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Interview with Dr. Tahera Qutbuddin

Interview by The Jaggery Essays Team

The oral tradition is vital to Arabic literature and culture. Dr. Tahera Qutbuddin’s new book, Arab Oration: Art & Function focuses on women orators in multiple contexts and across history. A 2020 Sheikh Zayed Book Award prize winner for Arabic Culture in Other Languages, Qutbuddin’s book was praised for its exceptional familiarity with classical Arabic literature. Originally from Mumbai, Tahera is a professor of Arabic Literature at the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures in the University of Chicago. She has been awarded a fellowship by the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation to work on a book titled Ali ibn Abi Talib: Life, Teachings, and Eloquence of the Sage of Islam.

The Jaggery Essays team interviewed her.

What got you interested in oratory as a literary genre, particularly in the Islamic context?

TQ: Classical Arabic literature has captivated me since my childhood in Mumbai – where I encountered Arabic first through the Quran and through the lessons taught by my father, Syedna Khuzaima Qutbuddin, and through the typically Indian cadences of the chanted poems recited in community gatherings. I was drawn by the deep wisdom in these texts, and also the sheer beauty and tempo of the language.

Although spoken as a mother tongue by a miniscule few in the subcontinent, Arabic has been for a millennium, and continues to be a living and thriving language of India. I’ve written an article on Arabic in India several years ago, and continue to work on this aspect, especially with regard to the heritage of my Dawoodi Bohra Muslim community, and the Arabic-Islamic writings of its savants, and now, alongside English and Bohra Gujarati, of the powerful and timely online lectures titled Majalis al-Hikma (Assemblies of Wisdom) of Syedna Taher Fakhruddin.

When I started working on Arabic Oration: Art and Function, I dived into the texts of these 7th century speeches and sermons and found that one of the most compelling things about them was their consistent rhythm, which no scholar had previously analyzed. I then read a lot of Orality Theory and the theory of “mnemonics” (rhetorical devices that aid memorization) and connected the two. The orations were produced in a largely oral culture, where, in order to have your words remembered, you needed to speak in pulsating rhythms that the brain could easily retain, in vivid, graphic images that the mind would capture and hold, and in pithy maxims that packed a powerful punch. I’ve always been drawn by the power of the word, and these texts were just marvelous examples of this formidable medium of oration.

About 12 years ago, I started working on a book on the sermons of Imam Ali (the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, the first Shia Imam, the fourth Sunni caliph, renowned as the sage of Islam and the master orator of Arabic eloquence). In trying to get an analytical handle on the vast and complex source material on Ali, I began reading up on oratory, the major genre in his oeuvre. To my surprise, I found almost no diagnostic writing on the early oration. I first wrote what I thought would be a quick piece on the subject, which turned out to be a hundred pages long, and it was still far short of doing justice to the enormous treasure trove I felt I’d discovered. My initial research on oratory thus morphed into a full ten-year project that was hugely challenging but fulfilling on so many levels. It culminated in the recently completed book. Now I’ve come back full circle to the project on Ali’s sermons, and I feel that Arabic Oration has enormously strengthened the analytical toolbox at my disposal.

While the tradition of oration does have religious and aesthetic functions, your work also highlights women’s use of the genre as silence breaking. How were women placed within the tradition as orators themselves? 

Women’s orations are an anomaly in our corpus, but the few cited in the sources are particularly powerful and stirring pieces. Although no women in the first two centuries of Islam were caliphs, governors, or (with one significant exception) army commanders, a number of them had distinctive stature and commanded the respect of their male and female peers. Deriving their authority from kinship to the Prophet and the early caliphs, they orate in moments of unusual distress. Drawing heavily on the Qur?an, they chastise, berate, and declaim. Even though few, they stand shoulder to shoulder in their artistry and impact with the most eloquent speeches by men. I have a lengthy chapter in Arabic Oration on women’s orations, in which I have included examples of women’s orations and analyzed them in some detail. I’ve also written an article entitled ‘Orations of Zaynab and Umm Kulthum in the Aftermath of ?usayn’s Martyrdom at Karbala: Speaking Truth to Power’, in which I have analyzed the power and eloquence of the orations of these two granddaughters of Prophet Muhammad.

From the early Islamic period, a cluster of women’s orations has been compiled in a unique medieval anthology of women’s orations, poetry, descriptions, and repartee entitled Bal?gh?t al-nis??, (Women’s eloquent verbal productions) by the 3rd CE century author, Ibn. Ab? ??hir ?ayf?r. Interspersed with other literary materials attributed to women, the anthology records the reports and texts of a total of twelve orations given by eleven female orators.

The form also seems to not only be an aesthetic category but an archive of the society and the social body that existed at the time. Could you familiarize our readers with the times a little?

The oratorical materials discussed in this book are from the last fifty years of the period prior to Islam, and the first two centuries at the beginning of Islam, thus, from the end of the 6th to the beginning of the 9th century CE. Over the two hundred years of the period under study, the cultural parameters of society saw major shifts. Some moves were gradual, some more rapid. Key impulses for change were the advent of the new religion of Islam, the shifting political climate from a tribal to an imperial ethos, and from a nomadic to an urban setting, and most significantly, the gradual transformation of the literary culture from an oral to a written one. As generation after generation of orators exhibited new sensibilities of literary taste, and as social, religious, and political mores changed, there was an accompanying and noticeable degree of evolution in the characteristics of oration.

Earlier with its home in the Arabian Peninsula, the geographical compass of Arabic oration widened exponentially with the coming of Islam. Especially with the Muslim conquests in the mid-7th century, the Arabic language spread from the Arabian Peninsula to present-day Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Persia, Central Asia, North Africa, and Spain. To a greater or lesser degree, it replaced other local languages. Mu?ammad’s lifetime had been spent in Mecca, then Medina. After his death, Islam spread with the Muslim conquest of the neighboring Middle Eastern lands, and a new culture emerged with Arabic at the focal point of the linguistic stage. New garrison towns were founded, with a mosque at the center, populated initially by the Arab Muslim warriors. The major camptowns were Kufa and Basra in Iraq, Fustat in Egypt, and Kairaoun in North Africa. These, alongside the capital cities of Medina, Damascus, and later Baghdad, became the hubs of religio-political and cultural movements, and they are also the main locations for speeches and sermons. This was also the time when sectarian divisions began to crystallize. Iraq was a nexus for Shi?a and Kh?rijite rebellions against Umayyad authority. Early in the Abbasid period, the Kh?rijite movement mostly died out, but while the Shi?a movement saw major schisms, it also gained strength and following.

The intellectual milieu likewise saw major developments. The question of leadership was initially one of the central theological issues. Later, although these inquiries were still politically grounded, the purview widened to address divine nature, the origin of evil, and free will versus predestination. Proto-Sufi ascetics appeared, especially in Basra. The collection and authentication of hadith and historical reports became prime concerns. Jurisprudence became a vital scholarly endeavor, and jurists emerged as a stalwart power bloc in the Abbasid empire. These developing disciplines also impacted the content and practice of oratory.

During this period, we find the seeds of what were to become the political, legal, financial, and chancery institutions of Islam. An increasingly complex administrative system evolved, with dimensions ranging from the military, which was involved in ongoing battles; the economic, which first developed to address the distribution of booty; the educational, expanding with impetus from captives who brought new skills; and in subtle ways, the missionary, taking the form of Qur?an reciters who spread out across the newly conquered lands. The conquests produced a vibrant, cosmopolitan society.

What are some major changes you have seen in Arabic literature over the years? What do you think is the path forward in oratory, its practice and theoretical formulations? 

Arabic literature spans fifteen centuries and many continents. It all started in the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century with the cadenced orations and powerful poetry of the semi-nomadic Arabs. This was a tree-trunk that grew many branches and gave many fruits over time. Arabic literature has always influenced other cultures—some say the translations made by 10th century scholars of ancient Greek wisdom into Arabic, which were then translated in Spain into the local Romance languages there, sparked the European Renaissance in the 14th century.

It has also been continually influenced in turn by other cultures. In the past two hundred years, the imported literary forms of the novel and free verse have taken root in the Middle East, and Arabic writers have combined these with their own heritage to produce visceral poems and sophisticated novels that give insight into their reality on the ground and their hopes and their dreams. The Nobel-prize winning Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz is well known worldwide.

The Library of Arabic Literature, of whose editorial board I am a founding member, has produced lucid English translations of around 50 texts of premodern Arabic literature, and it is a wonderful place for English readers to start dipping into these riches.

As for oratory, I’ve written a chapter in Arabic Oration on the influence of early oration on contemporary Friday sermons in the Muslim world. There’s been good work done by many of my colleagues on modern preaching, including studies by Lisa Wedeen, Ofra Bengio, Charles Hirschkind, and Patrick Gaffney. For medieval times, Linda Jones, Paul Walker, Jonathan Berkey, and Daniella Talmon-Heller have written important books. I refer the reader interested in medieval and contemporary Muslim preaching and oratory to these seminal works.

As someone who herself has her roots firmly placed in many locations and cultures including India, Egypt and USA, how do you see the role of migration and exchange in literature and culture? 

One of the most important things to improve relationships between two groups of people, in my view, is to understand each other’s culture as this highlights unique characteristics, but also common human goals, and a wonderful way to do this is by reading their literature.

My late father, through his educational foundation Qutbi Jubilee Scholarship Program (QJSP), endowed an institution for academic conferences to promote harmony between communities within India, and between India and people of other lands. He called this initiative “Taqreeb,” which is an Arabic/Urdu word that means “to bring closer.” Its aim is to highlight exemplars of harmony, and doctrines that promote harmony, especially within the religions and traditions of India. I am a co-director of QJSP’s Conference Initiative, and we have organized such conferences in recent years in collaboration with JNU in New Delhi and the University of Kolkata, and we hope to continue with them and with others.

I feel the Sheikh Zayed Award reaches for the same goals. My own SZBA award is itself an embodiment of these aspirations of harmonious cosmopolitan cultural exchange—an Indian-born, Gujarati-speaking woman, now teaching at a US university, awarded a book prize by the United Arab Emirates for a book published in English, in Europe, on classical Arabic literature!