The fourth Qur’an
I’ve blogged before about the twenty canonical versions of the Qur’an and my quest to obtain the last of the four versions that are still in print: the riwayat ad-Duri. It’s turning out to be a harder task than imagined, as today’s guest post by my good friend Zelqet shows. Her Arabic is nearly fluent, her knowlegde of the local culture profound and she frequently goes to Cairo. Who better to ask than her?
In 2008 I went to Cairo to do some work. As usual, I asked around the office if anyone would like anything from the wondrous Orient, and actually someone did: Shirhashirim would like a Qur’an. I was happy to find him one, since he had brought me amazing things from Iran including a wonderful chador, so finding him a Qur’an would be my pleasure. Seeing that I was somewhat mystified however as to why the Hoyatoleslam would need a Qur’an (he has several), he detailed his request. It was not just ‘a’ Qur’an, it was a specific recitation, that of a certain ad-Duri. After practising the expression ‘Riwayat ad-Duri’ several times (in a bar, oh haram, which should have indicated that this mission was doomed from the beginning), I went to Cairo and thought I could pick up the requested copy fairly easy.
It was not to be.
I visited several bookstores, and after a few began to discern a pattern. When I came in asking for a Qur’an, generally the face of the employee lit up in appreciation for the fact that I was actively seeking the Word of God. When I explained however that I was not merely looking for ‘a’ Qur’an but for a specific recitation, the appreciation quickly made way for confusion. A hushed whisper with someone higher up the command line, a few glances and a conversation I only picked up phrases from like ‘…ad-Duri?….What is that?….No I don’t know why she wants that….’ after which the employee would come back smiling and directing me to another store in which they certainly would have this specific recitation.
Until I ran into a store that was seriously intent on helping me in my praiseworthy quest. Same scenario, same hushed whisper, I got ready to memorize the next address I would be directed to, but this store manager chose for another option. He picked up the phone and said: ‘I will make a call for you. To al-Azhar.’ Al-Azhar! Bring out the big guns, in Catholic terms that would be equal to calling the Vatican. It did make sense to me though; if anywhere they would have a bookstore specialized in recitations of the Qur’an, it would have to be at al-Azhar, the oldest theological university in the world. Why hadn’t I thought of that? And indeed, after a short phone-call the store manager assured me I would be most welcome there and they would have the book.
So I went to al-Azhar, asked around for the bookstore, found it, asked for the recitation of ad-Duri, the face of the employee lit up in recognition, I was convinced this time I would get the book, but it turned out the recognition was meant for me and not the book. Yes, there had been a call and they had been expecting me, would I please follow him to the office? Of course I am prepared to drink tea, and lots of it, in exchange for the book, so I happily went with him and was shown into a room where a friendly elderly man radiating dignity was seated. This was when the first clouds of doubt wafted into my brain. The man identified himself as a teacher of al-Azhar and the clouds rapidly grew darker. Why did I want the recitation of ad-Duri? I explained this was for my very learned friend who would like to study all the recitations of the Qur’an. Did I know the Qur’an? I explained that I did and that I had great respect for the Word of God. The man nodded approvingly and said that I did not need the recitation of ad-Duri if I already knew the Qur’an. As a matter of fact, since I had come through great lengths to acquire a copy, did that not mean that I was seeing the truth in the Qur’an? The clouds made way for certainty: there I was in the religious center of Egypt, no, of the entire Sunni world, and I had to find myself an elegant way out of getting converted to Islam on the spot. (And still without the needed copy of ad-Duri, too, the rational part of my brain added helpfully). The last time Shirhashirim had asked me for anything I only had to persuade a store owner on the Khan el-Khalili to sell me his entire stock of miswak toothsticks down to the very last one, but this particular request had now landed me in an unforeseen and somewhat precarious situation. How to make a graceful and, even more important, timely exit?
Luckily for me all faiths and religions attach the same value to the most obvious of excuses: the truth. I explained to the man that I did respect his religion and the Qur’an greatly, but that I was a Christian and thus had my own religion, was going to stick with that and really only would like a copy of the book. No converting today. That was acceptable (as I said it was a friendly, elderly man) but…the recitation of ad-Duri was not available. We parted ways amicably and in the taxi back to the center of town I decided that this had been enough fun. Next time Shirhashirim wants anything it had better be something harmless like, well, a complete store’s inventory of miswaks.
Back home I had no Qur’an to present to Shirhashirim. That did not seem to surprise him. I have to admit that struck me as odd: I had really, REALLY tried to get this specific recitation, so could he at least have the decency to be a little, just ever so slightly, disappointed?! Upon my question why he was not very surprised he explained that al-Azhar had issued one of the Riwayat, that of a certain al-Hafs, to be the standard text. In 1923 no less! No wonder ad-Duri was unobtainable from the very institution that issued another text to be the standard! That was when all of my rationale gave way. He knew? He could have known I would most likely not get the ad-Duri text from al-Azhar? ‘Well,’ I almost yelled at him, ‘I actually went to al-Azhar to find you this copy and you know what happened there? I almost got converted over it!’
Upon which the Hoyatoleslam simply said: ‘Could you write that down for my weblog…?’ And so here we are.