Highlight: Dr. Tarif Khalidi on translating the Qur’an

Highlight: Dr. Tarif Khalidi on translating the Qur’an

This week, we turn to the third of the three papers published on December 16th, 2013: Dr. Tarif Khalidi’s “Reflections of a Qur’an Translator.”

Dr. Tarif Khalidi

Khalidi (American University of Beirut) provides a personal reflection on the challenges and nuances of translating Scripture, and the Qur’an in particular. He speaks of the distinct burdens that come with translating the Qur’an:

[W]e do not, it seems to me, make enough allowance for the Qurʾan’s often deliberate mystification: the self-referential epithet “mutashabah” enshrines the mystification…. This is a text which, while claiming manifest clarity, is at least partially meant to make the flesh creep—somewhat like the “shudder” in T.S. Eliot (cf. Kermode 2010). Or else we might call it the “mysterium tremens”: that which causes you to tremble and to be awed by the divine unfathomable. The mystery is thus quite deliberate and meant to be just that: a mystery which causes a “shudder.” And that “shudder” is so culture- and language-specific that it often defies translation.

The second burden is “what one might call a Sisyphean activity…. No matter how well you fancy you have captured a meaning, there is always a sense of regret as you surrender the manuscript to the publisher. It is as if, having said goodbye to someone you love, you will always regret that your goodbye was not more eloquently expressed.”

Khalidi speaks of other obstacles, comments on his various “companions” in the translating process (other translators such as Tabari and Suyuti, plus commentaries and dictionaries), and touches briefly on his own translation. Read the paper in full here.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2013. All rights reserved.

New Book: The Qur’an and the Aramaic Gospel Traditions

A new book by Emran El-Badawi on The Qur’an and the Aramaic Gospel Traditions has been published this month. This book is the thirteenth of the Routledge Studies in the Qur’an series, edited by Andrew Rippin.




This book is a study of related passages found in the Arabic Qur’an and the Aramaic Gospels, i.e. the Gospels preserved in the Syriac and Christian Palestinian Aramaic dialects. It builds upon the work of traditional Muslim scholars, including al-Biqa‘i (d. ca. 808/1460) and al-Suyuti (d. 911/1505), who wrote books examining connections between the Qur’an on the one hand, and Biblical passages and Aramaic terminology on the other, as well as modern western scholars, including Sidney Griffith who argue that pre-Islamic Arabs accessed the Bible in Aramaic.

The Qur’an and the Aramaic Gospel Traditions examines the history of religious movements in the Middle East from 180-632 CE, explaining Islam as a response to the disunity of the Aramaic speaking churches. It then compares the Arabic text of the Qur’an and the Aramaic text of the Gospels under four main themes: the prophets; the clergy; the divine; and the apocalypse. Among the findings of this book are that the articulator as well as audience of the Qur’an were monotheistic in origin, probably bilingual, culturally sophisticated and accustomed to the theological debates that raged between the Aramaic speaking churches.

Arguing that the Qur’an’s teachings and ethics echo Jewish-Christian conservatism, this book will be of interest to students and scholars of Religion, History, and Literature.

Table of Contents

  1. Sources and Method
  2. Prophetic Tradition in the Late Antique Near East
  3. Prophets and their Righteous Entourage
  4. The Evils of the Clergy
  5. The Divine Realm
  6. Divine Judgement and the Apocalypse
  7. Data Analysis and Conclusion

Author Bio

Emran El-Badawi is Director and Assistant Professor of Arab Studies at the University of Houston. His articles include “From ‘clergy’ to ‘celibacy’: The development of rahbaniyyah between Qur’an, Hadith and Church Canon” and “A humanistic reception of the Qur’an.” His work has been featured on the New York Times, Houston Chronicle and Christian Science Monitor.


  1. Islam
  2. Scriptures of Islam
  3. Biblical Studies

For complete product information on El-Badawi’s book please go here.

* Accessed from the publisher’s product page.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2013. All rights reserved.

Upcoming Colloquia in the UK

Thanks to Nicolai Sinai and Mehdi Azaiez

Islamic Studies Colloquium


Organisers: Elisabeth Kendall, Ahmad Khan, Christopher Melchert, Nicolai Sinai
Venue: Pembroke College, Oxford. OX1 1DW
Date: 27-28 September 2013

Both the resurgence of Islamist politics and the political, social, and intellectual upheaval accompanying the Arab Spring challenge us to reconsider the interplay between the pre-modern Islamic tradition and modern proponents of continuity, reform, and change in the Muslim world. The colloquium therefore invites scholars with an in-depth knowledge of the classical Islamicate heritage to explore modern texts that stake out some sort of claim to pre-modern traditions in disciplines as diverse as Islamic law, hadith, Qur’anic exegesis, politics, and literature. The colloquium will encourage specialists to embark on a hermeneutically sophisticated exercise that avoids some of the extremes to which an examination of how the classical heritage functions in the modern Islamic world has often been subjected. The colloquium aims to move beyond works that contain the tacit assumption that modern Muslims are subconsciously steered by the Islamic tradition, without exerting any sort of agency or control over it, and studies that suggest that modern Muslim thinkers arbitrarily distort elements of the tradition to which they lay claim. Instead, we invite scholars to consider modern re-appropriations of pre-modern concepts, texts, persons, and events, and thereby to transcend an increasing bifurcation between classical and contemporary Islamic studies.


Carole Hillenbrand (University of Edinburgh), Robert Gleave (University of Exeter), Christopher Melchert (University of Oxford), Ahmad Khan (University of Oxford), Nicolai Sinai (University of Oxford), Islam Dayeh (Freie Universitat Berlin), Karen Bauer (Institute of Ismaili Studies), Elisabeth Kendall (University of Oxford), Marilyn Booth (University of Edinburgh), Jon Hoover (University of Nottingham), Christian Lange (Utrecht University)


This colloquium has been made possible thanks to the generosity of Brian Wilson, a long-standing benefactor of Arabic studies at Pembroke.


Attendance is free, but attendees must register by 16 September at ahmad.khan@pmb.ox.ac.uk

For more information, please visit here.

Ms. mehdi-azaiez.org

Ms. mehdi-azaiez.org

Fragmentation and Compilation : The Making of Religious Texts in Islam A Comparative Perspective II (30 septembre – 1er octobre)

30 September–1 October 2013
The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London
2nd Floor, Room 2.3

Convenor : Asma Hilali


Fragmentation and Variation in the First Islamic Graffiti (1st–2nd century AH)
Frédéric Imbert, Aix-Marseille University, France

The latest research in the field of Islamic graffiti in the first two centuries AH in the Middle East is uncovering new information about Muslim society at the dawn of Islam. Most of this information concerns the Islamic faith, the place of the Qur’an and the figure of the Prophet Muhammad, but the oldest graffiti also allow us to reflect on the status of writing during the same period. Thousands of Arabic Kufic graffiti recently discovered in Saudi Arabia and in the wider Middle East reflect an extreme fragmentation due to the quantity of inscriptions scattered all over the area. These Arabic graffiti, which were not subjected to any kind of censorship, are the expression of variation and repetition at the same time : variation of the Qur’anic text and of the attitude of people towards the new religion and the Prophet, and repetition of the religious prayers and invocations. The picture of early Islam emanating from the first Islamic graffiti is one of fragmentation.

Repetitions and Variations, and the Problem of ‘Qur’anic Variants’
Asma Hilali, The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London, UK

The field of Qur’anic Studies has been greatly influenced by the medieval reception of the Qur’an text manifested in the exegetical literature and by the theories related to the ‘Qur’anic variants’. The concept of ‘Qur’anic variants’ is deeply rooted in the history of the canonisation of the Qur’an and in the various assumptions made about scribal errors and falsification. My paper will provide a critique of the conceptual tools used in Qur’anic Studies in the last two decades and will propose a new perspective in the study of the textual features interpreted by the medieval and modern scholars as ‘Qur’anic variants’. The new perspective takes the fragmented aspect of the text to be inseparable from the history of its transmission.

Fragmentation, Compilation and Discourse : A Comparison of Three Arbaʿūn Collections on Jihād and Martyrdom Compiled in the Late Mamluk Period
Stephen Burge, The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London, UK

This paper examines the ways in which hadith scholars went about compiling hadith collections by undertaking a comparative analysis of three similar works written in the same period. The three collections are all arbaʿūn collections – short collections of around forty hadith – which focus on the themes of jihād and martyrdom. The three studied are Suyuti’s Abwāb al-suʿadāʾ fī asbāb al-shuhadāʾ (‘The Gates of the Lucky in the Occasions of Martyrdom’) and his Arbaʿūn ḥadīthan fī faḍl al-jihād (‘Forty Hadith on the Merits of Jihad’) and al-Biqāʿī’s Dhayl al-istishhād bi-āyāt al-jihād (‘The Appendix to Martyrdom in the Verses on Jihād’). I will argue that by closely analysing the material included and excluded from a hadith collection, as well as the ways in which the hadith have been arranged, it is possible to gain a deeper understanding of particular nuances within a text in which a compiler does not give his views openly to his reader. This paper will argue that the ‘hadith literature’ contains a vast, almost infinite, body of texts and the job of the hadith compiler is to fragment this wider body of texts, to reconstitute them, and then to arrange them in order to provide a specific discourse on a subject. This process can be seen in the different ways the three works under consideration in this paper respond to the subjects of jihād and martyrdom.

The Qur’an’s Fragmentation and Realignment of Gospel and Talmud
Holger Zellentin, The University of Nottingham, UK

The unique ways in which the Qur’an ‘heard’ select stories from the Aramaic Gospel tradition has been considered by generations of scholars. Yet, only the most rudimentary consensus has been established about the nature of the texts with which the Qur’an’s audience was familiar, let alone the ways in which the Qur’an used these texts. The Qur’an’s utilisation of Talmudic material has received even less attention, and a consensus is even more remote. The present paper seeks to advance, one small step, our understanding of the deployment of both corpora in the Qur’an by considering them jointly. More than occasionally, the Qur’an fragments and realigns demonstrable elements of the (likely oral) Gospel and the Talmudic traditions together in order to solidify its claim of being a correction to the shortcomings of both.

Unity and Fragmentation in the Standard Text of the Qur’an : The Prophet as First Addressee and Dialogic Argumentation. Mehdi Azaiez, CNRS/IREMAM, FRANCE

As defined in discourse analysis, first addressee (or interlocutor) is the person involved in a conversation or dialogue. The figure of the Qur’an’s first addressee is a textual phenomenon linked to the structure of the text and its argumentative dimension. In my contribution, I will define the notion of the first addressee in the Qur’an, its linguistic forms and functions within the entire Qur’an. I will explore the following questions : The variety of the notions of ‘the first addressee’ ; the double aspect of fragmentation/unity of text after its collection and the role of the first addressee in the argumentative shape of the text. My contribution aims to show (i) how the dialogic relation between a Qur’anic enunciator and its first addressee reveals one of the main aspects of Qur’anic argumentation ; (ii) how the Qur’an legitimates the status of its first addressee as a prophet.


Day 1 : Monday, 30 September 2013

12:00 Arrival of speakers at hotel and lunch

14:00 Welcome
Asma Hilali, The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London

14:00–16:00 Session 1 : Qur’anic Studies : From a Fragmentary Approach to an Approach about Fragmentation

Speakers : Stephen Burge, The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London
Asma Hilali, The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London
Holger Zellentine, The University of Nottingham

Discussant : Prof. Aziz al-Azmeh

This session will examine the state of the field of Qur’anic Studies. It will cover the following topics :
(i) Qur’anic manuscripts : A tool or an aim ?
(ii) Intertextuality : Methodological remarks
(iii) Fragmentation/Compilation perspectives on the Qur’an text in the context of the history of its transmission.

16:00 Break

16:20–17:50 Session 2 : Variation and Repetition in Qur’anic Texts

Chair : Holger Zellentin

Fragmentation and Variation in the First Islamic Graffiti (1st–2nd century AH)
Frédéric Imbert, Aix-Marseille University

Repetitions and Variations, and the Problem of ‘Qur’anic Variants’
Asma Hilali, The Institute of Ismaili Studies

19:00 : Speakers’ Dinner

Day 2 : Tuesday, 1st October 2013

9:00–11:00 Session 3 : Comparative Perspectives

Chair : Mehdi Azaiez, University of Notre Dame, Indiana

Fragmentation, Compilation and Discourse : A Comparison of Three Arba’un Collections on Jihad and Martyrdom Compiled in the Late Mamluk Period
Stephen Burge, The Institute of Ismaili Studies

The Qur’an’s Fragmentation and Realignment of Gospel and Talmud
Holger Zellentine, The University of Nottingham

Unity and Fragmentation in the Standard Text of the Qur’an : The Prophet as First Addressee and the Dialogic Argumentation
Mehdi Azaiez, LabexResmed, Paris

11:00 General Discussion

12:00 Speakers’ Lunch

For more information, please visit here.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2013. All rights reserved.

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.