Debating Muslims: Cultural Dialogues in Postmodernity and Tradition. By Michael M. J. Fischer & Mehdi Abedi. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1990. Pp. 564. Price HB £38.50.

For its critics, postmodernity is a cult of unreason. For the authors of this curious work, it is just a geographical metaphor. Thus, the cultural debate which they recapitulate in this 'anthropological study' takes place within two disparate ideological climes: the postmodernity of the United States and the traditionalism of Iran. Thanks to the bifocal vision, however, 'the two "I"s' of the espying scholars are able to draw an elaborate picture of contemporary Shi`ite discourse; a picture that reveals both its indigenous disputation and its foreign critique, its traditional dialectic as well as its postmodern deconstruction.

Debating Muslims, a companion volume to an earlier work by Fischer, Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution (Cambridge, Mass., 1980), pursues the theme of intercultural hermeneutics with frustrating ambiguity and reconditeness. It consists of six essays that are all outwardly erratic, inchoate and insipid but which, on closer examination, prove out to be integrated, coherent and suggestive. Further, Abedi and Fischer's work is both coarse and subtle in texture, vulgar and erudite in tone, and displays a symbolic profusion that borders on the perverse. It distinguishes itself by making hermeneutical mountains out of phenomenally barren mole hills.

For instance, the opening chapter, which delivers a straightforward account of Abedi's childhood and youth ('autobiographical sondage'!), is construed as a text about ‘the cultural construction of personhood’ and a document of ‘the oral life world of Iranian Shi`ites’. The simple life-story of a provincial Iranian, it is presumed, provides a counter-poise not only to ‘the numbing opaqueness of (western) news accounts' but also to ‘the idealizing opaqueness of theologies of Islam'! Obviously, the authors seek to ‘dethrone’ the authoritative high-text, whether of postmodernist newsmakers or of traditional ‘ulama’, by an anthropological counter-text of their own making. However, in place of the idealizing opaqueness we get a bedazzling refraction which leaves the holy cow of meaning as untethered as before.

Other essays include a chapter – ‘both more playful and more serious’ - on ‘Quranic Dialogics’ which, inter alia, touches the theories of such unlikely bed-fellows as Wansborough and Bazargan! (Even Derrida, citing Levinas, is quoted without acknowledgement (473, n70); cf. On Grammatology (The John Hopkins University Press, 1976), pp. 16 & 324, n.7.) Occasionally suggestive and often reflective, this mishmash of a hermeneutical statement is none the less inconclusive and dilettantish. (For a far more insightful treatment, one should turn to the scattered writings of William A Graham.) The next chapter takes the solemn theme of hajj and turns it into a ‘Rodeo’ (The pun is Fischer's). On the more serious side, the essay explores ‘the role of myth’ in Islam and the dialectic of Iranian nationalism and Islamic transnationalism. Using the debate, triggered by the 1968 hajj, between Murtada Mutahhari and Ali Shari`ati as an access to two competing discourses, the clerical and the popular, Fischer reflects on the theme of ‘Fear of différance, on not only the anxiety attending Muslim fundamentalists but on the Islamophobia prevalent in American academia as well.

The remaining essays deal with tragic subjects: minorities, aliens, outcasts. Chapter Four is devoted to the ‘victims of the Iranian revolution’ - the Bahai's. Fischer sums up his position: ‘he treatment afforded minorities often becomes the index of morality by which a society may be judged; for Iran and Shi`ism, Baha'ism is a particularly acute test and mirror of conscience.’ Chapter Five, written by Abedi, describes the observance of Ramadan by the multi-national, multi-ritual immigrant community of Houston, ‘a postmodern city’. The final chapter of this ‘anthropological’ survey of the postmodern Shi`i debate deals with - what else? - the Rushdi affair.

Notwithstanding the convenience of the metaphorical usage, Fischer and Abedi's book is cast in a solid postmodernist mould. It consciously turns to the interplay of ‘reason’ and ‘unreason’, discourse and narrative, erudition and ribaldry, for the construction (or rather deconstruction) of its meaning. Thus we have a work which is part philosophy, part literature, part gossip, part academism and part good old-fashioned racial caricatures and slurs. (Arabs (180, 463), Saudis (89), Pakistanis (272, 306) and Sunnis (everywhere) all receive their generous portion of the postmodernist ‘irony’ - and the Shi`i passion!)

The language also follows the postmodernist pattern: it abounds in puns, neologisms and unprintable billingsgate. Transcription, fortunately, is not a fetish with the authors. In conformity with their postmodernist preferences, they have opted for a hybrid and eclectic non-system which is not subject to the canons of academic orientalism. And yet, it is not possible to eliminate the notion of error altogether. Faulty transcriptions are by no means rare. The postmodernity of Iranian revolution, on the other hand, is admirably projected through a tour of the Shi`i ‘empire of signs’. In the selection of graphic images - paintings, cartoons, posters, emblems - the authors are most enlightening.

Like its Western counterpart which never tires of debunking the ‘universal reason’ of Enlightenment, Fischer and Abedi's Shi`i postmodernism is an unabashed indictment of the ‘consensual reason’ (Ijma‘) of the Paradigmatic Community (Ahl al-Sunna wa’l Jama‘a). In this sense, their work is more than an ‘anthropological study’: it is a personal confession and a public manifesto. Hence, a few remarks, echoing the modernist counter-critique of ‘the postmodernist cult of unreason’, are not out of place. Though in the celebration of différance, postmodernity and Shi‘ism may have discovered a genuine congeniality of temper, the question that need to be asked is whether postmodernity itself is conducive to any genuine debate at all? Whether its a priori rejection of any master-narrative, its unwillingness to accept the arbitration of communicative reason (or, in the case of Islam, of the consensual reason (Ijma‘) of the Paradigmatic Community) does not entail a foreclosure of dialogue as well? Différance also implies a misreading of the sign, just as dissent can also be a form of irrationality, indeed insanity. Hence, it is hardly surprising that when you take the cacophony of postmodernity, join it with the passion of Shi`ism, and add to it the revolutionary zeal of present-day Iran, you have the making of a debate that is amenable neither to the dictates of reason nor to the arbitration of historical truth. Abedi and Fischer's work shows that such indeed is the state of the Shi‘ite discourse today. The unholy matrimony of postmodernity and Shi‘ism has given us not debate but pandemonium; it has led not to a celebration of différance but of polymorphous perversity.

Those who reject the postmodernist claim about the identity of philosophy and literature, of discourse and rhetoric; those who deny that what distinguishes an academic tome from a publicist pamphlet is sheer bulk, will keep on searching for a new work on intercultural hermeneutics; a work which undertakes a more conventional, call it modernistic, analysis of the Muslim debate, and not just that of the Iranian pandemonium. Indeed, they may even long for an academic study which would help us end the postmodern cult of unreason. As for the rest, they should find Abedi and Fischer's book entertaining. In fact, it is as entertaining as the Twin Peaks, but it is also, semantically, as polymorphously perverse as that famed television series of American postmodernity.

 

Stockholm                                                          S Parvez Manzoor

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