Mediation of Islamic Knowledge: Face to Face Conversations in Manuscripts

A small article on why manuscripts kept being popular in the Islamic world until very late.

It appeared last year in Turkish, in Sabah Ülkesi vol. 52, pp. 78ff.

It has been said that “in spite of all the real and affected reverence paid to memorized knowledge, Muslim civilization, as much as any higher civilization, was a civilization of the written word.”[1] As such, the civilization of Islam has been called “one of the most bookish of pre-modern cultures.”[2] And it is not just modern scholars who think so. “Life withers but writing remains,” wrote master-calligrapher Abū ʿAmr ʿUthmān al-Warrāq in the eleventh century, as he finished another copy of the Koran.[3]

This flies in the face of the oft-repeated idea that the Islamic civilization was firstly an oral culture.[4] As in any culture, Muslims started writing as an aid for their memory. This is clear from the writings on Hadith, one of the first genres to be committed to paper. The sheer volume of Hadith required people to take some of the burden off their memory and onto paper, much like an external hard drive. The oral nature of Hadith Studies remains visible in the written Hadith collections, in the isnād that precedes every Hadith: a chain of people that details from who the author heard the Hadith, back to the source.

For philosophy, the case becomes more complicated. Philosophy is one of the disciplines that has made Islam such a ‘bookish’ civilization, because philosophy is done mostly on paper. This is firstly because the ideas expressed in philosophy are of such a complicated nature, involving so many logical steps, that people would quickly lose their train of thought would they have to do it without the aid of a written text. This complicated nature is similar to the large quantity that required pursuers of Hadith to write books, but with the difference that whereas one Hadith is still cogent, one step of a philosophical argument is not. This means that one Hadith can stand on its own and it is merely the desire to know an ever larger quantity of them that requires an expert in Hadith to write them down. For a philosophical idea, only all the logical steps together form one thing (namely, the idea). It cannot be broken up into smaller pieces that live on their own. So, those interested in philosophy will have to work with written texts from the very beginning of their studies.

Secondly, philosophy is bookish because of the unique nature of the knowledge that it produces. By that I mean that many ideas expressed by philosophers are of such difficulty that only very few will be able to understand them. The first time an idea is conceived, there will be only one person who knows that idea: the one who invented it. If that person passes away, the knowledge will be lost too. In order for knowledge to survive and to be accessible, it needs to spread among a large enough number of people to sustain the inevitable death of each of these people. When a subject is so arcane or advanced, it will be near impossible to find somebody else to impart this unique knowledge to. For philosophers at the highest level, it will be likely that whatever they come up with in terms of new ideas, they will be the only ones to know of it in their lifetime. Writing it down is imperative for them, in order that this new knowledge may exist after the death of the original thinker.

In the world of Islam, we see a number of consequences of this playing out through the centuries. First we may notice a separating out of certain parts of philosophy that are more popular than others. These parts needed to be more accessible, even for students with little experience. This gave rise to the writing of summaries and putting it to rhyme, as well as the writing of commentaries and the system of ijāza, which literally means “permission.” Summaries and poems were ways to memorize certain essential parts of philosophy, and as such they imitate the method of storing knowledge which was favored by experts of the Koran and Hadith. Equal to the rise of summaries was the rise of commentaries. To summarize means to leave certain information out, and especially for a subject such as philosophy, this only led to the students asking for the meaning of different parts of these summaries. We know that a fair number of commentaries came to be written as result of actual questions of students, that is to say, the personal notes that a teacher offered as he was reading a book together with students would be collected and preserved in writing, sometimes under the name of the teacher, sometimes under the name of the student who took the notes. To regulate such classroom settings, some used the ijāza-system. This ijāzā, permission, can be thought of as a diploma to certify that a student had successfully participated in the classes of a teacher, giving them, in turn, the right to teach to others. Tellingly, such an ijāza was normally about the reading of a book, not the study of a subject. Instead of taking a class on for example, metaphysics, you would take a class on Ibn Sīnā’s al-Shifāʾ.

Both the writing of commentaries and the ijāza, albeit both part of written culture, point to interpersonal communication as being the authoritative way of knowledge acquirement. An ijāza could not be obtained by selfstudy or ‘distant learning.’ Equally, a student could only collect the notes of a teacher if we assume a face to face setting. (It should be noted that note-collection only accounts for a percentage of how commentaries came to be written.) When we observe commentaries as a genre, we may note how this oral quality of transmission of knowledge is integrated into more technical and complex fields of studies such as philosophy. Similar to how Hadith experts retained the oral aspect in their writings by insisting on opening every Hadith with a chain of “so-and-so related to me that so-and-so related to me that…”, philosophers oftentimes structured their commentaries in paragraphs opening one with “he said” (qāla) and the next with “I say” (aqūlu). Thus, even though both original text and the comments are written, it is still stated that both author say. Aspects of orality are in this way integrated in written culture.

This integration of orality in written culture expands to more advanced topics, but then the other way around. This is easiest explained with two historical examples. In the 1450’s or 1460’s, when Constantinople was only recently conquered, Sultan Mehmed II invited two scholars for an intellectual debate. The topic of discussion was the book ‘The incoherence of the philosophers,’ Tahāfut al-falāsifa, by the famous 11th century theologian Ghazālī. Instead of these two scholars appearing at the court and debate each other face to face, they instead both wrote a commentary in Ghazālī’s book and their debate was settled by deciding whose book was better.[5] Similarly, around the year 1500, two formidably philosophers lived in the very same city of Shiraz in present-day Iran. No account of face to face disputations has been recorded, but we do have several commentaries in which they attack, counter-attack, and counter-counter-attack each other.[6] In other words, in both cases it seemed that a real life discussion would be the obvious choice, but for one reason or another, they instead resorted to living out their discussions on paper, expression their orality through written culture, if you will.

Most philosophers were not so lucky to have an interlocutor in their own city, or even anywhere in their lifetime. Writing their thoughts down was crucial in preserving their thoughts. Writing in the form of a commentary further meant that a face to face discussion could be emulated. Thus, when Fakhr al-Dīn Rāzī wrote his commentary on Ibn Sīnā’s al-Ishārāt wa-l-tanbīhāt, even though Rāzī lived in the 12th century and Ibn Sīnā lived in the 11th century, it is still as though Rāzī engaged in a face to face conversation with Ibn Sīnā. When Naṣīr al-Dīn Ṭūsī wrote a counter-commentary in the 13th century, it is as though he walked up to them and joined the conversation. Writing commentaries thereby connected intellectuals who were writing on such a high level that they could not find suitable sparring partners in their own lifetime.

All of this writing was done by hand with pen, ink, and paper. A book written by hand we call a manuscript, and it seems to me that a manuscript was exceptionally suited to combine certain aspects of orality with written culture. This starts with the fact that manuscripts were copied. Often times people reading a text several centuries old would be using a manuscript copy that was much more recent. This means that they were reading a copy of a copy (etcetera) of the original text as penned by the author. This resembles an isnād as a written Hadith would have, meaning that it is the chain of all the copyists that determine the validity of the text. Invariably, mistakes would slip in, especially if a copyist would be a professional copyist who would not be an expert in the contents of the text. For example, in texts on mathematics we can find incredibly precise calculations of π, pi, the number needed to measure the circumference of a circle. Often times, such long strings of numbers would be bodged by copyists.[7] This, however, was not a problem for Islamic intellectuals. A reader worthy of the text would be working out the logical steps and the calculations as he progresses through the text, again much like he would be face to face with the author. Bodged numbers would be corrected by the reader, much like a reciter of the Koran would apply the rules of recititation, tajwīd, as he goes through the text.[8]

As far as I am concerned, this partly explains why intellectuals kept using manuscripts when the printing press became known. A printed text loses this face to face quality of an author with a reader. Exactly because a printed text seems more authoritative in its clean and crisp printing and its manyfold existence, it was perhaps suspect for Muslim intellectuals.  In this sense, manuscripts are extremely valuable today, as each of them[9] is an invitation to sit down with the author, whether there be ten, a hundred, or a thousand years in between us and the author. Even more so manuscripts of commentaries, or commentaries of commentaries (etcetera): in one instance we can engage in a lively discussion between many Muslim intellectuals from different places and various times.

Yet, as accessible as manuscripts were in previous times, nowadays they are kept in libraries and are hard to get access to. Digitization, then, is an excellent way of disclosing these manuscripts once more to those interested in them. Turkey especially has undertaken massive digitization projects, making it possible to submit a request for a particular manuscript and get within days hundreds of photos, each of two pages, in color and sharp detail. In fact, this has become so successful that manuscripts are arguably more accessible than they were before. Whereas in premodern times students and scholars would have to actively hunt for manuscripts of specific texts, often one manuscript at a time, we can now gather digital photos of many manuscripts from all over the world. If we see a manuscript as a place of conversation of authors of different eras, as I have been arguing, then we can now combine different conversations overlapping in such a way that we can, by studying multiple manuscripts, study ever larger conversations. In the academic field of the study of Islamic philosophy we can already speak of a renaissance of philology, that is, the textual study involving manuscripts. Even so, the full potential of studying by means of digitized manuscripts has not been realized yet. If libraries keep improving their catalogues and provide free access to their digital photos, there is groundbreaking research results to be expected.

In conclusion, philosophy as it was conceived by Muslim thinkers was a paradoxical combination of face to face conversations executed on paper. Because we still have many of these sites of discussions (namely, the manuscripts), we have a unique chance to discover what these philosophers have to say. With the rise of digitization, we can do so in ways never before imagined.


1 Rosenthal, F. The Technique and Approach of Muslim Scholarship, Rome: Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, 1947, p. 6.

2 Saleh, W., The Formation of the Classical Tafsir Tradition, Leiden: Brill, 2004, p. 207.

3 Zadeh, “Uncertainty and the Archive,” pp. 11-64 in The Digital Humanities and Islamic & Middle East Studies, ed. E. Muhanna, Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016, p. 11.

4 Schoeler, G., “Die Frage der schriftlichen oder mündlichen Überlieferung der Wissenschaften im frühen Islam,” Der Islam 62 (1985): pp. 201–230.

5 Lit, L.W.C. van, “An Ottoman Commentary Tradition on Ghazālī’s Tahāfut Al-Falāsifa. Preliminary Observations,” Oriens 43 (2015): pp. 368–413.

6 Pourjavady, R., Philosophy in Early Safavid Iran, Leiden: Brill, 2011, pp. 1-44.

7 I go into detail about this in Lit, L.W.C. van. “The Measurement of the Circle in Naṣīr Al-Dīn Al-Ṭūsī’s Revision of the ‘Middle Books’ (Taḥrīr Al- Mutawassiṭāt).” Tarikh-e Elm 10 (2012): pp. 1–42.

8 For example, in Sura al-qiyāma verse 3, the words ‘that’ and ‘not’ are in Arabic ‘an’ and ‘lan’. The rules of tajwīd demand that it be pronounced as ‘allan’ and this is also how most modern printed versions show it. However, in older texts I have seen authors write out the two words; ‘an lan’. For a reciter of the Koran, there is no difference between seeing ‘allan’ or ‘an lan’ as he knows that it is to be pronounced as ‘allan’.

9 It is estimated that there may be several million Islamic manuscripts existent today, cf. Gacek, A., Arabic Manuscripts. A Vademecum for Readers, Leiden, Brill, 2009, p. x.

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