Mizan Special Issue: “The Evolution and Uses of the Stories of the Prophets”

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


The new issue of Mizan: Journal for the Study of Muslim Societies and Civilizations has just been published and is now online at http://www.mizanproject.org/journal/. The thematic issue, “The Evolution and Uses of the Stories of the Prophets,” coincides with the fiftieth anniversary of Tilman Nagel’s 1967 thesis “Die Qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ: ein Beitrag zur arabischen Literaturgeschichte,” a groundbreaking contribution that has played a seminal role in the modern study of the subject. The papers we present here in the journal issue were originally delivered at a conference convened in Naples in fall 2015 by Marianna Klar, Roberto Tottoli, and myself in anticipation of this important occasion: “Islamic Stories of the Prophets: Semantics, Discourse, and Genre” (October 14–15, 2015).

Mizan Cover

The study of qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ, the Islamic tales of the prophets, has a well-established pedigree in the Western academy. Nagel’s work in the 1960s provided a solid foundation for future research, but it is one that subsequent scholars have built upon somewhat irregularly, and much work remains to be done. Unfortunately, the study of qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ per se has not flourished in the last couple of decades with quite the same vigor as the study of Qurʾān and tafsīr, though the study of qiṣaṣ has surely benefitted, at least indirectly, from the extremely energetic expansion of both of those fields in recent years.

Nagel’s thesis discusses the ancient roots of qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ among early traditionists, as well as highlighting important literary works in which this early (or allegedly early) material is gathered. He goes on to delineate the literary genre of qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ proper, discussing major works carrying this title or something similar such as mubtadaʾ, badʾ al-khalq, and so forth. Nagel’s thesis represents the first attempt to delineate the contours of qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ both as a genre and a broader tradition in a serious and methodical way.


Pursuers sawing the tree in which Zechariah is hiding (detail) (p.75, Isl. Ms. 386, University of Michigan Library, Special Collections Library, Ann Arbor).

Perhaps the most obvious and explicit contribution Nagel’s work made was to draw greater attention to critical works of the qiṣaṣ genre such as those of al-Kisāʾī, al-Thaʿlabī, and Ibn Muṭarrif al-Ṭarafī (d. 454/1062). It is important to note, however, that this focus on classic specimens of the genre was balanced by Nagel’s keen appreciation of the larger tradition that crystallized in the specific works that constituted that genre, evident in the significant amounts of qiṣaṣ material found in works of historiography, tafsīr, adab, and the like. Understandably given the prominence of qur’anic material in establishing views of prophetic figures among Muslims, tafsīr has held a certain pride of place in scholarly treatments of the Islamic versions of Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and so forth. Thus, one clear desideratum in the field of qiṣaṣ studies, (such as it is) would be the exploration of representations of prophetic figures in other genres, as well as careful study of the genre of qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ itself as a whole and the major works that it comprises.

This journal issue aims to make a small contribution to advancing the field by showcasing new research in qiṣaṣ studies. The articles featured here demonstrate that current scholarship on qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ adopts a variety of disciplinary perspectives, reflects diverse concerns, and approaches the broader qiṣaṣ tradition in all its breadth and nuance, particularly focusing on the overlooked aspects of that tradition. Many of these articles discuss material from the post-classical period, especially historically neglected material from Shi’i literature, popular epic, and modern literary settings.

The future growth of the field may lead to such a degree of diffusion of approach and subject matter as to challenge the whole presupposition that there even is or could be a field of qiṣaṣ studies, although it is clear what all the articles in this issue at least have in common. All prioritize the question of what is distinctively Islamic in various Muslim reinterpretations of qiṣaṣ narratives over that of sources or influences; in fact, most of the articles here do not address the question of origins or precursors at all, or at least downplay this question. Thus, our contributors collectively emphasize that qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ is not really about ‘biblical prophets in Islam’ or even ‘biblical-qurʾānic prophets’ but rather simply Islamic prophets—with the meaning of “Islamic” varying enormously from author to author and context to context.


Joseph’s brothers and the wolf before Jacob (detail) (p.48, Isl. Ms. 386, University of Michigan Library, Special Collections Library, Ann Arbor).

This brings us back full circle to the work of Nagel we commemorate and celebrate here, in that his pioneering work on qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ as a genre originally aimed at discerning what was or has been distinctively Islamic about the Islamic stories of the prophets. This journal issue hopefully makes clear that the question of how Muslims have articulated specifically Islamic expressions and forms of meaning through the stories of the prophets is of perennial relevance, from the Qurʾān down to the modern era, and that qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ, as genre and discourse, is of significant value for examining conceptions of Islam itself in a range of Muslim communities and traditions.


Mizan is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal published under a Creative Commons license and supported by the generosity of ILEX Foundation. The journal features an integrated annotation functionality and we encourage readers to engage our authors through this medium (using this functionality requires a quick registration process in order to prevent spamming of the site and maintain a civil and professional environment).

We are currently accepting proposals for short features to be published on the Mizan Project and Mizan Pop sites, as well as proposals for future thematic issues of the journal. Interested parties are encouraged to contact me directly at mpregill@bu.edu.



© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2017. All rights reserved.

The Jews of Medina and the Challenge of Early Islamic Historiography

Mazuz book cover

Cover of Mazuz, Religious and Spiritual Lives of the Jews of Medina (Brill, 2014). Image from brill.com.

In the latest installment of the Review of Qur’anic Research 2, no. 2, Michael Pregill reviews Haggai Mazuz’s The Religious and Spiritual Lives of the Jews of Medina (Leiden: Brill, 2014). This work not only seeks to establish the historicity of much of the data the traditional sources offer us on the culture, customs, and traditions of the Jewish communities of the Ḥijāz in Muhammad’s time, but proposes to offer a conclusive demonstration of the squarely halakhic nature of these Jews. According to Mazuz, much of what the classical Islamic sources relate about Muhammad’s Jewish contemporaries can be correlated with data about Jewish ideas and practices found in the Babylonian Talmud and other mainstream rabbinic sources, which he interprets as proof that these Arabian communities were essentially rabbinic in orientation.

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, 2016. All rights reserved.

New Forum: Conflict and Convergence in Late Antiquity

Detail from Athār al-Muẓaffar (The Exploits of the Victorious), Iran, 16th c. (Chester Beatty Library Per 235, f. 132a; from Persian Miniatures, V. Loukonin and A. Ivanov (Parkstone International, 2014), 145).

Detail from Athār al-Muẓaffar (The Exploits of the Victorious), Iran, 16th c. (Chester Beatty Library Per 235, f. 132a; from Persian Miniatures, V. Loukonin and A. Ivanov (Parkstone International, 2014), 145).

Scholars now widely recognize the numerous continuities between the religion, culture, politics, and society of Late Antiquity and that of early Islam, and are devising fresh ways to better understand the Qur’an through interdisciplinary studies of the late antique cultural context in which the Qur’an was revealed and the Muslim umma emerged. Now Mizan, a digital initiative dedicated to encouraging informed public discourse and scholarship on the culture and history of Muslim societies, has launched a new collaborative online forum for study of the Qur’an and Late Antiquity:


The short essays in this forum are dedicated to reflection upon the contemporary challenges and prospects for discovery and innovation in the study of the Qur’an and early Islam, particularly as they stand at a nexus of convergence with Judaism, Christianity, and other traditions. Visitors to the forum can learn more about some of the most significant aspects of current research into the continuities between Late Antiquity and formative Islam from a variety of theoretical and practical perspectives.

The leader of MizanMichael Pregill, is Interlocutor in the Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies and Civilizations at Boston University. He is Chair of IQSA’s Publications and Research Committee, Co-Chair of IQSA’s Qur’an and Late Antiquity Program Unit, and Head Editor of the Journal of the International Qur’anic Studies Association. He will be presenting his paper, “Scriptural Virtuosity and the Qur’an’s Imperial Context,” at next week’s 2015 IQSA Annual Meeting in Atlanta.

© 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.



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.

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.

Rethinking Late Antiquity—A Review of Garth Fowden, Before and After Muḥammad: The First Millennium Refocused

By Michael Pregill

Beginning in the 1970s, the work of Peter Brown revolutionized the way scholars approach the “fall of Rome,” the decline of Roman and Sasanian power in the Middle East, and the rise of Islam in Late Antiquity. In his classic The World of Late Antiquity, AD 150-750 and other works, Brown argued that the emergence of Islam and the establishment of the caliphal empire was not a radical disruption of the course of history, but rather represented the continuity of older cultural, political, social, and religious patterns. Despite the wide influence of Brown’s work and the general recognition of Islam’s importance in the overall trajectory of Mediterranean and even European history, substantial obstacles to a full integration of ancient, early Christian, Jewish, and Islamic phenomena into a general history of the civilization of Western Asia remain.

Although an outdated, isolationist approach to Late Antiquity primarily focusing on late Roman culture and society still dominates some quarters of the academy, many scholars have worked towards a more integrated and comparative approach to the period. The shifts have been gradual and partial. Today there are numerous scholars of rabbinics who explore the wider context of the Babylonian Talmud in Sasanian society; there has lately been a resurgence of interest in the history of the Red Sea region, including Ethiopia and the Yemen, in the centuries leading up to the rise of Islam; and over the last ten years or so, we have seen significant interest in the literary and religious parallels to the Qur’an found in Syriac Christian literature in particular. (Many of the scholars who have been responsible for the last development have generously assisted in the foundation and growth of IQSA, so this is really nothing new to readers of this blog, though developments in late ancient or Jewish historiography may be less familiar.)

Before and After Muhammad: The First Millennium Refocused

Before and After Muhammad: The First Millennium Refocused

All of these developments point to a recognition that the various cultures and literatures of Late Antiquity cannot be viewed in isolation, but rather must be approached in the wider context of the dynamic exchanges between various communities in the period, the imperial competition between the Romans and the Sasanians, and the spread and consolidation of the monotheistic or “Abrahamic” traditions.

Among the scholars who sought to adopt, refine, and develop Brown’s approach to the period, it was Garth Fowden—currently Sultan Qaboos Professor of Abrahamic Faiths at Cambridge—who produced what was perhaps the most important work in this area in the 1990s: From Empire to Commonwealth: Consequences of Monotheism in Late Antiquity. When I was a graduate student, Fowden’s work impacted me profoundly. The book is ambitious in scope, wildly imaginative, willing to explore the period in terrifyingly broad terms, but in pursuit of a single cogent thesis: that the entire history of the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean from the second through the ninth century CE can be understood in terms of a sequence of imperial projects aiming to establish God’s rule on earth. That is, the unifying theme of the era, one that distinguishes it from the civilization of the ancient world and sets the stage for the medieval cultures of Byzantium, Western Christendom, and the Dār al-Islām, is the use of monotheism as the primary justification for statebuilding, for literally global dominion (as far as that was possible in the pre-modern world). In Fowden’s work, the use of religion to justify imperial authority becomes the thread that links Christian Rome, Sasanian Iran, and the caliphates and that allows us to see the significant continuities between them with clarity.

(Perhaps not coincidentally, the only other books I read during my Ph.D. training that exerted a similarly enduring influence on my imagination were Wansbrough’s The Sectarian Milieu (1978)—no doubt familiar to every reader of this blog—and Bulliet’s The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization (2004), which, like Fowden’s Empire to Commonwealth, is another eloquent call for historical thinking on the global scale, for transcending the narrow and artificial boundaries between the culture of “the West” and Islam.)

After a number of years dedicated to other projects, including a fascinating study on the iconography of the late Umayyad palace of Quṣayr ʿAmra, Fowden has now returned to history on the grand scale with Before and After Muḥammad: The First Millennium Refocused. Stunningly, this work is even more ambitious in scope than Empire to Commonwealth. Here Fowden once again seeks to explore the overarching continuities between Christian Rome, Sasanian Iran, and Islam but with even more attention paid to the intertwining discourses that link Greco-Roman, Syrian Christian, Jewish, Arab, Iranian, and European cultures over the course of a thousand years, centering on what he now calls the “Eurasian hinge” of southwest Asia linking the civilizations of the region. Fowden anchors his work in a rigorous interrogation of older conceptions of Late Antiquity, criticizing older scholars’ poor integration of Islam into the period, as well as the common approach of only including the Umayyad caliphate as a late antique empire. This serves to truncate the early medieval period from older trajectories of development that arguably only reached their full fruition around the year 1000. It also artificially severs the Abbasids and Iranian Islam from the prevailing cultural patterns of the Arab-Islamic world, though they are equally rooted in the legacies of biblical monotheism and Hellenism.



Fowden also locates his work in the context of contemporary debates over the relationship between Islam and the West, stating quite bluntly that “My purpose here is not to join this debate directly, but to overhaul its foundations” (2). His approach in Before and After Muḥammad builds on his earlier work, in that the cultures of the Islamic Middle East and Christian Europe are seen as halves of a larger whole. (Here I was a bit disappointed that Fowden does not engage with Bulliet’s aforementioned work The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization, which eloquently argues for an approach to Islam and the West as two halves or wings of a unified civilizational complex that only decisively split in the later medieval period. This is a perspective that is obviously quite compatible with and complementary to Fowden’s.)

Periodization, methods, and labels occupy much of Fowden’s attention here, and he spends significant time critiquing other contemporary attempts to advance beyond traditional frameworks and paradigms (82-91), adopting the new periodization of a unified “First Millennium” as his preferred heuristic lens on the period. This approach has the distinct benefit of locating Augustus at one end of the period and the emergence of the mature scriptural communities of Europe and Western Asia at the other, without privileging Europe over the Islamic world as the “true” heir to Greco-Roman antiquity or reifying anachronistic communalist boundaries between “pagans,” Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

Several aspects of Fowden’s approach here depart from that of From Empire to Commonwealth. There is a particular emphasis here on various textual lineages as the foundation of cross-cultural continuity. Thus, he sees the transmission of specific canons of material as one of the primary drivers of cultural development, each moving through an initial phase of revelation to subsequent phases marked by canonization and then interpretation, with the resultant exegetical cultures dominating the cultural landscape from western Europe to eastern Iran by the year 1000. As a student of comparative exegesis (in my case, midrash and tafsir) I found the emphasis on the exegetical here particularly fascinating, though notably, Fowden is not concerned solely with scriptural canons (Tanakh, Bible, and Qur’an) but also philosophical and legal canons, placing particular emphasis on Aristotelianism as a major current of cultural continuity in the First Millennium.

Fowden’s two chapters on “Exegetical Cultures” are thus exhilarating and dizzying—charting Aristotelianism’s movement from Greek to Syriac to Arabic educational institutions, the evolution of law from the Justinianic Code to the Babylonian Talmud to the emergence of Islamic fiqh, and touching on patristic, Karaite, and Muʿtazilite scriptural exegesis for good measure. The final chapter is likewise a tour de force, surveying the culmination of the First Millennium by showing us “Viewpoints Around 1000: Ṭūs, Baṣra, Baghdād, Pisa.” The cities visited in this grand perspective symbolize, respectively, the resurgence of Iranian national consciousness with the Shāh-Nāmeh of Firdowsī; the maturation of gnostic-philosophical-spiritual currents in early medieval Islam with the Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ; the emergence not just of the mature Sunni and Shii traditions but of sophisticated and distinctively Islamic modes of apprehending and engaging different faiths; and the reemergence of Europe as a meaningful center of cultural production.

Astonishingly, this work is not the culmination of Fowden’s work in rethinking Late Antiquity. Rather, he advertises this book as a prolegomenon to a new, more comprehensive project on the First Millennium. It is also the companion piece to a forthcoming work charting the evolution of philosophy from Aristotle to Avicenna. Specialists will inevitably find much to quibble with here, especially given Fowden’s propensity to working in broad swathes rather than drilling down to wrestle with thorny details. Moreover, one can imagine assigning this only to the most intrepid undergraduates, despite the major pedagogical implications of Fowden’s reflections on periodization in particular. But overall, this is synthetic historiographic work of great sophistication and lasting value, and Before and After Muḥammad deserves to provoke discussion throughout many scholarly quarters.

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

Book review: Aims, Methods and Contexts of Qurʾanic Exegesis

By Gabriel Said Reynolds

Aims, Methods and Contexts of Qurʾanic Exegesis (2nd/8th-9th/15th C.), ed. Karen Bauer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

A principal goal of the International Qurʾanic Studies Association (IQSA) is to encourage scholarship on the Qurʾanic text and its relationship to the historical, religious, and literary context of Late Antiquity.  The interest of IQSA in fostering such scholarship is in part a response to the manner in which the academic study of the Qurʾan is often approached through the lens of tafsir.  This approach has not done justice to the text of the Qurʾan.  It also does not do justice to tafsir, a science that deserves to be studied for its own sake and not only as an accessory to the study of the Qurʾan.  In this light the publication of a major volume dedicated to the study of tafsīr, entitled Aims, Methods and Contexts of Qurʾanic Exegesis (2nd/8th-9th/15th C.) and edited by Karen Bauer, is an auspicious development (as will be the forthcoming publication of Tafsir and Intellectual History, edited by Andreas Görke and Johanna Pink).

Aims, Methods and Contexts of Qurʾanic Exegesis, a work based on papers delivered at a 2009 conference at the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London, opens with a clear and compelling introduction by Bauer and is followed by thirteen chapters of almost universally high quality.  Bauer divides the articles not by chronology but by theme, into three principal sections: “The Aims of Tafsir,” “Methods and Sources of Tafsir,” and “Contextualising Tafsir.”  The work—which includes new editions of Arabic texts in the articles of Walid Saleh and Suleiman Mourad—concludes with a detailed index of Qurʾanic verses, a general index, and a global bibliography.

Here, instead of a comprehensive book review, I would like to draw attention to some highlights in Bauer’s volume. (I’ve also included a complete table of contents below).  Among the most interesting contributions in Aims, Methods and Contexts of Qurʾanic Exegesis are those by Bauer herself, both the Introduction and the second chapter: “Justifying the Genre: A Study of Introductions to Classical Works of Tafsir.”  In the Introduction Bauer convincingly argues that the science of tafsir is as much about the world of the mufassir as it is about the text of the Qurʾan:

At its essence, tafsir is each scholar’s attempt to relate his world to the world of the Qurʾan; it is his attempt to relate his intellectual, political and social contexts to the Qurʾan’s text.  It is a process of meaning-creation, because what the scholars read into the text is not always explicitly there. (p. 8)

In some ways this argument sets the tone for the entire volume, as different scholars show how different mufassirun create meaning, and how their attempts to do so reflect their particular contexts and personalities.  Following Walid Saleh’s detailed study and edition of the introduction to al-Wahidi’s Qurʾan commentary al-Basit, Suleiman Mourad presents an examination of the introduction to the Muʿtazili tafsir of al-Hakim al-Jishumi (“Towards a Reconstruction of the Muʿtazili Tradition of Qurʾanic Exegesis,” ch. 4).  Mourad stresses the way in which al-Jishumi uses his tafsir as an arena (or, to use Mourad’s terminology, a “battlefield”) in which to refute the doctrines of the Muʿtazila’s opponents.

In his article (“Early Shiʿi Hermeneutics: Some Exegetical Techniques Attributed to the Shiʿi Imams”), Robert Gleave explores the way in which certain Shiʿite mufassirun attribute interpretations to the imams.  Gleave categorizes these interpretations according to certain exegetical techniques in order to identify what is distinctive in this particular exegetical genre.  Andrew Rippin (“The Construction of the Arabian Historical Context”) asks how much of what is generally assumed to be the Arabian historical background of the Qurʾan—even its Arabic language—is a construction of the mufassirun.  To this end Rippin comments: “What we have is an interpretational context conveyed in a linguistic, social convention known as ‘Arabic,’ tied to a specifically imagined time and place that ends up being subject to generalisation across the text” (pp. 183-84)

The focus of Martin Nguyen (“Letter by Letter: Tracing the Textual Genealogy of a Sufi Tafsir”) is instead on one particular tafsir, the Laṭaʾif al-isharat of Abu l-Qasim al-Qushayri (d. 465/1072).  Whereas Qushayri’s work is often labelled as a “mystical” tafsir, Nguyen shows that this label is simplistic, as the Laṭaʾif al-isharat also reflects the particular trends of Qurʾanic interpretation that were present in Qushayri’s context in Nishapur.  While Nguyen’s article presents tafsir as a coherent science with distinct boundaries, Tariq Jaffer’s article (“Fakhr al-Din al-Razi’s System of Inquiry”) highlights the influence of philosophy and theology in Fakhr al-Din al-Razi’s monumental commentary.  He thereby shows that in certain cases the boundaries of tafsir are fluid, and indeed that particular tafsirs can be something like compendia of different sciences.

Perhaps the most impressive contributions to Aims, Methods and Contexts of Qurʾanic Exegesis are the two which make up its final section.  Claude Gilliot (“A Schoolmaster, Storyteller, Exegete and Warrior at Work in Khurasan: al-Dahhak b. Muzahim al-Hilali (d. 106/724)”) provides a detailed and meticulously documented examination of the exegetical material attributed to al-Dahhak, and the varied (and at times ambiguous or conflicting) traditions on his biography.  Michael Pregill (“Methodologies for the Dating of Exegetical Works and Traditions”) examines a text often known (and indeed published) under the title of Tafsir Ibn ʿAbbas.  Pregill shows, with reference to the scholarship of Andrew Rippin and others, that the attribution to Ibn ʿAbbas is without basis, as is Wansbrough’s attribution of this text to al-Kalbi.  Instead, Pregill contends, this work should be identified with a tafsir entitled al-Wadih, compiled by ʿAbdallah b. al-Mubarak al-Dinawari (d. 308/920).  In addition, Pregill convincingly argues through a series of case studies that this text has a distinctive relationship with early works such as Tafsir Muqatil, even if it shares the formal traits of later madrasa style tafsirs.  Thus it is a text that “defies easy categorization” (p. 432).

The same might be said for the work in which Pregill’s article is found.  The articles in Aims, Methods and Contexts of Qurʾanic Exegesis cover a diverse range of subjects, and are of various sorts, from textual editions, to theoretical reflections, to focused studies on particular works.  Together, however, they form an impressive body of scholarship on tafsir.  Indeed this volume might serve as a foundation for the development of a distinctive academic field of tafsir studies.

 Aims, Methods and contexts of Qur’anic exegesis (2nd/8th-9th/15th C)

Table of Contents

Notes on contributors, XI-XIV.

Bauer (Karen), Introduction, 1-16.

Section I; The aims of tafsir
1. Hamza (Feras), Tafsir and unlocking the historical Qur’an: Back to basics?

2. Bauer (Karen), Justifying the genre: A study of introductions to Classical works of tafsir, 39-65

3. Saleh (Walid A.),The introduction of Wahidi’s al-Basit: An edition, translation and commentary, 67-100

4. Mourad (Suleiman), Towards a reconstruction of the Mu’tazili tradition of Qur’anic exegesis: Reading the introduction of the Tahdhib of al-Hakim al-Jishumi (d. 494/1101)and its application, 101-137.

Section II.Methods and sources of tafsir.
5. Gleave (Robert), Early Shi’i hermeneutics:Some exegetical techniques attributed to the Shi’i Imams, 141-172.

6. Rippin (Andrew), The construction of the Arabian historical context in Muslim interpretation of the Qur’an 173-198

7. Tottoli (Roberto), Methods and contexts in the use of hadiths and traditions in classical tafsir literature: The exegesis of Q. 21:85and Q. 17:1, 199-215

8. Ngyuen (Martin), Letter by letter: Tracing the textual genealogy of a sufi tafsir, 217-240

9. Jaffer (Tariq), Fakhr al-Din al-Razi’s system of inquiry: Doubt and the transmission of knowledge, 241-261

10. Zamah (Ludmila), Master of the obvious: understanding zahir interpretations in Qur’anic exegesis, 263-276.

11. Burge (Stephen), Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti, the Mu’awwidhatan and the Modes of Exegesis, 277-310.

Section III. Contextualising tafsir

12. Gilliot (Claude), A schoolmaster, storyteller, exegete and warrior at work in Khurasan: al-Dahhak b. Muzahim al-Hilali (d. 106/724), 311-392.

13. Pregill (Michael E.), Methodologies for the dating of exegetical works and traditions: Can the lost tafsir of al-Kalbi be recovered from Tafsir Ibn Abbas (also known as al-Wadih)?, 393-453

Bibliography, 455-490.

Index of Qur’anic citations, 491-494.

General index, 498-802

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