A conversation between Mehdi Azaiez and Tommaso Tesei
Since its creation, IQSA has been defined as a network of a diverse range of scholars and educators, serving to advocate for the field of Qur’anic studies both in higher education and in the public square. Within this scope, IQSA will present three interviews over the following weeks with PhD students working in the field of Qur’anic studies. We begin with Tommaso Tesei, a PhD Student working mainly on the Qur’an’s cultural relationship with the Late Antique world.
Tommaso, what are your academic achievements in the field of Qur’anic studies ?
My interest in Qur’anic studies has matured over the last three years, from my doctoral studies at both La Sapienza University in Rome and the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales in Paris to my research for the European Research Council project, “The Here and the Hereafter in Islamic Traditions” (University of Utrecht, Sept.–Dec. 2012). Most recently I have undertaken work as a Mellon doctoral fellow with the “Qur’an Seminar” (University of Notre Dame, Dec. 2012–Sept. 2013).
What is the aim of your research?
My research emerges from current trends in Qur’anic Studies that seek to excavate and explore the religio-cultural ties between the Qur’anic text and its historical environment. The major aim is to inquire into the relationship between the Qur’an and the cultural and intellectual history of the Late Antique Near East. To this end, my study focuses on three main issues:  the study of two consecutive pericopes found in Surat al-Kahf (Q 18:60–82, 83–102);  Qur’anic cosmological imagery; and  the Qur’an’s teachings about death and the afterlife, that is, its eschatology. In the following lines I will provide some details about each issue.
Could you introduce these three topics and their importance for the field of Qur’anic studies?
1. The study of verses 60–82 and 83–102 of Surat al-Kahf represents the topic of my PhD thesis, scheduled to be defended in June of 2013. The narratives contained in these two pericopes are characterized by their strong analogies with several Late Antique legends concerning Alexander the Great, which occur in Greek, Hebrew and Syriac literature. The Syriac Christian versions of these legends are particularly interesting for my study, as they occur in two works composed in 629 CE and c. 635 CE, respectively, and are thus contemporary to the period in which the Qur’an’s prophet purportedly preached. Therefore, the comparative study of the two Qur’anic pericopes with these Syriac legends offers an exceptional opportunity to investigate the relationship between the Qur’an and its cultural environment. A major aim of my thesis is to highlight, through this specific case study, the Qurʾan’s engagement with previous and contemporary Judeo-Christian literature.
Beyond focusing on the literary, thematic and cultural connections between the Qur’anic pericopes and the Alexander legends, my research also sets out to explore: the purposes behind the Qur’an’s introduction of these narratives into its theological discourse, its method of adapting them to its theological agenda, and its interest in omitting or adding elements that either are or are not found in the Christian and Jewish versions of the accounts concerning Alexander.
2. My research in Qur’anic cosmology principally seeks to investigate the extent to which the Arabic scripture shares the beliefs about the shape of the universe that were widespread within its historical environment.. Through this analysis I also intend to improve our understanding of the Qur’an’s text itself. Indeed, several Qur’anic verses and passages can be better explained if read in light of Late Antique cosmological imagery.
The situation is comparable to that of a passage in a contemporary book mentioning the existence of a black hole. This passage, of course, would appear cryptic or nonsensical without any knowledge of the astronomy of our historical period. An illustrative example is the formula ǧannātun taǧrī min taḥtihā l-ˈanhāru (lit. “gardens from beneath which the rivers flow”), which frequently marks the Qur’anic descriptions of Paradise. Indeed, this sentence seems to refer to a cosmological concept fairly prevalent during Late Antiquity, according to which the rivers of Paradise (or Eden) reach the inhabited part of the world by flowing under the sea. In this case, the expression min taḥtihā, “from beneath which,” would represent an allusion to both the place of origin and the subterranean course of the paradisiacal rivers. Moreover, the presence of the determinative article before the word ˈanhār suggests that the Qur’an is speaking of (all) the rivers. This would reflect the ancient Near Eastern (and Biblical) idea that the rivers of the Earth have a divine origin and a source located in a paradisiacal land.
3. My third and final research interest is mostly concerned with the relation between the Qur’an’s eschatology and the eschatological systems of various other religious communities of the Late Antique Near East—principally Jewish and Christian but also Mandaean and Manichaean. This comparative approach offers an entry-point for scholars to investigate the doctrines—eschatological or other—professed by the Qur’anic text.
Being primarily an exhortative text, the Arabic scripture generally seeks neither to establish a systematic theology nor to provide its audience with elucidations on its theological statements. For instance, the Qur’an does not explain in detail whether the resurrection will be physical or what fate the dead will undergo while they wait for resurrection and judgment. At the same time, the Arabic scripture repeatedly makes allusions to doctrines dealing with these and other questions—doctrines that were widespread in the Late Antique Near East. The early Muslim community was therefore ostensibly familiar with these doctrines.
Thus, a thorough comparative analysis of the eschatological creeds professed by contemporaries of the early Muslim community is crucial to a correct understanding of the Qur’an’s theological presentation of death and the afterlife. My major aim is to reestablish—starting from the clues and allusions found in the Qur’anic text—the system of ideas underlying the eschatological doctrines professed in the Qur’an.
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