Rhetoric and Representation in Qurʾanic Polemics (Interview Series Part 5)

An Interview with Hamza M. Zafer, by Mehdi Azaiez


This week IQSA continues its interview series with Hamza M. Zafer, PhD student in Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University. In this interview, Zafer presents his research on the Qur’an’s polemical discourse and its articulation of a distinct communal consciousness — the ummah.

Can you tell us about your background in Qurʾanic Studies and your approach to the field?

I am a doctoral candidate in Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University and am currently a fellow with the Qur’an Seminar at the University of Notre Dame. I am pursuing an interdisciplinary research program, unified by an interest in the emergence and expression of religio-communal ideologies among monotheistic groups in the late ancient Near East. My program of study has focused on three evidentiary domains: (1) the Qurʾan and early Muslim exegesis, (2) the early Arabic historiographical corpus and (3) late Midrashic Literature and the Targumim. My dissertation, titled “The Ummah Pericope: Rhetoric and Representation in Qur’anic Polemics,” is a detailed exploration of the Qurʾan’s religio-communal ideology in its late antique context.

My study of the Qurʾan is grounded in both linguistic and literary approaches, adapted to account for the text’s particularities. The crucial underlying assumption of my analysis is that the Qurʾan constitutes a closed text—one with a distinct pre-classical context, a unique literary logic, and an evolving, albeit coherent, internal ideology. My synchronic investigation of Qurʾanic data, without recourse to its early Muslim mediations, attempts to elucidate how the Qurʾan’s polemical program is contingent on various late ancient Near Eastern discourses on communal election and soteriological legitimacy.

A secondary part of my work addresses diachronic questions about the development of communal consciousness among the earliest Muslims. I am interested in exploring: how the Qurʾan’s communal addressees and interlocutors are historicized in the early Muslim corpus, how this historicization produces and polices particular communal boundaries, and how these boundaries are negotiated by liminal subjects and heterodox voices.

Can you share some details about your current project?

The textual focus of my current work is a complex (and fascinating) cluster of verses at the heart of Surat al-Baqara that I have tentatively labeled the Ummah Pericope: Q2:104−152. This pericope, which forms a distinct thematic and formal unit within the Sura, is the Qurʾan’s most explicit expression of communalism. The pericope is comprised of a series of polemical engagements with interlocutors along three broad and overlapping modalities of communal consciousness and boundary-making. It presents the ummah as:

(1) a juridical entity: individuals or groups constitute an ummah when they adhere to the dīn—an ahistorical category with permeable boundaries;

(2) a prophetological entity: individuals or groups constitute an ummah when they are vicarious recipients of nubuwwa—a semi-historical category with somewhat permeable boundaries;

(3) a genealogical entity: individuals or groups constitute an ummah when they share patrimony—a historical category with impermeable boundaries.

My study of the Ummah Pericope shows that the Qurʾan’s polemical negotiations of various late ancient communal theologies cannot be reduced to any single supersessionary statement. Rather, the Qurʾan’s polemical program is made up of a heterogeneous set of codes that subvert, contest, co-opt and re-appropriate aspects of these discourses into an emergent ideological agenda, anticipating the formation of a distinct community—an ummah.

A second aspect of this project highlights and characterizes fissures between the Qurʾanic text’s communal ideology and its post-Qurʾanic permutations. Through three case studies on reports of intermarriage and conversion, I analyze how the Qurʾan’s presentation of the ummah is reconfigured in early historical writings to respond to entirely different doctrinal anxieties and polemical agendas. I explore how early parenthetical literatures mediate the Qurʾan’s multivalent concept of ummah as a juridical, prophetological and genealogical fact into novel statements of communal consciousness and boundary-making.

What contribution do you hope this particular project will make to the field?

This study supports the notion that the Qurʾan and early Muslim writing constitute transitional rather than originary texts, i.e. that the rise of an Islamic religio-cultural system, as embodied in the early Arab polity, is a burgeoning of particular late antique tendencies rather than an abrupt religious, political and cultural rupture in the Near East. It further supports the idea that late ancient material in the Qurʾan and early Muslim writing is evidence of intentional engagement(s) and meaningful intertextuality, rather than residue from a wholesale and inexpert program of borrowing.

Furthermore, this project raises certain key questions about the nature and status of “evidence” in the study of the Qurʾanic text and its temporal and spatial context. Although my study relies heavily on the Qurʾan’s contemporaneous and precursory literatures, I approach the text holistically and privilege its internal literary and formal structures in my analysis. In this way, I avoid reducing my study of the text to excavating linguistic evidence to posit external sources and tracing textual pedigrees. This approach guides my treatment of narrative material in the Ummah Pericope. I illustrate that the pericope’s presentation of biblical and post-biblical narrative material rests on calculated divergences and adaptations, expressing distinct ideological and polemical agendas, and that the Qurʾanic presentation of such material is not simply the product of semantic or formal atrophy from distant “originals.”

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2013. All rights reserved.

Qur’an Manuscripts and the History of the Qur’an (Interview Series Part 4)

An Interview with Eleonore Cellard, by Mehdi Azaiez



This week IQSA continues its interview series with Eleonore Cellard, PhD student in Qur’anic codicology at the Institut National des langues et Civilisations Orientales (INALCO) in Paris. In this interview, Eleonore Cellard presents her achievements and research in the transmission of Qur’anic manuscripts in early Islam.

Eleonore, what are your academic achievements in the field of Qur’anic studies?

During my masters in the Arabic Language at INALCO, I had the opportunity to attend Déroche’s seminar about the codicology of Arabic manuscripts. A great part of this seminar was dedicated to the Qur’anic manuscripts. I later obtained state funding for my PHD project at INALCO, titled “The written transmission of the Qur’an: Study of a corpus of manuscripts probably from the second/ninth century.” During these three last years, I conducted my research in conjunction with teaching at INALCO.

Since 2011, I have been involved in the Franco-German project Coranica, working on the edition of the most ancient fragments of the Qur’an. As part of this project, I presented my research at the event “Les Origines du Corans, le Coran des Origines” in the French Academy (March 2011) and organized a workshop, “Manuscripta Coranica,” in Paris (October 2012).

What is the aim of your research?

The Islamic Tradition has meticulously recorded how the Qur’an was written, reformed and read. This history has been transmitted over the generations, relegating the manuscripts to the obscure nooks of the mosque. As testaments to ancient times, the manuscripts have preserved their own history, and today they are starting to reveal the imprecision of our knowledge of the Qur’an’s history.

The aim of recent academic studies is to better understand the manuscripts, their codes and their contexts. Thanks to this analysis, we hope to reach a new vision of the history of the transmission of the Qur’anic text by rearticulating the Islamic Tradition and Qur’anic materials.

Could you explain your work on Qur’anic manuscripts?

My study is based on a corpus of nine fragments kept in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (Paris). The homogeneity of this corpus was first established according to paleographic criteria; indeed, all the fragments belong to the C group of Déroche’s classification system. According to this classification, these fragments could probably be dated from the second to the eighth century to the beginning of the third to the ninth century.

My analysis focuses on four main problems:

1. The problem of the manuscripts’ dating, using the paleographic criterion

2. The question of the textual division

3. The orthographic rules involving the notation of long vowels

4. The use of a dotting system for indicating the vocalization

1. As of now, the manuscript’s dating remains the main concern in our studies. Indeed, the physical and chemical analyses cannot propose any precise dating without an important chronological margin of +/- 50 years. This margin is considerable regarding the eventful history of the first three Islamic centuries. The paleographic criterion could be another method of dating. Based on comparisons between letters’ forms, it aims at reconstructing the evolution of the Qur’anic script. However, this approach, still undeveloped, presents two major difficulties for us: first, the lack of dated examples—manuscripts or inscriptions—and second, the existence of interferences between different paleographic styles in our C group. It thus implies the coexistence of different scripts, probably used in various regions, and is therefore at variance with the hypothesis of a linear chronological succession of scripts.

2. The question of the textual division covers two aspects:

  • In the different manuscripts, it is possible to notice different options taken by the copyists for separating the text: the separations of the Sura are represented in different manners: blank space, ornamentation, title with verse number, etc. Another separation—the five- and ten-verse division—also presents some variations in form. What do these variations refer to? It is difficult to answer such a question. My purpose here is to make an inventory of these variations.
  • The second aspect focuses on the semantic division within the verse separation. In our observation of the fragments, we find a great variation between the traditional systems of verse division recorded by the Islamic literature, and the divisions represented in the manuscripts. The problem here is to identify all these variations and to understand their origins.

3. At the orthographic level, the corpus reveals inconsistencies in the notation of long vowels: on one hand, we have no systematic notation of the medial alif, and on the other hand, we notice an important confusion between the values of the alif mamdûda and the alif maqsûra. According to these observations, we may wonder: What exact orthographic rules do these fragments follow? Are the variations some sign of a chronological evolution or a geographical repartition? Could these elements reflect the evolution of the Arabic language during this period?

4. The fourth problem concerns the vocalization of the manuscripts. The systems observed differ from what is recorded in the Islamic Tradition on two specific points:

  • According to the Tradition, the peculiarities which can be noticed in the vocalization of the manuscripts are attributed to a precise reader. In the fragments I have analyzed, some of the peculiarities appear frequently and are not directly connected to a given reading: the position of the dots (mainly in the notation of the hamza), the vocalic harmonization of the pronoun -hu/-hum, and a phonetic alteration of the vowel ‘a’ in the treatment of imâla. We may assume the existence of trends among copyists and readers that follow rules ignored by the Tradition.
  • Regarding the bi-colored dotting system, the Tradition tells us that its use refers to a canonical versus non-canonical reading. In the fragments I have analyzed, there is no systematic opposition or attribution of colors to one of the reading systems mentioned by the Tradition. Moreover red and green dots can alternatively refer to the same reader. We may question the real use of the bicolor system and its meaning. If the bi-colored system differentiates readings, it actually seems to be more the result of a competition between multiple readings than it does a difference between canonical and non-canonical readings.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2013. All rights reserved.

Divergence in Qur’an Translations: Causes and Examples

By Sohaib Saeed*

(from citizenwarrior.com)

(from citizenwarrior.com)

The translation of the Arabic Qur’an into the languages of the world has received the broad acceptance of Muslim scholars since the middle of last century, though the practice of translating the whole Qur’an extends back to the sixteenth century or earlier. The original missionary goals were replaced by those of academic research, as well as Muslim efforts to clarify the teachings of their faith not only for non-Muslims but also for new generations of foreign believers. Translation is a particular method of explaining the Qur’anic text and can serve as a succinct way of expressing the meanings of its words and sentences.

Many Muslims make a fundamental distinction between the Qur’an—revealed verbatim in Arabic as a divine challenge—and its translations, understood as human renderings of its meaning into other languages. Any product of the human mind is subject not only to the possibility of error but also to the capacity for difference of opinion. Translation of any complex and highly literary text is necessarily a difficult task, and one in which expert opinions can diverge at various points.

After recognising the particularities of interpreting and translating a sacred text (too many to expand on here), the role of choice in the work of a translator is a reality that must also be appreciated. The translator may have to select exactly which text to translate (in this case, between the canonical readings, qirā’āt). On the level of vocabulary, a single word may have multiple meanings, more than one of which may be possible in a particular context. Indeed, it is possible that both meanings are intended, but that no single word in the target language will carry them both. There is also the challenge of observing the subtle distinctions between near-synonyms, e.g. the various words conveying senses of “fear,” even in a single verse.[1]

Then, on the phrasal and sentence level, the translator must decide which grammatical interpretation (iʿrāb) to follow. While the recent Qur’anic Corpus project is performing a valuable service in presenting the concept of grammatical parsing more widely, what may not be obvious from this project is the scope for diversity of opinion on this matter, as can be readily seen by consulting the books of iʿrāb and tafsīr. Similarly, the translator needs to decide on the referents of pronouns when they are ambiguous (e.g. between “he”, “He” and “it”), and how to incorporate punctuation such as sentence divisions and speech marks. After all this come the stylistic choices, such as how to render idioms and how the text will best flow in the target language.

Accordingly, we can compare between existing translations of the Qur’an to find that the differences between them fall within the following categories:

  • Vocabulary: lexical meanings and subtle distinctions
  • Grammar and sentence structure
  • Pronouns etc.
  • Stylistic choices
  • Multiple readings (qirā’āt) – rarely [2]

What follows is an analysis of a selection of translations of some verses (or parts of verses, as relevant) from the beginning of Surat al-Baqarah, in order to apply the above theory and discover the basis of difference between them. The method is to group the translations that are substantially identical (i.e. in all but style), and then identify the cause of divergence wherever it exists. It should be emphasized that this analysis will not indicate all the translations that could exist, because it is applied to a finite group (namely, those currently available on Quran.com); moreover, it is possible that translators tended to see things the same way, or indeed were influenced by each other. Indeed, there might be more diversity if they were to rely more pronouncedly on the books of iʿrāb and tafsīr, which present obscure interpretations alongside the more obvious.[3]

As such, what follows is designed to illustrate choice and divergence in translation and enable the reader to appreciate what is involved in the task. It is not intended to be an exhaustive treatment, but contains hints for further study. A subsequent project may be to do the same for the rest of the Qur’an, as well as to look at a greater number of actual translations, and indeed possible translations that were not selected by anyone before. It should also be noted that it is outside our present scope to discuss whether some mistakes were made by the translators, or which of their approaches is best in each case.

Translation Study
(Surat al-Baqarah 2:1-20)

2:2       ذَٰلِكَ الْكِتَابُ

Sahih International: This is the Book

Muhsin Khan: This is the Book

Yusuf Ali: This is the Book

Pickthall: This is the Scripture

Ghali: That is the Book

Shakir: This Book

Causes of divergence:

  • Whether to render literally the demonstrative pronoun usually reserved for distant things (“that”) or consider the distance here as indicating greatness of “this” book.
  • Whether to interpret the two words as being a complete nominal sentence (thus with “is”), or together as the subject (“This book”) which is then followed by the predicate.
  • Choice between general “book” and the more contextual “scripture.”

2:2       لا رَيْبَ فِيهِ

Sahih International: about which there is no doubt

Ghali: there is no suspicion about it

Muhsin Khan: whereof there is no doubt

Pickthall: whereof there is no doubt

Shakir: there is no doubt in it

Yusuf Ali: This is the Book; in it is guidance sure, without doubt

Causes of divergence:

  • Whether to render it literally as “in” or understand it as “about”/“whereof.”
  • Different sentence structures depending on stopping place. Yusuf Ali’s rendering depends on reading it as ذَٰلِكَ الْكِتَابُ لا رَيْبَ followed by فِيهِ هُدًى لِّلْمُتَّقِين—resulting in the Book containing guidance, rather than being guidance. He has adjusted the phrasal order for flow in English.

2:2       هُدًى لِّلْمُتَّقِينَ

Yusuf Ali: in it is guidance sure, without doubt, to those who fear Allah

Sahih International: a guidance for those conscious of Allah

Ghali: a guidance to the pious

Pickthall: a guidance unto those who ward off (evil)

Shakir: a guide to those who guard (against evil)

Muhsin Khan: a guidance to those who are Al-Muttaqun

Causes of divergence:

  • Different approaches to rendering the concept of taqwā, including the strategy of retaining the Arabic term.
  • The literal “guidance” (verbal noun) or a more contextual “guide” (active participle).
  • The different sentence structure used by Yusuf Ali, as explained previously.

2:3       الَّذِينَ يُؤْمِنُونَ بِالْغَيْبِ وَيُقِيمُونَ الصَّلاةَ

Sahih International: Who believe in the unseen, establish prayer…

Pickthall: Who believe in the Unseen, and establish worship…

Yusuf Ali: Who believe in the Unseen, are steadfast in prayer…

Shakir: Those who believe in the unseen and keep up prayer…

Ghali: Who believe in the Unseen, and keep up the prayer…

Muhsin Khan: Who believe in the Ghaib and perform As-Salat (Iqamat-as-Salat)…

Cause of divergence:

  • Rendering certain Arabic terms as they are. As this is a regular occurrence in Muhsin. Khan’s translation (as well as its excessive glosses), it will not be mentioned further.

2:5       أُولَٰئِكَ عَلَىٰ هُدًى مِّن رَّبِّهِمْ

Sahih International: Those are upon [right] guidance from their Lord

Muhsin Khan: They are on (true) guidance from their Lord

Yusuf Ali: They are on (true) guidance, from their Lord

Ghali: Those are upon guidance from their Lord

Shakir: These are on a right course from their Lord

Pickthall: These depend on guidance from their Lord

Causes of divergence:

  • Renderings of the word hudā, with Shakir perhaps being influenced by its being indefinite here.
  • Interpretations of the metaphor of being “upon” guidance. Pickthall has apparently understood that a word was left unmentioned; perhaps this ought to have been placed in parenthesis.

2:5       وَأُولَٰئِكَ هُمُ الْمُفْلِحُونَ

Sahih International: and it is those who are the successful

Muhsin Khan: and they are the successful

Pickthall: These are the successful

Ghali: and those are they who are the prosperers

Yusuf Ali: and it is these who will prosper

Shakir: and these it is that shall be successful

Cause of divergence:

  • Reading the active participle as indicating the present or the future.

2:6       لا يُؤْمِنُونَ

Sahih International: they will not believe

Muhsin Khan: they will not believe

Yusuf Ali: they will not believe

Shakir: …will not believe

Pickthall: they believe not

Ghali: they do not believe

Cause of divergence:

  • Reading the imperfect verb as indicating the present or the future.

2:8       وَمِنَ النَّاسِ مَن يَقُولُ آمَنَّا بِاللهِ وَبِالْيَوْمِ الآخِرِ

Sahih International: And of the people are some who say, “We believe in Allah and the Last Day”

Yusuf Ali: Of the people there are some who say: “We believe in Allah and the Last Day”

Shakir: And there are some people who say: We believe in Allah and the last day

Muhsin Khan: And of mankind, there are some (hypocrites) who say: “We believe in Allah and the Last Day”

Pickthall: And of mankind are some who say: We believe in Allah and the Last Day

Ghali: And of mankind (there) are some who say, “We have believed in Allah and in the Last Day”

Cause of divergence:

  • Whether to consider al-nās as referring to a specific number of people, or all mankind. This distinction is significant in certain other verses.
  • Here and elsewhere: approaches to the past-tense verb “believed,” often rendered in the present to suit the meaning.

2:10     وَلَهُمْ عَذَابٌ أَلِيمٌ بِمَا كَانُوا يَكْذِبُونَ

Sahih International: and for them is a painful punishment because they [habitually] used to lie

Muhsin Khan: A painful torment is theirs because they used to tell lies

Pickthall: A painful doom is theirs because they lie

Shakir: and they shall have a painful chastisement because they lied

Ghali: and for them is a painful torment for (that) they used to lie

Yusuf Ali: And grievous is the penalty they (incur), because they are false (to themselves)

Cause of divergence:

  • Taking the verb to apply to the act of lying, or as a mode of behaviour which is the opposite of being true (i.e. sincere).

2:11     قَالُوا إِنَّمَا نَحْنُ مُصْلِحُونَ

Sahih International: they say, “We are but reformers”

Muhsin Khan: they say: “We are only peacemakers”

Pickthall: they say: We are peacemakers only

Yusuf Ali: they say: “Why, we only want to make peace!”

Shakir: they say: We are but peace-makers

Ghali: they say, “Surely we are only doers of righteousness” (i.e. reformers, peacemakers)

Cause of divergence:

  • Meanings of the term iṣlāḥ

2:12     أَلا إِنَّهُمْ هُمُ الْمُفْسِدُونَ وَلَٰكِن لا يَشْعُرُونَ

Sahih International: Unquestionably, it is they who are the corrupters, but they perceive [it] not

Muhsin Khan: Verily! They are the ones who make mischief, but they perceive not

Yusuf Ali: Of a surety, they are the ones who make mischief, but they realise (it) not

Shakir: Now surely they themselves are the mischief makers, but they do not perceive

Ghali: Verily, they, (only) they, are surely the corruptors, but they are not aware

Pickthall: Are not they indeed the mischief-makers? But they perceive not

Cause of divergence:

  •  Interpretation of the opening particle as being interrogative (its origin), rather than emphatic. Similarly in the following verse: “Are not they indeed the foolish?”

2:15     اللَّهُ يَسْتَهْزِئُ بِهِمْ

Sahih International: [But] Allah mocks them…

Muhsin Khan: Allah mocks at them…

Pickthall: Allah (Himself) doth mock them…

Ghali: Allah mocks them…

Shakir: Allah shall pay them back their mockery…

Yusuf Ali: Allah will throw back their mockery on them…

Cause of divergence:

  • Taking the verb as being a direct action in the present, or as an expression of the punishment which God will enact on the hypocrites, described with a verb that matches their wicked behaviour to indicate that the punishment will fit the crime in perfect justice and wisdom.

2:17     وَتَرَكَهُمْ فِي ظُلُمَاتٍ لَّا يُبْصِرُونَ

Sahih International: and left them in darkness [so] they could not see

Muhsin Khan: and left them in darkness. (So) they could not see

Pickthall: and leaveth them in darkness, where they cannot see

Yusuf Ali: and left them in utter darkness. So they could not see

Shakir: and left them in utter darkness– they do not see

Ghali: and left them in darkness(es) (where) they do not behold (anything)

Cause of divergence:

  • The plural form of “darkness” being ignored, treated as an emphasis (“utter”) or rendered literally (“darknesses”) as a new coinage in English.

2:19     أَوْ كَصَيِّبٍ مِّنَ السَّمَاءِ

Sahih International: Or [it is] like a rainstorm from the sky

Muhsin Khan: Or like a rainstorm from the sky

Pickthall: Or like a rainstorm from the sky

Yusuf Ali: Or (another similitude) is that of a rain-laden cloud from the sky

Ghali: Or as a cloudburst from the heaven

Shakir: Or like abundant rain from the cloud

Cause of divergence:

  • How they understood these two terms and their meanings and relation in the context.

2:20     وَلَوْ شَاءَ اللهُ لَذَهَبَ بِسَمْعِهِمْ وَأَبْصَارِهِمْ

Sahih International: And if Allah had willed, He could have taken away their hearing and their

Muhsin Khan: And if Allah willed, He could have taken away their hearing and their sight

Pickthall: If Allah willed, He could destroy their hearing and their sight

Yusuf Ali: And if Allah willed, He could take away their faculty of hearing and seeing

Shakir: and if Allah had pleased He would certainly have taken away their hearing and their sight

Ghali: and if Allah had so decided, He would indeed have gone away with (i.e., taken away) their hearing and their beholdings (Literally: eyesights)

Causes of divergence:

  • The latter translator’s understanding of the literal meaning of the transitive construction dhahaba bihi.
  • His attempt to convey the plural nature of abṣār, because the word for hearing (samʿ) occurs in the singular.

To be continued

[1] See Q 4:9. This example is interesting, because the generally precise translators of Saheeh International have simply written “fear” three times. Yusuf Ali and Muhsin Khan have even combined the first two and called them “the same fear”! Dr. M.M. Ghali (who pays particular attention to synonymy) has perhaps done the best job of distinguishing between their senses in the verse; likewise Pickthall.

[2] The vast majority of translators have relied solely on the reading of Ḥafṣ ʿan ʿĀṣim, being the preponderant narration throughout the Muslim world since the era of publishing and indeed earlier. However, ten canonical readings (qirā’āt) are recognised as being equally authentic and authoritative. While most differences between them pertain to pronunciation only, some affect meaning and thus translation. The Bewley translation (1999) is based on the reading of Warsh ʿan Nāfiʿ. In addition, there are instances where translators deviate from the reading of Ḥafṣ, whether knowingly or unwittingly. These issues will receive a detailed treatment in the future.

[3] The books of tafsīr also contain divergence based on their stances concerning certain creedal and juristic matters, and so on. It is unclear to what extent many translators have relied on works of tafsīr to develop their interpretations; one could imagine that a linguistic treatment would be enough. We know that some, such as Muhsin Khan, make explicit reference to works of tafsīr; such can be seen in Yusuf Ali’s footnotes too. Unfortunately, most translators make little to no use of footnotes, and those who do write footnotes tend not to use them to explain their choices in translation.

Sohaib Saeed is presently pursuing a degree in Qur’anic Studies at the Faculty of Theology (Usul al-Din) of the world-renowned Al-Azhar University, Egypt, after attaining degrees in philosophy from the University of Edinburgh.

*This blog post is a slightly revised version of Sohaib Saeed’s essay from the website Quranica.com, which he manages.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2013. All rights reserved.

Self-Referentiality and Argumentation within the Qur’anic Text (Interview Series Part 3)


An Interview with Anne-Sylvie Boisliveau, by Mehdi Azaiez

This week IQSA continues its interview series with Dr. Anne-Sylvie Boisliveau, postdoctoral fellow in Islamic Studies (University of Gronigen). In this interview, Boisliveau presents her achievements and research in self-referentiality and argumentation within the Qur’anic text.

Dr. Boisliveau, how did you become a Qur’anic scholar? 

When I started studying political sciences and international relations at college in France, I was given the unexpected opportunity of following beginner’s courses in Arabic. I immediately enjoyed studying the language, and decided to pursue both a second bachelor and a masters degree in Arabic language and culture. I later completed this training by living more than seven years in Arab countries.

My interest in the Arab world and its people naturally led me to focus increasingly on an element that was so important for many people there: the Islamic religion. Step by step, I chose to study the Qur’an due to its centrality for Muslim believers I met. I spent time listening to sermons in mosques and attending classes of religion and sharia in Islamic institutes in Arab countries. I was curious about the authority Muslims granted to this text.

What are your academic achievements in the field of Qur’anic studies?

In 2010 I defended a PhD thesis on self-referential discourse in the Qur’an. To put it simply, this study deals with “what the Qur’an ‘says’ about itself,” or how the Qur’an describes its own phenomenon of revelation, its own status of revealed scripture, and its own role in people’s lives.

What is the significance of your study for the field of Qur’anic studies?

First, it showed how textual and literary critical studies of the Qur’an can really produce interesting results in today’s research. A pioneering and fascinating study in self-referentiality had already been done by Daniel Madigan (The Qurʾān’s self-image: writing and authority in Islam’s scripture, Princeton 2001), but it focused exclusively on vocabulary and semantic relations. A short book in French (Aux origines du Coran—“At the Origins of the Qur’an,” 2004), written by Alfred-Louis de Prémare, as well as the introduction of a book edited by Stefan Wild (Self-Referentiality in the Qurʾān, 2006), both suggested the importance of considering arguments and debates exposed within the Qur’anic text.

At the beginning of my research on the Qur’anic text, I realized that there was a lot that could be done through a renewed philological approach that does not consider only vocabulary but also the argumentative strategies operating within the text. In my view, argumentation is really to be taken into account when trying to understand the Qur’anic teachings. Narratives, for instance, are not used in the Qur’an only to retell nice stories of the past. They are there because the text “has something to say” by using them. What I found so interesting to try to elucidate is what results of the argumentation built into the text.

Second, my research has shown how authority was granted to the Qur’an by its own text. For instance, among other strategies, the Qur’anic text uses previous scriptures (Torah, Gospel, etc.) as referents to define its own nature as a “scripture revealed by God to a prophet”—even though it does so in a new way that differs from main Jewish or Christian concepts. Many rhetorical tools are used by the text to argue its own definition and to try to convince its audience.

Third, my research brings new insights to the question of the chronological development of the Qur’anic text. I tried to figure out whether some evolution within the self-referential discourse of the Qur’an could be discerned. To this end, I used several hypotheses of the chronological order of verses and Suras, both from Western scholarship and Islamic tradition. I myself am not sure whether these chronological order hypotheses are reliable; but—in order to explore all the possible dimensions of self-referentiality, and encouraged by the works of Angelika Neuwirth—I chose to complete the first two parts of my study (vocabulary and argumentation in a synchronic approach) with a third part employing this chronological (diachronic) approach. And it actually generated very interesting results on the development of the text: the logics of self-referentiality did evolve, or at least, appear as very different in the different parts of the text.

The first two parts of my work (synchronic approach) are on their way to publication under the title Le Coran par lui-même. Vocabulaire et argumentation du discours coranique autoréférentiel and the third part (chronological approach) will be published separately. Among my English articles on the subject is “Polemics in the Koran: The Koran’s Negative Argumentation over its Own Origin,” Arabica, Brill, 2013 (60).

What is the aim of your research?

On the one hand, my research seeks to understand and analyze Islamic dogma and provide information about it; in this regard, knowledge of the Qur’anic text is of primary importance. For instance, too quick a reading of Qur’anic verses may lead people who do not know Islam to misinterpret the meaning of words by assuming these words have the same meaning as in their own religion or culture, whereas this is not necessarily so. I hope my work on the Qur’an can help non-Muslims and Muslims alike to understand the reality of what they actually mean within their own contexts.

On the other hand, I seek to contribute to the development of a high standard of scholarly study of the Qur’an. For instance, as a scholar I cannot base my interpretation of a verse on the idea that it is God’s word, and that therefore its meaning is logical or right (as this would be judging according to religious principles). And similarly I cannot base my interpretation on the preconceived idea that the Qur’an is violent and evil (for this would stem from hostility and polemical principles). As a scholar I am not allowed to work from any of these principles, as this would mean imposing on other scholars either a religious view, in the first case, or an ideological-political view, in the second. The job of a university scholar is not to base his or her research on religious assumptions, nor to build religious law. On the contrary, the job of a university scholar is to try to understand texts and facts in the most neutral way possible, without the influence of previous assumptions, and to present research to a multicultural society where people are free to have religious and non-religious beliefs of all kinds. In order to offer knowledge about the contents and the history of the Qur’an to the multicultural world society, scholars should keep their own religious or anti-religious assumptions aside. I hope my modest contribution to the field can help to further Qur’anic scholarship with high academic standards.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2013. All rights reserved.