King’s College Workshop Report: Patterns of Argumentation in Late Antique and Early Islamic Literature

By Barbara Roggema

On February 20-22, a workshop took place at King’s College London about patterns of argumentation in Late Antique and early Islamic literature. The workshop was organized by Yannis Papadogiannakis and Barbara Roggema within the framework of the ERC-project Defining Belief and Identities in the Eastern Mediterranean: The Role of Interreligious Debate and Interaction. This project seeks to recover the processes by which religious beliefs and identities were defined through interreligious interaction and debate in the religious culture of a broader social base in the eastern Mediterranean (sixth-eighth c. CE) through examination of a neglected, unconventional corpus of medieval Greek, Syriac, and Arabic literature of debate (consisting of collections of questions-and-answers, dialogues among others).

The papers covered a wide variety of source material: interreligious disputations, tafsīr, maghāzī literature, apologetics, gnomologies, erotapokriseis, chronicles, and early Islamic legal texts. The principal focus was on the ways in which religious ideas in the Eastern Mediterranean world were shaped by the challenges of rival religious groups, and especially, what patterns of argumentation were employed in these various types of literature in order to formulate answers to critical questions from inside and outside the community. At the same time, most papers addressed the more general question of the processes behind the transmission and transformation of ideas between the Late Antique Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities.

Fragment of a 9th century manuscript of the Arabic translation of the 7th/8th century Greek Quaestiones ad Antiochum ducem by Pseudo-Athanasius of Alexandria (Bibliothèque Nationale et Universitaire de Strasbourg, ms 4226).

Fragment of a 9th century manuscript of the Arabic translation of the 7th/8th century Greek Quaestiones ad Antiochum ducem by Pseudo-Athanasius of Alexandria (Bibliothèque Nationale et Universitaire de Strasbourg, ms 4226).

With regard to Qur’anic Studies, several papers are relevant to mention here. David Bertaina’s “The Qurʾān as Question-and-Answer Literature: A Witness to Late Antique Disputation” focused on the strong connections between the Qur’an’s question-and-answer literary form and the culture of disputation in the Jewish and Christian milieu of the seventh century. He argued that the Qur’an records disputes in which its audience was engaged, but at the same time dissuades people from arguing over issues which pertain to the realm of Divine unknowability. One example is the reflection of disputes over the direction of prayer in Q 2:142. No answer is given to the heated question in this verse. Instead it diverts the issue to an evocation of God’s will, guidance and authority. Bertaina also discussed the possibility that the Qur’an preserves echoes of contemporary religious debates. An issue that might be reflected in Q 4:171, the verse in which the People of the Book are told not to say “three” about God, is the intra-Miaphysite dispute about John Philoponus’ tritheistic interpretation of Trinitarian theology.

Barbara Roggema’s paper dealt with post-Qur’anic Christian-Muslim confrontation. She discussed a Christian-Arabic papyrus, which was dated by Georg Graf to the middle of the eighth century and which contains polemical questions against the Qur’an. These critical questions feature in early tafsīr as well, but without being identified as polemical points made by Christians. Roggema argued that Arabic-speaking Christian critique of the Qur’an goes back at least to the eighth century, if not to the century before, and that it may have acted as a catalyst to the mufassirūn’s search for internal consistency in the Qur’an.

Michael Pregill’s paper “Making a Difference: Revelation, Prophetology, and the Shaping of tafsir in the ‘Sectarian Milieu’” also dealt with the impact of interreligious polemic on the formation of early Islamic tradition. He focused on the reshaping of Qur’anic narratives by early commentators, using the example of the Golden Calf narrative and the impact of the development of ideas about Biblical corruption (taḥrīf) and prophetic impeccability (ʿiṣma) on interpretation of the story.

How Islamic commentators reshaped Biblical narratives was also the topic of Marcel Poorthuis’s paper “Šekhinah and Sakīna or: on the rivalry between Moriah and Mecca.” Poorthuis showed how al-Ṭabarī, in his narration of Ibrahim’s founding of the Ka‘ba, used the non-Qur’anic term Sakīna to reflect the Jewish Šekhinah. He discussed how Jewish traditions were Islamicized when Isaac’s intended sacrifice on Mount Moriah was transformed into a genuinely Islamic story about the Sakīna and of the founding/discovery of the Ka’ba. This transformation entailed a change in understanding of the Sakīna, making it a jinn-like presence rather than an independent divine agent as in Jewish tradition.

This workshop will have a follow-up in November of this year. All who are interested are welcome to contact Barbara Roggema at Barbara.roggema@kcl.ac.uk for more information.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2014. All rights reserved.

Seventh Mingana Symposium on Arab Christianity & Islam: “The Qur’an and Arab Christianity”

By David Bertaina

The Alphonse Mingana Manuscript Collection at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom holds an important yet underappreciated repository of early Qur’an folios and papyri. In support of the Mingana collection and its legacy, a number of scholars gathered on 17-20 September, 2013, to discuss the importance of “The Qur’an and Arab Christianity.”

Fifteen papers were delivered at the Seventh Mingana Symposium on Arab Christianity & Islam. Topics ranged from pre-Islamic Arabic to medieval approaches to the Qur’an. This post highlights some of the important contributions made to the textual history of the Qur’an by scholars at the conference. The papers revealed the range of Middle Eastern Christian attitudes toward the Qur’an, their role in its emergence and interpretation, and the text’s subsequent impact upon Christian Arabic literature.

Chronologically, the papers tended to fall within the following parameters as: 1) the emergence of the Qur’an; 2) Abbasid-era Christian Arabic responses to the Qur’an; and 3) Later medieval Arab Christian inculturation of the Qur’an.

In the earliest chronological period, Robert Hoyland presented his case for the existence of pre-Islamic Christian Arabic literature based upon an Arabic martyrion inscription dated to ca. 570, among several other examples, which has implications for the formation of the Qur’an and its possible references to Christian Arabic dialects and/or Syriac.

Juan Pedro Monferrer-Sala presented a reconstruction of the story of the destruction of Sodom in the Qur’an. His paper argued that we can discover the “textual archaeology” of the Qur’an’s many references to Sodom by assembling them together. The result is that the Qur’an’s homily on the event, probably transmitted via oral or written interactions, suggests a pre-canonical Qur’anic version of the story that was complete and closer to Late Antique versions of the legend.

Photo by David Bertaina

Photo by David Bertaina

Alba Fedeli’s study examined a number of early Qur’an fragments from the Mingana Collection. The group was able to visit the repository at the University of Birmingham and inspect a number of these early fragments thanks to her preparations. In her presentation, Fedeli pointed out examples of textual emendation in early Qur’an texts that suggest a re-writing of texts to conform to later canonical versions of the holy text (see the bottom line of the pictured insert for an example). Moreover, her study of a Qur’an palimpsest in a Christian Arabic manuscript suggests the concept of linking early Islam with Arab Christianity needs further attention in the academy.

Krisztina Szilagyi examined Muslim and Arab Christian interpretations of Q 53:7-10 and Q 112 in reference to the fact that God is called al-ṣamad. She pointed out eight instances from Christian Arabic sources, ranging from the eighth century through eleventh century, that assume that early Muslims understood this word to associate corporealism with the divine. Szilagyi argued that corporealism might have been more prevalent than previously thought among the first Muslims and that these Christian critiques were one of the possible reasons for the decline of corporealism in Islamic theology.

Thomas Hoffmann argued that scholars need to escape textual assumptions about the Qur’an’s changeable attitude toward Christians. This position assumes Qur’anic theological unity and understands the text’s ambivalence toward Christians solely through historical contingencies and/or divine guidance. Hoffmann argues that scholars should approach the Qur’an not as a smoothed-out unified work but as a document of heterogeneous and competing positions.

Gabriel Said Reynolds presented on recent scholarly debates concerning the history of the Qur’an, arguing that many studies presuppose a later Islamic interpretive framework that potentially hinders our knowledge concerning the earliest stages of the formation of the Qur’an. Instead of presupposing a “normative” ʿUthmānic codex on which to judge early manuscripts, scholars need to read the texts while being open to surprising discoveries regarding its textual formation.

The second chronological period covered in the conference was Abbasid-era interactions concerning the Qur’an. Mark Beaumont discussed the ninth-century theologian ʿAmmār al-Baṣrī and his response to the Islamic critique of the Christian Scriptures. Beaumont argued that ʿAmmār al-Baṣrī was less concerned with philosophical categories inherited from the Greek tradition and was more focused on defending the logic of Christian theology as consistent with the presuppositions of Islamic thought based on the Qur’an.

Sandra Keating and Emilio Platti both presented on the Arab Christian author ʿAbd al-Masīḥ al-Kindī (ca. 825). His history of the collection of the Qur’an is one of the earliest accounts about the formation and collation of the text, even predating most Islamic hadith about the circumstances of its emergence.  Purporting to be an exchange of letters between the Muslim al-Hashimī and the Christian al-Kindī, Keating and Platti explained how al-Kindī was deeply familiar with Islamic and independent sources regarding its origin and collection as well as the text itself.

Mike Kuhn explored the Muslim view of the Apostle Paul in the Abbasid period and how several authors employed the concept of taḥrīf to explain his role in the development of Christianity. Focusing on the Mu’tazilite ʻAbd al-Jabbār (d. 1025), he argued that his account of Paul’s life was a response to the analysis of the true religion by the ninth-century Syriac Church of the East member Hunayn ibn Isḥāq. Whereas Ibn Isḥāq argued that Christianity was not established by coercion, ʻAbd al-Jabbār claimed that Paul was motivated by political ambitions, which had implications for later Islamic polemics.

Gordon Nickel examined the impact of Q 7:157 on Muslim interaction with Arab Christianity. Since interpreters assumed this passage suggested Jews and Christians were expecting a prophet foretold in their Torah and Gospel, they had to explain why the communities failed to accept Islam. Nickel argued the Muslims began to claim verses in the Qur’an referred to the falsification of the earlier scriptures because Jews and Christians denied the existence of references to Muhammad in their holy books.

There were three papers on later medieval acculturation of the Qur’an in the Arab Christian milieu. David Bertaina presented on the concept of Qur’anic authority in the work of a Muslim convert to Coptic Christianity named Būluṣ ibn Rajāʾ (ca. 1000). He explained how Ibn Rajāʾ used the Qur’an in a positive sense arguing that his former co-religionists had failed to live up to its standards. Bertaina argued that his use of the Qur’an contrasted with other Arab Christian assessments of the Qur’an as a distorted Scripture.

Ayse Icoz examined the use of Qur’anic terms and phrases in the late tenth century Christian Arabic encyclopedia entitled Kitāb al-Majdal. Focusing on the particular examples from the text, Icoz argued that the form and the extent of the use of Qur’anic terms in Christian context reveal the author’s high acquaintance with Islamic vocabulary and deeper engagement with the surrounding culture.

David Thomas, the organizer of the conference, closed with an analysis of the use and abuse of the Qur’an in Paul of Antioch’s Letter to a Muslim Friend, composed in the thirteenth century. While some passages were quoted faithfully, Thomas argued that Paul’s misuse of the Qur’an suggests an established polemic in the Arab Christian repertoire and lessens the likelihood that the letter would have had a serious impact on its audience.

Many of these papers will be published with E. J. Brill under the History of Christian-Muslim Relations series edited by David Thomas. It will be a valuable addition to any scholarly collection or academic library.   The conference will be held again in 2016 or 2017 in Birmingham, focusing on Christian-Muslim interactions in the earliest periods of encounter, and will once again be a lively place for the discussion of matter relevant to those who study the textual history of the Qur’an.

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