Islam sciences, between repetition and innovation: What is the role of the commentary in Islam?

icon-calendar January 14‒16, 2016

From the 8th14th century, the commentary was the form par excellence of intellectual production in Islam, as result of the professionalization of teaching which culminated in the Ottoman network of madrasas. “Commentary” here is understood in the broad sense: tafsīr, šarḥ, ḥāšiya, taʿlīq, but also taḥqīq, taqrīr, taḥqīq

On January 14, 15 and 16, 2016, IDEO organized a conference on the topic ” The sciences of Islam, between repetition and innovation: What is the role of the commentary in Islam?” This conference concluded the 200 Project financed by the Delegation of the European Union in Egypt, where for three years a team of IDEO researchers worked on the historical contextualisation of two hundred authors of the Arab-Muslim heritage.

Omar Ḥamdān shows that commentaries allow for a better understanding of the authors of the Arab-Muslim heritage, some of whom were unknown or whose writings have been lost. For the sake of completeness, they thus complete the scope of the first biographical and bibliographical works.

If Nadjet Zouggar demonstrates that the diversity of commentaries of Avicenna’s Poem on the Soul supports the thesis of the authenticity of a text whose integration into the Avicenna corpus has sometimes been doubted, his research confirms, above all, the unsuitability of the epistemological distinction between philosophy and theology in the Muslim world, and thus tends to corroborate Winovsky’s thesis.

Moreover, far from being purely repetitive and sterile works, the contributions showed that the commentaries not only make it possible to maintain a living tradition, but they also testify, as Kamran Karimullah shows about Avicenna, to the persistent influence of his thinking in Arab medicine. The terminological study undertaken by Nicola Carpentieri also makes it possible to show that while certain terms in the commentaries on Arab medicine could have been considered interchangeable, a close study shows that, on the contrary, they have a specific definition, and that it is possible to identify changes in meaning over time. Philipp Bruckmayr’s study, based on commentaries from the Umm al-barāhīn in South-East Asia on the profession of faith by Abū ʿAbd Allah al-Sanūsī, shows that commentaries can give birth, depending on where they originated, to a new literary genre. This ability of the commentary to revive a tradition is also discussed and supported by Éric Chaumont’s research regarding treatises on fiqh. Finally, Jan Thiele reports on the links between two major works of kalām from the first half of the 6th /12th century, and shows that al-Makkī’s Nihāya must first be considered as a work of re-compilation and not as an independent work.

The discussions during the conference showed that there were two opposing ways of looking at the texts of the Arab-Muslim heritage: from the point of view of their unity (a more theological vision that emphasizes the internal coherence of Islamic sciences), or from the point of view of their evolution (a more historical vision that makes it possible to measure the contribution of each author according to the context in which he lived).

The proceedings of this conference were published in the MIDEO 32 (2017).