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The Voice and the Quill. The Paths of Canonization of the Quʾrān

François Déroche


Serge Haroche
Translated by Liz Libbrecht

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1The teaching of Arabic and Islamic civilization has a long history at the Collège de France, related to the Institution’s mission. From its origins, the Collège was devoted to the study of subjects traditionally neglected at the Sorbonne. It was thus open to Oriental cultures and sciences, which, at the time, were largely conveyed by those cultures. The first Collège de France professor, whose Chair explicitly had the word Arabic in its title, Arnoult de l’Isle, was officially listed as a royal reader between 1587 and 1613. He was a physician of German origin, who had learned classical Arabic in order to read Avicenna and thus to learn medicine from the original writings of the great eleventh-century Persian scholar. It seems that he never really taught at the Collège royal because he was sent to Morocco, first as a physician and then as Henri IV’s ambassador to the Sultan who resided in Marrakech. Those were troubled times. France had just been through the Wars of Religion, one of the last ripple effects of which was the king’s assassination, the very year in which he donated to the Collège royal the land on which our institution is now situated. In Marrakech, an internecine war within the Saadian dynasty, which our royal reader witnessed, caused the Sultan to evacuate his harem and valuable Qurʾānic manuscripts from the country by boat. The manuscripts were captured in the Mediterranean by the Spanish flotilla and ended up in the Escurial royal library near Madrid. It was the holder of the Chair that we are inaugurating today that told me about this romantic period, when I asked him why his research on the Qurʾān had led him to Madrid. In an unforeseen way, history has thus linked the Collège’s first Chair of Arabic with the most recent one. It is nice to imagine that François Déroche’s distant predecessor witnessed the hasty departure from Morocco of the manuscripts that the professor is now studying in Spain!

2But let us return to the history of the Chairs of Arabic at the Collège de France. Like Arnoult de l’Isle, many of the first Arabic scholars at the Collège were physicians, sometimes even the king’s official doctors. This proximity between Arabic and medical studies is also evidenced by the fact that, as for medicine, the Chairs of Arabic were often held by father and son, or uncle and nephew – a mandarin characteristic that I pointed out last year when presenting the new Chair of Experimental Medicine. Another lineage of Professors of Arabic at the Collège de France comes from the Maronite Orient. In particular, I wish to mention Gibraïl Al Sahyuni (Gabriel Sionite) and Ibrahim al Haqlani (Abraham Ecchellensis). The former contributed to the Paris Polyglot Bible consisting of versions in Latin, Syriac, Hebrew and Arabic. It was a stormy endeavour, as Sionite clashed with the publisher who had accused him of not submitting his work in time, and who even got Richelieu to imprison him to force him to participate more actively in the work. These examples attest to the international dimension of science and culture at the time, which enabled European and other Mediterranean scholars to move from country to country. The Collège de France has always participated extensively in a cultural intermingling that has continued up to the present. I nevertheless wish to point out that our institution has not maintained all the customs of the time, and that in particular it no longer asks the State to imprison its professors who are too slow in submitting their manuscripts or other documents!

3The Chairs of Hebrew and Arabic, the original languages of the sacred texts of the great religions of the Book, thus succeeded one another at the Collège de France over the centuries. The figures are comparable: if my count is accurate, there were 34 Hebrew and 29 Arabic Chairs, the last of which was occupied by our Honorary Administrator, Professor André Miquel. These Chairs of Hebrew and Arabic naturally studied the Bible and the Qurʾān, yet were never predominantly devoted to exploring the elaboration of these sacred texts, nor to the way in which they were transcribed and transmitted over the centuries. In any case, this historical aspect of Biblical and Qurʾānic studies did not feature in the title of any of the Chairs, until very recently.

4A few years ago the Collège de France decided to open its teaching to these studies, specifically, by approaching them from an historical and critical rather than a theological or ideological angle. In 2008 we created the Chair of “Biblical Milieux”, held by Thomas Römer and devoted to the study of the elaboration of the texts constituting the Old Testament, situated in the rich and turbulent context of the history of the Ancient Near East. The Chair of François Déroche, inaugurated today, is in a sense the counterpart of that of Thomas Römer. Professor Déroche is examining the origins of the Qurʾān and the way in which its different versions have evolved, through the study of ancient fragments produced over the three centuries that followed the beginnings of Islam. Rather than studying the Qurʾān through the discourse of medieval Muslim scholars, as was the custom, François Déroche has focused for most of his career on going back to the oldest manuscripts. This arduous task, which requires in-depth knowledge of Arabic and other Semitic languages, and of the evolution of writing and calligraphy, also involves detective work. It often consists in recording and sorting documents scattered across the globe due to the numerous wars and upheavals throughout the long and turbulent history of Islam and its confrontation with the Christian world.

5His research led François Déroche from the Bibliothèque nationale de France to Istanbul, where he worked for a long time on a huge collection of documents repatriated from Damascus after World War I, via Kairouan, Saint-Petersburg and Uzbekistan, where he found missing pieces essential to the puzzle he was putting together, and last but not least Spain, mentioned above. His analyses reveal the complex history of a set of texts that, in both their appearance and their content, have experienced changes and evolutions that contradict the assertion of the immutability of a single Qurʾān. The approach through written texts thus presents a more complicated history than the one put forward by the Muslim tradition, based on oral transmission. It affords a better understanding of the origins and the complexity of a sacred text that lends itself to multiple readings, the source of divergent interpretations.

6Apart from the analysis of Qurʾānic manuscripts, understanding the origins of Islam plunges us into the history of Late Antiquity, that fascinating period in which the influences of the Roman and Byzantine Empires, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and nascent Christianity intermingled. Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Ethiopian and Persian texts from that period, with which François Déroche has been familiar since his student days at the École normale, inform us on the context in which Islam was born on the Arabic peninsula, where all these influences mingled. All these texts contribute to furthering our understanding of the genesis of versions of the Qurʾān. The Muslim religion recognizes these influences, as many Surah that allude to characters from the Old and New Testament attest. In a sense, these references link François Déroche’s Chair to that of Thomas Römer. As we know, this proximity is also the source of the conflicts that have lasted until today, due to the attachment of the three religions of the Book to the same holy places. The Collège de France, following its mission to teach all topics, thus proposes that its audiences read this history from the angles of its multiple facets. Thomas Römer’s Chair analyses the roots of the Biblical text. François Déroche’s responds by studying the origins of the Qurʾān. Next year, a Chair on Late Antiquity and the Ancient Byzantine world will in a sense bridge the chronological gap between the Biblical world and that of Islam. All three Chairs are based, dare I say, on the foundations laid by the teaching of Professors Nicolas Grimal and Dominique Charpin on the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia. The Collège de France Institute of Civilizations – of which the Rue Cardinal-Lemoine site is to be completely renovated in coming years –, groups together a set of Chairs and research teams whose mission is to maintain and deepen our knowledge on these crucial periods in the history of humanity.

7Understanding the genesis of a text that plays a major role in the history of the world is one of the ambitions of the Chair that the Collège de France is inaugurating today. François Déroche, you are particularly well qualified for this mission. As an internationally renowned specialist in Qurʾānic studies, you have taught at the École pratique des hautes études and have presented your work in many institutions abroad. You are a member of the Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres. You participate, as a key player, in the European Corpus coranicum project, aimed at furthering understanding of the Qurʾān by comparing its manuscript and oral forms, and by interpreting the text in its historical context. I now hand the floor over to you to deliver your Inaugural Lecture entitled The Voice and the Quill. The Paths of Canonization of the Qurʾān.


Liz Libbrecht (Translator)

© Collège de France, 2020

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