Neil Postman’s chapter on “The Judgment of Thamus” from his book Technopoly was a thought-provoking piece that called into question society’s acceptance of new technologies and their benefits and drawbacks.
Specifically, “The Judgment of Thamus” looks at Thamus’ reaction to Theus’ invention of writing as a discovery that will “create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves” (Plato in Postman, p. 4, 1992). Reading this excerpt brought to my mind a spiritual question that I have often grappled with, which has as much to do with the history of orality and literacy as with the history of my religion, Islam.
Muslim’s have a holy book called the Quran, which contains one hundred and fourteen surahs or chapters. The writing of the Quran is a point of controversy in the religion as it is recognized to be the word of God, however, with the loss of the oral culture among Muslims, the book was written and re-written which calls its authenticity into question. The Holy Prophet, Mohammad was similar to Luria’s illiterates in the sense that he could not read or write (Qara’i p. 23, 1997). The Holy Quran was revealed to the Prophet surah by surah over a period of several years. “After a surah or ayah was revealed, the Prophet (S), having memorized it himself, would communicate it to the people and recite it to the worthy among those who enjoyed his company. He would also ask them to memorize it” (Qara’i p. 23, 1997). Thus, the culture of orality was prominent in the times of the Prophet and served to immortalize the true word of God.
In Walter Ong’s text, Orality and Literacy, he discusses Lord’s discovery that singers are aware they can never sing the same song exactly alike, but will still protest that they are able to do so, word for word, line by line. “’Word for word, and line by line’ as Lord interprets (1960, p. 28), is simply an emphatic way of saying ‘like’” (Ong p. 59, 2002). Ong discusses that the reason for this is because in the oral culture the word or line does not exist as the entity that we understand it to be in the literate culture. This idea was a point of contention in the history of the Quran’s development as well, because as it was taught by memory from the Prophet to chosen scholars, they too would substitute words that meant the same as other words but were not the words taught by the Prophet or those then that were committed to his memory by God himself. Like the singers who were aware they could not sing the same song exactly alike, the Prophet too was aware that his disciples may not be able to memorize the words exactly, so when confronted with a dispute between two oral scholars of the Quran, “the Prophet (S) ordered each of them to read; he listened to their reading and approved their different ways of reading” (Qara’i p. 26, 1997). This answer established that there were seven accepted memorizations of the Quran.
It was actually during Prophet Mohammad’s time that the writing of the Quran started to take place however it was done on pieces of palm wood and camel scapulae but not compiled together into a book. Following the death of the Prophet there was a war in which a group of qurra’, individuals who had memorized the entire Quran, were slain in battle (Qara’i p. 40, 1997). This caused many to fear the loss of the Quranic verse and so ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, a younger disciple of the Prophet pressed the need to collect and compile the Quran. This was met with much resistance from the Caliph of the Muslims at the time, Abu Bakr (Qara’i p. 41, 1997). The conversation that passed between them greatly resembled that between Thamus and Theus in that it highlighted the benefits of memorization versus the disadvantages of writing – the art of remembering God’s word and it being a part of your being, rather than recalling his words from a text. The Islamic world thus experienced a shift from the world of orality to a world of literacy with the compiling of the Quran into a codex and this shift created a divide between Muslims.
It was mentioned earlier that the Prophet, due to the nature of the oral culture itself, permitted different readings of the Quran to exist simultaneously so long as they had a common meaning. Ong relates in his text that some methods of memorization include rhythm, repetition and subjectivism, that is to say associated with personal experience or the human lifeworld. Therefore once the Quran was compiled there came to exist more than one version of the written text, which created cause for concern and alarm in the Muslim world. To settle the matter the Caliph Uthman ordered that a standardized version of the Quran be written in the language in which it was delivered to the Prophet and that only the last version of the Quran that was recited by the Prophet be codified and the rest should be left out (Qara’i p. 43, 1997).
The transition of the Quran from orality to literacy has called into question the word of God. Some Muslims are perplexed at the re-writing of the Quran, which occurred at the time of the Caliph Uthman and consider it to be an adulterated version of the original verses. The standardization of the Quran resulted in the burning of the prior versions, which can be considered a loss of the original text, the exact thing the writing of the Quran was meant to avoid. Has writing then been beneficial or detrimental to spreading the message of God? Today Uthman’s version of the Quran is the only version and Muslims must learn to read the holy book in this Arabic form with the same rhythm and repetition that was used in the oral world. Children are still taught to commit the Quranic verses to memory. This preservation of the oral culture in the world of literacy is a sign of its importance.
Ong, W. (2002). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New York: Routledge.
Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Vintage books.
Qara’i, M. (1997). The History of the Qur’an. Al-Tawheed, Journal of Islamic Thought and Culture. Vol IV, No. 3, Vol. V No. 1, 2, 3. Retrieved from http://playandlearn.org/reader.asp?Type=Articles&fn=114