Review of Greg Fisher (ed.), Arabs and Empires before Islam

Review of Greg Fisher (ed.), Arabs and Empires before Islam

Arabs and Empires before Islam is a formidable achievement in the field of pre-Islamic Arabian studies. It presents the history of Arabia from antiquity to the 630s CE, taking into account the subject’s diversity and presenting a variety of source materials. The volume will supplement or supplant the earlier go-to works by Robert Hoyland[1] and Jan Retsö.[2] It can also be (favorably) compared to the recent book of Aziz al-Azmeh,[3] which has received mixed reviews.[4] The volume contains contributions from over 20 leading experts[5] of pre-Islamic Arabia, which in itself is remarkable. It is a book that one will read with great excitement from cover to cover, but it is also serves as an excellent reference volume should one need to check, say, when a certain king of Ḥimyar ruled or the like. The text is accompanied by fifteen maps pinpointing the localities mentioned in the sources and scores of other figures. There are also sixteen color plates that present, for example, important inscriptions – such as the Old Arabic Jabal Usays graffito and Ḥarrān building inscription – that have so far been widely available only as low definition black and white photographs.

Review of Angelika Neuwirth, Scripture, Poetry, and the Making of a Community

The volume under review is the first thorough collection of Angelika Neuwirth’s scholarship in English, and, as such, its publication is nothing short of a momentous event in the field of Qurʾanic Studies. The fact that the book is not a monograph with an integral frame but a collection of fourteen articles that were published in varying contexts over twenty years hardly diminishes its strength—not least because Neuwirth has prefaced it with a skillful introduction that knits the chapters into one seamless whole. The book closes with a comprehensive bibliography, which should be celebrated as an invaluable source for the student of the Qurʾan, and with a detailed index that facilitates the navigation of the text. The eye that sets out to search for typographical errors in the book returns “languid and weary (khāsiʾan wa-huwa ḥasīr)” (Q Mulk 67:4) probably thanks to a superior editing effort. All I was able to catch are the following: p. 267, “Decologue” instead of “Decalogue”; p. 371, “Hebrew nabhī” instead of “Hebrew nabī” unless Neuwirth preferred an archaic Hebrew transliteration that became obsolete after the beginning of the twentieth century.

Review of Haggai Mazuz, The Religious and Spiritual Lives of the Jews of Medina

Although many of the ideas of the so-called revisionist school still meet with resistance from some quarters, their most lasting impact upon the study of the Qurʾan and the career of Muhammad has been to cast doubt on the reliability of the traditional sources for reconstructing Islamic origins. Some of the most radical aspects of the revisionists’ arguments have been critiqued severely – sometimes fairly, sometimes not. But the enduring legacy of those scholars who first turned a skeptical eye towards the sīrah, ḥadīth, and other sources – Wansbrough, Crone, Cook, Hawting, Burton, Calder, Rippin – is the infusion of a pervasive sense of caution into historical research into the proto- and early Islamic periods. While revisionists have sometimes been tarred by allegations that they seek to discredit and disparage Muslims by questioning the integrity of the tradition, the real target of the revisionist critique was the established tradition of Western scholarship, which had failed to recognize that Muslim sources on the revelation of the Qurʾan and the life of the Prophet serve primarily as Heilsgeschichte and not as objective history. Thus, as Crone famously put it, much of the research done on Islamic origins in the decades preceding the advent of the revisionists’ critical reorientation of the field served simply to translate classical Islamic sources and repackage them for consumption by a Western audience – “Muslim chronicles in modern languages and graced with modern titles.”

Review of Navid Kermani, God is Beautiful

Navid Kermani’s God Is Beautiful: The Aesthetic Experience of the Quran is a unique and fascinating contribution to Qurʾanic Studies. The volume is an English translation of Gott ist schön: Das ästhetische Erleben des Koran (2007) by Munich publishing house C.H. Beck, which is in turn a revision of Kermani’s 1997 dissertation conducted at the University of Bonn. In this book, Kermani argues that aesthetic experience of the Qurʾan has, since the time of early reports about its initial reception, been inextricable from the text as a whole. In focusing on aesthetic reception, Kermani studies the relations between the Qurʾan and its listeners, “[seeing the Qurʾan] as a structure—not as a concrete object but as a system of relations. The relations discussed in this book are those between the text and its recipients. No text exists … except in such relations” (ix). In doing so, Kermani brings an innovative hermeneutic strategy to the field of Qurʾanic Studies, recentering the understanding of the text, in addition to providing a new method for reading reports of qurʾanic reception in the early tradition.

Review of Keith Small, Qur’ans: Books of Divine Encounter

Following in the wake of volumes such as François Déroche’s The Abbasid Tradition: Qurʾans of the 8th to 10th Centuries (2006) about the Khalili collection in London, and Colin Baker’s Qurʾan Manuscripts: Calligraphy, Illumination, Design (2007) about the British Library’s collection of Qurʾan manuscripts, this little volume neatly encapsulates the breadth of the Bodleian Library’s collection of the same in Oxford. Arranged more or less chronologically, the reader is taken on a tour of the Bodleian’s Qurʾan collection—although with one or two detours to the Ashmolean Museum’s collection (also in Oxford), and one detour to the David Collection in Copenhagen.

Review of Angelika Neuwirth, Koranforschung – eine politische Philologie?

In this concise book, Angelika Neuwirth suggests that the study of reception of biblical materials in the Qurʾan must be analyzed by considering the multifaceted cultural and religious context in which the Qurʾan emerged over the course of the 22 years of Muḥammad’s prophetic career. She positions that the evolving text heavily interacted with its audiences and is, therefore, a result of a process of cultural re-negotiation that included elements from the syncretistic environment in Mecca, the living heirs of the biblical traditions who resided Medina as, and, of course, Muḥammad and his community. As such, Koranforschung – eine politische Philologie? Is a re-synthesis of the theories Neuwirth has laid out in her 850-page monograph Der Koran als Text der Spätantike (2010).[1] In this longer work, she contextualizes the qurʾanic text within the intellectual framework of Late Antiquity as an intellectual sphere in which various “antique” traditions underwent new readings—an approach reprised in this shorter work. Based on intertextual readings of written and oral traditions present in 7th-century Arabia, her previous work married a literary approach to the study of the Qurʾan’s rhetoric and structure with a historical approach, which simultaneously aims to reconstruct the emerging qurʾanic text and Muslim community. Her 2010 monograph covered topics as diverse as the evolving relation of the qurʾanic text to phenomena from the cult of liturgical practice, scriptural canon, and sacred history to structural and content-based comparisons between the Qurʾan and the Bible, on the one hand, and pre-Islamic Arabic poetry, on the other. All of which relied heavily on a revised outline of the historical stages of the emerging Muslim community based on Theodor Nöldeke’s qurʾanic chronology. This more recent monograph mostly constitutes a selection of themes explored in a lengthier form in her earlier book with a special emphasis on two specific aspects: The first is, as already indicated in the book’s title, her overview of various political elements impacting the methodologies used to study the Qurʾan through which she considers why the multifaceted approaches she exemplifies in her own research had not emerged earlier. The second, and more extensively elaborated, aspect is an analysis which aims at identifying the specific biblical traditions that influenced the qurʾanic corpus.

Review of François Deroche et. al, Les origines du Coran

The present volume, Les origines du Coran, le Coran des origins,is an important publication in the field of Qurʾanic Studies and a worthy purchase for any university library. Not only does Les origines testify to the robust tradition of European qurʾanic scholarship, it also provides the reader with focused contributions touching on several primary subfields in qurʾanic philology, i.e. history of religion, paleography, epigraphy, and codicology. The emphasis falls on European academic partnership and how these manifold philological specializations mutually inform one another, and the project is successful thanks to the editors’ choice of a relevant, unifying, and inspiring theme. Comprised of fourteen articles – nine French, one German, three English –Les origines is the result of a conference held in 2011 in France that honored the 150th anniversary of the publication of the first edition of Theodor Nöldeke’s groundbreaking work Die Geschichte des Qorâns (1860). Contributors were, hence, encouraged to draw inspiration from Nöldeke’s career and provide, “un panorama de la recherche sur la genèse du texte du Coran au cours d’une période qui s’étend des deux siècles qui précèdent l’apostolat de Muhammad à ceux au cours desquels la transmission manuscrite” (p. ii). The following review provides a précis of each chapter in order to demonstrate how well the volume honors Nöldeke, fulfills the goals of the avant-propos, and reflects the vivacity of dialogue among European scholars of Qurʾanic Studies.

Review of Jacqueline Chabbi, Les trois piliers de l’Islam

In Les trois piliers de l’Islam Jacqueline Chabbi makes the case that Islam as we know it from medieval sources is not the same as Islam as it was in its original Arabian context. According to Chabbi, academic scholars and pious Muslims alike too often fail to recognize elements of Islam which were introduced in later centuries, and too often assume that medieval ideas about the Qurʾan reflect what the Qurʾan meant to its original, Arabian audience. As she puts it, “Le Coran comme corpus textuel doit donc impérativement être séparé de son après” (p. 24) or, elsewhere, “Il ne faut pas se tromper de lieu et d’époque” (p. 349). Les trois piliers de l’Islam is her effort to set things straight, to recover Islam’s original message.

Remembrance: Andrew Rippin (1950-2016)

On Tuesday, November 29, 2016, Andrew Rippin passed away at his home in Victoria, British Columbia.1 Professor Emeritus at the University of Victoria since 2013—where he was formerly Professor of History and Dean of the Faculty of Humanities—Andrew (or Andy as he was known to some) was an esteemed colleague, revered mentor, and scholarly inspiration to many members of the IQSA community. Entering the fields of Qurʾānic and Islamic Studies in the 1980s, Andrew was an astonishingly prolific scholar, helping to shape these fields for almost four decades.2 He was author or editor of two dozen well-known textbooks, anthologies, and thematic volumes; some eighty journal articles and book chapters; and literally hundreds of encyclopedia entries and reviews. For scholars of the Qurʾān, Andrew was perhaps best known for his profound impact on the study of tafsīr in particular. His numerous surveys and introductory works allow the aspiring student of the Qurʾān and its interpretation to both grasp the immensity of the field and appreciate its transformation over the decades since he published his earliest attempt to take stock of the state of the field some thirty-five years ago.3

Lot and His Offer: 2016 IQSA Presidential Address

The Lot narrative has received significant attention in qurʾānic scholarship and tafsīr literature, both as part of the genre of qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ (stories of the prophets) and as the foundational narrative informing Muslim ethics on homoeroticism, sodomy, and, more recently, homosexuality. However, Lot’s offer of his daughters to a mob of would-be rapists (Q Hūd 11:78; Ḥijr 15:71) has received precious little attention in early and—more surprisingly—contemporary qurʾānic scholarship. While a large number of characters feature in the Qurʾān as emissaries of God, the narrative about Lot is regarded as paradigmatic for proper Muslim behavior. Lot’s offer of his daughters thus has serious implications for questions about the Qurʾān’s endorsement or recognition of sexual violence, women’s agency, and the premise that women are the property of men. The moral ambiguity of Lot’s offer is complicated by the Qurʾān’s affirmation of his status as a “trustworthy messenger of God” (Q Nūr 24:162) and, for many Muslims, by the later emergence of a largely unchallenged doctrine of the infallibility (ʿiṣmah) of all God’s messengers. In this presentation, I consider the Lot narrative, and particularly the offer of his daughters, as someone who grapples with the Qurʾān as both a scholar and a lover of the text. As an engaged scholar-lover of the Qurʾān, I am embedded in a multiplicity of identities and discourses, lodged between a refusal to ignore the contemporary ethical challenges that a linguistic and historical reading of the text presents on the one hand and a simultaneous abiding love for the text on the other, and deeply skeptical of hegemonic games masquerading as disinterested scholarship.

Response to Farid Esack’s 2016 Presidential Address

Prof. Esack, in his IQSA presidential address, discusses his discomfort with the qurʾānic depiction of Lot as a righteous prophet of God who offers his daughters up for sexual assault in order to save his male guests from sexual assault. He writes that he is further bothered by the attempt on the part of Islamic exegetes to whitewash Lot’s actions and maintain his righteousness. In this reply, I look to pre-Islamic midrashic sources for comparison and then engage in a close rereading of the qurʾānic accounts. In so doing, I show that the Qurʾān appears to present two different Lots, one a righteous messenger of God and one a flawed townsman, on the biblical and midrashic model. Since Prof. Esack noted in his talk that he turned to scholarship on biblical materials with little success, I then turn to a discussion of Louis Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews and its use by modern scholars of Islam. The response ends with a call for scholars of the Qurʾān to partner with scholars who have familiarity with and skill in reading the scriptural and exegetical materials of other religions.

Cognate and Paronomastic Curse Retorts in the Qurʾān: Speech Genres and the Investigation of Qurʾānic Language

This study focuses on a sub-genre of the genre of curses in Arabic, the cognate or paronomastic curse, one of the many forms of regular cognate paronomasia (ishtiqāq) that have been common in Arabic usage from pre-Islamic Arabic to the modern Arabic dialects. It argues that such curses occur in several passages of the Qurʾān and that an understanding of the genre’s usage in general sheds light on its sense and rhetorical effect in those passages. Moreover, the curse qātalahu’llāhu (“may God fight him!”), one of the most common qurʾānic curses, serves as a retort to forms of the verb qāla, yaqūlu (“to say”). Overall, this investigation suggests that interpretation of the Qurʾān may be advanced by attention to such common Arabic speech genres as well as to biblical language and to high registers of Arabic such as poetry or oratory.