Review of David S. Powers, Zayd

Review of David S. Powers, Zayd

David Powers’ new monograph Zayd is a follow up to his much debated Muḥammad is Not the Father of Any of Your Men (2009) and provides an extensive investigation into the lives of two prominent Companions of Muhammad: his freedman (mawlā) Zayd ibn Harithah and Zayd’s son Usāmah. In the prior monograph, Powers argued that the key to unlocking a litany of historical enigmas from the early Muslim community lies within the narratives of the life of Muhammad’s freedman Zayd ibn Ḥārithah. Powers’ efforts to resolve these enigmas led him to pursue controversial theses regarding the redaction of the Qurʾan and the composition of the earliest tradition on Muhammad’s prophetic career. Powers’ theses were bold, but he also marshalled a bold array of evidence, bringing together codicology, philology, and historico-critical readings of the earliest traditions on the life of Muhammad and his companions. Yet, at the time of writing, Powers’ interpretation of his data has also been contested and disputed far more than it has been accepted.[

Review of Michel Cuypers, La composition du Coran

Michel Cuypers is known to many students of the Qurʾan from his influential 2007 study of Sūrat al-Māʾidah: Le festin, later translated into English as The Banquet.[1] In Le festin Cuypers analyzes Sūrat al-Māʾidah using a method (which I will refer to as ‘Semitic rhetorical analysis’) meant to uncover the particular structure of qurʾanic passages. The Qurʾan, Cuypers holds, is written with rhetorical structures common in Semitic languages yet foreign to Greek rhetoric and, hence, to much of the western tradition. For this reason, Cuypers contends, western scholars (and for that matter traditional Muslim scholars, who were likewise influenced by the principles of Greek rhetoric) have often failed to recognize their presence in the Qurʾan. The present work, La composition du Coran, is meant to be a handbook for those who would like to understand (and perhaps apply) the method of Semitic rhetorical analysis. La composition du Coran is scheduled to appear in an English translation by J. Ryan,[2] but the present review is based only on the original French version.

Review of John A.C. Brown, Misquoting Muhammad

Misquoting Muhammad is a compelling read. It is an ambitious and well-conceived effort by Jonathan A.C. Brown to explore the rich intellectual and legal tradition of Sunni Islam. The work demonstrates that Brown is one of the few contemporary scholars capable of working comfortably with both the pre-modern juristic tradition and the modern Islamic world and of navigating its many contentious debates. Although he analyzes a period extending over 1400 years, Brown’s writing remains engaging and accessible throughout, although a stronger concluding section may have enabled the reader to appreciate the work’s central arguments or observations. His methodology, in which he takes a set of case studies focusing on particular legal questions, allows the reader to better understand the mechanisms and parameters of the Sunni juristic tradition. This approach also enables Brown to acquaint the reader with both the classical juristic discourse and modern debates on specific topics, thereby presenting the continuities and ruptures between pre-modern and contemporary scriptural hermeneutics.

Review of Anne-Sylvie Boisliveau, Le Coran par lui-même

Among the recent rash of publications on the Qurʾan, the work of Anne-Sylvie Boisliveau stands out as much for its scientific quality as for its originality. It is true that the question of the auto-referentiality of the Qurʾan—“what the Qurʾan says about itself”—has already been treated partially, notably by Daniel Madigan,[1] Stefan Wild,[2] and several others, but this is the first time that the subject is studied in all its fullness, precision, and depth to the point that it leads the reader to a renewed vision of the Qurʾan both globally and in its details. The work is the fruit of a two-part doctoral thesis: the first part treats the subject from a synchronic perspective, taking the Qurʾan as a whole; the second part adopts a diachronic viewpoint and takes into account the chronological development of the constitution of the qurʾanic text. Only the first part appears in this book; the second is reserved for publication in a near future. This book, therefore, is deliberately situated within the current of synchronic studies of the qurʾanic text which goes back to the ancient exegetical principle of explaining the Qurʾan by the Qurʾan, but here the subject is treated with all the rigor of the modern critical method.

Review of Holger Zellentin, The Qur’an’s Legal Culture

In The Qurʾān’s Legal Culture, Holger Michael Zellentin takes up an old but live question in qurʾanic studies: what role did the religious traditions of late antiquity play in shaping the qurʾanic text and dispensation? While the question is familiar, Zellentin’s approach and answers are new. Many scholars will be acquainted with analyses that consider the Qurʾan in light of rabbinic law or Christian theology. Zellentin’s innovative, well-argued, and very readable work, however, suggests that these established scholarly foci overlook one of the principal traditions to which the Qurʾan responds and against which it shapes itself: a specific strand of Christian law current in the late antique Syriac churches. In Zellentin’s view, this is not the high ecclesiastical law of bishops’ synods and canonical legislation. Rather, the Qurʾan is conversant with a tradition of ritual and purity observances that were based on the prescriptions of the Torah, modified for Gentile Christians, and practiced by believers within the Christian communities of the late antique Near East. This “Judaeo-Christian lawcode” is best exemplified in the discourses on pious practice found in the Syriac version of the Didascalia Apostolorum, a church order attributed to the apostles that took shape between the third and seventh centuries CE. Through a comparative analysis of the Didascalia and the Qurʾan, Zellentin concludes that the legal tradition evident in the former was a key element of the “legal culture” of the Qurʾan’s seventh-century milieu. Most significantly, the Qurʾan’s own conception of a prophetically delivered, divine law for Gentiles emerged both in conversation with and against that precedent.

Review of Abdullah Saeed, Reading the Qur’an in the Twenty-first Century

Methodological concerns about approaches to qurʾanic exegesis are not new, but while debates about specific elements and tools for interpreting the Qurʾan continue to occur, certain paradigms dictating the traditional approach to the text were established relatively early and have successfully remained dominant for centuries. Chief among these paradigms is a framework of what can be termed the “textualist position,” characterized by a fixation with the literal meaning of the text. In his book Reading the Qurʾan in the Twenty-First Century, Abdullah Saeed (Sultan of Oman Professor of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne) criticizes the textualist exegetical paradigm and highlights certain texts for which the textualist approach falls short of providing satisfactory interpretations in the modern age. Saeed promotes, instead, a contextualist reading of the Qurʾan, which he claims will better serve the exegetical and ethico-legal needs of the modern Muslim community (though he cautiously does not call for a complete rejection of the textualist paradigm). This method of reading is not unique to Saeed, a fact that he is quick to acknowledge: “I do not claim that most of the ideas in the book are new: indeed, many have already been circulating in the literature for a long time” (p. 12).[1] However, his project gathers the many disparate thoughts, exempla, reading strategies, and principles into a single text and, hence, produces a useful and easily-accessible resource.

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 M. Brett Wilson, Translating the Qur’an in an Age of Nationalism

For a long time, Qurʾan translations have attracted little scholarly attention. There were a few bibliographical overviews, a small number of studies dealing with premodern manuscript translations, several papers discussing ways to produce a philologically sound and/or dogmatically acceptable translation; but there was hardly any effort to treat Qurʾan translations as an exegetical genre that is situated in a specific historical, social, and scholarly context and can be fruitfully examined in order to elucidate this context. Or, as Wilson puts it, “the interesting choices made by translators are often lost amid compulsive evaluations of accuracy, which is an elusive concept” (p. 5). Moreover, qurʾanic studies had a tendency to neglect regional and linguistic diversity; the focus was on Arabic and, at most, English. Fortunately, this is starting to change. With Travis Zadeh’s The Vernacular Qurʾan (Oxford: Oxford University Pres, 2012), the first extensive study of early Persian exegesis has been published, and now Brett Wilson has presented us with a highly readable and compelling account of the place of the printed Qurʾan and Qurʾan translations in late-Ottoman and early-republican Turkey, as well as in the wider context of Muslim intellectual debates. His book is based upon his view of the translation of the Qurʾan as “a dynamic and crucial chapter in the history of the Qurʾan and Muslim intellectual life.” The central question, to him, is not whether the Turkish translations produced in the time span under consideration were “good” or not, but “how and why Muslims viewed translations as vital for coping with the circumstances in which they lived” (p. 5). As such, this book is an indispensable contribution to the ongoing attempt to situate the Qurʾan and its interpretation within the social and intellectual history of the Islamicate world.

Review of Shady Nasser, The Transmission of the Variant Readings of the Qur’an

Shady H. Nasser’s recent volume, The Transmission of the Variant Readings of the Qurʾān, makes an important contribution to our understanding of early Muslim scripturalism. Nasser argues that the question of verbal canonicity, of the acceptable recitations (qirāʾāt), moves from the realm of jurisprudence to that of transmitted tradition in the early period. His book lays out the processes whereby certain readings of the Qurʾan were deemed canonical while others were deemed deviant (shādhdh; pl. shawādhdh) by the early tradition.