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Biography 25.4 (2002) 687-690

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Dwight F. Reynolds, ed. Interpreting the Self: Autobiography in the Arabic Literary Tradition. Berkeley: U of California P, 2001. 336 pp. ISBN 0-520-22667-4, $22.50.

In the last twenty years, scholars of Arabic literature have been engaged in the project of constructing a new critical methodology for the study of Arabic literary texts and literary histories. Spurred on by developments in post-structuralist thought, this revisionist project has attempted to excavate the archaeology of knowledge embedded in orientalist scholarship—both as imperial teleology and as literary-critical practice—and to suggest alternative epistemological models through which Arab/Islamic genres and canons have been historically articulated, transformed, and consumed. The dominant orientalist paradigm, which reads Arab cultural history in terms of a "rise and [End Page 687] fall" model, constructed a canonical "golden age" in the ninth and tenth centuries, now lost in the mists of past time, and hence essentially disconnected from the movement of history. According to this paradigm, Arab/Islamic culture sank into a profound state of decadence and torpor around the middle of the thirteenth century, and did not "re-awaken" till the nineteenth, after Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798 opened up the Arab world to the west and its civilizational mission. What followed was a regional "renaissance" (nahdah) that assiduously strove to assimilate and reproduce European cultural forms and discourses as a step along the road to modernity. This paradigm, largely adopted by nineteenth and twentieth century Arab critics and historians, has had two profoundly deleterious effects on scholarship in the field. It has produced a major historical and epistemological rupture in Arab historiography, relegating as it does five centuries of literary, philosophical, and scientific production to near-oblivion. It has also constructed Arab (literary) modernity as being solely the product of the encounter with the west, and hence as a perennially imperfect process of reproducing hegemonic European genres.

Interpreting the Self: Autobiography in the Arabic Literary Tradition is a welcome addition to the revisionist project. The volume, edited by Dwight Reynolds and co-authored by nine distinguished scholars of Arabic literature, provides both an informative survey of a millennium of Arab autobiographical writing from the ninth to the nineteenth century, and a fertile critique of the foundational European scholarship on the genre. The volume is divided into two parts. The first part, "A Thousand Years of Arabic Autobiography," opens with a critical reading of Orientalist scholarship in the field as represented primarily by Georg Misch and Franz Rosenthal, and explores the ideological and hence exclusionary biases embedded in its methodology. The section then offers a thorough critical and historical introduction to the subject of Arabic autobiography, outlining the major issues surrounding the origins of the genre in the rich Islamic tradition of biography and biographical dictionaries, and its subsequent history as an intertextual genre. Additional chapters explore the particular motivations and anxieties that impelled scholars, spiritual leaders, and statesmen to embark on the project of "self-translation," as well as the dominant rhetorical and stylistic strategies by which successive historical clusters of writing inscribe the autobiographical Self into the text. This brief yet highly nuanced introduction attempts to extricate the structures of selfhood and personality inscribed in the Arab autobiographical text from a modern European teleology of the self molded by the history of bourgeois capitalism and the discourses of romanticism and nineteenth century positivism, not to mention the rise of the novel as a [End Page 688] dominant literary genre. This critical excavation allows the authors to expand the historical and formal boundaries of the genre in Arabic, and to explore the tradition of Arabic autobiography as "a discourse of multiple texts" and historical discourses of the self.

The second part of the volume, comprised of thirteen original translations of autobiographical fragments by eminent mystics, scholars, and statesmen, offers a glimpse into the vibrant intertextual genre of Arabic autobiographical writing over a millennium. Though markedly different in tone, language, and style, these fragments delineate a rich intellectual and scholarly tradition of "self-interpretation," and...


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