I Am No Prophet, and Here Is No Great Matter

I revised my syllabus for Muslim Spain: Literature and Society for this semester, the third time I am teaching the course, to spend a little bit more time at the start of the term setting out the foundations of Islam and Islamic history, in both anthropological and historical perspectives in the Arabian Peninsula and the eastern Mediterranean before following the remnants of the Umayyad caliphate west into Spain. In practical terms this means we set up the rise of Islam in the imperial context of the late antique world, spent a full class session on the rise and development of Islam during Muḥammad’s lifetime and the period of the rightly-guided caliphs (still a total whirlwind of a tour) and spent two sessions on the Qur’ān and the notion of a sacred and scriptural history shared between Muslims, Christians, and Jews.

In the course of introducing the Qur’ān, I borrowed an exercise pioneered by a grad-school friend and colleague whose work and teaching are much more immediately related to the development of the text, an exercise designed to illustrate to the students some of the kinds of textual issues that crop up in the oral transmission and subsequent editing of a work of scripture. In the exercise, two students act as prophets  who receive a message, other students act as scribes, and still others as redactors.

I let the students choose their roles and took the two “prophets” out into the hall with me, where I read them two stanzas of T.S. Eliot’s Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock; I chose the text because it is non-linear, has evocative imagery that draws upon existing religious traditions, and the rhythm of the poem strikes me as almost having the same effect for an Anglophone reader as saj’, the kind of rhymed prose in which the Qur’ān is written, might have for an Arabic reader.

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This is the PowerPoint slide that I projected at the end of the exercise so the students could compare their texts with what the “prophets” heard.

Each prophet recited the “revelation” to two individual scribes, who wrote down it down individually. In the meantime, the editors were answering some discussion questions on the reading they had done for that class; this way, they weren’t really hearing what the prophet was saying to the scribes, but they might catch snatches here and there, as though they were living in a society in which people were starting to talk about this new revelation.

The transcriptions from all four scribes; the two marked “1” heard the recitation from the same prophet, and the two marked “2” heard the recitation from the other prophet:

The scribes handed their copies to the editors in their group, who had to agree on a version; then the two groups of editors had to unite, compare their versions, and determine an authoritative version of the scripture.

The two groups’ edited versions:

And the authoritative written scripture:


We did not talk about what the theological implications of the specific text would be, although I love the image and resulting possible theologies of a deity, an Eternal Footman, riding on the coattails of the believers. I was surprised that neither of the prophets successfully transmitted the image of the poet’s bald head as John the Baptist’s to their flock; that’s one of the most evocative images for me in the entire poem.

What we did discuss were the textual transmission issues that the exercise raised, and the students had great observations and comments: One student commented on feeling a sense of responsibility to the hypothetical people in our scenario for whom our text would become a hypothetical scripture. Several students made great observations about the experience of writing down and editing that opened up a discussion of how texts come to be: One group of editors said that they thought that the way the had received the text from their scribes reminded them of beat poetry, and so when they had to make editorial decisions, they let their ideas about that form guide their choices; another editor handed me her scribe’s text with some annotations in red and asked me just to please ignore her marks on thee original copy, and so we talked about marginalia and annotations and the traces that readers leave in books.

I’m deeming it a success all around.

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