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Censored Manuscripts, Censored Intellects

Can We Trust the Past?

A courtship scene from the BNF manuscript of Ladhdhat al-Nisāʾ, one of the tamer images from that version of the text (BNF Suppl. Pers. 1804, f. 18r; courtesy Bibliothèque Nationale de France).

Majid Daneshgar


A few years ago, I was really surprised when I received a letter from a Muslim professor at a well-known university in the United States.1 This person has supervised many theses, evaluates projects for the most important academic publishers, and has won several academic awards. In response to an invitation to become a member of the editorial board of a journal with which I was associated, they said that their acceptance of our invitation was conditional upon the removal of another scholar of Islam, who is now very famous, from the board. He was, according to the scholar who wrote to me, nothing more than “a charlatan.” This person also said: “May I ask you to keep this e-mail confidential among yourselves and only share with sincere Muslims.” They ended their letter like this:

If you remove […] from the board, I will be happy to join it. As long as he is on it, I am afraid that is out of the question. In advance, jazakum Allah khayran for doing the right and moral thing. I hope you do not mind this piece of nasiha.

However, the journal management and I ignored this person’s unacademic request. We had concluded that it would have been more proper for them to write a critical article about that professor’s scholarship than to assassinate their character by means of a simple—and rather childish—letter. On another occasion, I was even more surprised to discover that a Muslim editor of a different journal had not only changed many parts of my essay based on their own opinions, but had also removed an important part of it entirely that apparently contradicted their own ideas.

These two experiences happened in 2012 and 2014, respectively. On each occasion, a Muslim individual—a professor and an editor, respectively—had attempted to use their powerful position to push me to censor a person of whom they did not approve, or took it upon themselves to remove content of which they did not approve outright from my work. This has led me to conduct further studies to see how powerful people have shaped our understanding of various phenomena and of religion. This was the main reason that led me to work on the topic of censorship.

I decided to scrutinize Islamic textual sources that have been read by millions of Muslims throughout history. When studying the earliest Islamic traditions, it becomes clear that some collections of early material include the names of various figures whose role would gradually (but deliberately) be diminished, making them less important in subsequent Islamic traditions. For instance, consider several individuals close to Muḥammad: Zayd, his adopted son, whose name is mentioned in Sūrah 33 of the Qurʾān; Zayd’s son Usāmah2; Muḥammad’s daughter Zaynab and her husband Abū’l-ʿĀṣ3; and Muḥammad’s nursemaid Ḥalīmah. All of these figures, among others, were seemingly very important according to the earliest historical sources. Nonetheless, they appear as less important or even have aspects of their roles removed in later Muslim literature. We will return to this issue very soon, one that seems to have been the result of a process of marginalization through which the importance or influence of a figure or story is diminished or removed due to the ideology of a particular Islamic sect. Through such marginalization, an individual’s basic identity is retained in the sources, but their role is ignored or reduced.

Functioning in this way, marginalization is a form of censorship. It is hard to define the term censorship, but its function is easily imagined, as it is used by people in every society. Indeed, censorship, as I will show in the rest of this essay, is when an individual, a group of people, or a work is systematically and thoroughly modified (either by demonizing or canonizing them) by powerful people or organizations in order to preserve and promote in whole or part their ideological, ethical, or legal values, as well as to reject those of the opposition. Censorship can affect audio, visual, and textual sources. Its impact can be enormous, as a censored text can be gradually altered as regards the historical and/or scientific facts it contains. Censorship is the link between power and knowledge in any society.4 As Jansen says,

The Powerful require knowledge to preserve, defend, and extend their advantage. For them, knowledge is power. The way the powerful say things are is the way they are, or the way they usually become because the powerful control the power to name… the powerful use this power to generate and enforce definitions of words and of social reality that enhance their sovereignty.5

Although it is almost too complicated to specify how subjects or concepts have been censored in the past, there are some traces in (religious) literature that allow us to discover what happened to such works in the past and how that has shaped our understanding of religion now. In the modern age, increasing access to materials, especially through digital media, has allowed for acts of censorship in the past to be demystified and deconstructed. For this study, I perused various Islamic manuscripts and printed volumes in order to classify and define types of textual censorship in Islamic literature. This essay discusses two of them: first, censorship on ethical grounds, and second, censorship on political grounds.

Censorship on ethical grounds: prophetic scandals and carnal knowledge

The first type of censorship we will consider here is that carried out for ethical reasons, which is often supported by judicial and legal authorities. It can be carried out by religious figures, jurists, or textual commentators. Indeed, ethical restrictions can be applied by powerful people to ignore or suppress the voice of those with dissenting views.

Although Zayd, the (temporarily) adopted son of Muḥammad, became a marginal figure in most Islamic sources,6 he is the only Muslim whose name is mentioned in the Qurʾān, in Q 33:36. On the basis of the direct divine intervention of this verse, Muḥammad married Zaynab (whose name is not mentioned in the Qurʾān), the former wife of Zayd. Early and medieval commentators on the Qurʾān such as al-Zamakhsharī (d. c. 1143 CE) mention that Muḥammad had a sexual interest in the wife of Zayd. Once, on the occasion of visiting Zayd’s home when Zayd was not there, had expressed his admiration for Zaynab by exclaiming, “Glory be to God, the Creator of light, blessed is God the best of Creators” (subḥān Allāh khāliq al-nūr tabārak Allāh aḥsan al-khāliqīn).7 Al-Ṭabrisī (d. c. 1154), the famous medieval Shi’i Qurʾān commentator, says that after Zayd returned home, Zaynab told him about Muḥammad’s visit and his infatuation with her beauty.8 According to these classical exegetes, Muḥammad kept his feelings for her secret.

A Mughal-era depiction of King David.

In more recent Qurʾān commentaries, particularly those written by Shi’i scholars, not only are the references to earlier exegetical works selective—through which they exclude earlier traditions—but these commentators also argue that earlier (famous) commentators made false claims about Muhammad’s decision, justified by revelation to marry his son’s wife.9 Some commentators even state that “the enemy of Islam tried to make a romance about Muḥammad and his marriage with Zaynab and degrade the level of Muḥammad’s holiness and created weak traditions about this issue…”10 According to these modern Qur’an commentators, the statements made by al-Ṭabarī (d. c. 932) and al-Zamakhsharī regarding Muḥammad’s pronouncement regarding Zaynab that “Glory be to God, the Creator of light, blessed is God the best of Creators” are part of a “false myth” (afsāna-hā-yi durūghīn).

This has also happened in other cases of sexual “scandals” found in Qurʾān commentaries. For instance, early Qurʾān commentators such as Muqātil b. Sulaymān (d. c. 767 CE) drew his readers’ attention to King David’s sexual interest in the wife of Uriah the Hittite (Uriah b. Hanan),11 an episode which, according to Sūrah 38 (“… and David gathered that We had tried him…”), was a divine test. According to these early exegetes (who were often informed by the biblical parallel to the story), Q 38:21-25 was revealed because David had sinned by marrying Bathsheba after sending Uriah to his death on the battlefield. However, this idea was rejected by subsequent generations of Muslim exegetes and theologians (most of whom had significant party, sectarian, or dynastic affiliations) because it is inconsistent with the doctrine of prophetic infallibility.12

According to al-Riḍā (d. c. 818 CE), the Eighth Imām of the Shi’ah, Q 38:24 was not revealed in connection with David’s sexual interest in Uriah’s wife, and thus the story relayed by biblical texts and Muslim predecessors about David was, in fact, false. Al-Riḍā argues that:

In the time of David, a woman whose husband died or was killed never married another man. Thus, David was the first man chosen by God to have permission to marry a woman whose husband had been killed. He married Uriah’s wife after Uriah had been killed and after she had observed her waiting period (ʿiddah)…”13

Modern Shi’i commentators clearly state that, on the basis of the qur’anic verses that demonstrate the high dignity of David and his important duty in the presence of God, it can be concluded that “the false myth created about his marriage with Uriah’s wife is groundless.”14

It seems that such exegetical censorship targeting earlier Muslim references to so-called prophetic “scandals” became a central part of Muslim literature in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, at a time when Muslim reformists, including Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (d. 1897) and Muhammad ʿAbduh (d. 1905), had increasing connections with Europeans and their works regarding Muslim communities and their prophet, Muḥammad. In this regard, ‘Abduh’s commentary Tafsīr al-Fātiḥah includes an article related to the story of Muhammad and Zaynab through which he “strove to defend Muḥammad’s sinlessness (ʿiṣmah)…, a defense that was probably primarily directed at European orientalists.”15

Here, it should be emphasized that what is important is not the accuracy or inaccuracy of early and modern Qur’an commentaries, but rather how an important Islamic tradition dealing with prophets that was compiled by earlier Muslim thinkers and read by many Muslims was treated selectively by more recent generations of scholars, called a conspiracy, and censored.

Censorship regarding sexual matters not only impacted the interpretation of the Qurʾān, but also discussions of actual intercourse, as we find that censorship of a number of treatises about intercourse occurred. One example of this is a Persian manuscript entitled Ladhdhat al-nisāʾ (“On the Pleasure of Women”), which was apparently based on the erotic Indian story of Koka Shastra/Shastar. There are some debates about the actual author and translator of this work. Nonetheless, available copies of this treatise were translated by the famous mystic, writer, and translator of the fourteenth century, Diyāʾ al-Dīn Nakhshabī (d. 1350), sometimes referred to as Bakhshī, who also translated the Persian version of the Tales of the Parrot (Ṭūṭī-nāmeh).16 Nakhshabī says that this book was mainly written for men, who should have competence in every form of science, including intercourse. The author says that whoever is ignorant of the various aspects of intercourse is like an ape whose knowledge about nutmeg is merely gained through eating it.17

Most of the extant manuscripts contain ten chapters which include illustrations (miniature paintings) showing various types of sexual intercourse. Although this Persian work was written on the basis of a medieval Indian treatise “attributed to Koka Pandit,”18 it has been changed frequently over the course of history. In contrast to its original version, which is replete with paintings of naked people and references to the advantages of various sexual positions, the manuscript Cod. Pers. 37 (to take only one example), an eighteenth-century version preserved in the Danish Royal Library, has been made ‘authentically’ or ‘traditionally’ Muslim; it deliberately excludes all illustrations and does not mention any of the sexual positions found in either Koka Shastra or Ladhdhat al-nisāʾ. Instead, it looks more like a medical treatise for describing both useful herbs and spices and the anatomical details of human genitalia, which usually are found in other chapters of Ladhdhat al-nisāʾ.19

Two illustrations from the Wellcome Library version of Ladhdhat al-nisāʾ, which contains some of the more unorthodox depictions of sexual practices found in the tradition (images from Wellcome Library ms. Persian 223, reproduced from the image bank provided by Palatino Press).

The censorship found in some versions of the text makes the uncensored versions appear all the more striking. Many versions, including those found in the Bibliothèque Nationale of France (Suppl. Pers. 1804, written in the late eighteenth century), the Wellcome Library of London (MS Persian 223), and the library of the University of Leiden (MS. Or. 14. 650, dated to 1731), contain extremely provocative images in the section on sexual positions. They depict, among other things, the simultaneous intercourse of a man with two women, a woman having intercourse with an animal resembling a bear, and two men engaged in anal sex.20

Other versions of Ladhdhat al-nisāʾ such as MS 1263A1, preserved in Widener Library of Harvard University, contain depictions of heterosexual sex but omit the more provocative images and the corresponding descriptions of the activity they depict.21 The removal of images of only the less conventional forms of sexual activity prevents readers, and the archaeologists of history, from asking questions about homosexuality and other types of sexual engagement that might have been more acceptable in the past in both the Persian and Indian cultural milieus. Such expurgation of a text through which the real past is hidden may raise another question: how much of our knowledge of the past is correct. Indeed, there have been, and are, powerful figures who use their prerogatives to draw the line between what should and should not be read, and thus what can and cannot be known. Unsurprisingly, such manuscripts and their controversial content are rarely examined by Muslim scholars.

Censorship on political grounds: from de-Sunnization to de-Shi’itization

The second type of textual censorship is political in nature; in this, an opposition person or group and their significance is deliberately erased. From the available evidence, it seems clear that both Sunni and Shi’i groups have misrepresented the ideas, beliefs, and claims of the other from the earliest period of Islam. However, the manifestation of this tendency in actual textual censorship apparently became more widespread in the sixteenth century following the establishment of the Safavid dynasty in Persia. As a new rival of the Sunni Ottomans, the Safavids “decreed Shiʿism to be the official faith of the realm.”22 They not only tried to remove all traces of Sunnism from their territory, but also killed many Sunnis.23

In order to propagate their beliefs and political vision, the Safavids paid particular attention to revisionism and to the production of particular types of religious literature. As Matthee has stated, the Safavids “employed religious propagandists (tabarrāʿiyān), whose task was to vilify Sunnis.”24 The Safavids also tried to demonize Sunni leaders and ascribed descent from Muḥammad’s household (Ahl al-Bayt), through ʿAlī, the first Imām of the Shi’ah, and his descendants (viz., the twelve Imāms), to themselves.

In contrast, the Sunni Ottomans recognized the first three Sunni caliphs along with ʿAlī and his descendants; they ignored the Persian Safavids’ cursing of the first three caliphs; and they added their own names and symbols to their banners alongside those of the Ahl al-Bayt.25 Furthermore, as Gruber has suggested, the Ottomans used to produce books of qur’anic divination dedicated to the Abbasid caliph Hārūn al-Rashīd, who, according to the sources, killed the seventh Imām of the Shi’ah, Mūsā b. Jaʿfar, in 799 CE. Also, divinatory notes with attributions to ʿAlī and which were “symbolic of Ṣafavid discourses on religious and political supremacy at the time – were thought best removed from view for an Ottoman readership.”26

Popular literature and folk stories, which were frequently read or heard by the ordinary people, has also seen ideological censorship. This type of censorship can be divided into two types: partial and substantial. The latter is more obvious to readers, as a major part of a story or the role of a religious figure is deliberately expunged for political reasons. However, the partial one may have broader impact on our historical understanding, which has been rarely examined so far.

Two examples of direct interventions into the text of Leiden University Library ms. Or. 565 (Durr al-Majālis). On the left, a name or names (presumably that of ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib) have been scratched out and the names of Abū Bakr and ʿUmar superimposed in gold ink. On the right, a tag with these names in gold ink has been pasted over a portion of text with the name of ʿAlī; notably, it seems as if ʿAlī’s name was itself added to the text in superscript over other names (Abū Bakr and ʿUmar?) that were written in the text originally (images courtesy Majid Daneshgar).

While working on various Islamic manuscripts preserved in Leiden University’s library, I came across a manuscript (Or. 565) entitled Durr al-Majālis, dated Safar 972 AH/c. 1564 CE.27 The work is a folk story in thirty-three chapters about different figures, events, and rituals in Islamic history. Although I have found many copies of this manuscript in various libraries, the Leiden version is one of the oldest. According to my investigation, it encompasses the most obvious type of partial censorship; it clearly shows that readers of this particular manuscript have replaced the names of Shi’i figures, mainly those of ʿAlī and other Shi’i Imāms, with those of the first three Sunni caliphs, thus canonizing their preferred vision of history and effacing the alternative.

In order to do so, the author(s)/revisionist(s) have chosen one of the following censorship strategies:

  1. Scratching out the names of Shi’i figures or their related elements and replacing them with the name of Abū Bakr, ʿUmar, or ʿUthmān using golden ink
  2. Erasing phrases and names
  3. Adding tags with the name of Sunni figures, schools of law, or one of the first three Sunni caliphs on top of the Shi’i ones, also using golden ink

It is the third strategy, viz. adding tags, that is particularly interesting. On one occasion, I raised a tag with a loose corner on which was written the names of Abū Bakr and ʿUmar; I found ʿAlī’s name written beneath it. This text clearly showed that an Alid-focused text had been Sunnified. It is also possible that the text originally had the Sunni-preferred names of Abū Bakr and ʿUmar, was changed to say “ʿAlī” instead, and then the tag was used to restore the text to its original state.

The main concern of this study has been our understanding of our past and, more importantly, ourselves. There have always been powerful people, authorities and their agents, who shaped the life and mind of the powerless on the basis of their own political interests. Former and current generations of scholars and thinkers not only impact our understanding of the past through demonizing or canonizing people and texts, but also thereby impact our minds as well. Censorship does not allow us to be ourselves but rather only to be what authorities want us to be. We are then unable to be critics of the past, but rather become only the slaves of our fathers.

 

MAJID DANESHGAR is a Marie Curie Fellow of the European Union at Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies, University of Freiburg, Germany.

 

  1. This work is part of a larger project on “Textual Censorship in Islamic Manuscripts,” and would not have been possible without the kind support of the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies, University of Freiburg. I also thank the University of Leiden Library, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, and the Wellcome Library for granting me permission to access their collections and use images of their manuscripts.
  2. For more information, see David S. Powers, Zayd: The Little-Known Story of Muḥammad’s Adopted Son (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014).
  3. See Ḥassan Muḥadithī and Bījan ʿAbdulkarīmī, Mushrikī dar Khānivādi-yi Payāmbar: Dāstān-e ʿĀshiqāni-yi Zindigi-yi Abū’l-ʿĀṣ va Zaynab (Dukhtar-e Payāmbar) (“An Infidel in the Prophet’s House: The Romance of Abū’l-ʿĀṣ and Zaynab, the Daughter of the Messenger”) (Tehran: Naqd-e Farhang, 1396/2017). This work by a Iranian sociologist, co-authored with an Iranian philosopher, is not, to my knowledge, based on a precisely historical analysis. My review on this book will be published soon.
  4. Sue Curry Jansen, Censorship: The Knot that Binds Power and Knowledge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988).
  5. Ibid, 6.
  6. See Powers, Zayd. Unfortunately, I found Andreas Görke’s recent work on “Between History and Exegesis: the Origins and Transformation of the Story of Muḥammad and Zaynab bt Ǧaḥš” (Arabica 65 [2018]: 31-63) only after completing this essay.
  7. Al-Zamakhsharī, al-Kashshāf (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿArabī, 1986), 3.540.
  8. Faḍl b. Ḥasan al-Ṭabrisī, Jawāmiʿ al-jāmiʿ (Tehran: Intishārāt Dānishgāh Tehrān va-Mudīriyyat Ḥawza ʿIlmiyya Qum, 1377/1998), 3.317.
  9. E.g., Nāṣir Makārim Shīrāzī, Tafsīr namūna (Tehran: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIslāmiyyah, 1995), 17.325.
  10. Ibid.
  11. For more on this, see Khaleel Mohammed, David in the Muslim Tradition: The Bathsheba Affair (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2014).
  12. Muqātil b. Sulaymān, Tafsīr Muqātil (Beirut: Dār Ihyāʾ al-Turāth, 1423 [2002]), 3.640-645.
  13. Ibn Bābawayh, ʿUyūn Akhbār al-Riḍā ʿAlayhi al-Salām, ed. Mahdī Lājavardī (Tehran: Nashr-i Jahān, 1958), 1.195.
  14. Nāṣir Makārim Shīrāzī, Barguzīda-yi Tafsīr-e Namūna, ed. Aḥmad ʿAlī Bābāʾī (Tehran: Dār al-Kutub al-Islāmiyya, 2003), 4.183.
  15. Johanna Pink, “ʿAbduh, Muḥammad,” in Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān, ed. Jane Dammen McAuliffe, s.v. (http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1875-3922_q3_EQCOM_050483; consulted Jan. 1, 2018).
  16. N. Hanif, Biographical Encyclopaedia of Sufis: South Asia (New Delhi: Sarup and Sons, 2000), 262-263.
  17. Nakhshabī, Ladhdhat al-nisāʾ, f. 1.
  18. Fatemeh Keshavarz, A Descriptive and Analytical Catalogue of Persian Manuscripts in the Library of the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine (London: Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, 1986), 377.
  19. Danish Royal Library Cod. Pers. 37 can be viewed online at: http://www.kb.dk/manus/ortsam/2009/okt/orientalia/object82615/en/#kbOSD-0=page:14
  20. Bibliothèque Nationale de France Suppl. Pers. 1804 can be viewed online at: http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b52500148z/f41.planchecontact. The images from Wellcome Library MS Persian 223 have been published in book form by Palatino Press; the press has also digitized the images and made them open access here:  http://www.palatinopress.com/the-art-of-lizzat-al-nisa.html
  21. Harvard University Library MS 163A1 can be viewed online at: http://pds.lib.harvard.edu/pds/view/44559697?n=1&oldpds
  22. Rudi Matthee, “Safavid Dynasty,” Encyclopaedia Iranica (2008).
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Zeynep Yürekli, “The Sword Dhū’l-faqār and the Ottomans,” in Fahmida Suleman (ed.), People of the Prophet’s House: Artistic and Ritual Expressions of Shi’i Islam (London: Azimuth Editions in Association with the Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2015), 163-172. See my essay “A Sword That Becomes a Word (Part 1): Supplication to ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib and Dhū’l-Faqār,” published here on Mizan on January 9. 2017.
  26. Christiane Gruber, “The ‘Restored’ Shīʿī muṣḥaf as Divine Guide? The Practice of fāl-i Qurʾān in the Ṣafavid Period,” Journal of Qur’anic Studies 13 (2011): 29-55.
  27. See my forthcoming article on this manuscript, “The Textual Origin of Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiyyah.”

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Censored Manuscripts, Censored Intellects

Can We Trust the Past?


Majid Daneshgar


A few years ago, I was really surprised when I received a letter from a Muslim professor at a well-known university in the United States.1 This person has supervised many theses, evaluates projects for the most important academic publishers, and has won several academic awards. In response to an invitation to become a member of the editorial board of a journal with which I was associated, they said that their acceptance of our invitation was conditional upon the removal of another scholar of Islam, who is now very famous, from the board. He was, according to the scholar who wrote to me, nothing more than “a charlatan.” This person also said: “May I ask you to keep this e-mail confidential among yourselves and only share with sincere Muslims.” They ended their letter like this:

If you remove […] from the board, I will be happy to join it. As long as he is on it, I am afraid that is out of the question. In advance, jazakum Allah khayran for doing the right and moral thing. I hope you do not mind this piece of nasiha.

However, the journal management and I ignored this person’s unacademic request. We had concluded that it would have been more proper for them to write a critical article about that professor’s scholarship than to assassinate their character by means of a simple—and rather childish—letter. On another occasion, I was even more surprised to discover that a Muslim editor of a different journal had not only changed many parts of my essay based on their own opinions, but had also removed an important part of it entirely that apparently contradicted their own ideas.

These two experiences happened in 2012 and 2014, respectively. On each occasion, a Muslim individual—a professor and an editor, respectively—had attempted to use their powerful position to push me to censor a person of whom they did not approve, or took it upon themselves to remove content of which they did not approve outright from my work. This has led me to conduct further studies to see how powerful people have shaped our understanding of various phenomena and of religion. This was the main reason that led me to work on the topic of censorship.

I decided to scrutinize Islamic textual sources that have been read by millions of Muslims throughout history. When studying the earliest Islamic traditions, it becomes clear that some collections of early material include the names of various figures whose role would gradually (but deliberately) be diminished, making them less important in subsequent Islamic traditions. For instance, consider several individuals close to Muḥammad: Zayd, his adopted son, whose name is mentioned in Sūrah 33 of the Qurʾān; Zayd’s son Usāmah2; Muḥammad’s daughter Zaynab and her husband Abū’l-ʿĀṣ3; and Muḥammad’s nursemaid Ḥalīmah. All of these figures, among others, were seemingly very important according to the earliest historical sources. Nonetheless, they appear as less important or even have aspects of their roles removed in later Muslim literature. We will return to this issue very soon, one that seems to have been the result of a process of marginalization through which the importance or influence of a figure or story is diminished or removed due to the ideology of a particular Islamic sect. Through such marginalization, an individual’s basic identity is retained in the sources, but their role is ignored or reduced.

Functioning in this way, marginalization is a form of censorship. It is hard to define the term censorship, but its function is easily imagined, as it is used by people in every society. Indeed, censorship, as I will show in the rest of this essay, is when an individual, a group of people, or a work is systematically and thoroughly modified (either by demonizing or canonizing them) by powerful people or organizations in order to preserve and promote in whole or part their ideological, ethical, or legal values, as well as to reject those of the opposition. Censorship can affect audio, visual, and textual sources. Its impact can be enormous, as a censored text can be gradually altered as regards the historical and/or scientific facts it contains. Censorship is the link between power and knowledge in any society.4 As Jansen says,

The Powerful require knowledge to preserve, defend, and extend their advantage. For them, knowledge is power. The way the powerful say things are is the way they are, or the way they usually become because the powerful control the power to name… the powerful use this power to generate and enforce definitions of words and of social reality that enhance their sovereignty.5

Although it is almost too complicated to specify how subjects or concepts have been censored in the past, there are some traces in (religious) literature that allow us to discover what happened to such works in the past and how that has shaped our understanding of religion now. In the modern age, increasing access to materials, especially through digital media, has allowed for acts of censorship in the past to be demystified and deconstructed. For this study, I perused various Islamic manuscripts and printed volumes in order to classify and define types of textual censorship in Islamic literature. This essay discusses two of them: first, censorship on ethical grounds, and second, censorship on political grounds.

Censorship on ethical grounds: prophetic scandals and carnal knowledge

The first type of censorship we will consider here is that carried out for ethical reasons, which is often supported by judicial and legal authorities. It can be carried out by religious figures, jurists, or textual commentators. Indeed, ethical restrictions can be applied by powerful people to ignore or suppress the voice of those with dissenting views.

Although Zayd, the (temporarily) adopted son of Muḥammad, became a marginal figure in most Islamic sources,6 he is the only Muslim whose name is mentioned in the Qurʾān, in Q 33:36. On the basis of the direct divine intervention of this verse, Muḥammad married Zaynab (whose name is not mentioned in the Qurʾān), the former wife of Zayd. Early and medieval commentators on the Qurʾān such as al-Zamakhsharī (d. c. 1143 CE) mention that Muḥammad had a sexual interest in the wife of Zayd. Once, on the occasion of visiting Zayd’s home when Zayd was not there, had expressed his admiration for Zaynab by exclaiming, “Glory be to God, the Creator of light, blessed is God the best of Creators” (subḥān Allāh khāliq al-nūr tabārak Allāh aḥsan al-khāliqīn).7 Al-Ṭabrisī (d. c. 1154), the famous medieval Shi’i Qurʾān commentator, says that after Zayd returned home, Zaynab told him about Muḥammad’s visit and his infatuation with her beauty.8 According to these classical exegetes, Muḥammad kept his feelings for her secret.

A Mughal-era depiction of King David.

In more recent Qurʾān commentaries, particularly those written by Shi’i scholars, not only are the references to earlier exegetical works selective—through which they exclude earlier traditions—but these commentators also argue that earlier (famous) commentators made false claims about Muhammad’s decision, justified by revelation to marry his son’s wife.9 Some commentators even state that “the enemy of Islam tried to make a romance about Muḥammad and his marriage with Zaynab and degrade the level of Muḥammad’s holiness and created weak traditions about this issue…”10 According to these modern Qur’an commentators, the statements made by al-Ṭabarī (d. c. 932) and al-Zamakhsharī regarding Muḥammad’s pronouncement regarding Zaynab that “Glory be to God, the Creator of light, blessed is God the best of Creators” are part of a “false myth” (afsāna-hā-yi durūghīn).

This has also happened in other cases of sexual “scandals” found in Qurʾān commentaries. For instance, early Qurʾān commentators such as Muqātil b. Sulaymān (d. c. 767 CE) drew his readers’ attention to King David’s sexual interest in the wife of Uriah the Hittite (Uriah b. Hanan),11 an episode which, according to Sūrah 38 (“… and David gathered that We had tried him…”), was a divine test. According to these early exegetes (who were often informed by the biblical parallel to the story), Q 38:21-25 was revealed because David had sinned by marrying Bathsheba after sending Uriah to his death on the battlefield. However, this idea was rejected by subsequent generations of Muslim exegetes and theologians (most of whom had significant party, sectarian, or dynastic affiliations) because it is inconsistent with the doctrine of prophetic infallibility.12

According to al-Riḍā (d. c. 818 CE), the Eighth Imām of the Shi’ah, Q 38:24 was not revealed in connection with David’s sexual interest in Uriah’s wife, and thus the story relayed by biblical texts and Muslim predecessors about David was, in fact, false. Al-Riḍā argues that:

In the time of David, a woman whose husband died or was killed never married another man. Thus, David was the first man chosen by God to have permission to marry a woman whose husband had been killed. He married Uriah’s wife after Uriah had been killed and after she had observed her waiting period (ʿiddah)…”13

Modern Shi’i commentators clearly state that, on the basis of the qur’anic verses that demonstrate the high dignity of David and his important duty in the presence of God, it can be concluded that “the false myth created about his marriage with Uriah’s wife is groundless.”14

It seems that such exegetical censorship targeting earlier Muslim references to so-called prophetic “scandals” became a central part of Muslim literature in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, at a time when Muslim reformists, including Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (d. 1897) and Muhammad ʿAbduh (d. 1905), had increasing connections with Europeans and their works regarding Muslim communities and their prophet, Muḥammad. In this regard, ‘Abduh’s commentary Tafsīr al-Fātiḥah includes an article related to the story of Muhammad and Zaynab through which he “strove to defend Muḥammad’s sinlessness (ʿiṣmah)…, a defense that was probably primarily directed at European orientalists.”15

Here, it should be emphasized that what is important is not the accuracy or inaccuracy of early and modern Qur’an commentaries, but rather how an important Islamic tradition dealing with prophets that was compiled by earlier Muslim thinkers and read by many Muslims was treated selectively by more recent generations of scholars, called a conspiracy, and censored.

Censorship regarding sexual matters not only impacted the interpretation of the Qurʾān, but also discussions of actual intercourse, as we find that censorship of a number of treatises about intercourse occurred. One example of this is a Persian manuscript entitled Ladhdhat al-nisāʾ (“On the Pleasure of Women”), which was apparently based on the erotic Indian story of Koka Shastra/Shastar. There are some debates about the actual author and translator of this work. Nonetheless, available copies of this treatise were translated by the famous mystic, writer, and translator of the fourteenth century, Diyāʾ al-Dīn Nakhshabī (d. 1350), sometimes referred to as Bakhshī, who also translated the Persian version of the Tales of the Parrot (Ṭūṭī-nāmeh).16 Nakhshabī says that this book was mainly written for men, who should have competence in every form of science, including intercourse. The author says that whoever is ignorant of the various aspects of intercourse is like an ape whose knowledge about nutmeg is merely gained through eating it.17

Most of the extant manuscripts contain ten chapters which include illustrations (miniature paintings) showing various types of sexual intercourse. Although this Persian work was written on the basis of a medieval Indian treatise “attributed to Koka Pandit,”18 it has been changed frequently over the course of history. In contrast to its original version, which is replete with paintings of naked people and references to the advantages of various sexual positions, the manuscript Cod. Pers. 37 (to take only one example), an eighteenth-century version preserved in the Danish Royal Library, has been made ‘authentically’ or ‘traditionally’ Muslim; it deliberately excludes all illustrations and does not mention any of the sexual positions found in either Koka Shastra or Ladhdhat al-nisāʾ. Instead, it looks more like a medical treatise for describing both useful herbs and spices and the anatomical details of human genitalia, which usually are found in other chapters of Ladhdhat al-nisāʾ.19

Two illustrations from the Wellcome Library version of Ladhdhat al-nisāʾ, which contains some of the more unorthodox depictions of sexual practices found in the tradition (images from Wellcome Library ms. Persian 223, reproduced from the image bank provided by Palatino Press).

The censorship found in some versions of the text makes the uncensored versions appear all the more striking. Many versions, including those found in the Bibliothèque Nationale of France (Suppl. Pers. 1804, written in the late eighteenth century), the Wellcome Library of London (MS Persian 223), and the library of the University of Leiden (MS. Or. 14. 650, dated to 1731), contain extremely provocative images in the section on sexual positions. They depict, among other things, the simultaneous intercourse of a man with two women, a woman having intercourse with an animal resembling a bear, and two men engaged in anal sex.20

Other versions of Ladhdhat al-nisāʾ such as MS 1263A1, preserved in Widener Library of Harvard University, contain depictions of heterosexual sex but omit the more provocative images and the corresponding descriptions of the activity they depict.21 The removal of images of only the less conventional forms of sexual activity prevents readers, and the archaeologists of history, from asking questions about homosexuality and other types of sexual engagement that might have been more acceptable in the past in both the Persian and Indian cultural milieus. Such expurgation of a text through which the real past is hidden may raise another question: how much of our knowledge of the past is correct. Indeed, there have been, and are, powerful figures who use their prerogatives to draw the line between what should and should not be read, and thus what can and cannot be known. Unsurprisingly, such manuscripts and their controversial content are rarely examined by Muslim scholars.

Censorship on political grounds: from de-Sunnization to de-Shi’itization

The second type of textual censorship is political in nature; in this, an opposition person or group and their significance is deliberately erased. From the available evidence, it seems clear that both Sunni and Shi’i groups have misrepresented the ideas, beliefs, and claims of the other from the earliest period of Islam. However, the manifestation of this tendency in actual textual censorship apparently became more widespread in the sixteenth century following the establishment of the Safavid dynasty in Persia. As a new rival of the Sunni Ottomans, the Safavids “decreed Shiʿism to be the official faith of the realm.”22 They not only tried to remove all traces of Sunnism from their territory, but also killed many Sunnis.23

In order to propagate their beliefs and political vision, the Safavids paid particular attention to revisionism and to the production of particular types of religious literature. As Matthee has stated, the Safavids “employed religious propagandists (tabarrāʿiyān), whose task was to vilify Sunnis.”24 The Safavids also tried to demonize Sunni leaders and ascribed descent from Muḥammad’s household (Ahl al-Bayt), through ʿAlī, the first Imām of the Shi’ah, and his descendants (viz., the twelve Imāms), to themselves.

In contrast, the Sunni Ottomans recognized the first three Sunni caliphs along with ʿAlī and his descendants; they ignored the Persian Safavids’ cursing of the first three caliphs; and they added their own names and symbols to their banners alongside those of the Ahl al-Bayt.25 Furthermore, as Gruber has suggested, the Ottomans used to produce books of qur’anic divination dedicated to the Abbasid caliph Hārūn al-Rashīd, who, according to the sources, killed the seventh Imām of the Shi’ah, Mūsā b. Jaʿfar, in 799 CE. Also, divinatory notes with attributions to ʿAlī and which were “symbolic of Ṣafavid discourses on religious and political supremacy at the time – were thought best removed from view for an Ottoman readership.”26

Popular literature and folk stories, which were frequently read or heard by the ordinary people, has also seen ideological censorship. This type of censorship can be divided into two types: partial and substantial. The latter is more obvious to readers, as a major part of a story or the role of a religious figure is deliberately expunged for political reasons. However, the partial one may have broader impact on our historical understanding, which has been rarely examined so far.

Two examples of direct interventions into the text of Leiden University Library ms. Or. 565 (Durr al-Majālis). On the left, a name or names (presumably that of ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib) have been scratched out and the names of Abū Bakr and ʿUmar superimposed in gold ink. On the right, a tag with these names in gold ink has been pasted over a portion of text with the name of ʿAlī; notably, it seems as if ʿAlī’s name was itself added to the text in superscript over other names (Abū Bakr and ʿUmar?) that were written in the text originally (images courtesy Majid Daneshgar).

While working on various Islamic manuscripts preserved in Leiden University’s library, I came across a manuscript (Or. 565) entitled Durr al-Majālis, dated Safar 972 AH/c. 1564 CE.27 The work is a folk story in thirty-three chapters about different figures, events, and rituals in Islamic history. Although I have found many copies of this manuscript in various libraries, the Leiden version is one of the oldest. According to my investigation, it encompasses the most obvious type of partial censorship; it clearly shows that readers of this particular manuscript have replaced the names of Shi’i figures, mainly those of ʿAlī and other Shi’i Imāms, with those of the first three Sunni caliphs, thus canonizing their preferred vision of history and effacing the alternative.

In order to do so, the author(s)/revisionist(s) have chosen one of the following censorship strategies:

  1. Scratching out the names of Shi’i figures or their related elements and replacing them with the name of Abū Bakr, ʿUmar, or ʿUthmān using golden ink
  2. Erasing phrases and names
  3. Adding tags with the name of Sunni figures, schools of law, or one of the first three Sunni caliphs on top of the Shi’i ones, also using golden ink

It is the third strategy, viz. adding tags, that is particularly interesting. On one occasion, I raised a tag with a loose corner on which was written the names of Abū Bakr and ʿUmar; I found ʿAlī’s name written beneath it. This text clearly showed that an Alid-focused text had been Sunnified. It is also possible that the text originally had the Sunni-preferred names of Abū Bakr and ʿUmar, was changed to say “ʿAlī” instead, and then the tag was used to restore the text to its original state.

The main concern of this study has been our understanding of our past and, more importantly, ourselves. There have always been powerful people, authorities and their agents, who shaped the life and mind of the powerless on the basis of their own political interests. Former and current generations of scholars and thinkers not only impact our understanding of the past through demonizing or canonizing people and texts, but also thereby impact our minds as well. Censorship does not allow us to be ourselves but rather only to be what authorities want us to be. We are then unable to be critics of the past, but rather become only the slaves of our fathers.

 

MAJID DANESHGAR is a Marie Curie Fellow of the European Union at Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies, University of Freiburg, Germany.

 

  1. This work is part of a larger project on “Textual Censorship in Islamic Manuscripts,” and would not have been possible without the kind support of the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies, University of Freiburg. I also thank the University of Leiden Library, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, and the Wellcome Library for granting me permission to access their collections and use images of their manuscripts.
  2. For more information, see David S. Powers, Zayd: The Little-Known Story of Muḥammad’s Adopted Son (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014).
  3. See Ḥassan Muḥadithī and Bījan ʿAbdulkarīmī, Mushrikī dar Khānivādi-yi Payāmbar: Dāstān-e ʿĀshiqāni-yi Zindigi-yi Abū’l-ʿĀṣ va Zaynab (Dukhtar-e Payāmbar) (“An Infidel in the Prophet’s House: The Romance of Abū’l-ʿĀṣ and Zaynab, the Daughter of the Messenger”) (Tehran: Naqd-e Farhang, 1396/2017). This work by a Iranian sociologist, co-authored with an Iranian philosopher, is not, to my knowledge, based on a precisely historical analysis. My review on this book will be published soon.
  4. Sue Curry Jansen, Censorship: The Knot that Binds Power and Knowledge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988).
  5. Ibid, 6.
  6. See Powers, Zayd. Unfortunately, I found Andreas Görke’s recent work on “Between History and Exegesis: the Origins and Transformation of the Story of Muḥammad and Zaynab bt Ǧaḥš” (Arabica 65 [2018]: 31-63) only after completing this essay.
  7. Al-Zamakhsharī, al-Kashshāf (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿArabī, 1986), 3.540.
  8. Faḍl b. Ḥasan al-Ṭabrisī, Jawāmiʿ al-jāmiʿ (Tehran: Intishārāt Dānishgāh Tehrān va-Mudīriyyat Ḥawza ʿIlmiyya Qum, 1377/1998), 3.317.
  9. E.g., Nāṣir Makārim Shīrāzī, Tafsīr namūna (Tehran: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIslāmiyyah, 1995), 17.325.
  10. Ibid.
  11. For more on this, see Khaleel Mohammed, David in the Muslim Tradition: The Bathsheba Affair (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2014).
  12. Muqātil b. Sulaymān, Tafsīr Muqātil (Beirut: Dār Ihyāʾ al-Turāth, 1423 [2002]), 3.640-645.
  13. Ibn Bābawayh, ʿUyūn Akhbār al-Riḍā ʿAlayhi al-Salām, ed. Mahdī Lājavardī (Tehran: Nashr-i Jahān, 1958), 1.195.
  14. Nāṣir Makārim Shīrāzī, Barguzīda-yi Tafsīr-e Namūna, ed. Aḥmad ʿAlī Bābāʾī (Tehran: Dār al-Kutub al-Islāmiyya, 2003), 4.183.
  15. Johanna Pink, “ʿAbduh, Muḥammad,” in Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān, ed. Jane Dammen McAuliffe, s.v. (http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1875-3922_q3_EQCOM_050483; consulted Jan. 1, 2018).
  16. N. Hanif, Biographical Encyclopaedia of Sufis: South Asia (New Delhi: Sarup and Sons, 2000), 262-263.
  17. Nakhshabī, Ladhdhat al-nisāʾ, f. 1.
  18. Fatemeh Keshavarz, A Descriptive and Analytical Catalogue of Persian Manuscripts in the Library of the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine (London: Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, 1986), 377.
  19. Danish Royal Library Cod. Pers. 37 can be viewed online at: http://www.kb.dk/manus/ortsam/2009/okt/orientalia/object82615/en/#kbOSD-0=page:14
  20. Bibliothèque Nationale de France Suppl. Pers. 1804 can be viewed online at: http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b52500148z/f41.planchecontact. The images from Wellcome Library MS Persian 223 have been published in book form by Palatino Press; the press has also digitized the images and made them open access here:  http://www.palatinopress.com/the-art-of-lizzat-al-nisa.html
  21. Harvard University Library MS 163A1 can be viewed online at: http://pds.lib.harvard.edu/pds/view/44559697?n=1&oldpds
  22. Rudi Matthee, “Safavid Dynasty,” Encyclopaedia Iranica (2008).
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Zeynep Yürekli, “The Sword Dhū’l-faqār and the Ottomans,” in Fahmida Suleman (ed.), People of the Prophet’s House: Artistic and Ritual Expressions of Shi’i Islam (London: Azimuth Editions in Association with the Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2015), 163-172. See my essay “A Sword That Becomes a Word (Part 1): Supplication to ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib and Dhū’l-Faqār,” published here on Mizan on January 9. 2017.
  26. Christiane Gruber, “The ‘Restored’ Shīʿī muṣḥaf as Divine Guide? The Practice of fāl-i Qurʾān in the Ṣafavid Period,” Journal of Qur’anic Studies 13 (2011): 29-55.
  27. See my forthcoming article on this manuscript, “The Textual Origin of Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiyyah.”

Censored Manuscripts, Censored Intellects

Can We Trust the Past?

Censored Manuscripts, Censored Intellects

Can We Trust the Past?