Scholars of the Qur’an and Islam from around the world came together at the University of Exeter in early April for the 5th annual conference of the British Association of Islamic Studies (BRAIS), hosted by the University’s Centre for Arabic and Islamic Studies.
The panel on “Qu’ranic Studies I: Qur’anic Contexts, Concepts and Terms” included papers on pre-qur’ānic poetry, guile or deception, nafs, angels and w-ḥ-y. Jaako Hämeen-Anttila (Edinburgh) spoke about “The Qur’an and Early Arabic Poetry” specifically Al-Khansā’’s mutaqārib poem. While Al-Khansā’’s poetry generally shows little influence of Islamic thought or use of qur’ānic vocabulary the mutaqārib poem appears to be an exception to this rule, as it exhibits some striking qur’ānic influences, which can best be appreciated in comparison with Sūrat al-Zalzala (Q99: 1-5). Despite the presence of clear qur’ānic echoes in the Kāmil version, that version cannot properly be called a seventh century poem. Although most of the poem’s verses do come from the original version, the Kāmil version is much later. Professor Hämeen-Anttila surmised that the poem appears to have been deliberately ‘islamicised’ in the Kāmil version, which exhibits a strong dependence on the Qur’ān, a trait that is absent in the Dīwān versions.
Taira Amin (Lancaster) presented a paper entitled “Verily it is of your guile; verily your guile is great! (Q12:28): A Critical Discourse Analysis of all References to kayd (guile) in the Qur’ān and Classical Tafsir”, which forms part of her analysis of the Joseph, Mary and Solomon narratives in the Qur’ān. Using the example of the Joseph narrative, she noted how the notion of deception has been attributed to the female figures in the passage and examined how this was interpreted by early Islamic exegetes, what kinds of discourses and ideas about women ensued from these exegetical discourses and how they evolved between the formative and post-Classical periods. She found, not only that deception was often viewed positively with regards to men and negatively when applied women but also that the notion of guile in relation to women has evolved over time. In relation to the five kayd verses from the Joseph narrative, Taira compared and contrasted the interpretative strategies and conclusions of three Islamic exegetes: Al-Zamaksharī, Al-Qurṭubī and Al-Bayḍāwī, who all made similar claims regarding women’s kayd with differing degrees of criticism but employed diverse forms of authority ranging from the ulama to divine authority to prophetic hadith. Taira was critical of the exegetes’ atomistic approach and literal, de-contextualised interpretation, as well as their re-contextualisation of the supporting evidence employed. Despite the traditional attribution of kayd to women, Taira found that of the 35 occurrences of the term in the Qur’ān, only six of these relate to women and the group to whom it is applied most often are the Unbelievers (20 times), and yet this is not mentioned in the interpretations she outlined.
Abdullah Galadari (Khalifa University) discussed “The Concept of Nafs in the Qur’an”, and asked whether the Qur’ān understands nafs in the same way as the Ancient Israelites understood the term nefesh, as referring to a disembodied soul. Dr Galadari explained that the answer is complicated by the fact that early Muslim scholars often used the terms nafs (soul) and rūḥ (spirit) interchangeably, despite the fact that the Qur’ān appears to distinguish between both and assumes its audience is familiar with the former but not the latter. The philosophical view, as outlined by Al-Rāzī (d. 606/1209) is that the soul (nafs) is different from the body (badan) and that the soul does not die, even though this suggestion contradicts the Qur’ān. Although the nafs might appear to go hand in hand with a physical body, Dr Galadari’s examination of the qur’ānic material showed that the word nafs does not typically subject itself with a physical body. The reason for this is that, if God has a nafs but God is not a physical being, a nafs cannot be something physical. This raises the question, when the Qur’ān explicitly discusses the death and resurrection of the soul, why it is typically understood as the death and resurrection of the body. In answering this question, Dr Galadari posited that the death of the soul could be understood as a form of spiritual death, with unbelievers being physically alive but more akin to zombies. He concluded by discussing what implications this has for understanding and interpreting qur’ānic references to resurrection and suggested that the Qur’ān appears to talk about two deaths and two lives, that of the nafs and that of the body.
Rachel Dryden (Cambridge) presented the results of her research to date on angels in the Qur’an, with a paper entitled “Angels in the Qur’an: From Heaven to Earth and from Mecca to Medina”, concluding that although the Qur’ān stresses the importance of belief in angels relatively infrequently, as Stephen Burge has noted, angels do in fact appear to be a “fundamental part of the Islamic worldview”. While the noun malak/malā’ika (angel) appears most frequently in material from the Medinan Period, angels are referred to by a range of other terms, which are often limited to certain periods or roles. Angels are described as performing a variety of distinct roles throughout the Qur’ān and while the range of roles remains fairly stable across all periods, some are limited to one or more of them. Rachel believes that the differences between the four qur’ānic periods are key to understanding angels and their roles in the Qur’ān and stressed the necessity of examining the terms, roots and roles assigned to them in each period, in order to understand in how angels are viewed and portrayed in the Qur’ān and how this changes between Mecca and Medina.
Simon Loynes (Edinburgh) spoke about “The Meaning and Function of the Term waḥy in the Qur’ān”, arguing that in pre-Islamic poetry, the root w-ḥ-y refers to a type of communication, which can only be understood by the one receiving it and is incomprehensible to outsiders. This meaning would appear to be carried over into the Qur’ān, albeit considerably realigned, to refer to the divine communication of revelation to prophets. Simon cited the many verses which link the root with the qur’ānic Messenger’s revelatory experience, as evidence of this, something which can also be observed regarding earlier prophets.
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