Books interview: Sari Nusseibeh

The author and philosopher on his journey from Western thought to early Arabic scholarship as well as novels that detail daily life in today’s Muslim world

January 19, 2017
Sari Nusseibeh

What sorts of books inspired you as a child?
Children’s books in Arabic did not exist as I was growing up. The alternative was the folk stories my parents and great-aunts would tell us. During my early school years, I was exposed to Arabic translations of some Western children’s stories such as The Black Tulip and The Count of Monte Cristo. Alongside that, we were introduced to classical Arabic literature, as well as the Koran. Later in my school years, I was able to start reading classical works in English – Shakespeare, Tennyson and others. I also started reading contemporary Arab writers, including Taha Hussein and Tawfiq el-Hakim.

Which books originally spurred you to study philosophy?
My initial interest arose from after-school discussions with a classmate. In our final school year, we decided to search the local British Council library for books in philosophy, and one of our first discoveries was Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. We also found some elementary logic textbooks. We had no knowledge of or access to philosophical works in Arabic.

Your new book is ‘The Story of Reason in Islam’. What led you to a scholarly interest in the history and development of Islam?
One day in college a colleague invited me to a graduate seminar where students were reading an 11th-century Muslim scholar (Abd al-Jabbar) on the question of perception. This was a recently edited text of a manuscript discovered in a mosque in Yemen only some 20 years earlier. I was captivated by the style and the depth of the author’s arguments. The intellectual terrain of early Muslim scholarship was still vague to me, but this initial exposure encouraged me to delve deeper into that tradition. Thereafter, I made myself acquainted with texts from that period, side by side with maintaining my interest in contemporary philosophical developments.

Which non-specialist accounts of Islamic culture(s) would you recommend?
I found two books for the general reader I recently read (in English) “sympathetic” to Islam’s foundation and culture: Tamim Ansary’s Destiny Disrupted and Lesley Hazleton’s The First Muslim. While more specialised, I would also recommend The Medieval Islamic Republic of Letters, by Muhsin J. al-Musawi.

Which books would you recommend as giving the best sense of daily life in the Muslim world, particularly in Palestine?
For this, it is best to turn to novels. A new group of Arabic writers who are coming to light and having their works translated are those featured in the annual International Prize for Arabic Fiction [often called the “Arabic Booker Prize”]. In 2015, the Tunisian Shukri Mabkhout’s The Italian won. Locally, I like Raja Shehadeh’s books, including Palestinian Walks, and A. R. Awad’s The Virgin and the Village (this has not been translated).

What is the last book you gave as a gift, and to whom?
I think it was The Arch and the Butterfly, by Mohammed Achaari, to my daughter.

What book do you have on your desk waiting to be read?
Saba Mahmood’s Religious Difference in a Secular Age.

Sari Nusseibeh is professor of philosophy at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem. His latest book is The Story of Reason in Islam (Stanford University Press).

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