Blog Post

Arabic and the Monopoly of Theory

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Images Flickr ( I, II ) 

Alexander Key’s recent article on the future of Comparative Literature, “Arabic: Acceptance and Anxiety,” asks hard and important questions about the status and adequacy of the discipline’s theoretical inclusiveness and historical consciousness. The article strikes a chord with many Arabists in the field who, like Key himself, seek to balance the demands of their specific academic goals and their contributions to the overall improvement of the humanities, especially the capacity to expand and connect its theories to a time of terror. Key does a brilliant job in a limited space of considering this balance in the relationship between the acceptance and neglect of Arabic,  “an enemy language,” or rather between the familiar consistency of the discipline and the necessity for responsible thought, a task which requires us to be theoretically globalized, linguistically diverse and fully cognizant of the much larger narratives of our human history.

What Key points to, and what is known to every comparatist in North America, is the chronic drift of theory towards Europe, resulting in a single-minded dimensionality, one that while having a compassionate eye towards its Other, is still incapable of de-totalizing our intellectual production and immunizing the discipline against surrendering once again to the good old gravitational pull of Eurocentrism. As it looks at the future of Comparative Literature, Key’s article reflects on the newly published English translation of Barbara Cassin’s 2004 Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionnaire des intraduisables (Apter, Lezra, Wood).   A “paradigmatically ‘Comp Lit’ endeavor,” and an important work in its own right, as Key rightfully characterizes it, the irony in the volume’s Introduction does not escape Key’s notice.  While it “gestures with intent towards the rest of the world,” addressing other translations of the French text into Arabic and Farsi, among other languages, the Introduction is pronouncedly clear about the “undeniable European focus” of the volume, which cannot simply be wished away by the translators’s decision not to translate the reference to Europe in the original title. This is a rationalization of the means that does not exactly match the rationalization of the end and a baffling if not unfaithful choice for a volume on the untranslatables.

Speaking of new horizons in human thought, a substantial and transformative work of translation (from Arabic) that is yet to receive its due status among all comparatists is Asad Ahmed’s Avicenna’s Deliverance: Logic (Oxford, 2012). Drawn from the arcane of the arcane of classical Arabic, Ahmed’s work brings to the English reader for the first time a translation of Avicenna’s Kitāb al-Najā (The Book of Deliverance). Not only is Avicenna one of the greatest logicians known to this world, but his theory of logic, as Ahmed brilliantly remarks, departs from Aristotle’s Organon in fundamental ways that compel us to revisit the Arabic tradition of logic, which has been long dismissed by the likes of Hegel as mimetic renditions of Greek philosophy and thus lacking in originality.

We therefore cannot emphasize enough the need to continue to broaden and deepen our comparative horizons, especially in the face of all sorts of essentialisms and monopolies exercised on our diverse human traditions. It is true that the future of Comparative Literature in North America provides a more promising framework for overdue inclusions of less emphasized languages and literary traditions than were readily available, say, during the post-Vietnam era, where French Structuralism followed by Derridean and de Manian Deconstruction, then the Frankfurt School of Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, and Jürgen Habermas dominated the field, bringing with them all sorts of texts to the fore in languages such as Greek, French, German, and English. All this is studied against an exclusivist background in European philosophy which begins normally with the 10th chapter of Plato’s Republic and The Phadrus, and ends somewhere on the threshold of Nietzschean thought and its ramifications in Heidegger, Bataille, Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida, Nancy etc. But the Arabic tradition and the heritage of other less commonly taught languages with hundreds of un-translated manuscripts on literature and philosophy have literally been shelved for the last 50 years.  Even postcolonial theory, which has its roots in the colonized Arab world (Fanon, Said, Memmi) could not survive the siren call of Eurocentrism.  Today, many of Comparative Literature’s fundamental books (theories, philosophies, literary works) continue to be taught, emulated, recapitulated, reemphasized, remediated, re-envisioned, in almost every single department in the US. The list from Plato to Umberto Eco is pretty much known to all comparatists all over the country. There is nothing wrong with this and understandably every graduate program differs in terms of flexibility and inclusion of non-European texts. While all those foundational books are enriching and crucial for a deeper understanding of humanism, most of us in the field are left with nothing but footnotes of our histories, not to mention the almost futile endeavor of trying to convince renowned publishing houses to consider publishing our work, unless of course political Islam is part of the title.  And so we are left with an ironic reproduction of the same despite the good intentions of auto-critique, a malady that Comparative Literature teaches us to avoid. Self-critique is enlightening, no doubt, but it is not enlightenment, and certainly not enough in today’s increasingly polarized world.

In Poetics of Relation, Edouard Glissant makes the salient point that the West (although I would prefer to call it Euro-America), has found a way to reproduce itself through self-critique, a fascinating yet dangerously exclusivist formula: “[T]he West has produced the variables to contradict its impressive trajectory every time. This is the way in which the West is not monolithic, and this is why it is surely necessary that it move toward entanglement [in rough terms: interrelations between itself and the non-west]. The real question is whether it will do so in a participatory manner or if its entanglement will be based on old impositions.”[1] This ‘participatory manner’, this grave warning against falling again into the warped wires of self-replication is what still remains far from achievable in the discipline. The reality is that such a maneuver remains oblivious, intentionally or not, to the multitudes on the periphery that are “powerless to be born,” to echo yet another European poem. 

Because I was trained as a comparatist who writes in English, I felt somehow that I would make more sense if I quoted a German poem or a French novel, or an English author, or better yet something Greek. For an Arabist in the discipline, and I am speaking only for myself, to write was never an “intransitive verb,” as Mr. Barthes has perversely tried to show us, but a “repressive verb.” To learn to write as an Arabist and a comparatist in English was to learn to write while repressing the other, only that this other is none but myself, emptied out almost unnaturally of my ipseity. True, English has become the language of my intellectual thinking, but it has never replaced Arabic nor will. To write then is a repressive verb, an act that silences al-Qur’an, resisting hundreds of readily available verses in my brain, or dismissing captivating lines of poetry from al-Mutanabbi, Umar ibn al-Farid, Malik ibn al-Rayb,  ‘A’isha al-Ba’uniyya, Ahmad Shawqi, al-Sayyab, Nazik al-Malaa’ka, Amal Dunqul, or al-Bayyati. I was taught, implicitly that is, that my reader’s unfamiliarity with my language and its vast tradition could hinder understanding and could make my point difficult to grasp because of the cultural connotations that may not come across in the act of translation. Or, as Aamir Mufti has keenly put it, gesturing towards a future of engaging the Qur’an in literary studies, “if you really want to write a dictionary of untranslatables, then the Qur’an is the mother of all untranslatables.”

The soft criticism against the invocation of Arabic in my writing was always conveyed with a careful and regretful tone that if only Arabic were an easy language to acquire, or if only more scholars and readers knew or appreciated this valuable language, etc.…I won’t turn this into a commentary on my own personal experience as a graduate student in a Comp Lit program, but I remember two turning points quite vividly. First, a gathering with all new graduate students (all English native speakers) when everyone was asked to introduce themselves and speak about their second language and a third ancient language they were studying. Hearing French, German, Italian, Spanish as a second language, I said “English. English is my second language.” Everyone laughed, including myself, except that my laughter was a nervous hiding of the creeping realization that my linguistic position is peripheral. Secondly, the refusal of one of my professors to accept an essay that included the modernist Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab in a comparative study with Baudelaire. The department PhD reading list still included familiar Arabic texts like the Quran, A Thousand and One Nights, some Mahfouz, some Darwish, and a few other texts, all in translation, of course.  But my professor’s disclaimer was that because (s)he didn’t  speak Arabic, (s)he wouldn’t be in a comfortable position to offer constructive comments on my final paper. I respect that response. I could not blame my professor for not knowing my language and it is a point well taken, even though I provided a translation. However, the shock was inconceivable as I was advised to focus on the ‘recognized languages of the discipline’ in order to be able to publish my paper and secure a decent job. That of course, until 9/11 happened and Arabic suddenly acquired a different significance in a must- approach-with-caution anxiety-shift as Key has forcefully indicated.

So an all-inclusive future of Comparative Literature remains a Sisyphean task, but this must not discourage us, for it behooves us as humanists in a discipline enticed by what Lyotard has called “the desire called Marx” to treat all literatures equally. This turn in what essentially is a discipline empowered through the very inclusiveness and multitudes of a world brought together by literary conversations, and precisely because of its various cultural and intellectual productions, will mark an overpowering transformation for the discipline. In the case of Arabic, this turn won’t happen until Avicenna and Averroes are read against Aristotle, not until al-Jurjani’s long-neglected theory of Balagha shatters all gates of comparative rhetoric, Dante is compared to al-Ma ‘arri, Shakespeare to Shawqi, Percy Shelley to Ali Mahmud Taha, Kafka to Tawfiq al-Hakim and Sonnallah Ibrahim, and dare I say, al-Sayyab to Baudelaire. In other words, the reinvigoration of the discipline through significant ancient and modern non-European languages and their accompanying literary histories, traditions, philosophies, and other arts, including Persian, Hebrew, and Urdu is what is now most needed in order for the discipline to stand tall and not to fall into the vapid recyclability of itself, which, while still fundamental at a certain level, may indeed signal its irrelevance. Why Comparative Literature? Because like all literature, in confronting the massive demonization of the humanities and the ghoulish corporatization of our university systems, it is all we have to bring the world back to the essence of its human condition and mobilize the globe against the vicious partitions practiced on it in the name of callous ideologies, pernicious nationalisms, and the cancerous growth of world capitalism.


[1] Edouard Glissant,Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997) 191.

Associate Professor of Arabic, San Francisco State University
I received my PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2005, with a focus on Arabic literature. I was born in Alexandria, Egypt where I spent my childhood and adolescent years. After High School, I moved to Cairo to study English and Arabic at al-Alsun, Rifa'a al-Tahtawi's first school of translation in the Arab world, where I received my BA and MA in modern English Literature and Translation. My interests include modern and classical Arabic literature, Quranic Studies, comparative literary trends in colonial and post-colonial Europe and the Arab world, as well as French and Egyptian cinema. I have published in a number of scholarly venues, including der Islam, SCTIW Review, JAL, ASJ, ALIF, and AHR. My book Islam, Orientalism, and Intellectual History (I.B. Tauris) and a co-edited volume on German Colonialism (Columbia UP) both appeared in 2011. My forthcoming book,The Qur'an and Modern Arabic Literary Criticism (Bloomsbury: Suspensions) is expected to appear in 2017. I am currently completing an article on the intellectual legacy of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (Boundary 2, 2016) and a monograph on Islam and the Culture of Modern Egypt: 1908-1958.