Ritual Studies and the Qur’an: Preliminary Thoughts

by Andrew C. Smith*

The usage of ritual as a means of communication, worship, and social construction is a ubiquitous element in human societies. In recognition of this fact, the field of ritual studies has expanded in scope and relevance in the last half century. Yet ritual as an important element within the Qur’an is largely unstudied. This post offers preliminary thoughts on the application of theories and perspectives in ritual studies to the study of the Qur’an.

The study of ritual within the western academy has developed somewhat in tandem with religious studies, with Myth-and-Ritual, sociological, psychoanalytical, and structuralist schools of thought developing distinct approaches to the study of religious ritual. Since the mid-1960s, ritual studies scholars have come to value more interdisciplinary approaches, and to integrate many different fields—such as sociology, anthropology, religious studies, and cultural studies—into the study of ritual. Some of the most prominent thinkers on ritual in the last few decades include Catherine Bell, Ronald Grimes, Mary Douglas, Roy Rappaport, and Clifford Geertz. Their ideas, methods, and tools for studying ritual should form the basis for any study of ritual within the Qur’an.

Muslims praying at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus; photo by Antonio Melina/Agencia Brasil, 2003.

Muslims praying at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus; photo by Antonio Melina/Agencia Brasil, 2003.

For many years, ritual theorists have wrangled over a precise definition of “ritual,” but it is difficult to define because ritual as a category involves human emotions that are subjective and transient, and sometimes defy lingual expression (Muir, 2005, 2). It is also important to recognize that a universal, succinct definition may not only be impossible but also theoretically detrimental to the scholarly study of ritual (Bell, 2009, 82). For this reason, among others, many theorists have moved away from the utilization of strict definitions, preferring to devise more flexible typologies for describing, comparing, and analyzing ritual actions. Some scholars, like Grimes and Bell, go further to simply describe aspects of each ritual as “family characteristics” on a sliding scale of characteristics to determine if something is more or less ritualized. The strengths and weaknesses of these various approaches should be carefully weighed when considering which tools and methods will best fit the analysis of ritual action within the Qur’an.

Ritual as a category is most often studied contemporaneously with its performance, whereby an anthropologist or ethnographer views or participates in a ritual and queries the performers as to its meaning and function. And yet, much of the basis for religious ritual performance is found in written texts like the Qur’an. However, depictions of rituals in the texts may differ from their lived performances. For this reason we must differentiate between the study of ritual in Islam and the study of ritual in the Qur’an.

The idea that Muslims’ performing rituals in the present can shed light on how and why such rituals were performed at the time of the reception of the Qur’an is an assumption that needs to be treated carefully if not outright avoided. Ritual in the Qur’an must be primarily analyzed in its late antique historical context, which is significantly different from later contexts of Islamic ritual. We must consider the rituals contained in the Qur’an in connection with the religious communities of Late Antiquity, not through a lens of origin studies, but in order to understand the concepts of ritual usage that existed at the time, and the ritual symbolism and action from which they were adopted and adapted. For this purpose, research on the historical context and biblical subtext of the Qur’an—like that of Gabriel Said Reynolds and others—is vastly important.

The study of ritual as represented in the Qur’an is necessarily different from the study of ritual as a lived tradition. Researchers on the Qur’an cannot query a ritual’s late antique performers as to its purpose or meaning. They must rely solely upon the written text. At the same time, it must be remembered that written reference to ritual does not constitute ritual itself. Scholars relying on written evidence must also deal with some of the issues that more generally problematize the literary study of ancient texts, including questions of provenance and preservation, as well as the likelihood that a text may not have all the information that one would expect or wish to be present, due to editorial redaction, genre and form, or authorial intent.

To help overcome these and other challenges in studying ritual within the Qur’an, one can look to ritual studies as applied to the text of the Bible, including the works of Gerald A. Klingbeil, Mark McVann, Frank H. Gorman, David P.Wright, and Ithamar Gruenwald. Some of the issues identified within the study of biblical ritual apply directly to the Qur’an, while others apply only tangentially or not at all based on the basic differences between the Bible and the Qur’an in terms of composition, canonical development, etc. For example, the compositional character of the Arabic Qur’an—namely, the usage of sajʿ (rhymed prose)—leads to a general lack of prescriptive ritual designations, because detailed instructions about how rituals are to be performed do not appear to fit well within that artistic style.

Ritual study of the Qur’an is a wide-open field, with great potential for shedding light on the ways that ritual was understood and used by the earliest community of Muhammad’s followers to express their devotion and worship and to declare, create, and maintain their religious and communal identity. The preliminary thoughts presented above barely begin to tap the potential for greater engagement with this area of research. They are meant to stimulate further thoughts and conversations about the role of ritual within the Qur’an and the discourse of the early community of Muhammad’s followers.

* Andrew C. Smith is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Religion at Claremont Graduate University.

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

The Qur’an’s Legal Culture

In the latest installment of IQSA’s Review of Qur’anic Research 1, no. 5, Lev Weitz reviews Holger Zellentin, The Qurʾān’s Legal Culture (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013). In this book, Zellentin considers the apparent affinities between the Qur’an and the Didascalia Apostolorum, a late antique Syriac church order that took shape between the third and seventh centuries CE. The Didascalia records a significant number of the laws promulgated in the Qur’an, and the Didascalia’s legal narratives about the Israelites and Jesus, as well as the legal and theological vocabularies of its Syriac version, show kinship with the Arabic Qur’an. Zellentin argues that the legal tradition evident in the Didascalia was a key element of the “legal culture” of the Qur’an’s seventh-century milieu, and that the Qur’an’s own conception of a prophetically delivered, divine law for Gentiles emerged both in conversation with and against that precedent.

Full access to the Review of Qur’anic Research (RQR) is available in the members-only area of our IQSA website. Not an IQSA member? Join today to enjoy RQR and additional member benefits!

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

Read, Write, and Share Commentaries on Qur’an 2:255-256

The Qurʾan Seminar invites you to add your own commentaries on a new selected passage of the Qur’an: Q. 2:255-256. The Qurʾan Seminar, organized by IQSA, is dedicated to collaborative study of selected passages that are significant for understanding major themes and structures of the Qur’anic text. Contributors are encouraged to address the Qur’an directly and to not rely on classical exegesis as a lens through which to view the text. Of particular interest to the discussion are the following questions:

  • The structure of the Qur’an (its logical, rhetorical, and literary qualities, or naẓm)
  • The Qur’an’s intertextual relationships (with both Biblical and other literary traditions)
  • The Qur’an’s historical context in Late Antiquity

Access to Qur’an Seminar is open to IQSA members only. To become a member, click HERE. Once you are a member, you can access the Qur’an Seminar website:

The Qur’an Seminar website has two principal elements. First, the website includes a database of passages of the Qur’an with commentaries from a range of scholars. This database is meant to be a resource for students and specialists of the Qur’an alike. The commentaries may be quoted and referenced by citing the corresponding URL.

Second, the website includes an active forum in which additional Qur’anic passages are discussed. At regular intervals the material on the forum will be saved and moved to the database, and new passages will be presented for discussion on the forum. As a rule, the passages selected for discussion are meant to be long enough to raise a variety of questions for discussion, but short enough to lend that discussion coherence.

If you have any questions, please write to mehdi.azaiez@theo.kuleuven.be

We hope you will enjoy the content and consider contributing!

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

Qur’anic Counter-Discourse

by Mehdi Azaiez*

My new book, Le contre-discours coranique (Berlin: DeGruyter, 2015), focuses on a distinctive literary form in the Qur’an: “counter-discourse”—that is, the discourse of the Qur’an’s opponents as represented in the qur’anic text itself. Qur’anic counter-discourse appears in the form of direct reported speech, easily identifiable by the formula “they say.” The first example in the canonical text appears in Q Baqarah 2:8:

وَمِنَ النَّاسِ مَنْ يَقُولُ آمَنَّا بِاللَّهِ وَبِالْيَوْمِ الْآخِرِ وَمَا هُمْ بِمُؤْمِنِينَ

wa-min al-nās man yaqūlu āmannā bi’llāh wa-bi’l-yawm al-ākhir wa-mā hum bi-muminīn

Among the people are those who say, We believe in God and the Last Day, but they do not believe.

We can easily recognize the statement marked above in bold as the words of an (anonymous) opponent. My book identifies such statements throughout the qur’anic text, and examines them from historical, linguistic, and rhetorical perspectives.

Historically, counter-discourse implies the existence of vocal opponents to the Qur’an. What, then, does such discourse reveal about these opponents’ identities and beliefs, and about the historical context in which they reportedly spoke? Linguistically, counter-discourse in the Qur’an consists of distinctive narrative and dialogical forms. What forms are used in the qur’anic text to record opponents’ sayings, and what forms are used to refute them? Rhetorically, counter-discourse seems to pose interesting ontological and argumentative paradoxes. How does a text considered by most Muslims to be divine speech incorporate the speech of those who are not divine, and who deny the Qur’an’s message? How does the qur’anic text give voice to opposition without legitimating it?

My book aims to address these questions in three stages. The first identifies and defines the subject (Chapters I-III), the second determines and quantifies a corpus of evidence (Chapters IV-V), and the third analyzes this corpus by querying its themes, forms, and evolution (Chapters VI-IX). This last stage includes both synchronic and diachronic approaches. I first undertake an intratextual reading of the Qur’an. I describe the discursive operations through which the Qur’an represents multiple voices (e.g. God, believers, disbelievers) and constructs counter-discourse and apologetic discourse. Indeed, the speech of opponents is never reported without reply, and we repeatedly encounter the emblematic formula of “they say . . . say . . .” (yaqūlūna . . . fa-qul . . .). This dialogue between counter-discourse and reply creates what can be called an argumentative question (a recent linguistic notion in the theory of argumentation). With this in mind, I analyze reported oppositional speech in terms of the replies it entails, paying special attention to how one counter-discourse can receive multiple different qur’anic replies.

I then undertake an intertextual reading, querying the possible usage of counter-discourse in late antique texts, namely biblical and parabiblical literatures such as Christian apocrypha and the Talmud. This considerable task is only introduced in my book. Comparative analysis of some eschatological qur’anic and talmudic counter-discourses has already yielded encouraging results, as I have shown in “Les contre-discours eschatologiques dans le Coran et le traité du Sanhédrin” (in Déroche et al., eds., Les origines du Coran: Le Coran des origines [Paris: Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, 2015], 111-128).

Throughout Le contre-discours coranique, I propose a formal typology of qur’anic counter-discourse, assess its distribution and importance, and outline its formal and discursive features (e.g., types of refutation, types of opponent, and internal evolution). Diagrams, graphs, and tables accompany the study in order to enhance our appreciation of this discursive corpus.

Let me now highlight some of my findings. In quantitative terms, 588 verses contain some type of counter-discourse. There are three types: past (e.g., of Pharaoh or the people of Noah), present (e.g., against the Qur’an or Muhammad), and future (e.g., of the damned in hell). Respectively, they comprise 38%, 46%, and 16% of all qur’anic counter-discourses. The majority of “present” counter-discourses represent the important mise en scene of adversaries situated in the time of the qur’anic revelations. These adversaries argue against God (29%), against Muhammad (27%), against the Qur’an (20%), against final judgment (19%), and against the community of believers (6%). On the other hand, qur’anic replies to their arguments aim to strengthen the Qur’an’s author (the qur’anic God), its primary addressee and enunciator (Muhammad), its actual enunciation (the Qur’an as a process of divine revelation), its message (especially one of the most recurrent themes: eschatology), and its secondary addressees (the first community of believers). The presentation of counter-discourses and their replies is done with strategic constraints that aim at denigrating the qur’anic opponents. These strategies are principally isolation and focus. With the help of examples from Sūrat al Furqān and Sūrat al-Wāqiʿah analyzed in Chapter VIII of my book, I demonstrate how the counter-discourses are neutralized by the fact that they are in the minority, decentralized, and surrounded by statements that refute them.

An important aim of Le contre-discours coranique is to address the question of how analysis of counter-discourse can help us better understand the socio-historical context of the emergence of the Qur’an. To say that the text of the Qur’an reflects a context of sectarian polemics is not new. What my book offers, however, is a fresh analysis of present counter-discourses that strongly supports recent suggestions—namely by Crone, Hawting, and Reynolds—to enroll qur’anic polemics in the religious controversies of Late Antiquity.

It is likely that the historical portraits of Muhammad’s opponents in the traditional Islamic sources (especially the sīrah literature) are problematic. To put it more precisely, the opponents of the Qur’an were probably not pagans. Their objections, as reported in qur’anic counter-discourse, are mostly monotheistic in character. Statements that imply that they may have been pagan are very few (see my Chapter VII), and appear to be based on a discursive strategy of exaggeration that is typical of polemical language. Moreover, there are striking similarities of themes and formulations in present counter-discourses between the Qur’an and parabiblical texts. Especially in eschatological counter-discourses, one can easily perceive how the text of the Qur’an reflects a theological agenda that is distinct and yet nonetheless enrolled in a continuum with Talmudic literary forms, themes, arguments, and counter-arguments. On the whole, qur’anic counter-discourse seem more readily explainable in light of late antique Christian-Jewish polemics rather than solely through the lens of later Muslim exegesis.

*Mehdi Azaiez is Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies at KU Leuven (Belgium).

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

Qur’an Seminar Website Now Open to Members

The International Qur’anic Studies Association is excited to share with its members its new Qurʾan Seminar website! The Qurʾan Seminar is a research project of IQSA dedicated to collaborative study of selected Qurʾanic passages on themes of central importance to the text itself, which collectively represent a diversity of literary genres, and which are of interest to the academic field of Qurʾanic Studies.

The website includes a database of passages of the Qurʾan with commentaries from a range of scholars, and an active forum in which additional Qurʾanic passages are discussed. Scholars are encouraged to address the Qurʾan directly and to not rely on classical exegesis as a lens through which to view the text. Of particular interest to the discussion are the following questions:

  1. The structure of the Qurʾan (its logical, rhetorical, and literary qualities, or naẓm)
  2. The Qurʾan’s intertextual relationships (with both Biblical and other literary traditions)
  3. The Qurʾan’s historical context in Late Antiquity

Qur’an Seminar Access:

Access to Qur’an Seminar is open to IQSA members only. To become a member, click HERE. Once you are a member and have paid membership dues, follow the instructions for accessing Qur’an Seminar.

1. Go to http://www.iqsa-quranseminar.org

2. Click Log in/Sign up located on the top right hand corner.

3. Complete the required field under Have an account? Sign up. Click Login. The password you choose can be the same as your IQSA member login or a new one.

4. You will receive an email message which will confirm your registration.

NOTE: Your first access after registration will not be possible immediately. A delay between 6 to 24 hours will be necessary. For questions about Qur’an Seminar or issues with the registration process please contact mehdi.azaiez@theo.kuleuven.be

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

New Program Unit for the 2015 Annual Meeting: The Qur’an and Late Antiquity

by Greg Fisher and Michael Pregill

Over the past fifteen years, there has been a tremendous upsurge of interest in the historiography of late antique Arabia. This has happened as a result both of targeted studies as well as developments in late antique historiography more broadly. New studies authored or edited by Glen Bowersock, Averil Cameron, Greg Fisher (including work with Jitse Dijkstra), Robert Hoyland, and Christian Robin have contributed to a better understanding of a number of historical issues. These include the relationship of Arabia to its neighbors; the archaeology and history of different groups of people in the Arabian Peninsula; links between different communities, especially religious communities; alliances managed by Romans, Persians, and Himyarites with Arab clients; and the development of Arab “identity” prior to the seventh century.

 

Votive stele of alabaster with Sabaean inscription adressed to the moon-god Almaqah, ca. 700 BC, Yemen; held in the Department of Oriental Antiquities, Louvre Museum, Paris. Image accessed from Wikimedia Commons.

Votive stele of alabaster with Sabaean inscription adressed to the moon-god Almaqah, ca. 700 BC, Yemen; held in the Department of Oriental Antiquities, Louvre Museum, Paris. Image accessed from Wikimedia Commons.

Over the same period, Qur’anic studies has developed in significant ways as well, particularly regarding the investigation of the literary compositions and religious discourses that may have provided the horizons and context of the emergence of the Qur’anic revelation. The Qur’an and Late Antiquity program unit, the newest in IQSA’s Annual Meeting lineup, seeks to promote knowledge of developments in Late Antique studies among scholars of the Qur’an and developments in Qur’anic studies among scholars of Late Antiquity, particularly in order to encourage better integration of these fields in the future. Our remit includes not only pre-Islamic Arabia and its immediate environs, but also the larger frame of late antique history, culture, religion, society, and politics in the Near East and Mediterranean regions as it may illuminate the background to the rise of Islam and its broad, long-term consequences.

CALL FOR PAPERS:

Chairs:

Greg Fisher, Department of History, Carleton University

Michael Pregill, Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies and Civilizations, Boston University

The Qur’an and Late Antiquity program unit focuses on investigation of and critical reflection on the historical context in which the Qur’an was revealed. We seek papers that illustrate significant textual parallels between the Qur’an and other literatures of Late Antiquity, especially those that contribute to a better understanding of the Qur’an’s place in its cultural, political, social, and religious environment. We also seek papers that interpret the rise of the Qur’anic community in a broader phenomenological, sociological, or historiographic context, whether that of pre-Islamic Arabian society or the Roman and Sasanian Empires that dominated the eastern Mediterranean and Near East in this period. Particular attention will be paid to such questions as processes of political consolidation and legitimation, construction of communal boundaries, and relationships between communities and polities.

For the 2015 IQSA Annual Meeting in Atlanta (November 20-23), we will sponsor two panels. First, we invite paper proposals for a panel on recent developments in the historiography of Late Antiquity as it pertains to the Qur’anic milieu in pre-Islamic Arabia or the wider context of the Roman and Sasanian dominions. This panel will be co-sponsored by the AAR Traditions of Eastern Late Antiquity group. We especially encourage submissions that attempt to achieve a broader synthesis of cultural, political, and religious trends beyond the analysis and comparison of textual corpora.

We also invite paper proposals for a panel to be co-sponsored with the SBL Religious World of Late Antiquity program unit. This panel, the first of two to be presented in consecutive years, will feature papers on the intersection of religion and violence in Late Antiquity as it pertains specifically to the Qur’an and the Qur’anic milieu. The panel takes as its inspiration Thomas Sizgorich’s groundbreaking work Violence and Belief in Late Antiquity: Militant Devotion in Christianity and Islam. We especially encourage proposals that engage Sizgorich’s work directly and explicitly, whether on a historical, thematic, or methodological level.

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

Call for Papers: Journal of the International Qur’anic Studies Association

IQSA is pleased to announce the launch of the Journal of the International Qurʾanic Studies Association (JIQSA). In support of the Association’s mission of fostering scholarship on the Qurʾan, JIQSA will commence publication twice annually beginning in the first quarter of 2016.

(greenzblog.com)

(greenzblog.com)

The Journal is being launched at a time of particular vitality and growth in Qurʾanic Studies, and its primary goal is to encourage the further development of the discipline in innovative ways. Methodologies of particular interest to the Journal include historical-critical, contextual-comparative, and literary approaches to the Qurʾan. We especially welcome articles that explore the Qurʾan’s origins in the religious, cultural, social, and political contexts of Late Antiquity; its connections to various literary precursors, especially the scriptural and parascriptural traditions of older religious communities; the historical reception of the Qurʾan in the West; the hermeneutics and methodology of Qurʾanic exegesis and translation (both traditional and modern); the transmission and evolution of the textus receptus and the manuscript tradition; and the application of various literary and philological modes of investigation into Qurʾanic style and compositional structure.

We currently welcome submissions of articles for publication in the first volume. The complete Call for Papers is available here. Articles will be rigorously peer-reviewed through a double-blind review process, with reviewers appointed by the Head Editor and the Editorial Board. Interested parties are invited to email JIQSA@iqsaweb.org for more information about JIQSA and style and submission guidelines.

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