Review of Michael Penn, When Christians First Met Muslims

Review of Michael Penn, When Christians First Met Muslims

It is well known today that Islam was not “born in the full light of history” as the eminent scholar of religion Ernest Renan (1823–1892) once boldly claimed. Rather, it crystallized in the course of a lengthy historical evolution, still poorly understood, that probably had its roots in western Arabia in the early years of the seventh century C.E. but only reached its first culmination a century or more later. Renan’s sanguine confidence in our ability to reconstruct Islam’s origins stemmed from his conviction—shared by most in his day—that both the text of the Qurʾān, and the detailed traditional accounts in Arabic found in the works of Muslim historians, biographers, theologians, and jurists, offered us almost unmediated evidence for “what had actually happened” during the lifetime of Muḥammad and during the process of expansion that followed his death. Critical study of the Arabic narrative sources by several generations of scholars since then, however, has shown this blind confidence in the traditional Islamic origins story to be ill-founded. Grave doubts have also been raised in recent years about the Qurʾān text as a source of historical information, even for the events of the prophet’s life.

Review of Christian Peltz, Der Koran des Abū l-ʿAlāʾ

The present work is Christian Peltz’s lightly edited two-volume doctoral thesis, Muʿjiz Aḥmad, submitted to the University of Tübingen and published by Hartmut Bobzin and Tilman Seidensticker as volume 11 in their series, Arabische Studien. Peltz’s work is dedicated to a text unique in classical Arabic literature in many respects: Abū al-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī’s (d. 449/1057) Kitāb al-Fuṣūl wa’l-ghāyāt fī tamjīd allāh wa’l-mawāʿiẓ (henceforth Fuṣūl). Maʿarrī’s work has drawn scholarly interest because it has been believed to constitute an attempt at imitating or parodying (muʿāraḍah) the Qurʾān. Although Peltz mentions arguments for and against this hypothesis in one of his chapters, his study does not allow for a decision on this question. However, Peltz does present a wealth of material that will enable future research on the Fuṣūl as a literary work, with a focus mainly on its vocabulary.

Review of Suha Taj-Farouki, The Qur’an and Its Readers Worldwide

The interpretation of the Qurʾān has never been an exclusively Arabic language endeavor. However, the number of Qurʾān translations and qurʾānic commentaries in languages other than Arabic increased steadily, or even explosively, throughout the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first for a number of reasons. For example, nation states promoted national languages and taught them in their educational institutions; literacy in non-Arabic languages became a mass phenomenon, and print technology became widely available. This phenomenon has hardly been sufficiently studied, and comparative approaches that bring a perspective to works in more than one language are still a rarity. Therefore, the publication of this edited volume by Taji-Farouki that presents its readers with an unprecedented broad perspective on the global field of Muslim qurʾānic exegesis is more than welcome. It brings together ten chapters that present exegetical approaches from all over the world: Bosnia, Turkey, South Asia, Indonesia, Iran, Egypt, the U.S., East Africa, Germany, and China. Thus, it contains examples from Muslim majority societies as well as diasporic communities, from the early twentieth century to the present, maybe overstretching the term “contemporary” a little. Most of the chapters are original; two have been published elsewhere before.

Review of David Hollenberg, Beyond the Qur’an

Beyond the Qurʾān is a discussion of taʾwīl, allegorical or symbolic interpretation of the Qurʾān, based mainly on Ismāʿīlī works from the tenth and eleventh centuries. It contains five chapters and a conclusion. Chapter 1: Competing Islands of Salvation (1–35) is an introduction to the Ismāʿīlī daʿwah (missionary organization). Chapter 2: Ismāʿīlī Taʾwīl and Daʿwa Literature (36–52) is an introduction to Ismāʿīlī works on taʾwīl in general, showing that they were written mainly by dāʿīs (missionaries) for other dāʿīs and were designed to teach them how to educate their charges and to justify Ismāʿīlī doctrines. Chapter 3: Rearing (53–78) describes the process of initiation of Ismāʿīlī acolytes, emphasizing their introduction into a realm of secret knowledge. Chapter 4: Beyond the Qurʾān: Prophecy, Scriptures, Signs (79–99) discusses prophecy and scripture as common themes of taʾwīl. Chapter 5: The Torah’s Imams (100–125) addresses taʾwīl based on the stories of the prophets of the biblical tradition in particular. Conclusions are presented in the Epilogue: After the End of Days—from Imminent to Immanent Apocalypticism (126–129). The core of the work is chapter 5, which is based primarily on Sarāʾir wa-asrār al-nuṭaqāʾ, a work of taʾwīl based on tales of the prophets (qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ) and composed by the dāʿī Jaʿfar b. Manṣūr al-Yaman (d. 347/958). The work presents three main arguments, an overarching historical argument about the Ismāʿīlī daʿwah and other similar movements, and two more focused arguments on the nature of Ismāʿīlī taʾwīl and its use of biblical material.

Review of Andreas Görke and Johanna Pink, Tafsīr and Islamic Intellectual History

What do we study when we study tafsīr? Addressing this question promises not only a clearer understanding of what tafsīr is, but also a stronger sense of the shared venture in the scholarship that surrounds it. As in many emerging fields, scholars in Tafsīr Studies are concerned to define the boundaries of their object of study; paradoxically, as the boundaries of tafsīr become more defined they also become more provisional and permeable. It is with this paradox that Tafsīr and Islamic Intellectual History (hereafter TIIH), a collection of studies edited by Andreas Görke and Johanna Pink, is concerned. Görke and Pink pose the volume’s main question about tafsīr: “What kind of disciplinary, dogmatic, sectarian, chronological or regional boundaries are there, how are they affirmed and how are they permeated, transgressed, or shifted?” (11). The overall claim of TIIH is that a variety of criteria may be useful to make sense of the external (definitional) and internal (taxonomical) boundaries of tafsīr, depending on what aspects of qurʾānic interpretation researchers may be concerned with—and researchers of diverse perspectives are concerned with a variety of aspects. The editors of this volume wisely resist an absolute definition of tafsīr and instead issue “a plea for analytical clarity” (21), that is, for scholars to explicate their criteria for defining tafsīr relative to their research objectives. All the contributors to this volume have done admirably well in taking up this plea and in engaging directly with the volume’s question of boundaries.

Review of François Déroche, Qur’ans of the Umayyads

François Déroche’s research on the earliest Qurʾān manuscripts now spans decades. His extensive and direct observation of these material objects, noting and reflecting upon their features and comparing these with what has reached us in secondary history and traditions, have yielded an overall perspective rooted in a depth of familiarity that is virtually unparalleled today and perhaps even (we may imagine) in the early centuries of Islam. One sign of the impact of Déroche’s work is the fact that much of the vocabulary he created to serve his own need for a more precise nomenclature of the Arabic scripts in these objects is now standard in describing and analyzing them. Add to this his attention to their codicology and art historical aspects and the picture, though not complete, is by no means one-dimensional. That Déroche remains a frequent guest speaker and collaborator among various important associations and projects (Islamic Manuscript Association, International Qurʾānic Studies Association, Corpus Coranicum, and others) and a frequent and welcome guest of the public institutions and private collections in which these objects reside (including the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art in Istanbul) is further testament to his personal demeanor, professionalism, and established scholarly reputation, as well as to the integrity and ongoing relevance of his research.

Review of S. R. Burge, The Meaning of the Word

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 as noted in the editor’s introduction, exegesis constitutes a separate practice with separate aims. A disambiguating rubric was therefore needed, and lexicology was made to stand for philology in the service of exegesis, with lexicography relegated to “lexicon-making” (xxi). Whatever the soundness of this delimitation, the volume’s contents, focusing on the former, are a diversely vital addition not only to the critical literature on taʾwīl and tafsīr but to the studies of translation and hermeneutics generally.

Review of Andrew Bannister, An Oral-Formulaic Study of the Qur’an

The relationship between “the oral” and “the written” is one of the most fertile and unresolved questions in the study of early Islam, and one that often remains latent even in different sets of research questions and debates—from the reliability of early historical accounts to the development of Islamic legal practices, to the study of “semi-literary” papyri, and others. Andrew Bannister’s An Oral-Formulaic Study of the Qur’an has the merit of bringing that complex relationship into the focus of Qur’anic studies by searching the Qur’anic text itself for signs of oral diction. This fascinating book has the potential of reviving the debate regarding orality and literacy in the late antique Near East. This seems an important achievement in itself: While scholars have often mentioned the importance of orality in the “Qur’anic milieu,” the concrete practices of orally composing and transmitting texts and information in late antiquity remain elusive, nor do we know the precise extent and impact of oral materials travelling between different regions. One of the central questions of Bannister’s book is: Does the Qur’an bear any traces of the technique by which shared narratives—for example, stories about the creation of mankind—were reused by different religious groups?

Eloïse Brac de la Perrière and Monique Buresi, Le Coran de Gwalior: Polysémie d’un manuscrit à peintures

While the study of individual manuscripts in their own right is fascinating, the level of interest increases exponentially when the historical context and human stories surrounding manuscripts are added to the research. In the case of the Gwalior Qurʾān, MS AKM00281, there is a profoundly interesting context connected with the manuscript, and this context is explored fully in this important new volume. With the dissolution of the Ilkhan Mongol regime in 1336, a number of successor states emerged. They were in turn absorbed into a new empire created by the conquests of the Turco-Mongol warlord Tīmūr (1336–1405), known in the West as Tamerlane. His was a Sunni dynasty which cut a destructive path in the name of jihad across West, Central and South Asia around the turn of the fourteenth century. Tamerlane’s supreme position among Muslim states was established by his defeat of the Mamluks (1400) and Ottomans (1402).

Review of Christian Lange, Paradise and Hell in Islamic Traditions

There was a time not long ago in Islamic Studies when one was hard pressed to find much about the Islamic afterlife, Paradise and Hell, or eschatology in general. Certainly when I was doing my doctoral studies (on a related theme) in the late 90’s, Jane Idleman Smith and Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad’s The Islamic Understanding of Death and Resurrection (1981) had already enjoyed a longer than usual shelf life. Soubi El-Saleh’s La vie future selon le Coran (1971) and one or two fairly brief surveys of the question by German scholars in the early part of the twentieth century, as well as Ragnar Eklund’s Life Between Death and Resurrection According to Islam (1941), accounted for the remainder of an accessible bibliography in this subfield until Josef van Ess’ multivolume Theologie und Gesellschaft (1991–96). A watershed in the field was the 2009 symposium held in Göttingen, entitled Roads to Paradise, which despite its title, included papers on several different aspects of the afterlife, including eschatology in general and Hell in particular. However, the voluminous proceedings of the symposium were not published until this year.

Bodily Resurrection in the Qurʾān and Syriac Anti-Tritheist Debate

When considering the content and polemical strategies of certain passages in the Qurʾān, the history of the short-lived Tritheist movement merits further analysis. This Miaphysite Christian faction was accused of confessing a triple Godhead and denying a physical resurrection. In the half century prior to the emergence of the Qurʾān, lively debates took place among Miaphysite Christians in Egypt, Syria-Palestine, and Arabia over Tritheism. Syriacspeaking Arab Christian leaders accused the Tritheists of polytheism for denying God’s unity and of pagan unbelief for rejecting the resurrection of the original human body. This collection of anti-Tritheist literature makes critiques of positions not unlike several passages in the Qurʾān, as both claim to be directed at polytheists and unbelievers, and both assume knowledge of biblical material and Syriac-speaking Christian texts. Biblically and theologically based critiques in the Qurʾān appear to show familiarity with anti-Tritheist polemics. This article makes the case that particular verses in the Qurʾān reflect knowledge of Miaphysite anti-Tritheist critiques of Tritheist positions on God and the resurrection, that certain passages were modeled after the polemical reduction of opponents’ positions found in anti-Tritheist literature, and that the content and method of anti-Tritheist literature was repurposed for alternative polemical uses. These features include anti-Tritheist claims that Tritheists were unbelievers, that they divided God’s unity, that they were pagans and polytheists, and that they denied the bodily resurrection. The Qurʾān’s parallels with anti-Tritheist content and rhetorical method in certain cases suggests its production was part of the wider discussions taking place in the Middle East at the turn of the seventh century.

My God? Your Lord!” A Qurʾānic Response to a Biblical Question

Sūrat al-Ḍuḥā (Q 93) is often regarded as reflecting details from the sīrah of Muḥammad, or the biography of the qurʾānic prophet. The present study suggests that this sūrah should be understood as a re-reading of a biblical text, Psalm 22. The article consists of three parts. The first surveys the traditional tafsīr of the sūrah and examines the correlation between Sūrah 93 and Muḥammad’s sīrah. The second part contains the main discussion, which compares Sūrah 93 with Psalm 22. This comparison demonstrates the links between the two texts and their exegetical traditions, in terms of form, content, and function. Part 3 examines the two texts from an additional dimension: that of the linkage between Sūrah 93 and Psalm 22 on the one hand, and prophetic and savior figures, to whom exegetical traditions connect both texts, on the other.