Medieval Reading, Islam and the Qur’an

By the end of the 8th century, the Islamic world stretched from Kabul and Samarkand in the East to Cordova and Marrakesh in the West. Naturally, the moniker “Islamic” does not do justice to the diversity of culture, language, ethnicity, or even religion among people living in these regions, particularly in the nascent days when the Arab tongue was young and Muhammad’s revelation mingled with Jewish, Christian and pagan beliefs. The same, of course, can be said of Christian Europe, and in the end “Christian” and “Islamic” are merely convenient labels to describe two heterogeneous cultural spheres. Be that as it may, in both cultures, reading played an essential role.

Both Christianity and Islam are book religions, and as such their impact on reading has been tremendous. “Qur’an” — the name of the holy book of Islam — derives “from the Arabic stem Qara’a , ‘to read’, ‘to recite'” and means “the ‘Reading’, the ‘Recitation’, i.e. the ‘Book’, par excellence” (Koran in the Catholic Encyclopedia). Biblia, the Books, and Qur’an, the Reading: these names, of course, carry ideological implications, but they also testify to the veneration of the written word and a thriving culture of reading and writing that might otherwise have been lost after the fall of Rome.

The Qur’an was not written from scratch, but underwent a complicated and nowadays hard to trace genesis until an authorized version was established around 930, more than 300 years after Allah’s words had been revealed to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel in 610. The revelation of the Qur’an to the Prophet is the core of Islamic belief. As Peter Watson writes in Ideas:

After the idea of God as a unity, and submission, the next-most important idea in Islam is that Muhammad was the true messenger of God “whose only miracle was the Qur’an”. This solitary miracle reflects the essentially simple nature of the new faith — it had no theological complexities, like the Resurrection, the Trinity or Transubstantiation. (262)

Unlike Christians, who were eager translators of the Bible and today can seldom be bothered to learn Hebrew or Greek, the fact that the original Qur’an was recited in Arabic was and still is of crucial importance to Muslims:

The fact that the Qur’an is written in Arabic is all-important for pious Muslims, who believe that Arabic is the language of God and is the tongue spoken in Paradise. They believe that Adam originally spoke Arabic but forgot it and was punished by being made to learn other — inferior — languages. (263)

Consequently, Islam cultivated a tradition of religious reading centred around the recital and memorisation of the Qur’an and the hadith, acts or sayings attributed to Muhammad. “A divine presence is believed to descend during the act of reading the Qur’an” writes Steven Fischer in his A History of Reading:

[I]ts very calligraphy [is] a part of the supernatural conveyance: message and form are thus believed to be wedded in harmonious inspiration. None the less, Muslisms allow as well that the Qur’an’s true essence lies in the oral performance, in its reading aloud […] (152)

This emphasis on oral recital has a long tradition in Islam (the roots date back to Pre-Islamic times), which is evidenced among else by a deep love of rhetoric and poetry, as for example the famous Mu’allaqat, the seven “suspended” poems that once hung on the curtains of the Ka’ba, the most sacred site of Islam. Belief in the Qur’an reinvigorated this oral tradition and gave rise to innovations in writing throughout the 8th to the 10th century. These include introducing punctuation,  word spaces, pronunciation symbols, and the emergence of an elegant cursive script. (Incidentally, word spaces, ligatures and punctuation were at the same time developed in Constantinople — exciting times for grammarians!)

The innovations from the realm of religious reading were soon adopted for secular works. Similar to Christianity, Islam viewed secular literature with both curiosity and suspicion. Valens, the fourth century Roman-Christian emperor, is said to have persecuted “heretic” bookkeepers so fiercely that “throughout the Oriental provinces, owners of books, through fear of a like fate, burned their entire libraries, so great was the terror that had seized upon all” (qtd. in Watson, 245). And when in 640 Arabs conquered Alexandria, city of antiquity’s most legendary library, the caliph gave the order to destroy all the books that were not in accordance with Qur’an: “The burning scrolls heated the bath waters of Alexandria for six months. Only the works of Aristotle escaped the flames” (Watson, 245).

And yet, under the auspice of the wardens of the Qur’an, reading still thrived. The Caliphs built magnificent libraries in Baghdad, Cairo and Cordova; manuscripts were gathered and copied; scholars wrote commentaries and translations. Notable among the latter are the Aristotle translations of Ibn Sina (Avicenna, 980-1037) and Ibn Rushd (Averroës, 1126-88), without whom Aristotle may have vanished from Western thought.

Islam also advanced the science of reading. The eleventh century scientist al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham (c.965-c.1039), known in the West as Alhazen “elaborated a sophisticated theory of optics to explain what might be taking place during the process [of reading]” (Fischer, 157). Alhazen worked at the famous “House of Science” or “House of Wisdom“, founded by al-Ma’mun in 833 as Baghdad’s centre of learning. According to Alhazen’s theory , “the qualities of what we see enter the eye via the air” (Fischer, 157). He also introduced the important distinction between the involuntary act of sensation and the voluntary act of recognition, thus distinguishing “seeing” from “reading”. Alhazen died in Cairo in 1038. His theories were studied and revered by Roger Bacon, among others, and they opened a new vista on reading as an act uniting skills such as perception, “inference, judgement, memory, recognition, knowledge, experience, practice […] But how it all took place, what intricate and formidable connections these elements established among themselves, was a question that, for al-Haytham and for his readers, remained unanswered” (Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading, 34-35).

السلام عليكم

(continued from Reading in the Early Middle Ages)


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