there doesn’t seem to be a critical edition of the Qur’an, at least from within the Muslim community: by that I don’t mean exegesis, of which there is plenty, but investigation into the Qur’an itself as a text, as a historical event, as a heroic marshalling of fragments; or even research into whether or not there are significant variations between different Qur’anic manuscripts before they were standardized c. 650 or so, and perhaps even after and in spite of that. When I asked a tutor of mine about this, he replied that a non-Muslim scholar performing such research would be airily dismissed, and a Muslim scholar performing such research would simply be inviting trouble. I suppose it would be a kind of heresy to apply philology to the word of God. I wonder if this is true. I’d like to be corrected on this, if anyone knows better.
in this sense, it reminds me a little of the Hikayat Hang Tuah, which I’m currently having to wade through in its original form: in the Arabic-Persian Jawi script (for which I have been taking a crash course at SOAS in the past several weeks — which is mostly why I have been otherwise distracted from blogging). This particular hikayat (broadly translated as ‘chronicle’, ‘or ‘legend’) is one of the most enduring Malay manuscripts around: it’s provided endless fascination for colonial philologists in British Malaya; it’s been translated into German; it’s become a UNESCO artifact; it’s been invoked endlessly in Malay literature all the way up to the present, as though all ensuing literary traditions are but its footnotes. And it’s invoked endlessly by Malaysia’s present government: for apart from being a model pahlawan (warrior), Mr Hang Tuah is also widely viewed as the very embodiment of taat and setia — blind loyalty to the sovereign (a useful trait to canonize, after all) — and he is, whatever this might mean, a “model Malay”.
But there isn’t a single critical edition of the Hikayat Hang Tuah, which is largely believed to have been written down by different scribes and people from its original, purely oral form (which, in itself too, is obviously unstable). There are literally scores of Hang Tuah manuscripts about, and no one has ever really done in-depth research into the historical constitution of the text, or compared the manuscripts to look for variations, or investigated the ways in which the Hikayat might have been copied differently, added to, subtracted from, or indeed rewritten, according to various circumstances and contexts. And, like the Qur’an, there is a kind of heresy involved here too, when one thinks of the Hikayat’s relationship to the government, who likes to use it as a literary injunction to Malaysians to be loyal to their rulers, and to give historical credence to the idea of a ‘Malay’: they certainly wouldn’t want people to know what else it contains, or what it might have once contained, or how it has changed over time, or indeed who changed it — all tasks of philology, and indeed, history.
And when one reads the Hikayat, one is struck by how very, very amorphous its exposition on ‘Malayness’ is …
Well, at any rate there is no critical edition of it, and all too few interested and inclined people who can read Jawi with the competence a task like that demands. I have only been learning it for four weeks, and though progress has been startlingly quick, I’m certainly not going to be a philologist anytime soon. But here is a good time, I think, to share a photo of an 1882 original manuscript of it, which is held at the Brunei Gallery in SOAS (best viewed large):
Interesting to note: I took that photo before I had begun learning Jawi, and the text was like art to me: strange, elegant, beautiful. Now when I look at it, I read it. That transition — and cognizance of it — is a rare sensation.