ِ~Arab Culture and Fear of Reality Dr. Tarek Musleh

Philadelphia University/ English Department

          The Arabs are now torn between allegiance to heritage and confronting reality by adapting to the demands of contemporary life. On the one hand, the fundamentalists want to restore the old style of life by adopting a literal approach to religious texts; and they feel threatened by the idea of change. On the other hand, the liberals accept Western culture as exemplary, and they attempt to reconcile the past with the present. Similarly, Arabic literature is dominated by 'preaching', but increasingly tries to assert itself against all sorts of odds by confronting the challenges of modern life. In order to achieve an international status, Arabic literature has to emulate Western standards of behaviour,  and to confront human nature as it is without fear of any consequences.                                                    
الحضارة العربية والخوف من الواقع

ان العرب الآن ممزقون بين الولاء للتراث وبين مواجهة الواقع والتأقلم مع متطلبات الحياة العصرية. فمن ناحية يريد الأصوليون ان يعيدوا كل شيء الى اسلوب الحياة القديمة وتبني التفسير الحرفي للنصوص الدينية ويخشون من فكرة التغيير.ومن ناحية اخرى يتقبل الليبراليون الحضارة الغربية كنموذج يحتذى به ويحاولون ان يوفقوا بين الماضي والحاضر. وبالمثل فان الاسلوب الوعظي يسيطر على الادب العربي الذي يحاول جاهدا ان يؤكد ذاته ضد كل العوامل الصعبة المحيطة به وذلك بالتصدي لتحديات الحياة الحديثة. وعلى الأدب العربي ان يحاول محاكاة النماذج الغربية من السلوك الانساني حتى يثبت نفسه عالميا وان يواجه الطبيعة البشرية كما هي دون خوف من اية عواقب.
          The pressure of modern life and circumstances necessitates a new approach of reinterpreting religious texts in a flexible way. Interest, inheritance, and the feminist question in general, are some of the pressing issues that have to be tackled anew. Rationalisation, based on experiment and modern practical life, should be adopted in view of the nature of language and the ambiguity of many religious texts. More than a thousand years ago Al-Mutazilah courageously stated: "If there is a contradiction between the text and reason we shall adopt reason and interpret the text  figuratively."(1)On the other hand, educated people in the West have developed a form of Christian deism whereby they concentrated on the individual behaviour in a healthy society,  rather than on rituals or miracles.
          The ultimate question is whether there is a mechanism in Islam to enable scholars to respond positively to modern contexts of life and the soul of  texts, rather than to their literal dimension. Is it possible to reconcile the present demands of life with the literal approach of the fundamentalists? Furthermore, should Arabs reject modernization  on the basis of its foreignness and stick to their own cultural values, or should they try to find a compromise, especially that many educated people are not quite convinced of the validity of their own tradition? A strict adherence to heritage is something which the Arabs have had to deal with since the emergence of Islam. Perhaps the only significant exception is that of the rationalist movement of al-Mu’utazileh, which challenged the religious orthodoxy and went so far as to adopt a figurative interpretation of many Koranic verses which literally, from their point of view, contradicted reason. They also raised doubts about some of the issues which are now beginning to emerge again. Had al-Mu’utazileh been allowed to continue as a movement, it would probably have adopted a deistic approach to religion, where there is less attention either for rituals or miracles, and where the practical welfare of man is given top priority, exactly as the West has done  with Christianity. In recent times, al-Afagani, Muhammed Abdo, Kasem Amin, Shaltout, Ahmad Amin and many others started a movement of liberation; but again religious orthodoxy prevailed. At the moment, the Arab satellite channels are monitoring religious interpretations and trying by hook or by crook to preach traditional ideals as the only viable approach to Islam. Their attitude to feminism, interest, and individual freedom in general is quite negative and uncompromising; their outlook is one sided, presenting reality as either right or wrong concerning every aspect of life, including trivial details about one’s own personal matters. They sometimes rely on a decontextualized literal interpretation of religious texts and deny any possibility of maneuver, or of  adopting a figurative interpretation of some Koranic verses.
          The basic issue which the fundamentalists ignore is that religion is there to help man survive comfortably; and it should have a mechanism to change if circumstances demand, particularly by using analogy. Jesus once said to somebody protesting against not observing the Sabbath, “ the Sabbath was made for man, not the other way round.”(2)  In other words, man is the center, and everything else should be devoted to ensure his happiness on earth. Western culture has actually developed a philosophy of liberal humanism, where the individual is by and large free to do whatever he/she wants, providing of course that no one else is harmed. In Arab cultural ideology, society is the center and the individual is expected to sacrifice himself to serve his family, country, religion, etc. Perhaps some form of compromise is possible between extreme individualism and those external forces which limit and oppress the individual. In terms of any religious practice, the Moslem has to be logically convinced of whatever he/she is performing rather than the negative assertion, which is sometimes out of context, that this is merely mentioned in the Koran, or supported by Hadith. There is generally intellectual poverty on the part of orthodoxy, which is driving many educated people to the West rather than allowing them to re-evaluate their tradition in the light of new circumstances and then establish their own personal judgements. Some of those pro-Western scholars are further encouraged by modern theories of linguistics and literary criticism, especially Deconstructionism, that have thrown doubts on the unity of the text which is often seen as a rich and lively entity between writer and reader.(3) Accordingly, the possibility of more than one interpretation is always dormant within every text and each generation might find something new and totally different from the original interpretation, especially, as Nietzsche has remarked, language by nature is figurative.(4)
          There is an uneven battle at the moment between the fundamentalists who stick to the old interpretation of the Koran and Hadith and some modernists, such as Nasr Abu Zaid, who are trying to raise doubts about the “fixity” and “stability” of religious texts.(5) Probably new voices will emerge to enrich research concerning how to approach the religious text in particular. Despite unfavorable circumstances, it is hoped  that some approach which is flexible, pragmatic and tolerant might be adopted, although the conflict between the old and the new, in the words of Taha Hussein, will never be over.(6)
          All these problems are actually reflecting themselves in literature, which represents a culture where everything has to be supervised. Many Arab writers are committed to society, nationalism and/or religion; and they try in one way or another to reform the individual. Literature is there to change people and instruct them about how to conduct the best form of behavior. Narrators are usually intrusive, and they particularly appear in authorial mouthpieces that every now and then bombard the reader with religious and popular slogans such as “ murder will out,” or “ God approaches leisurely but never neglects anything”, or “the rope of lying is so short”. Under such manipulation, there is not a real sense of suspense and the line of development could easily be predicted. In other words, there are no real shocks or surprises or complexity of situations, and there is usually a sense of finality presented either in marriage or death or reformation. Rarely do we have an open ended work that is complex enough to puzzle us, and to speculate about what is going to happen next. Moreover, Arab writers are often openly didactic. Their enthusiasm to deliver a message makes their literature direct, without usually being able to dramatize any theme convincingly. The characters appear at times as puppets, and the resolution imposed from above rather than springing from within. There is little or no artistic distance between the writer and his material. Furthermore, the religious culture of the Arabs has made them glorify one form of Arabic, namely, al-Fus-ha, or classical Arabic, which most writers use in all situations, unlike Western fiction, which employs local dialects extensively. Regardless of any consideration, al-Fus-ha is not suited to be employed all the time in fiction, especially when the writer wants to convey  the actual wording of what goes inside his character’s mind, as in the stream of consciousness technique and more specifically in dialogue, simply because it is not used in actual life. If the character that is especially ordinary and uneducated is using Fus-ha, this will undoubtedly reduce its reality. The writer has to choose between Fus-ha, in which case his character’s reality is partially sacrificed, or using a local dialect that appears realistic but may not be completely understood in certain parts of the Arab World, especially in North Africa.
          Quite recently, there have been many Arab writers who are beginning to move towards modernism and respond favorably to globalization. Ghada al-Samman could be cited as an example of a feminist who is influenced by the West and is enthusiastic to preach equality among the sexes; but the clutches of didacticism are stifling her art. In Beirut 75 she could not help creating an authorial mouthpiece who has to be a poet in order to convey her own ideology about various aspects of life and existence. The novel is dangerously didactic, bordering on direct statements that are trying to present a case. Many melodramatic events spoil any attempt to prepare the reader psychologically to accept any situation. There are many scenes which disrupt our usual notion of probability; and certainly we have to be extremely tolerant to accept the sudden turn of events, which are sometimes too shocking to be true.(7)
          If we move to Western literature, we realize that the battle against didacticism is not yet over. Some of the great masters like Dostoevsky, Ibsen, Lawrence, Camus, and many others are sometimes quite didactic. In Dostoevsky’s masterpiece Crime and Punishment the dramatic change of Raskolnikov and his conversion to Christianity, in addition to the concomitant language, may not sound quite convincing, and are certainly  incommensurate with his previous sense of persistent absurdity. In Ghosts, Ibsen sometimes cannot be distinguished from his mouthpiece, Mrs Alving, or her son. Birkin and Ursula in Women in Love  appear at times, in  the words of John Bayly, as “bloodless ghosts”(8) enacting as they do the thesis of Lawrence himself. In The Outsider  by Camus we realize that reality, particularly in the second part of the novel, is presented as one sided; presumably society is trying the hero for his deviation, but it is actually Mersault who is reversing the picture by directly condemning the legal, religious and social systems when he  criticizes them openly. However, these works are great and they certainly tempt the reader, at least partially, to silence his possible objection to whatever defects they may have. They belong to a democratic culture where everybody is given a chance to express themselves fully. Polyphony, or multiplicity of voices, is well established as an ideal in Western literature, which is moving towards (though it may not fully achieve it) the condition of pure art as particularly manifested in music. Liberal humanism preaches tolerance and accepts man for what he is, despite his so-called deviation. That is one reason why characters are lively and certainly more realistic and far less idealized than in Arabic literature. In fact, at times aberration becomes the norm. All sides of man are explored especially inner life and unconsciousness. The reader feels at times that the writer is equally putting himself in both the protagonists as well as the antagonists, simply because of this sense of doubt which permeates much Western culture and literature. Svidrigaylov in Crime and Punishment, Gerald and Gudrun in Women in Love, The Foxes in Howrds End and many other antagonists are powerfully dramatized, after the tradition well established by Shakespeare, especially from the inside, and given a chance to justify their attitude with the same force of the protagonists. In fact, the reader becomes in many cases confused as to the sympathy of the writer. Very often the individuals in many works are lost and disillusioned with almost all social values, and the writer appears to be free from any restrictions or constraints to explore the inner resources of his characters and the deep recesses of human nature. There is no real commitment to any outside forces, except one’s own personal experience and belief.
          It seems that commitment in the Arab sense reduces the writer’s attention, which should be focused on the literariness of literature, that is on the artistic elements which make literature what it is. Once the well known poet Hassan Ibn Thabet was asked about the reason of the decline of his poetry. His blatant answer was, “ it is Islam”,(9)  that is, persistent commitment to a particular ideology may drive the writer away from his art or preclude exploring all aspects of human nature.
          Virginia Woolf could be taken as an example of a Western culture where writers are principally committed to their art and personal existential experience. Her characters are fully explored through internalization, which allows them to particularly dramatize their inner life, past and present, with little manipulation on the part of the narrator. She challenges the traditional concept of characterization and chronological plot, and accuses Bennett, Galsworthy and Wells in particular of producing ‘skeletons’ rather than real people. In Mrs Dalloway, inner life is shown to be far more important and real than the superficiality of the ruling class. Authenticity is well established as an ideal to allow the characters to probe into some existential issues. Right and wrong are solipsistic values and decided by personal experience, rather than imposed by an outside force. The idea of conversion is ridiculed through the character of Doris Kilman, who symbolizes imposition, if only too obviously by her type name. Even psychologists who are supposed to provide a balanced view of normality are satirized and shown to be part of the oppressive forces of society that are driving some individuals to be mad and suicidal. There is no definite conclusion; and Clarissa Dalloway has to be accepted as she is, despite, or because of, her unpredictability; and that is part of her charm. The reader has to contend himself with the last words of the novel, ‘for there she was’.(10)
          Western literature may not provide a healthy picture of individuality and may emphasize the fragmentary existence of a hopeless world “Waiting for Godot”, but it is certainly more original and artistic than Arabic literature which is still by and large on the survival side, dealing with social issues related to perfecting people’s material life. Arab writers do not have to go as far as the sexual hallucinations of Molly Bloom in Ulysses, or the blatant rejection of all conventions by Mersault in The Outsider or the distorted human existence of much of the theater of the absurd, but they should at least abandon the idea of showing any sexuality outside marriage as unrealistic, and a form of deviation which has to be regretted.



سلسلةكتب الخيال العلمي : ويليام جراهام الحالم: (Arabic Edition ) (ويليام جراهاموممالك العالم المتوازي Book 1) KindleEdition


1. Al-Bagdadi, Abdul-Kader, Islamic sects, Beirut: Dar al-Mashriq, 1986. p. 564.     
 2. The Bible, St. Mark, Alexander Robertson: G. Allen, 1998. p.78.
3. See Hans Bertens, 'Deconstruction', in  Literary Theory, Oxford University Press: 2002, pp. 117-147.
4. Nietzsche, F, Quoted by The Modern  Tradition, ed. Richard Ellmann, New York: Oxford University Press, 1965, p. 817.
5. See  Abu Zeid, Nasr, Thinking at the time of
 Blasphemy Accusation, Sina Publication, 1995.
6. Hussein, Taha, Al-Arbia' Talk, Cairo: Dar al-Ma'arif, 1976, pp. 3-58.
7. See Ghada al-Samman, Beirut 75, Samman Publication, 1979, pp. 80-1.
8. Bailey, John, The Characters of Love,  London: Constable, 1960, p.39.
9. Quoted by Abu Faraj al-Asfahani, Songs, Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-Ilmieh, 1986, p. 243.
10. Woolf, Virginia, Mrs Dalloway, York Press, 1999, p. 168. 

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