Friday, 24 September 2010

Challenging the Canon

I recently heard feedback that the articles I have been posting are not what is usually written for Muslim females. This struck me as something interesting and made me think about what constitutes as the ‘typical’ article written for a female Muslim audience.

Why is it untypical to write about literature, from all over the world, to present to a Muslim woman? Do we as a community not usually do this? Or are we as Muslim women generally not interested in literature? Or is it the fact that I focus on Asian literature, rather than Western literature, that makes the posts different?

Living in England, it is easy to forget the plethora of texts that originate from our own subcontinent. English literature is so vast, beautiful and engrossing that we may have forgotten what is considered the first Urdu novel, written by Mirza Hudi Ruswa: the tale of Umrao Jaana Ada, the famous courtesan from Lucknow.

We may have forgotten Mirza Ghalib’s poetry or the works of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. Instead, we are very well acquainted with Shakespeare, Chaucer and T.S Eliott, among many others. The notion of the literary canon, which- to describe briefly- is a set of texts that have been deemed culturally significant and are considered to be the greatest pieces of work, largely contains the respected penmanship of Dead White Males. We are barely conscious of how far this canon has affected the way we think and view literature. The literary canon is most frequently taught in Western schools, particularly universities. Visiting the local library, a search of Muhammad Iqbal yields three or four books, while Shakespeare’s name brings forth countless publications- the canon has a lot more to do with this than we realise. However, we must ask ourselves: have we, the Muslim community, forgotten our very own literary greats?

Nevertheless, the literary canon is no doubt, extremely valuable. Shakespeare’s work is unrivalled, there is no disputing that. The canon, to any literary mind, is vital and studying the works that it includes will equip us with the skills to study foreign literature, or the work that it excludes. Slowly, the idea of the ‘major’ literary work is widening, Oxford’s World Classics and Penguin Classics publish Rumi amongst many other foreign writers. They are challenging our view of literature by doing so. They are bringing to the forefront of the literary mind the impact of world literature, rather than Western literature.

As educated, modern women, we should try to read as much as we can, whenever we can. Let us compare the story of Romeo and Juliet with Laila and Majnun’s. Milton’s poetry with Iqbal’s work. The words of John F Kennedy with Qaid-e-Azam’s.

Maahwish Mirza

Guest writer, student at Luton Sixth Form College

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