The Lost Art of Writing

Read, O Prophet, in the Name of your Lord Who created—
created humans from a clinging clot.
Read! And your Lord is the Most Generous,
Who taught by the pen—
taught humanity what they knew not.

Qur’an 96:1-5 [Dr. Mustafa Khattab translation]

The qualitative weightiness of the pen (qalam) is measured by the fact that it has been worded in the first verses revealed to the Prophet , where it directly follows narratives about creation and is itself linked to knowledge, or the fact that a whole surah is named after this instrument. The pen is also, in a way, a prophetic inheritance: indeed, as per traditional Islamic historiography, the prophet Idris (‘alayhi salam) was the first human to write; Enoch, the Biblical figure he’s often compared to in classical commentaries, for Jews and Christians is thus credited with “a discovery or cultural innovation that is […] of writing itself; i.e., the creation of a system of written characters which can serve as a ‘technology of the intellect’ and be used for recording information useful for a society’s social, intellectual, and religious life.”[1] Others have invoked the Greek god Hermes or the Egyptian god Thoth, both associated with the same symbolism, while someone like the polymath al-Biruni (circa 973 — 1050) went as far as seeing in the prophet Idris (‘alayhi salam) the Buddha.[2]

The pen is thus made synonymous with [religious] knowledge and civilization. French philosopher and paleontologist André Leroi-Gourhan (1911 — 1986) said that what he terms “graphism” is what actually makes humanity: “While it can at a pinch be claimed that tools are not unknown to some animal species and that language merely represents the step after the vocal signals of the animal world, nothing comparable to the writing and reading of symbols existed before the dawn of Homo sapiens.” [3]

So, what can we make out of our [current] relation with al-qalam in these times of progressive technological disincarnation, when even in our most subversive momentums we are still under the spell of (post)modernity by using its tools, and more specifically by writing without the pen on our computers? Of the German philosopher Heidegger (1889 — 1976), who lived in an era less technologically complex than ours, Michael Zimmerman announces that:

“For him, writing was essentially handwriting […] typewriting undermined both thought and language, he argued […] like many conservatives, he maintained that it was no accident that the printing press was invented at the dawn of the modern age. Letters, once drawn by hand, were reduced to characters that could be set and pressed by machine. The successor of the printing press, the typewriter (Schreibsmaschine) reveals the intrusion of the machine into the domain of language.”[4]

This essay will precisely look at the meanings of the pen – or writing – and how it has to be reclaimed.

The Qur’an as both oral and written remembrance-performance

In the introduction to his book on the exegesis of the Qur’an, Mahmoud Ayoub writes that, while the Revelation has for epithets and designations al-kitab (the book) or al-dhikr (the remembrance), the word Qur’an itself “may best be translated” as “the recital.”[5] Mustansir Mir, who privileges a literary approach to the text, affirms that “the language of the Qur’an is oral”, and he pinpoints two mains characteristics marking such nature: saj’, usually but insufficiently translated as “rhymed prose”, is the Qur’anic usage of rhymes and assonances associated with the ethical message ultimately making its language “eminently chantable”, while iltifât, consisting in the “shifts of person, number, and tense in a discourse”, are also, as per Mir, “a significant marker of orality. Like a speaker addressing a live audience, the Qurʾān may begin by speaking to one segment of the audience – say, the believers – and then, with little advance notice, may turn its attention to another segment – the disbelievers, for example. We also have to imagine that the speaker – the Qurʾān in this case – cognizant of the dynamic oral situation, responds to questions asked by some members of the audience, answers objections made by others, and comments on issues that, even though not verbally raised by any member of the audience, may be present in the audience’s minds and, thus, be part of the overall situation.”[6]

Basically, the Qur’anic orality is a subtle blend of the ethical with the aesthetical, that one can witness in the complex art of Qur’anic recitation and hymnody (on this theme, do refer to Kristina Nelson’s “The Art of Reciting the Qur’an”).

But all of this discourse on orality shouldn’t obstruct us from what Walid Saleh calls “the myth (if not the fetish) of the orality of the Qur’an” which “is so strongly established in modern scholarship that its orality is presumed to be the key for understanding the history of its reception, to the point that this argument has displaced the codex nature of the history of the Qur’an’s reception – the Qur’an as a read text.” Indeed, he reminds us that the canonization of the text began precociously, some twenty-years only after the passing away of the Prophet , under the rightly-guided caliph ‘Uthman (radiyAllahu ‘anhu), launching what he qualifies as a “theology of reading” that “differed markedly from the situation in Christian Latin Europe. This was not a text to be protected from the believing public, nor was there a need for it to be occulted from the prying eyes of the masses. Indeed the theology of reading made perusing, meditating, reciting, listening to the recitation, and memorizing the Qur’an the most assured path for salvation.” Ultimately, as he puts it:

“The formation of the Qur’an has undoubtedly very strong connections to orality, but that should not be presumed to be the determinant factor in the history of the text after its codification. The Qur’an, recited as it may have been, was always a written word. Its dissemination as a word was at the center of the new religion. Recitation was an important aspect of the text’s performance in public, but it presumed a written text from which the recitation emanated. The rasm, or the written word of the Qur’an, remained the ultimate authority on what the text is.”[7]

Overemphasizing the Qur’an orality in a way is to make an anthropological fossil out of it, to suggest that the written text – by its very textuality – is somehow dishonest to the Revelation and that pushes one to look for a secular way of rediscovering its supposed authentic roots. We thus have the neo-Orientalists who have a historical [or, in fact, historicizing] reading of it, and the Qur’an is mutated into a mishmash of Late Antiquity orthodox and heterodox religiosities, because such is the Revelation’s historical context.

What we could look at is how, in the Western intellectual history, this tension between orality and the written word has been perceived.

Writing: the epistemological shock?

In Preface to Plato (1963), the British classicist Eric Havelock (1903 — 1988) argued that we can’t understand the philosophy of Plato (428/427 – 348-347), especially his criticism of poetry, without being cognizant of the wider sociological change in the Greek society: indeed, what Plato precisely targeted was the oral culture. Havelock posits that the Greek alphabet was introduced around the seventh century BC, and it took three centuries for the Greek civilization to attain full literacy; during that period, knowledge was transmitted through poetry, and in particular epic poetry, as this was the genre that could resume the said knowledge through the metric patterns and their mnemonic potential, easy to be remembered and circulated in an orality-oriented society. The most prominent of such epic poets was of course Homer. From an Islamic perspective, it’s interesting to read how he makes a connection between a magical-poetical apprehension of the world and shirk (polytheism):

“Let us recapitulate. The psychology of oral memorisation and oral record required the content of what is memorised to be a set of doings. This in turn presupposes actors or agents. Again, since the content to be preserved must place great emphasis on public and private law, the agents must be conspicuous and political people. Hence they become heroes. All non-human phenomena must by metaphor be translated into sets of doings, and the commonest device for achieving this is to represent them as acts and decisions of especially conspicuous agents, namely gods.”[8]

Plato is the symptom of the demise of such a world, as it moved from orality to literacy. His “ideas” or “forms”, separate and virtual entities like the letters of the alphabet, are turned towards the outside, as opposed to the poetic world of interiority. This same externality also permits the creation of a personality, as the impersonal epic poetry is unable to let the psyche grow. In a sense, preferring prose over poetry becomes a way of individuation and rationalization:

“The contrary conception of poetic inspiration was born in Greece precisely at that time, toward the end of the fifth century, when the requirements of oral memorisation were no longer dominant and when the functional purposes of poetry as a tribal education were being transferred to prose. At this point those who thought in prose and preferred prose – that is the philosophers, who were intent upon constructing a new type of discourse which we can roughly characterise as conceptual rather than poetic-were driven to relegate the poetic experience to a category which was non-conceptual and therefore non-rational and non-reflective.“[9]

Writing becomes a sort of betrayal, as it has been noted by the postmodernist missionary Derrida in his most appreciated work, Of Grammatology (1967); the whole book is relevant to our subject referencing Plato as well as de Saussure:

“Writing would thus have the exteriority that one attributes to utensils; in addition it is an imperfect tool and a dangerous, one would say almost maleficent, technique […] The evil of writing comes from the outside (exothen), the Phaedrus says already (275a). Contamination by writing, the fact or the threat of it, is denounced in the accents of the moralist or preacher by the linguist from Geneva […] The violence of forgetting. Writing, mnemotechnic means, supplanting good memory, spontaneous memory, signifies forgetfulness. It is exactly what Plato said in the Phaedrus, comparing writing to speech as hypomnesis to mnémè, auxilliary aide-mémoire to the memory alive. Forgetfulness because mediation and the departure of the logos from itself. Without writing, the latter would remain in itself. Writing is the dissimulation of the natural, primary, and immediate presence of sense to soul within the logos. Its violence befalls the soul as unconsciousness. Deconstructing this tradition will therefore not consist of reversing it, of making writing innocent. Rather of showing why the violence of writing does not befall an innocent language [langage]. There is an originary violence of writing because language [langage] is first, in a sense that will gradually reveal itself, writing.”[10]

In his book on Derrida, Christopher Norris links such criticisms with that of the pre-romantic philosopher Rousseau (1712 — 1778), who “has some hard things to say about the consequences of writing, about the bad effect of reading too many books and the vices attendant on an overly literate civilization.”[11] 

Such perceptions on writing – or knowledge – could be rationalized from Plato and his idealism, Rousseau and his pre-romanticism or Derrida and his postmodernism, as these are typically Western epistemological attitudes with regards to the world of matter, but what about the Islamic attitude? The late British-Jewish orientalist Bernard Lewis (1916 — 2018) was right in at least one sense, when he stipulated that “contrary to popular mythology in the West, medieval Islamic civilization was overwhelmingly urban”[12]. Jewish sociologist Ernest Gellner (1925 — 1995) is more eloquent when he links urbanity and literacy, and states that “Muslim societies between the Hindu Kush and the Atlantic were characterized by the symbiosis of urban, literate, centrally governed, trade-oriented communities, with tribal ones.”[13]

We can thus say that, as opposed to the West and its different trends of idealism (independently of the pagan, Christian or modern-romantic avatars), Islam always had a synthetic view of man, and its philosophical anthropology was reflected in its civilizational sociology: urbanization, which includes a certain cosmopolitanism favoring Islamic universalism and brotherhood, and which leads to literacy and thus writing, was never seen as threatening, but on the contrary, as foundational to the Islamic experience as civilization.

Talking of the Islamic civilization, it permits us to take time to reflect on too common a criticism mobilized against it; its conservatism when it came to adopting the printing press, and whether it was justifiable.

To be continued.

Works Cited:

[1] John C. Reeves & Annette Yoshiko Reed, “Enoch from Antiquity to the Middle Ages : Sources from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam”, Oxford University Press, 2018, p. 91
[2] S. H. Nasr, “Islamic Life and Thought”, State University of New York Press, 1981, p.103 & p. 113, note 9
[3] André Leroi-Gourhan, “Gesture and Speech”, MIT Press, 1993, p. 188
[4] Michael E. Zimmerman, “Heidegger’s Confrontation With Modernity : Technology, Politics, and Art”, Indiana University Press, 1990, pp. 205-206
[5] Mahmoud Ayoub, “The Qur’an and Its Interpreters”, volume 1, SUNY Press, 1984, p. 16
[6] Mustansir Mir, “Language” in Andrew Rippin & Jawid Mojaddedi (ed.), “The Wiley Blackwell Companion to the Qurʾan” [Second Edition], John Wiley & Sons, 2017, pp. 103-104
[7] Walid A. Saleh, “Word” in Jamal J. Elias (ed.), “Key Themes for the Study of Islam”, Oneworld Publications, 2014, pp. 358-360
[8] Eric Havelock, “Preface to Plato”, Harvard University Press, 1963, p. 171
[9] Ibid, p. 156
[10] Jacques Derrida, “Of Grammatology”, JHU Press, 2013, pp. 34-37
[11] Christopher Norris, “Derrida”, Harvard University Press, 1987, p. 99
[12] Bernard Lewis, “Islam in History : Ideas, People, and Events in the Middle East”, Open Court, 2011, p. 112
[13] Ernest Gellner, “Muslim Society”, Cambridge University Press, 1983, p. 100


About the author: Arslan Akhtar is a librarian by occupation. He was born and is based in Brussels, and has an interest in religion, metaphysics, and the social sciences, and in the intertwining of these subjects. He is currently pursuing traditional Islamic studies.

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