thoughts on texts

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):

Hikayat Hang Tuah

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.


10 responses to “thoughts on texts

  • Tim

    A critical edition of the Qur’an would be a marvelous project. I’ve noticed this, especially in trying to track down sources and exact phrasing for quotations (the Qur’an and Hadith play an interesting role in the genealogy of “blood and treasure,” if you remember that discussion from Snarkmarket).

    As for your epiphany on the Jawi text, I’m remnded of something I learned only recently, which is that humans have no genes that code for reading — all of our ability to read and write comes from physical abilities and brain capacity that’s primarily designed to do something else. It is amazing sometimes that we are capable of fluent alphabetical reading at all, and mind-boggling to think of what we could be capable if we had the genetic tools to do so as well as we do so many other things.

  • Gavin Robinson

    This post reminded me that Enoch Powell, who is now mostly remembered as a racist lunatic, was also an accomplished scholar of the bible. Nietzsche was a philologist too, so maybe there’s something about philology that sends you mad.

    It’s interesting that the bible has had this sort of investigation but the Qur’an hasn’t, so it isn’t just down to it being a religious text. Maybe the difference is that the Qur’an claims to be the direct word of god in a way that the bible doesn’t. Christians can debate the status of the apocrypha without starting a heresy.

    Also I wonder why it matters that non-muslim criticism would be dismissed by muslims. Wouldn’t a philological study necessarily be aimed at people who don’t believe in the literal truth of the text as the word of god?

  • Ben Brumfield

    There was an excellent article on this history of Quranic text criticism in the Wall Street Journal last month, with at least two rounds of letters to the editor.

  • Ben Brumfield

    If you’re interested in looking into this a bit more, Google “Christoph Luxenberg”. The wikipedia page on the scholar and his work is excellent, and Google Books presents both the German and English versions of Die Syro-Aramäische Lesart des Koran.

  • Steve Laniel

    Few things:

    1. As someone who’s only just started reading theology, I’ve never seen a critical edition of the Bible. I’d love to see one. Do you have any recommendations? I’ve been studying such things from the NRSV, which isn’t really critical but does have a lot of good linguistic footnotes.

    2. The edition of the Hikayat Hang Tuah that you showed is gorgeous. Are editions like that available in bookstores, or does one need to hunt in libraries?

  • Rachel

    what a rich and learned vein of comments!

    @ Ben: thank you so much for the link, and for all the links I found following up on it 🙂

    @ Tim: after some digging (starting with Ben’s link), I’ve found that there’s a group of Tunisian scholars who are working on just that: a critical edition of the Qur’an (see this page). And Gavin: that might be an interesting link for you to follow too, as the man being interviewed comments on the dismissal of non-Muslim scholarship on the Qur’an. One of the letters to the editor on that Wall Street Journal article exemplifies, I think, this sort of popular response to Qur’anic criticism: “I say to the Western scholars: Do not interpret the Quran for Muslims. We Muslims are capable of interpreting the Quran for ourselves.”

    So we’re looking at a lonnngg protracted “intellectual trickle-down” spread of Qur’anic criticism. That interview was conducted in 2003, and Abdeljelil estimates 10 years to complete a preliminary critical study based on the Yemeni mashaf (manuscripts); and that’s not counting the amount of time it will need to percolate into wider society and hopefully become less of an incendiary topic. We’ll have a while to wait yet before Mr Luxenberg will publish under his real name, I think.

  • Rachel

    @ Steve: I’m not sure where one might find a specifically critical edition of the Bible. Certainly the Bible and the Torah undergo more scholarly scrutiny than the Qur’an, but I’m no theologian: if anyone else here doesn’t know, though, I can certainly find out (Cambridge has a venerable and thoroughly entrenched Divinity Faculty). As for the Hikayat, I doubt they have such beautiful manuscripts in shops: you’ll have to track them down in libraries or museums, I’m afraid. I know Leiden University has the oldest known version of the manuscript, which is practically falling apart; certainly in Malaysia you’d find a bunch; and the British Library has one or two. Alternatively, you might keep an idle eye on Ebay. Seriously, I know of at least two Jawi manuscripts that have surfaced in Ebay auctions, and which sell for … not a lot.

  • Rachel

    NB @ Tim: fascinating bit of information about our genetic dispositions. What precisely are our brains designed to do that have enabled us to read instead?

  • Kyle

    The Torah and the remaining books of the Jewish bible have a long history of criticism, both exegetic and philological, from within the Judaic scholarly tradition. Just last night I attended a talk on the problem of evil in the Book of Job based on a philological reading of God’s speech from the whirlwind and Job’s final supposed capitulation.

    I will qualify Gavin’s assertion that it is more acceptable for Christians to inquire philologically into the word of god in the Bible than for Muslims in the Qu’ran. While this is certainly true, it bears mentioning that this kind of engagement with the text is not only accepted but expected in the Jewish community, and has been for thousands of years, perhaps due to the extremely problematic nature of the Jewish God and the excessively vague legal system he formulates. Believing that the Torah is divinely inspired in no way assures one of its faithful transmission or its correct interpretation, and these are precisely philology’s major lines of questioning. It seems as though this would hold true for the Qu’ran and the New Testament as well as it does for the Old.

  • Burhan

    Concerning a critical edition of the Koran: Muslims generally – overwhelmingly, in fact – take that one of the miracles (mukjizat) of the Quran is that it does not change.

    I am a bit ignorant what this means precisely, but one of the corrolaries to it is that, I believe, finding different ‘versions’ of the scripture does not fit with the religion.

    Tim’s talking about genes reminded me of an interesting SF short story I read a couple of years ago for an undergrad class, which I recommend to everyone: ‘Written in Blood’ by Chris Lawson.

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