Dos and Don'ts for Littérateurs: Mediaeval Muslim Jurisprudents' Discussions of Literature
The much-publicised case of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1989 served as a shocking reminder that Muslim jurisprudents, such as ayatollah Khomeini, may not be habitual readers of works of belles-lettres yet they may well hold opinions, indeed very definite opinions, on certain aspects of literature. Uncompromising in tone and completely devoid of any arguments, this sinister fatwa is fortunately not a typical example of how Muslim jurists have tended to approach literary issues. Since literature is not among the major subjects of traditional Islamic jurisprudence, such issues tend to be dealt with in a somewhat unsystematic, or downright haphazard, manner, and one finds discussion of such problems scattered over various chapters of juridical works, but certain typical patterns and lines of reasoning can nevertheless be identified in Islamic legal writings. The aim of this lecture is to offer a brief overview of the particular aspects of literature that caught the attention of many Muslim jurisprudents, such as blasphemy and insults to the Prophet’s honour (the main point of the whole Rushdie controversy) the handling of Quranic quotations (iqtibās), the relationship between literary fiction and ordinary lying, and hyperboles in praise-poetry. A few problems will receive particular attention, being as they are especially illustrative of the approach of Muslim jurists to literary phenomena. Thus discussion will focus on the legal status of hurtful invective poetry, indiscreet allusions – or, as the case might be, candid statements – in amorous poetry, as well as the problem of the citation of objectionable material (ḥikāyat al-munkar) as opposed to the original authorship thereof.
Zoltán Szombathy is currently Head of the Department of Arabic Studies at Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, and has previously done research at the Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton),the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (Madrid) and the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (Edinburgh). His research interests include the anthropology and social history of the Middle East and the wider Islamic world, as well as the ethnography of Muslim societies in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. His major published works include Mujūn: Libertinism in Mediaeval Muslim Society and Literature (Oxford: Gibb Memorial Trust, 2013), The History of Kaabu and Bidyini: Two Chronicles in Arabic from Guinea-Bissau (Piliscsaba: The Avicenna Institute of Middle Eastern Studies, 2007), The Roots of Arabic Genealogy: A Study in Historical Anthropology (Piliscsaba: The Avicenna Institute of Middle Eastern Studies, 2003), as well as several entries in the third edition of the Encyclopedia of Islam on the ethnography of the Islamic world.