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Clarification of Islamic views


Poetic Engagement with Afghanistan, Caucasus and Iran (Part #5)


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Given the challenge of Islamic reservations regarding poetry, fundamental to the possibility of poetic debate, valuable clarification is provided by Patrick Colm Hogan (Philosophical Approaches to the Study of Literature, 2000):

... the crucial concept for the Arabic Aristotelians is moral imitation toward moral ends. More exactly, in the view of these writers, the poet need not tell the literal truth. However, any poetic representation must present an image of possible moral or immoral action, and it must do so in such a way as to encourage people to emulate the former and avoid the latter. The problem with the poetry condemned in the Qur'an is not so much that it lies about facts as that it lies about morals -- or, rather, that it fails to foster (Islamic) virtue and to diminish vice. (p. 29)

Hogan then continues:

...Arabic writers almost universally follow Aristotle in distinguishing moral levels of agents: those who are better than we are, those who are worse, and those who are the same. Incorporating this into their own framework, they conclude that the proper function of poetry is to praise the first and condemn the second, eulogize goodness and satirize evil....Later theorists adopted the same view. For example, al-Qartajanni (1211-85 ce) wrote that poetry "has the function of making [actions] attractive or repugnant to the human spirit".

The relation between poetry and rhetoric in this scheme should be clear. Indeed, the limitation of poetry to praise and blame makes it parallel certain forms of oratory. However, the Arabic writers emphasize differences as well. Specifically, rhetoric appeals to thought... Poetry, in contrast, operates on feeling.... it inspires feelings conducive toward virtue and away from vice, primarily the feelings of mercy and piety....(p. 30)

Of particular relevance are Hogan's comments on the Islamic understanding of the manner in which poetic discourse should cultivate an image:

... the writer inspires virtuous feelings through an imitative, but imaginative creation. This creation is structured around implicit or explicit approbation or derogation, sometimes called "embellishment" and "defacement\"... this imitative and imaginative creation must engage the audience members, absorb them, immerse them, for it is in that engagement, absorption, immersion, that audience members begin to feel attraction to virtue or aversion to vice.... The crucial Arabic term here is "takhyil". Takhyil is a mimetic imaginative creation (a notion that is far more in keeping with the spirit of Aristotle's theories than are most European conceptions of mimesis...). Takhyil functions to capture the audience so that they forget reality and accept the creation, granting it what is sometimes called "imaginative assent"... Al-Jurjani defines takhyil as "that process in which the poet presents as existing an object which actually does not exist, and makes a statement for which there is no possibility of a scientific presentation, and uses an expression which he himself makes up, and shows himself as seeing what he does not see".

Takhyil is the focus of a more recent commentary annotating classical texts (Geert Jan van Gelder, et al., Takhyil: the imaginary in classical Arabic poetic, 2008). This focus enables Hogan to clarify Islamic concern about poetry:

As Ibn Sina wrote: "The imaginative is the speech to which the soul yields, accepting and rejecting matters without pondering, reasoning or choice".... Indeed, "human beings are more amenable to imaginative representation than to [rational or reflective] conviction"... -- which is precisely what makes it so valuable, but also makes it so dangerous, and thus open to Qur'anic condemnation when immoral.

R. Rubinacci. (Political Poetry. In: 'Abbasid belles-lettres 1990, pp. 181-201 argues:

If poetry in which the beliefs or acts of the leaders of a particular socio-political system are supported or opposed can be defined as political poetry, there is no doubt that this type of verse flourished in Arabia well before Islam. Indeed, whatever the subject treated, the ultimate aim of the sizeable surviving body of pre-Islamic poetry was the glorification or criticism of the tribe, the nucleus of the system on which the contemporary social structure was based.... The advent of Islam impelled a change in these types of political poetry. The Prophet recognized the important political function of poetry, and employed poets to respond in kinds to the attacks of the pagan poets... the weapons were still those of fakhr [glorification, self-praise] and hijā' [satire, lampoon, invective], but the new way of life gave far greater prominence to the religious element... (p. 185).


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