American University of Beirut
Areas of Interest/Research:
Medieval Islamic Studies, Arabic literature, mysticism
What is it about your field that you love researching?
I love researching medieval documents and ideas. There is a massive output of Arabic written material from that time, as if as soon as they got the paper formula from China, they could not stop writing about everything and anything. However it’s still under-researched, compared to studies in contemporary Arabic literature. The debates and richness of those times always amaze me, in every field of knowledge. There is always the possibility of finding unedited and unstudied manuscripts of great value, sometimes you can still discover full libraries that needs cataloguing, hidden away in some remote place of the islamicate world. These manuscripts can be in Arabic of course, but also in other languages, Persian, Hebrew, Coptic, Aramaic, etc.
What is one “big idea” in your scholarship?
There is not so much a “big idea” as much as oft-forgotten ideas that we apply more readily to other literatures and traditions: a cosmological renewal, a mythopoeic process started by the Quran and pre-islamic and early Islamic literature. Within this general process, I am very interested in a literary device in particular: the multiple use of metaphor in religious texts, especially in times where we are overwhelmed with literalist readings of Islamic texts. For example you will have a multiplicity of readings of a Quranic verse, multiple interpretations, sometimes contradictory, that will be given all together, and these apparent contradictions won’t be considered as a problem in itself, but more as a starting point for reflexion and debate. And this reflexion led me to the use of metaphors, and the interesting dimension of anagoges, and its metaphysical and theological implications.
What is your current research about?
The representation and functions of angels in the Quran and pre-mongol Sufi (mystical) literature, and how this representation and functions evolve, over time and through these texts. The angle is literary, but my personal interest more theological. In my sources, I include five works of Quranic commentaries by well-known medieval mystics, narratives of celestial ascensions of Sufi masters, and the massive “Meccan Openings” by Ibn Arabi, where he deploys most of his thinking and worldview, that includes the “Imaginal world” on which Henry Corbin and many others wrote a lot, and I look at how angels fit into this.
There is an interesting use of angels in all these works, what I call a “metaphorical function” for want of a better term; also, even though most of them avoid describing systematic angelic hierarchies, for diverse theological reasons, Ibn Arabi comes very close to a systematic angelic and human hierarchies, not unlike those of pseudo-Denys the Areopagyte. Close but not quite!
Who is one of your academic heroes and why do you admire them?
This is a difficult question. Too many of them to fit in here… I might go then for an unexpected one: J.R.R. Tolkien. His books led me on very interesting intellectual roads, and to the many connections between religion, myth, and literature (the general public usually forgets that he was both a staunch Catholic and an Oxford scholar).
What books have been formative for you in your study? Why were they so important? How did they shape you?
To keep it short, I will mention “Muhammad and the Golden Bough: Reconstructing Arabian Myth” by Jaroslav Stetkevych, and all the works by him and his wife on classical Arabic literature, as well as the Mufaddaliyât (translated by Charles James Lyall into English), an anthology of ancient Arabian odes. These are among the works that gave me the most fascinating background to the Arabic text that first got me into my studies, the Quran. However to alleviate the traditional-style Orientalist this might make of me, I could also add numerous modern Arabic novels, by authors such as Abdel-Rahman Munif to Rasha al-Ameer. Modern literature, which is my background, reminds me that whatever theological matters in medieval Arabic I am researching might interest modern-day readers and speakers of this language, and not only Western academics, and that my ultimate goal is to write and research directly in Arabic.
Do you have any publications we can showcase?
I have an upcoming article on Abu Yazid al-Bistami and his celestial ascension narrative, as part of proceedings from a conference, but I’m not sure when it will be out.
Where can we follow you online?
I have a blog (https://easternmusingsblog.wordpress.com) with links to articles published elsewhere, in particular articles in Arabic for a general public webzine, “Raseef 22”; you can also find me on Academia. I am thinking about doing another blog, or maybe a podcast, about more theological matters and reflexions.
If we ran into you at a conference and you didn’t want to talk about your field what would you want to talk about?
My research brought me to unexpected books and references, which I only heard of before, and for example recently I’ve been more and more interested in Christian patristics and patrology. After 12 years of being mentally (and physically) in the Arab world, (re)discovering these Latin-Greek authors and heritage through a Middle-Eastern and ‘semitic’ eye is most interesting. If this is not your area of predilection, you can also get my attention by telling me everything you know about Mesopotamian culture, Sumerian and Akkadian languages and literature, ancient Hebrew… Or about medieval Europe and religious art in general.
What research/writing project are you working on right now that you’re excited about?
In the non-academic part of my life, there is a novel I’ve been working on which I would like to finish. I also have a few ideas for future articles, both academic and non-academic, all more or less to do with comparative theology and religion. However a particular project, on the academic side, is that I would really like to turn my dissertation into a readable book in Arabic. And then move my research towards theology in a more straightforward manner. I am sometimes foolish enough to think about a second PhD…
>> Thank you so much, Louise, for taking the time to share a bit about yourself and your work.
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