Any definition of modernity is, by virtue of its subject, vertigo-inducing. A phenomenon that necessarily remakes the world in its image, modernity spawns a reality where everything that follows its advent is indicative of its presence. What makes defining modernity hard is that definitions are, naturally, compartmentalizations, and thus things to which modernity cannot lend itself: there’s modernity in your clothes, modernity in your food (I’m not just talking about microplastics), and there’s modernity on your bookshelf. Modernity is everywhere, and trying to catalog something that’s everywhere is an arduous, if not unthinkable, task.
That being said, it’s not impossible to isolate morsels of the modern world; there’s a range of fields dedicated to doing this called the “social sciences,” the geisteswissenschaften – a word that I like because it sounds funny. Among the dizzying collections of theories and hypotheses produced by washed-up, stuck-up, or potentially hung-up Europeans, there is a prevailing implication that the individual as we know them (or ourselves, I suppose) is one of modernity’s more salient by-products. Consult Durkheim or Elias, and it should be immediately apparent that, if nothing else, the seeds for this conviction have been sown in the annals of the human sciences’ innumerable -isms. There’s nothing groundbreaking in saying the individual as we know it/them/us only emerged at the threshold of modernity.
With that, I think there’s a case to be made that literature for individuals – written for, and possibly by, somebody to point at and say “wow, that’s literally me” – is intrinsically tied to the condition of modernity that has had us in its iron claw since, depending on how you look at it, the 15th, 18th, or 19th century. If the individual as a unique whole is only available when packaged with the rest of the modern world, then literature that accommodates such an entity must be as well, and can therefore be taken as a hallmark of this thing called modernity that, I really have to stress, I would use a synonym for if there were one. A good example that doesn’t call for any high-minded argumentation to illustrate is Don Quixote. The first thing anybody learns about Don Quixote is that it’s a bona fide modern novel; in fact, it’s often referred to as the first of its kind. I’ve heard people point to the tension between the secular and religious worlds or its use of parody as keys to the modernity in Cervantes’ novel. Harold Bloom talks about how Quixote embodies a rejection of Freud’s Reality Principe. If you look beyond all that, however, there’s also an essential relatability in the text that’s absent in, for example Amadeus de Gaula or, and I’ll forgive you if you haven’t heard of this one since it falls under most people’s radar, the Bible. The ‘first modern novel’ leaves a person-shaped – i.e. Sancho-shaped, Quixano-shaped, barber- or priest-shaped – space that the reader can hop into.
This leads me to a very interesting conundrum because, it would seem, another text with this quality, one consisting of a collection of medical anecdotes, was written by Al-Muḥassin ibn ‘Alī al-Tanūkhī in the 4th century AH (10th CE). How is it that this text, half-handbook, half-casual, so neatly adheres to a pattern that is seemingly intimately tied to the conditions of today’s strain of modernity, one that spawned from the bowels of Spain or, may God forgive me for uttering this word, France? It seems awkward at best and catastrophic at second-best.
Before I meander on any further, some context is in order. These anecdotes, contained in a book called al-Faraj Baʿd al-Shiddah (Deliverance Follows Adversity), are part of the adab genre of Arabic literature that proliferated throughout the Islamicate world around this time. Adab texts weren’t insightful expert accounts or specialist literature like one might assume based on their subject matter, rather they were books of extraordinary tales for laypeople, albeit tales that often told the story of a remarkable physician, philosopher, or flunkey to the Caliph. I’ve read Deliverance Follows Adversity being compared to Sherlock Holmes in that its an episodic collection of incidents that follow a series of set patterns where a good doctor gifted in his art, after all the conventional treatments for a stubborn affliction have been exhausted, takes an unintuitive approach that finally solves everything (and everybody claps). While nominally a musing on kismet, there are large swathes of the book that seem to focus in on a very human side of the whole ordeal, even if meant to illustrate cases of providence.
The parts more focused on divine intervention lean into the awesome, and these are by no means relatable. Israelites caught in a cave and saved by God because one of them refrained from having sex with his cousin out of wedlock, a Bedouin tribesman saved from poverty and illness by acknowledging God’s omniscience, a man spared the cruelty of Emperor Chosroes I Anūshirwān because he came up with an allegory resembling something you’d hear from the mouth of a protestant youth-councilor trying to be hip… I can’t realistically picture myself as any party in any of these scenarios, they don’t do it for me and, unless you’ve been picked up and moved here from late antiquity by the hand of God, I doubt they do it for you either. These are not interesting.
What is interesting, however, are stories like those recounted in the book’s third chapter, that of ʿAlī ibn Yazīd particularly so. This entry follows the disgraced secretary of al-’Abbās ibn al-Ma’mūn (son of the Caliph al-Ma’mūn) who first falls out of favor with his employer, and then subsequently into poverty as a result. After having all his property seized by al-’Abbās and left in Samarra with nothing but his horse, his servant boy, and the clothes on his back, he and his reduced household are barely scraping by. Suddenly one day, after sending the boy off to try and sell his handkerchief to buy food for the horse and witnessing a stork eat a sparrow, he is visited by the steward of his old boss, Ibrāhīm ibn Yūḥannā, who has come to deliver him 500 dinars. Appalled by his living conditions, the steward reports to al-’Abbas with a particular sympathy for ibn Yazīd; when the Caliph’s son is shocked by ibn Yazīd’s squalor as well, he gifts him another 500 dinars, enough to get his life back on track. The story – which I should note is, like a number of others, free from any focus on physical ailments – is nominally about divine intervention, but the characters are relatable and its possible to imagine oneself in such a situation without God necessarily being involved, though if you were in ibn Yazīd’s shoes, you’d, as a religious man, have to accept that God and God-related machinations underlie everything.
Another story about a young boy who, ironically, cures his chronic illness through attempted suicide, is similar in that it remains somewhat banal until the episode’s unexpected resolution, the entire thing set in the sleepy domicile. The entry tells of a bed-bound boy, one only getting worse, who is no longer able to bear his fate. Resolute that he is doomed after, to his father’s great dismay, the best physicians he could find were unable to cure him, the boy decides to eat a meal tainted by snake venom and in doing so he accidentally stumbles upon a cure for his illness, one that his father, in retrospect, remembers having heard of at some point. Once again, we are presented with a set of strikingly down-to-earth scenarios that we can visualize robustly, albeit with a healthy serving of good luck.
In both of these stories, as well as others, the right conditions are in place for a reader to be able to imagine themselves as one of their personalities. In reading about Rāzī’s son or ibn Yazīd’s bout of poverty, I see characters take actions that I would myself, react as I would, see the world as I would. The sheen of divine meddling is there, or at least said to be, but not in such a way that breaks any immersion I or you might have in these stories. This relatability holds the door wide open for individuality which is in turn a doorman for modernity. To me, a modern reader, these feel like modern stories.
And so in summary: literature, fiction that leaves room for the individual to situate themselves within it, seems modern in our sense of the word. The essential relatability, the presence of an individual-shaped hole for you to slip into, is largely what distinguishes the modern novel from annals and history, or scripture and fable if either of those exist beyond a heuristic categorization. There’s two prerequisites for something like this to come into being: a reader who understands themselves to be a unique whole that can be inserted, and a story that accommodates such a thing, furnished with the necessary familiarities – this idea of modern literature involves a complex relationship between the modern individual and modern writing.
The problem with this thesis arises when we consider a text like Deliverance Follows Adversity, that spawned from a period long predating European arrival in the Americas, the European Enlightenment, industrialization, or any other events we take to mark the onset of modernity. The conditions of modernity, whatever they be (that’s too drastic a tangent, even for me) didn’t exist at this time. How is it that this Basran, living very close to a millennium before modernity was first studied, was able to produce something so congruent with the aspect of modern literature outlined above? The ensuing questions and whatever answers they nurture have implications for our understanding of what the individual is. Will I go off about this? No, I’m tired of this
*This essay was inspired by a reading of a chapter in Julia Bray’s Writing and Representation in Medieval Islam.
Bray, Julia. Writing and representation in medieval Islam. London: Routledge, 2010.
Tanūkhī, al-Muḥassin ibn ʻAlī, Julia Bray, al-Muḥassin ibn ʻAlī Tanūkhī, and Shawkat M. Toorawa. 2019. Stories of Piety and Prayer : Deliverance Follows Adversity / Al-Muḥassin Ibn ’Alī Al-Tanūkhī ; Edited and Translated by Julia Bray ; Volume Editor Shawkat M. Toorawa. Edited by Shawkat M. Toorawa. Translated by Julia Bray. New York: New York University Press.