The other day I was discussing the qur’an with a Tunisian guy who had read one of my posts on the subject: the one on various textual versions, termed ‘recitations’ by Muslims. The canonical text of the qur’an exists in no less than 10 qira’at (‘recitations’) which are each preserved in versions by 2 transmitters, called riwayat, giving a total of 20 versions.

It’s a touchy subject for Muslims because the term ‘versions’ suggests there being different texts of the qur’an. This is a gross overstatement of the facts and flies in the face of what most Muslims believe: that there is one, unadulterated text of the qur’an. Most differences between riwayat are indeed oral in nature, and are exclusively transmitted orally. They have no representation in the written or printed copies of the qur’an, not even in the colour-coded ones, where different colours help the reciter remember which rules of recitation apply where.

The Muslim term ‘recitations’ however, also doesn’t quite cover it. Because not all differences between various riwayat are that oral. Some differences do reflect visually in the ink spots, so to say, amounting to different vowel-markings and different consonants, sometimes they even result in different words with different meanings. The latter occur not often and reflect differences that no Muslim needs to loose even one night sleep over. But still, the various riwayat seem to reflect some kind of textual history and show some traces of three centuries of transmission.

My Tunisian spokesman happened to have studied riwayat Qalun, so there were a few very useful things he could tell me. But mostly he was adamant that I should understand very well that all these riwayat reflected only one text of the holy qur’an. God forbid that I should think these the result of textual emendations of whatever kind!

He explained the two ways in which the ‘r’ could be pronounced in riwayat Warsh. And indeed, there is no way you can learn that without someone teaching you face-to-face. He told me about the rules he had had to learn and about his switch from riwayat Qalun to the more current riwayat Hafs. He also told me it was possible to recite one riwaya from the printed copy of another, provided you knew all the rules. These rules were established by the third (Islamic) century, classified, organised, systematised and written down in easy-to-learn poems.

Recitation of the qur’an is a science.

…he concluded. And it’s that phrase that stuck with me, because it isn’t. Sure, reciting the qur’an requires a lot of study, it’s a vast body of knowledge, it has acquired a structured way to be transmitted, one that’s so solid it has even found its applications on the internet, but it’s not science.

It doesn’t formulate hypotheses and it doesn’t test them. There are no theories in the study of recitation, nor are they ever dismissed and replaced by better ones. It’s just a structured way to transmit a large body of knowledge, very impressive, definitely, but not science. Why had my Tunisian counterpart never realised this? He had studied at university in France, where he’s lived half his life. This guy was educated to the teeth.

Only yesterday I realised that the cause is indeed very simple but subtle: there’s an Arabic word that had influenced the vocabulary of our conversation: عِلْمilm, usually translated ‘science’. But this is not a very good rendering. A better translation is ‘knowledge’ or ‘scholarship’.

The Arab world in its heyday did develop the idea that you could formulate hypotheses and test them. They just never invented a word to distinguish it from ‘knowledge’ and ‘scholarship’. In the west we did, and ever since then, we’ve been discussing the merits of fields taught at university (e.g. history, theology and law) as a science.


One Response to “عِلْم”

  1. But “scientia” does mean “knowledge” and “scholarship”. 🙂

    Indeed, you can find a lot of nineteenth and twentieth century translators still using the word “science” in this way. Mostly liberal arts folks, of course.

    My favorite one was the translation of an Irish poetic law, in which it was pointed out that all the traditional forms of poetic divination were banned as pagan, except for “divination at the fingers’ ends”, which was a sort of impromptu prophesying in poetic form when someone asked you. Prophecy at your fingertips, so to speak.

    Anyway, the reason “divination at the fingers’ ends” wasn’t banned was because it wasn’t magic, it was science. It came from nature and poetic skill. And “science” is exactly how it was translated into English, too.

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