Apocalyptic Narration

The Qur’an in Contemporary Arabic Fiction 1

Authored by: Ziad Elmarsafy

The Routledge Companion to Literature and Religion

Print publication date:  May  2016
Online publication date:  April  2016

Print ISBN: 9780415834056
eBook ISBN: 9780203498910
Adobe ISBN: 9781135051105


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What happens when a novelist inserts a text considered to be the divinely revealed discourse of Truth into a human composition? What does the voice of the divine do to our reading of the fictional text? Shawkat Toorawa’s recent article on the engagement of modern Arabic creative writers with the Qur’an provides much food for thought, especially with respect to the ways in which the writers that he studies deal with the Qur’an’s themes, structure, and text. 2 The focus in what follows will be more limited: through a series of readings of recent Arabic novels, this chapter will argue that the Qur’an is most frequently invoked and used in recent Arabic fiction (post-1967) to think through a series of events and employ a narrative structure that might usefully be called apocalyptic; that is, both catastrophic and revealing. As Jacques Derrida reminds us, the etymology of the word “apocalypse” is linked to revelation and un-covering: άποκαλύπτω meaning to un-cover, to lift the veil; hence άποκάλνψιζ meaning revelation and, following the biblical translations of André Chouraqui, contemplation. 3 Building on Derrida’s work, J. Hillis Miller describes the literary work as “the apocalyptic promise of a never-quite-yet-occurring revelation.” 4 In the Qur’an we are constantly enjoined to remember God, his blessings, his mercies, and the apocalypse that will come at the end of time. There is no gainsaying the importance of the Qur’an as dhikr, as a discourse that is there to be remembered; nor of the importance of memory as the primary mode of human-divine interaction. 5 The word dhikr as remembrance is also used to designate the Qur’an itself, as in Q15:9: “It is We who have sent down the Remembrance [al-dhikr; the Qur’an], and We Who shall preserve it.” Finally, the word dhikr and the verb dhakara are used to refer to the act of saying or mentioning something. Modern Arabic fiction foregrounds the Qur’an as dhikr: as something said, remembered and the revelation of things to come. The contemplation of this dhikr becomes a means whereby novelists think through violent social and political upheaval.

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