By Sara Patterson
Tahera Qutbuddin embarked on a 10-year journey researching and writing the first study in English of seventh-century Arabic oration, which strongly influenced its literature and culture. The result was Arabic Oration: Art and Function (2019), which recently received the Sheikh Zayed Book Award for Arabic Culture in Other Languages and reveals similarities between Arabic and Greek oral traditions.
Considered the Nobel Prize of the Arab world, each winner of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award receives more than $200,000. Qutbuddin is the first author from India to receive this award for her groundbreaking work on Arabic oration, which transports readers into a different world and gives them a direct window into the hearts and minds of people who lived 1,400 years ago.
“Tahera is a master translator; many of the sermons and speeches in her book were translated into English from Arabic for the first time,” said Ahmed El Shamsy, associate professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC). “Her analyses are so insightful. The coming generations of students will use her pathbreaking work as a foundation for further study.”
Originally, Qutbuddin intended to write a book about Ali, a cousin of Muhammad, the first Shia Imam, and the fourth Sunni Caliph. As she began her research, Qutbuddin realized that no book had been written about how the seventh-century oral tradition of sermons and speeches created the foundation for Arab literature. She pivoted to this project instead.
“I took a deep dive into the texts and was struck immediately by their consistent and compelling rhythm, a feature that I felt was my new discovery, that no previous scholar had applied as a methodological framework,” said Qutbuddin, professor in the Department of NELC. “I then read up on orality theory, the theory of mnemonics, which are rhetorical techniques that aid memorization.
“The orations were produced in a largely oral culture, where, in order to have your words remembered and passed on, you needed to speak in pulsating rhythms that the brain could easily retain, in vivid, graphic images that the mind would capture and hold, and in pithy maxims that packed a powerful punch. I’ve always been drawn by the power of the word, how aesthetics are harnessed to persuasion in real life functions of politics, law, war, governance, and the preaching of religion and ethics, and these texts were just marvelous examples of this formidable medium.”
For example, in one of Ali’s speeches about the transience of this world, he compares it to a leaf being chomped in the mouth of a locust. That’s a very physical image, which is memorable, and it is this vivid language and these profound themes that drive her interest.
“Through the study of Arab speeches, Tahera tells us the story of the time,” said Orit Bashkin, professor in the Department of NELC. “She wrote a beautiful book on speeches and sermons by men and women, which gives us the joy of thinking about politics, religion, and speech in ways that resonate in the present.”
Qutbuddin has taught and researched at UChicago since 2002, learning from her peers across multiple disciplines. “I am surrounded by scholars who drive me, inspire me, and push me to do my best,” Qutbuddin said. “In the UChicago culture, all of us are expected to produce extraordinary work.”
Born in Mumbai, India, Qutbuddin has an unusually eclectic international background. After completing her higher secondary education from Sophia College in Mumbai, she earned her bachelor’s degree at Ain Shams University in Cairo, Egypt, and then pursued her master’s and PhD degrees from Harvard University.
Her unusual background has helped her understand and discover parallels between the Western and Arabic traditions. “For a scholar of the Western traditions of political thought, this book is a revelation,” wrote Danielle Allen, the James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University and former Dean of the Division of the Humanities at UChicago. “The Western canon also begins with oratory and with the ideas of the relation between public speech and politics that lay at the heart of Greek practice.
“To come to understand how the Arabic tradition thinks of language’s role in shaping communal and political life will significantly advance the capacity of scholars to engage with the political discourse of the Arabic speaking world. This project is of fundamental importance and should transform the capacity of the non-Islamic and Islamic worlds to communicate with each other about political subjects.”
As an example, in Arabic Oration, Qutbuddin translated a sermon by Muhammad about the complacency of most humans regarding death. “We behave as though death were decreed for everyone other than ourselves, as though duties were incumbent upon everyone other than ourselves, as though people who die in front of our eyes are travelers who will soon return. We consign their bodies to the grave and then go on to consume their wealth—forgetting every counselor and shrugging off every tragedy.”
Now that Qutbuddin has opened new territory in the world of Arabic literature and Islamic history for Westerners to explore, she has returned to her original study of Imam Ali. Qutbuddin is reconstructing his biography, as well as his teachings and eloquence, through his own sermons and speeches connecting governance, virtue, and piety.