Fragmentation and Compilation: The Making of Religious Texts in Islam

A Comparison with Ancient Mesopotamia, Judaism and Christianity
Workshop, 29-30 May 2012
The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London
2nd Floor, Room 2.1
Convenor: Asma Hilali

Workshop description

Religious texts tend to refer to themselves as authoritative and are perceived as sacred. This perception by the community of believers provides the idea of a continuum, giving rise to religious texts being regarded as immutable and transcending human character. However, when we look at how religious texts are transmitted, we find that they are shaped and reshaped in meaning, usage, application and in their textual aspects. The actors of this reshaping are the various transmitters of texts, such as commentators, jurists, storytellers, etc. During this workshop, we will deal with two aspects in the history of sacred texts: fragmentation and compilation. We will discover the reshaping process that comes before and after compilation and the impact of interaction between the text-fragment and the compilation process. Our aim is to reflect on the role of creativity within the transmission process in religious textual history, that is to say we will define the rhetoric of the sacred using comparative elements.

Early Islamic texts, including the Qur’an itself, have usually been analysed through a historical perspective with a view to reconstructing what ‘really’ occurred in the formative period of Islam. The disciplines of philology and history of textual transmission have contributed to the exploration of the ‘origins’ of texts in their pre-Islamic and non-Arabic versions. Other studies have been dedicated to specific authors and periods and are more inclined to literary analysis. This workshop is dedicated to the forms and functions of textual fragmentation in religious texts. It will explore two perspectives: philology as ‘the discipline of making sense of texts’, and history of textual transmission as the historical framework that concretises the concept of ‘historical context’.

Our reflexion does not concern a specific historical period as such; it focuses on religious writings in Islam as well as in other religious traditions, namely, from Ancient Mesopotamia, Judaism and Christianity.

The workshop will explore various questions linked to the textual history of religions, such as:

  • What are the different approaches to the notion of authenticity and falsification in various religions?
  • What is the impact of the ritual, legal and social usage of these religious texts?
  • How is the issue of memory involved in the construction of meaning?
  • How is oral and written transmission linked in the reshaping process?
  • What is the impact of the confusion of literary genres in religious literature?
  • What is the dynamic interaction between ‘fixed texts’ and manuals in the history of the learning institutions?