Islam and the Humanities

Conference 2019

William Sherman

University of North Carolina, Charlotte

The Imitable Qur’an

Despite the widespread acceptance doctrine of Qur'anic inimitability, imitations of the Qur'an have appeared on the edges of hegemonic Islamic discourses from the formative periods of Islam until the 21st century. This paper identifies multiple formal Qur’anic imitations and argues that these imitations render strange what it is that we mean by the “Qur’an.” When cast through imitations such as Musaylima’s seventh-century “pseudo- Qur’an,” the messianic Pashto verses of an Afghan Sufi movement known as the Roshaniyya, and the vertiginous wordplays of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (among many other Qur’anic imitations), the Qur’an may be read as something other than a record of theological meaning or revealed propositions, however contested. Indeed, these imitations point toward the primacy of form. Viewed in the light of its imitations, the Qur’an becomes a model of language that is not primarily about a transcendent God (i.e., theological language) but is rather a formal language that is paradigmatically of the world, working and acting in a world that is both immanent and divine—and a language, moreover, whose analysis contributes to a reconceptualization of poetics, materiality, and form in the broader humanities today. This paper first provides a taxonomy of Qur’anic imitations that maps an alternative “Islam” whose wobbling gravitational center is the imitable Qur’an. This paper then analyzes the three examples named above—Musaylima, the Roshaniyya, and Finnegans Wake—in order to demonstrate how an Islam articulated through form and imitation eludes a single ideological or sectarian interpretation.