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In the Shadow of World Literature: Sites of Reading in Colonial Egypt by Michael Allan

Reviewed by Lijing Peng, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, Co. Kildare

Michael Allan, In the Shadow of World Literature: Sites of Reading in Colonial Egypt. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016. £70.95. ISBN: 9780691167824.

With In the Shadow of World Literature Michael Allan bridges political theory, religious studies, and anthropology, with the aim of producing an enriched understanding of the contours and limits of a literary world. Situating this research in the frontline of socio-political studies of Islam, Allan thoroughly explores the process of indigenous Egyptian secularism (or modernization) before and during the colonial period. Based on abundant historical documents and anthropological materials, as well as on comprehensive responses to dominant secular criticism, Allan successfully challenges the polarization of secular humanism and religious instruction that informs modernization discourses.

Deeply inspired by ZhengCheah’s recent formulation of world literature as a world-making activity that ‘allows us to imagine the world’ (122), Allan continues the work of his edited volume Reading Secularism (2013) which treats religion and secularism as mutually determining categories in the literary world. Allan aims to ‘focus on world literature less as an accumulation of texts from across different literary traditions than as the globalization of literary hermeneutics’ (41). He also examines the thought of the Egyptian intellectual Taha Hussein (1889 – 1973) in its historicisation of both the cosmopolitan heritage of the Arabic language and Islam's role as a cultural receptorfor Judaism and Christianity (3; 121-122). Accordingly, he emphasizes literature’s communication function at pivotal historical moments in the Egyptian literary world.

In the Shadow of World Literaturestructures itself around a series of questions. What, for example, does secularism do in redefining religion as part of modern life? In answering this, Allan firstly confirms the role of literature:‘literature becomes a rich site not only as a pedagogical matter for cultivating a modern aesthetic sensibility, but also for the renegotiation of the terms through which reading, response, and representation play out’ (10). In the first chapter, entitled ‘World’, Allan gives the example of how the Syrian writer HaydarHaydar’s work A Banquet for Seaweed, which describes a world torn by the secular left and the rise of religion, was boycotted by students at the Islamic Al-Azhar University. Allan points out that in this case literature is not judged by its form and configuration, but by the way it confronts the reading of a different literary tradition and a different reading public. Another question that arises is, Who holds the right to freedom of speech: the novel’s supporters, drawn from the intellectual and socio-political elite, or those out in the street demonstrating against it? The fact that the latter were deemed inappropriate readers indicates that ‘Literature does not inhere in the intrinsic attributes of the text, but relies upon the world that gives the text its contingent meaning’ (25).

The key question in the second chapter, ‘Translation’, is: What do we do when the world in which we situate a text is not the world within which the text is understood? Here, the story of the Rosetta Stone is accompanied by a solid historical account of the emergence of Egyptology during colonial period. The entextualisation of the Rosetta Stone transforms it from an object of the colonial past into a literary text belonging to the ‘World Republic of Letters’.Allan argues that once it was deciphered and lithographic copies widely circulated throughout Europe, the Rosetta Stone was no longer a sacred stele within a religious cult as it had been for thousands of years; rather, it became a text to be read and scrutinized in cultural exchanges. A similar transformation also took place with the innovative reading of the Qur’an in the first issue of La Décadeégyptienne, a journal focusing on the economic and political conditions of Egypt during Napoleon's campaign there (1798-1801). Allan’s analyses so far have attracted attention to the ‘transformations that both create the modern literary disciplines and define the contours of a reading public’ (4), which are integral to most of his strongest arguments.

The third chapter, ‘Education’,explores the role of political institutions in the Egyptian literary world. Allan lists a series of pivotal moments in Egyptian education: a) the emergence of Egyptian Studies as a discipline during the period of the French Campaign; b) the reign of Muhammad Ali (1805-48) which coincided with a push for educational reform; c) the modernization of the Arabic language and its teaching in the latter 19th century; d) the emergence of a national consciousness during late 19thand early 20th century. Crucial here is the fact that the reform that differentiated an education system marked by Qur’anic instruction fromone aimed at bringing up specialists in civic administration predated the British Occupation. And in post-colonial Egypt the kuttab system of Qur’anic instruction was made free to students, so that it became the foundation of a national education system at a point when nationalist ideology was rising.The implication here is that the takeover of the kuttab system broke the balance of the two sorts of education systems that had existed before the massive French and British influences. Instead of recognizing the assumption of British scholars in late 19th century that a sound economy must be the basis of a modern, self-governing Egypt, postcolonial Egypt set out to self-define what it means to be well-educated for self-government (56; 73). This self-definition forecloses many possible conversations between two different ideologies that had co-existed in Ottoman Egypt.

The fourth chapter, ‘Literature’, asks,What are the implications of institutional histories for the reading of texts? Although it traces the emergence of modern literary study in Egypt and credits the key Arabic-language scholars (80), this transition chapter shifts the historical positivist mode in the above discussions to a more theoretical study of world literature. In order to do this, Allan revives debates on formalism versus more socio-historical based approaches to literature. Also at this point Allan mentions two scholarly works which deal with similar themes and which have influenced him: Aamir Mufti’s article ‘Orientalism and the Institution of World Literatures’ (2010) and Sheldon Pollock’s monograph Language of the Gods in the World of Men (2006). Pollock’s groundbreaking elaboration of the Sanskrit cosmopolis, spanning immense territories anda vast timeframe, seems especially illuminating given that Allan’s aim is to broaden the terms through which world literature comes to be understood beyond national and political boundaries. In light of these preceding studies, Allan sets out to reachhis goal by exploring the meaning of adab (roughly the Arabic counterpart to ‘literature’). The case studies in the following sections well support his understanding of ‘literature as learning, pedagogical, institutional dealing with text’ (76), and profoundly demonstrate that the literary world is shaped by the transformations of print culture, libraries, schools, discourses on literacy, and the emergence of a literary public.

What is world literature without the logic of cultural or national particularity? The fifth chapter, ‘Critique’, presents some intriguing parallel case studies extracted from the Egyptian literary world duringthe late colonial and postcolonial periods. In 1882, a scholar named Edwin Lewis made a speech to the Syrian Protestant College that supported liberal conceptions of knowledge by citing Darwin’s works. He also noted ‘the difference between science (al-’ilm) and wisdom (al-hikmah)’ (98). This speech led to a huge debate and a division between academic communities which greatly impaired the maintenance of the school itself, with the role that a missionary literateur should have in the country at that time coming under scrutiny. Allan also argues that Lewis and his supporters were addressinganabstract scholarly public, while their opponents held that their responsibilityshould have been to a general audience more in need of their advisory role than their critical minds. The ground of this reprimand is worth noting, in order to understand how this literary world was shaped by texts, intellectuals, and the reading public.

In the same chapter, Allan describes another argument, in a much later literary scene, but which also centers on Darwin. The Cairo Trilogy (1956-57) by Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006), the Nobel laureate, offers a representative intellectual history of Egypt spanning a century. In one chapter, a young character publishes a supportive review of Darwinian theory. Characters from the older generation consider this publication most inappropriate, because it demonstrates the youth’s ‘ignorance’ of Qur’anic instruction. Although both sides hold totally opposite opinions of human origins, they share the view that the traditional religious intellectual is the model that all scholars should follow. This issue of scholarly model is raised by the youth’s ‘illiterate’ mother, who forms a strong opinion without reading any of the relevant materials. The father, who actually reads all materials in interest, takes a much softer stance and argues critically. In this, however - and unlike the mother - he fails to grasp the bigger picture.

The shining point in Allan’s above two analyses is the examination of how religion is constructed as a category negotiated between characters. This is an idea further developed in the last chapter,entitled ‘Intellectuals’. This chapter contains a moving account of the intellectual exchange between two renowned literary figures from different literary traditions, Taha Hussein and André Gide. Allan describes Hussein’s autobiographical writings, which tell of his experiences in two different education systems, and which influence the reading public, moderating the ideological polarization of the two systems. This influence came to a climax when the translation of Gide’s La porteétroite (1909) was published with a letter from Hussein as a preface. In this letter Hussein provides a historicizing account of Islam,emphasizing the cultural exchanges between Islam and other religions in which it arose. Hussein's letter eliminated a certain doubt for Gide. Until then, he had been concerned that the uncertainties about humanlife that his novel expressed could not be properly received by a reading public constituted mainly of firm believers in a strict religion. As Allan concludes, ‘Translation, figured here as much religiously as linguistically, provides the occasion to consider the limits of audience within the context of world literature’ (120).

In the Shadow of World Literature touches onsuch fundamental issues as the emergence of categories and the confrontations that arise between different literary traditions, especially powerful in the context of colonialism and secularism studies. It also provides us with a looking glass through which we may glimpse a vivid literary world made possible by reading of many different sorts.