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.”

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