Webmaster's note: This article contains diacritical marks which may not display properly on certain older browsers or platforms.

Gregor Schoeler
Écrire et transmettre dans les débuts de l’islam
Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 2002

Reviewed By Andrew J. Lane

In Écrire et transmettre, Gregor Schoeler ties together various lines of research that he has been pursuing for a number of years. In this book, his main question could be formulated as: what did it mean to publish a book during the first four centuries of Islam?   Modern ideas on what books and publishing are can very easily distort the picture; a misrepre­sentation made easier by the fact that Arabic texts frequently refer to written material simply as ‘books’ (kutub). Throughout Écrire et transmettre the author returns to a number of fundamental pairs that act as the lattice on which he builds his book: hypomnēma/syngramma, oral publication/written publication, (Arab) traditional religious scholar ('ālim) /(Persian) man of letters (adīb). Each of these elements is a thread that runs throughout part or all of the book, independently at first but then intertwining as they move from the earliest (the Jahiliyya and the early Islamic period) to the latest period (the ninth and tenth centuries). Schoeler’s approach, then, is essentially – though not rigidly – chronological and throughout his book he supports his assertions with convincing references to numerous primary sources as well as to the secondary literature in the field.

This book is based on the reworked version of a series of lectures that the author gave in the spring of 2000 at the École pratique des hautes études in Paris. The basis for these lectures was a series of studies that represents the fruits of about twenty years of the author’s research into the appearance of Arabic literature and the relationship between its oral and written transmission during the first four centuries of Islam. As such, this book is of major importance and one can only hope that an English translation will soon be available so that an even wider readership can benefit from its insights. Écrire et transmettre is easy to read both as to presentation and to style, and errors in transliteration and H/CE dating are rare. Furthermore, the author’s discoveries or clarifications as regards the appearance and transmission of Arabic literature during the first four centuries of Islam, will be of benefit to scholars working in later periods, for Schoeler’s results will be seen reflected there as well.

In the introduction to this book, the author states that he is not one of those hypercritical scholars who have maintained that nothing can be known of the Muslim tradition as passed on from the earliest generations. While distancing himself from some of the opinions held by proponents of a more moderate position, the author nevertheless believes that it is possible to establish a method to discover what is credible in the tradition. He maintains that one can be sure that a number of accounts will reflect in a fairly accurate way, if not in their details then at least in their general characteristics, the facts or practices to which they refer, even if a single account may be altered or even false.

The first study in Schoeler’s series led the author to reject an oral/written dichotomy in the transmission of early Arabic literature and to accept the conclusions already put forward by Alois Sprenger in the nineteenth century, which conclusions were unfortunately eclipsed by the ideas of later scholars. Sprenger held that it was necessary to make a distinction between per­sonal notes used simply to help one recall something, course notebooks and published books. The second study dealt with the first true book of the Arabic-Islamic sciences in Schoeler’s estimation, Sibawayhi’s (d.ca.180/796) Kitāb; this study led the author to introduce into his plan the Greek pair hypomnēma-syngramma (notes/rough draft/aide-mémoire—literary work/real book). The third study looked at the debate among traditionists in the eighth century and even later, concerning the writing down of traditions (ḥadīths). The fourth study dealt with the distinction between ‘writing,’ which did not necessarily imply a publication, and ‘publishing,’ which for a long time was done orally. The fifth and final study examined the question of the modification of traditions on the life of Muhammad in the course of transmission and the authenticity of this tradition, which already appeared in the author’s Charakter und Authentie des muslimischen Überlieferung über das Leben Mohammads (Berlin and New York, 1996). To these studies, the author has added a final in-depth study of the ninth century, during which an important number of books appeared.

Because of the depth and breadth of Schoeler’s research it is not possible to delve into everything he has said. Only a few main points from his seven chapters will be pursued here, to give the reader an idea of what this book has to offer and to encourage her/him to read it. In the first chapter, which deals with the Jahiliyya and the early Islamic period, the author looks at the two ways in which texts were published: written documents of an official or formal nature were published by being placed in a shrine (e.g. the Ka'ba) or some other honoured place while poetry was published orally, that is, through recitation. With respect to poetry, oral transmission did not exclude written materials. This written material was not, however, polished, published books but rough drafts and notes for personal use that served as an aide-mémoire. It is in this first chapter that the author introduces his hypomnēma/syn­gramma distinction that will reoccur throughout the book.

The second chapter deals with the Qur’an and its variant readings (qirā'āt) and builds on the distinctions presented in the first chapter. The author puts the codex of 'Uthmān into a new light as he shows how this text is to be understood as an official written document, comparable to a pre-Islamic treaty or contract. This fixing of the official text reduced the role and liberty of the qur’anic readers (qurrā'), whom Schoeler considers to be comparable to the poetic transmitters (ruwāt), but did not put an end to the variant readings. In fact, written copies of the Qur’an had to be copied and corrected through personal contact with a reader who recited the text. The importance of hearing a text began here and would last for centuries in the Islamic religious sciences.

The third chapter looks at the beginnings of the Islamic religious sciences (sīra, ḥadīth, tafsīr), the systematic collection of information related to the life of the Prophet and his Companions, and the beginnings and organization of ‘academic teaching.’ Here Schoeler deals mainly with three early sources: 'Urwa ibn al-Zubayr (d.94/712), first head of what he calls a “Madinese historical school,” who began the systematic organization of material into books (taṣnīf); Mujahid ibn Jabr (d.104/722), whom Schoeler calls “an eminent rep­resentative of the school of Mecca” and whose Tafsīr was nothing more than personal notes; and Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri (d.124/742). Schoeler also notes their introduction of new ways of transmitting knowledge: mudhākara, that is, the students repeating what the teacher has taught (Ibn al-Zubayr), and munāwala, that is, the students making their own copies of the teacher’s lecture notes and drafts (al-Zuhri). Al-Zuhri was also the first to undertake, at the insistence of the Umayyad court, an official collection (tadwīn) of the Ḥadīth.

Schoeler devotes his entire fourth chapter to the court’s role in the development and transmission of Arabic literature. There are two ways in which the court had an influence. First of all, there were the books that were written specifically for the caliph and the court; most of these have disappeared. Secondly, there was the emerging class of secretaries of the state (kuttāb). Schoeler notes that they were responsible for three types of works: letters (rasā'il), translations or adaptations of works written in Pahlavi, and translations of Greek philosophic texts into Arabic. Again, Schoeler limits his study to a few important names: 'Abd al-Hamid al-Katib (d.132/750), who is associated with the beginnings of Arabic prose, and Ibn al-Muqaffa (d.139/757), whose Kalīla wa-Dimna is considered the first master­piece of Arabic literary prose. What is new here, Schoeler says, is that for the first time we are in the presence of true books that reflected the personality, tastes and talents of their authors; these works were written to be read and to be transmitted in written form. These real books coming from the court would also influence Arab religious scholars who also began to write their works and to give them a form that was accessible to a reader.

The topic of the fifth chapter is the muṣannafāt, the systematic works that appeared in the middle of the eighth century; these works classified the material according to subject matter in systematic chapters (taṣnīf). Such works were to be found in all of the Islamic sciences: history, exegesis, law, philology and even theology. These new compilations were published in accordance with the traditional aural method: recitation, either by the teacher or one of his students, or else dictation to a student within a circle of scholars. It is in this chapter that Schoeler incorporates his study of the debate among traditionists concerning the writing down of traditions (ḥadīths) and notes that there were massive amounts of written material available for the private use of the scholars when preparing their classes. He also studies Ibn Ishaq’s Kitāb al-Maghāzī and Malik’s Muwaṭṭa', lists a number of works in history and theology, and then asks as to the nature of these muṣannafāt. He is of the opinion that most would be personal notes although some would be rough drafts or notebooks. In fact, here Schoeler indicates that between hypomnēma and syngramma there would have been a wide variety of types of books, ranging from an organized system of files to works that were practically complete books. He describes these traditional compilations as ‘school literature destined for the school’ and not for the wider reading public.

The sixth chapter deals with the birth of the grammatical and philological sciences, and in particular with Sibawayhi’s role therein. While muṣannafāt were composed in lexicography and other branches of these sciences, his Kitāb on grammar is the first real book of all the Arabic-Islamic sciences (although it has no introduction and perhaps no title); Schoeler lists the characteristics that make it a ‘real book’ (syngramma), including cross-references and quotes from his sources (i.e. what they said, not what they transmitted). What is interesting to note, however, concerning the transmission of Sibawayhi’s Kitāb, is that it was transmitted from teacher to student like traditional material, with each manuscript copy having an isnād going back to the author; this method was to be extended to the other sciences as well.

The title of the seventh chapter, “Read or hear books,” seems almost to be a question. It begins with a note on the introduction of paper into the Muslim world in 134/751 and its influence on the in­creased production of books and their spread among a growing and interested reading public. Such works were destined to spread in written form. One of the most notable examples of a ninth-century man of letters (adīb) is al-Jahiz (d.255/868-9), to whom Schoeler devotes a few pages, noting that he continued the tradition of artistic Arabic prose begun in the preceding century by such writers as 'Abd al-Hamid al-Kātib and Ibn al-Muqaffa'. In the ninth and tenth centuries more and more religious scholars (sing. 'ālim) began writing real books (syngrammata) also, either following the pioneering work of Sibawayhi or copying the manner of the men of letters. Of particular interest in historiography are Ibn Hisham (d.218/834) and al-Tabarī (d.310/923), after whom the publication of many works no longer took place by recitation within the framework of a school but in written form. In the ninth and tenth centuries also, poetry, and narrative and historical-biographical materials received their definitive shape and were transmitted in written form, as were the collections of traditions and the manuals of Arabic literature. However, religious scholars ('ulamā') still continued to write and to publish in the traditional way what remained ‘school literature for the school,’ destined to be recited and to be published by being recited to and copied by students. Such works remained hypomnēmata. Even after works were transmitted in written form, the personal encounter with a teacher and transmission by recitation (qirā'a) and hearing (samā') were neither abandoned nor held in low esteem, for these guaranteed a degree of accuracy that simple copying could not.

In the conclusion, Schoeler looks for influences on the development and transmission of Arabic literature and finds: (i) pre-Islamic poetry; (ii) the Jewish schools of the Talmudic period (200CE-500CE), whose method of authentication by isnād was introduced to Islam by Jewish converts; and (iii) the late Alexandrian schools, from which recitation (qirā'a) and hearing (samā') would have been borrowed. Thus, the Islamic system of transmission of knowledge appears as a synthesis of elements coming from three cultures, Arabic, Jewish and Hellenistic-Christian. As for the post-classical madrasa period, the means of transmission by hearing continued as an ideal, as did the practice of exposing orally a (real) book to be studied. This method of transmission even found a new form from the eleventh century on, that of the certificates of hearing (ijāzāt al-sama', samā'āt); these documents, which multiplied in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, showed that it was not the manuscript itself but the participation at a scholar’s lectures that authorized the transmission of a book.

Andrew J. Lane has just successfully defended his Ph.D. thesis in the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilisations at the University of Toronto.



Please include in your message permission to publish your comment and your name.