Archive for the Arabic Category

Bloody shame

Posted in Arabic, Religion, The odd post with tags , , , on October 4, 2011 by shirhashirim

(source: Sotheby’s website)

In a few hours a page from the so-called blue qur’an will be auctioned at Sotheby’s, chances are it will disappear in the vaults of some private collector. Rumor has it that almost all old qur’anic manuscripts disappear there…

Somehow I cannot but think that things like these are world heritage, that should be publicly available for everyone to see and enjoy.

(source: Sotheby’s website)

Incidentally: a hijazi manuscript is also up for sale. This type of manuscript belongs to the very oldest group of manuscripts we have of the qur’an. They are important for the study of early Islam and the textual history of the qur’an. They should not only be available for everyone to see, but also for all to study.

The page from the blue qur’an contains surat al-Baqarah (2), verses 267 to 273. The hijazi manuscript contains surat Yusuf (12), verses 30 to 50.


Crossroads to Islam

Posted in Arabic, Religion, Science with tags , , on August 11, 2010 by shirhashirim

This blogpost does not represent the view of a scholar versed in the subject matter it is dealing with. Although I am an archaeologist, and I happen to know quite a bit about Islam, I am in no way to be considered an expert on either Islam or the history and archaeology of the Middle East in Late Antiquity. Instead, this post is about how a scholar forms an opinion about works of scholarship not in his field, and how ‘scientific instinct’ and human intuition can sometimes force you to take a decision, before you can determine the merits of said work on pure, objective, scientific -and time consuming- grounds.

I’ve been reading ‘Crossroads to Islam: the origins of the Arab religion and the Arab state‘ by Yehuda Nevo and Judith Koren the past week. The book came out in 2003 and proposes a radically new theory about where Islam and the qur’an came from and when. In short: it did not originate in the Hijaz, but in Northern Arabia, and it did so during a slow process that only culminated in what we now call ‘islam’ at the end of the 8th century, not in the first half of the 7th.

To prove his theory, Nevo uses various archaeological sources: the results of digs in the Middle East, pictures and texts on early Islamic coins, early Arabic papyri and Arabic inscriptions from the first few Islamic centuries in the Middle East, most notably the Negev. Besides that he also uses non-Muslim contemporary sources. I say ‘Nevo’ because from the introduction it is clear that most of the work that went into the book was done by Nevo, and finished by Koren after his untimely death in 1992.

As I said, I am not an expert in early Arabic epigraphy, nor in any type of numismatics, nor in the archaeology of the Middle East, but still I get the strong impression that the book proposes a untennable hypothesis. One reason -and the only acceptably scholarly one- is that we now know the qur’an to be an ancient document that certainly predates the 8th century, thanks to the finds of very old qur’an fragments in Sanaa in Jemen. Nevo follows Wansbrough in his thesis that the qur’an in its present form dates to the end of the 8th, or the 9th century at the earliest. He may -like Wansbrough- not have been aware of these finds (they are certainly not mentioned in his book). But for all other reasons I have had to resort to intuition and gut feeling, rather than expertise.

Back in university I learned two useful concepts: ‘context of discovery’ and ‘context of justification’. The former refers to how you come up with an idea, the latter with how you scientifically justify it. The two are not necessarily the same!

As for context of discovery: throughout the book, actually already in the first chapter, I got the overwhelming impression that Nevo is into something very close to conspiracy theories. It was either that or his career as an archaeologist was secondary and he used to be a lawyer before he chose to be an archaeologist.

Now, I need to at least elaborate from a context of justification. To start with the point that got me thinking in the first place: Nevo proposes a hypothesis on the policy of the Roman empire towards its provinces in the Levant in the first chapter. The hypothesis boils down to this: the Arabs didn’t wrest this part of the world from Byzantine control, but simply took over because it had been the policy of the Roman Empire ever since Diocletian to give up these lands and install a satellite state there. This policy was pursued from the 3rd century to the 8th and entailed not only creating a local elite that could take over the new buffer state but also encouraging religious differences with the Byzantine state.

The first process is a known one in the western part of the Roman empire also: border provinces imported ‘barbarians’ from abroad, giving them land to live on in return for strengthening the border defenses. Eventually these people took over and the West was lost. It may be regarded as a conscious policy, but it’s generally seen as a way to preserve territory, not lose it.

Nevo’s thesis would be the first instance of a state in history that voluntarily chooses to delegate itself away in certain areas. Not only that, it amounts roughly to claiming that British foreign policy towards the America’s for example has been pursuing the same goals and using the same means to attain those ends ever since Henry VIII. It also assumes a Roman/Byzantine empire that was in control during half a millennium, playing it’s allies and enemies around like pawns and not suffering at any time from powerful dissidents or political or religious strife that could have spoiled their grand political strategy. That stretches the imagination.

All this got me in a sceptic mood, but it’s where Nevo starts explaining about the conscious encouragement of religious differences where I really started to frown. The Byzantine empire was characterised by many theological strifes in which the state took a great interest. Nevo assumes these strifes were also part of the grand scheme to decouple the Arab territories from the main empire. When the Christians in both the empire and their Arab satellites seemed to have found some kind of unity in accepting the idea of Monothelitism, the empire made a volte face by suddenly condemning it in 680, thus leaving the nascent Arab states with their own religious identity, as had been intended.

According to Nevo it was all purpose. An almost almighty state, controlling or at least successfully manipulating policy, local elites, religion both internal and external during half a millennium, without ever meeting a serious obstacle and with eventual success: the Middle East became a separate Arab polity. It’s too slick, too smooth, too much of a conspiracy theory to me.

After that, smaller things begin to attract attention. Like Nevo’s use of the writings of St. John of Damascus (676-749), who lived through the period Nevo describes and who used for what we now call ‘muslims’ the word ‘pagans’. Archaeologically it is an attested fact that paganism was all but dead in the 8th century. Nevo uses that and St. John’s terminology to prove the Arabs were still pagan -in a modern sense- in the 8th century. At no point does Nevo acknowledge that St. John may have used the word simply to indicate anything that was just non-Christian and non-Jewish.

Similar streaks of literal-mindedness permeate the book. Let one other example suffice. The same St. John of Damascus at one point mentions the Arab’s holy writ. Instead of using the word ‘qur’an’ or something that sounds like it, he mentions several titles of separate sura’s from the qur’an, like ‘the cow‘. He also mentions ‘the camel’, which is now not a chapter of the qur’an. Nevo concludes from this that during his lifetime the qur’an was not yet a fixed text and the holy writ of the Arabs was still composed of separate bodies of texts, known under their chapter name. We now know this to be incorrect, but even if we had not known this, Nevo should at least have dealt with a few issues before he could draw this conclusion. Was St. John not very well-informed? This does not seem to be likely as he was the chief administrator of the caliph, but it is by all means possible. Umayyads weren’t too much into religion after all. Nevo bypasses this whole discussion. Was St. John writing for an audience that was very well-informed and knew that ‘the cow’ was part of the qur’an, so any reference to the book by its generic name was unnecessary? May St. John have been mocking the type of titles of the sura’s? Was he referring to a known sura under another name?

Nevo’s book fails to convince me. It raises more questions than it answers and even a relative layman like me can come up with rather obvious counter claims, critical questions or -more serious- methodical shortcomings. The only thing that can be said in favor of it, is that it is a must-read for anyone following the scholarly debates on the origins of Islam.


Posted in Arabic, Religion, Science with tags , , , , , on June 8, 2009 by shirhashirim

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.

The fourth Qur’an

Posted in Arabic, Religion with tags , , , , on January 6, 2009 by shirhashirim

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.

A festival of fallacies

Posted in Arabic, Religion, Science with tags , , , on November 12, 2008 by shirhashirim

They’re out to get Islam, the orientalists, all of them. That’s basically the gist of the book I’ve been reading over the past few weeks:

al-A’zami, M.M., 2003. The History of The Qur’ānic Text from Revelation to Compilation: A Comparative Study with the Old and New Testaments, Leicester (UK Islamic Academy).

I’ve blogged before about the history of the qur’anic text. My blog on square kufic only touches the subject of the qur’an, but it’s actually the post that attracts most visitors to this blog. The subject has my attention. Unfortunately books on it written by Muslims aren’t easy to find, so I immediately bought it.

The History of The Qur’ānic Text is an apologetic treatise rather than a work of scholarship. It basically tries to prove a traditional Islamic viewpoint: the qur’an was preserved unchanged, unadulterated and uncorrupted from its first revelation to Muhammad until the present day. On the surface this seems to be the very opposite of what western scholars on Islam and Arabic (consistently termed ‘orientalists’ by al-A’zami) think. In their view the qur’an is an ancient text like any other: variants have been preserved in the various canonical ways of recitation (qira’at and riwayat), in ancient manuscripts, in Islamic commentaries and anecdotes (ahadith).

Al-A’zami’s first line of defence against these western allegations always takes the form of a ‘yes that’s true but…’. Whatever comes after that ‘but’ coincides wonderfully with what ‘the orientalists’ say: variant readings reflect copying mistakes, different spelling conventions (or the lack thereof), they hardly affect meaning, or not at all. Strangely al-A’zami does not realise this, as is clear from his comments on the works of one such ‘orientalist’, Arthur Jeffery (p. 206):

Jeffery acknowledges this fact bleakly, lamenting that, “Practically all the early Codices and fragments that have so far been carefully examined, show the same type of text, such variants as occur being almost always explainable as scribal errors”.

Al-A’zami and ‘the orientalists’ agree most of the time on matters of fact. They only disagree on the value they attribute to these facts and on the way to put it. In the view of ‘the orientalists’ there are many variant texts, differing from each other in minutiae whereas in al-A’zami’s view there is only one unchanged, unadulterated and uncorrupted qur’an …in multiple recitations. It’s the choice of words -nothing else- that seems to be the problem, an issue that al-A’zami can take to great heights (p. 155 note 13):

I may add that Jeffrey uses a host of Judeo-Christian jargon in arranging this archive: “Canonization by Ibn Mujahid”, “Muslim Massora”, p. 3, 5 (footnote); and using † for death instead of d. (a cross so as to Christianise the poor soul!), p.14 etc.

Where al-A’zami and ‘the orientalists’ really do disagree on matters of fact, al-A’zami takes recourse to a festival of fallacies. Here’s a fine example of a petitio principii (from the introduction):

There will never be a discovery of a Qur’ān, fragmental or whole, which differs from the consensus text circulating throughout the world. If it does differ then it cannot be regarded as Qur’ān, because one of the foremost conditions for accepting anything as such is that it conforms to the text used in ‘Uthmān’s Mushaf.

As one of my colleagues once remarked: ‘Some people think they’re thinking when they’re just rearranging their prejudices’. It would be too much to give an exhaustive list of all other fallacies, but the following ones are illustrative of al-A’zami’s approach.

The fourth caliph Uthman organised a standardisation of the qur’anic text. He had an authoritative text compiled and even went so far as to order all other copies of the qur’an to be burned. Al-A’zami makes much work of this standardisation. In his view it guaranteed the perfect preservation of the qur’anic text. He insists Uthman’s standardisation met with no objections and even talks about ‘unparalleled success’ indicating ‘his actions echoed the voice of the community’ (p. 97). Uthman’s unparalleled action should instead have echoed the original text of the qur’an and deplorably we will never be able to judge for ourselves whether it did, given the destruction of earlier copies.

A few pages later (p. 98-99) al-A’zami entirely spoils his point by indicating there were differences between the copies compiled at the orders of caliph Uthman. They were noticed by contemporary Muslim scholars, which is why we know about them. There were only twelve of these differences but still, if you claim (in the introduction, emphasis mine):

The Qur’ān is the very Word of Allāh, His final message to all humanity, revealed to His final messenger Muhammad and transcending all limitations of time and space. it is preserved in its original tongue without any amendments, additions or deletions.

… that’s simply not good enough. Leaving aside the question how logic -limited by time and space- is going to stipulate that a particular text transcends all limitations of time and space. I have yet to meet the first scholar that is able to merely peek beyond those limitations, let alone apply logic there, or anything else for that matter.

Al-A’zami also insists Uthman’s standardisation met with no objections (p. 97) but on p. 205 lists two Islamic scholars who were punished for holding opposing views on the very subject. Which begs the question: why do we not know of objections to Uthmans actions? Because there weren’t any, or because they were suppressed?

On p. 157 al-A’zami takes on Jeffrey and Goldziher, who were the first western scholars to notice that the lack of diacritical dots and vowel-signs in the earliest qur’anic manuscripts led to different readings of the text. To counter this, al-A’zami takes three words from the qur’an that all together occur 18 times, dutifully notices 4 cases where these words do indeed have different readings and then triumphantly concludes:

I could spill much ink in citing more examples, but the above are sufficient to prove my point. There are literally thousands of instances where two forms of a word are contextually valid, but only one is collectively used; so many instances in fact, that they cease to be coincidence and overwhelm Jeffery and Goldziher’s theories.

More ink is better left unspilled. Al-A’zami not only disproves a theory which Jeffery and Goldziher never formulated, a fallacy known as ignoratio elenchi, but also lends the theory that they did formulate solid proof: variants occurred, and they occurred where the lack of diacritical dots and vowels led to uncertainty.

Al-A’zami devotes a whole chapter to that specifically Islamic method of checking your sources: the isnaad: the chain of people that is supposed to have handed down a specific story -or even whole books- from generation to generation. Only stories with a sound isnaad were accepted as a source of law, exegesis, history. It led to a whole range of studies into the people in those chains: were they reliable? Had they actually met? Had stories been handed down only in writing, or had the written account been recited by the teacher to his pupil? I’ve blogged about it before.

Isnaads are the pride of Islamic scholarship. Al-A’zami devotes so much attention to it to contrast it with the methods by which the texts of the bible came down to us. And he does have a point here: it is indeed a splendid system, in theory. Because western scholars -notably Goldziher and Schacht– have definitively proven that this fine system was only refined to its present state of splendour in the 8th and 9th centuries. By the time it had become academically useful, most harm had already been done. Al-A’zami quotes story after story to counter the views of western ‘orientalists’ while questioning the reliability of the isnaads of stories that throw doubt on the perfect preservation of the qur’anic text. Stories and their isnaads are al-A’zamis natural arguments. Yet, this methodology has become so questionable to western ‘orientalists’ that it’s almost beyond debate. On p.  332-333 al-A’zami gives an angry summary of these views, but at no point in his book does he even try to counter them.

But even if the Islamic method of isnaad-criticism were useful, al-A’zami doesn’t apply it properly. On p. 176 he quotes a story about a certain al-A’mash reporting that he heard an eminent Islamic scholar recite a totally different word in a particular verse. He tried to correct the scholar by quoting the correct word, but got the reply that the two words were the same. Al-A’zami then tries to prove that this story is spurious, because quite a few other stories about and from al-A’mash himself indicate that he and this eminent scholar really didn’t get along with each other. According to one story al-A’mash once even swore never to learn anything from this scholar. Al-A’mash never gained a kernel of knowledge from him, al-A’zami concludes, totally neglecting the fact that the first report is about al-A’mash hearing the scholar recite, but all other reports he uses refer to a teaching relationship (ignoratio elenchi again).

The History of The Qur’ānic Text isn’t written for a non-Muslim public. it’s written for Muslims. It’s written for Muslims who want to read what they believe. This becomes blatantly clear when al-A’zami takes on the old and new testaments. This is odd, because in his introduction he writes:

Certainly anyone can write on Islam, but only a devout Muslim has the legitimate prerogative to write on Islamic and its related subjects. Some may consider this biased, but then who is not? Non-followers cannot claim neutrality, for writings swerve depending on whether Islam’s tenets agree or disagree with their personal beliefs, and so any attempts at interpretation from Christians, Jews, atheists, or non-practicing Muslims must be unequivocally discarded. I may add that if any proffered viewpoint clashes with the Prophet’s own guidelines, either explicitly or otherwise, it becomes objectionable; in this light even the writings of devout Muslims may be rejected if they lack merit. (…)

You’d expect an honorary fellow at the University of Wales in Lampeter to at least use a single measure for all. By his own standards he should have left the textual history of the Old and New Testament to practicing Jews and Christians. Still, 25.9% of his book is devoted to it. In that 25.9% al-A’zami uses a curious mixture of assorted quotes from western biblical scholars and a very literal reading of the bible.

Al-A’zami bluntly states (p. 229) that the thora was in existence during the time of Joshua. It was sealed in the ark, lost for seven months to the Philistines, recovered, then lost for five centuries until it was found under the reign of Josiah (2Kings 22), and then lost for another 170 years until Ezra found it again and read it to the people (Neh 8:1-8). He states all this, simply because the bible says so. But no western biblical scholar would subscribe to such an unhistorical view. The thora was written or compiled under Josiah’s rule at the earliest. Moses -if he ever existed- had nothing to do with it. But that’s a bridge too far for al-A’zami. Western scholarship is fine, as long as it stays within the boundaries of Islamic dogma.

The bible moreover is a product of literature, not a historical work as al-A’zami thinks. When he takes a look at the followers of Jesus as depicted in the gospels he observes that in Mark, however, the twelve hardly understand anything they are taught (p. 272) . Al-A’zami stumbles right into one of the main literary themes of the gospel of Mark, but he just doesn’t notice. When al-A’zami treats the ‘corruption’ of the old testament he uses a rather unusual example: in p. 256-261 he treats the story in Genesis 17 about the covenant between God an Abraham and wonders why Ismael wasn’t part of that same covenant. God throws a boy out of His covenant against his Own dictates (p. 258 ) he exclaims after a fairly legal reading of the relevant passages. Again he’s standing knee deep in one of the most important literary themes of Genesis, but he simply doesn’t have a clue.

Al-A’zami wants the pleasures of western biblical scholarship, but not the burdens. And after all it’s not even about the bible or the qur’an: it’s about land. Readers that manage to reach the end of al-A’zami’s book will be surprised to read his conclusions. Conclusions that are more familiar to those who read newspapers: we Muslims were wrongfully thrown out of Abraham’s covenant, yet we have always been and are the majority among his progeny so we have a right to the promised land.

To top it all al-A’zami concludes that only devout Muslims can objectively study Islam. The research of non-Muslims and even some Muslims can be disregarded. Suddenly it becomes clear why al-A’zami never fails to mention the Jewish descent of any scholar that may have one -regardless of whether it is relevant- and why shi’a tendencies are used to dispense with the opinions of some Muslims.

In order to justify this viewpoint he compares western ‘orientalists’ and their views on the qur’an and Islam with John Strugnell, whose views on Jews were deemed anti-semitic and who was fired as a result as editor in chief of the Dead Sea Scrolls Project. If one scholar can be removed from his post because of anti-semitism, surely western ‘orientalists’ should be removed from theirs for being anti-islamic? Surely al-A’zami has no difficulties treating unwelcome views on texts as if they were unfavorable views on people. It’s a fallacy alright, even when its Latin name has escaped me for now…

Square Kufic

Posted in Arabic with tags , , , , on February 12, 2008 by shirhashirim

Imagine having to write without vowels, wld y stll b bl t rd wht y wrt? This is what Hebrew and Arabic (and a few other scripts) do. You have to know the language already before you can read it. Reading in these languages is recognising the text, rather than reading it. In the old days, we’re talking 7th century here, the Arabic script was even more defective. Imagine the letters for b, t, th, n and y being exactly the same as well as the letters for s and z, v and w, b and p, g and k or ng. The starting sentence of this post would look something like this:

Mgb hvg b vrb vbb vvls, vld b sbll b bl b rd vhb b vrb?

Arabic had only 15 letters for 28 consonants. Only 6 letters were unequivocal, 7 had 2 potential values, 1 had 3 and 1 even had 5. It is in this script that the Qur’ an was first codified. No wonder Islam needed qurra’, people who knew the Qur’ an by heart. Transmission of Arabic texts was mainly oral. Written texts could only serve as some kind of reminder, not as a trustworthy codification of the exact text. This remained in the heads of reciters until the inevitable disagreements broke out.

About a century after the first codification of the Qur’an, so called ‘diacritical dots’ were added to solve the problem of different consonants hiding under the same letters. Those dots are now an integral part of the Arabic script. Another two centuries saw the completion of the system for noting the vowels: small strokes above and under the letters that not only indicated vowels, but also the doubling of a consonant or the absence of a vowel. One of these small signs -the hamza– made it back into the Arabic alphabet as a separate letter. These signs are still used, but only in the Qur’an, in poetry and in spelling foreign words.

Arabic -in short- is a defective writing system with two repair-patches. As a script, it should have been discarded as quickly as possible for a better one. But it wasn’t and for a good reason: it’s perfect for calligraphy. No other script has developed so many rules and styles of writing that are still in use today. One of those styles is based on the original Arabic script without vowels and diacritical dots. It dates from the early Middle Ages but looks like modern design. In fact: most laypeople do not even recognise it as text. It is called ‘Square Kufic’.


Designs like these can be easily executed in tiles or pixels, so they look like ‘designs’ instead of texts. Deciphering them can be extremely difficult, except in the case of short, standard texts like ‘Allah’ or ‘Muhammad’. The rules of Square Kufic are so strict I’ve often wondered why you never see a computer program that you can enter text into and that will help you fit it into a square or rectangle. If you treat Square Kufic designs as rows and columns of pixels, they are always made up of an uneven number of rows and columns.


As you can see in the above picture, the pixels with uneven coordinates are always part of the text (the orange pixels), while those with even coordinates are not (the black pixels). There are few exceptions to the latter rule (there is one in the lower left corner). Pixels with even/uneven coordinates are either part of the text (the yellow pixels) or not part of the text (the dark grey pixels). No four adjacent pixels arranged in a square are ever all four of the same colour, and no two pixels diagonally adjacent are ever the same colour without a third one. It should be possible to automate this.

This is the most simple-looking -but most difficult in its execution- method of making Square Kufic. It’s easier to arrange Square Kufic text around the edges of a square and fill in the empty middle with the ‘lattice-work’ like in the first example. Trying to fit a particular string into a square is perfect for killing time. I have a Moleskine squared notebook to use in the train back and forth to work.

For those who’ve tried to decipher the two designs:

  • The top one reads: ام النور ‘Mother of Light’. It is repeated four times and starts approximately in the middle of the four sides of the square.
    • The bottom one reads: فباي الا ربكما تكذبان ‘which is it, of the favours of your Lord, that ye deny?’ the refrain of Surat al-Rahman, the 55th chapter of the Qur’ an. It starts at the bottom right corner and spirals inward: the end of the sentence is roughly in the middle of the square.