Translating John Wansbrough…into English

By Gabriel Reynolds

At a recent academic conference, during a dinner with a group of Qurʾan scholars, the topic of our conversation turned to the work of John Wansbrough. During the conversation one of our group asked,“But when is someone going to translate Wansbrough . . . into English?”


In fact Wansbrough’s writing is famously difficult. Almost every reviewer of Qurʾanic Studies expresses frustration with his complicated style. To this effect William Graham writes:

Because of its importance, however, it is all the more regrettable that this volume is such an exceedingly cumbersome and gratuitously difficult work, one marked by impenetrable syntax and often unintelligible sequence of ideas. It is a book laced with brilliance and insight, yet marred throughout by unusual obscurity in organization and presentation. Its subject matter is manifestly complex, but it has been presented here in such a needlessly “technicalized” fashion as to make it at all decipherable only by the most doggedly determined specialist in early Islamic materials. (Journal of the American Oriental Society 100 [1980] 138).

Now since Prof. Graham wrote this review Prometheus Press has re-published both Qurʾanic Studies (2004) and Sectarian Milieu (2006) with Forewords (by Andrew Rippin and Gerald Hawting, respectively) that summarize the arguments and influence of the work at hand, and glossaries which define the technical terms and foreign vocabulary which Wansbrough employs. This supplementary material is a significant help for students who really seek to understand Wansbrough’s thought.

But is it worth the effort to do so? In academic scholarship on the Qurʾan it is rather common to find the opinion that Wansbrough’s thought is unfounded or disproven. But how many of those who express this opinion have actually managed to understand his use of the English language? Perhaps a translation of Wansbrough into English would allow us at least to assess the importance of his work. While I have no plans to translate the entirety of Qurʾanic Studies, I thought I might have a go at the first page:

Once separated from an extensive corpus of prophetical logia, the Islamic revelation became scripture and in time, starting from the fact itself of literary stabilization, was seen to contain a logical structure of its own. Both the Qurʾan and sīra emerged from a body of traditions closely related to Jewish and Christian themes of salvation history. Some of those traditions were brought together or redacted to form a scripture and given the name Qurʾan. This scripture was then imagined to have the sorts of internal relationships of works that are intentionally composed as a single unit by a single author.

By the very achievement of canonicity the document of revelation was assured a kind of independence, both of historical traditions commonly adduced to explain its existence and of external criteria recruited to facilitate its understanding. Once this text was recognized as the Muslim community’s scripture its origin amidst a larger body of traditions—which had included also material later used by Muslim authors in order to explain how the Qurʾan came to be and what it means—became irrelevant.

But the elaborate and imposing edifice of classical Qur’anic scholarship is hardly monolithic, and discernible lines of cleavage correspond to the number of options left open to the most fundamental lines of inquiry. Yet after this initial moment at which the Qurʾan emerged as a scripture, later Muslim scholars developed recognizable genres of Qurʾanic exegesis; these genres correspond to the qualities of the Qurʾanic text.

Both formally and conceptually, Muslim scripture drew upon a traditional stock of monotheistic imagery, which may be described as schemata of revelation. The body of traditions out of which the Qurʾan emerged might be thought of as a general outline of Jewish and Christian (and other monotheistic) ideas of how God has acted in the world.

Analysis of the Qurʾanic application of these shows that they have been adapted to the essentially paraenetic character of that document, and that, for example, originally narrative material was reduced almost invariably to a series of discrete and parabolic utterances. The Qurʾan reflects a shaping of these traditions for the sake of warning or exhortation. The redactors of the Qurʾan condensed long narratives into short declarations with moral and religious implications.

An illustration is Surat Yūsuf, often cited as a single instance of complete and sustained narrative in the Qur’an. In fact, without benefit of exegesis the Qur’anic story of Joseph is anything but clear, a consequence in part of its elliptical presentation and in part of occasional allusion to extra-Biblical tradition, e.g. verses 24, 67, 77. [No translation necessary, hooray! A footnote here refers the reader to JW’s comments on Surat Yūsuf later in the work, pp. 136-37]

It may, indeed, be supposed that the public for whom Muslim scripture was intended could be expected to supply the missing detail. The Qurʾan’s elliptical style with material such as Joseph suggests that its audience was familiar with Jewish and Christian traditions.

A distinctly referential, as contrasted with expository, style characterizes Qurʾanic treatment of most of what I have alluded to as schemata of revelation, exhibited there as components of earlier established literary types. The Qurʾan does not expand on the Jewish and Christian themes of salvation history, but rather refers to them succinctly.

The technique by which a theme is repeatedly signaled but seldom developed may be observed from an examination in their Qur’anic form of those themes traditionally associated with literature of prophetical expression. Not merely the principal themes, but also the rhetorical conventions by which they are linked and in which they are clothed, the variant traditions in which they have been preserved, as well as the incidence of exegetical gloss and linguistic assimilation, comprise the areas of investigation undertaken in the first part of these studies. In part one of Qurʾanic Studies I will study four Jewish and Christian themes of salvation history as they appear in the Qurʾan: retribution, sign, exile, and covenant [see page 2]. I will also examine the Arabic formulas with which the Qurʾan introduces or connects these themes, the variant versions which the Qurʾan preserves of the same tradition, the material in the Qurʾan meant to explain other Qurʾanic material, and the manner in which the Qurʾan uses Arabic to express Jewish and Christian themes preserved in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.

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