Overcooked Data

Gitelman’s idea of “raw data” being an oxymoron and the various degrees of which it can be cooked has taken me backward historically in my research area, rather than what I thought would be the case— looking at the digitizing of Islamic literature, and the Quran in particular.  The various cooking methods have gotten me to think about its status as a purely oral text for the first many years of its existence, which then transitioned back and forth between written and oral forms (while remaining primarily oral) until about twenty years after the Prophet Muhammad’s death, when the Caliph Uthman began the process of collecting and canonizing the chapters of the Quran into the version we have today (most scholars agree to this narrative).

If this is the case, the text itself was “generated” (not “discovered”), according to Islamic tradition, in a pure “raw” form through an oral transmission to the prophet over a period of years form the angel Gabriel.  The only true raw form of it can then only be the recited word, which makes sense given the emphasis and importance on this quality of text and its place in the lives of Muslims who pray five times a day, reciting these words aloud or in their own heads.  After revelation it was then taught to Prophet’s companions who memorized the text in its entirety.  Even here there is a certain stage of “cooking” that occurs in terms of the order of the Quran, because the version that is accepted today was not compiled chronologically according to the order of revelation.  The memorizers of the Quran continued the oral tradition and recitation, sometimes with small portions written down as memory aides (the first time that Quran was ever turned into text), until the compilation began under Uthman’s caliphate.

Fast forward many years and the Quran has turned into cassette tapes, cds, audio files, digital versions for computers and smart phones, etc.  The number of forms it takes add different layers to the “cooking” process, sometimes taking the oral component into account and sometimes not.  If we can refer to the original recitation as “raw data” then what we have now has been cooked too many times to count (not even mentioning translation)— which is usually fuel for some scholars (usually from the West) to question the authenticity and/or completeness of the holy book.  In any case, both articles we read this week have got me thinking about whether or not it is truly possible to experience the Quran in a truly raw and uninterrupted way.  Gitelman mentions the lack of objectivity in machines when reproducing pieces of art, and I wonder whether the current way in which most Western Muslims in particular who get their religious literature through bits and pieces on their phones or through social media (twitter handles and memes devoted entirely to spreading inspirational and life advising hadith or verses of the Quran), regardless of the “aggregate quality of data,” are receiving tiny pieces of data so overcooked it is perhaps impossible to grasp the actual essence of the message, which is already an esoteric and lifelong endeavor.

And here’s a recitation by a world famous reciter, there are so many things happening around her interfering, talking over, and muffling the text— that I hardly think “raw” is the right word for this bit of data.



Overcooked Data