Making Sense of the Cacophony of Voices from the Post-Classical Period of Islam

This small article explains how close reading is not useful in research on post-classical Islamic intellectual history. Instead, close reading needs to be supplemented with what is called ‘distant reading.’

The article appeared last year in Sabah Ülkesi, vol. 53.

In a previous article, I explained how manuscripts were a vehicle and a site for conversations between people far separated in time and space. For example, Taftāzānī could have a conversation about Islamic dogma (ʿaqīda) in 14th century Samarqand with Nasafī, even though the latter lived in the 12th century. Subsequently, Khayālī responded to Taftāzānī in 15th century Istanbul. Siyalkūtī, in turn, entered the conversation in 17th century Northern India. In the 19th century we have a certain Ibn Rasūl al-Dhakī responding to Siyalkūtī, probably from somewhere in the Ottoman Empire. The title of the latter’s text becomes Taqrīr ʿalā Taʿlīqa ʿalā Ḥāshiya ʿalā Sharḥ al-ʿAqāʾid, sometimes abbreviated to Taqrīr ʿalā Ḥāshiyat al-Siyalkūtī. That title is quite a mouth full, but it is only one line of conversation that sprouted from Nasafī’s creed. Abdullah Hibshi, in his Jāmiʿ al-shurūḥ wa-l-ḥawāshī (“The collection of commentaries and glosses”), lists some 150 texts that either respond to Nasafī, respond to a response, or are an even higher order of response. Considering that committing one’s thoughts to paper, especially if done over dozens if not hundreds of pages, is no small feat, we have here a conversation of 150 highly intelligent Muslims, spreading eight centuries and stretching over virtually the entire Islamic world. 150 voices that all respond to responses below them, but sometimes also respond to contemporaries. Sometimes dissonant, sometimes in agreement, often making contributions of such sophistication that its novelty can easily be skimmed over. Imagine 150 philosophers in the same room all talking at the same time about some of the most advanced issues humans have been able to think about; a true cacophony!

For historians, it can be tempting to assert that all these people do is repeat each other, and that therefore scholars of intellectual history need not occupy themselves with them, as it will be a lost effort to find something meaningful. For example, one of the most famous and influential scholars of Islam, Carl Brockelmann, sarcastically wrote at the beginning of the 20th century that “in these centuries, much paper was still getting covered with black ink in Egypt and Syria, though not much was written.”[1] Even much later in the 20th century we can find an eminent scholar such as William Montgomery Watt argue that “little originality was shown, and the chief effort of theologians went into the production of commentaries, super-commentaries and glosses on earlier works.”[2] Such comments are meant to do away in a few pen strokes the entirety of the post-classical period of Islamic intellectual history, a period which I define as roughly starting with Ibn Sīnā (d. 1037) and ending with the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s.

In my opinion, this attitude has come about more because our tested and tried methods of research are unable to be of use to us for this period rather than being grounded in historical reality. Islamic Studies as a discipline in Western academia has its roots in Philology. As such, its methodology relies heavily on close reading, first in order to establish the correct text, second in order to establish the correct meaning of the text. This has evolved in a method that is heavily person-focussed. Still, today, many people will answer the question ‘what are you working on?’ with simply a name; ‘Ibn Sīnā,’ ‘Ghazālī,’ or ‘Ibn Taymiyya.’ Within that microcosm of one author, a student or scholar can engage with the entire corpus of the author, with a substantial subset, or even with only one work. The result of such research is often meant to convey the true ideas of a thinker, with conclusions such as ‘Ghazālī believed that such-and-such.

In a historical period with a well-established narrative, such as we have for the classical period of Islamic thought, this is a more or less successful approach. It is rendered futile almost entirely, however, when this is not the case. I see two major drawbacks when this close-reading approach is used on the post-classical period.

The first is that the focus on a person creates an island instead of a bridge. Let me explain what I mean by that by comparing the classical and the postclassical period. When in the classical period we know much about Ibn Sīnā, and a fair amount of Fakhr al-Dīn Rāzī, and we think the former’s al-Ishārāt wa-l-tanbīhāt and the latter’s commentary upon it are important texts, it is only natural to investigate Masʿūdī’s commentary on al-Ishārāt, which falls right in between Ibn Sīnā and Fakhr al-Dīn Rāzī, not only in a historical sense but also in a discursive sense. Such a study provides a bridge between two parts of history that we already know.[3] However, when there is no substantial scholarship to provide a historical embedding, it is simply not obvious what gap a study on a particular person or text is to bridge. Because of that, such a study remains an island in a vast, unchartered territory. Take for instance a study on Najm al-Dīn Nayrīzī, an early 16th century scholar from Shiraz. Arguably the most interesting part of the study is spent on his three predecessors Dawānī and father and son Dashtakī, while his successors are left undiscussed.[4] The result is that the book does not make clear why Nayrīzī is worthy of studying. In a sense, then, rather than breaking through the old narrative of seeing the post-classical period as uninteresting, such a study could unintentionally be seen as actually supporting it! I think an exception can be made here for those intellectuals of the post-classical period whose importance and influence is already established, such as Jurjānī or Mullā Ṣadrā.[5] Even though such scholarship still creates only islands, they are known to be important islands whose position and outline will be beneficial in navigating the unchartered territory of the rest of the post-classical period. Such studies can function as beacons.

The second problem of close reading, for the post-classical period, is that texts from this period often do not speak with only one voice, that of the author, but contain traces of many voices. Take, for example, the third-degree commentary of Siyalkūtī on Nasafī’s ʿaqīda. Opening this text, one will be met with the term qawluhu, meaning ‘his statement,’ which announces that Siyalkūtī is going to cite somebody in order to follow it up with an aqūlu, meaning ‘I say,’ announcing his response to the citation whether it be agreeing, disagreeing, shortening, elongating, changing, or something else. The citation will consists of a few words followed by ilā ākharihi; ‘until the end,’ meaning that the reader should find out on their own what the full citation should be. These citations are coming from the second-order commentary by Khayālī. When we open that text, we will notice that Khayālī had the very same practice of only citing a few words of a sentence or paragraph, this time coming from Taftāzānī’s first-order commentary on Nasafī’s creed. When we factor in the fact that Siyalkūtī had no problem injecting his Arabic text with occasional Persian passages, and that the manuscripts and prints that exist of his text present his text without much lay-out but simply as walls of text, it will be easy for a modern reader to quickly close the book and do something else. Or, arguably worse, read some parts of it, summarize it, and conclude that ‘this is what Siyalkūtī believes.’ All the while, Siyalkūtī is also invoking other texts, often times without acknowledging the original author. We need to conclude, then, that the pure, personal voice of Siyalkūtī cannot be discerned by only reading his own books carefully. It may only be reconstructed after bringing his text in dialogue with the other commentaries on Nasafī’s creed, as well as any other text that may prove relevant. This is a task for which the close reader is wholly unprepared.

* * *

When close reading fails, what could be the antidote? Possibly the opposite of close reading? This opposite has been introduced in Literary Studies as distant reading. The idea behind it is to step away from the logical sequence of the words of a text, one after the other, and instead oversee all words from one text, or from dozens, possibly thousands of texts, at the same time. This way, new structures and connections can be discovered. For example, Franco Moretti, one of the trail blazers of this method, made relation graphs of the characters of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and deduced significant new insights, for example Hamlet’s dependence on Horatio is made visibly clear by showing that Hamlet connect to many characters only through Horatio.[6]

The way I envision distant reading to work for post-classical Islamic intellectual history, is to make the crucial theoretical step from focussing on all works of one author to focussing on all authors of one text. What that means is that our starting point is no longer one author, but one technical term, a sentence, or a discussion. A special case in which the multiplicity of authors of one text is obvious, is a commentary tradition,[7] such as the one referred to in the opening paragraph.

The practical implementation of that theoretical adjustment comes in the form of going through a large amount of literature, much more than is usually the case. In fact, with the rise of text databases such as al-Maktaba al-shāmila and Noorlib, each containing thousands of texts of premodern Islam, we can even move beyond going through texts by hand, and perform automated searches on massive collections. Chapter 6 of my book The World of Image in Islamic Philosophy is an example of the result of such an investigation.[8] I started to notice that in several commentaries on Suhrawardī’s texts, the discussion on the notion of a world of image (ʿālam al-mithāl) was structured around the same sentence. The sentence itself is rather innocent, simply stating “There is in existence a magnitudinous world different from our sensory world.” Since the sentence itself did not do much for the intellectual content of the discussion on the world of image, I formulated the hypothesis that this sentence was a signifier for intellectuals of the post-classical period to indicate that a discussion on the world of image was about to commence. I proceeded to search through text databases on parts of that sentence, and soon realized that my hypothesis was correct: by collecting all authors that used this one sentence, I was able to unearth the genealogy of the discussion on the world of image. Because I focussed on the words themselves, I compared the different instances and soon realized that even though authors often did not acknowledge their source, I could pinpoint their source by pointing out unique commonalities. Thus, I was able to detail the precise trajectory of the discussion, showing how it flowed from one author to another. As a result, exactly by insisting on repetition, it was easy to spot which authors did something unique to the idea. Only at that point did I return to a close reading method, zooming in on those unique cases to better understand their original contributions.

* * *

The post-classical period is as a vast, mostly uncharted territory. To be dropped in some random spot of that territory and meticulously report the immediate area around you is not doing much to understand the lay of the land. What we need are expeditions that take us through long trails of that land, to get a sense of what it on average looks like and how different parts of it are connected. A distant reading method can do that, by looking for the same term or sentence and thereby stringing together dozens of authors, piercing through many centuries and connecting vast areas of the premodern Islamic world. The result of such researches will undoubtedly alter our understanding, and immensely improve our appreciation, of post-classical Islamic intellectual history.


1. Brockelmann, C., Geschichte der arabischen Litteratur (Weimar: Verlag von Emil Felber, 1898-1902), vol. 2, pp. 7-8.

2. Watt, W.M., Islamic Philosophy and Theology (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1985), p. 134.

3. Shihadeh, A. Doubts on Avicenna: A Study and Edition of Sharaf al-Dīn al-Masʿūdī’s Commentary on the Ishārāt. Leiden: Brill, 2015.

4. Pourjavady, R. Philosophy in Early Safavid Iran: Najm al-Dīn Maḥmūd al-Nayrīzī and His Writings. Leiden: Brill, 2011.

5. Ess, J. van, Die Traüme der Schulweisheit: Leben und Werk des ʿAlī b. Muḥammad al-Ǧurǧānī  (gest. 816/1413), Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2013; Rizvi, S., Mullā Ṣadrā Shīrāzī: His Life and Works and the Sources for Safavid Philosophy. Journal of Semitic Studies Supplement 18. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

6. Moretti, F. Distant Reading. London: Verso, 2013, pp. 211-240.

7. For a rigorous definition of ‘commentary’ and ‘commentary tradition’ see my article: Lit, L.W.C. van. “Commentary and Commentary Tradition: The Basic Terms for Understanding Islamic Intellectual History.” MIDEO 32 (2017): pp. 3–26.

8. Lit, L.W.C. van. The World of Image in Islamic Philosophy: Ibn Sīnā, Suhrawardī, Shahrazūrī, and Beyond. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017.

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