Regular readers may have realised that there have been no seminar posts this week! In fact I did attend one very interesting seminar this week, but its content ended up as quite a surprise. The title of the talk was ‘When did the Arabs learn to read?’, a question that immediately brought to my mind the question of literacy on the Arabian peninsula in the 7th century and earlier. In fact, however, Dr. Ami Ayalom delivered a talk on the arrival of mass literacy in the Arab world in the 19th century, taking his discussion firmly out of the scope of this blog.
Despite the complete disjunction between what I expected to hear and the fascinating things I eventually learned in Thursday’s seminar, Dr. Ayalom’s title has inspired me to turn to one of the most fascinating topics in the question of mediaeval literacy in the Arab world–the formation of the Qur’an.
It bears stating right at the outset that my methods will be very different from the ways in which Muslims usually approach the Qur’an. According to the Islamic understanding, the Qur’an is a precise expression of the divine revelations delivered to Muhammad, who pronounced them in Mecca and then Medina. Because of this belief, Islamic scholars have often approached the historical context of the Qur’an with an aim of further clarifying its religious precepts.
Without trying to dictate to Muslims what they should believe about their faith, I would like to explore some of the interesting questions which the origins of the Qur’an raises when studied with the tools of Western historical analysis.
This begins, of course, with the contemporary sources of the early Muslims, which date the assemblage of the first ‘canonical’ Qur’an to the reign of the Caliph ‘Uthman, the third leader of the Muslims after the death of Muhammad (r.644-656). According to this tradition, a collection of Muhammad’s revelations that had been written down during his lifetime were compiled into a single version, organised into the sections, called suras, which separate the material even in today’s copies.
Given the challenges of the source material, however, it’s difficult to confirm this story. What it illustrates, however, is that for the first generation of Muslims, God’s revelations were for the most part delivered orally. Among many, even the idea of a comprehensive Islamic holy book might have been unfamiliar–hence the need for ‘Uthman’s programme of standardisation. After all, despite a few inscriptions, Arab society before Muhammad had been almost entirely oral, and the transmission of material from reciter to listener was well established.
These challenges have also left room for a number of scholars to push back the process of creating a canonical Qur’an, into the late 8th and even 9th centuries. To support these views, they point to the disagreements found in the earliest Qur’anic manuscripts, and to the development of commentary on the Qur’an in these centuries. There is, however, a rather interesting piece of evidence that argues that some definitive Qur’anic material was recognised far earlier: the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
Built by the Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik in the 680s, it is one of the oldest and most important of the holy sites in Islam. Commensurate with this long history, the structure has been adapted throughout the centuries, but a number of original features remain. These include plaques with incredibly early Qur’anic inscriptions whose style indicates that they would have been easily recognised as scripture by an early Muslim audience.
Now, these considerations certainly don’t answer the large question which inspired this post, ‘When did the Arabs learn to read?’, but does it at least bring non-Muslims closer to an exact understanding of the Qu’ran’s early development? In part. It emphasises the remarkable formation of a scripture in a society that was predominantly oral, but leaves unanswered the many questions that still accompany any consideration of the first formative decades of Islam–decades in which the seeds of a rich intellectual and cultural tradition were sown.
Whelan, Estelle, ‘Forgotten Witness: Evidence for the Early Codification of the Qur’an’ Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol.118.1 (1998) pp.1-14.
For a more general look at the early formation of Islam, I like
Donner, Fred M., Muhammad and the Believers at the Origins of Islam, (Cambridge, MA, 2010).