of fullness. But in light of the range of readings able to be made, such fullness is limited and confined. One could make the same objection for any modern reading claiming a full interpretation. A full interpretation cannot in fact be reached at all, as the openness of the text to different readerly postures provides the possibility for infinite readings, for an unending and unreachable fullness.

My third and final response concerns the legitimacy of certain readings of religious texts, prompted by the whiff of prescription in Summar’s article concerning “traditional Islamic” readings (perhaps my misreading?). It may well be that certain modern readings of ancient or pre-modern religious texts lie completely outside what was ever previously envisaged for the use of the text. They were previously impossible, unable to be contemplated, and may even be considered illegitimate in terms of any legitimate “submissive” readings. My question is whether this prescriptive illegitimacy should govern the range of interpretations made today. I say: let’s open up the Qur’an for both the legitimate and the illegitimate, bastard readings.

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