On Qur’anic Studies and ‘Ulum al-Qur’an

By Emran El-Badawi

The Qur’an is not merely the scripture that gave birth to Islamic Tradition but also–in the words of the late Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (d. 2010)–a “discursive text.” Its eloquence, argumentation and history engaged generations of Muslim scholars who dedicated numerous monographs and essays to different studies on the Qur’an. early scholars meticulously studied their scripture’s grammar (i’rab), rhetoric (balaghah) and loan words (mu’arrabat); they also documented its earliest codices (masahif), variant readings (qira’at), and wrote mammoth tomes on exegesis (tafsir).

Within the field of exegesis alone there is a good deal of variety. Among other exegetical works, Muhammad b. Jarir al-Tabari’s famous Tafsir (3/10th century) uses prophet stories, insights from the earliest generation of Muslims (like ‘Abdulah b. Abbas; d. 68/687) and his own personal insights on matters of language to elucidate the verses of the Qur’an. Along similar lines Abu Bakr b. al-‘Arabi’s Ahkam al-qur’an has an unmistakably juridical flavor, as does Mahmud b. ‘Umar al-Zamakhshari’s Kashshaf a subtly Mu’tazili one (both 6th/12th century). The efflorescence of different academic fields of Qu’anic study lead to a great deal of specialization, divergence and variety.

From gomdl.com

From gomdl.com

The need to integrate these different academic fields and preserve the rich insights of earlier scholars into a unified discipline surrounding the Qur’an gave rise to what is traditionally known as ‘ulum al-qur’an, or ‘Qur’anic Sciences/Studies’ (a term better encapsulated in the German “koranischen Wissenschaften”). There are two major pre-modern ‘ulum al-qur’an works, Badr al-Din al-Zarkashi’s Burhan (8th/14th century) and Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti’s Itqan (ca. 905/1500). The latter goes into seemingly exhaustive detail concerning many subjects, including the number and types of qur’anic verses, loan words, problematic passages, script, i’jaz, semantic and rhetorical debates–principally based on the insights coming from generations of earlier Qur’an scholars. Suyuti’s Itqan is, by itself, a major resource for any student of the Qur’an.

More recent works of ‘ulum al-qur’an include Muhammad ‘Abd al-‘Azim al-Zurqani’s Manahil al-‘irfan (1943) and a useful English abridgment of this traditional discipline by Ahmad Von Denffer called Ulum al Qur’an: An Introduction to the Sciences of the Qur’an  (1994; revised 2009). Zarqawi and Von Denffer wrote five centuries after Zarkashi and Suyuti–who were themselves just as far removed from the earliest authorities on the Qur’an like ‘Abd Allah b. ‘Abbas. Yet their works stay true  to ‘integrating and preserving’ earlier scholarship on the Qur’an, uniformly and adding little new information.

This was the principle critique of Abu Zayd leveled against pre-modern ‘ulum al-qur’an works. He argues that the problem with many traditional Qur’anic Studies works are (1) their tendency to reproduce old and sometimes outdated insights and (2) an absence of original insights. The emphasis, therefore, of works like those of Zarkashi and Suyuti are not the Qur’an itself, but rather Islamic Tradition. In his book, Mafhum al-nass, Abu Zayd proposed a bold, systematic, fresh inquiry into the Qur’an’s text in light of its own ‘hermeneutical instruments,’ and exploring–among other things–who the speaker(s) of the text is in different passages. Abu Zayd’s commitment to the text directly–his simplicity and originality–rather than the verbosity of tradition, removes so much obfuscation and mystery surrounding the study of the Qur’an.

Abu Zayd was also someone who believed in building bridges between Islamic and western societies. Since the Qur’an is a text of world historical importance, he realized the value of exchanging ideas on the Qur’an across cultural lines. With this in mind there is some common ground between the traditional discipline of ‘ulum al-qur’an and the academic discipline of Qur’anic Studies in the western academy today. In this respect the traditional study of the Qur’an’s loan words (mu’arrabat) or foreign language (gharib)–especially from Aramaic–can be viewed as part of what the academy calls Semitic Linguistics. Furthermore, as an integral part of world literature the Qur’an is also in dialogue with other scriptural traditions–especially the Hebrew and Christian Bible (al-tawrah wa al-injil)–that can prove illuminating. Qur’anic Studies in the western academy can also benefit from studying the Qur’an, not just as a text of history, but also as a text that lives within Islamic tradition.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2012. All rights reserved.