Here’s an interesting story that illustrates several important facets of Islamic and Arabic culture: Abdel-Salam al-Basyouni, a prominent Egyptian playwright and Islamic scholar, requested a religious ruling from Shaykh al-Qaradawi on the permissibility of using punctuation marks to facilitate the reading and comprehension of the Qur’an. Al-Qaradawi, known for his pragmatic approach to day-to-day Islamic jurisprudential matters, averred that it was permissible and issued a fatwa to that effect, citing his own use of punctuation marks such as commas and semi-colons when quoting the Qur’an in his own writings.
Of course, this being Islam, although the same could be said of any theological matter concerning other religions, other scholars disagreed, claiming that any deviation from the accepted Ottoman rasm (script/orthography) was tantamount to changing the words of Allah.
Personally, I find al-Qaradawi’s judgement to be eminently sensible and his words on the matter exude that:
“I personally do this when I cite verses from the Qur’an in my books and lectures and anything I write. I advise everyone to follow suit.”
On the other hand, and far be it for me, a mere mortal, to disagree with such luminaries as Drs. al-Sheikh and al-Mahdi, but I find their criticisms unresonable and ill-considered:
Dr. Abdel Fattah al-Sheikh, head of the Jurisprudence Committee at al-Azhar’s Center for Islamic Research (CIR), said punctuation was not allowed in copies of the Quran and that only periods can be used to mark the beginning and end of every verse.
“Question and exclamation marks and the like are unacceptable,” he said. We have to stick to the use of Ottoman calligraphy that all scholars authorized and this is even more important in scholarly research.”
CIR member Dr. Mohamed al-Mukhtar al-Mahdi rejected even the use of periods and stressed that Quranic verses have to be written in the Ottoman calligraphy everywhere.
“No punctuation marks whatsoever should be added,” he said. “This changes the way the text looks.”
This is all very well and good, but there a number of issues here: first, we’re talking about the text of the Qur’an itself, in written form, not the revelation or wahy. There is clearly no intention on al-Qaradawi or al-Basyouni’s part to change the words or ‘meaning’ of the Qur’an. Secondly, just about any mushaf (text or copy of the Qur’an) you care to lay your hands is filled with diacritics for various reasons. For instance, above the rasm, one finds cantillation marks to aid recital of the Qur’an, and various symbols to indicate the different subsections into which the text is divided (e.g. juz’, qism etc.) are found on most pages. None of these marks detract from the text itself. Indeed, there’s a more fundamental, overarching point to be made here: the Qur’an is not the text, be it in the more modern Ottoman, the Hijazi or the Kufic script first used to write down the Qur’an at the time of Caliph Uthman’s recension or ‘al-Qur’an al-Imam’; rather, the Qur’an is the revelation received by Muhammad and still recited today.
Anyone who has tried to read the Qur’an from the traditional Ottoman script knows just how awkward it can be at times to decipher, so the use of punctuation and even a clearer Naskh variant script would certainly be an improvement to aid, in turn, reading and comprehension. Yes, the Ottoman calligraphy is beautiful and it should be retained and preserved where possible, but it’s the message that counts after all and this should not be hindered with recourse to petty sentimentality.
A heated debate such as this, over something considered so trivial in much of Europe and elsewhere, highlights the nature of the feelings surrounding the Qur’an, itself at the centre of Islam, and perceived attempts to alter or modify it. Try to see it from the perspective of many Middle Eastern Muslims: altering or modifying God’s word is unthinkable and perhaps irreversible. Hence the opposition to any such move, however misplaced it may be.