Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Qur'an Scholarship IV

First off, Samer, a reader in Saudi Arabia, e-mails with a factual correction: There are three extant copies of the Qur'an from the time of Uthman, and he has sent pictures of one of them. I apologize for the error.

Secondly, in response to a comment to this Zack Ajmal post, the name of the third caliph is indisputably "Uthman." However, Persian changes Arabic's soft th's to s's, and so in Persianate Islamic culture - basically Iran and points east - he was passed into tradition as "Usman." Calling him "Usman" today is a little like calling Kaisar Wilhelm II "William" or Mikhail Romanov "Michael." They are still done, but only if your language has a readily available equivalent to the name. Hence, English-speakers use the Arabic "Uthman," except when discussing the founder of the Ottoman dynasty.

On the linguistic points, the notion that Arabic was not a written language in the 7th century and that the Arabs spoke Aramaic is so off base I'm going to assume that's not what Luxenberg actually said, and its just getting refracted through too many intermediaries. I suppose the merchant class in Mecca might have used Syriac as a lingua franca for business dealings, but there was definitely plenty of Arabic being spoken in daily life, and an already established Arabic oral poetic tradition much of which is still preserved. There are also plenty of inscriptions in Arabic from that time. I also know there's a tradition that the language of the Qur'an is explicitly stated to be "Arabic," though I don't know if that's in the Qur'an itself or a hadith.

At the same time, I suspect that much of the vocabulary of 7th-century Arabic comes from other languages...Arab culture would almost certainly have had to borrow words for new things with which they were coming into contact, and if a different language were used in a certain area of life some of its vocabulary would tend to be used, as well. I kind of doubt that the Arabs spontaneously developed their own word for "tea" that is miraculously like the word in all the neighboring languages, just as in modern Arabic there is a word for bank, "bank," that does not come from the Arabic root "b-n-k."

Finally, Samer brings up the "science of hadith" used by Muslims in sorting out authentic from false hadith. This is true, but I guess what that leaves open is whether it is permissable to apply new methodologies to that science. Increasingly, I think the intensity of this dispute is caused by the links between culture and geopolitics. Islamic culture right now sees itself as on the defensive, and hence a questioning of its methodologies is seen as a questioning of the religion itself. One of the comments on Zack's thread shows that sometimes this is the case. This also explains why many serious historians shy away from the issue until such time as it can be pursued in a less political environment.

Thus ends this contribution to the Quranic Studies debate. Stay tuned for more as discussion warrants.
UPDATE: This site contains information about old Qur'an manuscripts.


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