البحث عن سياق القرآن التاريخي – نبذة عن الدراسات القرآنية الحديثة

  *By Emran El-Badawi | الدكتور عمران البدوي


The following is an excerpt of a review article providing an overview of the modern academic discipline of Qur’anic Studies. Its content discusses the ‘traditionalist’ and ‘revisionist’ schools, and academic approaches that fall somewhere in the middle.



 أشارككم المحاضرة الوجيزة هذه من أجل إعطاء نظرة عامة عن الدراسات القرآنية الحديثة بشأن نص القرآن والتاريخ الإسلامي الباكر بشكل وجيز. ولكن قبل أن نخوض معا في تفاصيل هذا الحديث، أتذكر أن الدكتور نصر حامد أبو زيد ألقى محاضرة مثيرة جدا قبل وفاته العام ٢٠١٠ بقليل عن علوم القرآن في حشد كبير من الأساتذة والطلبة والجمهور العام بالجامعة الأميركية في بيروت. لا حاجة لنا إلى أن نذكر أفكار أبي زيد أو معاناته نتيجة لأفكاره المثيرة للجدل. بل ما أريد التعبير عنه الآن هو أن الجامعات لا بد من أن تبقى منبرا ومنبعا للتقدم الفكري والثقافي . إلى موضوعنا وهو

سياق القرآن التاريخي

هناك تياران في الدراسة القرآنية الحديثة حول مسألة سياق القرآن التاريخي : أحدهما وهو الأقدم يوفق بين النص القرآني  والتراث الإسلامي وأسميه التيار التقليدي ، والآخر يستنبط سياق القرآن من النص وحده، ويبتعد عن السيرة والتفسير بشكل عام ، وأسمي هذا بالتيار التنقيحي. إلا أ نه صدرت مؤخرا أبحاث تقع مناهجها العلمية بين هذا وذاك. نبدأ حديثنا عن المراجع التقليدية التي يعتمد عليها التيار التقليدي ، أي التراث الإسلامي نفسه

**  PDF – إضغط هنا لمواصلة القراءة **

* This blog post is a slightly modified version of http://iqlid.wordpress.com, and it is part of a longer article published in Al-Machreq Online | المشرق الرقميَّة – العدد الخامس – كانون الأول ٢٠١٤

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

A Course on the Qur’an as Literature

By Emran El-Badawi

I offered an undergraduate course last spring for the first time on the Qur’an as Literature. My goal was simple, I wanted my students to read the text closely and interpret its verses themselves. Their apprehension, at first, to commit to this bold exercise soon gave way to an ease and skill with handling the text.

Framing this course on the Qur’an as “literature” emphasized the literary qualities of the text and de-emphasized a theological approach. It meant going deep into the rhyme, rhetoric and homiletic nature of the text. It also entailed divorcing the text, to some extent, from Tafsir. I took some cautionary notes from Andrew Rippin’s article on the pitfalls of “The Qur’an as Literature,”[1], but some of this was new territory for me.



Part of the course description reads:

This course examines the content and literary style of the Qur’an and in the context of the late antique Near East, ca. 2nd-7th centuries CE. We will read the text alongside the texts belonging to the “People of the Scripture” (ahl al-kitab), i.e. Christians and Jews, and other religious groups explicitly mentioned in the Qur’an. Their scriptures include the Hebrew Bible (al-Tawrah), the New Testament (al-Injil), Zoroastrian texts (cf. al-majus) and Arabian prophetic speech (shi‘r kahin). This comparative approach will provide students with a rich understanding of the Qur’an as an integral part of world literature, and challenge contemporary and traditional assumptions about the text. This approach will also allow the Qur’an to speak for itself, rather than reading it through the eyes of medieval interpretation (Tafsir) or prophetic tradition (Hadith) which began in the 9th century CE. This course also exposes students to some of the scholarly challenges of studying the different layers of a text (Meccan vs. Medinan), identifying its audience, trying to construct the history of its transmission (oral vs. written) without much evidence, and to the limits of translation.

Fortunately, the class size was fairly small, 15 or so, and students came from different religious as well as cultural backgrounds, which made for much lively discussion and debate. Students were pushed to think critically and in a systematic function about the Qur’an, as well as challenge their own assumptions about the text. For students I find two principle barriers that stand between them and the Qur’an. These are the ‘politicization of the text’ on the one hand, and the ‘confusion of the text with traditional interpretation’ on theother. More broadly speaking, I wanted them to appreciate scripture not just as a religious text, but as an integral part of world literature that holds value in the academy.

For an undergraduate course like this, all instruction and materials were in English. Reading materials included  How to Read the Qur’an by Carl Ernst (who incidentally has a terrific course on this subject!) [2] and several supplementary articles including: a rhyming translation of Q 93-114 by Shawkat Toorawa, a qur’anic reading of the Psalms by Angelika Neuwirth, and a humanistic reception of the text by me.[3] Students were encouraged but not required to buy a translation of the Qur’an, given the plethora of translations online. (Although for practical purposes we used Yusuf Ali’s translation during class time). Finally, included in the course materials were sections of the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, post-biblical exhortations (e.g. Ephrem the Syrian), Zoroastrian texts and Pre-Islamic poetry. For some students it was the first time they had read the Qur’an; for others the first time they read the Bible. In both cases, students expressed how pleased they were at this eye-opening experience and fruitful exchange.

The course benefited a great deal from following stories posted on the IQSA blog (that’s right, this blog!) and the Qur’an Seminar at the University of Notre Dame, which was still running at the time. To my surprise, students were both curious and welcoming of the technical dimensions of Qur’an study. Some of our best discussions, for example, involved scrutinizing the rhyme of Arabic poetry or considering a particular Syriac word. The course naturally explored a number of qur’anic themes like apocalypticism, prophecy, law, etc, as well as introduced students to debates concerning the text’s chronology, speaker and structure. My happiest moment was when a student expressed to me how the course “made the Qur’an part of a much more intellectual conversation.”

Teaching this course was a tremendous learning experience for both the students and myself. The students learned how to navigate a sometimes unwieldy text and appreciate its tremendous contribution to the world in which they live. Collectively, we learned that as long as one approaches any scripture respectfully as well as critically, the task of understanding it becomes that much easier.

[1] Andrew Rippin, “The Qur’an as literature: perils, pitfalls and prospects,” Bulletin of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies, 10.1, 1983.

[2] Carl Ernst, How to Read the Qur’an: A New Guide with Select Translations, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.

[3] Shawkat Toorawa, “’The Inimitable Rose’, being Qur’anic saj‘ from Surat al-Duhâ to Surat al-Nâs (Q. 93–114) in English rhyming prose,” Journal of Qur’anic Studies, 8.2, 2006; Angelika Neuwirth, “Qur’anic readings of the Psalms” in Ed. Angelika Neuwirth et al. (eds.), The Qur’an in Context, Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2009; Emran El-Badawi, “A humanistic reception of the Qur’an,” Scriptural Margins: On the Boundaries of Sacred Texts, English Language Notes, 50.2, 2012.

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

Upcoming Colloquia in the UK

Thanks to Nicolai Sinai and Mehdi Azaiez

Islamic Studies Colloquium


Organisers: Elisabeth Kendall, Ahmad Khan, Christopher Melchert, Nicolai Sinai
Venue: Pembroke College, Oxford. OX1 1DW
Date: 27-28 September 2013

Both the resurgence of Islamist politics and the political, social, and intellectual upheaval accompanying the Arab Spring challenge us to reconsider the interplay between the pre-modern Islamic tradition and modern proponents of continuity, reform, and change in the Muslim world. The colloquium therefore invites scholars with an in-depth knowledge of the classical Islamicate heritage to explore modern texts that stake out some sort of claim to pre-modern traditions in disciplines as diverse as Islamic law, hadith, Qur’anic exegesis, politics, and literature. The colloquium will encourage specialists to embark on a hermeneutically sophisticated exercise that avoids some of the extremes to which an examination of how the classical heritage functions in the modern Islamic world has often been subjected. The colloquium aims to move beyond works that contain the tacit assumption that modern Muslims are subconsciously steered by the Islamic tradition, without exerting any sort of agency or control over it, and studies that suggest that modern Muslim thinkers arbitrarily distort elements of the tradition to which they lay claim. Instead, we invite scholars to consider modern re-appropriations of pre-modern concepts, texts, persons, and events, and thereby to transcend an increasing bifurcation between classical and contemporary Islamic studies.


Carole Hillenbrand (University of Edinburgh), Robert Gleave (University of Exeter), Christopher Melchert (University of Oxford), Ahmad Khan (University of Oxford), Nicolai Sinai (University of Oxford), Islam Dayeh (Freie Universitat Berlin), Karen Bauer (Institute of Ismaili Studies), Elisabeth Kendall (University of Oxford), Marilyn Booth (University of Edinburgh), Jon Hoover (University of Nottingham), Christian Lange (Utrecht University)


This colloquium has been made possible thanks to the generosity of Brian Wilson, a long-standing benefactor of Arabic studies at Pembroke.


Attendance is free, but attendees must register by 16 September at ahmad.khan@pmb.ox.ac.uk

For more information, please visit here.

Ms. mehdi-azaiez.org

Ms. mehdi-azaiez.org

Fragmentation and Compilation : The Making of Religious Texts in Islam A Comparative Perspective II (30 septembre – 1er octobre)

30 September–1 October 2013
The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London
2nd Floor, Room 2.3

Convenor : Asma Hilali


Fragmentation and Variation in the First Islamic Graffiti (1st–2nd century AH)
Frédéric Imbert, Aix-Marseille University, France

The latest research in the field of Islamic graffiti in the first two centuries AH in the Middle East is uncovering new information about Muslim society at the dawn of Islam. Most of this information concerns the Islamic faith, the place of the Qur’an and the figure of the Prophet Muhammad, but the oldest graffiti also allow us to reflect on the status of writing during the same period. Thousands of Arabic Kufic graffiti recently discovered in Saudi Arabia and in the wider Middle East reflect an extreme fragmentation due to the quantity of inscriptions scattered all over the area. These Arabic graffiti, which were not subjected to any kind of censorship, are the expression of variation and repetition at the same time : variation of the Qur’anic text and of the attitude of people towards the new religion and the Prophet, and repetition of the religious prayers and invocations. The picture of early Islam emanating from the first Islamic graffiti is one of fragmentation.

Repetitions and Variations, and the Problem of ‘Qur’anic Variants’
Asma Hilali, The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London, UK

The field of Qur’anic Studies has been greatly influenced by the medieval reception of the Qur’an text manifested in the exegetical literature and by the theories related to the ‘Qur’anic variants’. The concept of ‘Qur’anic variants’ is deeply rooted in the history of the canonisation of the Qur’an and in the various assumptions made about scribal errors and falsification. My paper will provide a critique of the conceptual tools used in Qur’anic Studies in the last two decades and will propose a new perspective in the study of the textual features interpreted by the medieval and modern scholars as ‘Qur’anic variants’. The new perspective takes the fragmented aspect of the text to be inseparable from the history of its transmission.

Fragmentation, Compilation and Discourse : A Comparison of Three Arbaʿūn Collections on Jihād and Martyrdom Compiled in the Late Mamluk Period
Stephen Burge, The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London, UK

This paper examines the ways in which hadith scholars went about compiling hadith collections by undertaking a comparative analysis of three similar works written in the same period. The three collections are all arbaʿūn collections – short collections of around forty hadith – which focus on the themes of jihād and martyrdom. The three studied are Suyuti’s Abwāb al-suʿadāʾ fī asbāb al-shuhadāʾ (‘The Gates of the Lucky in the Occasions of Martyrdom’) and his Arbaʿūn ḥadīthan fī faḍl al-jihād (‘Forty Hadith on the Merits of Jihad’) and al-Biqāʿī’s Dhayl al-istishhād bi-āyāt al-jihād (‘The Appendix to Martyrdom in the Verses on Jihād’). I will argue that by closely analysing the material included and excluded from a hadith collection, as well as the ways in which the hadith have been arranged, it is possible to gain a deeper understanding of particular nuances within a text in which a compiler does not give his views openly to his reader. This paper will argue that the ‘hadith literature’ contains a vast, almost infinite, body of texts and the job of the hadith compiler is to fragment this wider body of texts, to reconstitute them, and then to arrange them in order to provide a specific discourse on a subject. This process can be seen in the different ways the three works under consideration in this paper respond to the subjects of jihād and martyrdom.

The Qur’an’s Fragmentation and Realignment of Gospel and Talmud
Holger Zellentin, The University of Nottingham, UK

The unique ways in which the Qur’an ‘heard’ select stories from the Aramaic Gospel tradition has been considered by generations of scholars. Yet, only the most rudimentary consensus has been established about the nature of the texts with which the Qur’an’s audience was familiar, let alone the ways in which the Qur’an used these texts. The Qur’an’s utilisation of Talmudic material has received even less attention, and a consensus is even more remote. The present paper seeks to advance, one small step, our understanding of the deployment of both corpora in the Qur’an by considering them jointly. More than occasionally, the Qur’an fragments and realigns demonstrable elements of the (likely oral) Gospel and the Talmudic traditions together in order to solidify its claim of being a correction to the shortcomings of both.

Unity and Fragmentation in the Standard Text of the Qur’an : The Prophet as First Addressee and Dialogic Argumentation. Mehdi Azaiez, CNRS/IREMAM, FRANCE

As defined in discourse analysis, first addressee (or interlocutor) is the person involved in a conversation or dialogue. The figure of the Qur’an’s first addressee is a textual phenomenon linked to the structure of the text and its argumentative dimension. In my contribution, I will define the notion of the first addressee in the Qur’an, its linguistic forms and functions within the entire Qur’an. I will explore the following questions : The variety of the notions of ‘the first addressee’ ; the double aspect of fragmentation/unity of text after its collection and the role of the first addressee in the argumentative shape of the text. My contribution aims to show (i) how the dialogic relation between a Qur’anic enunciator and its first addressee reveals one of the main aspects of Qur’anic argumentation ; (ii) how the Qur’an legitimates the status of its first addressee as a prophet.


Day 1 : Monday, 30 September 2013

12:00 Arrival of speakers at hotel and lunch

14:00 Welcome
Asma Hilali, The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London

14:00–16:00 Session 1 : Qur’anic Studies : From a Fragmentary Approach to an Approach about Fragmentation

Speakers : Stephen Burge, The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London
Asma Hilali, The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London
Holger Zellentine, The University of Nottingham

Discussant : Prof. Aziz al-Azmeh

This session will examine the state of the field of Qur’anic Studies. It will cover the following topics :
(i) Qur’anic manuscripts : A tool or an aim ?
(ii) Intertextuality : Methodological remarks
(iii) Fragmentation/Compilation perspectives on the Qur’an text in the context of the history of its transmission.

16:00 Break

16:20–17:50 Session 2 : Variation and Repetition in Qur’anic Texts

Chair : Holger Zellentin

Fragmentation and Variation in the First Islamic Graffiti (1st–2nd century AH)
Frédéric Imbert, Aix-Marseille University

Repetitions and Variations, and the Problem of ‘Qur’anic Variants’
Asma Hilali, The Institute of Ismaili Studies

19:00 : Speakers’ Dinner

Day 2 : Tuesday, 1st October 2013

9:00–11:00 Session 3 : Comparative Perspectives

Chair : Mehdi Azaiez, University of Notre Dame, Indiana

Fragmentation, Compilation and Discourse : A Comparison of Three Arba’un Collections on Jihad and Martyrdom Compiled in the Late Mamluk Period
Stephen Burge, The Institute of Ismaili Studies

The Qur’an’s Fragmentation and Realignment of Gospel and Talmud
Holger Zellentine, The University of Nottingham

Unity and Fragmentation in the Standard Text of the Qur’an : The Prophet as First Addressee and the Dialogic Argumentation
Mehdi Azaiez, LabexResmed, Paris

11:00 General Discussion

12:00 Speakers’ Lunch

For more information, please visit here.

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

The Traditions on the Composition of ‘Uthmān’s muṣḥaf.

By Viviane Comerro

Viviane Comerro is Professor of Islamic Studies at INALCO (Paris). This blog is a synopsis of its French book titled “Les traditions sur la composition du muṣḥaf de ‘Uthmān”, Orient-Institut Beirut, 2012

When and how did the Quran become a book? Even though paleography and codicology provide us with useful elements that shed light on this question, we should not overlook the study of Islamic literary sources which, through the diversity of their accounts on the writing of the Quran and the richness of their glosses on the Quranic text itself, remain bolder and more informed testimonies than any collection of manuscripts.



How should we address Islamic sources which provide us with numerous pieces of information on this issue? An initial historical approach based on the transmission of texts could lead us to follow the Ancients in their investigative endeavor by privileging the historical veracity of the version adopted by al-Bukhārī (d. 256/870) in his Ṣaḥīḥ.

A second, historical and critical approach has already achieved its full potential: drawing out a core that is common to the various versions of the account of the event so as to gain some certainty or extracting this historical core from its legendary, theological or ideological gangue.

Reflection upon the literary nature of sources that has developed alongside this approach has resulted in a transitory suspension of the “naively” historical approach. In fact, a tradition always provides the event and its interpretation as closely related. This is a khabar, information, as well as a hadith, an event set as an account. Thus, it is in taking into consideration the twofold nature of a tradition that I have read afresh the totality of the accounts on the writing of the Quran by paying very close attention to the variants and their meanings.

By placing back the received version of the event – the one Bukhārī kept in his Ṣaḥīh – in this totality, it appears as made up of several motifs that also exist in isolation as independent traditions. This version is therefore the result of a combination that selects some pieces of information while discarding others.

The author of this combination, or common link in the vernacular of the modern specialists of transmission, is Ibn Shihāb al-Zuhrī (d. 124/742), who certainly did not invent this story but combined different pieces of information on the writing of the Quran, as he did for other accounts.

Beyond this stage, the hadith of Zuhrī evolved even further since a version that is quite different from Bukhārī’s is to be found in the introduction to his Tafsīr by the great compiler of the 3rd century of Hegira, Ṭabarī (d. 310/923).

Apart from the issue of authenticity, wherever we place this version in the chain of transmission, what seems to matter is the reason why such a well-informed exegete as Tabarī chose this version of Zuhrī’s account rather than another one. This question led me to question Bukhārī’s stance and Ṭabarī’s regarding the status of Quranic recitation in the intellectual debates of their time. I came to the conclusion that, to some extent, the issue of the isnād was of secondary importance. What really matters is the content of each account.

For Ṭabarī, who claims that ‘Uthmān reduced the various recitations of the Quran to a single ḥarf in the official muṣḥaf, it is important to note that the Quranic text is not the result of a collection but the writing of a single man, Zayd b. Thābit.

For Bukhārī, it is important to take a stand in a critical debate of his time: that of the created or uncreated Quran, which goes on long after the end of the Miḥna by claiming that the writing of the Quran is created, in contrast with the Hanbali scholars.

Besides, the stance differs from one Ṣaḥīḥ to the other. Muslim (d. 261/875), Bukhārī’s contemporary, who frequented the same circles as him, apparently avoids to take a stand in this debate. Nowhere does he mention the account transmitted by al-Zuhrī. On the other hand, he mentions traditions on the various recitations of the Companions Ubayy, Ibn Mas‘ūd and Abū Mūsā. In this selection of information, one can detect a stand in another significant debate that lasted for centuries about the diversity of Quranic recitations theorized in the form of a prophetic hadith: Unzila l-qur’ān ‘alā sab‘ati ahruf. In this controversy, a stance became more and more a minority, yet it lasted for a long time: it was allowed to liturgically recite ancient qirā’āt, especially that of Ibn Mas‘ūd, due to the fact that the companions of the Prophet and the Successors did it, even though these “readings” were not in keeping with the ‘Uthmānian rasm. It seems that in the 3rd century, prior to Ibn Mujāhid’s reform, the traditionist Muslim was inclined to favor such a stance.

The discrepancies between the accounts about the writing of the Quran, which are already impressive regarding what comes from Zuhrī, are even more so when all the traditions are taken into consideration. They are so not only for the researcher who considers he should not side with the traditionists, now as in the past, but also because all these accounts excluded by the strict selection of the Ṣaḥīḥ reappear in the margin of a commentary or an argumentation by the early (or modern) authors among the most interested in orthodoxy.

Historical description is not the main goal of traditionists, who rather try to solve theological/juridical problems. The diversity of the accounts related to the writing of the Quran, which mostly took place under ‘Uthmān’s caliphate, could result from the traditionists’ worry about the composition of the muṣḥaf in an unfavorable historical context: a challenged caliphate in a time troubled by strong dissensions. The attested circulation of different maṣāḥif of the Quran, one of the sources of legitimacy and authority in the fullest sense of this dīn as the foundation of the new community, represented a danger for Medina’s power. After the historical situation changed, though it was never forgotten, the prime preoccupation concerned the conditions of transmission of the prophetic proclamation. The selection of the ḥarf of Zayd, a man related to ‘Uthmān, had not been consensual. And what to do with the maṣāḥif of Ubayy, Ibn Mas‘ūd, Abū Mūsā, Miqdād and others? Several responses to these unexpressed worries arose in the large corpus of narrative traditions on the writing of the Quran. I have suggested classifying these accounts according to the kind of solution they provided to ensure the faultless transmission of the muṣḥaf.

After this investigation in literary sources, it is to be noted that there is no received version of the writing of the muṣḥaf despite the status acquired by the Ṣaḥīḥ of Bukhārī and the repetition, book after book, century after century, of his hadith on the collection of the Quran, a “thing the Prophet had not done.” In this way, although a 12th century traditionist such as Abū Muḥammad Ḥusayn al-Baghawī reports Bukhārī’s account in his Sharḥ al-Sunna, in his commentary he carries out a rewriting of the event with the memory of other accounts. He claims that the composition of the muṣḥaf is an act involving the Companions as a collective actor of the ijmā‘: they are those who decided together with ‘Uthmān and those who wrote. This rewriting is as perceptible in the 15th century when al-Suyūṭī began his chapter of the Itqān devoted to the collection of the Quran by the blunt assertion that at the time of the Prophet’s death “the Quran had not been collected.” Throughout the text and in the conclusion of the chapter, it appears that the “thing the Prophet had not done” had in fact been accomplished since the muṣḥaf, organized as verses and suras, is exactly the same as that instituted by Muḥammad after the angel’s dictation.

In my book, I left the question of the writing of the Quran at the time of the Prophet open-ended owing to the scarcity of traditions that mention it. This question pertains to another kind of investigation on the oral/written composition of the Quranic text (Angelika Neuwirth) and could rest on the works of linguists and anthropologists dealing with orality and writing.

In conclusion, the study of traditions informs us on some crucial elements of the history of the text: the plasticity of its composition and oral transmission; the antiquity of its writing; the fixation of a model written under ‘Uthmān; its gradual canonization; the preservation of textual variants as a reflection of the original oral diversity and then the philologists’ interest; the parallel theologizing of the history of transmission.

Yet this study chiefly enables us to understand the Tradition that lends their full weight to the actors of transmission. Through selection, combination, additions or deletions, and when the text is permanently fixed in its letter, through their glosses, commentaries and interpretations, these actors contribute to the fluctuation in meaning in the preservation of religion.

Translation and Exegesis: Travis Zadeh’s The Vernacular Qur’an

By Michael Pregill


The claim that Muslims do not translate the Qur’an, or rather that a translation of the Qur’an is not
 really the Qur’an at all but only a dim approximation of the basic sense of the text, has often been 
repeated by scholars. This notion has even informed the production of translations by Muslims 
themselves at times, as in the case of Marmaduke Pickthall’s famous The Meaning of the 
Glorious Koran (1930)—the title implying that the text in English represents only the meaning,
 with something substantial literally having been lost in translation. It is difficult to escape the
 conclusion that any rendition of the Qur’an into the vernacular—that is, into any language other 
than the original Arabic—should and must have a secondary and marginal status in Islamic

But there is a paradox here, inasmuch as the public recitation and explanation of the Qur’an has
played a significant role in attracting converts to Islam since the earliest days of the community’s
 expansion after the Arab conquests. Historically, the process of reciting and explaining the 
Qur’an surely involved some element of translation; the parallel with the reading of the Torah 
and exposition of targum in Jewish synagogue services is obvious here. Further, scholars have
 often asserted (at least since the time of Goldziher’s seminal Die Richtungen der islamischen
 Koranauslegung, 1920) that tafsir (Qur’an commentary) most likely originated in this context, 
built upon the most ancient understandings of the Qur’an that had circulated among the earliest
followers of the Prophet. Initially grounded in the need to interpret the Qur’an’s essential message
for converts—often with considerable mythological and homiletic expansions—this tradition 
eventually coalesced into one of the core disciplines within the ulum al-Quran or “Qur’anic 
sciences.” All of this implies that translation of the Qur’an has in fact been central to Islamic 
society, at least at times, and that such translation has been absolutely vital for the survival and
 expansion of the community at numerous junctures in Islam’s long history.

The complex relationship between translation of and commentary upon the Qur’an is explored in
 depth in Travis Zadeh’s magesterial and far-ranging study, The Vernacular Qur’an: Translation
and the Rise of Persian Exegesis (Oxford University Press in association with the Institute of
 Ismaili Studies, 2012), which specifically examines the phenomenon of translation as it lies at
the foundation of both Persian literary and Iranian Islamic religious tradition. The significance 
of this study cannot be overstated. Iran was most likely the first region or culture area outside
 of Arabia proper to achieve a Muslim majority. Further, several of Iran’s urban centers became
preeminent centers of religious learning in the ninth and tenth centuries, producing ulama whose 
works became critical for the further development of the religious sciences, especially hadith; 
and, as is well known, by the high Middle Ages, so-called New Persian came to rival—and 
eventually surpass—Arabic as the preeminent literary language of Islamic society, at least in the 
eastern regions of the Dar al-Islam.

Zadeh’s study explores the intersections between theological and juridical controversies,
 devotional practice, and an emerging Persian literary culture, informed both by an admirable command of the theoretical literature on translation and a nuanced understanding of the complex 
conjunction of factors that contributed to the misrepresentation of Qur’an translation as somehow
 inferior or illegitimate. In Western scholarly discourse, the claim of the Qur’an’s untranslatability 
originates in medieval Christian polemic, in which Muslims’ supposed insistence that the Qur’an
 can only be approached in the original Arabic was caricatured as proof of Muslim “rigidity” 
and legalism – ritual rectitude purportedly being more important in Islam than rational 
understanding. This gross oversimplification of Muslim attitudes was then reinforced by the
 misapprehensions of more contemporary (and well-meaning) scholars such as Wilfred Cantwell
 Smith, who inadvertently conflated theological assertions of the Qur’an’s inimitability with some
 jurists’ opposition to the use of verses of the Qur’an in other languages in the devotional context
into a blanket prohibition on translation that somehow applied to all times, places, and contexts.

Smith thus characterized an opposition to translation as somehow essential to Islam, but as 
Zadeh demonstrates, the translation of the Qur’an into Persian, even for devotional purposes,
 appears to have been a basic fact in the Iranian milieu; the “early pattern of wrapping the sacred 
language of the Qur’an in Persian reflects the practical hermeneutic, if not liturgical, importance
 of approaching scripture through a linguistic medium other than Arabic” (133). Moreover,
translation into Persian was not simply driven by the practical considerations of disseminating 
the Qur’an in a recently converted, and thus only superficially acculturated, population. 
Rather, Zadeh’s theoretically sophisticated approach shows that the general recognition of the
 polyvalence of scripture—for example, the idea that the Qur’an was revealed in seven ahruf 
(modes or recitations)—opened up a wide discursive space in which many scholars not only 
tolerated but even explicitly sanctioned the ongoing use of the Qur’an in Persian and other
languages for a variety of purposes.

Astonishingly, Zadeh’s treatment of his subject stretches from the period just after the Arab
 conquests of the seventh century all the way to the flourishing of Persian tafsir in the eleventh 
and twelfth centuries with figures such as Abu’l-Futuh al-Razi, Surabadi, and Isfara’ini, as well
 as discussing the later reception of this tradition in subsequent centuries. Even as the use of
 Persian renditions of Qur’anic verses was largely abandoned in specifically devotional contexts,
 the dynamic interplay between the Arab and Iranian cultural and linguistic milieux continued to 
inform the evolution of Islam in the Persian-speaking world. As their tradition matured, Iranian 
scholars continued to have a complicated relationship with Arab Islamic religious authority and
 exegetical discourse—especially the latter, as “exegesis served as a platform for the articulation
 of religious commitments” (448), particularly as attitudes towards Persian came to inform and in
 turn be inflected by sectarian considerations.

This brief notice hardly does justice to Zadeh’s wide-ranging, yet lucidly argued and eloquently written, treatment of the Qur’an in Persian and the Persianate world. We may hope that his nuanced and imaginative study draws attention to this long-neglected subject and inspires new scholarly research in this area in the future.

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