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This book profiles some of the fundamental debates that have defined the conversation between the past and the present in the Islamic world, including: Qur’anic exegesis, Islamic law, gender, violence and eschatology.
Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language. Thus Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul …
Karl Marx (1954)
The notion of tradition is a powerful one for historians of Islam and Islamic societies, although they probably would not describe its burden in such morbid terms as does Marx. Events in the modern period have catapulted the Islamic tradition well beyond the confines of academic scholarship and into the public sphere, where aspects of the Islamic tradition have acquired a new potency in political, social, economic and religious life. Recent events in the Islamic world have also provoked new interpretations of the Islamic tradition by movements and intellectuals in countries as diverse as Iran, India, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Yemen, all of which feature in this volume. A fascinating range of modern Islamic movements and intellectuals has sought to reinterpret certain rulings, inherited texts, concepts, ideas, genres, persons, events and trends from the Islamic tradition.
Despite this contemporary alacrity over the Islamic tradition, careful treatments of the Islamic tradition in its longue dureé perspective have been few and far between. There is good reason for this tardiness. The Islamic tradition represents a vast corpus of texts, ideas and practices expressed in a variety of languages and whose geographical range is limited neither to the Middle East nor to the Global South. No one book can encompass the complex diversity that constitutes the Islamic tradition and no one scholar can survey its entire literary heritage. Yet, its very breadth demands a careful examination of how modern thinkers, scholars and movements have navigated the contours of the Islamic tradition in the modern period.
A leading scholar of Islamist militancy recently posed a blunt question: ‘Why is it that hunted terrorists spend time on poetry when they could be training?’ This is a powerfully pertinent question. The answer goes to the heart of the social dynamics, motivation and recruitment techniques of jihadist groups. I have written previously on the significance and functions of poetry in winning hearts and minds for the militant jihadist cause. This chapter departs from my previous research in that it focuses specifically on how and why contemporary jihadists use the Arab classical poetic tradition as a propaganda tool.
First, it is important to understand that poetry holds a revered position in Arab culture and that it enjoys widespread appeal in both popular and elite circles. Generally considered to be the oldest art form in the Arab world, poetry permeates all sectors of the social hierarchy and deals with a vast range of life's activities, from politics to pleasure, and from war to wisdom. Over the centuries it has been used widely not only to record history but also actively to shape it. In other words, more than simply reflecting the world we see, Arabic poetry has the capacity to influence how we view the world. Small wonder then that jihadist movements, both under the umbrella of what we now know as al-Qāʿida and of the so-called Islamic State, make liberal use of this vast and venerable resource. It is reasonably well known that leading jihadists penned their own poetry, including both the former and current global leaders of al-Qāʿida, Osama bin Laden (d. 2013) and Ayman al-Ẓawāhirī, as well as Abū Muṣʿab al-Zarqāwī (d. 2006), leader of al-Qāʿida in Iraq, the group that metamorphosed into Islamic State. What is less well explored is the way in which jihadists have drawn on the classical poetic heritage, even in poetry that has been deemed to be their own creation. This therefore is the focus of this chapter.
The incorporation of canonical texts from the classical poetic tradition into today's jihadist narratives mirrors the use of canonical religious texts. Both categories of text are ‘claimed’ and reinterpreted within contexts that buttress the ideals of modern militant jihad.
This chapter investigates the complex links between literature and politics in contemporary Egypt. Literature here is used to mean works of the creative imagination (poems, short stories, novels and so on). That literature is political is beyond dispute inasmuch as its production and consumption cannot occur in a societal vacuum. In Egypt, the very fundamentals of how, what and where one publishes are themselves political decisions in a culture industry that has been the site of successive battles between artists and the establishment. What is less clear is how closely literature is (or should be) tied to the service of a particular political agenda or connected to the masses, and to what extent literature can and does succeed in influencing political reality. Many pundits have attributed widespread failure to predict Egypt's revolution to the dearth of warning signs, but the seeds of revolution were apparent in cultural production in the years leading up to the events of 2011. Novels, poems, films and soap operas drove home the reality and consequences of pervasive corruption in a dysfunctional state. Creative works of the imagination have some advantages over factual forms of discourse. As art and as make-believe, they enjoy a greater capacity to circumvent the various kinds of censorship to which other forms of discourse are subject under authoritarian regimes; they have artistic licence to distill, stress or exaggerate particular features of the world they choose to represent using myriad devices for extra effect, in addition to the simple power of selective presentation; and, finally, their aesthetical qualities have the power to speak to hearts as well as minds. The Afghan writer Atiq Rahimi has described the relationship between literature and politics as ‘the power of words against the words of power’.
This chapter attempts to describe, theorise and, to a limited extent, quantify the nature of the relationship between politics and literature in Egypt from both angles of this dialectic. The flurry of literary activity that accompanied the 2011 revolution (and its ongoing aftermath) is generally subject to two assumptions: that it gave expression to the pulse of the Egyptian nation, as new works were created and old works resurfaced; and that, more than just recording the uprising, it formed an integral part of it, and possibly even played a role in inspiring and fuelling it.
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