Sub-project Arabic and Islamic Studies

Arabic Didactic Poems, 11th to 17th Centuries: Variants and the Means of Controlling Them

Principal investigator: Prof Dr Tilman Seidensticker

Research associate: PD Dr Florian Sobieroj


The number of manuscripts preserved throughout the world in the various Islamic literary languages (mainly Arabic, Persian and Turkish) slightly exceeds one million. The oldest preserved scripts were written on papyrus and parchment, with paper becoming the preferred choice from the middle of the 9th century. The oldest preserved paper manuscripts also date back to the middle of the 9th century, while the most recent were copied in the 20th century. The sheer mass of the preserved manuscripts testifies to the intensity of the Islamic culture's use of the medium of writing, and shows that this culture would scarcely have been possible from earliest times without the written form. However, there was no blind trust of this medium, for which the comparatively limited information content of the Arabic script was chiefly responsible. In order to prevent scribal errors being made when purely copying manuscripts, efforts were undertaken to ensure that texts could be transmitted more ideally by employing an authorised scholar to dictate them. Nevertheless, it can be stated that the written recording of information in the Islamic culture was of the utmost importance.

Compared to the Latin Middle Ages, the production of books was enormous and their themes arose as a result of various conditions, although most of these themes were already present or developing as early as the beginning of the 9th century. The Koran, the holy book of Islam, had to be understood and interpreted for legal and theological questions. The traditions about the words and deeds of the prophet Muhammad were, together with the Koran, of fundamental importance and therefore had to be examined and clarified. The pre- and early history of Islam had to be retold for the self-assurance of certain tribal alliances, as well as for the entire ummah. Classical Arabic had to be clarified, reflected and developed by grammarians and lexicographers, as it was not only the language of the Koran and the hadith, but was also widely used as the language of culture. When one of the caliphs instigated a translation process, it became possible to adopt the knowledge of Antiquity (mainly philosophy and the natural sciences) as well as the Middle Persian traditions in the fields of statesmanship, proverbial wisdom and storytelling. Arabic poetry, which was already highly developed in pre-Islamic times, continued to flourish after the onset of Islam and was recorded in written form. An extensive secular literature combined an intention to entertain with teachings, exhortations and opinions on political, social and cultural issues. Islam's mystical piety, which materialised in the 10th century, was also widely reflected in literature.

When studying the written legacy of Islamic culture today, three characteristics are particularly evident. Firstly, the tendency to ensure validation of the traditions by chains of authorities (isn?d) and reading certificates (sam?'). Secondly, an often excessive commenting in the form of marginal and interlinear glosses, as well as in works of commentary and supercommentary. Thirdly, the extent and significance of the variation in the scope and the wording of the transmitted texts. The latter phenomenon will be studied systematically in this sub-project in Arabic and Islamic Studies.

The subject of text variation has always occupied Arabic and Islamic Studies, not least due to the enormous disparities in the various transmitted messages, in cases when one had not expected such discrepancies considering the consistency of the topic and the main authority on the matter. After almost 150 years of debate, this phenomenon could be explained by the fact that we have to distinguish between the books and papers produced for the purpose of publication, on the one hand, and the memory-serving notes and records (of often newly-compiled lecture materials) on the other.

This sub-project in Arabic and Islamic Studies will focus on text variation in completely transmitted works, and it must be pointed out that the research being carried out in this field is still in its infancy. Correction and collation techniques have only been mentioned sporadically in the literature. Substantial progress was made with Gacek's paper of 2007, "Taxonomy of scribal errors and corrections in Arabic manuscripts", in which he states: "Unfortunately, there exists as yet no systematic study of scribal errors and corrections in Arabic manuscripts, while the information on this subject is scanty and dispersed throughout various works dating from the manuscript age to the contemporary era." He refers to his essay as a "preliminary survey", so one objective of this sub-project will be to build on Gacek's findings for a selected, frequently copied text genre without being restricted to the location and time of the copies. The beneficiaries will be future editors and users of critical editions and manuscripts, who already have a good grasp of the texts' contents but still have to familiarise themselves with the possible scale of variation and the methods used to correct it when working with the manuscript medium. Moving beyond this practice-orientated aim, a section of the Arabic scripts will be systematically studied to work out what degree of text stability, on the one hand, and of change of the most varied nature, on the other, was made possible by the medium (and this may also include oral transmissions).

This should be achieved using copies of a single genre, Arabic didactic and model poems of a comparatively limited length. These copies will be studied in terms of the extent and causes of their text variation, as well as any recognisable means in the manuscripts to control variation. The specific character of these texts - which could be seen as short versified bundles of knowledge intended for wider circles - ensured extensive copying, thereby leading to an increased "frequency of mutation". A corpus of didactic and model poems has been created, comprising the following texts:

  • Ibn Zuraiq (st. um 1029 n. Chr.): al-Qaṣīda al-andalusīya (Model for expression),
  • aš-Šāṭibī (st. 1194): ‘Aqīlat atrāb al-qaṣā’id (Orthography of the Koran),
  • al-Ūšī (st. nach 1173): Bad’ al-amālī (Unity of God),
  • Ibn al-Wardī (st. 1349): Waṣīya li-waladihī (Calling to a holy life),
  • Ibn al-Ǧazarī (st. 1429): al-Muqaddima ... fī t-taǧwīd (Koran reading),
  • al-Laqānī (st. 1631): Ǧauharat at-tauḥīd (Profession of faith).

In order to examine how far both the comparatively late appearance of these poems and the scholar's status favoured or reduced the occurrence of variation, another poem has been added which has been ascribed (quite incorrectly) to a great and early religious authority:

  • Pseudo-‘Alī Ibn Abī Ṭālib: ad-Da‘wa al-ǧulǧulūtīya (Prayers with magical names of God).

As a control group, a piece of prose has been added for methodical reasons (see above):

  • as-Sanūsī (st. 1490): al-‘Aqīda aṣ-ṣuġrā (Profession of faith).