A review of A.J. Droge, The Qur’an: A New Annotated Translation

By Ayman Ibrahim

One of the major goals of IQSA is to encourage research, discussion, and scholarship on the Qur’an and its literary features and historical formation. Arthur Droge’s The Qur’ān: A New Annotated Translation is a very positive contribution to the growing research on Islam’s scripture, particularly with regards to translating its meanings. Successfully placing his work within serious scholarly studies, Droge is to be congratulated and commended for his critical annotated translation, and its detailed, articulate, and thorough investigation. He “aims not at elegance but strives for as literal a rendering of the Arabic as English will allow” (xxxv). He is interested not only in the scholarly theories and methods surrounding the interpretation of the Qur’an but also in its relationship to pre-Qur’anic texts. Droge is evidently knowledgeable of and comfortable with the texts of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, as well as the interacting discourses of the Qur’an with them. Moreover, he demonstrates great awareness and familiarity with other earlier translations of the Qur’an by Muslims (Pickthall, Yusuf Ali, and Abdel Haleem) and non-Muslims (Bell and Arberry) (xxii, xxvi).

51rvkcm01IL._SY300_Methodologically, the author adopts and builds upon earlier studies, such as those of Daniel Madigan’s The Qur’ān Self Image and Gabriel Reynolds’s The Qur’ān in its Biblical Subtext, by attempting to understand the Qur’an on its own terms, setting “the traditional story of Islamic origins aside” (xiii). Droge acknowledges that this approach in dealing with the Qur’an is not the most common, as “both religious and secular scholars are committed to the view that the Qur’an corresponds to the career of Muḥammad” (xi). However, he convincingly argues for his approach, affirming that the Qur’an does not demand the reader to distinguish between different chronological periods or geographical places to understand the text (xi-xii). It is obvious that Droge does not seek controversy, as he shows restraint in the questions he asks (xiv), and the claims he makes (xxvi, xxxii). Yet he still supports his choice of such a critical approach, as he affirms that: “reverence may be a religious virtue, but it should not be a scholarly one” (xiii). Adopting such an approach does not mean that he dismisses tradition altogether. Throughout his analysis, he refers and reflects on the tradition for comparison and contrasts, without “letting tradition (sīra and tafsīr) fill in the gaps or predetermine the meaning of the [Qur’anic] text” (xxxvi).

In his attempt to adhere to the literal English rendition of the Arabic text, Droge demonstrates competency, as he provides impressive word choices. Two examples will make my point here. First, consider Surat ‘Āl ʿImrān (Q 3:49), especially the part of the verse which reads annī akhluq lakum. Yusuf Ali and Abdel Haleem render the verb akhluq as “make,” while Pickthall and Sher Ali as “fashion,” and Hilali-Khan as “design.” For no obvious reason they seem to refrain from rending the verb as “create,” although two verses earlier (Q 3:47) they render yakhluq as “creates.” Droge chooses the correct literal English rendition: create. In his word choice, he is not only accurate but also consistent, as he renders this same verb root similarly throughout the text (e.g. compare Q 2:21, 29, 164, 228). Second, consider the word al-ṭāghūt, which perplexes translators. Although the Qur’an clearly links it with al-shayṭān in (Q 4:76), Pickthall renders it “idols,” Yusuf Ali “Evil,” Khalifa “tyranny,” and Abdel Haleem, “an unjust cause.” Droge keeps it in the text as al-ṭāghūt, and offers adequate explanations in footnotes, referring to its other occurrences and suggesting a textual meaning (Q 2:256, 257; 4:51, 60, 76; 5:60; 16:36; 39:17). While he affirms that the word could be merely another name for al-shayṭān, he still explains the semantic range of the word, referring to a possible related word in Ethiopic, holding tight to a literal rendition, as much as English allows. This is an excellent choice by Droge. It is noteworthy to mention, however, that unlike al-ṭāghūt, he treats the word fitna differently (e.g. Q 2:191, 193, 217; 8:39, 73; 9:47, 48, 49). Acknowledging its apparent various meanings, he translates it within the text, using different words (persecution, trouble, discord), depending on the text. He offers an explanation for his word choice in a footnote. While in both cases of al-ṭāghūt and fitna he is faithful to the apparent meaning of the word, as he strives for the literal rendering, it seems that his treatment of al-ṭāghūt (keeping it without translation within the text) is a bit better than that of fitna (translating it differently in the various passages throughout the Qur’an).

The translation is very attractive, and one of its major strengths lies in its extensive reliance on references and explanations—the entire text is annotated in a meticulous and detailed way. Moreover, the Index (461-488) is one of the features of the book that students and teachers may find very helpful. While Droge lists important works on the Qur’an in his “Guide to Further Reading” (xxxix-xli), it would make the translation even more helpful to readers if there were some indications of important and relevant secondary studies when appropriate and needed, especially after specific explanations offered in the footnotes. For instance, in sūrat al-Baqara (Q 2:30; footnote #38), after explaining the word khalīfa, it would be helpful to refer to some scholarly works that treat such an important word; similarly, Q 2:106, footnote # 130, and so forth. Obviously, this would make the volume a bit larger in size, yet it would definitely add to its great value for students.

There are very few typographical errors. The word wādi should be wādī (xvi), al-Ṭīn should be al-Tīn in Sura 95, and the name of the prophet Hūd is erroneously written Ḥūd throughout the text (with a ḥā’ as the first letter, instead of hā’). It is a pleasant relief to know that these minor errors have been corrected in the upcoming second printing, which will be released before the summer of 2014, according to the author. Moreover, some of Droge’s word choices need more explanation. Consider the word ḥaṣab in Surat al-Anbiyā’ (Q 21:98). The author renders it “coals,” but there is no stated explanation regarding this decision. There should be an annotation here, at least a brief note indicating the nature of his rendition. The same goes for umma in (Q 12:45), abbān in (Q 80:31), and so forth. It is understandable that Droge works with the standard Cairo Arabic (uncritical) text of the Qur’an. It will be interesting to see if future translations of the Qur’an explore the possibilities raised by emendations to that text. However, these minor causes for critique do not undermine the exceptional effort done in this valuable translation. They are understandable in a work of this size, especially in its first edition.

This translation is an excellent one. I have already assigned it in my class, “Islamic Texts: Qur’ān and Ḥadīth.” Droge’s work provides the field of Qur’anic Studies with a rich and meticulously researched translation that is particularly appropriate at a time when interest in the Qur’an is growing. The field of Qur’anic Studies is in need of rigorous academic scholarship more than ever, and Droge’s translation of the Qur’an provides just that.

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


Announcing IQSA’s Inaugural Executive Board

The International Qur’anic Studies Association is pleased to announce its inaugural ARExecutive Board. We are honored to welcome a wonderful roster of Qur’anic Studies scholars to the Board, including:

Please see our updated People page for a full listing.

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

New book: Shaping a Qur’anic Worldview

By Vanessa De Gifis*

It is commonplace in Islamic studies to acknowledge, in a general or clichéd way, that the Qur’an has an influence on Islamic thought and society. My new book, Shaping a Qurʾānic Worldview, was motivated by the desire to better understand the practical mechanisms by which Muslims bring the Qur’an to bear on real-world decision making. It is the first book to systematically examine references to the Qur’an in early medieval Islamic politics in light of classical Arabic-Islamic rhe9780415735964torical and grammatical-semantic theories.

Classical theoretical considerations of rhetorical circumstance, author-audience interlocution, and grammatical-semantic features inform my own approach to correlating the circumstances and techniques of Qur’anic referencing. I deploy the basic interrogatives─when, who, what, where, how, and why─that correspond to distinct yet interrelated areas of authorial deliberation manifested in political texts:

  • When does Qur’anic referencing occur?
  • Who are the interlocutors?
  • What Qur’anic elements (verses, themes, literary forms) appear?
  • Where along the rhetorical trajectory do Qur’anic elements appear?
  • How are Qur’anic elements grammatically rendered and framed?
  • Why are Qur’anic references logically or rhetorically persuasive?

To illustrate the critical connections between the formal techniques of Qur’anic referencing and the socio-historical circumstances of their execution, the book presents a case study of Arabic texts attributed to the ʿAbbāsid Caliph al-Maʾmūn (r. 813-833 C.E.), who is famous for entwining scriptural theology and political machination in his controversial “test” (mihna) to enforce the doctrine of the createdness of the Qur’an, and whose rule coincided with the maturation of classical Islamic political thought and literary culture. Rhetorical analysis reveals how Qur’anic referencing functions as analogical exegesis, whereby verses in the Qur’an are reinterpreted through the lens of subjective experience, and at the same time socio-historical experiences are understood in Qur’anic terms. Through strategic deployment of scriptural references within the logical scheme of rhetorical argument, the Caliph constructs moral analogies between paradigmatic characters in the Qur’an and people in his social milieu, and situates himself as a pivotal moral reformer and agent of divine command, in order to persuade his audiences of the necessity of the Caliphate and the religio-moral imperative of obedience to his authority.

The Maʾmūnid case study contains classical examples of ubiquitous themes and techniques of Qur’anic referencing, indicative of the nature and function of the phenomenon across historical periods. Exploring the use of the Qur’an in rhetorical argument is especially apt to discern inter-subjective, negotiated understandings of the Qur’an, in a mode of interpretation that is inherently and deliberately more dialogical than conventional exegetical literature. My aim with the book is to contribute to ongoing scholarly inquiries about the rhetorical features of the Qur’anic corpus and to stimulate broader conversations about the practical impact of the Qur’an on the articulation of distinctly Islamic moral values and historical vision.

*DeGifis is Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies and Graduate Advisor for Near Eastern Languages at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. Her book, Shaping a Qurʾānic Worldview, will be available in e-book form on April 11, 2014. She welcomes correspondence at vdegifis@wayne.edu

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

King’s College Workshop Report: Patterns of Argumentation in Late Antique and Early Islamic Literature

By Barbara Roggema

On February 20-22, a workshop took place at King’s College London about patterns of argumentation in Late Antique and early Islamic literature. The workshop was organized by Yannis Papadogiannakis and Barbara Roggema within the framework of the ERC-project Defining Belief and Identities in the Eastern Mediterranean: The Role of Interreligious Debate and Interaction. This project seeks to recover the processes by which religious beliefs and identities were defined through interreligious interaction and debate in the religious culture of a broader social base in the eastern Mediterranean (sixth-eighth c. CE) through examination of a neglected, unconventional corpus of medieval Greek, Syriac, and Arabic literature of debate (consisting of collections of questions-and-answers, dialogues among others).

The papers covered a wide variety of source material: interreligious disputations, tafsīr, maghāzī literature, apologetics, gnomologies, erotapokriseis, chronicles, and early Islamic legal texts. The principal focus was on the ways in which religious ideas in the Eastern Mediterranean world were shaped by the challenges of rival religious groups, and especially, what patterns of argumentation were employed in these various types of literature in order to formulate answers to critical questions from inside and outside the community. At the same time, most papers addressed the more general question of the processes behind the transmission and transformation of ideas between the Late Antique Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities.

Fragment of a 9th century manuscript of the Arabic translation of the 7th/8th century Greek Quaestiones ad Antiochum ducem by Pseudo-Athanasius of Alexandria (Bibliothèque Nationale et Universitaire de Strasbourg, ms 4226).

Fragment of a 9th century manuscript of the Arabic translation of the 7th/8th century Greek Quaestiones ad Antiochum ducem by Pseudo-Athanasius of Alexandria (Bibliothèque Nationale et Universitaire de Strasbourg, ms 4226).

With regard to Qur’anic Studies, several papers are relevant to mention here. David Bertaina’s “The Qurʾān as Question-and-Answer Literature: A Witness to Late Antique Disputation” focused on the strong connections between the Qur’an’s question-and-answer literary form and the culture of disputation in the Jewish and Christian milieu of the seventh century. He argued that the Qur’an records disputes in which its audience was engaged, but at the same time dissuades people from arguing over issues which pertain to the realm of Divine unknowability. One example is the reflection of disputes over the direction of prayer in Q 2:142. No answer is given to the heated question in this verse. Instead it diverts the issue to an evocation of God’s will, guidance and authority. Bertaina also discussed the possibility that the Qur’an preserves echoes of contemporary religious debates. An issue that might be reflected in Q 4:171, the verse in which the People of the Book are told not to say “three” about God, is the intra-Miaphysite dispute about John Philoponus’ tritheistic interpretation of Trinitarian theology.

Barbara Roggema’s paper dealt with post-Qur’anic Christian-Muslim confrontation. She discussed a Christian-Arabic papyrus, which was dated by Georg Graf to the middle of the eighth century and which contains polemical questions against the Qur’an. These critical questions feature in early tafsīr as well, but without being identified as polemical points made by Christians. Roggema argued that Arabic-speaking Christian critique of the Qur’an goes back at least to the eighth century, if not to the century before, and that it may have acted as a catalyst to the mufassirūn’s search for internal consistency in the Qur’an.

Michael Pregill’s paper “Making a Difference: Revelation, Prophetology, and the Shaping of tafsir in the ‘Sectarian Milieu’” also dealt with the impact of interreligious polemic on the formation of early Islamic tradition. He focused on the reshaping of Qur’anic narratives by early commentators, using the example of the Golden Calf narrative and the impact of the development of ideas about Biblical corruption (taḥrīf) and prophetic impeccability (ʿiṣma) on interpretation of the story.

How Islamic commentators reshaped Biblical narratives was also the topic of Marcel Poorthuis’s paper “Šekhinah and Sakīna or: on the rivalry between Moriah and Mecca.” Poorthuis showed how al-Ṭabarī, in his narration of Ibrahim’s founding of the Ka‘ba, used the non-Qur’anic term Sakīna to reflect the Jewish Šekhinah. He discussed how Jewish traditions were Islamicized when Isaac’s intended sacrifice on Mount Moriah was transformed into a genuinely Islamic story about the Sakīna and of the founding/discovery of the Ka’ba. This transformation entailed a change in understanding of the Sakīna, making it a jinn-like presence rather than an independent divine agent as in Jewish tradition.

This workshop will have a follow-up in November of this year. All who are interested are welcome to contact Barbara Roggema at Barbara.roggema@kcl.ac.uk for more information.

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

Video interview: Dr. Toby Mayer

Of potential interest to Qur’anic Studies scholars is a video interview published by the Institute of Ismaili Studies, London (IIS). The IIS’s website features an interview with Dr. Toby Mayer, translator of Keys to the Arcana: Shahrastani’s Esoteric Commentary on the Qur’an

Some of the questions that Mayer answers in the interview include:

  • What is the significance to scholarship of presenting Shahrastani’s Keys to the Arcana?
  • Who was Shahrastani?
  • Is Keys to the Arcana distinguished by any specific interpretative methodology?  

Mayer is a research associate in the Qur’anic Sudies Unit at the Institute of Ismaili Studies, London, where he teaches courses on Sufism and tafsir. To download the introduction to or bibliography of his translation, see here.

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

Rethinking Late Antiquity—A Review of Garth Fowden, Before and After Muḥammad: The First Millennium Refocused

By Michael Pregill

Beginning in the 1970s, the work of Peter Brown revolutionized the way scholars approach the “fall of Rome,” the decline of Roman and Sasanian power in the Middle East, and the rise of Islam in Late Antiquity. In his classic The World of Late Antiquity, AD 150-750 and other works, Brown argued that the emergence of Islam and the establishment of the caliphal empire was not a radical disruption of the course of history, but rather represented the continuity of older cultural, political, social, and religious patterns. Despite the wide influence of Brown’s work and the general recognition of Islam’s importance in the overall trajectory of Mediterranean and even European history, substantial obstacles to a full integration of ancient, early Christian, Jewish, and Islamic phenomena into a general history of the civilization of Western Asia remain.

Although an outdated, isolationist approach to Late Antiquity primarily focusing on late Roman culture and society still dominates some quarters of the academy, many scholars have worked towards a more integrated and comparative approach to the period. The shifts have been gradual and partial. Today there are numerous scholars of rabbinics who explore the wider context of the Babylonian Talmud in Sasanian society; there has lately been a resurgence of interest in the history of the Red Sea region, including Ethiopia and the Yemen, in the centuries leading up to the rise of Islam; and over the last ten years or so, we have seen significant interest in the literary and religious parallels to the Qur’an found in Syriac Christian literature in particular. (Many of the scholars who have been responsible for the last development have generously assisted in the foundation and growth of IQSA, so this is really nothing new to readers of this blog, though developments in late ancient or Jewish historiography may be less familiar.)

Before and After Muhammad: The First Millennium Refocused

Before and After Muhammad: The First Millennium Refocused

All of these developments point to a recognition that the various cultures and literatures of Late Antiquity cannot be viewed in isolation, but rather must be approached in the wider context of the dynamic exchanges between various communities in the period, the imperial competition between the Romans and the Sasanians, and the spread and consolidation of the monotheistic or “Abrahamic” traditions.

Among the scholars who sought to adopt, refine, and develop Brown’s approach to the period, it was Garth Fowden—currently Sultan Qaboos Professor of Abrahamic Faiths at Cambridge—who produced what was perhaps the most important work in this area in the 1990s: From Empire to Commonwealth: Consequences of Monotheism in Late Antiquity. When I was a graduate student, Fowden’s work impacted me profoundly. The book is ambitious in scope, wildly imaginative, willing to explore the period in terrifyingly broad terms, but in pursuit of a single cogent thesis: that the entire history of the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean from the second through the ninth century CE can be understood in terms of a sequence of imperial projects aiming to establish God’s rule on earth. That is, the unifying theme of the era, one that distinguishes it from the civilization of the ancient world and sets the stage for the medieval cultures of Byzantium, Western Christendom, and the Dār al-Islām, is the use of monotheism as the primary justification for statebuilding, for literally global dominion (as far as that was possible in the pre-modern world). In Fowden’s work, the use of religion to justify imperial authority becomes the thread that links Christian Rome, Sasanian Iran, and the caliphates and that allows us to see the significant continuities between them with clarity.

(Perhaps not coincidentally, the only other books I read during my Ph.D. training that exerted a similarly enduring influence on my imagination were Wansbrough’s The Sectarian Milieu (1978)—no doubt familiar to every reader of this blog—and Bulliet’s The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization (2004), which, like Fowden’s Empire to Commonwealth, is another eloquent call for historical thinking on the global scale, for transcending the narrow and artificial boundaries between the culture of “the West” and Islam.)

After a number of years dedicated to other projects, including a fascinating study on the iconography of the late Umayyad palace of Quṣayr ʿAmra, Fowden has now returned to history on the grand scale with Before and After Muḥammad: The First Millennium Refocused. Stunningly, this work is even more ambitious in scope than Empire to Commonwealth. Here Fowden once again seeks to explore the overarching continuities between Christian Rome, Sasanian Iran, and Islam but with even more attention paid to the intertwining discourses that link Greco-Roman, Syrian Christian, Jewish, Arab, Iranian, and European cultures over the course of a thousand years, centering on what he now calls the “Eurasian hinge” of southwest Asia linking the civilizations of the region. Fowden anchors his work in a rigorous interrogation of older conceptions of Late Antiquity, criticizing older scholars’ poor integration of Islam into the period, as well as the common approach of only including the Umayyad caliphate as a late antique empire. This serves to truncate the early medieval period from older trajectories of development that arguably only reached their full fruition around the year 1000. It also artificially severs the Abbasids and Iranian Islam from the prevailing cultural patterns of the Arab-Islamic world, though they are equally rooted in the legacies of biblical monotheism and Hellenism.



Fowden also locates his work in the context of contemporary debates over the relationship between Islam and the West, stating quite bluntly that “My purpose here is not to join this debate directly, but to overhaul its foundations” (2). His approach in Before and After Muḥammad builds on his earlier work, in that the cultures of the Islamic Middle East and Christian Europe are seen as halves of a larger whole. (Here I was a bit disappointed that Fowden does not engage with Bulliet’s aforementioned work The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization, which eloquently argues for an approach to Islam and the West as two halves or wings of a unified civilizational complex that only decisively split in the later medieval period. This is a perspective that is obviously quite compatible with and complementary to Fowden’s.)

Periodization, methods, and labels occupy much of Fowden’s attention here, and he spends significant time critiquing other contemporary attempts to advance beyond traditional frameworks and paradigms (82-91), adopting the new periodization of a unified “First Millennium” as his preferred heuristic lens on the period. This approach has the distinct benefit of locating Augustus at one end of the period and the emergence of the mature scriptural communities of Europe and Western Asia at the other, without privileging Europe over the Islamic world as the “true” heir to Greco-Roman antiquity or reifying anachronistic communalist boundaries between “pagans,” Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

Several aspects of Fowden’s approach here depart from that of From Empire to Commonwealth. There is a particular emphasis here on various textual lineages as the foundation of cross-cultural continuity. Thus, he sees the transmission of specific canons of material as one of the primary drivers of cultural development, each moving through an initial phase of revelation to subsequent phases marked by canonization and then interpretation, with the resultant exegetical cultures dominating the cultural landscape from western Europe to eastern Iran by the year 1000. As a student of comparative exegesis (in my case, midrash and tafsir) I found the emphasis on the exegetical here particularly fascinating, though notably, Fowden is not concerned solely with scriptural canons (Tanakh, Bible, and Qur’an) but also philosophical and legal canons, placing particular emphasis on Aristotelianism as a major current of cultural continuity in the First Millennium.

Fowden’s two chapters on “Exegetical Cultures” are thus exhilarating and dizzying—charting Aristotelianism’s movement from Greek to Syriac to Arabic educational institutions, the evolution of law from the Justinianic Code to the Babylonian Talmud to the emergence of Islamic fiqh, and touching on patristic, Karaite, and Muʿtazilite scriptural exegesis for good measure. The final chapter is likewise a tour de force, surveying the culmination of the First Millennium by showing us “Viewpoints Around 1000: Ṭūs, Baṣra, Baghdād, Pisa.” The cities visited in this grand perspective symbolize, respectively, the resurgence of Iranian national consciousness with the Shāh-Nāmeh of Firdowsī; the maturation of gnostic-philosophical-spiritual currents in early medieval Islam with the Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ; the emergence not just of the mature Sunni and Shii traditions but of sophisticated and distinctively Islamic modes of apprehending and engaging different faiths; and the reemergence of Europe as a meaningful center of cultural production.

Astonishingly, this work is not the culmination of Fowden’s work in rethinking Late Antiquity. Rather, he advertises this book as a prolegomenon to a new, more comprehensive project on the First Millennium. It is also the companion piece to a forthcoming work charting the evolution of philosophy from Aristotle to Avicenna. Specialists will inevitably find much to quibble with here, especially given Fowden’s propensity to working in broad swathes rather than drilling down to wrestle with thorny details. Moreover, one can imagine assigning this only to the most intrepid undergraduates, despite the major pedagogical implications of Fowden’s reflections on periodization in particular. But overall, this is synthetic historiographic work of great sophistication and lasting value, and Before and After Muḥammad deserves to provoke discussion throughout many scholarly quarters.

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