What I nearly wrote…

I was sorting my office out today and found the proposal for the PhD I was writing at SOAS before I switched quite drastically to Philosophy of Education.  I thought it might be interesting to see the way I nearly went!

Rethinking the Qur’an in textual dialogue:

A study of Qur’anic intertextuality and its implications for the Christian-Muslim Encounter

In my MA dissertation, “Rethinking the Christian-Muslim Encounter”, I investigated the implications of Mohammed Arkoun’s deconstructionist approach to Islam for Christian-Muslim dialogue.  I identified that Arkoun applies techniques derived from Derrida and other deconstructionist thinkers both to the concept of Muslim/muslim identity and also to the Qur’an;  it is particularly this application of postmodern thought to the Qur’an in dialogue that I would like to investigate further in doctoral research.

Taking leave of Arkoun, whose application of Derrida to the Qur’an is more explicitly historical, I would like to focus on the Qur’an in textual dialogue with Christianity, and specifically apply the literary concept of intertextuality to the process of “rethinking” the Qur’an and the Bible together.  Rather than the more global deconstructions and (re)constructions of the whole notion of revelation attempted by Arkoun, I would use as a starting point and a model for my approach some of the very recent work which has been undertaken to apply Derrida’s thought (I would hesitate to say method) to the Jewish and Christian scriptures, most notably that undertaken by Yvonne Sherwood et al in “Derrida’s Bible” (2004) and “Derrida and Religion:  New testaments” (2005).

These types of study are characterised by close reading of particular portions of scripture, sometimes holding them in relation to other texts to which they are not connected historically, by genre or by author’s intention, but with which (such is the path opened up by Derrida and his theoretical predecessors) they are nevertheless in dialogue. Such an approach therefore differs greatly from a traditionally comparative or historical approach to the study of religious texts.

 

By investigating such textual dialogues, I hope to draw some more detailed conclusions about the Qur’an itself – and by extension, Islam – in dialogue. I shall not necessarily restrict this dialogue to the dialogue with Christianity, but also to the relation of Islam to secular and political texts.

The limitations of this study should be acknowledged.  I would be writing as one of many outsiders who are trying in one way or another to relate to the Muslims around them, and the dialogue I would be thinking through would not be an interreligious, but an intertextual, discourse, although – of course – these texts need not be written texts.  But I see that Derrida’s thought is at the present moment being applied with some popularity to Christian scripture, in some places and with limited acceptance to Muslim scripture, but there is not much work which has successfully focused – despite the pressing need in the present climate – specifically on the Qur’an in intertextual dialogue. Arkoun points to the need for his work on the Qur’an to be continued in relation to other scripture, but he does not undertake this work himself.  Furthermore, although his work on understanding the Qur’an draws extensively on the traditions of deconstruction and semiotics, the concept of intertextuality is not one to which he gives a great deal of attention.  This is a literary tool which may prove to be of great use to those engaged in dialogue with Islam.

The study would begin with an exploration of the notion of intertextuality and an initial investigation of the radical possibilities it might open up for rethinking the Qur’an in dialogue, setting clear parameters for what will constitute an “intertextual” study of the Qur’an.  This would involve defining the limits or extent of which texts can be read in relation and what reading texts in relation might mean.  Intertextuality does not mean, as seems to be the prevailing thought in John C. Reeves, ed. “Bible and Qur’an: Essays in Scriptural Intertextuality” (2003), the identification of scriptural influences from the Bible on the Qur’an and the “spotting” of deliberate allusions or shared material (this is all a part of conventional textual criticism) but rather the mutual transformation of texts when they are considered together – or, in this instance, in dialogue.  In many ways, this understanding of intertextuality might be more theologically productive, and is certainly more fruitful for the conduct of interreligious dialogue.

I would also undertake a survey of the uses that have already been made of this sort of intertextual study in Christian-Muslim dialogue to date, and identify further points of departure from here.  Loren Lybarger, for example, in “Gender and Prophetic Authority in the Qur’anic Story of Maryam:  A Literary Approach” (2000) claims to be making a distinctly intertextual approach, modelled on the work of Sternberg and Alter in relation to Biblical narrative:  “Consequently, questions of genesis and the historical ‘influence’ of Judaism and Christianity on the narrative are of relatively less importance – though, as will be seen, Jews and Christians, as rhetorical foils, are essential in forming the dramatic field of tension in the Maryam cycle.”[1]

I would then undertake some close readings of portions of the Qur’an in relation to Biblical texts which would perhaps not have been permitted ouside of the parameters of this study, drawing out their conclusions and implications.  Lybarger’s “gynocentric subtext”, for example, certainly opens a rich vein of further intertextual enquiry.

I should add that intertextuality must not be used as an opportunity to abandon traditional Christian or Islamic scholarship.  In this respect postmodern textual criticism is often misunderstood.  Derrida himself calls traditional criticism an “indispensible guardrail” and it must provide the background knowledge of any exploration into intertext.  Barthes’ “death of the author” did not mean the death of appropriate contextual or historical study, but rather the birth of a new critical form which is constantly nurtured and informed by that study.  To return to where I started, Arkoun would agree that the play of signs across texts which are only connected in the intertextual experience of a reader or readers must not be closed off from critical study by the presuppositions of traditional Qur’anic scholarship, even if that means (and it does) “rethinking” these presuppositions.  This study would therefore be grounded in an understanding of the importance of Muslim theology and traditional study of the Qur’an, but would not accept the hegemonising tendencies of such tradition.

D Aldridge February 07


[1] Footnote 3, p. 241

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