The Daughters of Allah: towards an open discourse on faith...

livreIn his novel, Nedim Gürsel relates his childhood. After the death of his father and the departure of his mother, he is raised by his grandparents. The grandfather is a Muslim landowner and a jurist. He is a disabled war veteran who tries to instill Islamic principles into his grandson. As for his grandmother, she used to tell him stories from the Koran and traditional Turkish legends. Building on this education, the child created his own imagination, haunted by questionings about good and evil and Mahomet’s life. On reching adulthood, among his grandfather’s documents, Nedim Gürsel discovers a diary in which his the latter had written about his war experience in Arabia during World War I. He explains how he fought against the Arabs, who were allied with the British, in order to defend Medina. Nedim Gürsel also tells us about his friend Ismaîl, murdered by his own father, the baker Ibrahim. This autobiographical part of the novel is blended with another form of narrative. Nedim Gürsel has the pre-Islmaic idols Manat, Uzza and Lat speak about the emergence of Islam and Muslim faith. These three idols were considered to be Allah’s daughters, intercessors between Allah and mankind.

Dans son roman, Nedim Gürsel raconte son enfance. Après la mort de son père et le départ de sa mère, il est élevé par ses grands-parents. Son grand-père est un juriste et propriétaire musulman. Blessé pendant la grande révolte arabe de 1916 à 1918 qui opposa l’Empire ottoman aux Arabes, il essaye d’inculquer à son petit-fils les principes de l’Islam. Sa grand-mère, quant à elle à l’habitude de lui conter les histoires du Coran et les légendes turques. L’enfant va alors créer un imaginaire personnel inspiré de cette éducation, hanté par des questionnements sur le Bien et le Mal et sur la vie du Prophète Mahomet. A l’âge adulte, Nedim Gürsel trouvera parmi les papiers de son grand-père, un journal qu’il avait écrit pendant la guerre, dans lequel il décrit les combats pour la défense de Médine. A ces récits entremêlés s’ajoute enfin celui du meurtre de son ami d’enfance Ismaïl, assassiné par son propre père, le boulanger Ibrahim efendi. La partie autobiographique du roman est pénétrée d’autres types de récit. En effet, Nedim Gürsel donne la parole aux idoles pré islamiques Manat, Lat et Uzza pour qu’elles décrivent l’émergence de l’Islam et de la foi musulmane. Ces trois idoles étaient considérées comme étant les filles d’Allah, intermédiaires entre Allah et les hommes.

Nedim Gürsel is a Turkish writer who was born in Southern Anatolia in 1951. He resides in Paris, where he has lived in exile since the coup d’Etat in Turkey. He has been teaching Turkish literature at the Sorbonne, at the National Institute of oriental languages and civilizations in Istanbul. Nedim Gûrsel has been awarded several literary prizes, among which the Turkish Publisher’s association Prize for Freedom of Expression for his novel The Daughters of Allah, published in 2009. This novel caused him to be prosecuted for having denigrated people’s religious values, an accusation indicted by the Dyanet .

The Daughters of Allah is an entanglement of narratives which brings face to face the author’s memories of a childhood in Muslim faith with a pre-Islamic and mythical past related by the idols Lat, Uzza and Manat, who were considered to be mute idols of wood and stone. Through the author’s pen, Lat, Uzza and Manat describe the emergence of Islam. Manat, who is in love with Mahomet, describes his awakening to Revelation. The mythical past in this novel is also woven from Koranic stories such as Abraham’s or Mahomet’s or tales and popular legends of Muslim culture. This religious imagination also mingles, in Nedim Gürsel’s novel, with questionings about the Ottoman and Turkish national identities, through the discovery of his grandfather’s war diary. His grandfather was considered to be a Hadj by his grandmother for having defended Medina against the Arabs, in the Arab rebellion against the Ottoman Empire. This novel, with its baroque structure, is a poetical piece which – through associations of memories and symbols, the order of apparition of personal, family, religious and national myths – paints a picture of the historical and social context of the emergence of Islam and the author’s awakening to faith.

This novel caught our attention because its association of symbols and stories raises questions and underlines some paradoxes concerning faith without concluding definitively on any univocal truth. Consequently, if the novel doesn’t enable us to propose a definition of faith or of the real way of being a Muslim, it makes it possible to point out some elements of faith and imagination from a subjective point of view. This perspective seems interesting from the standpoint of a qualitative method, in understanding some issues of the anthropology of religion. Indeed, through this novel we can define different approaches of faith. Indeed, faith is described through a wide array of tones and paradoxes.

Faith is firstly describes as emerging from an affective and poetical sensibility. The child, seated in the garden of his house near his beloved grandmother allows himself to be lulled by the tales and religious stories his grandmother tells him.

Her voice only brightened when she read the Koran: then she became pure and limpid and fluid as water; she carried in her all the magic, not only of your childhood, but also of a whole past, of the time you began to question things ”. (Traduction libre, p.23, Editions du Seuil)

On the one hand, the love for his grandmother and the admiration for his grandfather, who conceived Muslim religion in a less traditional manner than his grandmother, are two affective factors in the development of his faith. On the other, the Arabic language, which the child doesn’t understand, has a poetical and nearly magical and mesmerizing effect on the child, arousing in him a taste for lyrical and mysterious Muslim imagery. The child’s faith awakes first in a poetical and intuitive register. The child dreams through the mysterious sounds of Arabic language his grandmother or the muezzin are proffering. In the novel, an anecdote reveals that the child was in the habit of bartering these religious stories, against the adventures of Tarzan, which his friend Ismail knew well.

However, it is precisely mystery and misunderstanding which inspired Nedim Gürsel’s faith as a child. When he learned the translations of Arabic words, his faith was affected.

The sense was elusive, but the words Allah revealed to his Prophet Mahomet, adorned by Arabic words you only were to learn to understand later, retained for you all their mystery. Now, the charm was broken; after only a few years, when the sounds had taken on a meaning, you lost your faith” . (Traduction libre, p.32, Editions du Seuil).

This loss of faith is a result of the disillusionment that Nedim Gürsel experienced on entering adulthood. As he wrote :"It was not only the sacred word which you heard in your childhood, it was the actual form of your milk-white dreams, the incarnation of your innocent body"(p32)

uzzaIt seems that the faith-wonderment that Nedim Gürsel feels in its early years is possible only in childhood’s state of innocence. It is precisely this parallel which is drawn between Nedim Gürsel’s childhood and pre-Islamic story which is emerges as an insistent myth in the novel. The pre-Islamic period is indeed called the "time of ignorance." It is perhaps for this reason that the description of the pre-Islamic times, through the words of the animated idols Lat, Uzza and Manat, is related with both poetry and kindness in Nedim Gürsel’s writing. It does not promote the pagan religion in contempt of Islam, but rather shows that faith can take a naive and spontaneous form in an enchanted world. When Nedim Gürsel describes the birth of Islam, it is through the themes of doubt, questioning, and anxiety disorder. The refusal of idolatry by the prophets Abraham and Muhammad symbolizes the accession of the author into adulthood and the advent of a new kind of faith, where doubt and perplexity are central. We will return to this point later.

What we found interesting in the idea of the loss of faith, when the words of Arabic congeal into a definitive meaning, is the metaphor of idolatry. We are refering here to a Jewish thinker, Marc Alain Ouaknin, because if not based on the same monotheism, the issue is common to both authors: Marc Alain Ouaknin reminds us that in Judaism, interpretation can render the Torah and God infinite, and never freeze them in one direction or within a single definition. In fact, to suggest a definitive meaning for the Torah and God leads to the death of God. Real faith cannot be defined. This parallel with Ouaknin’s book seems to us consistent with the novel, because the Turkish author does not enclose faith in dogmatic definition.

Indeed, this awakening of faith from emotion and poetical sensibility coexists with another aspect of faith. The idea of fair punishment is one of the principal aspects of his childhood faith. This means, in particular, questionings on good and evil and on Hell which is described through images of torture, fire, tar and devils, all of which haunt the child’s imagination. The guilt the child experiences when he can’t help eating during the Ramadan highlights this other aspect of faith. The fear of Hell is also a fear of death and more precisely of what his deceased father and grandfather are suffering in the other life. Were they good enough Muslims to escape Hell and the torments the child fears so much?

Doubt, questioning and perplexity are a third aspect of faith which the author describes. These questions, which the child doesn’t express in a rational and explicit way, but a confrontation of meaningful events, causes in him sorrow and highlights the paradox a believer has to confront. For example, the author draws a parallel between Abraham’s sacrifice of Ismail to God, the tears of the child when his grandfather cuts the sheep’s throat and the murder of his friend Ismail by his own father Ibrahim in an act of insane fervor to imitate Abraham. Such a parallel doesn’t provide any dogmatic answer, as the author tries simultaneously to describe the madness of Ismail’s father and his suffering.

Through the tragic episode of his childhood friend’s murder by a fanatic father, Nedim Gürsel expresses his perplexity when listening to some Koranic stories. It is for example the case of Ismaïl’s by Abraham in the name of God. The primacy of the love of God over the love for progeny is one of the unanswered questions which haunt the novel’s lines.

And you, you didn’t understand why your grandfather, who had never shed a tear at your father’s death, only wept on reading this verse. ” (Traduction libre, p.36 Editions du Seuil)

ismailWe also find these feelings of perplexity and sadness in the descriptions of the sheep his family sacrificed during the Aïd al-Adha, for which the child had tender feelings. On accession to adulthood, Nedim Gürsel’s faith is imbued with dissatisfaction with traditional conceptions and by a multiplicity of unanswered questions. Morality is also examined and the thematic of transgression becomes, through the figure of his friend Ismail a way of showing the subtleties of a non-idolatrous faith.

Indeed, the notions of transgression and truth are also questioned through the figure of Ismail, who metaphorically represents transgression and taboos, for example, when he reveals to the child that his dad has just died and that his family doesn’t want him to know. Although Ismail is the image of transgression, the author doesn’t describe him as a miscreant. On the contrary, the figure of Ismail refers to one of the different possible ways of living faith the author describes in his novel. One of the interesting aspects of The Daughters of Allah is precisely this exploration of the different kinds of fervor which can coexist outside any dogmatic conclusions.

Furthermore, the author has decided to finish the novel with a passage in which Ismail’s father, Ibrahim, who is a pious Muslim, goes mad and decides to kill his son as a sacrifice to Allah. This passage leaves its mark on this novel, therefore we can see in it a way to denounce the deformations of religion. In the novel, the author discusses his faith, which undergoes changes at different periods of his life. Through this passage, during which Ibrahim kills his son, we can detect a means of denouncing the fanaticism in religion. When faith has not been questioned, it can lead to fanaticism.

The fact that Nedim Gürsel chose the idols of wood and stone’s points of view, Uzza, Manat and Lat, the daughters of Allah, who were the intercessors between men and Allah, in pre-Islamic times, at the same time, Nedim Gürsel relates the struggles Mahomet and Abraham led against idolatry, again raises the question of the existence of otherness, in a community of condition, by privileging the historical and poetical approaches.

To conclude, The Daughters of Allah seems to be a novel raising open questions in the context of a complex faith, where doubt and poetry prevent any definitive discourse on Truth and thereby, any blasphemous provocation. This novel brings to the social sciences of religion many keys to approach the religious imagination and Muslim poetry. The refusal of idolatry leads Nedim Gürsel to describe a loss of faith. However, if we are so enchanted by the lines of this novel, it seems that poetic interpretation and questionings may really be the true allies of faith.