Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim Between Worlds by Davis Natalie Zemon

Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim Between Worlds by Davis Natalie Zemon

Author:Davis, Natalie Zemon [Davis, Natalie Zemon]
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published: 2007-03-05T20:00:00+00:00

It is He who sent down upon thee the Book,

wherein are verses clear that are the Essence

of the Book, and others ambiguous.

As for those in whose hearts is swerving,

they follow the ambiguous part, desiring

dissension, and desiring its interpretation;

and none knows its interpretation, save

only God. And those firmly rooted in

knowledge say, “We believe in it; all

is from our Lord.”

This famous verse was much debated: which were the “ambiguous” verses, and how should this verse be punctuated? Should a pause follow “save only God” (the majority view), or should the sentence run on so that “those firmly rooted in knowledge” share with God the right interpretation? (Yuhanna al-Asad, in working over the Qur’an translation, stuck with the majority view.)40

But did this exegesis leave room for debate about the text itself? Would al-Wazzan ever have heard anyone question whether the words in the Qur’an were what the angel Gabriel had actually said to the Prophet? Certainly Muslim theologians accused the Jews, especially Ezra, of tampering with the text of the Torah, revealed to them by God (the head rabbi of Cairo in al-Wazzan’s day complained of these recurring Muslim charges); they also pointed to contradictions in the Gospels as evidence for the careless errors, bad memories, and even “lies” of their authors about the life and sayings of the Prophet Jesus. Some Shi‘ite commentators claimed that the revelation to the Messenger had included references to the fourth caliph Ali and his progeny and that they had been omitted in the final redaction of the Qur’an. This would not carry weight for al-Wazzan, who considered the Shi‘ite doctrine of the Imamate heretical.41

The commentators whom he had read during his studies at Fez were ordinarily respectful of the words and the purity of the language in the revered Arabic text. Every once in a while, an individual word was thought to be in error, the fault blamed perhaps on an ancient tired scribe or an ink spill. By tradition, Caliph ‘Uthman himself noticed a few mistakes when he read the final redaction but remarked, “Don’t correct them, for the Bedouin Arabs will correct them with their tongues.” Such observations did not lead to revising the text but remained part of the eddy of discussion around the Qur’an. In al-Wazzan’s youth, al-Suyuti had followed earlier commentators in compiling a list of foreign words in the Qur’an. This might seem a daring enterprise since Arabic was so intrinsic to the revelation that the Book had no liturgical value if recited in translation, but al-Suyuti’s goal was to solve problems of meaning.42

At the time that al-Hasan al-Wazzan was kidnapped by Christian pirates, he would have thought of the Qur’an that he had memorized as a boy with knowledge of the divergent streams of interpretation it had inspired, but with certainty that its Arabic text was fixed, carrying perhaps a few tiny mistakes, but pure enough to last unchanged.


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