On Reading the Qur’an as Literature



I was in traffic in a shared taxi in Beirut, and the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani was on the radio. I remember where we were (the end of Verdun street), not only because of who was talking or what he was talking about (representations of women in classical Arab poetry, and “of course the Qur’an is poetry”), but also because of the way the driver turned up the volume.

The most essential definition of literary form may be that it is an invitation to pay a particular kind of attention. On the vexed question of whether the Qur’an can be read as poetry, I would side with Nizar, because the desire to respond by paying attention can and maybe should come from the same place, whether what is playing is the Qur’an, or poetry, or a poet talking about the Qur’an as poetry. We want Nizar to be consoled, we want to properly mourn his wife who died on a nearby street. We want to be perfect listeners, to help make things right. In whatever small sense, each according to their ability, we want to start from scratch, to listen by imagining that we have not heard before. We wonder, for a fleeting moment, how shall we live now, and who shall we be, knowing of Nizar’s pain, in which we might have had a part?

If we believe that listening is a responsibility, then there ought to be a way to own that responsibility, to carry it with us and work on it, always. There ought to be a pick, or a fork, with which we always set to work, when work is given to us: and there ought to be a way to understand that the fruit of the work is our very own. But there is a fog over form, and a tendency to treat listening (or reading) as if it were automatic: as if there is no gap between the writer and the reader in which the reader has to ask, who am I being asked to be? And where the power to answer and to be is the reader’s.

In the imaginary space in which we meet Nizar for a hypothetical conversation about the state of the world, we are the random delegate of the world elected for this moment, and our election, even if random, implies a contingent equality with Nizar, and we want to be worthy. We want to be more witty, bohemian, down-to-earth, humane and wise than we actually are. This desire does not quite come before the words, it comes with the words that we hear. We imagine that we have to be a certain quality of person to understand them, and therefore we try to understand them as a certain quality of person would understand them. The poetry gives us the opportunity to produce ourselves, because how witty, bohemian, down-to-earth, humane and wise were we before we heard Nizar? These were not things we were thinking about. We think, therefore we are.

The fog over form may exist, in some part, because we expect first to be, then to think. If you see writing as clear and straightforward, as containing ideas which can be extracted if you read in the correct way, then it is not only that you see no need for form, but you also do not see the fluidity and freedom with which we fashion ourselves as we experience form.

Is the Qur’an poetry? To uphold that it is poetry is not an opinion about the Qur’an, but about us and the ongoing social conversations about the possibility and the particular shape of our reflexive freedom. Again, I agree with Nizar, through thick fog.



Ahmed Hamdi Tanpinar, the modernist Turkish writer, saw the cultivation of form among his literary predecessors as a dead end, even as he claimed that it made possible a renaissance for his generation. He sets up a double standard in order to both claim and disown the divan poets as predecessors by claiming that form can be separate from content, for them but not for him. However, maintaining this double standard undermines the very thing that Tanpinar wants to claim for his generation (and not for the previous one): the ability to see the world.

According to Tanpinar, the divan poets do not refer to the real world. They are trapped inside a circle, an airless chamber “too narrow for living things” (kâinatları dardı). When they exert themselves to write poetry, it is only to overcome technical obstacles that they set for themselves and each other as a kind of sport. Speaking of the divan poet Nefi, Tanpinar says that “the only point of his verse is the rhyme”: he sets it up “as a north star in the faint light of which he is forced to walk the tightest of paths.” But there is one good thing about all this empty poetry: even if they were just barking, at least the divan poets pulled hard on the leash of the Turkish language, stretching it for the present generation (the leash metaphor is mine, not Tanpinar’s).

Tanpinar’s dictum that in divan poetry “it is only the way of saying that matters,” (söylenilen şey değil, söyleyiş tarzıdır), with its implication that form can happen in the absence of meaning, is adopted by the contemporary Turkish school curriculum and somewhat amplified by its staccato presentation, as if making the inverse point that real content has no need for form:

  • “Divan poetry was produced between the 11th century and 1860.”
  • “Its topics are limited.”
  • “All its poets use the same tropes (clichéd, set expressions).”
  • “Its language is ornate and elaborate.”
  • “To say a lot is important. It is not what you say, but how you say it that is important.”
  • “It is imitative rather than original. (It imitates Arab and Persian literature).”
  • “It points to an inner world. It is an abstract and bookish literature.”

Why is divan poetry taught at all, if it is so bad? The lesson, while purporting to be about divan poetry, is at the same time about what divan poetry fails to be. The citing of a specific year, 1860, to mark the end of divan poetry (Were all the divan poets rounded up? Were they hit by a meteor?) helps sharpen the contrast between a pure subjectivity in the past and a pure objectivity in the present. The past is portrayed as not needing or wanting to refer to the world, whereas referring to the world is what most matters now.

This state of affairs may explain why I speak and write only with great difficulty, in any language: my Arabic teachers believed that it didn’t matter what I wrote, only how I wrote it. The Turkish split, amounting to a cultural schizophrenia, manifested itself in Arabic diglossia by casting the standard language as the repository of an eternal and essential national character. The separation of form from content in my education was in effect a gag on what could be said and thought. We didn’t know which topics might match the expressive heights that were expected, so we gratefully accepted whatever topic was provided, and did our best to play the pantomime of expressing wisdom, or wonder, or whatever. In aiming to please our teachers and our elders, we vacillated between guessing what they thought we should be, and what they thought the world should be. The latter we had to work hard at guessing: when we did talk about the world, it was the normal world, somewhere else that was not at war, or our own beautiful past: meanwhile, a civil war raged outside over the right to describe the present.



It may be as necessary to look at “the creature” as Tanpinar would have put it, or at “the thing” as an Anglo modernist poet might put it, as it is in divan poetry or in the Qur’an itself. It could be said, for all them, that the ability to respond truthfully is best tested with the smallest of things, and that the response to the small is a test, or even a condition, for the quality of response to bigger things. It could be said also, in the same vein, that response to the thing can be seen as, instead of a test, a reprieve, a saving device. A fresh response can contain a kernel of truth which, bypassing tired or oppressive ways of viewing the world, can bring a new world into view, a new world in which to be a person and therefore the possibility of a new person. In George Oppen’s poem “Psalm,” the deer possesses a kind of saving beauty by being alien to us, and at the same time so naturally a part of its own world, so undeniably “there,” as if surrounded by a deer universe that envelopes it and which invites us to be sucked into it, to be there as the deer is there:


In the small beauty of the forest

The wild deer bedding down—

That they are there!


Their eyes

Effortless, the soft lips

Nuzzle and the alien small teeth

Tear at the grass


The roots of it

Dangle from their mouths

Scattering earth in the strange woods.

They who are there.


Their paths

Nibbled thru the fields, the leaves that shade them

Hang in the distances

Of sun


The small nouns

Crying faith

In this in which the wild deer

Startle, and stare out.


The analogy with Muslim culture does not fail yet: it is still possible to say that the clearing motion that is needed to replace faith in something else with “faith in this in which the wild deer startle, and stare out,” is intelligible in terms of tanzīh (The Islamic analogue to negative theology: we cannot claim to know for sure what God is and therefore anything we imagine about him may in fact be wrong), as well as, more basically, in terms of jamāl, immanence.

If the analogy fails, it is for the same reasons: the device of the saving deer is so well understood, as not to be alien at all. It is very naturally “there” and “here” without being alien, even if the wonder of its rediscovery can make it seem alien, in which case it appears alien because it suddenly takes on an abundance of meaning: there is no desire to escape all previous meaning. The Muslim deer is still very much a cultural one, and there is no desire for a natural state outside culture: no perfect, primordial harmony with the world, except through patient cultural and spiritual strife. One has to literally “culture” oneself, and the return from any fallen or jaded state (here religion can meet again with art) is a well-travelled kind of path.

An iconic example of this would be the portrait of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the Second smelling a rose (15th C), where the rose is understood to save him, and the realm. The incident between the miniaturist and the Ottoman vizier in “Waiting for Heaven” (Cenneti Beklerken, Derviş Zaim, 2006) is a dramatization of this understanding. The miniaturist is brought before the unsmiling vizier, the executioner standing by with his sword. After a moment’s thought, the vizier takes an apple to his nose and deliberately smells it, then takes a bite from it: in this way he signals to the miniaturist that he has been reprieved. The vizier knows that he cannot depend on a deer to be walking by at that moment: that is why he keeps an apple handy. We collect those things that save us.



In “Embrace of the Serpent” (El Abrazo de la Serpiente, Ciro Guerra, 2015), when a botanist who has ventured into the Amazon in search of a plant asks a shaman to help him find it, and the shaman can’t remember, the shaman breaks into tears, asking himself, how could I have let this happen to me?

At what point has the taxonomy, the mnemonic that allows the shaman to remember thousands of plants, failed when it fails to turn up one plant? Was it just lack of use, because those that the shaman might have ministered to have died or fled? The shaman’s crying, and the years that it takes him to recover, suggests that the problem, at least as the shaman sees it, is with the shaman himself. The task of memory, of collecting things into categories, may be a logical one; it needs to be consistent, and it needs to refer to real plants, and to as many plants as possible.

Nevertheless, logic alone does not explain why the shaman spends time on the forest floor or in the canopy. The shaman needs to survive, but while he survives, what is his life like? What makes him happy? The use of any plant, no matter its medicinal value, is inseparable from this: because why live at all, why try to get better when you are sick, if you do not love the forest?

To recover the one plant, the shaman needs to recover as a person, and for that he has to turn structure on its head. He has to trace a way from the whole world, back to the plant, in a kind of reverse colonization: from a taxonomy without a plant, to a plant without a taxonomy. If he is to see the plant with any sharpness, it is a sharpness already granted by the world to which he seeks to belong: a sharpness that seems gifted, because one’s good relation to the world seems to just happen. That gifted happening, however, is also a taxonomy, an epistemology: not just a way of learning, but a reason to learn.



Form makes it possible to start again from a broken world. With a taxonomy in hand, one proceeds as if with a blueprint. But a new taxonomy proves nothing: the burden of proof is always in the future, in the patient encounter with every plant, and in the cultivation of wonder, which is the paradoxical ability of the taxonomy to simultaneously fail and succeed. Because once the plant is accounted for under any taxonomy, once it is believed, it gains the confidence to tell us of yet other plants, other than the ones that had told us of it.

Wonder may be the fear of leaving out a plant: it is to doubt the taxonomy, the doubt pushing the taxonomy wider. The taxonomy balloons, it becomes a nebula, its precise shape is lost track of. It overlaps with other taxonomies: a plant becomes two plants at once.

The interchange between taxonomies brings us into view. We are the expanders of them, and the blenders. This ability, and this confidence, gives substance to our existence. But we would never engage in this shamanistic work, of elevating plants into tribes, and tribes into kingdoms, were it not for a taxonomy of repentance that constantly reminds us of our insignificance: the nebula only looks wonderful in absolute darkness. I think of the double meaning of the first verse of chapter 76 of the Qur’an, “The Human” (al-Insān): “Has there ever been a time when the human was not something of significance?” The answer flips between yes and no: yes if you think of how the individual human is born, which is what the next verse describes (“We created them out of a bit of mixed fluid, making them able to hear and to see”). The answer is also no, if you think of humans in the plural: memory does not find such a time. It is this unavoidably remembered nobility that impels to repentance: without it there is less meaning to falling short.

When I claim that the Qur’an can be read as literature, I do not mean it as an antidote to ignorance, where ignorance is defined as a disinterest in progress, as fatalism and laziness. I do not mean it as Matthew Arnold meant it, or as those in the Arab world whose work derived from his meant it, who when they advocated for a literary Qur’an meant that it could thus be made to conform to science, and that its morality could be saved with a sieve to sustain the modernizing nation, milk and sugar to its coffee of fact.

I don’t care so much for coffee. Myself, I am a tea drinker.











Mazen Makkouk recently finished a dissertation on the Qur’an and Literature. He is interested in the way religious and literary texts “reveal” knowledge, and is now reading the Turkish divan poets and the Greek writer Alexandros Papadiamantis.