Theological Approaches to Qur’anic Exegesis: A Practical Comparative-Contrastive Analysis

  • Book Title:
 Theological Approaches To Quranic Exegesis
  • Book Author:
Hussein Abdul-Raof
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About the book – Theological Approaches to Qur’anic Exegesis

This book provides a comprehensive and systematic analysis of the various schools of Qur’anic exegesis, from the earliest periods through to the present day. Employing a comparative-contrastive methodology, the author examines traditional and rational schools of thought – such as the Mu’tazili, Shi’i, Ibadi, Sufi, metaphysical, modern, and scientific approaches to the interpretation of the Qur’an – to give a detailed analysis of the similarities and differences in their theological views.

 The study spans a broad period, covering exegetical techniques adopted in Qur’anic exegesis from its infancy during the 1st/7th century up to the beginning of the 15th/21st century. Furnished with copious micro- and macro-level examples which explicate the Qur’anic notions and the points of view relevant to each school and exegetical approach, the book provides a rounded empirical study of Islamic thought.

This thorough and holistic historical investigation is an important contribution to the study of Qur’anic exegesis and Islamic theology, and as such will be of enormous interest to scholars of religion, philosophy and Islamic studies. Hussein Abdul-Raof is a Professor of Linguistics in the Faculty of Arts, University of Taibah, Saudi Arabia. His research interests lie in Arabic and Qur’anic linguistics and rhetoric, Qur’anic studies and Qur’anic textual analysis.

 School of traditional exegesis -(al-tafsir bil-ma’thur)

The present discussion provides an explicated account of the traditional school of Qur’anic exegesis and how it developed. The major sources of the school of traditional exegesis are also discussed and explicated. These sources include the Qur’an, Muhammad’s tradition (sunnah), the companions’ views, and the early successors’ views.

This chapter also accounts for how the exegetical notion of Qur’anic intertextuality is related to the semantic notion of polysemy, the modes of reading, and the theological mutashabihat. Details are also provided about the position held by mainstream exegetes towards non-mainstream exegesis.

School of mainstream exegesis

The school of mainstream exegesis is the earliest form of traditional Qur’anic exegesis, which dates back to the lifetime of Muhammad (d. 11/632). The major sources of this school of exegesis are: (i) the Qur’an, (ii) the customary practice (sunnah) of Muhammad and his tradition (hadith), (iii) the views of the compan- ions, and (iv) the views of the early successors.

The evolution of mainstream Qur’anic exegesis (al-tafsir bil-ma’thur or al-tafsir al-naqli) dates back to the classical formative phase1 since the lifetime of Muhammad and is hinged on one of the above sources that are explained in the following sections.

The Qur’a-n

It is claimed by Muslim scholars that the Qur’an interprets itself (al-qur’anu yufassiru nafsahu). In other words, through Qur’anic intertextuality, the exegete can interpret the Qur’an. What is brief in a given ayah of a surah, is elaborated on by another ayah or set of ayahs elsewhere.

Qur’anic intertextuality is an exe- getical approach which is concerned with establishing textual links within the Qur’an in terms of an expression, an individual phrase, or an ayah. Thus, the meaning of an expression, a portion of an ayah, or an ayah can unfold through reference to thematically and semantically similar expressions, notions, or ayahs which act as semantically disambiguating devices.

For instance, the leitmotif of spending extravagantly versus being tight-fisted in expenditure is laid down by Q17:29 which sheds some light on home economics. However, more exegetical elaboration is given by Q25:67 (walladhina idha anfaqu lam yusrifu walam yaq- turu wakana baina dhalika qawama – They are those who, when they spend, do so not excessively or sparingly but are ever, between that, justly moderate).

However, the exegete is required to inform the reader that he/she is also instructed by the Qur’an to spend his/her wealth for causes that will please God as we are informed by further intertextual reference in Q2:215 (qul ma anfaqtum min khairin falil-walidaini wal-aqrabina – Say: ‘Whatever you spend of good is to be for parents and relatives’), Q8:36 (fasayunfiqunaha thumma takunu calaihim hasratan – So they will spend it; then it will be for them a source of regret), and Q59:9 (wayu’thiruna cala anfusihim walaw kana bihim khasasah waman yuqa shuhha nafsihi fa’ula’ika hum al-muflihun – But [the Ansar] give the emigrants (al- muhajirun) preference over themselves, even though they are in privation. Whoever is protected from the stinginess of his soul, it is those who will be the successful).

Similarly, the reader is instructed to worship the Lord in (ya aiyuha al-nasu ucbudu rabbakum alladhi khalaqakum walladhina min qablikum lacalla- kum tattaqun – O mankind, worship your Lord who created you and those before you, that you may become righteous, Q2:21).

 However, he/she is not told about what acts of worship that are required. This problem is exegetically illuminated through the intertextual reference to Q22:77–78 (ya aiyuha alladhina amanu irkacu wasjudu wacbudu rabbakum wafcalu al-khaira lacallakum tuflihun. wajah- idu fi allahi haqqa jihadihi . . . fa’aqimu al-salata wa’atu al-zakata wactasimu billahi . . . – O you who have believed, bow and prostrate and worship your Lord and do good, that you may succeed. And strive for God with the striving due to Him . . . So establish prayer and give zakat and hold fast to God . . .).

The exegetical tool of Qur’anic intertextuality (tafsir al-qur’an bil-qur’an) can perform one of the following functions in Qur’anic exegesis:

Through Qur’anic intertextuality, we can make a generic meaning more spe- cific through elaboration, as in: (lan tanalu al-birra hatta tunfiqu mimma tuhibbun – Never will you attain the good reward until you spend in the way of God from that which you love, Q3:92) which refers to (al-infaq – spending) in a general way. This generic meaning of (al-infaq) is made more specific by Q76:8 (wayutcimuna al-tacama cala hubbihi miskinan wayatiman wa’asiran –

They give food in spite of love for it to the needy, the orphan, and the captive) which specifically states how (al-infaq) can be made. Another example of how the general meaning of an ayah can be made more specific by another ayah is found in Q5:32 and its counterpart Q4:93. Q5:32 provides a generic meaning through the expression (nafs – soul) which occurs in the indefinite noun form: (min ajli dhalika katabna cala bani isra’ila annahu man qatala nafsan bighairi nafsin aw fasadin fi al-ardi faka’annama qatala al-nasa jamican waman ahyaha fak’annama ahya al-nasa jamican –

 Because of that, We decreed upon the Children of Israel that who- ever kills a soul unless for a soul or for corruption done in the land, it is as if he had slain mankind entirely. And whoever saves one, it is as if he had saved mankind entirely). However, Q4:93 explains the specific meaning of what (nafs) actually means: (waman yaqtul mu’minan mutacammidan fajaza’uhu jahannamu khalidan fiha –

 Whoever kills a believer intentionally, his recom- pense is hell wherein he will abide eternally). Thus, the expression (nafs) specifically means (a believer) according to Q4:93. Similarly, in Q4:123, the expression (su’an – a wrong deed) has a generic meaning: (man yacmal su’an yujza bihi –

Whoever does a wrong will be recompensed for it). However, Q34:17 provides a specific meaning to (su’an): (dhalika jazainahum bima kafaru – We repaid them because they disbelieved). Thus, (su’an) in Q4:123 specifically means: (kafaru – to disbelieve) according to Q34:17.

The same applies to Q22:1 (ya aiyuha al-nasu ittaqu rabbakum – Mankind, be mindful of your Lord), where the expression (taqwa – to be mindful of the Lord) has a generic meaning and, therefore, requires elaboration to unlock its restricted signification.

In Q22:77–78, elaboration is provided on what the nature of (taqwa) is (ya aiyuha alladhina amanu irkacu wasjudu wacbudu rabbakum wafcalu al-khaira . . . wajahidu fi allahi haqqa jihadihi . . . aqimu al-salata wa’atu al-zakata wactasimu billahi – O you who have believed, bow and prostrate and worship your Lord and do good, that you may succeed. And strive for God with the striving due to Him . . . establish prayer and give zakat and hold fast to God).

(b) Qur’anic intertextuality can unlock an ambiguous meaning of an ayah or expression and be made clear, as in: (wa’akharuna murjawna li’amri allahi imma yucadhdhibuhum wa’imma yatubu calaihim – There are others deferred until the command of God whether He will punish them or whether He will forgive them, Q9:106) in which the meaning of the expression (akharun – others) is ambiguous.

 This semantic ambiguity is explained by Q9:118 (wacala al-thalathati alladhina khullifu hatta idha daqat calaihim al-ardu bima rahubat wadaqat calaihim anfusuhum wazannu an la malja’a min allahi illa ilaihi thumma taba calaihim liyatubu –

He also forgave the three who were left behind and regretted their error to the point that the earth closed in on them in spite of its vastness and their souls anguished them and they were certain that there is no refuge from God except in Him. Then He turned to them so they could repent) whose circumstance of revelation refers to Hilal b. Umaiyah, Mararah b. Rabic, and Kacb b. Malik.

Another example of how a semantic ambiguity can be explained is encountered in: (nakala al-akhirati wal-ula – exemplary punishment for the last and the first transgression, Q79:25) which is an ambiguous ayah. However, its vague meaning can be disambiguated by two more ayahs: (waqala fircawnu ya aiyuha al-mala’u ma calimtu lakum min ilahin ghairi fa’awqid li ya hamanu cala al-tini fajcal li sarhan lacalli attalicu ila ilahi musa wa’inni la’azunnuhu min al-kadhibin –

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