Textual Desires by Nazry Bahrawi
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single worshipper in possession of a good conviction must be in want of a narrative. Consider the Divine Comedy, the Ramayana and The Conference of the Birds. These ancient compositions are literary masterpieces, but they also figure as works of significant religious worth. That we have imagined them as such suggests that the cornerstone of belief is premised on the idea that human beings are meaning-seeking creatures. To us, a profound narrative must surely denote divine authorship.
One can argue that it is this very quest for meaning that drove multitudes in medieval Arabia to embrace the coherent theology spoken through Muhammad, an unlettered whose God-inspired poetic verses were first committed to print as the Qur’an by his trusted friend and Islam’s first caliph Abu Bakr before they were codified as a standard text on the instruction of Uthman ibn Affan, the third caliph.
Herein lies my postulation: Islam is a literary faith. There are two ways to mentally map this. Firstly, the Qur’an’s poetic nature suggests it can be interpreted in literary ways. For instance, the late Egyptian theologian Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd attempted to capture the nuances of Islam’s literariness by conceptualising what he calls the humanistic hermeneutics method in which verses are interpreted according to their historical and cultural contexts, thus mirroring the New Historicism school of thought in Western literary theory. Meanwhile, feminist interpretations have also been applied by such scholars as Fatima Mernissi and Amina Wadud.
Indeed, Islamic doctrines have been frequently expressed and negotiated through literature. The works of Middle Eastern writers such as Jalal ul-din Rumi and Naguib Mahfouz that deal with Islamic theology are widely known. A lesser known fact is that intimations of Islam were keenly expressed through the cultural landscape of Muslim Southeast Asia, or the Nusantara. More intriguingly, intersections between Islam and literature in this region have been the site of struggle of the age-old polemic between taqlid (imitation) and ijtihad (sustained reasoning) understood as the wider dispute between adherence and creativity, continuity and change.
It must be noted that the literati’s tryst with Islam is not a novel postulation if we consider the gradual entrenchment of Islam in the Nusantara. There were no conquests by Muslim armies, thus challenging the Islamophobic idea that it was ‘spread by the sword’. In the Nusantara, Islam is better characterised as having been ‘spread by the word’, a postulation that conforms with Ronit Ricci’s treatise about the region’s literary networks or ‘shared texts, including stories, poems, genealogies, histories, and treatises on a broad range of topics; as well as the readers, listeners, authors, translators and scribes who created the texts, translated and transmitted them, and engaged with them in various ways’.