IQSA Discussion Group Key to Networking and Crowdsourcing in Qur’anic Studies

cropped-header22.pngIf you are interested in Qur’anic studies and want to connect with others who share your interests, we warmly invite you to join the IQSA Discussion Group at Yahoo Groups:

This moderated listserv is the ideal venue to actively engage in current academic conversations about the text of the Qur’an and to solicit advice, ideas, and resources to enhance your own inquiries. Don’t miss out—sign up today and join the discussion!

 !أهلا وسهلا

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2015. All rights reserved.

Growing Pains of Qur’anic Studies

by Devin Stewart*

libraryOn the one hand, the explosion of interest in the Qur’an over the past several decades is a blessing, as it has produced a sharp rise in the rate at which scholarship in Qur’anic studies is being produced, as well as in the number of different approaches. Entire fields of inquiry that had been moribund for the latter half of the twentieth century have now come alive, including study of the manuscript traditions of the Qur’an and the relationship between the Qur’an and Jewish and Christian texts. On the other hand, such burgeoning interest means that, as with Biblical scholarship, the number of people writing on the topic is large, the number of studies is huge, and one must wade through a morass of published material presenting rehashed versions of old theses in order to find significant advances.

There is nothing wrong with a professor of creative writing, like Reza Aslan—or even the local motel night-clerk for that matter—publishing on the Qur’an, as long as the individual in question has something worth saying. To cast doubt on the person’s right to do so is indeed to make an ad hominem argument, and if one wanted to waste time, one could trump up a case and characterize Aaron Hughes as an expert in Jewish philosophy who is less than ideally qualified to issue judgments about the Qur’an or early Islamic history. Indeed, there are few doctoral programs in Qur’anic studies per se, so we could probably whittle down the category of professional scholars of Qur’anic studies to nearly nil. But, as a medieval Arabic adage has it, lā taʿrif al-ḥaqq bi’l-rijāl fa-taqaʿ fī mahāwī al-ḍalāl (“Do not know truth by the man, lest you fall into the abyss of error”). The issue is not whether the proponent of an idea is an amateur or a professional. Amateurs are capable of producing important results as long as they do their homework; conversely, professionals are capable of error if they don’t do theirs. The proof is in the pudding. After all, Michael Ventris, the architect who deciphered Linear B—to my mind one of the most brilliant achievements in the humanities in the twentieth century—was by all accounts an amateur. The problem with Aslan’s posts on this blog is that they do not present anything new and interesting about the Qur’an, and so fall into that benign but unfortunate category of scholarship-lite™, which, as the Qur’an becomes increasingly popular, will not go away anytime soon. The appropriate response is probably silence, or perhaps a disgruntled yawn in the privacy of one’s living room.

IQSA might serve to raise the average quality of publications on the Qur’an by continuing to do what it has set out to do: holding conferences, publishing a journal, fostering global scholarly exchange, and so on. By guiding interested parties to what has been done in scholarship to date, we may avoid reinventing the wheel, which in my view is a major problem in Qur’anic studies, because many writers on the Qur’an have only limited knowledge of Arabic and maybe one or two other languages and so do not take adequate account of what has been done in medieval and modern scholarship in many different languages—especially modern German scholarship. The publication of the Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an (not to mention its translation into Persian, currently in progress) was a major step in remedying this situation, as were the publications of English and Arabic translations of Goldziher’s Die Richtungen der islamischen Koranauslegung and Nöldeke’s Geschichte des Korans, but additional guidance would be useful in the form of bibliographical guides (such as Karimi-Nia’s Bibliography of Qur’anic Studies in European Languages) for neophytes of all stripes.

​One quick way for investigators to orient themselves to existing scholarship before proposing what they think is a novel interpretation of a Qur’anic passage is to look at Rudi Paret’s Der Koran: Kommentar und Konkordanz, which gives parallel verses for passages in question and also brief reports on much of the previous scholarship on the passage. Like Brockelmann’s Geschichte der Arabischen Litteratur, Paret’s book may be used to some effect even by those without a profound knowledge of German, although some familiarity with German certainly helps.  I have often found that our Qur’an seminar sessions benefit from an initial look at Paret to avoid reinventing the wheel.

* Devin Stewart is Associate Professor of Arabic and Middle Eastern studies at Emory University.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2015. All rights reserved.

Debating Monotheistic Pluralism

by Reza Aslan*

cropped-67450_10150308353980065_3395794_n.jpgBefore I address Professor Hughes’ criticism of my earlier blog post on monotheistic pluralism, I suppose I should begin as he does by addressing something that has absolutely nothing to do with my blog post: that is, my biography of the historical Jesus. I am not sure if it comes as surprise to Professor Hughes that scholars disagree with each other, but the fact that Professor Richard Horsley or Professor Dale Martin have taken issue with some of my conclusions—just as I in my book have taken issue with some of theirs—does not delegitimize my scholarship any more than the fact that both of them agree with other conclusions of mine legitimizes it. Perhaps the distinction between agreement and legitimation is too subtle for an academic who, in disagreeing with another academic’s conclusion, denounces the latter as a “lie,” as Professor Hughes does at the conclusion of his post. The implication that I am a liar is a thinly veiled ad hominem argument that is only convincing if one were to deny that disagreement could be genuine.

Between his tangent about Jesus and his attack on my character, Professor Hughes does bring up one interesting point worth addressing: “what the term ‘Jew’ might have signified in the seventh century.” Unfortunately, that point is muddled with his confused charge that I “assume . . . that Jews then were like Jews now.” In fact, I make the exact opposite point, which is why I speak exclusively of seventh-century Arabian Jewish identity and mysticism.

As I note in my book No god but God (of which Professor Hughes could dig up some critiques if he likes), the consensus of most scholars is that the Jewish clans in Medina—the Jews I referenced in my post—were likely Arab converts and barely distinguishable from their pagan counterparts, either culturally or religiously. What is more, they were not a particularly literate group. The Arabic sources describe Medina’s Jewish clans as speaking a language of their own called ratan, which al-Tabari claims was Persian but which may have been a hybrid of Arabic and Aramaic. There is no evidence that they either spoke or understood Hebrew. Indeed, their knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures was likely limited to just a few scrolls of law, some prayer books, and a handful of fragmentary Arabic translations of the Torah—what S. W. Baron refers to as a “garbled, oral tradition.”

So limited was the knowledge of Judaism among Arabia’s Jews that some scholars do not believe them to have been genuinely Jewish. D. S. Margoliouth considers the Jews of Medina to have been little more than a loose band of monotheists who should more properly be termed “Rahmanists” (Rahman being an alternative title for Allah). While many disagree with Margoliouth’s analysis, there are other reasons to question the degree to which Medina’s Jewish clans would have identified themselves with the Jewish faith. Consider, for example, that by the sixth century C.E., there was, as H. G. Reissener noted, a fair measure of agreement among Diaspora Jewish communities that a Jew could be defined as “a follower of the Mosaic Law . . . in accordance with the principles laid down in the Talmud.” Such a restriction would immediately have ruled out Medina’s Jewish clans who neither strictly observed Mosaic Law nor seemed to have any real knowledge of the Babylonian Talmud that Professor Hughes references in his critique.

Moreover, there is a conspicuous absence in Medina of what should be easily identifiable archeological evidence of a significant Jewish presence. According to Jonathan Reed, certain archeological indicators—such as the remnants of stone vessels, the ruins of immersion pools (miqva’ot), and the interment of ossuaries— should be present at a site in order to confirm the existence there of an established Jewish religious identity. As far as we know, none of these indicators have been unearthed in Medina. Naturally, there are those who continue to assert the religious identity of Medina’s Jewish clans. Gordon Newby, for example, thinks that Medina’s Jews may have comprised distinct communities with their own schools and books, though no archeological evidence exists to confirm this hypothesis. In any case, even Newby admits that with regard to their culture, ethics, and even their religion, Medina’s Jews were practically identical to Medina’s pagan community, with whom they freely interacted and (against Mosaic law) frequently intermarried.

Simply put, the Jewish clans of Medina were in no way a religiously observant group; if Margoliouth and others are correct, they may not even have been Jews. This is why I argued that they would not necessarily have found anything that Muhammad said or did to be against their norms, values, or beliefs.

Professor Hughes likely disagrees with me on this topic. I would be happy to hear a rebuttal, and I promise to try my hardest not to refer to any disagreement as a “lie.”

* Reza Aslan is Professor of Creative Writing at UC Riverside and Trustee at the Chicago Theological Seminary

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2015. All rights reserved.

A Literary Portrait of Qur’anic Origins

by Aaron W. Hughes*

I would like to consider Reza Aslan’s recent IQSA blog post in light of his best-selling book Zealot, because his blog post appears like his book to be essentially a creative literary piece. In a recent review of Zealot published in Critical Research in Religion (2.2 [2014]: 195-221), Richard Horsely, a leading scholar of Christian origins, argues that

the lack of critical analysis of sources and the periodic historical confusions in his narrative, however, suggest that Zealot is not a historical investigation. The biography at the end of the book explains that his formative training was in fiction and that his academic position is in the teaching of creative writing. His presentation of Jesus’ ‘life and times’ (a modern genre) appears to flow out of just this literary experience. (195)

This was by no means a singular charge. Many scholars, not to mention reviewers such as those in the New York Times, were very critical of his book. ArtAslan leaves the intellectual heavy lifting to others and instead reproduces a host of assumptions that are reminiscent of a previous generation of New Testament scholars. He conflates gospel accounts, takes poetic license to embellish stories, and devotes most of his focus on Jesus the individual as opposed to the various social actors that made the many Jesus movements possible. He also assumes that the texts of the New Testament explain how “Christianity’’ broke away from “Judaism,” when many scholars of this period (from Neusner to Boyarin to Horsely himself) have shown, with evidence, that such a separation is much more complicated and much later than this.

Aslan imports this basic methodology into his blog post with the aim of offering us insights into the “Qur’anic Clues to the Identity of Muhammad’s Community in Mecca.” In it he makes the rather unremarkable point that “there is no reason to believe that this term was used to designate a distinct religious movement until many years into the Medinan period or perhaps after Muhammad’s death.” Indeed, why stop there? Why not go further and say that the term may not designate a “distinct religious movement” until the eighth, ninth, or even tenth century? Instead of Muslims, Aslan encourages us to consider using the term that the Qur’an uses, ummah. The Constitution of Medina, not to mention the Qur’an, is simply and unproblematically assumed to date to the time of Muhammad.

Aslan then projects our modern understandings of such terms as “ethnicity,” “religion,” “experience,” and “ethics” onto the seventh century. He never entertains, for example, what the term “Jew” might have signified in the seventh century, especially in Arabia following the codification of the Babylonian Talmud roughly a century earlier. Instead, he assumes that what is meant by “Jew” then is the same as now. He brings in Newby’s irenic reading of the situation—that the Jews would have nothing to object to Muhammad’s prophecy. It could be argued, if we assume as Aslan does, that Jews then were like Jews now, that they would have objected to everything from Muhammad’s still inchoate message to the charge that their scripture had been tampered with. Why not assume, for example, that Muhammad, at least initially, thought he was a “Jew”?

Aslan then speaks of “Arabian Jewish mysticism,” as if that term actually denotes something real in the world. What sources does he have for this pre-kabbalistic mysticism? What were its contours? He then speaks of “theological differences between Islam and the other People of the Book” at the time of Muhammad as if Islam had somehow fallen to the earth theologically complete, as opposed to examining the historical controversies that made theology possible only much later. If “Muslim” only took on its religio-semantic valences much later, then surely the same could be said for “Islam.”

As with Zealot, Aslan concludes his blog post on a very modern note: “The point is that although Muhammad recognized the irreconcilable differences that existed among the People of the Book, he never called for a partitioning of the faiths.” Instead, this partitioning was the product of later jurists. If we want to get to the authentic message, Aslan concludes, then we need to “understand Muhammad’s actual beliefs regarding the Jews and Christians of his time.”

This confusion of myth and history, the conflation of fact and fiction, is dangerous for the historical study of Qur’anic origins. Aslan’s goal is not historical scholarship, but to produce a literary portrait designed to make us feel good about ourselves—and about Islam in the league of religions. But what happens when a modern virtue gets in the way of history? Unfortunately, as irenic terms like “convivencia,” “multicultural,” “symbiosis,” “Abrahamic,” and “tolerant” increasingly litter our intellectual landscape, it is history that ultimately gives way. As the late Chief Rabbi of Israel once said about The Bible Code (1997), “If you have to lie to people to get them to believe, what’s the point?”

* Aaron W. Hughes is Philip S. Bernstein Chair of Jewish Studies in the Department of Religion and Classics at the University of Rochester.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2015. All rights reserved.