Can a Reader use Western Literary Theory to Approach the Qur’an?

Rachel Friedman on Whitney Bodman’s The Poetics of Iblis

Islam, narrative theology, iblis, Rachel Friedman, Whitney Bodman
Whitney Bodman, The Poetics of Iblis: Narrative Theology in the Qurʾan, Harvard University Press, 2011, 324 pp., $25

Since the time of its appearance in seventh-century Arabia, the Qur’an has been the subject of rich and diverse commentaries, a testament to its power as experienced by Muslim and non-Muslim audiences. What can Western literary thought contribute to this longstanding tradition of interpreting the Qur’an? How can a contemporary audience not versed in Islamic sources understand this religious text?

These questions lie at the heart of many recent efforts to bring European-born modes of interpretation to the study of Islamic Scripture. Traditional tafsir interprets the text largely in an atomistic, verse-by-verse manner. Modern readings, by contrast, approach the text from angles ranging from structural to thematic to narrative. These experimental projects draw attention to connections between different parts of the text as well as common themes and structures that undergird the suras (roughly, “chapters” of the Qur’an). Though they are not the first to do so, they show how the rhetorical and linguistic features of the Qur’an contribute to its power.

Whitney Bodman’s book The Poetics of Iblis, which applies reader-response criticism to the Qur’an, is part of this growing field of research. While Bodman is not entirely successful in using his interpretive mode of choice, he reveals meaningful variations among the Qur’an’s seven iterations of the story of Iblis by expanding the story’s scope to allow for a wider range of interpretation.

According to traditional Islamic exegesis, Iblis is considered to be a specific shaytan, or devil. Bodman instead reads Iblis as a tragic literary figure, contrasting him with Shaytan, who represents pure evil. The character of Iblis develops throughout the Qur’an, possibly even meriting the audience’s sympathy, while Shaytan remains a static symbol of evil in the world. Qur’an 17:61 states: “Behold! We said to the angels: ‘Bow down unto Adam’: They bowed down except Iblis: He said, ‘Shall I bow down to one whom Thou didst create from clay?'” Iblis’s response to God here is Bodman’s key to understanding him as an interesting literary figure and specifically as a tragic hero. God punishes Iblis for refusing to prostrate to “a human whom you [God] created from ringing clay, from stinking black clay,” a sentiment reiterated in several places in the Qur’an. Iblis’s refusal is a decision made using his God-given reasoning to determine that bowing to Adam, a smelly creation made from earth, is “neither logical, nor just, nor warranted.”  Bodman shows that portrayals of Iblis as a literary character in modern Arabic literature also pick up on this logic.

Bodman has chosen to use the variety of reader-response criticism associated with the German literary scholar Wolfgang Iser. For Iser, meaning is formed in the interaction between the author’s so-called “implied reader”—whom the author imagines as her ideal future audience of the text—and the particular thinking of actual readers. The author draws on this implied reader’s background knowledge with the aim of helping the reader create meaning. To apply Iser’s theory, Bodman tries to reconstruct what background knowledge the Qur’an assumes its implied reader to have. He surveys ancient Semitic texts as well as Jewish and Christian sources, focusing on the interpretation of biblical material. Bodman identifies several themes in these pre-Islamic texts that the Qur’an also incorporates, such as sibling rivalry and the myth of a fallen angel. He also investigates the origins of some Qur’anic ideas. For example, was the notion of angels present in pre-Islamic Arabia or did it come from Judeo-Christian lore? This allows him to ask “what the original hearers of passages concerning angels might have made of the concept.”

The choice to focus on the Qur’an’s first audience is common to Western academic approaches to the Qur’an. This decision assumes that the Qur’an is a response to circumstances in seventh-century Arabia and privileges the origins of ideas over their function in the text. Yet to what extent can this endeavor understand the Qur’an on its own terms without undervaluing what these ideas mean within it? For many it will seem strange to interpret this sacred text using a German mode of criticism that reached the height of its popularity in the 1970s. A theory that was formulated with modern European texts and readers in mind may not be suitable for a more ancient Arabian source. What are the implications of applying Western literary theory to the Qur’an?

In the case of reader-response criticism, this question takes on an interesting valence. As previously mentioned, the notion of an implied reader fails to do justice to the experience of actual readers and the background knowledge they bring to their readings of the text. The author of a text cannot account for all actual readers, an idea that was important to Iser’s theory about the production of meaning. While human authors cannot account for all actual readers, a divine omniscient author is an exception: this author would not have to project a prototypical reader and guess at this reader’s background knowledge. A divine, omniscient author is very different from Iser’s imagined author. The former would already know the entirety of future readership and, moreover, would be eminently aware of all meanings of the text. In this case, meaning could not be produced in the gap between what the implied reader knows and what actual readers bring to the text, because this gap would not exist. Reader-response criticism could not work in the way Iser theorized.

Iser’s reader-response criticism is generally not applied to texts claiming to be the direct word of God. Islamic doctrine asserts the divine origin of the Qur’an, although many scholars have attributed its composition to Muhammad, a group of seventh-century authors, or later writers. Moreover, the Qur’an speaks of itself as having a divine source and addresses all of humanity, which indicates that its author does not have one ideal reader in mind. Following much recent Western scholarship on Islam, Bodman avoids addressing the issue of the Qur’an’s authorship directly.

Not all scholarship on the Qur’an must deal with the question of authorship. But for a writer who applies a mode of interpretation in which the author’s own assumptions play a unique role, the issue cannot be ignored. A text that claims a divine source may imagine a reader response different from the type that a mortal author would imagine.

Bodman would have done well to devote more attention to the Qur’an’s self-understanding, but I am not suggesting that he take a theological stand on the Qur’an’s origins. In light of the Qur’an’s specific features, its encounter with reader-response theory should be allowed to push the boundaries of the theory itself.

As an interaction between the Qur’an and literary theory, The Poetics of Iblis is best taken as an experimental project, part of a contemporary effort to determine whether and how one might productively and thoughtfully apply Western understandings of literature to the Qur’an. These efforts tend to focus on larger patterns of meaning, narrative, and aesthetics, which can make the text at hand more approachable and meaningful to audiences that may otherwise find it alien and hard to comprehend. As a text held to be divinely authored, the Qur’an poses an interesting challenge to Western theory, exposing its limitations when applied to texts beyond the realm of modern European writings.