Why I Built Qurʾan Gateway

Posted by Andy Bannister  |  

Qur’an Gateway grew out of what was for me, a very practical need: the need to be able to analyse the Qur’an exhaustively, repeatedly and rapidly, looking for formulaic patterns in the Arabic text.

During the early years of my doctoral work, I had become interested in the question of whether the Qur’an, or at least significant portions of it, had been composed orally, live in performance. One indicator of this that have been seen in other texts is the presence of formulaic language—short, stock phrases that are used time and time again. The classic work developing this idea was Albert Lord’s The Singer of Tales and his work had been applied to hundreds of traditions, but not the Qur’an.

I soon discovered why. Ideally to analyse a text looking for repeated formulaic patterns requires a computer—for doing this kind of word by hand, combing through a text word by word, line by line, with a concordance in one hand, is painstakingly, agonisingly slow. I realised that if I were to do this by hand for the Qur’an, it would either take years, or else I could only analyse a small sample of the qur’anic text.

Then I stumbled across the early work that had been done (at Haifa University and Leeds University) creating morphologically-tagged databases of the Qur’an—databases of every word in the Qur’an, with the features of every word labelled and identified. I had a background in computer science and in a flash, I realised I could use those basic databases, improve upon then, and develop computer software around them to scan the Qur’an at high speed, looking for formulaic patterns.

Computerised analysis quite literally saved me years of work and allowed not just me to finish my doctorate in a sensible time frame, but to then produce my book An Oral Formulaic Study of the Qur’an showing that the Quran is thoroughly saturated in oral formulaic diction.

Roll the clock forward a few years to when I teamed up with fellow academics to work on Qur’an Gateway, it made sense to update the tools I created during my doctoral years for formulaic analysis and build them right into Qur’an Gateway. Now anybody using the software can easily perform the kind of study that took me months to figure out. Want to find out how formulaic dense Sura 2 is (i.e. what percentage of the Arabic text consists of short, repeated formulae)? It’s easy: just open that sura in Qur’an Gateway, click the ‘Formulae’ button at the top left of the screen and in a few seconds, you can see all the formulae in the sura helpfully coloured blue (and see at a glance that sura 2 is at least 51.75% compromised of formulaic phrases.

Computerised analysis saved me years of work. I’m therefore excited to see these tools built into Qur’an Gateway so they can equally help other scholars save time and effort and focus on what really matters—advancing great critical scholarship on the Qur’an. We’re already seeing this happening: for example, Mark Durie’s recent book, The Qur’an and Its Biblical Reflexes: Investigations into the Genesis of a Religion (Lexington, 2018) extensively uses Qur’an Gateway for its analyses, tracking how the Qur’an’s formulaic use over time helps give us a more accurate internal chronology of the text. I hope it will be the first of many pieces of research given a tremendous boost through the help of the computerised tools that Qur’an Gateway offers scholars.