Qur'anic studies today
Reply #10255 - June 14, 2021, 01:29 PM
Dye (translated from French)
“Q 30:2-7” in M. Azaiez, G. S. Reynolds, T. Tesei, H.M. Zafer (eds), The Qur’an Seminar Commentary – Le Qur’an Seminar, A Collaborative Study of 50 Qur’anic Passages, Commentaire collaboratif de 50 passages coraniques, de Gruyter, 2016, p.288-289.
According to many translations, the Koran would be a clear and unambiguous book: it is indeed quite rare that the translators report a difficulty, an uncertainty, or the existence of profound disagreements that can be encountered, both among mufassirūn1 [commentators] and among Western philologists, on the meaning of this or that passage. It was even possible to recommend a recent English translation, stressing that it rendered the original text in a fluid and accessible prose, which would be a very important asset, because “the original Koran is written in clear and easy-to-understand Arabic”. Yet the attentive reader encounters serious difficulties on each page, due to the presence of many hapax legomena and obscure or ambiguous passages—not to mention the very allusive character of many Koranic verses. Naturally, the orientalists have addressed some of these difficulties—in general those on which the Muslim tradition was the most divided.
There are also, of course, passages that do not seem to pose a major problem. However, some of these passages, on which the Muslim tradition can display a beautiful unanimity, are revealed on reflection to be much less clear than what our reading habits would lead us to believe.
A. Jeffery, The Foreign Vocabulary of The Quʾrān, (with a foreword by Gerhard Böwering and Jane Dammen Mc Auliffe), Texts And Studies On The Qurʾān, vol.3, G. Böwering and J. D. Mc Auliffe, (eds), 2007, p.3.Reprint: (Gaekwad's Oriental Series, no. lxxix), Baroda: Oriental Institute, 1938.
Now it is conceivable that there may have been correct tradition from the Prophet himself in many cases as to the interpretation of some of the strange words that meet us in the Qur’an, but if so, it is evident that this tradition was soon lost, for by the time the classical exegetes came to compile their works there was a bewildering entanglement of elaborate lines of conflicting tradition as to the meaning of these words, all emanating from the same small circle of the Prophet’s immediate Companions
We have, however, all that the early Muslim community had, and we have fair assurance that what that early community was able to preserve of the pronouncements of its founder has been on the whole faithfully transmitted to us, even though in a fragmentary and curiously jumbled condition. Neither the Sira nor Tradition is of much help to us in this matter, and though the exegetes have preserved in their work good evidence of what was thought in their day to be the meaning of words and phrases in the Qur'an, the bewildering array of variant opinions they record on almost every crucial point of interpretation, makes it quite clear than even the very early circle of exegetes was as much in doubt as we are as to the exact meaning of many of the terms that interest us the most.
P. Crone, “Two Legal Problems Bearing on the Early History of the Qur'ān,”Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 18, 1994, pp. 1-37 (= From Kavād to al-Ghazālī [Variorum], Aldershot 2005, no. V), p.37.
Three legal terms of the Qurʾān (kālala, jizya ʿan yad, kitāb in 24:33) were unintelligible to the early commentators, as were several non-legal phrases and passages (al-ṣamad, possibly al-rajīm, the mysterious letters and Sūrat Quraysh).
D. Madigan, The Qur’ân’s Self Image: Writing and Authority in Islam’s Scripture, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2001, p. 51.
This gap between the (relatively few) legal prescriptions in the Qur'an and some of the actual laws that became established among the Muslims raises a serious question about the early history of the text or at least about the role it played in the community. If we add to this the gap in comprehension represented by the fawatih, by textual difficulties, and by various terms that
were no longer understood by the commentators, we are drawn to conclude that the full text of the Qur' an played quite a limited role in the early decades of Islam.
G.S. Reynolds,“Qur’anic studies and its controversies”, in G.S. Reynolds, ed., The Qurʾān in Its Historical Context, London and New York : Routledge, 2008, p.8.
In early exegetical works Muslim scholars carry out speculative, and often unresolved, conversations on the meaning of numerous Qur’anic passages. They are usually forthright about the extent of their disagreement, often concluding their analysis with the simple admission: “The exegetes disagree on the meaning.” Elsewhere they use the marvelous Arabic elative term “asahh” or “more correct,” to introduce their own view while not entirely dismissing that of others. Or they resign themselves with the refrain: “God knows best.
The standard response to this perspective (much like Watt’s reproach of Bell) is that there is no need to throw out the baby with the bath water. The works of the mufassirūn [commentators]can still connect us with the time of the Qurʾān’s origins.[…] The problem with this view is that the mufassirūn, even the earliest mufassirūn, are unable to understand basic elements of the Qurʾān.[…] First is the case of the disconnected letters (Ar. al-aḥruf al-muqaṭṭaʿ or fawātiḥ al-suwar) that appear at the opening of 29 Sūras. These letters seem to play an important role in the organization of the Qurʾān. […] They do not demonstrate any memory of the role these letters played in the Qurʾān’s organization. Instead their commentary reflects both confusion and creative speculation.
The case studies of the previous chapter serve in part to illustrate the struggles of the classical mufassirūn to understand significant elements of the Qurʾān.[…] … it should be noticed that these case studies, for the most part, are not limited to isolated phrases, hapax legomena, or foreign vocabulary. Instead they largely address narratives or themes that lie at the heart of the Qurʾān’s discourse. The struggles of the exegetes are therefore all the more curious.