Plagiarism and Traditional Works
Historically we find many examples of Islamic works which apparently seem plagiarized when cross-examined with other books on the same subject. To me this finding was extremely bothersome when I first noticed it between `Umdatul-Qarī and Fathul-Barī nearly 10 years ago and later noticed it in many works when cross-examined with works of a similar genre. However, after much contemplation on the subject I came to the following:
1- Plagiarism or Preservation? Much of the historic plagiarism was in wordings as the words used by scholars of certain sciences are so accurately thought out that it becomes hard to replace them without sacrificing some of the intended meanings. To protect those meanings, authors would borrow the words from others without any alterations. It would be needless to quote as everyone in the field would be using the same words.
2- Personalization. Often the purpose was not to plagiarize, but to personalize. So a Hanbalī may take a Shafi`ī work and “Hanbalize” it or vice-versa as with al-Ahkām al-Sultāniyyah between al-Māwardī and Abū Ya`lā. A Faqīh may personalize a work by taking a previous work and making changes wherever he disagreed with the original author.
3- Lecture Notes. Many books were never meant to be books to begin with. Rather, they may have been lecture notes which would later be compiled into books by the author’s students. Most lecturers do not cite everything they collect as that is not the purpose of the notes.
4- The purpose of religious scholars wasn’t and isn’t citations and tiresome academic exercises such as preparing footnotes, endnotes and appendices. It was/is Balāgh, delivery of the message. Some scholars may have chosen and continue to choose the tiresome academic exercises but others till today do not care for such superficialities.
5- It is also imperative to note that sometimes a book might be attributed by some scribes to the wrong author which may cause someone to seem like a plagiarist whilst it may really be a manuscript error or an indexing error, such as the explanation of the 40 Nawawi famously attributed to Ibn Daqīq al-‘īd, whereas it is likely a work written by ibn Hajar as suggested by later researchers.
6- Whilst plagiarism with intentions other than the ones described above may have occurred, it would very rarely be in a subject matter which hasn’t already been codified. It became an acceptable norm to use the same or similar words by authors writing on subjects which have already been codified such as Fiqh, Usūl, Aqīdah and Mustalah as each word was well thought out by authors in the field. What I mean is that very rarely would someone plagiarize with clear signs of ill intentions.
Lastly, it is important to note that this academic norm has obviously, and perhaps for good, changed in our times. Plagiarism today, can’t be treated like “plagiarism” yesterday. Copy and other rights must be respected. Notwithstanding what I wrote above, even in the past, authors who made genuine original contributions were more represented and respected.
And Allah knows best.
Abdul Wahab Saleem
Shah Alam, Malaysia
Shah Alam, Malaysia