From Pearls on a String to Pearly Gateways – Some Thoughts on Diagrams and Heuristics in Qurʾānic Studies

Posted by Thomas Hoffman  |  

By nature, Qurʾānic studies is highly textualist in orientation. Although the Qurʾān is a recited text par excellence – as its Arabic roots and its tradition of ritual-oral performance clearly signal – our main scientific approaches to the Qurʾān tend to access the Qurʾān as a written text, usually silently read.

Whether we approach the Qurʾānic text through paleography, manuscript studies, early print versions, searchable PDF-versions or digital tools like Qurʾān Gateway, the textual dimension dominates. In order to construe the meaning(s) of the surahs and verses, we read. We process the Qurʾānic letters, words, sentences, ayāt etc. in a streaming, horizontal manner – like pearls on a string. This is the logocentric and scripturalist default position of our trade, and as such, it constitutes a bias. Because, cognitively, the processed text does not appear in our minds as these proverbial pearls on a string. Reading (and listening) comprehension is much more complex. Rather, the ‘pearls’ function as gateways to semantic scenarios, scripts, and imagistic qualia that range from cosmological apocalypse on a macro-scale (e.g., Q 82 al-Infiṭār) to fine-grained intimacy on micro-scale (e.g., the details of Qurʾānic embryology in Q 23 al-Mu’minūn: 13-14). In that respect, the name of Qurʾān Gateway is most appropriate for this valuable digital resource. By means of a complex digital Qurʾān Gateway, it suddenly becomes possible to view and reconsider the ‘pearls’ in ever new constellations and reconfigurations. The ‘pearls’ become, as it were, ‘pearly gates’.

One of the great advantages of this new digital resource is its ability to represent these pearly gates in a diagrammatic and infographical form. A table of verse numbers or enumeration of a root is one thing but a pie chart or histogram has the advantage that it visualizes the Qurʾānic content in formats that are easy to decipher and understand. One gets an immediate and factual overview of a subject, a motif, a formulaic phrase that otherwise often is too complex and unwieldy to handle as text.

But are these diagrammatical representations not artificial, one might object? In a sense, they are, but then, they are not more artificial than those of the virtuoso commentator whose Qurʾānic proficiency is beyond most mortals. Rather, I prefer to see an instructive and enlightening connection between diagrams and a religious text such as the Qurʾān. This brings me to the late William Montgomery Watt. Watt was not a semiotician but his introductory thoughts on diagrams in What is Islam? are still worthwhile:

“I suggest the term ‘diagrammatic’. If we consider a map or diagram, we know that the object represented is not shown as it really is. A map of a town or country is never a replica of it. Yet, within the limits of scale, colouring, etc., the map shows certain features or aspects of the town or country with absolute truth. […] We may think of a map as special kind of complex diagram, or a diagram as a very simple map. Many religious ideas are diagrammatic in this way.” (Beirut: Longmans Libraire du Liban, 1968, p. 10)

Following Watt, we may think of the Qurʾān as a special kind of complex diagram that Qurʾān Gateway can help us explore and decipher – with evermore diagrams, and with evermore clarity.

To be sure, a digital resource like Qurʾān Gateway should offer more than just diagrams and tables. If one merely used Qurʾān Gateway as an advanced pocket calculator feeding us incessantly with chunks and chips of quantitative results, one would fail to notice its true heuristic advantage, namely its ability to help us develop new questions and queries into the Qurʾānic material. As to that creative task, there is still plenty of work to be done. The Qurʾān itself seems self-confident that this is a never-ending project. In the words of Arberry’s translation: “Though all the trees in the earth were pens, and the sea-seven seas after it to replenish it, yet would the Words of God not be spent. God is All-mighty, All-wise.” (Q 31 Lukmān: 27)

Author: Thomas Hoffman

Thomas Hoffmann is professor (with special responsibilities) in Qur'anic Studies at the Faculty of Theology, University of Copenhagen. He is interested in Qur'anic rhetoric and literary functions. Two recent articles are “The Appealing Qur'an: On the Rhetorical Strategy of Vocatives and Interpellation in the Qur'an” and “Taste My Punishment and My Warnings (Q. 54:39): On the Torments of Tantalus and Other Painful Metaphors of Taste in the Qur'an”, Journal of Qur'an Studies, 2019, 2020. Currently, he is writing a monograph on the intertextual nexuses between the Qur'an and Biblical literature.