Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Oral/Aural society - Islam: A Short History

One of the things that gets stressed about the Qur'an is that it was an oral revelation. It wasn't (at first) written down. Susanne did a post a while back where the author of the book she was reading theorised that this enabled Mohammed to make edits and adaptations to his speeches as the need and/or mood of the crowd required. So while we may (and I'm not sold on this fact in and of itself) have the original version of the written Qur'an, totally unchanged from when Mohammed's followers wrote it down, we absolutely don't have the *original* Qur'an, because we weren't there and can never have heard Mohammed saying it.

And it's not just the Qur'an. The message of the Bible, every letter and Gospel in the New Testament was meant to be heard, not read. If for no other reason than the fact that the majority of the people at that time, and for centuries after that, could not read. It just wasn't practical, or helpful. Think about it this way. It takes a couple of hours every day for, heck, I don't even know how long to teach someone not just to read, but to read well. There's a difference. Trust me. It doesn't seem like much, does it? But in those times, there was a very, very small gap between survival and death for most people. Harvesting, dealing with livestock, selling their goods, working, cooking, cleaning, on and on and on. A million things that we don't worry about any longer but that they had to. Unless they were well off and therefore had idle time and money to pay for books and someone to teach them or they had necessity then reading and writing weren't that important to them.

But does it really make that much difference? Hearing versus reading?

I think it does. In the first place, if we are to hear something the way it was intended, then we will be in community, which is where our faith is meant to be practiced. Not alone, reading our sacred text and deciding what it means all on our lonesome, but *with* other believers. In the second place,we process things that we hear differently, both emotionally and intellectually.

As an example, I've been listening to books in my car for a while now. And I just recently listened to a death scene from a book I've read multiple times. The death is sad, and poignant and heroic. I'm sorry the character died, in spite of the fact that he's only in this one book, not even a recurring character. But I never *cried* for this character's death until I listened to it being acted out.


  1. Interesting! Yes, it's amazing how hearing a song is so much more powerful and moving than reading the lyrics online. I can be bored to tears reading the words and then HEAR the song and am amazed! That said I'm always one who often needs to SEE things in order to fully process it. So take that for whatever you make of it. Michael goes to a classical school on Tuesday mornings and they learn a number of things by song. It does often seem easier to remember things when they are set to music or chanting.

    I am reading a book on Islam and something that struck me was that the author said Muhammad recited the Quran and then others memorized and wrote down what he said. Remember on bones and wood and leaves and whatever was available. I've heard this for a while now and it seemed OK until I got to wondering why these people were literate enough to record his sayings when Muhammad wasn't. Especially as you said back in the ancient world most people weren't literate for practical reasons. They were more interested in survival. I remember the book you mentioned in this post the author said by the time the Quran was being written perhaps Muhammad was able to hire scribes. Jews in Medina perhaps? Maybe they were literate and could write down Muh's recitations. Just thinking out loud.

  2. I liked how to explain the power of the word that is meant to be heard. I never thought about it and it makes a lot of sense. I guess that is why hearing the Quran being recited makes people weep?

  3. Susanne,

    *nods* I had that same thought. It's not just the words, but the emotion and the life that the reader/singer puts into them.

    It does often seem easier to remember things when they are set to music or chanting.

    Alphabet anyone? :)

    As for your newest book, I guess that would depend on at what point in time he's saying that people started writing the Qur'an down. If it was too early on, I'd call it pretty unlikely, since most of the early converts were poor, women, or slaves and therefore even more unlikely to be literate. Later on, maybe in Medina some of the followers could have been literate. But it still seems less likely than the theory that he got a scribe who started copying it all down.

  4. Suroor,

    I think that's part of it. Hearing something hits so many different emotional and intellectual keys than just reading it. Poetry is beautiful, but it's even more so when you hear it read, or sung.

  5. May God's peace mercy and blessings be upon you sister Amber and All

    Regarding your post about the Holy Quran, I thought it might be helpful if I provide you all with useful articles, which answer your questions, and give information about the revelation. For better understanding. I hope I am allowed to contribute. Thank you.

    The Nature of Revelation?

    Preservation of the Quran: Memorization/ The written Quran

    The Authorship of the Quran: The Words of a Human?/The Words of a Poet or a Teacher?/Was it the Words of Satan or God?

    Is the Quran Authentic?

    An Introduction to the Quran: Organization and Meanings/Its Inimitableness and Language

    The Style of the Quran

    The Beauty and Eloquence of the Quran

    Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him)

    The Truth about Islam

    Prophet Jesus and Muhammad (Peace be upon them) in the Holy Quran and Previous Scriptures


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