Fiction’s Battle for Acceptance in Islam, as Metaphor for Visionary Fiction: Part Two

Part Two

You can view Part One of this intriguing exploration by guest author Stephen Weinstock here.

In Part One, I outlined the parallels between Arabic fiction’s uphill battle for acceptance in the first centuries of Islam. I believe the criticism and slow acceptance of Visionary Fiction goes back to the same kind of interdiction against fiction that occurred at the start of Islam. To state a truth that is spiritual, religious, or transcendent in non-fiction is relatively acceptable, but when you attempt to express that truth using fictional characters, imaginative worlds, and intricate story lines, you risk cheapening or corrupting the statement. I worry about this impurity in my series 1001: The Reincarnation Chronicles, because I use humor, the banality of suburban life, and the characters’ foibles to make past life experiences more palatable. But does lightening the message water it down?

Inversely, infusing an accepted genre like science fiction, fantasy, or romance with a strong spiritual statement has been frowned upon for corrupting the intrinsic experience of those forms. Yet this was key to greater acceptance of both Arabic and Visionary fiction. The fantastical or ribald elements of the stories in Kalila wa Dimna or the maqamat derived from the popular culture of street storytellers. The Thousand and One Nights also had its origins in popular bedtime or ‘Night tales’ from ancient India and Persia, and it came out of the oral transmission of the marketplace as much as the literary manuscripts of the court. On top of this popular culture foundation, the court added an Islamic layer, where Scheherazade tells her stories to redeem the King’s monstrous behavior, to use stories as ethical and religious examples. Still, to this day, some Arabic scholars repudiate the Nights as literature because of its popular culture elements and ‘lower’ quality.

51hnDH+JS6L._SX75_CR,0,0,75,75_Similarly, Visionary Fiction has had to latch onto science fiction, fantasy, romance, and other forms of (other-worldly) popular culture to deliver its content. Often this genre cloning involves bridging a gap between pop genre fiction and literary fiction, especially when the depth of the visionary content makes the characters and stories more complex. Sometimes elements of two genres combine as need be, serving or balancing the larger goal of establishing Visionary Fiction. These genre-bending trends are rampant in traditional and independent publishing these days, which makes the time ripe for the advent of VF.

To conclude, fast forward to modern Arabic fiction, which, though never purely secular, has a broad range of approaches to its strict and forbidding Islamic 13239822roots. The first English translation of Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s 19th Century Leg Over Leg has just appeared. This four-volume epic combines Rabelaisian bawdry humor, meta-fictional fun worthy of Tristram Shandy, and a playful approach to Arabic literary conventions (delighting in obscure language like the word that means ‘to drool while eating a pomegranate’). In this century we have the wonderful Alif the Unseen, by G. Willow Wilson, a female Muslim-American graphic comics author writing in English. Though not strictly Arabic fiction, the novel is set in a mythical Islamic state, invokes the Arabian Nights and its pantheon of spirits, and examines cyber-revolution and the Arab Spring.

Even with only a sketch of these two books separated by over a century, it feels obvious what the last parallel between Arabic and Visionary Fiction is. Anything Goes! Both fictional worlds are at a crossroads between the ancient and the modern, the Eastern and the Western, and older genres and newer mixtures and transcendence of genres. Just as the Islamic elements in fiction can now be approached with wild imagination, humor, even irreverence (not always safely, as with Salman Rushdie), so VF can be purely religious, completely humanistic in its vision, and/or filled with humor, darkness, or ecstasy. There are definitions of VF, but no prescriptions.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

BIO:

Steve WeinstockIn his past life before writing 1001: The Qaraq, Book One of The Reincarnation Chronicles, Stephen Weinstock created music for theater companies, choreographers, and dance studios (Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham). His theater works included the musical Rock and Roy, with writer Barry Jay Kaplan, about the double life of Rock Hudson.  He has worked as a musician/teacher at UC Berkeley, Princeton, Juilliard, and the ‘Fame’ school, as well as at the NYU Musical Theater Writing Program.

For years he had the idea of a novel puzzling out an intricate past life history between a group of souls, but only with the epiphany of using the ancient frame tale structures of The Thousand and One Nights did he decide to jump fields.  By day he still bring dancers to ecstasy with his improvisations, but at night he enters the world of metempsychosis, time-honored storytelling, and worlds ranging from historical fiction to romantic fantasy. You can see more of Stephen’s work on his website.

0
Tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Fiction’s Battle for Acceptance in Islam, as Metaphor for Visionary Fiction: Part Two

  1. esdragon2 says:

    Thank you for this intriguing, intelligent and very interesting exploration, Stephen. My first thoughts on reading this were that the religious, especially the Islamic tradition, is overly purist. It seems to imply that the human reader is incapable of making the distinction between a religious text or exposition, and what a writer is attempting to demonstrate, and even teach, through the medium of fiction. Yet by this means the writer is often able to get the the 'heart' on the matter. Fiction, as you say, and visionary fiction in particular, can reach the parts that intellect and head-stuff cannot reach.

    You mention Salman Rushdie and his playfulness and humour, and the load of trouble all that brought down on him, in his 'Satanic Verses'. I was there when he gave his talk soon after the fatwah was pronounced. He was surrounded by a contingent of British Home Office police send to protect him!

    Yet even Christianity has its purists. I'm thinking of the Calvinists up in Scotland whose motto seems to have been, 'Worship God by being miserable.' The Biblical 'Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all ye lands. Serve the Lord with gladness. Come before his presence with dancing and singing,' seems to be lost on them.

    Fiction and its interplay of characters brings a world to life – sometimes a New World. Sometimes peopled with intrigue and even darkness. Yet Visionary Fiction can bring enlightenment and hope to this present world which needs it so greatly.

    0

  2. The closing line of your excellent two-part article deserves an echo, Stephen: "There are definitions of VF, but no prescriptions." It resounds so true to those of us in the Alliance and elsewhere who have now spent years trying to nail down the definition and salient characteristics of the VF genre, as found in discussions on this site and the recently published article on Wikipedia. In speaking or writing about the evolution of consciousness, the open-ended realm of freedom itself, there can be direction (higher, we hope) but no dogma. As we can see in the history of religion especially, once the great teachings that were intended to liberate the spirit are bound to a Procrustean bed of rules, they become lethal rather than freeing. Since we are writing about a very big tent of ideas, perhaps the universal abode that includes all ideas, the VF writer/reader has to expand with the genre, so to speak, becoming comfortable with never being quite comfortable with any status quo.

    A special note of appreciation to you (and to Saleena Karim as well) for including the Muslim/Arab perspective to our discussion of VF. Most appropriate in today's world where the old "Crusader" mindset still sadly lingers on both sides of that ancient divide.

    0

  3. I too, love your conclusion that 'There are definitions of VF, but no prescriptions.' That reflects the constraints as well of the freedoms of this genre. Thank you, Stephen, for this interesting comparison between Arabic literature and VF. It adds richness to the foundation of our VF.

    0

  4. drstephenw says:

    Thanks so much for the comments, Esme, Vic, and Jodine. I'm glad you appreciate and engage in the Islamic theme related to VF. Since my novel series is structured after the 1001 Nights, it has a kitchen sink table of contents, and so it allows me to blog about music, science, reincarnation, all kinds of things. But I hadn't found a place to write about the Arabic lit side of things, and I hadn't imagined VFA would be the place for it. Emailing with Jodine helped me realize this would be an interesting place to connect the marvelous worlds of this literature with VF. I'm happy it's added a perspective and a new angle of reflection on what we're all in the midst of doing and thinking about.

    Although it's natural to judge a religion for its oppressive element (and Esme, you brought this home with your image of the Rushdie fatwa), I was fascinated by the fact that fiction posed such dangerous power in early Islam — fiction! the thing we knock out in cafes and maybe take for granted. And equally fascinated by the process by which humanism overcame the strictures — so necessary, so organic, so inevitable. Scheherazade, one of the greatest female figures in literature, really rescued a culture once again.

    Finally, I love what you took away from this, Victor: "Since we are writing about a very big tent of ideas, perhaps the universal abode that includes all ideas, the VF writer/reader has to expand with the genre, so to speak, becoming comfortable with never being quite comfortable with any status quo." This insight is lovely — comfortably uncomfortable.

    0

  5. esdragon2 says:

    This again brings up questions for me. What do they fear and why do they fear it? these religions. Does any 'God' need to fear human creativity? If so what kind of 'God' is it that we give our allegiance to so readily? Visionary fiction, in my 'book' is a spiritual experience. Maybe this gives us an answer! I take my quotes again from the Bible: Jesus said, " Ye are gods also." "The Kingdom of God is within you," did he not? Not many of us know that because our religious leaders don't (or dare not) tell us.

    Stepping away from this comfortable/uncomfortable insight for a moment, a few years ago I spent a last-minute, out-of-the-blue holiday in Morocco in the company of Idris, a highly educated Islamic scholar. He was in the midst of restoring the ancient Riad Alkantara, in Fes. Fes is an ancient walled city with alleyways so narrow that in some places two people can't pass. Isriss's dream was to create a venue where World Music concerts could be held. Musicians from every part of the world would be invited to perform classical and folk music. This so goes against most Islamic teachings that you'd wonder if he knew what he might be calling down on himself, (re Rushdie!) And yet, and yet, there he was going ahead with passion.

    Yes we do tend to judge religions in an oppressive and negative light. But who can blame us, especially at the moment? Just today the Taliban have killed 120 children in a school in Pakistan. Yet, and Yet we also meet with enlightened, civilised and highly educated people such as Idriss, whose passion it is to bring the World together in Peace. After all, Islam MEANS Peace.

    0

  6. It seems that Islam's struggle with representing the divine in fiction is parallel to the struggle of each individual to fully embrace this world as a stage for spiritual growth. Many spiritual paths teach that our task is to master the material world, not as in have power over in a dominating way, but to fully integrate this manifestation of the Divine with the Source itself. At some point, religions began to represent the earth, the creation, as fallen, to be feared. It can be a fearsome task, this getting born and learning to life here while being in a state of consciousness that is in harmony with Divine Will, thus becoming a channel for that perfect expression, but it is, after all, the whole point.

    0

  7. drstephenw says:

    I love your story about Idris, Esme. There are wonderful souls everywhere, regardless of context sometimes.

    0

  8. drstephenw says:

    I hadn't considered that parallel, Theresa, but you're so right about it!

    0

  9. Admin - Eleni says:

    I appreciate your post. It is very informative, especially to those of us not familiar with Islamic fiction—me being one of them. I think, in the future, Salman Rushdie, will be viewed more positively. As with any literary pioneer, acceptance comes slowly.

    I see science fiction is a natural fit for VF. Shows like Star Trek and Babylon 5 espouse many of the spiritual elements without forcing a message. Good VF can lead to interesting conversations afterwards, which is another way that the genre can reach out and touch the world in a positive manner. It not only leads to people questioning their own values but leads to reaching out and discussing it with others.

    I love your conclusion as it ties in the multidimensional facets of VF.

    0

  10. libredux says:

    Sorry I'm a little late in reading this article – once again, very interesting reading, Stephen. Although I have not really experienced any obstacles to my own fiction from Muslim readers, nevertheless I relate to your statement that expressing a truth in fiction (as opposed to non-fiction) carries difficulties. And yet of course, VF is something that attempts to connect to or explore truth through the medium of fiction. I think this is why I was so happy to discover the VF genre when I did. It gave my truth-seeking fiction a place in the world (not just the Muslim world) where fiction is usually considered a "lie".

    With VF writers can take inspiration from their various faiths, touch upon some universal truths and avoid the individualistic dogmas of those faiths. Your final sentence says it all (and to echo Vic's quote of the same line): There are definitions of VF, but no prescriptions.

    0

  11. Thanks, Stephen, for putting into words some of the issues concerning VF that have been spinning around in my head without means of expression.

    Especially the following:

    1. "To state a truth that is spiritual, religious, or transcendent in non-fiction is relatively acceptable, but when you attempt to express that truth using fictional characters, imaginative worlds, and intricate story lines, you risk cheapening or corrupting the statement."

    I've often wondered why themes and truths expressed through nonfiction are not only accepted, but hugely popular, while considered taboo when expressed through fiction. Yes, I know, fiction is supposed to be an imaginary story, with its number one mission to entertain, while nonfiction is true information that uses facts to explain. But the spiritual/paranormal cannot be explained via facts and truths, though many spiritual experts of late are trying.

    2. "Inversely, infusing an accepted genre like science fiction, fantasy, or romance with a strong spiritual statement has been frowned upon for corrupting the intrinsic experience of those forms."

    The spiritual. The unknown. The unseen can best be contemplated and explained through story, be it science fiction, fantasy, or romance. I believe that's one of the reasons for the great success of Paul Coelho's THE ALCHEMIST. And the BIBLE.

    3. "Sometimes elements of two genres combine as need be, serving or balancing the larger goal of establishing Visionary Fiction."

    "These genre-bending trends are rampant in traditional and independent publishing these days, which makes the time ripe for the advent of VF."

    I have, and will soon again, write a post about Dean Koontz, a genre-bending writer, who I believe is leaning toward the visionary in his writing of late. To this category I add Jodi Picoult's latest novel LEAVING TIME, Gayle Forman, IF I STAY, and possibly David Mitchell with THE BONE CLOCKS (I'm still on the fence with this one).

    4. "Anything Goes! There are definitions of VF, but no prescriptions."

    YES!

    0

Leave a Reply