Sayyid Quṭb Conception of Jihād against the Ṭawāġīt of the NewJāhiliyyah

Sayyid Quṭb Conception of Jihād against the Ṭawāġīt of the NewJāhiliyyah

Riccardo Amerigo Vigliermo, University of Modena and Reggio Emilia (UNIMORE), FSCIRE, Italy
IQSA International Conference 2021 “Giorgio La Pira” Library, Palermo, Italy
Panel 9. Striking Back at the Empire: Anti-imperialism in Contemporary Qur’anic Exegesis

Colonialism and European nation-state ideology generated a strong cultural dependency that caused the gradual loss of national independency and consciousness, but also the general Islamic radicalization process of society and religion. Sayyid Quṭb’s thinking has been developed in a context of retreating colonialism and national identity building; a period of transition from the British protectorate to the building of a new Egyptian modern state. Through Qur’anic exegesis of jihād verses as commented in his Fī ẓilāl al-Qur’ān (1951–9), and then used in Maʿālim fī al-ṭarīq (1964), Quṭb conceptualizes the jihād as the instrument intended to eradicate the newly formed Arabic political systems, which he considers non-Islamic and similar to the pre-Islamic idols (ṭāġūt, plur. ṭawāġīt). This conception is explained for example in his tafsīr of surat al-Baqarah where two main points are analyzed: the relationship with Jews and the spread of Islamic message (daʿwah) in Medina. In the Medinan phase, theory becomes practice in a dynamic fashion (ḥarakiyyah) where the Book is considered the real soul of the early Islamic community. So, the early ‘Ummah moved away (from Mecca) to establish a divine system (manhaj) on earth by using jihād after a complete detachment (insilāḫ) from jāhiliyyah system. Jihād in Quṭb’s view is then considered in the context of a continuous struggle against the cyclic revival of the jāhiliyyah period which places the human being in a condition of constant subordination to other humans diverting themself from the path of establishing the word of Allah and his sovereignty (ḥākimiyyah).

Review of Qur’anic Research, Vol. 3 no.7 (2017)

In the latest installment of the Review of Qur’anic Research (Vol. 3 no.7), David Larsen (New York University) reviews The Meaning of the Word: Lexicology and Qur’anic Exegesis (Edited by S.R. Burge: Oxford University Press, 2015).

“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…”


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© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2017. All rights reserved.

Publication Announcement: Philosophical Perspectives on Modern Qur’ānic Exegesis


Flyer courtesy of Dr. Massimo Campanini and Equinox Publishers

Surah 111: the Fiber [Rope]

by Rachid Benzine*

Arabic text of Surah 111.

Arabic text of Surah 111.

Interpretative paradigms of the Qur’an can mainly be sorted into two main families, which we would name “Islamisation” and “Biblisation”, both within Muslim and non-Muslim scholarly traditions. The “Islamisation” paradigm consists in accessing the Qur’an only or mainly through late 8th and 9th literature (sîra, Sunna, and asbâb al-nuzûl) whose actual factuality is seldomly called into question. As a result, we read the Qur’an through an “Islamic” glance, which is actually a later construct. The “Biblisation” paradigm, on the other hand, consists in embedding the Qur’an in the larger landscape of Revealed books, in particular the Torah and the Gospels, transforming the Qur’an in some sequel, a remainder of a long Revelation process, which could not be understood outside of the context of the earlier Books (a good example of this approach can be found here). The consequence, in both cases, is that the actual society in which the Qur’an was revealed and Muhammad has been operating is completely obliterated or is made irrelevant. Understanding the Qur’an in its context becomes therefore much more difficult and drives hermeneutists to miss deeper or sometimes more obvious meanings of concepts, words, verses and surahs [ One of the many examples of such obvious meanings lost in a translation process that does not take into account the society of the Qur’an is the translation of kâfir by “disbeliever”. In Qur’an (57,20), Jacques Berques translates the word kuffâr into french “dénégateurs” (unbelievers) when the more adequate meaning with regard to the context is “plowmen”. This meaning is clouded by a later theological enwrapment of the word kufr. Unwrapping what is theological to go back to the original meaning i.e. what it meant for the society back then is the essence of our approach.

The paradigm we use to approach Surah 111 strives to reconstruct the segmental/tribal society in which the Qur’an was revealed, starting from the only tangible and factual artifact we have from this period: the Qur’an and its very specific lexicon. Words are like boxes, archeological treasures, which we need to unpack until we reach their most concrete, basic meanings: those used in a tribal, nomadic society, living the in Arabia and characterized by paucity and constant struggle for life. The Qur’an was supposed to be meaningful for these people in this very specific socio-historical and geographical context. Rendering life to this society, reconstructing their imaginary is a safe track to grasp the meaning of many Qur’anic patterns that had remained particularly abstruse for a long time. Because we were not approaching them through the eyes, ears, minds and imaginaries of the people of the Qur’anic time and society, but through the eyes, ears, minds and imaginaries of people who wrote about them centuries later. Including ourselves.

What’s more, it can be argued that the choice of one of the two paradigms mentioned earlier leads to very different starting points. In the Islamisation paradigm, the starting matter is one of orthodoxy: how are we supposed to understand the Qur’an according to an authorized set of texts. In the Biblisation paradigm, the starting matter is one of deconstruction : what kind of biblical material can be identified behind the Qur’an viewed as a biblical subtext. In the paradigm we want to present here, the starting matter is neither one of orthodoxy nor one of deconstruction but rather one of rebuilding. In this paradigm, the Qur’anic material is not presupposed to be an extension of biblical and parabiblical narratives but a witness of a set of anthropological manifestations that are clouded by the distance between us and the society that received the Qur’an as a contemporary phenomenon. Such distance was already prominent by the time the Islamic Tradition was formed and thus the Mufasirûn faced the same problem as we do today, making the Islamisation paradigm a tricky one without the proper anthropological tools to discriminate between what is relevant in the Tradition and what is more or less clearly a product of the 9th century and later. That is not to say that no biblical material may enlight given passages of the Qur’an or that the Tradition is ultimately and systematically wrong, but any biblical insight or any late interpretation can only be relevant in light of an Arabic imaginary which has its specificities and originality that we propose to unravel.

As you shall see below, exercised on one of the shortest Surahs, this approach is already bringing interesting elements to life, therefore contributing to the rebuilding of the “Qur’anic imaginary”. We will be publishing soon on key Qur’anic concepts such as “Imân”, “Kufr”, etc.

Our translation

(1) May the hands of the ruby colored (man) [Abû Lâhab] be parched and may he parch himself (on his feet) (2) His wealth will serve him nothing and neither will what he has acquired (3) He will be exposed to a high flamed fire (4) And his wife will have to (go fetch and) bring wood (like a slave) (5) A fiber rope around her neck.

Verse by verse analysis and contextualisation

Verse 1: “May the hands of the ruby colored (man) [Abû Lâhab] be parched and may he parch himself (on his feet).

A. Explanation of “Lahab”

“Ruby colored” could mean “of a shining beauty”. We would even rather use the word “fop” since the expression is meant to be unkind.

In Lisân Al-Arab we find the following excerpt: “Abû Lahab was a kunya (kunya meaning here: a nickname) given to one of Muhammad’s paternal uncles (a’mâm an-nabî). He was given this nickname for his beauty (kuniya Abû Lahab li-jamâli-hi)”.

Therefore, in the this context, Abû Lahab should be translated into the one with ruby cheeks or ruby complexion. Indeed, the Luhba (same root “LHB” as Lahab) means the shiny color of the skin (Ishrâq al-lawn) when compared to a bright flame.

The first meaning of lahab is a “pure smokeless light which rises from the night camps and enlightens people with a positive connotation”.

From the flame which stands straight we can also draw the meaning Lihb, the “abrupt side of a mountain which cannot be climbed and looks like a straight wall”.

In the Surah 111, there is a play on words about lahab, the good looking man with a ruby complexion and the fact that he will be exposed without protection to the (solar) flame (lahab), the word lahab recovering its real meaning.

This understanding of lahab needs to be correlated to another description of (solar) hell meant to be terrifying in 77, 31 with the image of solar fire as a flame as high as a fort, qasr, meaning here the forts around the oases, some of which could still be found in Arabia (see on the internet photographs of old forts in Khaybar oasis).

B. The hands

In the tribal culture, the hand is a sign of might and power, especially since the hand of powerful tribe men is the organ with which they donate and create debtors. It could also be the hand as the symbol of an agreed upon alliance. It is no mere coincidence that the hand is mentioned in cases of alliance with the divine. The divine hand grants the human alliance between Muhammad and those who join him in Q. 48:10. God’s hand stands above those who came to show allegiance, bay’a, during the Medina period. Q. 5:64 curses the Jews, Al-Yahûd who pretend that God’s hand will be closed, maghlûqa (except for them) whereas the divine discourse ceaselessly boasts the divine generosity to which human beings owe everything. This allegation of the Jews stands as a polemic for a shameless lie. The response is prompt in the same verse: “No, His hands, (those of Allah) are wide open (mabsûtatân) and he spends (yanfiqu) as much as he wants since he possesses everything and represents the limitless ability to give.

In an extremely succinct way, the Qur’an depicts the call for malediction on a man of beauty and power in his society by focusing on two of its attributes: physical and symbolic.

Verse 2: “His wealth will serve him nothing and neither will what he has acquired.”

This verse suggests that no human wealth could be compared to the divine one and that a man, as rich as he may be, will lose everything in the Hereafter when he faces God.

Abû Lahab (the fob) could be considered as a famous personality in Mecca at that time: rich, good-looker and intriguer. The call for his punishment looks therefore extremely harsh in that context.

Verse 3: “He (Abû Lahab) will be exposed (without being able to protect himself) to a high flamed fire.”

The “high flamed fire” consists in fact in a burning solar heat without shade or protection in the perspective of a divine judgment which sends him to hell. This is a metaphor of a summertime desert sun which could in fact be translated by a high flame of a blaze, if we wanted to decrypt the image). The violence of the Qur’anic speech counter-balances the tribal violence against Muhammad, as Abû Lahab seeks to banish him from his parental group, which was the worst sanction possible for a tribe man. It meant basically no resources, no support, no protection, i.e. becoming a “nobody”.

Verse 4: “And his wife will have to (go fetch and) bring wood (like a slave).

This verse clearly demonstrates that we are dealing with an act of relegation into the desert in the worst conditions imaginable for a tribe man and, moreover for a sedentary man since his high ranked wife is destined to a slave’s fate: gathering roots and small wood for the camp fire. This noble lady is thus promised to a supreme degradation and to a total loss of her statute.

This confirms that the “Lahab” of verse 3 does not refer to a metaphorical or otherworldly inferno, but to a very concrete reality: the burning fire of the desert under the sun, coupled with the social relegation and loss of hierarchical position for the Abû Lahab’s.

Verse 5: “A fiber rope around her neck.”

Jacques Berque thinks of mockery and he may be right; in which case we should translate: “(Her only ornament) would be the fiber rope she wears around her neck”, instead of the jewelry she is supposed to have worn as woman of high social rank in the Meccan society.

However, we could think of alternatives where the last verse of the surah could complete the image of the verse 4, around the carrying of wood. Indeed, we can find on the internet pictures from the Red Sea coast of Yemen, where women carry incredible loads and especially wood. The burden is in fact retained by a fiber rope, except that it is tightened around the forehead.

Conclusion: reading a Surah in its historical context.

Confronted to this Surah which is actually replete with references to the struggles of Muhammad with his society in Mecca, is it possible to keep on claiming that the Qur’an is a “text without context” as it is sometimes learnedly affirmed? There is indeed, in this passage, an eschatological vision of a biblical origin in its principle: the idea an infernal punishment.

But that is it. Through the play of words, the understanding of the functioning of a tribal society, the historical elements we can know about the unfolding of the preaching of Muhammad, we understand that the Qur’anic inferno is actually describing the very concrete desert of Arabia, adding social dereliction on its top. In that sense, the idea of infernal punishment is not just borrowed from the Bible, but is actually “coranized”, i.e. mobilizing an imaginary relevant to the Meccan society. This tends to disqualify the hypothesis that scribes, unfamiliar to the Meccan context at the beginning of the 7th century AD would have been drafting the Qur’an in its entirety: the imaginary and the references called upon in this Surah are too specific and “local” to have been drafted by individuals writing in another time and place. That does not mean that we buy into the traditional idea that the Qur’an is the exact and total replica of Muhammad’s preaching in Mecca; our paradigm can on the contrary counter such a claim by identifying anthropological discontinuities inside the Qur’an itself thus setting an additional tool to detect later interpolations. In the end, our paradigm is one that could well be used as a regulating tool for other approaches in addition to its own merits that we quickly showed here.

* Rachid Benzine is an associate researcher at l’Observatoire du Religieux (IEP Aix en Provence).

Sunni Tafsīr Commentaries on the Qurʾanic Term Khalīfah

by Han Hsien LIEW*

The Arabic term khalīfah, a noun in the singular, appears twice in the Qur’an, once in reference to the original man Adam:

And when your Lord said to the angels, ‘Verily I am making on earth a khalīfah

(Q 2:30)


Medieval Persian miniature depicting angels prostrating before Adam. (Image from Wikimedia Commons, cropped to illustration only.)

and once in reference to the prophet-king David:

O David, we have made you a khalīfah on earth

(Q 38:26)

Due to the richness of the root kh-l-f with its manifold meanings, the interpretation of khalīfah in the Qur’an has often eluded pre-modern and modern interpreters alike. To complicate things further, khalīfah also came to be used as a political title, “caliph,” for the ruler of the Muslim community following the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Hence the question, how much of a connection did Qurʾānic exegetes make between the Qur’anic khalīfah and the ruling caliph?

In answering this question for the Umayyad period, Wadād al-Qāḍī argues that early exegetes such as Mujāhid b. Jabr (d. 103/721), Muqātil b. Sulaymān (d. 150/767), and Sufyān al-Thawrī (d. 161/777) generally did not go to great lengths to legitimate Umayyad rule by associating the Qur’anic khalīfah with the reigning caliph, but rather identified the Qur’anic term with Adam and humankind in general, who are said to have succeeded or replaced the jinn or angels on earth.

However, the boundaries between scriptural hermeneutics and political discourse became increasingly blurred as later exegetes, beginning with al-Ṭabarī (d. 310/923), introduced new clusters of terminology associated with the historical Caliphate into their interpretations of the term khalīfah in the Qur’an. In defining khalīfah in his tafsīr, al-Ṭabarī claims that “the supreme ruler (al-sulṭān al-aʿẓam) is called khalīfah, because he replaces the one who was before him, and takes his place in the affair, and is his successor (khalaf).” Most commentators after al-Ṭabarī, such as al-Thaʿlabī (d. 427/1035), al-Māwardī (d. 450/1058), and al-Wāḥidī (d. 468/1076), built on and reworked his interpretation of the term. Alongside this development, exegetes from the sixth/twelfth century onwards, such as al-Baghawī (d. 516/1122), Ibn al-Jawzī (d. 597/1200), al-Rāzī (d. 606/1209), and al-Qurṭubī (d. 671/1272), emphasized Adam’s role as khalīfat Allāh (itself a caliphal title meaning “deputy of God,” which was hitherto not used as part of the exegetes’ terminological cluster for their interpretations of Q 2:30) in implementing God’s rulings (aḥkām), commands (awāmir), and punishments (ḥudūd). These duties are largely similar to the ones used to define an imam-caliph at the beginning of every chapter on the Caliphate/Imamate found in kalām writings and certain works of fiqh, most notably in al-Māwardī’s al-Aḥkām al-sulṭānīyah and al-Ghazālī’s (d. 505/1111) al-Iqtiṣād fī’l-iʿtiqād. However, the reading of khalīfat Allāh into the Qur’an did not go entirely unopposed by all exegetes, with the most explicit objection coming from the Andalusian exegete Ibn ʿAṭīyah (d. 541/1147).

Post-Ṭabarī exegetes also allude to the first four caliphs/imams (Abu Bakr, ʿUmar, ʿUthman, and ʿAli) in their commentaries on Q 24:55:

God has promised those among you who have believed and done righteous deeds that He will surely yastakhlifannahum on earth just as He istakhlafa those who were before them


Medieval Persian miniature depicting the accession of the Caliph Abu Bakr. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Al-Thaʿlabī states that “in [Q 24:55] is a clear indication of the righteousness of the caliphate of Abu Bakr and the imamate of the rāshidūn caliphs.” Over time, the verse became a polemical platform for later Sunni exegetes such as al-Rāzī and al-Qurṭubī to establish the legitimacy of the four rāshidūn caliphs against Shiʿi claims that the Prophet Muhammad had designated ʿAli as his successor.

After the sack of Baghdad and the fall of the ʿAbbasid caliphate in 656/1258, most exegeses of the term khalīfah relied on those of previous generations. But with al-Qurṭubī’s commentary on Q 2:30, we come across the most explicit connection made between the qur’anic khalīfah and the Caliphate in reality: “This verse is the basis for the appointment of an imam and a caliph who shall be heard and obeyed, so that opinions will be united through him and [his] rulings will be implemented.” At this point he incorporates a full juristic discourse on the Caliphate reminiscent of al-Māwardī and al-Ghazālī. The Sunni discourse on the Caliphate—detailing arguments for the necessity of the Caliphate, the duties and requirements for the caliphal candidate, arguments against the Shiʿi conception of the Imamate, and other juridical issues surrounding the Caliphate—is thereby used as a hermeneutical device to explain Q 2:30. Writing about a century later, Ibn Kathīr (d. 774/1373) quotes al-Qurṭubī’s juristic discourse on the Caliphate (in an abridged form) despite inclining more towards the view that the qurʾanic term khalīfah refers to humankind in general.

In sum, to fully understand how exegetes understood the qurʾanic term khalīfah over time, one has to take into account the shared language between tafsīr and political discourse during the medieval Islamic period. The title khalīfat Allāh used in caliphal rhetoric, Sunni historical narratives of the four rāshidūn caliphs, and juristic discourses on the Caliphate left an imprint on the many interpretations of qurʾanic verses containing the Arabic root kh-l-f. This does not imply that exegetes were using such verses to legitimate the Caliphate, the consequences of which would be unthinkable for an exegete’s scholarly reputation. Rather, the exegetical commentaries on the qurʾānic khalīfah speak to the porous boundaries of tafsīr and the need to be sensitive towards not only the socio-political but also the intellectual and discursive contexts in which exegetes operate.

* Han Hsien Liew is a Ph.D. candidate in history and Middle Eastern studies at Harvard University, currently writing a dissertation on Sunni discourses on the Caliphate/Imamate between the 5th/11th and 7th/13th centuries. This blog post is based on his article newly published in Arabica 63, no. 1 (2016): 1-29.

Traditional and Modern Qur’anic Hermeneutics in Comparative Perspective

by Adis Duderija*

Recent decades have witnessed the emergence of groundbreaking scholarship in Qur’anic hermeneutics, including the works of Hasan Hanafi, Nasir Abu Zayd, Abdolkarim Soroush, Amina Wadud, and Khaled Abou El Fadl, to name but a few. One of the benefits of this growth in scholarship is that it highlights the complexities of the theories and methods in the field.

Cover of Duderija, Constructing a Religiously Ideal Believer (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

Cover of Duderija, Constructing a Religiously Ideal Believer (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

In my Ph.D. dissertation, completed in 2010 and published in 2011, I offer a comparative examination of these complexities and their implications in both traditional and modern Qur’anic scholarship, and delineate the epistemological and methodological tendencies that distinguish modern and traditional approaches with respect to the following seven key criteria.

  1. The Nature of Language and the Nature of Revelation

Traditional approaches to interpreting the Qur’an are heavily philological, with interpretations largely restricted to observable linguistic features of the Qur’an text. According to this methodology, readers retrieve the text’s meaning through analysis of the Arabic grammar, syntax, and morphology. At the same time, the Qur’an text is considered as the verbatim Word of God essentially different from human language. Moreover, its meaning is completely independent of the psychological make-up of the Prophet Muhammad and his prophetic experience. Qur’anic language is thus considered to be operating outside of history and possessed of a fixed meaning that is, in principle, not dependent on human modes of perception and analysis.

Modern approaches recognize that the Qur’an’s language is, at least for exegetical purposes, socio-culturally contingent, and its meaning necessarily operates within the framework of human perception and analysis. The nature of revelation, moreover, is closely intertwined with the mind and the phenomenological experience of the Prophet Muhammad. The interpretational implications are that the Qur’anic text has a historical dimension and that its meaning is conditioned by the cultural contexts in which it was revealed and is read.

  1. The Location and Breadth of Meaning


When interpreting a text, one may posit that the meaning of the text is primarily determined either by the intent of the author, by the form of the text itself, or by the perception of the reader. Furthermore, one may hold that readers are either able to fully recover the meaning intended by the author, or to only approximate the intended meaning.

Traditional approaches largely consider that readers can perceive authorial intent and recover some objective meaning of the text. Since the meaning of the text is fixed, the role of the reader in determining or influencing meaning is minimal. Belief in the objective existence of meaning in the mind of the author, which is readily accessible in a similarly objective fashion to the reader, contributes to the idea that there is only one correct interpretation of the text.

Modern hermeneutical approaches maintain that readers cannot recover authorial intent in a completely objective fashion. Rather, readers with their socio-cultural backgrounds, educations, moral inclinations, etc., actively participate in producing the text’s meaning(s), which can only approximate authorial intent but can never completely and objectively capture it. While the text is fixed in its form, its meaning is not fixed by the author. Even if the text’s meaning is considered static and monovalent, the significance of its meaning is contextually dependent and liable to change. Thus the text can sustain a large number of interpretations. However, to curb unreasonable or unpopular interpretations, some hermeneuticists have recourse to the concept of “communities of interpretation”—groups of readers who share similar cultural perspectives, values, and hermeneutical principles—to argue that the validity of interpretations is relative to, and limited by, the assumptions that characterize such communities.

  1. The Relationship between Text and Context

Traditional philological hermeneutics tends to marginalize the historical context in which the Qur’an text was revealed. Although there is recognition of the historical character and development of the Qur’an when speaking of “occasions of revelation” (asbab al-nuzul) and “abrogation” (naskh), there are no clear hermeneutical models for fully integrating and utilizing these aspects in interpreting the language of the Qur’an. To the extent that historical context is considered, traditional philologists do not systematically distinguish between historical and ahistorical dimensions of meaning to the text. As a result, there is a strong tendency to universalize a historically particular meaning.Photo by Habib M'henni

By contrast, modern hermeneuticists emphasize how the historical context in which the Qur’an text was revealed significantly influenced the text’s form and meaning, and how the historical frames of reference and cultural norms of the text’s initial audience informed their understanding of the nature of the Qur’anic text and its meaning.

  1. Textual Coherence

The Qur’an text was revealed orally over a period of some two decades, and the process of its canonization took decades more. The canonical order of Qur’anic sūrahs does not appear to be governed by chronology; nor does it appear to be governed by theme, as references to themes are often dispersed throughout the Qur’an. Traditional exegetes downplay the essentially oral and kerygmatic nature of the revelation and mainly take a word-by-word segmental and sequential analysis of the canonical text. Thus this approach fails to fully appreciate the Qur’an’s thematic coherence.

cropped-header1.jpgMany modern exegetes recognize the interconnectedness of Qur’anic concepts and themes and undertake a holistic and corroborative-inductive approach to interpreting the Qur’an, based not only on insights stemming from the traditional scholarly principles of conceptual/textual chaining (munāsaba) and corroborative induction (istiqrā’), but also on modern linguistics approaches to textual coherence, sequentiality, and progression. Understanding a Qur’anic concept requires analyzing all relevant passages throughout the text and synthesizing them within a larger thematic framework. The task of interpretation is to discover a “comprehensive constant.”

  1. The Role of Reason in Ethico-Legal Interpretations of the Qur’an

Traditional exegetes heavily restrict the role of reason to its analogical form, so that all ethico-legal interpretations must be linked to textual evidence. If there is no directly pertinent text, then every effort is made to identify an indirectly pertinent text with a common underlying principle and to interpret it in light of its significance to the new case. The underlying assumptions are that ethico-legal knowledge must always derive from revelation and that humans cannot know what is ethically or legally right by independent reason. From this perspective, many exegetes infer a legalistic dimension to all of the Qur’an, so that even those Qur’anic exhortations that could be seen as broadly ethical or didactic are interpreted as positive legal injunctions.



Modern exegetes, on the other hand, emphasize the importance of reason in interpreting the Qur’an and consider the Qur’an itself to be constitutive of reason. Inasmuch as human reason can independently make ethical judgments, the function of revelation is to remind people of  their ethical obligations. Contrary to the traditional legalistic approach, they consider that the Qur’an is primarily ethico-religious in its concern, and that its legal aspects are peripheral to its broader ethical vision and subject to change as societal conditions change. Thus legal interpretations of the Qur’an ought to evolve with evolving ethical values by means of reason—keeping in mind, however, that Islamic ethics is firmly anchored in a Qur’anic religious cosmology.

  1. Interpreting Universal Principles of the Qur’an

All of the aforementioned aspects of traditional hermeneutics make for a rather limited understanding of the Qur’an when it comes to its embodiment of basic ethical values, such as justice and equality, and its underlying objectives, such facilitating public welfare and promoting the common good. On the other hand, all of the aspects of modern hermeneutics contribute to a broader intepretational concern to realize such principle values and objectives.

  1. The Conception of the Prophetic Sunna

It is widely held in Islamic tradition that the prophetic sunnah enjoys exegetical supremacy over independent rational methods, and moreover that this sunnah is entirely and solely embodied in sound Hadith texts. Thus for traditional exegetes, recourse to the sunnah as an exegetical device is necessarily constitutive of, and constrained by, the textual corpus of Hadith. One noteworthy implication of this textual conception of sunnah is that interpretive reasoning, while to some extent important in selecting and evaluating individual hadith reports, is not constitutive of the concept of sunnah itself as an exegetical device.

In contrast, modern exegetes tend to hold a more meta-textual conception of the prophetic sunnah, more in line with how sunnah was understood in the early Islamic era, which does not conflate the concept of sunnah with the concept of Hadith as text. Thus in addition to the traditional Hadith sciences, modern exegetes employ several additional methodological mechanisms to distinguish the prophetic sunnah, the details of which cannot be fully addressed here.

Hopefully this blog post helps to demonstrate the complexity of Qur’anic hermeneutics and the importance for scholars of religion and the Qur’an to be aware of the critical implications of distinct hermeneutical approaches for determining what is a normative “Qur’anic position” on any particular legal, political, or ethical issue.

* Dr. Duderija is Senior Lecturer in Gender Studies at the University of Malaya, and author of Constructing a Religiously Ideal ‘Believer’ and ‘Woman’ in Islam (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2015. All rights reserved.

Call for Papers: Journal of the International Qur’anic Studies Association

IQSA is pleased to announce the launch of the Journal of the International Qurʾanic Studies Association (JIQSA). In support of the Association’s mission of fostering scholarship on the Qurʾan, JIQSA will commence publication twice annually beginning in the first quarter of 2016.



The Journal is being launched at a time of particular vitality and growth in Qurʾanic Studies, and its primary goal is to encourage the further development of the discipline in innovative ways. Methodologies of particular interest to the Journal include historical-critical, contextual-comparative, and literary approaches to the Qurʾan. We especially welcome articles that explore the Qurʾan’s origins in the religious, cultural, social, and political contexts of Late Antiquity; its connections to various literary precursors, especially the scriptural and parascriptural traditions of older religious communities; the historical reception of the Qurʾan in the West; the hermeneutics and methodology of Qurʾanic exegesis and translation (both traditional and modern); the transmission and evolution of the textus receptus and the manuscript tradition; and the application of various literary and philological modes of investigation into Qurʾanic style and compositional structure.

We currently welcome submissions of articles for publication in the first volume. The complete Call for Papers is available here. Articles will be rigorously peer-reviewed through a double-blind review process, with reviewers appointed by the Head Editor and the Editorial Board. Interested parties are invited to email for more information about JIQSA and style and submission guidelines.

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