“The scribe’s collaboration was necessary to Allah”

Italo Calvino’s If on a winter night a traveler is a novel of starts with no stops. Calvino explores language and the relationship between texts and readers. I happened to be reading it at the same time I was going through Brant A. Gardner’s new book The Gift and the Power: Translating the Book of Mormon. I’ll post my full review of Gardner tomorrow, but here’s an excerpt from Calvino to ponder in the meantime.

The Koran is the holy book about whose compositional process we know most. There were at least two mediations between the whole and the book: Mohammed listened to the word of Allah and dictated, in his turn, to his scribes. Once—the biographers of the Prophet tell us—while dictating to the scribe Abdullah, Mohammed left a sentence half finished. The scribe, instinctively, suggested the conclusion. Absently, the Prophet accepted as the divine word what Abdullah had said. This scandalized the scribe, who abandoned the Prophet and lost his faith.

He was wrong. The organization of the sentence, finally, was a responsibility that lay with him; he was the one who had to deal with the internal coherence of the written language, with grammar and syntax, to channel into it the fluidity of a thought that expands outside all language before it becomes word, and of a word particularly fluid like that of a prophet. The scribe’s collaboration was necessary to Allah, once he had decided to express himself in a written text. Mohammed knew this and allowed the scribe the privilege of concluding the sentences; but Abdullah was unaware of the powers vested in him. He lost his faith in Allah because he lacked faith in writing, and in himself as an agent of writing.

If an infidel were allowed to excogitate variants on the legends of the Prophet, I would venture this one: Abdullah loses his faith because in writing under dictation he makes a mistake and Mohammed, though he notices it, decides not to correct it, finding the mistaken form preferable. In this case, Abdullah would be wrong to be scandalized. It is on the page, not before, that the word, even that of the prophetic raptus, becomes definitive, that is to say, becomes writing. It is only through the confining act of writing that the immensity of the nonwritten becomes legible, that is, through the uncertainties of spelling, the occasional lapses, oversights, unchecked leaps of the word and the pen. Otherwise what is outside of us should not insist on communicating through the word, spoken or written: let it send its messages by other paths.


  1. .

    I love this idea. It feels very Mormon to me. And it provides an interesting starting point to talk about the infallibility of texts.

  2. Nice. I can see the parallels and how they must have impacted while reading the other book at the same time. It does feel very Mormony.

  3. The distance between the spoken and written record is filled with richness.

  4. ‘If on a winter night a traveler’ seems totally meta. I’m intrigued.

  5. i dont believe god told muhammed what to write. does that make me a bad person? a bad mormon? what does it mean?

    What do most mormons believe about muhammed? what are the differences between the claims of muhammed and joseph smith?

    These are the question i have.

  6. Hardok, you don’t need to answer those questions currently, this post is just an excerpt to facilitate thought on the potential issues involved in the translation of the Book of Mormon.

  7. This is an interesting find, bhodges. Welcome to the blog, btw.

  8. .

    re:5 Alma taught all nations are given their own inspired teachers. I don’t find an issue with letting Mohammad be “inspired”; what that means though? Dunno.

  9. You had me at “Calvino”. I had never quite considered this in light of the Book of Mormon though.

    My thought: we are all Oliver Cowdery, and we are all Abdullah, in that our interpretative collaboration is essential to making scriptural text real, both in the manner of having it “written upon [our] hearts” and in the manner of distilling scripture into a shared narrative.

    Otherwise, why would we meet for three hours every week and basically shoot the breeze about the same four books for the rest of our lives? To me, it seems obvious that the point is to figure out together (with Heavenly guidance, of course) what the scriptures mean.

  10. .

    I agree completely. There’s something about being grouped together to talk that is clearly important. I think it’s more than just decyphering texts though I’ll feel betrayed if that wasn’t part of the point at all.

  11. I like the way you put that, Ben C.

    My review of Gardner is now posted.

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