Apocalyptic narration: The Qur’an in contemporary Arabic fiction

Ziad Elmarsafy*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


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: ἀποκαλύπτω meaning to un-cover, to lift the veil; hence ἀποκάλυψις 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. The interaction between the Qur’an and fiction in the same text involves another important Derridean idea; namely that of literary invention as the invention of the other.6 Derek Attridge expands on this in his arguments about literature as the creation of the other, defining otherness as “that which is, at a given moment, outside the horizon provided by the culture for thinking, understanding, imagining, feeling, perceiving.”7 Literary production involves an opening up to, and making room for, the other. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that novelists choose to make room in their texts for the words of God, the Wholly Other in Rudolf Otto’s suggestive phrase.8 Far from undermining the institution of literature by comminglingthe religious and the literary, novels that draw on the Qur’an are in fact foregrounding the act of literary creation itself, as well as the status of the text concerned as being explicitly literary. If, following Derrida, literature is defined as that discourse that has the right to say anything,9 the insertion of the sacred Qur’anic text into the literary emphasizes this very condition, not least when we remember the normative and authoritative place held by the Qur’an with respect to the Arabic language. The Qur’an is there not only to remind the reader of the Wholly Other and the infinite possibilities inherent in language and literature; it also becomes the means by which the literary text proclaims its pan-poetic, all-saying promise. The frequency of the apocalyptic engagement with the Qur’an could, of course, be related to the disastrous socio-political reality of the Arab world during the last three decades of the twentieth century, and, indeed, the opening decades of the current century. Nevertheless, it would be inaccurate to presume a one-to-one mapping between a pessimistic outlook and the incidence of the text of the Qur’an in a given novel. Tayib Salih’s novella The Wedding of Zein (1962) stands out among the counter-examples that attest to a rather more optimistic use of the Qur’an, as well as utopian ideas about postcolonial national development.10 The Wedding of Zein narrates the wedding of the title character, the eccentric and seemingly ineligible Zein, to his beautiful cousin Niʽma. The latter is presented as a very intelligent and profoundly spiritual character, deeply moved by certain parts of the Qur’an. Certain verses even “descend [tanzil] upon her heart like a happy announcement [al-khabar al-sārr].”11 Salih’s language in this clause deliberately calls attention to both the origins and functions of the Qur’an: the term most commonly used in Arabic for the revelation of a qur’anic verse is the word for descent, tanzīl, while the good news that Niʽma perceives in listening to her favorite verses makes clear that she is responding to the Qur’an as prophecy or annunciation. Not for nothing does the recitation of Q19, the sūra of Maryam (Mary, mother of Jesus) fill her with a “strange feeling.”12 These emotions are linked to another overdetermined qur’anic verse and narrative; namely those surrounding the story of Job:She felt her heart overcome with sadness [yaʿtaṣiruhu al-ḥuzn] when she read about Job [Ayyūb] and she felt great ecstasy [nashwa] when she reached the verse, “and restored his family to him, and as many besides: a mercy [raḥma] from Us” [Q21:83]. She imagined Raḥma [embodied] as a woman of great beauty faithfully serving her husband, and wished that her family had named her Raḥma. She used to dream of a great sacrifice whose form she did not know. A great sacrifice that she would perform one day, one filled with that strange feeling that she felt when she read the sūra of Maryam.13

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Routledge Companion to Literature and Religion
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages11
ISBN (Electronic)9781135051105
ISBN (Print)9780415834056
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2016


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