Manuscripts in Historical Research and Text Edition

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Wilfred F. Madelung

Human history, according to a common definition, begins with the written word. Before the age of writing, there was only prehistory. Archaeologists and experts dealing with prehistory have, to be sure, made great strides in uncovering major aspects in the collective development of early mankind.  Yet there remains an impenetrable veil over the inside of prehistoric man.  Only through the written word can the historian hope to discover the inside, the thoughts and feelings, of past human beings, be they anonymous or known by name, only thus can he fully relate to them as individuals, just as we primarily relate to our contemporaries through the word, spoken or written. Whatever additional sources may be of help to the historian in assessing the material circumstances of earlier generations of mankind, his most important source will inevitably be the recorded words of past life. 

Islamic civilization became highly literate at an early stage. As the early  Muslims developed a keen sense of their own history as the chosen religious community and a lively interest in it, they began to record it on a broad scale  comprising its spiritual and material aspects, Their interests and curiosity extended to some extent beyond the confines of their own past, and they also  recorded in writing some of the literary tradition of the pre-Islamic Arabs so far transmitted only orally, Such as pre-Islamic poetry and the tales of the  Arab battle-days (Ayyām al. ‘Arab). Soon they also took a selective interest in the intellectual and cultural heritage of the subject peoples conquered by them and preserved some of it in Arabic translations. As various scholarly disciplines and numerous rival schools sprang up among them, each one came to develop and maintain its own literary tradition.

The extraordinary growth and range of Arabic literature in the first centuries of Islam is reflected in the well-known book catalogue (Fihrist) which Ibn al-Nadīm, a book dealer in Baghdad flourishing in the second half of the fourth century/tenth century has left behind. Much of the literary wealth listed there is lost to us owing to the ravages of time, and to the fact that many of the early works came to be neglected as later generations of scholars often preferred more recent works for their teaching and reference requirements. On the other hand, there are also numerous other works dating from this early period, either still available to us or known to have existed through quotations or mention of their titles elsewhere, which are not mentioned by Ibn al-Nadīm. They were presumably either unimportant in the contemporary book trade in Baghdad, or not even known there as they belonged to a different local tradition, 

In the later ages, writing activity did not diminish in general in the Muslim world, even though in some fields of learning a certain scholastic ossification, loss of originality, and an inclination to encyclopedic redisplay of past achievement have often been noted. Aside from Arabic, other languages developed into major instruments of literary communication, most notably first Persian and later Ottoman Turkish. In some disciplines, however, especially in the religious sciences, Arabic tended to keep its predominance throughout the Islamic world.

The age of the manuscript book lasted in the Muslim world much later than in Europe. The printing of books did not become significant until the nineteenth century. In some parts of the Muslim world, and in small communities, manuscript transmission of books has prevailed until recently. Manuscript holdings in private teaching institutions are thus still widespread throughout the Muslim world, apart from the more readily accessible collections in public libraries and museums. 

The historian of any aspect of Islamic civilization must often view his situation with a sense of deep frustration. While he is aware of the great wealth of potential sources stored in manuscript, these sources are widely dispersed and often inaccessible to him. All too frequently he has to confess the inadequacy and preliminary character of the results of his research’ which may be substantially modified as sources known to exist become available.

The need for concerted and sustained efforts to preserve and sift the scattered wealth of Islamic manuscripts, to make them accessible in some form to qualified scholars and editors, to publish the more important text in critical editions is thus most keenly felt among historians of Islam. It is this latter activity, the critical edition of texts, from which the greatest long-term benefits derive for historical research, and to which philologically inclined historians can also make the most substantial contribution. Yet critical edition is in turn dependent on the broadest possible accessibility, as well as the examination of all extant manuscripts of the text. Many early conditions, which, at the time of their publication could be considered adequate, deserve to be redone because more and better manuscripts have become known.  

The primary aim of an edition should obviously be to restore, as far as possible, the original text of the author in easily readable form so as to convey most faithfully his thought to the modern reader. In this basic purpose critical scholarly conditions and other editions serving the interests of a wider reading public meet. The aim is most easily achieved if an autograph manuscript of the author is extant, a relatively rare case for early texts. A critical edition is expected to do more, to provide variant readings, additions, glosses, and descriptions of the extant manuscripts, so as to enable the reader to judge the degree of reliability of the editor’s textual choices, to benefit from extraneous additions, and to form an idea of the transmission of the text. Ideally it should comprise an exact edition of all extant manuscripts in addition to the establishment of a preferred text. In practice, of course, this is often an unrealistic aim, especially if there are dozens and perhaps hundreds of manuscripts available, many of them simply copied from extant ones. Yet in order to make an intelligent decision on what should be included in a critical edition, it remains imperative that the editor should be able to consult all extant manuscripts.

For the mere establishment of the text itself the need to consult all or most extant manuscripts is obviously most pressing if no autograph of the author is preserved. Only by analysing the relationship of the manuscripts to each other and by reconstructing the history of the transmission of the text can the editor hope to fulfil his task to restore the original of the author as closely as possible. In the end certainly more will be required than a mechanical preference of the reading of one manuscript over others on the basis of a stemma. Sound empathy with the author’s thought and style may lead the editor to amend the text against all manuscripts variants. But this is justifiable only as a last step.

It is through a combination of careful reconstruction of the textual tradition and a patient attempt to penetrate into the author’s thought patterns and style that we may at time recover some works which at first sight appear to have come down to us in a hopelessly corrupted form.  As an illustration, I may be permitted here briefly to recount the story of two works with whose edition I have been occupied for some time.  They are treatises by tow illustrious authors, al-Shahrastānī, the twelfth-century theologian and historian of religious beliefs, and Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī, the thirteenth- century philosopher and astronomer. In his treatise, entitled The WrestlingMatch with the Philosophers (muşāra’at al-falāsifah), Shahrastānī undenakes to refute the ontological and metaphysical views of the philosopher Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) on the basis of what he describes as the prophetic theology. Shahrastānī’s work was in turn refuted by Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī in a treatise entitled The Downfalls of the Wrestler (maşāri’ al-muşāri) in which he defends Ibn Sīnā’s philosophical views. The controversy thus parallels the famous controversy of al-Ghazali and Ibn Rushd (Averroes), in which al- Ghazālī first wrote a refutation of the theological views of the Muslim philosophers and Ibn Rushd later defended them. The controversy between Shahrastānī and Ṭūsī has, however, remained largely unknown since the teatises are preserved in a state of thorough corruption in the manuscripts. 

Both books fell victim to war conditions even while they were initially written. Shahrastānī tells his readers that he was unable to complete his work, projected as a discussion of seven controversial points, because of ‘calamities and tribulations’ happening at the time, and that he was forced to combine the last two chapters into a brief outline of the problems without offering his solutions. Dedicated to a dignitary of the town of Tirmidh near the boundary of Khurāsān and Transoxania, the book was evidently written there. The ‘calamities and tribulations’, it has been plausibly suggested,  refer to the severe defeat of the Seljuq Sultan Sanjar by the Qara Khilay Turks in 536/1141, which forced Shahrastānī to leave precipitately and to seek safety in western Iran where he did not find the leisure to finish the book as originally planned. 

Completing his draft copy in evident haste, Shahrastānī most likely did not produce a clean copy in careful and clearly legible writing for use of the copyists. This may account for some of the corruptions common to the manuscripts which are easily explained as simple misreading of a copyist. the earlier of the two known extant manuscripts, written less than fifty years after the author’s death, already shows numerous misreading. Unfortunately a number of folios of this manuscript were also lost leaving two extensive gaps in the text. Some of the remaining folios are in disorder. An edition of Shahrastānī’s book based on this manuscript, which is preserved in Gotha in Germany, was published in Egypt in 1976. The editor was able to restore the correct sequence of folios and to fill the two gaps by recourse to a manuscript of Ṭūsī’s refutation, since the latter quotes the text of Shahrastānī almost in extenso. She failed, however, to compare the text quoted by Ṭūsī on a regular basis with the readings of the Gotha manuscript and thus missed an easy opportunity to establish a substantially improved text. The manuscript at the disposal of Ṭūsī was evidently a much better one than the Gotha copy, yet it also contained some faulty readings which occasionally puzzled Ṭūsī.

Another manuscript of Shahrastānī’s treatise, written several centuries later, is extant in Kazan in the Tatar Republic. It has the advantage of being complete, but manifests numerous corruptions characteristic of a text transmitted by a chain of copyists largely ignorant of the subject-matter. Several folios were evidently misplaced at some stage in the transmission, yet the abrupt breaks in the continuity of the text were either not noticed or ignored by later copyists. However, in conjunction with the Gotha manuscript and Ṭūsī’s quotations it offers valuable aid in recovering the original text of the work, especially since it represents a further independent transmission.

Ṭūsī’s refutation of Shahrastanī’s book was evidently also written in unsettled war conditions. He states in one place that he would have liked to back up his argument with quotations from the books of the philosophers but could not do so because the books were not available to him. He promises to add the quotations whenever he can get hold of the books. This was, no doubt, at the time when, after the fall of the fortress of Alamut, he was involuntarily accompanying the Mongol army on its campaign of conquest in Iran and Iraq. He was later, after the completion of the draft, able to add the quotations, and they are included in the manuscripts of his book extant in Iran. On the basis of these Iranian manuscripts, an edition of Ṭūsī’s work was published in Iran in 1985. The edition fully reflects the deplorable state in which the text has been preserved in this manuscript tradition which is evidently based on a single highly faulty copy. Two large selections are dislocated, presumably as a result of a displacement of folios in that manuscript. Elsewhere a folio dropped out whose loss was concealed by the secondary addition of quotations from Shahrastānī’s book. Throughout the text there is ample evidence of clumsy attempts to make sense of Ṭūsī’s statements corrupted at an earlier stage, and to ‘improve’ the text by additions and alterations. In effect, Ṭūsī’s arguments are in many instances incomprehensible. A sound text can hardly be derived from this manuscript tradition.  The situation has, however, been transformed by the discovery of a manuscript in Istanbul belonging to a different tradition. The author, Ṭūsī, it should be noted, is not mentioned in this manuscript, and can only now be definitely identified by the basic identity of the text with that of the Iranian tradition. The quotations from the books of the philosophers, added by Tūsî sometime after the completion of his first draft, are also missing. It may thus be inferred that Tūsî published his book, or allowed it to be copied, at two stages and that, at the earlier stage, he perhaps deliberately concealed his authorship.

The Istanbul manuscript does not show the dislocations of the Iranian manuscript tradition and fills in the gap left there by the loss of a folio. On further examination, it seems in general to preserve a much superior text. The readings of the quotations from Shahrastānī’s book correspond more closely to the better readings of the manuscripts of that work. The Iranian text tradition contains a few modifications in substance most likely made by Ṭūsī himself, perhaps at the time when he added the quotations from the books of the philosophers. However, he did not revise the whole draft thoroughly or produce a final clean copy. Both traditions thus contain the same few slips in the argumentation, which seem to be the result of the haste in which the work was written, and some of the same errors, presumably caused by difficulties in reading his draft. Most of the variants of the Iranian text tradition in relation to the Istanbul version are clearly later alterations and additions by a second hand.

The Istanbul manuscript is not free of faults and problems. It would certainly be helpful if at least one other manuscript of this earlier text version were found. Yet on the basis of the full range of manuscript tradition now available, it may be expected that it will do justice to the original thought and style of Shahrastīnī and Ṭūsī.

Source note:
This was published in:
The Significance of Islamic Manuscripts: Proceedings of the inaugural conference of Al_Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation,30th November_ 1st December 1991_ English version, 1992, Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation, London, UK, pp. 1-6.