“Muslim Fictions: Toward an Aesthetic of the Ordinary”
Prof. Robert J.C. Young (Director), New York University
Dr. Toral Gajarawala, New York University
Prof. Akeel Bilgrami, Columbia University
Following the Iranian Revolution (1979), the First Gulf War (1990) and 9/11, Muslim societies have been studied predominantly through the binaries of ‘religious practice’ and ‘secular practice’, thereby reinforcing the bounded, essentialized notions of tradition and modernity. In my dissertation, Muslim Fictions: Toward an Aesthetic of the Ordinary, I argue that the deliberate focus of South Asian Muslim Anglophone as well as vernacular authors on the quotidian, instead of extraordinary events, subverts such rigid binary discourses, which posit Muslims as ahistorical subjects operating in a vacuum. By foregrounding ordinary practices of illicit love, “modern” education, and consumerism, the authors produce a discourse of engagement with the worldly. I trace these elucidations of everyday life, in order to move beyond the usual categories of ‘Islamic fundamentalism’, ‘political Islam’, ‘religious subjectivity’, and ‘secular subjectivity’ sourced for analyzing Muslim experiences. Instead, I propose the conceptual category of “worldly subjectivity” for understanding the negotiation between the sacral and the secular in everyday experience. Between fundamental commitments to one’s religion and worldly desires, my dissertation foregrounds the inconsistencies that lie at the heart of Muslim subject formation.
Ian Watt and Franco Moretti have shown that since the eighteenth century in Europe, the genre of the novel has engaged with the depiction of everyday life. Two important components in the fictional representation of everyday life are the description of calendrical time and the depiction of physical experience. However, no such tradition was available to the Anglophone and vernacular writers in the Indian sub-continent. The forerunners of the modern novel were the genres of dastaan and qissa, both of which relied heavily on the fantastic, instead of paying attention to the habits and routines of daily life. In contrast to the formal experimentation of the modernist novels in the west, modernist Muslim Anglophone and vernacular writers in the subcontinent employed realism as their preferred aesthetic mode for depicting the everyday. By drawing on earlier story-telling traditions, this project demonstrates that modernist fiction in the sub-continent is marked by a new temporal dimension, which takes into account calendrical time, as opposed to the mythic and cosmic time of the earlier narratives.
The project is divided into five chapters. The Introduction, “Muslim Fictions and Everyday Life,” critiques existing scholarship on Muslim practices conceptualized through the binaries of religiosity and secularity and explains at length the concept of ‘worldly subjectivity’ that can account for a complex negotiation between the sacral and secular in everyday life. Western theories of the everyday, such as those of Henri Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau, can help to repair this theoretical gap; but as I demonstrate, these arguments must themselves be retheorized in the context of Muslim societies, because of the pervasive presence of religion. Finally, the chapter elucidates how the discipline of literary studies helps us better understand the gaps, the fissures, the uncanny, and the utopic possibilities in the Muslim ordinary vis-à-vis the disciplines of sociology and anthropology.
Chapter 1, “The Form of the Novel and the Notion of Sacred and Secular,” dwells on the accepted notion, following Lukacs, that the novel is an inherently secular form and asks if the novel can represent religion at all. Through a brief reading of the Mahound’s revelation in Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, the chapter demonstrates the limits of representation of religious experience in the modern world. The form of the novel operates within a ‘worldly’ logic that depicts religious experience by anchoring it in the individual’s embodied experience. Finally, through an analysis of passages from selective Anglophone and vernacular fictions, the chapter illustrates that South Asian Muslim novel still retains the spirit of enchantment, albeit through the substitution of the communal with an individual religious experience.
The next three chapters analyze fictions written by Muslim writers in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh to illustrate the different modes of negotiation of the sacral and the secular in three countries of the Indian sub-continent. Chapter 2, “Everyday Life, Defamiliarization, and Desire in Pakistani Anglophone Fiction,” employs Freud’s theory of the ‘trace’ and Michel de Certeau’s notion of ‘tactical resistance’ to read Mohsin Hamid’s novel, Moth Smoke and Moni Mohsin’s The End of Innocence, in order to demonstrate that transgressive desire in the form of illicit love enables the aesthetic defamiliarization of everyday life for the production of a ‘worldly’ subjectivity that negotiates between the sacral and the secular. Contrary to Euro-American theories of everyday life, my reading of these two novels illustrate that in Pakistani Anglophone fictional aesthetics, ‘alienation’ is produced not by consumer culture alone but also by an ossified religious tradition. Chapter 3, “Everyday life and Utopia in Indian Anglophone Muslim Fiction,” provides a brief account of Indian Anglophone Muslim Fiction and, then, analyzes Abdul Bismillah’s novel, translated from Hindi into English, Jhini Bini Chadria (The Song of the Loom), which, unlike Anglophone fiction, doesn’t necessarily derive its anchoring power from momentous events such as the Partition of India (1947) and the demolition of Babri Mosque (1992). Instead, my reading of the novel demonstrates that Bismillah’s fictional aesthetic, unlike Pakistani Muslim fiction, conceptualizes reform as a secular material utopian impulse in everyday life or as an ‘everyday utopianism’, outside of the theological and within a national-political framework. Chapter 4, “Everyday Life and War in Bangladeshi Anglophone Fiction,” analyzes Tahmima Anam’s novels, A Golden Age and The Good Muslim and Akhtaruzzaman Elias’ Bengali novel, Chilekothar Sepai (The Soldier of the Attic) to demonstrate the everyday negotiations that take place around Muslim and secular Bengali subjectivity during the 1971 Liberation War, a legacy that still continues as a schism between the secularists and the Islamists.
I end my dissertation with a brief postscript on the existing gap between the fictional aesthetic and the increasing religious revival in South Asian Muslim societies. I propose that the act of reading these novels might be one of the ways in which the fictional intervenes in the domain of the sociological.