Home / Analysis / The Place of Narrative and its Importance – Part 2

The Place of Narrative and its Importance – Part 2

In part one I explored the relationship between ideology, narrative, and discourse. The hypothesis forwarded there was that these modes of thought form the mediating structures by which “raw” sensations turn into perceptions. By positing this description I hoped to show that social change could be generated discursively, since it follows that if the way we “see” something conditions our response to it, a change in the structures that shape our “seeing” will affect responses. In this essay, I will make a case for using narrativity as a means of affecting responses. There are two key reasons why narrativity is an important arena in which to engage, not least because it is an arena less considered in both general da’wah and specific Muslim efforts in the current climate of hostility. Firstly, narrative (as outlined in the previous essay) sits in between ideology and discursive frameworks. It is the channel through which ideology (Weltanschauung) is expressed and through which discursive frameworks are established. Hence, a change in narrative ripples through into everyday perceptions and carries with it precepts of an ideology.

The second reason is that narratives have the power to shape the self-perception of those whom it represents. Narrativity – that is, the act of narrativising – is an important mode of reflection since it combines the power to articulate one’s sense of being with the imaginative capacity to break out of boundaries set by other narratives about the self. This as a proposition needs to be assessed carefully and the first section of this essay looks to do exactly that. However, if this is true, the process of narrativity for Muslims today is very important.

In the second section of the essay I concentrate upon the material shape narrativity can assume and critique our present emphasis on non-fiction mediums. Narrative, as the word suggests, incorporates a degree of fictionality both in terms of reflecting elements of fiction at the level of composition, and finding material actualisation in modes through which stories are actually told. For example, narratives are about histories, characters and their interiority, the ways in which circumstances and human actions collude to shape events, and the manner in which the nature of the world is reflected through events. Secondly, narratives are expressed in narrative art (novels, plays, films), documentaries, biographies, and history books. However, due to a lack of space this essay only points to the need for Muslims to be involved in and to arrest the modes of narrative production, which lie essentially in the cultural industry. Thus this essay does not explore what kind of narratives Muslims should construct and how they should promulgate them; that task may be gleaned tangentially from other essays. For a detailed look at the role of fiction (specifically novels) in assisting change in social realities, see Darwin’s displacement of religion or grounds for a new religious experience. In that essay I explore the way in which despite Darwin’s complex and rather phlegmatic style, the theory of evolution spreads through novels to different strata of society, especially the non-science reading public. Another essay, Muslim Weekly and the like: the importance of independent media looks at the possible role Muslim newspapers and magazines can play in affecting social change.

If read individually, these essays seem to point in a number of directions, but if taken together I hope they provide a substantial theoretical methodology. Yet none are to be taken prescriptively since they merely describe possibilities. What’s more, none attempt to even describe content for that is currently a step too far from our present condition. To fully appreciate the spectrum of tools at our disposal seems to me a wiser and safer terrain to tread. It is in this spirit that this essay is written.

Narrative, the self, and society

Narrativity is a capability that we all have. From the child who tells his mother that he fell down, to the employee who explains to his boss why he is late, we are all engaged in narratavising. In this sense narratives are the stories we tell or, more precisely, the vehicles we use to convey stories. Narratives therefore are universal and, according to Fredrick Jameson, ‘the central function or instance of the human mind’1. Abbott tells us that many psychologists have observed the ‘coincidence of the onset in infancy of both autobiographical memory and narrative capability’2, and Peter Brooks expresses the notion that ‘Our very definition as human beings is…bound up with the stories we tell about our own lives and the world in which we live’.3 It is not too far a conceptual leap then to move from this to the idea that human beings are narrativised beings. {quotes}What this means is that our sense of our self is part of a narrative of which we are subject and in which we are object.{/quotes}

We are subjects in so far as we are the percipient being who “know” of objects, to whom the “knowing” of something is assigned; to whom belongs the unity of being such that to it may be given a history and a temporality. We are objects in so far as we locate ourselves in “a” world, which, though dependent on us to be “knowable”, is nonetheless independent of us so that we are bound in it spatially. To not grasp this is the Idealist’s error. Like all other objects human beings are part of the world and we know this through the realities of birth and death. The fact that we are aware of it means that we are more than object; we are subjects too.

David Berman illustrates this cleverly in his introduction to Schopenhauer’s key tract, The World as Will and Idea.4 If I am thirsty, the “knowing” of this can be of two types. One type is the outwardly exhibited knowledge of my thirst: if I reach for a glass of water, you and I can see the action and comprehend that I am thirsty. But I, as a subject, can experience my thirst and thus “know” of it in a more inward and less mediated way. I do not have to perceive my perched lips or the movement of my hand to “know” that I am thirsty. In this second regard I am purely subject who knows and not object that is known. My world at that moment is in a kind of duality.5 There is a reality of an outside world in which the action has taken place and an inward world in which I have realised my thirst and thus acted. I can occupy both positions simultaneously because I am at once aware of myself as being in the world while being separate to it. This metaphysics of being is the basis on which we may imagine men as narrativised beings. We know of our self both as part of a fabric (object) and as conscious agents within it (subject).

{quotes}What bridges these two dimensions is the fact that all human beings are social beings, so that my inward world and the outward world bare influence on one another.{/quotes}

In this sense, the fact that man is a narrativised being should be understood not purely in an individualistic sense but in a broader cultural sense, concluding thereby that we do not merely locate ourselves in our individual narratives, but in broader narratives woven over time by a culture so that it too may come to know itself. This notion that identity is produced through an interaction between individuals and society is the product of symbolic interactionism and has become ‘the classic sociological conception of the issue’.6 It also begins to intimate why narratives may affect human beings. If who we are is given to us through narratives and these narratives are in turn constructed within the matrix of society, then society bears a degree of influence in the way we “see” our self and the way in which we behave. ‘The fact that we project “ourselves”’, writes Stuart Hall, into identities that are shaped dialogically with a culture means that we internalise cultural meanings and values, all of which ‘helps to align our subjective feeling with the objective places we occupy in the social and cultural world.’7

Simply put, human beings tend to locate themselves in concentric circles: an individual a family an ethnicity a nationality a history. In this sense (and in the sense of the metaphysical schema sketched above) the individual is an “object” within the given narrative since he or she is accounted for through it. At the same time the individual as “subject” senses that his or her “life” is their own and so he or she generates a sense of self as independent. Yet their sense of self requires recognition and so they look again to the narratives that help build individuals through representation: a man a husband a father an Englishman a Briton British History. This taut dialectic hides many realities such as those who have power over the means of narrative production can effectively influence people. Conversely, those at the margins of cultural power and thus less able to influence narrative production are disadvantaged considerably. For example, an American study in the late seventies showed that the way in which a person is charged for breaking the law is not a straightforward process.

When a young person is arrested, he or she is handed over to a juvenile officer who decides whether or not to prosecute. This decision is based on a process of negotiation between the juvenile officer, the person arrested and his or her parents. Crucial to the outcome of this negotiation is the picture juvenile officers have of the “typical delinquent”. In their eyes the “typical delinquent” is male, from a low income household in an inner city area, belongs to an ethnic group, comes from a broken home, rejects authority and is a low achiever at school. If the suspect fits this picture, he or she is more likely to be charged with an offence.

Middle class parents are often more skilled at negotiation than their working class counterparts. They start with an advantage – their child does not fit the picture of a “typical delinquent”. They present their child as coming from a stable home, as having a good background and a promising future. They promise cooperation, express remorse and define the “offence” as a “one off” due to high spirits, emotional upset or getting in with the wrong crowd, all of which tends to remove blame from the young person. As a result, the statistics show that delinquency is mainly a working class problem as young people from middle class backgrounds are typically “counselled, cautioned and released”. Thus what ends up being called justice is negotiable.8

Similarly, the democratic ideal enshrined within the right to be tried by a jury of one’s peers may be compromised for those on the periphery of a culture by the power of narrative. It may seem at this point that the picture I am painting presents every person charged or convicted as having been done so wrongfully. Though that would be a misunderstanding of my point – which is that the processes by which we convict people or imagine criminality is not so rational or pure – it is also not entirely inaccurate. Having presented a metaphysics in which the individual is bound within narrative representations, and shown thereafter that narratives are constructed through interaction with society, I wish to make a further claim that the way in which narratives construct people effectively draws those people into a closer simulation of its representation.

Narratives are modes of representation that provide us a kind of mirror through which we can see ourselves and perceive how others see us. Where narratives do not provide immediate reflection they provide a general picture of the world in which we can locate ourselves. Either way a narrative is intimately connected to how we understand our self. Once identification begins between the narrative and the self, the values and norms reflected in the narratives, as well as the view of the world they project, begin to be internalised. This process is long and uneven, presenting opportunities for the emergence of counter-narratives as disruptive forces in the process of internalisation. But if the narrative is periodically reinforced, and through various mediums ratified, it poses such strong compulsive force that an individual acquiesces to it. Behaviour then is more than a simple case of actions determined by individual agency or subconscious impulses; it is in fact the outcome of a complex identification process with the meaning and the value of self as found within narratives.

This internal dynamism of a narrative enhances the perception of its accuracy vis-à-vis its representations. Once the process begins, a type of reciprocity builds up in which a person’s behaviour starts to reflect the behaviour represented in the narrative. As well as this, other people begin to react to the person according to their understanding of the narrative, which further ratifies that person’s self-image and draws him/her closer still to the representation. This process can also occur with entire social groups, in which case the group draws closer to one another. And if they happen to be a group lacking social capital (gypsies, convicts etc), they can derive comfort from one another and further endorse the group’s representation.

This model of narrative determinability of behaviour is based roughly on Becker’s labelling theory. In labelling theory, a label ‘defines an individual as a particular kind of person’9. The label however is laden with cultural meanings and associations and so sutures the individual with a narrative that is evoked by the label. As such the label operates as a ‘“master status” in the sense that it colours all the other statuses possessed by an individual.’10 {quotes}For example, Muslims today are considered alien, threatening and an inassimilable community, meaning that if one is identified as a Muslim they are seen within political dimensions, be they a Muslim doctor or a Muslim student.{/quotes}

The upshot of the labelling process according to Becker is that for the individual who is labelled, the label can ‘become the controlling one’11. Once this happens, their behaviour and their views begin to conform to the label.

In his novel By the sea, Abdulrazak Gurnah explores the psychological pull colonial narratives had on the colonised subjects of the British empire. Saleh, the central character, explains how these narratives filtered down:

In their books I read unflattering accounts of my history, and because they were unflattering, they seemed truer than the stories we told ourselves. I read of the diseases that tormented us, the future that lay before us, about the world we lived in and our place in it. It was as if they had remade us, and in ways we no longer had any recourse but to accept, so complete and well fitting was the story they told about us.12

It is cultural products – books in this case – that carry the narratives produced by the colonisers, which, together with the power they wield and the constancy they can afford to lavish on production (time and money), over time ratifies the narrative. What is of interest is that Saleh seems to consider these “well fitting” and as such, “so complete” that they “remake” him and his contemporaries in ways they cannot avoid but be pulled into a self-recognition through them. About the indigenous narratives he says,

The stories we knew about ourselves before they took charge of us seemed medieval and fanciful, sacred and secret myths that were liturgical metaphors and rights of adherence, a different category of knowledge which, despite our assertive observance, could not contest with theirs.13

What I am not positing is a closed narrative determinism, but at the same time it is also untrue that an imposed narrative can simply be rejected, since even in the act of rejection there is a curious mimesis in play. Anecdotally, the resistance by the Nation of Islam to the trenchant racism of America at the start of the twentieth century, borrowed a flavour and tone from the very narrative it rejected (a point later redressed by Malcolm X when he admitted not all whites were/could be devils). Similarly, many Indian expatriates during the Raj rejected colonial rule and colonial narratives and had adopted what Gandhi called ‘a suicidal policy’ and ‘the Indian school of violence’14. Oddly enough, such attacks and frustration only confirmed premises within the colonial narrative about the irrationality of the natives. By the late nineteenth century, imperial ideologues had canonised ideas about the stabilising effect European presence made in places like India and Africa. Along with this they propagated the idea that the empire improved the societies it colonised. The earlier cruder theological and quasi-scientific expressions of the right of the white man to rule other people had, by this time, subsided for many to the margins of intellectual acceptability. Yet these new notions were not adopted because they were truer; they served to recast and control native resistance that was growing toward the late nineteenth century. {quotes}If the empire existed for necessary and altruistic reasons, resistance to it spoke of the irrationality of the natives, their mental immaturity, or, in the case of violent resistance, the essentially violent nature of the natives.{/quotes}

Hence Gandhi’s characterisation of such Indians who advocated violent tactics as ‘intoxicated by the wretched modern civilisation’15. Those who took part in such acts would no doubt have objected to such a description, but what Gandhi was at pains to show was that unwittingly, these people had fallen into the colonial trap of espousing its civilisation, or what I am calling narrative constructions.

Writing in the Indian Opinion soon after the assassination by Madan Lal Dhingra of Sir William Curzon-Wyllie, a political aide de camp to Lord Morley the then Secretary of State for India, Gandhi said,

I must say that those who believe and argue that such murders may do good for India are ignorant men indeed…Even should the British leave in consequence of such murderous acts, who will rule in their place? The only answer is: the murderers… Is the Englishman bad because he is an Englishman? Is it that everyone with Indian skin is good?16

The propositional “even if” attests that Gandhi did not believe such a methodology would work in freeing India of her colonial yoke. For Gandhi, only a different narrative about Indian civilisation and its core values could instil a pride and power in his compatriots that would be able to both gain independence and sustain it over and above intellectual and cultural imperialism.

Edward Said makes a similar point in Culture and Imperialism. He begins by criticising the over scale images of terrorism and fundamentalism that insist on the subordination of individuals conforming to dominant norms of the moment. The irony, he says, is that instead of uniting the West on a confirmation of its values of moderation and rationality and thus informing its actions, the “hype” imbues “us” with ‘a righteous anger and defensiveness in which “others” are finally seen as enemies, bent on destroying our civilisation and way of life’. He then says,

…these patterns of coercive orthodoxy and self-aggrandisement… [that] strengthen the power of unthinking assent and unchangeable doctrine…are slowly perfected over time…[and are] answered, alas with [a] corresponding finality by the designated enemies. Thus Muslims or Africans or Indians or Japanese, in their idioms and from within their own threatened localities, attack the West, or Americanisation, or imperialism, with little more attention to detail, critical differentiation, discrimination, and distinction than has been lavished on them by the West.17

Like Gandhi, I assert that such reciprocity is the result of a narrative hold on the imaginations and vision of people who are caught in a reflexive relationship with established narratives. What is more, if the narrative that one is caught in is not of one’s own construction, then such a person while engaging in action is essentially passive.

Yet if narratives can catch people in their representative grip thus making them more malleable and controllable, the key to break through is provided by the act of narrativity. By accessing our narrative capacities we enliven, what Homi K. Bhabha may call a liminal space that contains the potential to re-imagine ourselves. But unlike Bhabha’s somewhat abstracted realm where boundaries of given binaries overlap and produce sites of hybridisation, I want to imagine this space as one where we locate our imagination and use its subversive capacity to question, invert and alter the fixtures of a particular narrative. In this liminal space the act of narrativity provides the power not only to infuse a narrative with a sense of one’s cultural and individual self, but also draw from it a better understanding of the self. However, because we are social beings as stated earlier, this act of narrativity must be enacted collectively and it is for this reason that Muslims need to arrest the means of narrative production. With this thought in mind and with Bhabha as a reference point, we move into the next section.

Narrativity, Cultural Products, and Change

[One] must acknowledge the force of writing, its metaphorcity and its rhetorical discourse, as a productive matrix which defines the ‘social’ and makes it available as an objective of and for, action.18

The force of writing to which Bhabha refers is writing’s capacity, both as object and process, to open up liminal spaces in which the imagination can contest and reconstruct given fixtures. But if writing has this capacity it is because it is one way in which narrativity materialises and so it is narrativity that carries forth this potential to open up interstitial spaces. It is because of this potential that narrativity has grown to be a widely used practice in psychological treatment.19 But Bhabha makes a further point: writing has the power to define its object and therefore produce an impetus for action. {quotes}What he does not tell us however is how we move from writing as a descriptive and defining practice to being modally linked to action.{/quotes}

To bridge this gap I again parallel writing with narrativity. Firstly, the power of representation inherent in both these modes of reflection lends them the capacity to affect action – a point discussed in greater detail in part one of this essay (the relationship between narrative and discourse). There is another dimension though to how writing and narrativity can generate action, and that is to do with the fact that as ways of producing narratives, they produce their own fixtures. What this means is that while they are able to open up and deconstruct moments of closures, they also tend towards synthesising new closures. While this can further explain how actions grow out of writing and narrativity – a fixture provides a point from which to orientate, navigate, and determine action – it also problematises the puristic view of narrativity we have thus far pursued. If narrativity can contest existing narratives, the very same act can decentre the narratives that emerge in their place. What this means is subtle but important. Narratives need formulation through repetition and reinforcement meaning that the public space becomes a space of constant traffic of narratives all competing and conflicting, and it is only when the public domain is viewed in these terms does the meaning of the colonisation of the public space make sense. It is in this context that the act of narrativity can provide exactly the kind of empowerment by which minority communities can resist narrative domination. But for them to do so they must become agents of narrative production and it is exactly this that is lacking in the Muslim community.

In the 2007 issue of Islamica Magazine, the editor makes a lucid observation in his editorial. Admitting a deep-seated bias against Islam in the mainstream media he says,

At the same time, the Muslim world has by and large failed to recognise the importance of communicating its ideals, values and culture in the English language. For some strange reason, Muslims demand accuracy of others in representing their views, but invest little or nothing to ensure this happens.20

The investment the editor has in mind is explained a few lines later. ‘Given that freedom of the press is almost non-existent across many parts of the Muslim world, it should come as no surprise that the intellectual infrastructure necessary to tell the Muslim story to the rest of the world is at best, limited.’21 Though the editor implicitly links and in my opinion limits the “intellectual infrastructure” to the “press”, his observation is not wrong. Muslims have fallen into a blinkered epistemology in which we have designated certain forms as the exclusive forms of knowledge presentation, foremost amongst which are the non-fiction book and the medium of lectures. Taking this together with the implicit exclusivity given to the “press” in Islamica’s editorial, however, means something more still. Muslims, it is possible to deduce, see non-fictional modes as the only proper modes of knowledge/information transmission. I therefore want to go even further than Islamica’s editor in two respects. One, I want to open up the idea of an “intellectual infrastructure” so as to include a diverse range of cultural products, and two, I want to suggest that not only is there an impasse in communication when such products are absent, but our “ideals, values and culture” remain invisible even to ourselves.

A diversification of mediums by which we narrate our “story” is important not just because each medium has its own merits, which is true enough, but because with diversification we can reach a wider range of people. It hardly needs saying that if this happens communication becomes strengthened.22 But a call to diversification is also a call to opening up our “intellectual infrastructure” to fictional-dramaturgical-narrative production. {quotes}These can include as broad a range of approaches as history books, biographies, novels, poems, film, drama and documentaries, and as modes of narrative production they are all special for two reasons.{/quotes} All of these deal in one way or another with people and their interiority, a point that is important in helping others see something from the eyes of another. They can also capture events and meld what happened or is happening with a way of conceiving the world. Joan Rockwell makes this point when she comments on the theme of marriage in literature.23 The change from arranged marriages as the norm to a belief in the right of individuals to court one another she says, reflected and reified the changing values and worldview of the early modern period of European society, as it moved from the pressures and requirements of feudalism to those of bourgeois capitalism.

The significance of these mediums also becomes apparent when one asks, as Earnest Fischer does in The Necessity of Art, why so many people read or go to the cinema? ‘To say they seek distraction, relaxation, [or] entertainment,’ he says, ‘is to beg the question.’

Why is it distracting, relaxing, entertaining to sink oneself in someone else’s life and problems? …Why is our existence not enough? Why this desire to fulfil our unfulfilled lives through other figures, other forms, to gaze from the darkness…at a lighted stage where something that is only play can so utterly absorb us.24

Though Fischer does not himself answer this question, its answer can be found elsewhere. John Rutherford for example, suggests that such mediums present themselves as having something important to say about human experiences – ‘that the fictional world…stands in some special way as a microcosm of the world of real experience’25 – and that through it we come to a better appreciation of ourselves. He explains further that such mediums operate through a network of associations because they lay emphasis on associative meaning over and above conceptual meaning. ‘The word “toad”’, he says, ‘…appearing in the context of literary discourse, is likely to stand for qualities that in our experience [or in “our” culture] are common to toads (baseness, ugliness, repulsiveness, wretchedness, and so on) in the first place, and only secondarily for a tailless amphibian of the genus Bufo.’26 Associative meanings therefore can be understood as the mechanism by which interstitial spaces are opened up, and – to reframe a point made by Virgina Woolfe – such mediums ‘make us know our species better’ because we can locate ourselves in those interstitial spaces and view things from another viewpoint.

But that isn’t all. Roland Barthes claimed that literature – and for our purposes, other fictional-dramaturgical mediums – was like a machine, a point that Joan Rockwell also stresses when she claims literature is part of the ‘social machinery’. Such a view of these mediums suddenly opens them up to not only being vehicles by which mere stories are told but proponents of narratives as I have been conceptualising it – a species of ideology. Keeping this in mind we can begin to see that such narrative mediums can assist in assimilating individuals with an ideology. Of course, the converse of this is equally true. If these mediums are absent amongst Muslim communities and if the Muslim community is not in some respect in control of narrative production, then for many Muslims their “ideals, values and culture” are vague and perhaps even invisible. The need for Muslims to arrest the means of narrative production therefore is not only important in communicating to non-Muslims, but a way of resisting ideological intrusion by other narratives and making sure our own Weltanschauung is better inscribed in us. {quotes}We may have the The Ideal Muslim but we lack the ideal Muslim represented.{/quotes}

One may well retort at this point and suggest that if representation is as essential as I am claiming it to be, then in fact what has actually gone astray is the pedagogy of the Muslims. This is because for a Muslim, the “ideal Muslim” has always been made available in the form of the Prophet (saw) and, as if that was not enough, in the shape of the numerous Companions [sahaba] (ra). Thus, they may conclude, what is needed is in fact a rigorous familiarisation of Muslims with hadith literature and stories of the companions. This no doubt is an essential part of marking a Muslim’s identity and generating a sense of his or her belonging to Islam, but it is not what I have in mind for two reasons. Firstly, for a lot of Muslims these traditions have moved into a type of mythic past and so long as they remain fixed in this psychic space they lack the necessary vigour for contesting contemporary colonising narratives emerging from quarters antagonistic to Islam and Muslims. As such, a narrative is needed itself to re-inscribe these traditions back into Muslims’ lives. In order to do this, and this brings me to the second point, we need a narrative that is reflective of the present landscape and which represents present Muslims and their lives. There is no reason why the traditions of the past, stories of the Qu’ran, or even the Qu’ran itself as symbol cannot be used as positive regenerative devices in our narratives.

A good example away from present practices is the novel by first time novelist Randa Abdel-Fattah called, Does my head look big in this? With good humour and generosity she presents the picture of a teenage girl growing up and experiencing life, with the twist that the protagonist is Muslim and one of her dilemmas is wearing the hijab. Though amateurish at times, the novel plays a mimetic game with the reader who is encouraged to feel the dilemmas as their own by making possible either an identification with the character or her life, or just the modern urban surroundings which reflects those of many diaspora Muslims. In doing this, the resolution, the confidence, and a sense of voice – witty and self assertive – become, in between the pages and one’s inner reading voice, one’s own. {quotes}At the same time, the picture presented to non-Muslims gives access to the interiority of a Muslim forcing them to recognise a 3D-ness that other narratives deny or manipulate.{/quotes}

A year ago the novelist Martin Amis gave an interview to the Sunday Times in which he said that ‘the Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order’27. By conflating an entire community and its concomitant complexities within the metaphor of one “house”, Amis underscored the manipulation of the dominant western narrative in which, an evil ideology becomes the “get out of jail card” for Western foreign policy. And while there is usually a proviso that ‘the majority of Muslims reject this ideology,’ the lack of a political context as Arun Kundanani notes, makes it ‘impossible to explain why this ideology has come into existence.’28 What happens by default then is that the problem comes to be seen as a uniquely Muslim problem of adapting to “modern values” not only in the Middle East or Asia, but also of Muslim communities in the West. As a novelist, Amis accentuates that narrative even while writing or speaking in other mediums because his non-political occupation lends his “analysis” a quasi-insight that is harder to achieve if you’re a political commentator on Newsnight.

Couple that with a recent article by Mark Tran in The Guardian, which quotes Lieutenant General James Mattis, a war veteran of the first Gulf war, ‘discussing the importance of the “softer” aspects of power.’

This is a battle where perception is more important than reality where it is our narrative versus their narrative. The real battle is for the will of the people.29

Hearing Mattis and Amis together should make us all sit up and pay attention. It is now primarily culture through which the western world establishes its hegemony, even while political resistance dismantles the political dimensions of colonialism. In such a context, Muslims’ absence in the cultural domain makes them vulnerable both internally in terms of building confidence around their Islamic identity, and externally in terms of how they are perceived. What is more, a deep understanding of the relationship between ideology, narrative, and discourse opens up a methodological approach in which the force of narrativity assumes centre stage. The step after this is for scholars and Muslim thinkers to systematise the Islamic boundaries around a possible Muslim cultural industry: because the battleground in the West, as both parts of this essay have shown, is the psyche.




1. Fredrick Jameson, The Political Unconscious, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p13.
2. H. Porter Abbott, Narrative, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p176.
3. Quoted in, ibid, p3.
4. Arthur Schpenhauer, The World as Will and Idea, trans. by David Berman, (London: Everyman, 2004), pxviii.
5. This is where I differ with Shopenhauer even though ironically I borrow this notion from him. Shopenhaure uses the “inner world” dimension to build a purely phenomenological epistemology.
6. Modernity and its Futures, ed. by Stuart Hall, David Held, Tony McGrew, (Oxford: Open University, 1992), p276.
7. Ibid, p276.
8. Paul Taylor, Sociology in focus, (Bath: Causeway Press Ltd, 1996), p19.
9. M. Haralambos, R. M. Heald, Sociology: Themes and Perspectives, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p430.
10. Ibid, p431.
11. Ibid, p430-31.
12.Abdulrazak Gurnah, By the Sea, (London: Bloomsburry Press, 2002), p18.
13. Ibid, p18.
14. Gandhi, Hind Swarj, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pxv.
15. Ibid, p77.
16. Ibid, fn151, p78
17. Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, (London: Vintage, 1994), p376.
18. Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture, (London: Routledge, 2006), p34.
19. See, Crossley, Michele L., Introducing Narrative Psychology, (Bukingham: Open University Press, 2000)
20. Islamica Magazine, ed. by Sohail Nakhooda, Issue 20 2007, published by The National Press in Jordan, p1.
21. Ibid, p1.
22. Of course the message must be equally strong and clear, but this essay merely wishes to explore the possible ways in which a message may be able to be transmitted. It is also a possibility that once the vehicles to transmit our “ideals, values, and culture” are presented, a process of message formulation is started.
23. “A theory of literature and society” by Joan Rockwell in, The Sociology of Literature, Sociological Review Monograph vol. 25, ed. by Jane Routh and Janet Wolff, (Staffordshire: University of Keele, 1977), p34-35.
24. Quoted in, Ibid, p33.
25. “Structuralism” by John Rutherford in, The Sociology of Literature, Sociological Review Monograph vol. 25, ed. by Jane Routh and Janet Wolff, (Staffordshire: University of Keele, 1977), p48.
26. Ibid, p52.
27. Amis interviewed by Ginny Dougary in the Times Magazine, 9 September 2006.
28. Arun Kundanani, The End of Tolerance: Racism in 21st Century Britain, (London: Pluto Press, 2007), p96.

Abbott, H. Porter, Narrative, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002)
Ashcroft, Bill, Griffiths, Gareth, Tiffin, Helen, The Empire Writes Back, (London: Routledge, 2005)
Bhabha, Homi K., The Location of Culture, (London: Routledge, 2004)
Crossley, Michele L., Introducing Narrative Psychology, (Bukingham: Open University Press, 2000)
Gandhi, Hind Swarj, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997)
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About Syed Haider

A PhD candidate at SOAS and English teacher.


  1. Thinking about Narratives and Narrativity.
    I just wanted to respond to some of the comments as they are very perceptive and help elaborate the shortcomings of the essay or emphasise certain areas that have been touched on.

    “How do we get into the cultural industry?”

    It’s a good question and requires another paper and one that is more practical in its focus (as opposed to theoretical). I am partially interested in this area and am currently working on a paper titled, Muslim Weekly and the like: the role of independent Muslim media in social change. To give some sort of overview: there is at the moment a very basic infrastructure of an elementary cultural industry amongst Muslims in terms of TV channels, newspapers and magazines, printing press. More needs to be done to develop these and make them not just instruments of conveyance but instruments of production. What this means is that they need to organise avenues by which they can engage Muslims populace of Britain to come on board as writers, directors, actors, producers etc. They need to organise workshops, training sessions, offer apprenticeships etc. Really it’s a case of building clusters of individuals interested in culture and such modes as creative writing and documentary film making who are at the same time highly aware of Islamic boundaries. It is a three tiered effort. One: structural; two: content; and three: conceptual. The third is where the Islamic tarbiyah is crucial so that for example swearing in Islamic art forms is deemed unhelpful and deleterious since we cannot back a simple art for art sake ethos. Content is really where an individual practices their talent for poetry, prose, journalism, photography etc. Again, so long as the individuals involved in the production of these are aware that there will necessarily be limitations within which content can be produced we can really let our creativity loose in working around the Islamic requirements (eg. The prohibition on the depiction of the unseen). The structural would involve considerations of finance, outreach programs, organisational infrastructure, organisational development etc. Really we should encourage people who are conscious of being Muslim coming and working together. Brothers and sisters of knowledge, our scholars, our creative people, our more managerially skilled individuals getting their teeth into building (perhaps independently or using what is presently out there) a cultural industry. So how do we get into it? We don’t. We CREATE IT!

    About thinkers – again, a really good point. I am following (very loosely of course) a Gramscian point of view that sees every individual as an intellectual by virtue of the fact that he or she has an intellect. Thus thinkers are you and I. I do want to air a note of caution. We should all seek to understand our own short comings and thus be aware that I as an individual cannot speak about everything with the same authority. Hence one should constantly check themselves through critique either personally or through open forums where other individuals can take you to task. Also, have a diverse range of people around you (in a very loose sense – a shura) against whom you can bounce ideas to make sure they are sound – but the up shot is: the picture will necessarily be messy – you WILL disagree and you WILL find something someone else says unnerving and you WILL make some errors of judgement – what to do? Get down into pitch and start presenting refutations, affirmations, building coalitions with similar minded people and through the sheer weight of your effort and wilfulness make a mark on the landscape of da’wah. And when you need to revise something you said or did, do it with a happy heart that you may have come closer to a more accurate view. Pomposity is to be avoided at all costs and the acquisition of Islamic knowledge as you said, should be made a never ending objective.

  2. Knowledge is key

    ‘The step after this is for scholars and Muslim thinkers to systematise the Islamic boundaries around a possible Muslim cultural industry’…

    When you mention ‘thinkers’ who do you exactly mean?? As has been evident in the UK, whenever Muslim ‘thinkers’ open their mouths, we find ideas which increasingly seem to further themselves away from Islamic principles. Furthermore, thinkers seems to be those who philosophise about Islamic ideals although they do not know anything about Islam and usually do not practice it. Many time I have noticed ‘thinkers’ give lectures which go through salah time, yet they continue in their talk and ignore maghrib etc. Other thinkers claim to0 be ‘good’ Muslims yet they state that they doubt or disagree with aspects of the Qur’an – subhanallah,how can we rely on such people for anything??

  3. ?
    Hod do we get into the ‘cultural domain’?

  4. It is extremely exciting to understand such concepts from an academic point of view. Although I do think that the majority of Muslims will either find this essay too difficult to understand, or not fully the grasp the importance of narrativity. However, still VERY needed…

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