QURANIC STUDIES TODAY – Book Sample
Introduction – QURANIC STUDIES TODAY
This is a volume intended to be both a reflection of and a reflection on the discipline of qurʾānic studies. Contributions provide close analysis of specific pas-sages, themes, and issues within the Qurʾān even as they attend to the disciplinary challenges, promises, or contentions with the field of qurʾānic studies today.
The field of qurʾānic studies has developed significantly over the past two decades. Suffice it to note at this point a few milestones in the area of collabo-rate endeavors and scholarly infrastructure: the establishment of the bilingual Journal of Qurʾanic Studies (JQS)/Majallat al-Dirāsāt al-Qurʾānīya in 1999; the completion of the five-volume Encyclopedia of the Qurʾan (EQ) in 2006; the establishment of the Corpus Coranicum project in 2007;
the burgeoning of pan-els devoted to qurʾānic studies at the American Academy of Religion and Soci-ety of Biblical Literature over the past decade; the founding of the International Qurʾanic Studies Association in 2012; the appearance of the collaboratively produced two-thousand-page Study Qurʾan in 2015; and development of web-based Qurʾān programs with hypertext interfaces for recitation, grammatical analysis, tajwīd indications, transliterations, and concordances, along with a growing web-accessible corpus of classical and modern Arabic commentaries.1
The idea for this volume stems from a Fall 2012 conference, “Qurʾānic Studies Today,” that was organized by Angelika Neuwirth and Michael Sells at the University of Chicago.2 Several essays in the volume are by conference participants, and all address the issues that were of core concern at the conference. Our inten-tion in organizing the conference and in editing this volume has been to reflect the depth and breadth of scholarship on the Qurʾān.
Our introductory essay outlines our shared perspectives on the critical interpretive issues with which contemporary scholarship is engaged. Angelika Neuwirth has composed the larger part of the introduction. Michael Sells has written the section of the introduction titled “Aurality and Interdiscursivity.” Although our positions are engaged and in some sense programmatic; we did not expect the participants in the conference, and we do not expect the contributors to this volume, to agree with our priorities or perspectives.
There are few universally accepted premises for the scholarly reading of the Qurʾān in Western scholarship; however, one of these is the assumption that the Qurʾān entertains a close relation to the Bible. The authority enjoyed by the Bible in qurʾānic debates – reflecting its authority among educated individuals of the Qurʾān’s Late Antique milieu, Jews and Christians, and arguably also syncretists – can hardly be overestimated. In view of this status, it is not out of place, there-fore, to refer to the Bible with the honorific introduced by Northrup Frye, who titled it “The Great Code.”3
This label is not only apt for lending expression to the elevated status that the Bible has attracted in the entire realm of Near Eastern cultures, where it was present as a subtext of innumerable liturgical and literary texts and moreover of oral debates; it also highlights the holistic aspect of its reception.
Frye’s observation that “what matters is that ‘the Bible’ has tradition-ally been read as a unity, and has influenced Western imagination as a unity”4 can easily be translated into the Near Eastern context, where it is shared by the Late Antique educated elite, among them members of the nascent qurʾānic community. This community, from a certain time onward, was aware of the existence of different parts of the Bible that are attributed as scriptures to the Jews and Christians, respectively.
These parts in their entirety, however, are regarded as emanations of “the Book” as a whole, al-kitāb, which is understood as a transcendent scripture from which pericopes are subsequently sent down to the various prophets. One of these dispatches – according to the early community’s view, which is reflected in the text – gradually materialized into a new scripture with the Qurʾān.5
How, then, does the Qurʾān compare to the Bible? Looking at its reception, Frye’s appraisal of the Bible’s presence as a subtext of much of European culture would mutatis mutandis easily apply to the Qurʾān as well.
The Qurʾān is omnipresent in the literature, even the architecture, beaux arts, and music of wide ranges of the Islam-imprinted world, whose “Great Code” it constitutes. It is, however, hard to ignore that very few Western scholars have viewed the Qurʾān as a text holistically and that the focus is rather on small units of the text in isola-tion.
Nor is there much interest in the event of the Qurʾān, in its emergence from an Arabian milieu of Late Antiquity, among scholars outside the disciplines of archaeology and ancient history. The question of whether the Qurʾān constitutes a Fortschreibung, a “continuation” of the Bible, adding to it new dimensions of meaning, or a mere imitation, a theologically diffuse recycling of biblical tradi-tion, is still controversial. This volume contains a number of essays that directly or indirectly have a bearing on that controversy.6
Because the controversy is staged in the arena of philology, a brief reflection on the task of our discipline, qurʾānic philology, should precede the individual essays in our volume.
Drawing on Sheldon Pollock’s now classical assessment of the current situ-ation of philology and his compelling initiative to rethink the discipline, three principal questions arise. Firstly, is it sufficient to focus on the Qurʾān exclusively in the shape established by the redactors, only contextualized with earlier tradi-tions, as an endeavor to trace its historically founded “true meaning”?
Second, is it methodologically sound to completely detach the text from the responses of its recipients, those contemporary with the text’s publication and those that accu-mulated later to constitute the vast exegetical library of Islam? And third, can we afford to completely “erase our scholarly selves from the philological act”7 and…
Wansbrough, Bultmann, and the Theory of Variant Traditions in the Qurʾān
John Wansbrough’s paired works Quranic Studies and The Sectarian Milieu have been recognized for their radical departure from mainstream scholarship on the Qurʾān and early Islamic history. Unfortunately, their difficulty has prevented many scholars in Islamic studies from constructive engagement with the theories proposed therein.
In addition to dense style and technical terms in Greek, Latin, German, and Hebrew, unstated assumptions and unexplained methods made all the more obscure because of the absence of introductions and conclusions have presented a challenge to comprehension. It would aid investigators to understand the main intellectual background of these works, which Wansbrough merely hints at rather than sets forth methodically.
They are based primarily on the methods of Formgeschichte (“Form-History”) developed by scholars of the New Testa-ment who sought, by investigating the synoptic Gospels, to gain access to the earlier, folkloric texts from which they had been formed and thereby to under-stand the nature of the early Christian community in which those texts had been produced and circulated. The following remarks discuss Wansbrough’s indebted-ness to Formgeschichte and critique the theory of variant traditions he proposes in Quranic Studies.
In the preface to Quranic Studies, Wansbrough criticizes the current state of qurʾānic scholarship: “To argue a case for the Qurʾān as scripture may seem gratuitous. As the record of Muslim revelation the book requires no introduc-tion. As a document susceptible of analysis by the instruments and techniques of biblical criticism it is virtually unknown.”1 Scholars of Islamic studies have often similarly lamented the fact that biblical criticism has not been applied to the Qurʾān, an observation that is justified in general though not true categorically.
However, Wansbrough’s lament does not specify what is meant by biblical criti-cism, which encompasses a large number of distinct critical approaches that can be classed under the already broad rubrics of textual criticism, historical criticism, source criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism, canonical criticism, feminist criticism, and so forth.
Wansbrough’s Quranic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation (1977) and The Sectarian Milieu: Content and Composi-tion of Islamic Salvation History (1978) certainly respond to the dearth of criti-cal study to which he refers and do employ biblical critical methods. However, awareness of the particular strand of biblical criticism on which he draws is a requirement necessary for an appreciation of his assumptions, methods, and theo-ries that appear arbitrary or anomalous.
Many of Quranic Studies’ main arguments have been passed over in silence in part because it is a difficult book to read and comprehend. As reviewers have repeatedly noted, Wansbrough assumes the reader will readily understand quota-tions and technical terms in Hebrew, German, Latin, and Greek; to alleviate this problem, Andrew Rippin’s new edition of the work includes a glossary.2
In addition, Wansbrough’s prose is dense. Stephen Humphreys remarks, “He affects a ferociously opaque style which bristles with unexplained technical terms in many languages, obscure allusions, and Teutonic grammar.”3
Despite being “laced with brilliance and insight,” William A. Graham reports that Quranic Studies is “an exceedingly cumbersome and gratuitously difficult work. . . . Here is Anglo-Saxon revenge for every dense and massive tome of Germanic erudition ever published. Compared to this, Reckendorf’s Arabische Syntax makes for light bedside reading.”4 Wansbrough disingenuously describes Quranic Studies as a collection of disparate essays. He omits an introduction and a conclusion to the work as a whole and also omits introductions and conclusions to the individual chapters.
As Graham remarks, “The simple use of clear introductory statements, transitional explanations, and concluding summaries for the discrete arguments of the essays would have worked wonders for the comprehensibility of the whole.”5 The new edition might have done a useful service to the field had it provided an introduction that explained the work’s overall arguments and structure, clarifying its theoretical bases as well as the connections between its sections.6
In an effort to make Wansbrough’s ideas more accessible, several scholars have explained and commented on parts of his work, but they have not resolved the main difficulties it presents by tracing its intellectual genealogy, addressing it instead from the point of view of qurʾānic and Islamic studies.
Scholarship addressing Quranic Studies has focused on a limited number of issues and especially on the claim of a late redaction of the Qurʾān. Gregor Schoe-ler critiques Wansbrough on this account, arguing that the compilation and redac-tion of the Qurʾān under ʿUthmān (r. 644–656) is, if not proven, at least extremely probable because it is unanimously supported by tradition. The dispute over the writing down of hadith presupposes an already complete and published Qurʾān by the beginning of the second Islamic century.
Moreover, now fragments of a Qurʾān manuscript have been found in Ṣanʿāʾ that date to as early as the second half of the seventh century.7
Andrew Rippin, Herbert Berg, and others have writ-ten commentaries and explanations of Wansbrough’s theories in general, pointing out, for example, that the mere existence of the Qurʾān as scripture at a certain date does not prove that it had been canonized by that time.8 Gerald Hawting has written a significant defense of Wansbrough’s claim that the Qurʾān cannot have been written in the Arabian peninsula, addressing what is perhaps the strongest piece of contrary evidence, the material in the Qurʾān that is related to pre-Islamic pagan traditions, and arguing that the references to pagan beliefs do not derive from pre-Islamic Arabian pagan beliefs but are rather part of a strategy often seen on the part of monotheists, of accusing opponents of pagan beliefs.9 Wansbrough’s
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