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  • Response from an Africanist Scholar
  • Ruth Finnegan (bio)

This response comes from the position of a nonspecialist on the scriptures of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. My own background lies mainly in comparative work on orality, literacy, and communication media, with a focus on oral literature and performance, especially though not exclusively in Africa. Like other conference participants I too have been tussling with the “written text” paradigm, but begin from relative ignorance of the specialist fields covered here.

Because of this unfamiliarity I found the papers all the more fascinating, not only as a wonderful introduction to a substantial body of interrelated work but because certain themes seemed to emerge so clearly. These struck me as having interesting parallels with developments in oral literary studies in Africa, something that I have recently spent some time tracing (Finnegan 2007 and 2010). I will take this overlap as the starting point for my remarks. 1

From Uniformity to Multiplicity

Recent work on oral and written expression in Africa has seen a move away from the broad sweeps once typical of much conventional wisdom. In earlier decades it seemed self-evident that Africa was the home of tribal allegiances and undifferentiated “oral tradition.” Its pervasive “oral culture” would in due course be swept away by that of literacy, just as would primitiveness by civilization, tradition by modernity. These were patterns that scholars could confidently chart in general terms, a recognized framework for their studies. Today the emphasis is more often on cultural-historical specifics. Scholars now incline less towards the uniformities than the diversities, seeing not a generalized African “response” to external intrusion or some impersonal advance forward out of the syndrome of “orality,” but human actions, multiple voices, and many diverse parties in play. Recent studies have been uncovering successive and variegated struggles for control, whether over schools, access to political power, or the right to foreground particular formulations and cultural artifacts.

Strikingly similar approaches emerge in many of the papers here. Rather than broad statements about orality and its contrasts with written text, or even about the narrower concept of “oral-scribal dimensions,” the authors bring out the actions of particular parties and the competitions for control over ideas or texts. Within Islam Gregor Schoeler points to Muhammad’s companions and later caliphs wanting private copies and collections, with material suitable to themselves. We hear of Caliph Uthman commissioning an official edition of Koranic text as part of his political project, sending out exemplar copies to provincial capitals and ordering other collections to be destroyed, countering the power of Koranic reciters as the holders of tradition. Nor, it seems, were contests for authority over the text confined to that period, for we hear too of the contending positions of different regions or groups in later centuries over the vocalization of the Koranic text, or, from Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych, of highly charged competition among scholars and poets in post-classical Arabic-Islamic devotional poetry. Again, Talya Fishman describes the contests over rabbinic powers and over who should vet the chain of tradition and define the boundaries of the canon, with disparate political contests at different historical moments. Similarly, David Nelson depicts how early rabbis in the aftermath of the Temple destruction reshaped theological concepts and ritual, refashioning a particular ideology of the orality of their textual tradition to suit their specific views, while Catherine Hezser shows individual rabbis attempting to monopolize the communications network in the late Roman “culture of mobility” that led to the collection and fixing of rabbinic traditions and, eventually, the written documents. Holly Hearon speaks of the polemics in the early Christian period, not least those over the status of individual speakers and interpreters, and of the competing groups involved. Battles have also long raged over the precise delimitation of the Christian scriptural canon, and both before and after the Council of Trent, of which Kelber properly reminds us, divisive definitions continued. What becomes clear in the way these accounts are presented is that the establishment of authoritative written texts is not being envisaged as some predestined oral-to-literate trajectory, but in each case a historically specific process, shaped by many diverse actors and contests within particular...

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