CFP: International Conference on “Religions and Political Values”*

The Adyan Foundation, in partnership with the Lebanese American University (LAU), invites papers for a two-day conference on “Religions and Political Values,” to be held at LAU’s Byblos campus, 26-28 November 2014.

scholars in library_maqamat haririResponding to widespread interest in a values-based paradigm for engaging religions in the public domain, the goal of the conference is to create a forum for diverse sectors of society to reflect on how political values are defined and activated in Muslim and Christian discourses, and to explore and promote dialogue about these values across diverse worldviews. In so doing, the conference seeks to put recent scholarship in the humanities and social sciences in direct conversation with social-political and scriptural theologies, in Christianity and Islam specifically, and to confront questions and recommendations from public leaders and policy makers.

The conference will be conducted in English and Arabic. The deadline for abstract submissions is 1 September 2014. For more details and submission instructions, you can download the full call in PDF here: CFP: Religions and Political Values.

* Thanks to Nayla Tabbara, Director of Cross-Cultural Studies at Adyan, for sharing this CFP.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2014. All rights reserved.

Archaeologists Discover Oldest Known Arabic Inscription in South Arabia*

Frédéric Imbert, professor at Aix-Marseille Université and researcher with IREMAM, and a French-Saudi team of archaeologists have recently discovered the oldest known example of Arabic inscription in South Arabia, about 100 kilometers north of Najran.

Map of Najran in the Arabian peninsula; image accessed from Wikimedia Commons.

Map of Najran in the Arabian peninsula; image accessed from Wikimedia Commons.

The text is dated to 469-470 CE, and is written in an intermediate Nabatean-Arabic script, the earliest phase in the development of Arabic writing. Previously this script had been attested only in the north of the Hijaz, the Sinai, and the Levant. This newest discovery, made possible with funding from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development, has significant implications for the history of the Arabian peninsula and of the Arabic language, including the study of Qur’anic Arabic from the first centuries of Islam.

*This post is adapted from the 31 July announcement of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2014. All rights reserved.

On the Qur’an and Modern Standard Arabic

by Gabriel Said Reynolds*

Moses Set Out on the Nile in a Reed Basket. Engraving by Bernhard Rode, ca. 1775; photo accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

Moses Set Out on the Nile in a Reed Basket. Engraving by Bernhard Rode, ca. 1775; photo accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

Qurʾan 20:39 recalls how God instructed Moses’ mother to place her infant son in a tābūt and set him upon a river, that he might escape Pharaoh. In Modern Standard Arabic, tābūt can mean “box, case, chest, coffer” or “casket, coffin, sarcophagus,” and many translators render tābūt in the Qur’an in light of one or another of these meanings. Asad (“chest”), Hilali-Khan (“a box or a case or a chest”), Yusuf Ali (“chest”), Hamidullah (“coffret”), and Paret (“Kasten”) all choose the first meaning; Quli Qaraʾi (“casket”) chooses the second.

The awkward image of the infant Moses floating on the Nile in a casket illustrates the problem of understanding Qurʾanic terms in light of their meanings in Modern Standard Arabic. Not all translators do so. Pickthall and Arberry, among others, render tābūt, “ark.” This dramatically different translation presumably reflects the influence of Qurʾan 2:248, where the Qurʾan uses tābūt for the Ark of the Covenant.

In fact, Q 2:248 is the key to understanding tābūt in Q 20:39. Tābūt reflects the Hebrew term tebā (itself a borrowing from Egyptian), the term used for the basket in which Moses’ mother places him (Exodus 2:3; tebā evidently means “basket” here because it is made Q2out of reeds). Tebā is also used for the ark that Noah builds (Genesis 6:14, 15, passim). As Arthur Jeffery (Foreign Vocabulary, 88-89) notes, Qurʾanic tābūt is closer in form to Aramaic tībū (used in Targum Onkelos for both Noah’s ark and Moses’ basket) and even more so to Ethiopic tābot. The connection with Ethiopic tābot might be particularly important since it (like Syriac qebūtā) is used for Noah’s ark, Moses’ basket, and the Ark of the Covenant.

In any case, my point here is not to make an argument about a particular etymology for tābūt but rather to illustrate the danger of relying on Modern Standard Arabic in our reading of the Qurʾan. The way in which the Qurʾan uses tābūt for both Moses’ basket (Q 20:39) and the Ark of the Covenant (Q 2:248) reflects the Biblical background of this term. Therefore, in Qurʾan 20:39, tābūt might be understood in light of this background to mean simply “basket” (even if this meaning is not found in Hans Wehr’s dictionary).

Tābūt is not the only example of the problem of Modern Standard Arabic understandings of the Qurʾan. Qur’an 3:44 alludes to the account of the contest between the widowers of Israel over Mary. In the version of this account in the (2nd century) Protoevangelium of James, all of the widows hand their staffs (as lots) to the priest Zechariah, in whose care Mary has been kept in the Jerusalem Temple. From the last staff, that of Joseph, a dove emerges, indicating that he is God’s choice. The term that the Qurʾan uses for these staffs is qalam (pl. aqlām), from Greek kalamos (“reed”). Yet qalam also came to mean “pen,” and indeed this is its common meaning in Modern Standard Arabic. Thus if one reads the Qurʾan in light of Modern Standard Arabic, Q 3:44 would seem to involve throwing pens around.

A final case, the term dīn, has theological consequences. As Mun’im Sirry points out in his recent work Scriptural Polemics: The Qurʾan and Other Religions (esp. 66-89), many modern commentators understand Qurʾanic occurrences of dīn to denote “religion,” and indeed translators almost always render dīn “religion” (for Q 3:19 I did not find any cases where it is translated otherwise). This has important consequences, especially with verses such as Q 3:19 and 85, which can be read to mean that Islam is the only acceptable religion. Yet in light of Semitic and non-Semitic cognates (such as Syriac dīnā), Qurʾanic dīn might have—in some instances at least—a more general meaning of “judgment” (hence the phrase yawm al-dīn). In other instances, dīn might mean something closer to religious disposition, rather than religion in the modern sense of a communal system of faith and worship. Accordingly, students of the Qurʾan should be wary of reading dīn, or any Qurʾanic term, through the lens of Modern Standard Arabic.

* Gabriel Said Reynolds researches the Qur’an and Muslim/Christian relations and is Professor of Islamic Studies and Theology in the Department of Theology at Notre Dame.
© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2014. All rights reserved.

مَن كتب ٱلقرءان؟

*لسمير حسن

تكثر مراكز الدرس والبحث في كتاب يحمل عنان “القرءان.” وفي الكتاب اسم لمؤلفه “كتاب الله.” وتكثر الأموال المدفوعة لباحثين كثر. فيما يظنوه تاريخا لذلك الكتاب وتطورا لخط الكلمة فيه

Anba'a-Al-Quranوعلى الرغم من كثرة الأموال والباحثين وبحوثهم بقي خط الكتاب إلى اليوم من دون درس وعلم فيه. ولم يكن لمفهوم التطور في جميع البحوث أي صلة بخطه. وجميع ما كُتب فيه إلى اليوم يقوم على الظن أن خط “اللغة العربية” هو خط “القرءان

ومن ظنون الباحثين في ذلك الكتاب أن مؤلفه لم يكتبه بخط، وأنه لقم كتابه بالصوت لشخص لا يخط بيمينه، وأن هذا الشخص قرأ ما سمعه على آخرين فخطوه بخطوط مختلفة. ومن بعد جاء من طور في الخط. وبذلك الظن فإن مؤلف الكتاب ترك للناس ليخطوه له ويطوروا في خطه

لم أجد بحثا في خط الكتاب. ولم أجد من يسأل مَن كتب كلمة “قرءان”؟ ولماذا تُكتب الكلمة “قرآن” بخط اللغة العربية؟ وأي خط للكلمة هو الأعلى تطورا؟ وهل كلمة “قرآن” بذات الدليل والمفهوم لكلمة “قرءان”؟

لا يوجد في جميع البحوث إشارة إلى خط “القرءان،” وجميعها لا صلة لها به. فكلمة “قرآن” من دليل و مفهوم كلمة “قُرن،” وكلمة “قرءان” من دليل ومفهوم كلمة “قُرء.” فهل في هذا تطور أم هو تحريف؟

منذ سنة ٢٠٠٥ نشرت كتابي “أنباء القرءان تستقرّ في محراب الفيزياء،” وفيه ما رأيته في خط “القرءان” وأبجديته وقوى الفعل (الحركات). وهو ما لم يدركه الدارسون الباحثون إلى اليوم. ووصل كتابي منهم ما يلاقيه “القرءان” من إهمال

.سمير حسن باحث سوري ومؤلف كتب و مقالات كثيرة*

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2014. All rights reserved.

New Book on the Prophet Muhammad’s Adopted Son Zayd

by David S. Powers*

Muhammad may not have had any natural sons who reached the age of maturity, but Islamic sources report that he did adopt a young man named Zayd shortly before receiving his first revelation. The adoption had two important consequences: Zayd’s name changed to Zayd b. Muhammad and mutual rights of inheritance were created between father and son. Zayd was the first adult male to become a Muslim and he was known as the Beloved of the Messenger of God. He was the only Muslim apart from Muhammad whose name is mentioned in the Qur’an, where he is identified as “the one upon whom God and you yourself have bestowed favor” (Q. 33:37). Eventually, Muhammad would repudiate Zayd as his son, abolish the institution of adoption, and send Zayd to certain death on a battlefield in southern Jordan.

Powers_Zayd_cover from publ pgCuriously, Zayd has remained a marginal and little-known figure in both Islamic and Western scholarship. In Zayd—the first scholarly biography of this Companion in a Western language—I attempt to restore Zayd to his rightful place at the very center of the Islamic foundation narrative. To do so, I mine traces left behind in Qur’an commentaries, in biographical dictionaries, and in historical chronicles, reading these sources against analogues in biblical and post-biblical sources. In the Islamic narratives, I argue, Zayd’s character is modeled on those of biblical figures such as Isaac, Ishmael, Joseph, and Uriah the Hittite. He is each one of these men individually and all of them combined. One examines his life as one peers through a kaleidoscope: With each turn of the dial, a new and different image comes into focus.

This powerful modeling process was deployed by early Muslim storytellers to address two important issues: first, the bitter conflict over succession to Muhammad and, second, the key theological doctrine of the finality of prophecy. Zayd’s leadership credentials arguably were as strong—if not stronger—than those of either Abu Bakr, `Umar, `Ali or `Uthman. In a tradition related on the authority of `A’isha, the Prophet’s widow is reported to have said, “Had Zayd outlived the Prophet, he would have appointed him as his successor.” And in his commentary on Q. 33:40—a verse that contains the sole Qur’anic reference to Muhammad’s status as khatam al-nabiyyin or the Seal of Prophets, Muqatil b. Sulayman (d. 150/767) states, “Had Zayd [continued to be] Muhammad’s son, he would have been a prophet.” Both Zayd’s death on a battlefield and Muhammad’s repudiation of his adopted son and heir, I argue, were after-the-fact constructions driven by political and theological imperatives.

* Powers is Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University, and author of Muhammad Is Not the Father of Any of Your Men: The Making of the Last Prophet, also available from the University of Pennsylvania Press.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2014. All rights reserved.

New Book: Never Wholly Other: A Muslima Theology of Religious Pluralism

by  Jerusha T. Lamptey*

The observation that the Qur’an has a lot to say about various religious communities and religious diversity in general is not novel. Even a casual reader will quickly encounter references to the Children of Israel, the Jews, and the People of the Scripture; discussions of a multitude of prophets, revelations and scriptures; and descriptions of different types of people, including believers, disbelievers, hypocrites, and associators/idolaters.

Lamptey_NWO_coverThroughout history, these rich and complex facets of the Qur’anic discourse have spurred polemic and apologetic treatises; juridical debates and delineations of the boundaries between believers and disbelievers; and Sufi reflections on the diversity of prophecy in relation to the unicity of God. These facets continue to preoccupy many contemporary scholars, who are particularly interested in how the text is or can be invoked to promote religious intolerance or religious tolerance.

In Never Wholly Other: A Muslima Theology of Religious Pluralism (New York: Oxford, 2014), I offer a critique of some contemporary engagements with the Qur’an’s discourse on religious diversity. While the majority of these interpretations arising in the US context offer a positive read on the reality of religious diversity, they do so by oversimplifying the Qur’anic content. This occurs by privileging parts of the Qur’an that affirm diversity over other more diversity-ambivalent parts of the text. On an interpretive level, such privileging is accomplished by appealing to methods such as progressive revelation, ethical principles, chronology and abrogation.

In response, I propose a new hermeneutical approach that draws its foundational principles—including Qur’anic unity, polysemy, and textual silence—from Muslim women interpreters of the Qur’an. These foundational principles provide a unique starting point, but they require supplementation in order to avoid oversimplification of the Qur’an’s complex discussion of religious diversity. I find this in a critical retrieval of Toshihiko Izutsu’s method of semantic analysis, in particular his focus on semantic fields and relational meaning of Qur’anic concepts.

Combining the methods of Muslim women interpreters of the Qur’an and Izutsu, I then engage in a close and relational re-reading of the text. This re-reading begins with the identification of two distinct, yet overlapping, semantic fields: that of taqwā (God-consciousness) and that of umma (community of revelation). I then explore the complex interconnections among central Qur’anic concepts, including belief, disbelief, submission, association, and hypocrisy, and argue that they fall within the semantic field of taqwā, rather than umma. This means that these concepts or characteristics are not automatically affiliated with particular communities.

This argument leads to my constructive articulation of a Muslima theology of religious pluralism in which I offer an integrated account of the Qur’anic discourse on religious diversity, weaving together questions of creation, human nature, revelation(s), human diversity and interactions, and divine evaluation.

*Lamptey is Assistant Professor of Islam and Ministry at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. She earned her Ph.D. in Theological and Religious Studies, with a focus on Religious Pluralism, from Georgetown University in 2011. Her research focuses on theologies of religious pluralism, comparative theology, and feminist theology.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2014. All rights reserved.

New Book: The Arabs and Islam in Late Antiquity*

AlAzmeh coverAziz al-Azmeh’s new book, The Arabs and Islam in Late Antiquity: A Critique of Approaches to Arabic Sources, is a critical study of Arabic textual sources for the history of the Arabs in late antique times, during the centuries immediately preceding Muhammad and up to and including the Umayyad period. Its purpose is to consider the value and relevance of these sources for the reconstruction of the social, political, cultural and religious history of the Arabs as they were still pagans, and to reconstruct the emergence of Muhammadan and immediately post-Muhammadan religion and polity.

For this religion (including the composition and canonization of the Qur’an), the label Paleo-Islam has been coined, in order to lend historical specificity to this particular period, distinguishing it from what came before and what was to come later, all the while indicating continuities that do not, in themselves, belie the specificity attributed to this period of very rapid change. This is argued further in Aziz Al-Azmeh’s The Emergence of Islam in Late Antiquity: Allah and His People (Cambridge University Press, 2014), to which this book is both a companion and a technical preface.

Al-Azmeh illustrates his arguments through examination of orality and literacy, transmission, ancient Arabic poetry, the corpus of Arab heroic lore (ayyam), the early narrative, the Qur’an, and other literary sources. The work includes a very extensive bibliography of the works cited.

* This post is based on the publisher’s announcement. The book is the first in the Gerlach Press series, Theories and Paradigms of Islamic Studies.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2014. All rights reserved.