An interesting take on the Qur’ān

September 28, 2008 at 1:51 am (Islam)

In spite of the etymology of the its earliest self-designation as qur‘ān, which is a loanword from Syriac qeryānā, meaning a lectionary, recital or pericope to be recited in liturgical services, far too often the Qur‘ān is implicitly treated as a written literary work, imagined to have been authored by Mu[h]ammad. This approach is apparent in frequent criticisms that blame the text for not fulfilling particular literary standards.

Angelika Neuwirth, “Structural, linguistic and literary features,” in Jane Dammen McAuliffe (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Qur‘ān (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 101.

She goes on:

To reclaim the pre-redactional Qur‘ān, it is essential to understand that the Qur‘ān is not meant to be a book to study but a text to recite. Kristina Nelson, who researched the recitation of the Qur‘ān, has stressed that that transmission of the Qur‘ān and its social existence are essentially oral. ‘Qur‘ānic rhythm and assonance alone confirm that it is meant to be heard…The significance of the revelation is carried as much by the sound as by its semantic information.’12 This observation has important implications. If the Qur‘ān was meant to be recited, its actualisation as oral performance should be evident in the composition of the text itself. Where can we trace the intrinsic orality of the Qur‘ān?

As was mentioned above, the early – and densely structured – parts of the Qur‘ān reflect an ancient Arabic linguistic pattern, termed saj‘, a prose style marked by very short and concise sentences with frequently changing patterns of particularly clear-cut, often expressive rhymes. In the later sūras once this style has given way to a more loosely structured prose, with verses often exceeding one complete sentence, the rhyme end takes of the form of a simple –ūn- or –īn- pattern. In most cases this is achieved through a morpheme denoting masculine plural. One wonders how this rather mechanically achieved and inconspicuous ending could suffice to fulfil the listeners’ anticipation of an end marker for the long verse. Upon closer investigation, however, it is apparent that the rhyme as such is no longer charged with this function, but there is not another device to mark the end. An entire, syntactically stereotypical, rhymed phrase concludes the verse. It is tempting to call this a cadenza in analogy to the final part of speech units in Gregorian chant which, through their particular sound pattern, arouse the expectation of an ending. In the Qur‘ān what is repeated is not only the identical music sound, but a linguistic pattern as well – a widely stereotypical phrasing. The musical pattern enhances the message encoded in the qur‘ānic cadenza-phrase that, in turn, may introduce a meta-discourse. Many cadenza-phrases are semantically distinguished from their context and add a more comment to it, such as ‘verily, you were sinning’ (innaki kunti min al-khā[t]ī’īn, Q 12:29). They thus transcend the main – narrative or argumentative – flow of the sūra, introducing a spiritual dimension, i.e., divine approval or disapproval. They may also refer to one of God’s attributes, like ‘God is powerful over everything’ (wa-kāna llāhu ‘alā kulli shay’in qadīrā, Q 33:27), which in the later stages of qur‘ānic development have become parameters of ideal human behaviour. These meta-narrative insertions into the narrative or argumentative fabric would, in a written text meant for silent reading, appear rather disruptive, delaying the information process. They add essentially, however, to the impact of the oral recitation. The Qur‘ān thus consciously styles itself as a text evolving on different, yet closely intertwined levels of discourse and mediation. Although it is true that not all multipartite verses bear such formulaic endings, cadenzas may be considered characteristic of the later Meccan and all the Medinan qur‘ānic texts. The resounding cadenza, thus, replaces the earlier expressive rhyme pattern, marking a new and irreversible development in the emergence of the text and of the new faith.

Angelika Neuwirth, “Structural, linguistic and literary features,” in Jane Dammen McAuliffe (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Qur‘ān (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 103-104.

Footnote 12 is:

K. Nelson, The art of reciting the Qur’an (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985; repr. Cairo/New York: American University in Cairo Press, 2001), p. xiv.


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