John Henriksen

Critical responses to “Podrazhaniia Koranu (1824) have tended to treat the relationship between Pushkin and the Koran as a straightforward case of appropriation, of simple imitation, as the title of the poetic cycle implies. The appropriation usually pointed out by scholars is not just of a style and lexicon (some phrases echo the Koran almost verbatim), and of a set of themes (wandering in the desert, prophecy), but of a whole spirit and metaphysical worldview as well. On this appropriatory model, Pushkin’s poem conveys a distilled quintessence of the Muslim sacred scripture—stylistically, thematically, and metaphysically—in an unques­tioning reframing of the original according to the poet’s interests at the time.


This critical view would seem defensible on several grounds. It is hard to deny that the powerful prophetic thrust of the Koran reinforced a simi­lar prophetic urge in the Pushkin of the 1820s, whereby he aspired to be not merely poet but public guide and illuminator, deliverer of a higher vi­sion to his generation, like Mohamed himself. Pushkin’s 1826 poem “The Prophet” makes this role explicit. Both “Podrazhaniia Koranu” and its model, the Koran, while written in verse, aspire to extra-literary status as wisdom literature or religious visions. Moreover, the deliberately ar­chaized and Slavonicized diction chosen by Pushkin would suggest that this poem is not a modernization or reworking of an ancient work into modern terms, but strictly an imitation, with the poet’s historical eye cast resolutely backwards. Even the biographical role of the poet seems quite self-consciously to have been semiotically modeled upon that of the writer of the Koran. Like Mohamed, who had fled Mecca to Medina to escape persecution, Pushkin wrote his imitation of the Koran in social exile in Mikhailovskoe. He moreover explicitly identifies himself with Mohamed, as Julian W. Connolly notes, in a letter to P. A. Viazemskii of 29 November 1824 in which he refers to himself as forced to flee Mecca, and refers to his poetry as his Koran.[1] Thus, when seeking a hermeneutic model for the relation between this text and its model, commentators have understandably tended to find an identificatory paradigm most ap­propriate, and have consequently looked for points of contact and similar­ity between the two, rather than divergences or distortions. The task they have set themselves has been to discern precisely the register and scope of that identity between poem and scripture, poet and prophet.


Thus throughout the array of criticism on this cycle of poems, one finds great variety in the set of identities or kinships discovered, ranging across a broad spectrum of interpretive approaches and political ideolo­gies. N. I. Cherniaev, in 1897, viewed the connection between the texts as primarily a spiritual-mystical one, judging that Pushkin “found in his soul a sympathetic response to the mystical pathos of the Koran,” and em­phasizing in an almost Symbolist vein the transcendental affinities be­tween the two texts, downplaying their more worldly affinities in voicing prophetic remonstrations and adjuring proper living.[2] V. I. Filonenko, writing as a good Soviet secularist, placed an almost anthropological em­phasis on Pushkin’s skill in describing the Arab lifestyle of the seventh century, making the art of imitation seem like archeology.[3] B. Tomashevskii outlined a more purely verbal or literary connection on the level of poetic creation, noting the formal techniques that Pushkin bor­rows from the Koran, such as abrupt thematic transition and direct ad­dress, and their departure from the Russian eighteenth-century odic tra­dition. By contrast, Walter Vickery emphasizes the ethical or moral as­pect of the Koranic imitation, calling this poem the projection of a desire “for a world in which everything would be clear-cut and recognizable, where everything would be in its appointed place, where the distinction would be clear between good and evil.”[4] Julian W. Connolly, while osten­sibly aiming to integrate all these views, tends to focus on emotional and imagistic modulations in the Koran, shifts in mood that lead to a vision of redemption in the promise of “new hope and joy” brought by obedience and righteous living. Connolly warns against perceiving a strict identifica­tion of poet with prophet, noting that Pushkin called the poem loose and impressionistic “imitations” rather than faithful “translations,” but still Connolly’s emphasis is on general similarities, on the “shared experience” and kinship between the two.[5] Thus while all these critics add their own nuances to the basic continuity perceived between the spirit of the Koran and the spirit of Pushkin’s poetic imitations, the continuity or similarity itself is never radically questioned.


The point of this present study, by contrast, is to focus not on new levels of continuity between the Koran and Pushkin’s imitation of it, but rather on the possibility of discontinuities between the two, dissimilari­ties which may lie at the heart of Pushkin’s ambitions for this text. Any study of Western imitators of Eastern texts must nowadays be mindful of what Edward Said has famously called the “Orientalizing” tendency of Westerners to distort, over-generalize, and reshape non-Western texts to suit their own ends.[6] But not all imitations are necessarily Orientalist. Despite Pushkin’s self-conscious assumption of the role of the prophet Mohamed in his letter to Viazemskii, there is evidence that he was well aware of the dangers—aesthetic and otherwise—of identifying too closely with an Eastern writer. Connolly cites Pushkin’s criticism of the poet Moore’s exoticist imitations of Persian and Arab writers on the grounds that Moore “is already too Eastern. He imitates childishly and in an ugly way the childishness and ugliness of Saadi, Hafez, and Mohamed. A European, even in the rapture of Eastern opulence, must preserve the taste and vision of a European.”[7] But because Connolly’s perspective is on stylistic concerns like tone and treatment of detail rather than on con­tent, he does not pursue the consequences of Pushkin’s important re­mark, which reveal a skepticism of Orientalist attitudes. That is, despite his unfair criticism about the childish and ugly East, Pushkin seems fair-minded in his wariness of the Western fabrication of a monolithic fantasy of “Easternness” in which true dialogue between East and West becomes unthinkable. He favors instead the European who can maintain his own “taste and vision” even while overwhelmed by Oriental otherness, pre­sumably creating a text whose stylistic elements (“opulence”) are at odds with “vision.”


This remark may thus serve as an insight into the way the poet is not simply imitating the Koran in a monolithic—or, to use Bakhtin’s term, monologic—way, but is trying to preserve two standpoints at once, dialog­ically. He may be processing the Eastern style and content through a reso­lutely European sensibility, creating a dialogic interaction of Oriental style and Western vision. Indeed, when considering Pushkin’s genius in maintaining several divergent points of view in his work overall, it is hard to imagine him doing otherwise. It seems that when dealing with a writer with Pushkin’s formidable gifts for pastiche and ironization (as any reader of Evgenii Onegin is forced to acknowledge on the first page), we cannot simply assume Pushkin to be adopting the Koran’s worldview wholesale, without revisions, personalized accents, or heteroglossic modu­lations. The line between imitation and ironization in Pushkin is always blurry. If Evgenii Onegin could in a qualified and ironic sense be called an “imitation” of Byron and Richardson, then we cannot assume this imita­tion of the Koran to be any less ironic simply because its subject is sa­cred, or its tone religiously solemn. Instead we must look for the diver­gences that irony implies. Moreover, the poem’s theme of confrontation with God demands a very careful consideration of the inevitable cultural and theological differences separating a Russian writing in the nineteenth century and an Arab writing in the seventh, differences that Pushkin must have been aware of. Without broaching the Christian-Muslim doc­trinal split, or attempting to define Pushkin’s religious feelings, it is enough to point out that even on literary grounds the encounter between man and God in Romanticism looked distinctly non-Muslim. Rather than teaching submission to divinity, which is what “Islam” means, the litera­ture of European Romanticism abounds with the Promethean theme of struggling against divine authority, as in Blake’s Four Zoas and Shelley’s Prometheus Bound, and of fighting laws from above generally, as in Pushkin’s favorite André Chénier. Of course to point out this Romantic background does not imply that Pushkin is writing a Promethean poem, any more than the Muslim content of his “Imitations” implies that he is propagandizing for Islam. Rather, if the Romantic-Promethean rebellion against God is diametrically opposed to the Muslim acquiescence before God’s will, then we might take Pushkin’s “Imitations of the Koran” as operating dialogically within the field defined by those two opposing se­mantic poles. It seems at least open to discussion that the Koran is not being only imitated, but also simultaneously being dialogically responded to by Pushkin. Without necessarily making Pushkin into a Muslim heretic, therefore, this study will examine the connection between Pushkin and the Koran not as an assumed basic continuity or spiritual kinship, but as a dialogic space of debate and shifting ironization and perspectivization within which Pushkin strives to define his relationship to the higher powers at a critical time in his development.


What must be clarified at the outset is that the existence and pres­ence of God within this poem, as in its prototype, seems beyond ironiza­tion. While the specific meaning of God in human life will be deeply inter­rogated by the poem, the fact of God seems overwhelmingly affirmed, de­spite the insistence of Soviet atheist critics like Filonenko that this is merely Pushkin’s anthropological mimicry of Arab devotion. Partly this af­firmation is achieved through God’s voice resounding clearly in the first lines, as he pronounces a fourfold vow that sets the poem in motion, and authenticates the coming verses with its self-fulfilling guarantee:

Клянусь четой и нечетой,
Клянусь мечом и правой битвой,
Клянусь утренней звездой,
Клянусь вечернею молитвой.

I swear by the odd and the even,
I swear by the sword and righteous battle,
I swear by the morning star,
I swear by evening prayer.

The fact that the poem opens with a vow, or what in linguistics is called a “performative language act,” is important here, since performatives ver­bally create reality (here, the reality of a covenant or guarantee). Like the marriage vow “I do” used as an example in J. L. Austin’s seminal book on speech acts, which creates the bond of matrimony by speaking it, this vow makes the verbal act—the poem itself—also a religious act.[8] Performatives are key to religious rituals; here the repeated vow authen­ticates its own religious trust that vows have sacrosanct meaning, since “swearing by” something only has meaning if it is authenticated by a higher sacred presence. The first lines of Pushkin’s poetic cycle do not simply describe but create a religious order of meanings, and thus echo God’s greater and earlier speech act, when he created the world itself through words. This biblical opening performance by God places the divin­ity firmly at the point of origin of reality in this poem, where he remains throughout it. The Lord is the constant accompaniment and occasional in­terlocutor of the human figures, until the poem ends with a final image of the poet treading his way though the desert “with God”: “I s bogom on dale puskaetsia v put¢” (And with God he sets off farther on his way). Just as God seems to summon the poem into existence at the beginning, as if the necessary presence for its very articulation, God leaves the poem as it closes, framing the poem on both ends not just as a theme but as an existential guarantee and motivating presence.


But this affirmation of a divine presence accompanying the human is exactly where Pushkin’s inner debate with the Koran begins. For if the divinity is an inescapable fact framing the very existence of this poem, the nature and function of that divinity are somewhat obscure, and described in contradictory ways. There is no single role for God in this poem, and the division of the “Imitations of the Koran” into nine distinct parts with little apparent logical sequence, as is often said of the Koran itself, pre­sents us with many discrete perspectives on him. Pushkin from section to section so subtly yet radically shifts these discursive and representational perspectives, and blurs speaking positions, that the place and role of God becomes uncertain. The devout distinction between an always-superior deity and an always-submissive humanity, an opposition depicted with such clarity in the Koran, is made questionable in Pushkin’s poem even when it seems to be precisely imitated locally. For example, in those same first lines that seem to invoke a sacrosanct presence and a divine speech act, the question arises as to why that sacred presence is never named as God, nor names himself. Pushkin seems to have willed this ob­scurity, since the following line makes the speaker indistinct in a way that the original was not. Pushkin’s line runs “Net, ia ne pokinul tebia (No, I did not forsake you), affirming the presence with man guaranteed by the vows before. The original Arabic surit ad-Duha (93) of the Koran (which says “your Lord,” rabbak in Arabic) and M. I. Verevkin’s Russian translation of the French rendering of the Koran, which Pushkin con­sulted, clearly identify the presence as God’s: “Gospod¢ tvoi ne ostavil tebia” (your lord did not leave you). Both the original and the translation name the deity here; Pushkin does not, and one may ask what poetic purpose is served by this willful ambiguation. Julian Connolly, noting Pushkin’s change from “your lord” to “I” here, comments simply that it in­tensifies the personal contact between God and poet. This would be in­disputable if it were already clear that God is the speaker, but in fact there are no sure signals that this is positively so: indeed there is no ex­plicit mention of God, lord, or divinity in the first few sections of the poem. It is true that the line “Ne ia l¢ iazyk tvoi odaril / Moguchei vlast¢iu nad umami?(Was it not I who endowed your tongue with great power over minds?”) could only come from a divine speaker, but even here the em­phasis on human linguistic power being divinely endowed is complicated by the fact that the powerful language thus far in the poem is not man’s at all. The obscurity is not total, of course, but the semi-obscurity of refer­ence is almost more puzzling. Even as one feels the Biblical grandeur of the passage and takes the voice for divine, as nearly every reader does, the anonymity is still a far cry from the clearly delineated and clearly identified speakers of the original Koran. There, Allah’s voice is always clearly indicated by “Allah said” or by reference to preceding sections; elsewhere it is the prophet Mohamed speaking. The point here is not that Pushkin is denying the divinity of the grand Koranic assurance that God will always be with man, but neither is it that he is affirming it clearly ei­ther. The point is an apparently intentional obfuscation of the discursive field of the original, resulting in a referential hesitation whose purpose must be speculated on.


This sort of willed ambiguation is common in the poem, and has a discursive as well as a referential aspect. That is, it is often hard to tell from what speaking position highly moving statements are made—whether God is speaking, or the prophet, or some bystander—and who exactly is the supposed audience of those statements. When propagated often enough, this Bakhtinian technique produces not only uncertainty, but metaphysical complexities as well. Section 3, for example, begins with a seemingly straightforward narrative from surit ‘Abasa (80) about the prophet, in the third person, frowning at the approach of a blind man: “Nakhmurilsia prorok, sleptsa posyshav priblizhenie.” This is referen­tially clear, and consonant with the original. But then two lines later Pushkin abruptly and without transition makes the prophet not the sub­ject of the sentence but its addressee, not talked about but talked to: “S nebesnoi knigi spisok dan / Tebe, prorok… (From the heavenly book the list is given to you, prophet…). If the prophet is being addressed here, then the speaker is probably God, though possibly there is someone else who knows about this heavenly list, an earthly voice affirming the prophet’s status. Moreover, a few stanzas later the speaker becomes even more obscure when it seems as though this is neither a bystander nor God, but the prophet himself speaking, since his words are so prophetic:

Дважды ангел вострубит
На землю гром небесный грянет
И брат от брата побежит
И сын от матери опрянет.
И все пред бога притекут,
Обезображенные страхом...

Twice the angel will blow his horn;
Heavenly thunder will crash upon the earth,
Brother will run from brother,
Son will hide from mother.
All will flow before God,
Disfigured by fear...

This reference to God in the third person implies that this could not be God talking about his own doomsday, but is rather the voice of the prophet himself. Yet earlier in the same section of the poem the prophet was addressee, not speaker; and there has been no warning of a discur­sive transfer from one speaking position to another. Here again, the over­all effect of these abrupt and unannounced discursive shifts is to render hazy the Koran’s sharp distinctions between the God who ordains doomsday, the common human who will be affected by it, and the prophet who warns of it. This intellectual opacity is, again, no poetic failure: this juggling of perspectives, while theologically impenetrable, is nonetheless poetically very powerful in making readers privy to the fused presence of God, layman, and prophet all at one time, in an explosion of vision. One might venture to say that this merging or confusion between the human and the divine becomes a central characteristic of the poem, and as such it is decidedly not Koranic but a Pushkinian invention. Another example of the obscuring play with perspectives on divinity comes in sections 4 and 5, when God becomes addressee as the poet speaks to him, which the speaker of the Koran never does, since the Koran is prophecy for the peo­ple as audience, not for God. Pushkin the poet-prophet dares to talk to God, albeit humbly—though it may be possible to detect a note of irony when he says Zemlia nedvizhna—neba svody, / Tvorets, podderzhany toboi, / Da ne padut na sush¢ i vody / I ne podaviat nas soboi(“The earth unmoving and the vaults of heaven, / Creator, are held up by you, / May they not fall upon land and waters / And not smother us”). The imper­sonal subjunctive mode here “da ne padut” (may they not fall), rather than a more personal “sustain them,” subtly renders the speaker a mere wisher rather than an implorer before his lord, and the desire to keep heaven’s vaults intact is not formally a plea to God but rather a hope. As a rare moment of human direct address to God, this rather aloof and weakened phrasing seems like a puzzling choice for a devout Koranic imi­tator, unless the subtle ironizing of human submission to God’s superior­ity is precisely an aim of this poem. Moreover, Pushkin’s reframing of a Koranic statement about God into an address to God introduces, surely intentionally, the question of why the poet is telling God how the vaults of heaven are held up, since God is the very one holding them. The basic irony here is that God, unlike Mohamed’s intended human audience, need not be told anything at all, as the Koran constantly insists. Who is this blaspheming Pushkinian mortal who dares to think he has something to tell God about the state of the universe? While extremely subtle, these ironic questionings conspire in the poem to produce a far-reaching cumula­tive effect of metaphysical incertitude.


At times this intentionally produced uncertainty about the respective places of God and man reaches a high point where the relation between the two begins almost to resemble a rivalry, as if the lack of metaphysical delineation gives rise to a zone of competition in a Promethean vein. Such a rivalry is explicitly the subject of a Koranic story that Pushkin borrows from the surit Al-Baqarah and paraphrases and revises, the story of the ruler Namrud who competed with God himself. In the Koran (surah 2, verse 257), the unnamed Namrud, great potentate of earth, is conversing with Abraham, representative of the heavenly powers. Namrud tells him that as king he gives life and death just as God does, so his power is comparable. In response Abraham says that God makes the sun rise in the East, and dares Namrud to try to make it rise in the West. “[A]nd dumbfounded was the infidel,” says the Koran. “God does not guide those who are unjust.”[9] The earthly ruler is thus put firmly in his place, and his vanquishing by God is duly recorded, made into a general example of all those who disbelieve in God’s greatness. By contrast, Pushkin’s ren­dering of this story eliminates Abraham entirely, making the conversation take place between Namrud and God directly. He also eliminates the Koran’s summary identification of the winner and the loser in this battle of wills, and what its lesson was. Pushkin’s revision simply ends with the boasting of the prophet falling silent when God says “Pod”emliu solntse ia s vostoka; / S zakata podymi ego! (I lift the sun from the east / Lift it yourself from the west!). This dare is the end of the anecdote in Pushkin’s version, without edifying commentary on what it means. He does not record this as a victory for God, or as a humbling for the earthly ruler, or as a lesson for the listeners. By comparison with the Koran it feels open-ended, as though nudging the reader to acknowledge that it is not giving us a clear lesson. Is the lesson not to rival God’s power, as in the Koran? It may be. But the lesson may also be that it is grand and sublime to ac­cept God’s dare, as Shelley’s Prometheus did, to try against all reason to do the impossible, seeking a way to lift the sun from the west. When four lines later the poet describes the sun hanging in the sky like the wick of a lamp shining within the crystal (v lampadnom svetit khrustale), we are forced to remember that in poetry, at least, the poet can summon the sun to appear whenever and however he likes. The poet can make the sun rise from the west if he chooses. God’s universal power may have some­thing of a minor rival in the poet’s powers of creation and vision—the power to see “through crystal’s magic glass” as it is described in chapter 8, stanza 50 of Evgenii Onegin. Seeing God’s sun hanging like a flame in a crystal is not so very different from envisioning a sun in the poet’s magic crystal. Of course, here again it cannot be said that Pushkin is purely heterodox, arguing against the Koran or arguing that man is God’s equal, as Shelley himself virtually did; Pushkin is neither so extreme nor so ex­plicit in this poetic cycle. Rather the point is his rendering of the duality between human and divine as an obscure semiotic gray zone, oscillating between one pole of devout mortal submission to divinity and the other pole of brazen divine rivalry. In such a context, Namrud’s ambition loses its strictly negative value and takes on a more ambivalent cast.


The final example here of Pushkin’s ironization of the Koran is per­haps the most striking one, occurring in the most moving poem in the cy­cle, the ninth and last one. There the poetic speaker falls out of direct ad­dress mode and back into simple narrative, to retell another story from the same surit Al-Baqarah (II) of the Koran, the story of God proving his powers to man. In the original version a man named Uzair passes by a collapsed and decrepit town and asks God how it will ever be revived. Allah takes this as an insult and immediately kills Uzair for a hundred years, then raises him back to life and asks him how long he thinks he slept. Uzair guesses “A day or less than a day,” and Allah informs him that in fact he had slept for a hundred years, and shows him the decayed remnants of his food and drink, and the white skeleton of his she-ass. God then restores flesh to the ass’s bones and brings her back to life. The effect of this display, as in the Namrud story, is to utterly convince Uzair of God’s greatness. “When this became clear to him,” announces the Koran, “the man said: Indeed God has power over all things.”[10] Once again, the story is explicitly recognized as a lesson both by the man him­self, and by all who read the Koranic account of his illumination. Pushkin, however, in his own version of this story in part 9 at the very end of his poetic cycle, makes some typically interesting omissions and additions. In his version, a tired traveler “grumbled to God: He was tor­mented by thirst and longed for shade” (putnik ustalyi na boga roptal: On zhazhdoi tomilsia i teni alkal). He then finds a spring and a shady resting place, enjoys it, without any mention of God’s beneficence, and then lies down to sleep. Pushkin’s insertion of this man’s grumbling need for drink and rest, not mentioned in the Koran, produces a very different impres­sion of God’s role in his—or any person’s—life. God here has the negative role of the higher being who antagonizes man by withholding needs, while in the Koran God had the positive role of the one able to restore a dead city, an ability doubted, but at once affirmed. And unlike the godly gift that impresses the Koranic traveler with God’s majesty, Pushkin’s trav­eler, when his thirst is slaked, makes no mention of God nor renders any thanks to him. He simply finds the spring, drinks, and goes to sleep. Julian Connolly explains this as Pushkin’s attempt to emphasize man’s unfulfilled needs and impatience with the Lord, but does not note the irony of including this portrayal of man’s self-centeredness in this particu­lar story.[11] The egocentric ingratitude of Pushkin’s traveler, all the more glaring because the original story is one of the most sublime examples of how man should always remember God, seems added by Pushkin as a note of human self-sufficiency that ironizes and complicates the tale’s larger lesson of submission before God.


This ironic note of man’s forgetting God is heightened by Pushkin’s surprising virtual omission of the name of God from the miracle tale itself. God is not mentioned, except for the first line in which he is grumbled about, a later line where he is said to rule the passage of time, and the last line where he is said to accompany the man further on his journey. Throughout the miracle scene proper, the God who is everywhere explicitly identified as miracle-worker in the Koranic original is only elliptically re­ferred to in Pushkin’s version, and his connection with the miracle is made to seem tenuous indeed, both referentially and grammatically. The resurrection of the traveler in the Koran is a concise and literal one, whereby God “made him die for a hundred years, / then brought him back to life” (45). In Pushkin’s retelling it is framed much more passively, al­most naturally, as a sleeping rather than a killing. The traveler simply “lay and slept” (leg i zasnul), whereupon “many years passed over him/ According to the will of the lord of heaven and earth” (I mnogie gody nad nim protekli / Po vole vladyki nebes i zemli). The will of the Lord is asso­ciated not with the traveler’s unconsciousness, as in the original, but with the passage of time, a much weaker illustration of God’s miracle-working power. Similarly, the miraculous resurrection of the Koran is made into almost a natural waking in Pushkin: the traveler sleeps until “the time for waking came” (Nastal probuzhdeniia dlia putnika chas). The Koran’s depiction of divine agency in this awakening is omitted entirely. Even the annunciation is made impersonal by Pushkin: the traveler wakes up to hear a voice speak to him, but it is never explicitly identified as God’s, only as simply “unknown”: “He arises and hears an unknown voice” (Vstaet on i slyshit nevedomyi glas). This voice never credits itself with any divine character, nor even describes the traveler’s long sleep as a miracle. It simply registers the fact of a long time having passed: “But the voice said: ‘O traveler, you have slept long; / Look: you lay down young, and got up an old man” (No golos: “o putnik, ty dolee spal; / Vzglyani: leg ty molod, a startsem vosstal”). Whereas in the Koran the whole point of this tale is to let greater glory redound upon God, to whom all miracles are due, in Pushkin’s version there is simply a miracle that impersonally happens before the eyes of the old man, without mention of the divine miracle-worker who causes it: And the instantaneous old man, seized by grief, / Sobbing, hung his trembling head… / And a miracle then took place in the desert: / All that had passed became alive in new beauty…” (I gorem ob²iaty mgnovennyi starik, / Rydaia, drozhashchei glavoiu ponik…/ I chudo v pustyne togda sovershilos¢ / Minuvshee v novoi krase ozhivilos¢…). Of the entire two stanzas describing the miraculous act of a resurrection, all the verbs used are reflexive or passive in a way that mit­igates the notion of divine cause. However implicitly responsible for it we may imagine God to be, there is no explicit sign of it in the grammar here, not a single active verb:

Вновь зыблется пальма тнистой главой:
Вновь кладез наполнен прохладой и мглой.
И ветхие кости ослицы встают,
И телом оделись, и рев издают;
И чувствует путник и силу, и радость;
В крови заиграла воскресшая младость.


Again the palm ruffles its shady head:
Again the well is filled, cool and deep.
And the old bones of the she-ass arise
And are dressed in flesh, and give out a howl
And the traveler feels strength and joy,
In his blood a resurrected youth has started to play.

One of the striking aspects of this Koranic revision, however, is that in Pushkin’s expert handling there is no ironization of or condescension to­wards the miracle itself, even if its divine cause is rendered obscure. This extremely powerful passage reflects the grandeur of this extraordinary re­versal of time and death, perhaps the most striking depiction of resurrec­tion in all of Pushkin. Thus, it is all the more puzzling, from a Koranic perspective, why Pushkin should leave out the cause and author of this miracle. God has been explicit and magisterially active in this poem ear­lier, so why leave him so conspicuously out of the culminating event of the poem? It is as if the time for God’s great cameo appearance has arrived, but he does not come on stage. The impersonality and virtual authorless­ness of the divine miracle here, coming as a shock right before closure, casts a considerable retrospective irony over the more personalized divine exhortations of the preceding eight sections of the cycle. It becomes ques­tionable how much the rhetoric about God, including God’s own rhetoric about himself, can be proven by the existence of miracles in the world. There is a semiotic slippage between the notion of the miraculous and the notion of the divine; both exist, but may not entirely overlap. And indeed, the possibility of a non-divine miracle occupies the same semiotic gray zone that the poem’s earlier oscillations between man’s role and God’s role occupied. That is, it may be possible that this miracle, if not entirely divine, may be partly human, just as the “voice” may be as much the voice of the traveler’s higher self as it is God’s. Recast in secular terms, miracles may be humanly possible; there may be some human capacity for bringing the past back to life—like memory itself—that achieves some­times miraculous, indeed nearly divine effects. This may be like the power of resurrecting the long-departed that Pushkin’s narrator yearns for in the last stanza of Evgenii Onegin, where he tellingly makes reference to an­other Muslim writer, the Persian poet Sadi: “Of those who heard my opening pages in friendly gatherings where I read, as Sadi sang in earlier ages, ‘some are far distant, some are dead.’ They’ve missed Eugene’s completed etching.”[12] The suggestion that the dead have in some way been resurrected, a resurrection achieved creatively by inner powers rather than by outer interventions, divine or otherwise, is connected to Islam in that later work too. But again, to refer to Pushkin’s attributions of miraculous resurrecting power to human creativity or memory does not necessarily attribute an agnostic stance to Pushkin, since God is not be­ing questioned as a presence here. As noted earlier, God appears conspic­uously in the last line of the poem, as the traveler continues his journey: “Sviatye vostorgi napolnili grud¢:/ I s bogom on dale puskaetsia v put¢(Sacred delights filled his chest: / And with God he sets off farther on his way). But if God is not being questioned as an accompanying presence of the human, he may be questioned as an origin of the miraculousness con­fronting that human. If the traveler has holiness inside him, svyatye vostorgi, then he is not submissive to God’s absolute external authority, as the earlier stanzas of Pushkin’s cycle seem to assert. This god is inner, not outer; he is of the human, not above him. Man continues on his path not under God, or by his permission, or under his watchful gaze, but with God: s bogom on dale puskaetsia v put¢. The last line differs from almost all the other references to the man-god relation in the entire cycle by using here the equalizing preposition “with,” c. The only other reference to a re­lation with God was the very negative example of Namrud’s rivalry with God-- s toboiu, o vsesil¢nyi, as Pushkin phrased it. There, the pretence of being on the same level s bogom was a punishable blasphemy. In semiot­ically reversed terms, now in this final line the state of being s bogom seems emancipatory and positive, somewhat like the Sufi doctrine of the God within the heart, or Tolstoi’s kingdom of God within you. It is the surest answer to the question voiced in the second stanza of whether God will pokinut¢ tebia, abandon you, as any outside presence might abandon you—since if God is within, in the form of holy feelings, sviatye vostorgi, then he will always be on the road with the traveler. By rewriting the Koran’s apparent parable of God’s power as a demonstration of the inner self’s ability to revitalize his worldview through the miracle of memory, Pushkin is not rejecting the Koran so much as answering the questions that his own dialogic interaction with it stirred up. He may well be con­fronting his own questions about higher authorities and inner voices in general (perhaps including the higher authorities of the state that exiled him, and the inner voice of his poetic genius). Rejecting God as an exter­nal authority figure wholly distinct from man, replacing him with a se­mantic gray zone in which the personal coexists with the divine as a po­tential force present in everyone’s grud¢, becomes a kind of theological allegory for his progress as a poet. And it is precisely this allegory of inner deity that seems necessary to fully understand his poem “The Prophet” of two years later (1826), to which Islam and the Koran may be an impor­tant and neglected subtext. In any case, it seems clear that taking the “Imitations of the Koran” as simply imitations in the unqualified sense—as so many critics have done—obscures the very important dialogic inter­action with the Koran that Pushkin is allowing to take place. Only by understanding the differences with it that he thematizes can we hope to understand its place in his own poetic development.



The American University in Cairo


Henriksen, John.  "Pushkin and the Koran: Dialogic Appropriation." Pushkin Review 04 (2001): 1 - 14. <>.

{phocadownload view=file|id=84|text=Henriksen, John. "Pushkin and the Koran: Dialogic Appropriation." Pushkin Review 04 (2001): 1 - 14.|target=s}

[1] A. S. Pushkin, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii (Moscow: Akademiia nauk, 1947), 13: 152, quoted in Julian W. Connolly, “Puskin’s ‘Imitations of the Koran,’” in New Studies in Russian Language and Literature, ed. Anna Lisa Crone and Catherine V. Chvany (Columbus: Slavica, 1986), 59–72. I am indebted to Connolly’s article for its bibliographic references to Cherniaev and Filonenko.

[2] N. I. Cherniaev, “‘Prorok’ Pushkina v sviazi s ego zhe ‘Podrazhaniya Koranu,’” Russkoe obozrenie, November 1897, 396.

[3] V. I. Filonenko, “‘Podrazhaniya Koranu’ Pushkina,” Izvestiia Tavricheskogo obshchestva istorii arkheologii i etnografii 2, no. 59 (1928): 11.

[4] Walter N. Vickery, “Toward an Interpretation of Pushkin’s ‘Podrazhanija Koranu,’” Canadian-American Slavic Studies 11, no. 1 (Spring 1977): 65.

[5] Connolly, 59–60.

[6] See Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Random House, 1979). Said mentions Russians as Orientalists on p. 1, but does not distinguish them in any major way from other Europeans. This itself may be reductive, given the hotly debated issue of Russia’s “Eastern” status among Russian thinkers from Chaadaev to Dostoevskii and beyond.

[7] Pushkin to Viazemskii, spring 1825, Pushkin, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii 13: 160, quoted in Connolly, 60. “Saadi” may also be spelled “Sadi,” as in Charles Johnston’s translation of Eugene Onegin.

[8] See J. L. Austin, How To Do Things With Words (London: Oxford University Press, 1975), 22.

[9] Ali, Ahmed, trans., Al-Qur’an: A Contemporary Translation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 45.

[10] Ibid., 45.

[11] Connolly, 69.

[12] Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin, trans. Charles Johnston (London: Everyman’s Library, 1999), chap. 8, stanza 51.