Sunni Tafsīr Commentaries on the Qurʾanic Term Khalīfah

by Han Hsien LIEW*

The Arabic term khalīfah, a noun in the singular, appears twice in the Qur’an, once in reference to the original man Adam:

And when your Lord said to the angels, ‘Verily I am making on earth a khalīfah

(Q 2:30)


Medieval Persian miniature depicting angels prostrating before Adam. (Image from Wikimedia Commons, cropped to illustration only.)

and once in reference to the prophet-king David:

O David, we have made you a khalīfah on earth

(Q 38:26)

Due to the richness of the root kh-l-f with its manifold meanings, the interpretation of khalīfah in the Qur’an has often eluded pre-modern and modern interpreters alike. To complicate things further, khalīfah also came to be used as a political title, “caliph,” for the ruler of the Muslim community following the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Hence the question, how much of a connection did Qurʾānic exegetes make between the Qur’anic khalīfah and the ruling caliph?

In answering this question for the Umayyad period, Wadād al-Qāḍī argues that early exegetes such as Mujāhid b. Jabr (d. 103/721), Muqātil b. Sulaymān (d. 150/767), and Sufyān al-Thawrī (d. 161/777) generally did not go to great lengths to legitimate Umayyad rule by associating the Qur’anic khalīfah with the reigning caliph, but rather identified the Qur’anic term with Adam and humankind in general, who are said to have succeeded or replaced the jinn or angels on earth.

However, the boundaries between scriptural hermeneutics and political discourse became increasingly blurred as later exegetes, beginning with al-Ṭabarī (d. 310/923), introduced new clusters of terminology associated with the historical Caliphate into their interpretations of the term khalīfah in the Qur’an. In defining khalīfah in his tafsīr, al-Ṭabarī claims that “the supreme ruler (al-sulṭān al-aʿẓam) is called khalīfah, because he replaces the one who was before him, and takes his place in the affair, and is his successor (khalaf).” Most commentators after al-Ṭabarī, such as al-Thaʿlabī (d. 427/1035), al-Māwardī (d. 450/1058), and al-Wāḥidī (d. 468/1076), built on and reworked his interpretation of the term. Alongside this development, exegetes from the sixth/twelfth century onwards, such as al-Baghawī (d. 516/1122), Ibn al-Jawzī (d. 597/1200), al-Rāzī (d. 606/1209), and al-Qurṭubī (d. 671/1272), emphasized Adam’s role as khalīfat Allāh (itself a caliphal title meaning “deputy of God,” which was hitherto not used as part of the exegetes’ terminological cluster for their interpretations of Q 2:30) in implementing God’s rulings (aḥkām), commands (awāmir), and punishments (ḥudūd). These duties are largely similar to the ones used to define an imam-caliph at the beginning of every chapter on the Caliphate/Imamate found in kalām writings and certain works of fiqh, most notably in al-Māwardī’s al-Aḥkām al-sulṭānīyah and al-Ghazālī’s (d. 505/1111) al-Iqtiṣād fī’l-iʿtiqād. However, the reading of khalīfat Allāh into the Qur’an did not go entirely unopposed by all exegetes, with the most explicit objection coming from the Andalusian exegete Ibn ʿAṭīyah (d. 541/1147).

Post-Ṭabarī exegetes also allude to the first four caliphs/imams (Abu Bakr, ʿUmar, ʿUthman, and ʿAli) in their commentaries on Q 24:55:

God has promised those among you who have believed and done righteous deeds that He will surely yastakhlifannahum on earth just as He istakhlafa those who were before them


Medieval Persian miniature depicting the accession of the Caliph Abu Bakr. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Al-Thaʿlabī states that “in [Q 24:55] is a clear indication of the righteousness of the caliphate of Abu Bakr and the imamate of the rāshidūn caliphs.” Over time, the verse became a polemical platform for later Sunni exegetes such as al-Rāzī and al-Qurṭubī to establish the legitimacy of the four rāshidūn caliphs against Shiʿi claims that the Prophet Muhammad had designated ʿAli as his successor.

After the sack of Baghdad and the fall of the ʿAbbasid caliphate in 656/1258, most exegeses of the term khalīfah relied on those of previous generations. But with al-Qurṭubī’s commentary on Q 2:30, we come across the most explicit connection made between the qur’anic khalīfah and the Caliphate in reality: “This verse is the basis for the appointment of an imam and a caliph who shall be heard and obeyed, so that opinions will be united through him and [his] rulings will be implemented.” At this point he incorporates a full juristic discourse on the Caliphate reminiscent of al-Māwardī and al-Ghazālī. The Sunni discourse on the Caliphate—detailing arguments for the necessity of the Caliphate, the duties and requirements for the caliphal candidate, arguments against the Shiʿi conception of the Imamate, and other juridical issues surrounding the Caliphate—is thereby used as a hermeneutical device to explain Q 2:30. Writing about a century later, Ibn Kathīr (d. 774/1373) quotes al-Qurṭubī’s juristic discourse on the Caliphate (in an abridged form) despite inclining more towards the view that the qurʾanic term khalīfah refers to humankind in general.

In sum, to fully understand how exegetes understood the qurʾanic term khalīfah over time, one has to take into account the shared language between tafsīr and political discourse during the medieval Islamic period. The title khalīfat Allāh used in caliphal rhetoric, Sunni historical narratives of the four rāshidūn caliphs, and juristic discourses on the Caliphate left an imprint on the many interpretations of qurʾanic verses containing the Arabic root kh-l-f. This does not imply that exegetes were using such verses to legitimate the Caliphate, the consequences of which would be unthinkable for an exegete’s scholarly reputation. Rather, the exegetical commentaries on the qurʾānic khalīfah speak to the porous boundaries of tafsīr and the need to be sensitive towards not only the socio-political but also the intellectual and discursive contexts in which exegetes operate.

* Han Hsien Liew is a Ph.D. candidate in history and Middle Eastern studies at Harvard University, currently writing a dissertation on Sunni discourses on the Caliphate/Imamate between the 5th/11th and 7th/13th centuries. This blog post is based on his article newly published in Arabica 63, no. 1 (2016): 1-29.

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.