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Islam: Gestalt and Palimpsest

July 12, 2014 at 11:41 pm | News Desk

Islam Gestalt


Tammy Swofford

It took five years before I felt comfortable enough within the world of Islam to formulate a conceptual definition of the word. In 2009, within both private corridor writing and public discourse I began to refer to Islam as a gestalt.

 Gestalt: A physical, biological, psychological, or symbolic configuration or pattern of elements so unified as a whole that its properties cannot be derived from a simple summation of its parts.oslambb

The Islamic gestalt encompasses the cultural expression and pattern of behaviors which are exhibited with degrees of variation within Muslim-majority regions and her micro-communities. But in an era of digital communication this gestalt has become energized.

My definition of Islam now requires an expansion that identifies how geopolitical Islam establishes a cadence. Geopolitical Islam works off the primary source documents considered fundamental to the tenets of governance. Geopolitical Islam works off a palimpsest.


A palimpsest is a manuscript, page from a scroll or a book which has had the text scraped or washed off so that it can be used again. Most palimpsest available to modern scholars are made of parchment prepared from animal hides, a product which is inherently more durable than papyrus. When papyrus came into more common usage, the recycle of parchment was diminished because the papyrus was cheaper and easier to produce.

A few papyrus palimpsests still exist. The Romans made reference to a process of “washing” papyrus with milk and oat bran. Over time, the faint remains of prior writing would reappear with sufficient legibility so that scholars could read the text. This writing is referred to as “scriptio inferior”.

The Archimedes Palimpsest is of immense interest to scholars. This 13th century prayer book contains scriptio inferior from earlier centuries. These texts include “The Method” and “Stomachion”, two treatise by Archimedes. The Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus is another well-known work. Fifth century writings in Greek (portions of the Old and New Testaments) are covered with the work of Ephraem the Syrian, written in a hand of the twelfth century.

So how does Islam present as a palimpsest?

Islam began as spoken word. It was carried along by oration, written down on pieces of bleached bone, and scraps of hide. Under the Caliph Umar, Zaid bin Thabbit was chosen to verify available parchments, compare the words of the Hafz (memorizers of the Qur’an), and create what came to be known as the Mushaf ( manuscript) of Hafsah. This work took place within 2.5 years of Prophet Muhammad’s death. During the time of Caliph Uthman, Zaid bin Thabbit was called back to standardize Qur’anic script. The practice of writing down the Qur’an in Arabic dialects, and the availability of different scripts led to the belief that the written word must be placed in context of the Qurashi dialect, that which was 800px-Uthman_Koran-RZspoken by the Prophet himself. Once the Qur’an was placed within the desired dialect, seven copies were made and sent out to the various governments. The people were directed to destroy all other existing copies. The Mushaf of Hafsah itself was not destroyed. It remained for many centuries until it was destroyed in a fire which engulfed the library of Damascus. Of the seven original copies, the status of two are known. These are retained in Tashkent and Istanbul. An incomplete copy is in the custody of the British Museum. D W N.

The Qur’an cannot be separated from the Sunnah. So it was, the muhaddithun hurried along archiving the sayings and actions of the founder of the Islamic gestalt. Hadith literally means saying or conversation. But the definition is expanded to include actions and code of conduct. The Sunni ascribe to as-Sihaah as-Sittah (the “sound six”), whilst the Shi’a configure their collections a bit differently. The oldest collection of Hadith is the Muwatta’ of Maalik. The largest collection, the Musnad of Ahmad.

The Qur’an and Sunnah are not considered “scriptio inferior”, rather bedrock. But is is the immense body of writing which follows that provides fuel for the doctrinal engine of geopolitical Islam and her expressive function today.

A loyalist of Sayyed Qutb will hold that the Qur’an has seven layers of meaning. The twenty-four hours in a day will be strictly ordered by belief. Al-Fatiha is to be recited seventeen times. Not sixteen nor eighteen times. Seventeen is the magical number.

Let’s take a moment to wash the papyrus a bit and see what else appears within this palimpsest:

*Seerah *Shamail *Dalail *Madah al Nabi (or Na’at-e-Nabvi in Persian) *Tafseer and *Maghazi

The Maghazi are of particular interest to me due to my own proud military service on behalf of my nation. So when the Taliban declare an operational posture and announce the beginning of the Badr Spring Offensive, it is time for me to pull all archives regarding the Ghazwa of Badr. One of the primary archives for me on this battle? It is the work of a man who is buried in Damascus in the al-Sagheer Cemetery. His name is Imam Ibn al-Kayyem.

Why is this discussion important? Not working against, but not working with, let me explain…. The National Security Agency maintains a distinct operational posture. It supports an aggressive environment under the banner of our national security interest. What is written today within the privacy of my home is available (should there be an interest) with an analytical expedition which begins with the input of my name and IP address. Saraya. Expedition/raiding party. The NSA posture is to capture and archive one hundred percent of what is swirling across the planet in nanoseconds of time: the spoken and written word. Skype, Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Twitter, any e mail account, and all phone call find a nesting place within the world of SigInt (Signals Intelligence)

Aggregation and configuration of data find their way to the desks of analysts. But whether it is white ants v. black ants, clay products, or E=mc2, looking at the aforementioned minus an ability to decode, present as distinct challenges. The scriptio inferior may remain hidden.



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