Rediscovering Islamic Classics

Excerpt from Rediscovering the Islamic Classics by Ahmed El Shamsy, pages 2–5

When we think of the classics of Islamic thought today, we think in the first instance of works written by the founders of the various schools of theology, law, philosophy, linguistics, Sufism, and historiography and by subsequent scholars who shaped these fields through their seminal contributions. The aisles of the bookshops around al-Azhar that I browsed for hours during my visits to Cairo could be relied on to contain, for example, Sibawayh’s eighth-century grammar, al-Ash‘ari’s tenth-century survey of Islamic theology, al-Tabari’s voluminous ninth-century exegesis of the Quran, al-Makki’s tenth-century Sufi manual, al-Shafi‘i’s ninth-century legal treatise, and Ibn Khaldun’s fourteenth-century sociology of history, usually in multiple editions and copies. These same classics formed the basis of the foundational works of Orientalist scholarship that I pored over in preparation for my qualifying exams at Harvard, and they are the same works I now teach in my classes as the “great books” of the Muslim world.

But this landscape of relatively established classics did not yet exist at the turn of the twentieth century. Far from ubiquitous, these works were scarce and difficult if not impossible to find; not only had most not yet been edited and printed, but there were few manuscript copies of them, and the whereabouts of those few that existed were often unknown. Instead, the literature that was available and abundant consisted of a very different pool of writings: dense, technical commentaries on earlier works, typically written centuries after the original works’ composition. The fact that books that had been so thoroughly marginalized and ignored managed, in such a short time, to attain the status of classics clearly owed much to their availability in printed form, but their printing was by no means inevitable: in the case of many of these long-forgotten works, the publication of a reasonably complete and accurate text constituted a major achievement that had required the marshaling of an array of philological, organizational, and financial resources, all underpinned by considerable time and commitment. But commitment by whom, and for what purpose?

These are the questions that this book seeks to answer. My aim is to sketch the transformation of the Arabo-Islamic intellectual tradition that accompanied the adoption of printing in the Middle East, and to bring to light the stories of the hitherto mostly invisible individuals who effected this transformation. They collected books, resurrecting forgotten works, ideas, and aesthetics that they felt could contribute to the revival of Islamic and Arabic culture; they inaugurated institutions dedicated to the preservation and dissemination of their discoveries; and they developed practices and systems of editing and publication that led to a wave of printed editions of classical works from the late nineteenth century onward. Their motivations, goals, and approaches were diverse. Some sought to reinvigorate the established scholarly tradition, others to undermine it. Some emphasized the socially relevant messages conveyed in rediscovered older works, while others focused on their aesthetically superior form. Some consciously adapted the Orientalist tradition of editing and scholarship, whereas others sought to excavate an indigenous Arabic philology to counterbalance Orientalism and its claims to privileged expertise. All had to contend with the formidable challenges posed by centuries of cultural neglect of the classical literature: locating and obtaining manuscripts in the absence of catalogs, piecing together complete works out of scattered fragments, deciphering texts in spite of errors and damage, and understanding their meaning without recourse to adequate reference material. Their painstaking, frequently solitary, and often innovative efforts opened up the narrow postclassical manuscript tradition into a broad literature of printed, primarily classical works—the literature that we today consider the essential canon of Islamic texts.