Encountering and Using the Written Word in Early Modern Cairo

The opening page from a 17th century Ottoman copy of the medieval Qur’an commentary of al-Baghawī (d. c. 1117), with owner marks visible in the right margin (University of Michigan, Special Collections Library, Isl. Ms. 4)

We in the early twenty-first century (particularly, I imagine, anyone who happens to be reading this post) inhabit a world of pervasive textuality. From waking to bed we are deluged with words, on screens (mostly, probably), on paper pages of books, on forms, on signs, on packaging, in short- everywhere. If images, still and moving, are also pervasive and in some ways just as or even more dominant than text, still, printed text (even if mostly in digital form) is everywhere and unavoidable. As such we tend to not reflect very much on either the presence of so much text in our lives or on the modes of our engagement with it, texts are simply there. But of course our world of textuality is not simply a natural fact but is the result of cultural, social, and economic processes leading to certain technologies, skills, habits, and contexts. As such, thinking about the role of texts and their many contexts in past worlds, particularly those quite different (but not radically different) from our own is helpful for understanding both the past and our own present, and has occupied various thinkers for quite a long time now (going back really to Plato if not before). Towards that venerable goal of analysis today I’ve selected a particularly insightful little passage from the biography of an early modern North African scholar named Abū al-‘Abbās Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad al-Maqrī (d. 1041/1631) which charts, inadvertently of course, many of the possible contours of texts and their contexts in the early modern Ottoman world. Here is the passage, translated, followed by my commentary:

When he entered Cairo before becoming well-known, he was present one day in the book market (sūq al-kutub) and he found a curious (gharīb) Qur’an commentary (tafsīr) which he opened and landed in [the discussion of] Sūrah al-Nūr, in which the exegete discussed a question of fiqh which he proceeded to speak about at length, and the subject of this biographical entry memorized the entire passage—and in a marvelous congruity not long after that, the ‘ulama of the land came together for supplication (da’wah) and he was present with them. Once they were settled into their session (majlis) a petitioner came with a slip of paper (biṭāqah) in his hand asking about the very issue that the subject of this biographical entry had memorized from that Qur’an commentary. It was passed to the first person among the people of the session, but he looked at it as if he were unable to call upon anything in his mind regarding it, so he passed it on to the next person, and so it was passed on and on, until it reached the subject of this entry. When he looked at it he called for an inkwell and wrote the answer as he had memorized it—and all those presents looked at it with amazement. When they had finished perusing [his answer], they asked, ‘Who said this?’ He replied to them, ‘So-and-son in the exegesis on Sūrah al-Nūr,’ and when the Qur’an commentary was brought it was exactly as he had said.

This little story is a lovely snapshot of the many ways texts worked together in various media and matrices: Abū al-‘Abbās is seen browsing the book market, which suggests that then as now browsing books without necessarily looking to buy them was not uncommon; the book market here functions in a way akin to a library, since he spends at least some time actually reading the Qur’an commentary in question and using an unspecified amount of time to memorize particular contents he found striking. The primary point of the anecdote is Abū al-‘Abbās’ prodigious ability to memorize things, to be sure, but still we can imagine that some time is being expended (and the tone of the story does not convey that this feat is somehow miraculous or totally unheard of, simply a taking to an extreme a culturally valuable and cultivated skill).

There are several distinct movements and contexts related to the given text at work here: the production of the original Qur’an commentary, its being copied and turned into a commercial object, Abū ‘Abbās’ browsing and encountering the text, then his experience and conceptualization and reproduction of, not the entire text, but a discrete section, devoted to a particular question of fiqh, the details of which we are not told but which presumably was of ongoing contemporary interest (which would help to explain why Abū ‘Abbās memorized it as well as why a supplicant came with a question specific to that issue). So we have a movement from author to manuscript (via engagement with the written and memorized text of the Qur’an), to (probably) copy by a professional copyist, to book market, to selective reader, then to memory. In the scholars’ session—which if I am interpreting things correctly was meant for ‘regular’ people to bring questions of fiqh to a council of learned experts, a sort of early modern AMA forum—we see another form of textuality, the ‘slip’ of paper (biṭāqah), a word with a long bureaucratic pedigree, predating Islam in fact. The writer of the slip has inadvertently chanced upon the very topic of the first text, but then there is a problem: no one else in the session had encountered the clarifying text, or, if any of them had, they did not remember it. When it reaches Abū al-‘Abbās his reaction is striking: he calls for an inkwell and then writes out his memorized text, when we might expect simply an oral response. While it is not exactly specified the substrate for his writing must surely be that slip of paper, with the implication that the supplicant/questioner would take it back home for his personal archive or other uses (and since it is fiqh we can imagine a practical use here akin to a fatwa and not simply curious interest). So we have more textual movements: an unrelated (on the surface at least) impromptu text which is visually reviewed by the members of the assembly, which, once it is encountered by Abū al-‘Abbās, registers with the memorized commentary passage and precipitates now a written reproduction of the randomly encountered text. His oral explanation of the text, after it has been successively read (and we get a sense that the paper is passed around, not read out loud), leads to the physical manuscript of the commentary being produced and read publicly (or silently perused one by one? the text is unclear). Finally, this incident gives rise to a sort of ‘social text’ of Abū al-‘Abbās’ prestige in Cairo thanks to his memory and powers of recall and correlation.

Some of these steps are familiar enough to us and continue to exist: it is not at all improbable to have randomly encountered an interesting text or passage then find it socially relevant very soon afterwards, I certainly have had this experience multiple times (earlier this week in fact!) and within the context of scholarly life it is not surprising, even if the conjunction is improbable—but not impossible. The big differences lie in how the text is ‘stored’ and reproduced, and the social contexts in which these things take place. It would almost certainly not occur to anyone—aside from perhaps very exceptional auteurs (whom we would now almost certainly regard as autistic and worthy of a sort of marveling pity, not prestige)—to memorize a chance discovered passage; instead, we might make a mental ‘note’ (note the change in terminology employed), add a Zotero entry, or jot down in a notebook or digital substrate the relevant lines or a summary thereof. We would file it away in our memory only a metaphorical sense, not a literal one. And, to be sure, many browsers/readers in the early modern Islamicate world employed similar strategies, copying interesting passages into notebooks and multi-text compilations; prodigious abilities in memory were not the preserve of everyone nor were they expected to be. But such a mode of interacting with randomly accessed texts was in the possible repertoire, and it signaled prestige when it was socially deployed.

The session in which the scholars participated is, likewise, both like and unlike contemporary technologies. In general scholars are less likely to make a habit of fielding laypeople’s questions; doing so is a special community service or a niche certain scholars inhabit (and for which they are lauded in ways that often approaching damning through praise). Yet when such occasions arise, there is a similarity in that the offering of questions tends to be, in both our milieus, textual, not, generally, oral. Despite the relative ephemerality of these contexts texts are common, and push against the privileging of the oral that we are prone to expect for medieval and even early modern Islamicate contexts. Even in an environment in which orality might be expected textuality is encountered. In that sense we might even say that textuality is privileged more in this context than in our own world: while the era of Zoom has led to an abundance of (highly ephemeral) texts as questions to scholars, in the non-covid norm scholars are addressed in person orally, not through textual receipt. That this is so in this context suggests something about he relative homology of the ‘court’ of the ‘ulama and that of the temporal rulers, with the term for the scrap of paper used to convey the questions offering a potent homologistic point here. Finally, there is a greater integrity of textual response expected and performed here: where we would probably be content to summarize the works of others in an oral or emailed response, the most valuable response in this context is the exact reproduction of a specific text, one which is not necessarily of any great canonical value but which has value as an integral text in itself nonetheless. This final act of performative textuality must be correlated with the physical book itself, the penultimate stage in the little drama of textuality, as a single discrete passage, having begun its social life within the pages of a book, passes through many ‘receptacles’ finally ending up on paper once again, after which its ultimate fate- a private archive, proof for a legal claim, to be pasted on the wall- must remain unknown to us.


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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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