This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

Emphasis on spoken form

The Koran was originally a oral phenomenon and not, like much of the New Testament, the result of letter and written accounts that only later rose to the status of scripture. What the prophet said was, of course, written down, but we were not given the Koran in its collected, organized, written form for some twenty years after the death of the Prophet, during the caliphate of ‘Uthman. It was then that the complete text was copied and manuscripts dispatched to the four corners of the Islamic world. These copies that would become the definitive originals for later texts, but it should always be remembered that what is ‘definitive’ is what was spoken, and the pure Koran must always be envisioned as a spoken message, and the physical book merely as the support and vehicle of the message. If we seem to be making a strange distinction it is only because Western people, being somewhat enamored with the concept of literacy, may find it very difficult to imagine a Koran existing among a people who could not read, much less write, and it is difficult to show how it is possible that a religion could thrive without each and every believer having a copy of the book for their Sunday school study groups.

It is also important to remember the primacy of spoken Arabic in the case of the Koran because it is in the ‘hearing’, and not so much the reading, of the revelation that the barakah (something close to ‘grace’) of the text is conveyed. Imagine, for example, the reading of a transcribed Gregorian chant in Latin, as opposed to the hearing of it in a Cathedral. The difference is everything, and the sense of hearing permits mere words, even when the hearer does not understand the language, to be transported in the direction of transcendence. Thus, it is the mental content of the Koran combined with the very real eloquence of the spoken form of the text that imparts the meaning.

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