18.06.10, Longo, Spiritual Grammar

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Cosmin Tudor Ciocan

The Medieval Review 18.06.10

Longo, F. Dominic . Spiritual Grammar Genre and the Saintly Subject in Islam and Christianity. Comparative Theology: Thinking Across Traditions. New York: Fordham University Press, 2017. pp. xix, 288. ISBN: 978-0-8232-7572-4 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Cosmin Tudor Ciocan
OVIDIUS University of Constanta, Romania

Engaging a specific definition of grammar for language--that is, how it works and how its structures acquire sense whether or not it is consciously noticed or adequately described--Dominic Longo mixes grammar with religious texts and raises them both to the level of metaphor in a new embedded genre that describes both those realities. The author describes spiritual grammar as a hybrid on many levels, but the outcome is expected to make the path of understanding how religious formation works more comfortable and more transparent for those who follow this way.

The model of spiritual grammar that is described by Paul Ricoeur as ‘the relationship between textuality and subjectivity’ (xv) is deeply involved in religious leaders’ and theologians’ mission since it serves as a 101-level manual for students about the spiritual realities in which they are deeply and inescapably situated. ‘Grammar enables us to see, understand, and operate in the reality in which we live’ and Longo takes two creative medieval writers from no-interference realms--Arabic and Christian, Persian and French--for the most detailed comparison to date of medieval Arab Islamic and Latin Christian diglossic sociolinguistics to prove that spirituality and theology have always worked in the same manner and have used the same patterns to convince people of their core religious teachings. The author makes a strong and theoretically nuanced point in revealing how the grammatical structures of two ‘father tongues’ (as opposed to the vernacular ‘mother tongues’ of their society) addressed in two medieval texts--published centuries apart and from different religious traditions--offer a metaphor for how the self is embedded in spiritual reality, ‘the primary mark of the genre of spiritual grammar.’ (6) By developing a description of spiritual grammar as a genre based on this metaphor, he identifies the most-used genres of religious literature for these two writers: first, Jean Charlier de Gerson (1363-1429), a French scholar, educator, reformer, and poet; and secondly of Al-Qushayrī (986-1073) [1], a great Sufi shaykh in both the pedagogical and spiritual senses of the term and a ‘spiritual faṣїh,’ and develops a grammatical guide to spiritual and theological preaching.

The advantage of Jean Gerson’s research in spiritual grammar was the opportunity to compare the traditional central genre of religious literature in the medieval west (and not only the west)--that is, the sermon--with the new genre used in the early-fifteenth-century French high society--that is, the tract (ch. 2). By using both these genres, Gerson adaptively engenders saintly subjectivities, addressing pressing moral questions for clerics of his day.

Less known to western societies, Arabic literary genres are here exhibited through the examination of Qushayrї’s eleventh-century Persian writings. An expert in kalām (the Islamic science of discursive theology) and in hadith (the study of traditions and sayings by and about the Prophet Muhammad and his companions), Quasharī caught Longo’s attention due to his attempt at pursuing correctness of speech in the area of religion--a ‘way,’ as grammar is called in Arabic. His Grammar of Hearts made this scholarly attempt even clearer by taking the theme of dhikr (the ritual recitation of the names of God/Allah) that ‘provides a red thread to trace throughout a range of genres where the intersection of spiritual and linguistic concerns is particularly evident’ (xv). These two authors, even from centuries apart and exceptionally different religious andcultural environments, have both approach and content in common. By shifting from the grammatical study of religious texts and genres to the religious texts themselves, both Qushayrї and Gerson’s discourse characterizes the structure of language as of the highest significance for conveying a religious message as accurately as possible. They have created spiritual grammars to signify possibilities through their texts for how readers could evolve their subjectivities beyond conventional, ‘generic’ modes of beings (25). Longo calls their writings ‘queer’, suggesting that their approach and analyses of their sacred texts are ‘especially conductive to a queer theological approach,’ completely different from other religious hermeneutics for their ‘spiritual grammar... lives at the boundary between theory and practice, speculation and advocacy’ (4).

Both these authors have no concern for non-catechetical readers since they never dwell on linguistic niceties or details. Therefore Longo’s theory is that these two writers assume their readers’ familiarity with the discipline of grammar. Even if they have no awareness of each other, they nonetheless both express a deep comprehension of their sacred texts’ structure, believing that religious truths highly expressed in grammatical language and form could somehow be worth engendering.

This great work offers us insights into both the Arabic-Islam and Latin-Christian realms via the theological studies offered by these two great writers. The greatness of this book relies not only on the analytic power of the text in each of these spiritual environments but in comparing them and finding bridges to understanding Muslim and Christian ways of living and conceiving the world. This makes the book not only a review of medieval texts but also a valuable up-to-date guide into these two spiritual realities--both scholarly and spiritual, analytic and speculative, comparative and constructive, literary and theological. The writing of the book itself was, as the author describes, ‘a journey of learning, exploring, and growing’ of its own, and, by taking each chapter with care and synthetic reading, we can remake this journey along with him.

-------- Note:

1. 'Abd al-Karīm ibn Hūzān Abū al-Qāsim al-Qushayrī al-Naysābūrī, 986 CE (376 AH) to 1072 CE (465 AH), born in Nishapur in Khorasan Province in Iran, a center of Islamic civilization up to the 13th century CE.

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