Puškin and the Koran

John Henriksen, American University in Cairo

Following Edward Said’s vision of European Orientalism as a categorizing of the East as a monolithic, distanced, and exoticized Other to all that is western, one might be tempted to read Puškin’s “Imitations of the Koran” (1824) as just this sort of exoticization of Islam. Imitating the Koran and the culture around it would be tantamount to reducing them both to a kind of style, a decorative effect, a bit of authorial clothing to try on. But in fact it may be argued that Puškin’s Koranic imitations are precisely the opposite of orientalizing. If Orientalism proceeds by externalizing the other, Puškin proceeds in this poem by poetically internalizing the role of the prophet—or rather by playing with identification with and difference from this role. This dialectic of identification revolves around the image of a man who has received a total illumination through language and is called to communicate it to his people: a man who could as well, ignoring the difference between literary and religious language, be Puškin as Muhammad. The people of the Book of Islam in some ways may represent Puškin’s ideal literary audience. Thus it is not surprising to see Puškin return to the theme of the prophet two years later in his famous “Prophet” (1826), which begins with an image of thirsting in a desert that seems borrowed from his earlier Koranic imitation. Yet here its geopolitical connotations (of Islam, of the Arab world) have been erased or neutralized. What happens if we restore these Muslim connotations to Puškin’s later well-known self-image as prophet? Immediately there arise questions about the authority of the poet: is he like the Muslim praying submissive before God’s authority, receiving it from above? The later “Prophet” is most often read as a straightforward intimation that being a poet for Puškin is like receiving a heavenly message, as Muhammad did. But in the “Imitations” this is made more complex by Puškin playing both the role of the submissive recipient of prophecy in stanza 1, but also the role of the divinity speaking to him in stanzas 2–4, where Puškin assumes God’s own voice. Yet later, when in Part II he delivers an injunction to female modesty in dress, the position is not God’s, since the language is suggestive rather than commanding, nor is it Muhammad’s own, since it refers to “the prophet” in the third person. Thus the content is Muslim, but it is ostensibly being borrowed by Puškin himself, as pseudo-prophet, for his own non-Islamic purposes. Similarly, when in Part V the Koran’s injunction to almsgiving is phrased as a command to give part of one’s financial “gifts” (“darov”) to the poor, one inevitably thinks of Puškin’s own literary gifts being squandered foolishly or being handed down to those who need them.

Thus the talk as a whole focuses on Puškin’s reception of the Koran not so much as a religious text, but as an inspiration as to the possibility of prophetic writing, of revelation. My contention is that Puškin’s view of the analogy between sacred and literary writing is not as stable as many generations of readers of “The Prophet” have believed, or as he himself may have wanted to believe, and that viewing his own deep dialectic with Islam may help clarify this.