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.

The Traditions on the Composition of ‘Uthmān’s muṣḥaf.

By Viviane Comerro

Viviane Comerro is Professor of Islamic Studies at INALCO (Paris). This blog is a synopsis of its French book titled “Les traditions sur la composition du muṣḥaf de ‘Uthmān”, Orient-Institut Beirut, 2012

When and how did the Quran become a book? Even though paleography and codicology provide us with useful elements that shed light on this question, we should not overlook the study of Islamic literary sources which, through the diversity of their accounts on the writing of the Quran and the richness of their glosses on the Quranic text itself, remain bolder and more informed testimonies than any collection of manuscripts.



How should we address Islamic sources which provide us with numerous pieces of information on this issue? An initial historical approach based on the transmission of texts could lead us to follow the Ancients in their investigative endeavor by privileging the historical veracity of the version adopted by al-Bukhārī (d. 256/870) in his Ṣaḥīḥ.

A second, historical and critical approach has already achieved its full potential: drawing out a core that is common to the various versions of the account of the event so as to gain some certainty or extracting this historical core from its legendary, theological or ideological gangue.

Reflection upon the literary nature of sources that has developed alongside this approach has resulted in a transitory suspension of the “naively” historical approach. In fact, a tradition always provides the event and its interpretation as closely related. This is a khabar, information, as well as a hadith, an event set as an account. Thus, it is in taking into consideration the twofold nature of a tradition that I have read afresh the totality of the accounts on the writing of the Quran by paying very close attention to the variants and their meanings.

By placing back the received version of the event – the one Bukhārī kept in his Ṣaḥīh – in this totality, it appears as made up of several motifs that also exist in isolation as independent traditions. This version is therefore the result of a combination that selects some pieces of information while discarding others.

The author of this combination, or common link in the vernacular of the modern specialists of transmission, is Ibn Shihāb al-Zuhrī (d. 124/742), who certainly did not invent this story but combined different pieces of information on the writing of the Quran, as he did for other accounts.

Beyond this stage, the hadith of Zuhrī evolved even further since a version that is quite different from Bukhārī’s is to be found in the introduction to his Tafsīr by the great compiler of the 3rd century of Hegira, Ṭabarī (d. 310/923).

Apart from the issue of authenticity, wherever we place this version in the chain of transmission, what seems to matter is the reason why such a well-informed exegete as Tabarī chose this version of Zuhrī’s account rather than another one. This question led me to question Bukhārī’s stance and Ṭabarī’s regarding the status of Quranic recitation in the intellectual debates of their time. I came to the conclusion that, to some extent, the issue of the isnād was of secondary importance. What really matters is the content of each account.

For Ṭabarī, who claims that ‘Uthmān reduced the various recitations of the Quran to a single ḥarf in the official muṣḥaf, it is important to note that the Quranic text is not the result of a collection but the writing of a single man, Zayd b. Thābit.

For Bukhārī, it is important to take a stand in a critical debate of his time: that of the created or uncreated Quran, which goes on long after the end of the Miḥna by claiming that the writing of the Quran is created, in contrast with the Hanbali scholars.

Besides, the stance differs from one Ṣaḥīḥ to the other. Muslim (d. 261/875), Bukhārī’s contemporary, who frequented the same circles as him, apparently avoids to take a stand in this debate. Nowhere does he mention the account transmitted by al-Zuhrī. On the other hand, he mentions traditions on the various recitations of the Companions Ubayy, Ibn Mas‘ūd and Abū Mūsā. In this selection of information, one can detect a stand in another significant debate that lasted for centuries about the diversity of Quranic recitations theorized in the form of a prophetic hadith: Unzila l-qur’ān ‘alā sab‘ati ahruf. In this controversy, a stance became more and more a minority, yet it lasted for a long time: it was allowed to liturgically recite ancient qirā’āt, especially that of Ibn Mas‘ūd, due to the fact that the companions of the Prophet and the Successors did it, even though these “readings” were not in keeping with the ‘Uthmānian rasm. It seems that in the 3rd century, prior to Ibn Mujāhid’s reform, the traditionist Muslim was inclined to favor such a stance.

The discrepancies between the accounts about the writing of the Quran, which are already impressive regarding what comes from Zuhrī, are even more so when all the traditions are taken into consideration. They are so not only for the researcher who considers he should not side with the traditionists, now as in the past, but also because all these accounts excluded by the strict selection of the Ṣaḥīḥ reappear in the margin of a commentary or an argumentation by the early (or modern) authors among the most interested in orthodoxy.

Historical description is not the main goal of traditionists, who rather try to solve theological/juridical problems. The diversity of the accounts related to the writing of the Quran, which mostly took place under ‘Uthmān’s caliphate, could result from the traditionists’ worry about the composition of the muṣḥaf in an unfavorable historical context: a challenged caliphate in a time troubled by strong dissensions. The attested circulation of different maṣāḥif of the Quran, one of the sources of legitimacy and authority in the fullest sense of this dīn as the foundation of the new community, represented a danger for Medina’s power. After the historical situation changed, though it was never forgotten, the prime preoccupation concerned the conditions of transmission of the prophetic proclamation. The selection of the ḥarf of Zayd, a man related to ‘Uthmān, had not been consensual. And what to do with the maṣāḥif of Ubayy, Ibn Mas‘ūd, Abū Mūsā, Miqdād and others? Several responses to these unexpressed worries arose in the large corpus of narrative traditions on the writing of the Quran. I have suggested classifying these accounts according to the kind of solution they provided to ensure the faultless transmission of the muṣḥaf.

After this investigation in literary sources, it is to be noted that there is no received version of the writing of the muṣḥaf despite the status acquired by the Ṣaḥīḥ of Bukhārī and the repetition, book after book, century after century, of his hadith on the collection of the Quran, a “thing the Prophet had not done.” In this way, although a 12th century traditionist such as Abū Muḥammad Ḥusayn al-Baghawī reports Bukhārī’s account in his Sharḥ al-Sunna, in his commentary he carries out a rewriting of the event with the memory of other accounts. He claims that the composition of the muṣḥaf is an act involving the Companions as a collective actor of the ijmā‘: they are those who decided together with ‘Uthmān and those who wrote. This rewriting is as perceptible in the 15th century when al-Suyūṭī began his chapter of the Itqān devoted to the collection of the Quran by the blunt assertion that at the time of the Prophet’s death “the Quran had not been collected.” Throughout the text and in the conclusion of the chapter, it appears that the “thing the Prophet had not done” had in fact been accomplished since the muṣḥaf, organized as verses and suras, is exactly the same as that instituted by Muḥammad after the angel’s dictation.

In my book, I left the question of the writing of the Quran at the time of the Prophet open-ended owing to the scarcity of traditions that mention it. This question pertains to another kind of investigation on the oral/written composition of the Quranic text (Angelika Neuwirth) and could rest on the works of linguists and anthropologists dealing with orality and writing.

In conclusion, the study of traditions informs us on some crucial elements of the history of the text: the plasticity of its composition and oral transmission; the antiquity of its writing; the fixation of a model written under ‘Uthmān; its gradual canonization; the preservation of textual variants as a reflection of the original oral diversity and then the philologists’ interest; the parallel theologizing of the history of transmission.

Yet this study chiefly enables us to understand the Tradition that lends their full weight to the actors of transmission. Through selection, combination, additions or deletions, and when the text is permanently fixed in its letter, through their glosses, commentaries and interpretations, these actors contribute to the fluctuation in meaning in the preservation of religion.

Our International Meeting in St. Andrews, Scotland

By Emran El-Badawi and Gabriel Reynolds

The International Qur’anic Studies Association is happy to announce its first international meeting, taking place in St. Andrews, Scotland, from July 8-10, 2013. IQSA will be co-sponsoring a number of panels on the Qur’an with the Society of Biblical Literature, as well as a public lecture by Dr. Alain George. Please consult the schedule below for panel details. All meeting room assignments are currently TBD. Further details will be forthcoming here.

You are also strongly encouraged to subscribe to our blog in order to receive weekly news updates or informed posts on various dimensions of Qur’anic Studies today. On behalf of the co-directors, steering committee and partners we thank you for your enthusiasm and support for IQSA. We look forward to seeing you in St. Andrews!

St. Andrews (standrewsfreshers.com)

St. Andrews (standrewsfreshers.com)

Qur’an and Islamic Tradition in Comparative Perspective

July 8, 2013
9:00 AM to 12:00 PM

Theme: Islam and Interfaith Studies in Scottish Universities

Zohar Hadromi-Allouche, University of Aberdeen, Presiding

Hugh Goddard, University of Edinburgh
Islam and Interfaith Relations in Scotland (20 min)

Fiona McCallum, University of St. Andrews
‘Same Old’? Muslim-Christian Relations and the Arab Uprisings (20 min)

Discussion (35 min)

Break (30 min)

Johan Rasanayagam, University of Aberdeen
From an Anthropology of Islam to an Anthropology through Islam (20 min)

Saeko Yazaki, University of Glasgow
Dialogues between Islam and Judaism in Ethics and Spirituality: The Andalusi landscape and Zionism (20 min)

Discussion (35 min)

Qur’an and Islamic Tradition in Comparative Perspective
Joint Session With: Qur’an and Islamic Tradition in Comparative Perspective, International Qur’anic Studies Association
July 8, 2013
3:00 PM to 6:00 PM

Theme: Prophets and Prophethood between Bible and Qur’an

Zohar Hadromi-Allouche, University of Aberdeen, Presiding

Emran El-Badawi, University of Houston, Introduction (7 min)

Gabriel Said Reynolds, University of Notre Dame, Introduction (7 min)

Anne-Laure Zwilling, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and Anne-Sylvie Boisliveau, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen
Moses and the Burning Bush: A Two-Voice Analysis (20 min)

David Kiltz, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften
“Ebionism” and the Qur’an Revisited (20 min)

Discussion (16 min)

Break (30 min)

Mehdi Azaiez, IREMAM / CNRS
Prophetical Polemics in the Bible and the Qur’an: The Case of Counter-Discourse (20 min)

Michael Pregill, Elon University
Intertextual Complications: The Qur’anic Cain and Abel Reconsidered (20 min)

Tommaso Tesei, University of Notre Dame
Apocalyptic Prophecies in the Qur’an and in Seventh Century Extrabiblical Literature (20 min)

Discussion (20 min)

Qur’an and Islamic Tradition in Comparative Perspective
Joint Session With: Qur’an and Islamic Tradition in Comparative Perspective, International Qur’anic Studies Association
July 9, 2013
9:00 AM to 12:00 PM

Theme: Rhetoric and the Qur’an: Structure, Composition, Argumentation

Orhan Elmaz, University of St. Andrews, Presiding

Michel Cuypers, IDEO
Semitic Rhetoric in Sura 81 (Al-Takwir) and Chapter 10 of the Testament of Moses (20 min)

Ulrika Mårtensson, Norwegian University of Science and Technology
Al-Tabari’s Rhetorical Concept of the Qur’an: Implications for Historical and Contemporary Research (20 min)

Discussion (35 min)

Break (30 min)

Mustansir Mir, Youngstown State University
Hamid al-Din al-Farahi on Qur’anic balaghah (20 min)

Gabriel Said Reynolds, University of Notre Dame, Respondent (20 min)

Discussion (35 min)


Qur’an and Islamic Tradition in Comparative Perspective
Joint Session With: International Qur’anic Studies Association, Qur’an and Islamic Tradition in Comparative Perspective
July 9, 2013
3:00 PM to 4:15 PM

Gabriel Said Reynolds, University of Notre Dame, Presiding

Alain George, University of Edinburgh
On an early Qur’anic palimpsest and its stratigraphy: Cambridge Or. 1287 (45 min)

Break (5 min)

Discussion (25 min)

Qur’an and Islamic Tradition in Comparative Perspective
Joint Session With: Qur’an and Islamic Tradition in Comparative Perspective, International Qur’anic Studies Association
July 10, 2013
9:00 AM to 12:00 PM

Theme: Qur’anic and Biblical Discourses in Comparative Perspective

Andreas Görke, University of Edinburgh, Presiding

Keren Abbou Hershkovits, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
Idris, Enoch, and Celestial Knowledge: Astronomical Knowledge Given (or Taken?) from Heaven (20 min)

Nadjet Zouggar, Louvain-la-Neuve University
The Biblical Prophets’ Place in the Elaboration of Sunni Prophetology (20 min)

Abdulla Galadari, University of Aberdeen
The Qiblah: A Qur’anic Allusion to the Shema (20 min)

Discussion (15 min)

Break (30 min)

Roy Michael McCoy III, University of Oxford
An Arabian Trudgman in Nazareth: The Gospel Narrative of al-Biqa’i’s Nazm al-durar fi tanasub al-ayat wa’l-suwar (20 min)

Orkhan Mir-Kasimov, The Institute of Ismaili Studies
Messianism and the Idea of Universal Exegesis in Islam: The Parallel Interpretation of the Qur’an and the Bible in the Jawidan-nama of Fadlallah Astarabadi (d. 796/1394) (20 min)

Discussion (35 min)

© 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.