Review of Sarah R. Bin Tyeer, The Qur’an and the Aesthetics of Premodern Arabic Prose

Review of Sarah R. Bin Tyeer, The Qur’an and the Aesthetics of Premodern Arabic Prose

I have attended several presentations by Islamic art historians in which they purported to present an Islamic theory of aesthetics that drew on the Qurʾān. These talks were characterized by sweeping generalizations about the qurʾānic text, an appalling absence of concrete examples, and great leaps from the text to rather vague aesthetic principles.

Review of Seyfeddin Kara, In Search of ʿAlī Ibn Abī Ṭālib’s Codex

The textual history of the Qurʾān has always engendered debates and disagreements among Muslims and non-Muslim Western scholars alike. Such textual history has been mostly reconstructed by relying on Sunni narrations which identify the first and third caliphs, Abū Bakr and ʿUthmān b. ʿAffān, as the ones who endeavoured to promote the compilation of Islam’s sacred text. In so doing, such studies often seem to have shunned the traditions relative to ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib’s codex.In his new volume, In Search of ʿAlī Ibn Abī Ṭālib’s Codex: History and Traditions of the Earliest Copy of the Qurʾān, Seyfeddin Kara takes into account how the Shiʿi claim—that the fourth caliph and first Shiʿi Imam carried out the compilation of the Qurʾān before anyone else—has frequently been perceived as politicised bias. This, our author observes, as many scholars have done before him, has contributed to the crystallization of a negative attitude in Western academia towards the study of Shiʿi ḥadīth compilations. What is admirable and innovative in this new work is Kara’s goal of refusing to espouse any distorted, standardized preconception, and his yearning to shatter any sectarianized perspective. In order to achieve this, Kara sets for himself a series of very complex tasks: 1) an analysis of Muslim sources, namely, both Shiʿi and Sunni traditions reporting on ʿAlī’s collection of the Qurʾān; 2) an attempt to identify an earliest conceivable date for such traditions; and 3) whenever possible, these traditions’ genuineness.

Review of Stephen Shoemaker, The Apocalypse of Empire

Stephen Shoemaker’s The Apocalypse of Empire builds upon the methodology, and some of the most provocative conclusions, of the author’s earlier monograph The Death of a Prophet.[1] In that book, Shoemaker subjects the extant evidence concerning Muḥammad’s death to close scrutiny, concluding that the Prophet died after the invasion of Palestine commenced in 634 CE and not before, as most accounts hold. Even more shockingly, Shoemaker asserts that Muḥammad preached a fervently eschatological message and led his followers in a campaign to conquer Jerusalem as the focal point of an imminent apocalyptic culmination of history.[2] One of the most compelling features of The Death of a Prophet is Shoemaker’s deployment of a methodology and framework drawn from the study of early Christianity in order to show how the overtly eschatological message of the original movement that followed Muḥammad was radically rewritten in the course of just a few decades, forever altering the meaning and thrust of Islam in its formative period.

Review of S. R. Burge, The Meaning of the Word

If exegesis is not the beginning point of Islamic scholarship, it was present at the beginning, and in modern times it has not ceased to be a productive discipline. The many applications and implications that commentary and interpretation have for the historical extent of Islamic thought more than justify the recent burst of edited volumes from the Institute of Ismaili Studies variously dedicated to qur’ānic exegesis, of which The Meaning of the Word: Lexicology and Qur’anic Exegesis is the third to appear in three years. The essays in this volume are trained on hermeneutic inquiry at the level of the word—the object of exegesis at its most granular. It is a field of inquiry with natural affinities to lexicography, but as noted in the editor’s introduction, exegesis constitutes a separate practice with separate aims. A disambiguating rubric was therefore needed, and lexicology was made to stand for philology in the service of exegesis, with lexicography relegated to “lexicon-making” (xxi). Whatever the soundness of this delimitation, the volume’s contents, focusing on the former, are a diversely vital addition not only to the critical literature on taʾwīl and tafsīr but to the studies of translation and hermeneutics generally.

Review of Nevin Reda, The al-Baqara Crescendo

In The al-Baqara Crescendo, Nevin Reda does an exceptional job of describing the Qur’ān in the vocabulary of art, aesthetics, acoustics, chanting, song, music, the rhythms and rhymes of orally-recited poetry, poetic-like rhetorical devices, and German terminology. Her emotive vocabulary and accessible writing style lures the reader into a feeling that her approach is holistic and that Sūrat al-Baqarah is coherent. Reda includes fourteen tables, each painstakingly-crafted in order to illustrate particular textual parallels. The transliteration table, however, includes only eighteen of the twenty-eight Arabic letters, and the glossary does not include all of her technical terms.

Review of Taiq Jaffer, Rāzī

Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 606/1209) is one of the greats of the late classical Muslim scholarly tradition, and Tariq Jaffer’s contribution comes at a time of renewed interest in al-Rāzī’s intellectual contributions, spearheaded most prominently by Ayman Shihadeh, among others. As Jaffer demonstrates in the useful bibliographical introduction to his study, al-Rāzī’s pervasive influence on late Sunni and Shiʿi theological and philosophical discourses from the thirteenth century CE to the present day is an indisputable fact. Taking a cue from Michel Lagarde’s monograph on the al-Tafsīr al-kabīr (also known as the Mafātīḥ al-ghayb),[1] al-Rāzī’s major work of qurʾanic exegesis, Jaffer strives to flesh out more fully how al-Rāzī’s approach to the Qurʾan in that work embodied pivotal intellectual developments in the Islamic scholarly milieu of his time.

Review of Jacqueline Chabbi, Les trois piliers de l’Islam

In Les trois piliers de l’Islam Jacqueline Chabbi makes the case that Islam as we know it from medieval sources is not the same as Islam as it was in its original Arabian context. According to Chabbi, academic scholars and pious Muslims alike too often fail to recognize elements of Islam which were introduced in later centuries, and too often assume that medieval ideas about the Qurʾan reflect what the Qurʾan meant to its original, Arabian audience. As she puts it, “Le Coran comme corpus textuel doit donc impérativement être séparé de son après” (p. 24) or, elsewhere, “Il ne faut pas se tromper de lieu et d’époque” (p. 349). Les trois piliers de l’Islam is her effort to set things straight, to recover Islam’s original message.