Podcast Series: Introducing the Qur’ān

Professor Nicolai Sinai, of the University of Oxford, has recorded four short talks funded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council which aim to introduce the general public to aspects of current research on the Qur’ān’s historical context and literary character. These are now available as podcasts online here:


Link: https://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/series/introducing-quran

Although most IQSA members will be familiar with more specialised scholarship on many of the issues covered in these talks, they may be useful for teaching purposes.

The four 10 – 20 minute talks are entitled:

  1. Hovering about the Qur’an without entering into it? On the academic study of the Qur’an, asks what it means to study the Qur’ān historically and considers how historically orientated research on the Qur’ān relates to religious belief and traditional Islamic scriptural interpretation.
  2. Rekindling Prophecy: The Qur’an in its historical milieu, examines the historical context in which the material now collected in the Qur’ān was first promulgated with special attention being paid to the various groups addressed by the Qur’ān.
  3. Confirming and Clarifying: The Qur’an in conversation with earlier Judaeo-Christian traditions, discusses the fact that the Qur’an’s original audience must have been familiar with earlier Jewish and Christian traditions, which the Qur’an claims both to “confirm” and “clarify”. Narratives about Abraham and the death of Pharaoh serve to exemplify what this means.
  4. The Qur’an as literature, takes as its starting point that the Qur’ān’s compelling literary aspect was the main reason it was able to establish itself as a text believed to constitute divine revelation. It further asks how Islamic and modern Western scholars approach the Qur’ān’s literary dimension.


Many thanks to Professor Sinai for sharing this free resource.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2018. All rights reserved.

New Publication “The Qur’an: A Historical-Critical Introduction”

(Content courtesy of Edinburgh University Press)

The International Qur’anic Studies Association is pleased to announce the publication of The Qur’an: A Historical-Critical Introduction by member Nicolai Sinai (Chair of Programming Committee). Nicolai Sinai is Professor of Islamic Studies at the Oriental Institute, Oxford University, and a Fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford. He has published on the Qur’an, on pre-modern and modern Islamic scriptural exegesis, and on the history of philosophy in the Islamic world.

“The Qur’an represents both Islam’s historical point of origin and its scriptural foundation, inaugurating a new religion and, ultimately, a new civilisation. Yet the text itself can be difficult to understand, and the scholarship devoted to it is often highly technical. This comprehensive introduction to the basic methods and current state of historical-critical Qur’anic scholarship covers all of the field’s major questions, such as: Where and when did the Qur’an emerge? How do Qur’anic surahs function as literary compositions? How do the Qur’an’s main themes and ideas relate to and transform earlier Jewish and Christian traditions?” –Edinburgh University Press


Table of Contents


Part One: Background
1 Some basic features of the Qur’an
2 Muhammad and the Qur’an
3 The Qur’anic milieu

Part Two: Method
4 Literary coherence and secondary revision
5 Inner-Qur’anic chronology
6 Intertextuality

Part Three: A diachronic survey of the Qur’anic proclamations
7 The Meccan surahs
8 The Medinan surahs

ISBN Hardback: 9780748695768
Paperback: 9780748695775
eBook (PDF): 9780748695782
eBook (ePub): 9780748695799

Find this publication at your local library or for purchase online at Edinburgh University Press!

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

From Medina to Oxford, from Codex to the Cloud: Scenes from the Life of the Qur’an

Venue:            Lecture Theatre, Weston Library, Oxford 
Speaker(s):    Nicolai Sinai, University of Oxford; Alasdair Watson & Keith Small, Bodleian Libraries
Date/Time:     30 May 2017, 4:00- 6:00 PM
In a collaborative presentation, three Oxford scholars will present crucial waystations in the life of the Qur’an. Nicolai Sinai will guide the audience through current research seeking to reconstruct the literary genesis of the Qur’anic texts in late antique Arabia; Alasdair Watson will examine how early modern collectors and adventurers first introduced Qur’anic manuscripts to European libraries, including the Bodleian; and Keith Small will show how Qur’anic codices that have been dispersed by the vagaries of early modern manuscript hunting can now be virtually reunited by cutting-edge digital technology.
All are welcome but tickets must be reserved in advance.
For more details, see:


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

Unlocking the Medinan Qur’an

Conference Report: International Workshop held at Pembroke College, Oxford   (19–21 March 2017)

The surahs and passages that are commonly associated with the Medinan period of Muhammad’s life occupy a key position in the formative history of Islam. They fundamentally shaped later convictions about the paradigmatic authority of Muhammad and thereby fueled the post-Qur’anic emergence of the hadith canon; they constitute an important basis for Islam’s development into a religion with a strong focus on law; and it is by and large only in Medinan texts that we find injunctions to militancy and an explicit demarcation of Islam from Judaism and Christianity. A proper comprehension of the Medinan Qur’an is thus crucially important to our understanding of Islamic religious history in general. At the same time, the Medinan surahs have proven much more recalcitrant to scholarly analysis than the texts that are customarily assigned to the Qur’an’s Meccan period. The workshop Unlocking the Medinan Qur’an, funded by the British Arts and Humanities Research Council (grant reference AH/M011305/1), assembled an international group of scholarly experts, from doctoral students to senior professors, to grapple with the Qur’an’s Medinan layer from a variety of methodological vantage points and historical premises. A generous donation by Brian Wilson, a long-standing benefactor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Pembroke College, made it possible to open up the proceedings to a much more extensive audience than had originally been anticipated.

Perhaps the most fundamental question to be posed during the workshop was whether and to what extent the subdivision of the Qur’anic corpus into an earlier Meccan and a later Medinan layer, a division inherited from medieval Islamic scholarship, remains a valid assumption for contemporary literary and historical research. Most speakers seemed comfortable continuing to employ the distinction, if only to designate the fact that the material that medieval Muslim and/or modern scholars have allocated to the Qur’an’s Medinan period is united by a certain number of salient stylistic, terminological, and doctrinal features that set it apart from the remaining portions of the Islamic scripture. Many of the papers accordingly explored specific themes and preoccupations that are prima facie characteristic of the Medinan Qur’an. Andrew O’Connor (University of Notre Dame) investigated the significantly increased status and authority that Medinan surahs ascribe to the Qur’anic Messenger, memorably characterised by David Marshall as Muhammad’s “godward movement”, and examined cases in which the Medinan surahs’ signature demand of obedience to “God and His Messenger” seems to be present in, or foreshadowed by, Meccan surahs. A flip side of the Medinan surahs’ demand for obedience to the Messenger is constituted by their denigration of some of their recipients as “hypocrites” lacking in obedience and commitment, a term whose etymology and meaning was analysed by Devin Stewart (Emory University). Legal and ritual commandments in the Medinan surahs were addressed by Angelika Neuwirth (Free University Berlin) and Holger Zellentin (University of Nottingham). Neuwirth reconstructed the likely pre-history of the change of the direction of prayer (qiblah) mandated in Q 2:142–150, maintaining that it most likely supplanted a qiblah towards Jerusalem that had already been introduced prior to the hijrah, while Zellentin examined the late antique context of a number of legal and law-related passages such as Q 4:15–18, which Zellentin argued contains a prohibition of sex between men and of sex between women.

Perhaps the central problem in the study of the Medinan surahs is the question of their literary organisation as well as their compositional history. The topic was first broached by Marianna Klar (SOAS), who presented an analysis of the opening section of Q 2 (vv. 1–39) in the light of a multitude of lexical and structural parallels from other surahs, both Meccan and Medinan. Klar argued that the introduction of Q 2, which is strikingly reminiscent of two Meccan surah openings, was crafted in order to serve as the prelude to an already extant Medinan sermon beginning at v. 40. Adam Flowers (University of Chicago) proposed that Medinan surahs should generally be seen as secondary compilations of genetically independent prophetic utterances and outlined an analysis of Q 49 into its component pronouncements. Nora K. Schmid (Free University Berlin) contrasted the different ways in which both Meccan and Medinan surahs employ questions and then went on to embed the Qur’anic use of questions in late antique literary culture. Nicolai Sinai (University of Oxford) examined the phenomenon of serially iterated paragraph openers, especially vocatives, showing that these are frequently employed to engender compositionally meaningful patterns of clustering and alternation that serve as the structural backbones of many Medinan texts.

The workshop’s remaining presentations engaged in a study of specific surahs or passages. Walid Saleh (University of Toronto) undertook a detailed analysis of Q 16, which Saleh proposed to read, not as a Meccan surah that was subsequently updated by a number of Medinan insertions, but rather as a “transitional text” documenting the incipient emergence of some key themes and concepts of the Medinan Qur’an. Gabriel Reynolds (University of Notre Dame) analysed Q 61 and 66, two comparatively short surahs that are conventionally classed as Medinan. Responding to Andrew Bannister’s recent contention that the Qur’an’s heavy reliance on formulaic language points to oral composition, Reynolds reminded the audience of Gregor Schoeler’s finding that Abbasid-era poetry that was certainly composed in writing can nonetheless be highly formulaic. An opposing position – namely, that the employment of formulaic systems does indicate oral composition – was espoused by Cecilia Palombo (Princeton University), whose paper focussed on the use of formulaic language in different Qur’anic accounts of the Israelites’ worship of the Golden Calf. Joseph Witztum (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem) examined the passages in which the Israelites (Q 2:55–56 and 4:153) and Moses (Q 7:143) demanded or requested to see God. Witztum presented a comprehensive study of the Biblical and Rabbinic antecedents to these passages and analysed the Qur’anic adaptation of pre-existing exegetical and narrative motifs. Karen Bauer (Institute of Ismaili Studies) emphasised the importance of studying Qur’anic constructions of and appeals to emotions, putting forward a detailed case study of what Bauer termed the “emotional plot” of Q 8. The workshop’s concluding presentation by Neal Robinson was dedicated to Q 5. After a critical review of Michel Cuypers’ recent monograph on the text, Robinson proceeded to explore the surah’s complex intertextual resonances, with a particular focus on the concluding section about Jesus (vv. 109–120), and put forward a novel argument in favour of dating the text to the year 631 CE.

-Nicolai Sinai, University of Oxford

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

Claiming Tradition Colloquium at Pembroke College, Oxford

By Nicolai Sinai

OXFORD—In doing modern Islamic intellectual history, it is easy to succumb to the temptation to concentrate one’s analytic efforts mainly on the specifically “modern” aspects of the thinkers and texts in question. In part, this may simply result from identifying one’s subject as “modern Islamic and/or Arabic thought,” extending, as it does, an implicit invitation to think primarily about the novel themes, ideas, and modes of communication that distinguish the intellectual production of the 19th and 20th centuries from earlier ages. In addition, apologetic presentations of modern values and ideas as already enshrined in the canonical sources of Islam often trigger predictable interventions by Western scholars—insisting, for example, that the Qur’anic reference to shūrā cannot really be equated with a call for democracy. However, to primarily position writers of the colonial and post-colonial periods against the background of contemporary events and modern Western thought entails the risk of viewing their moorings in the pre-modern tradition as superficial and rhetorical, or as precluding the exercise of any agency over it. Thus modern writers emerge either as strategically employing traditional concepts and ideas in order to serve as transparent guises for what are “really” imported Western notions, or as compulsively (and sometimes aggressively) parroting ancient traditions in an act of intellectual resistance.

Studying the intellectual history of the modern Islamic world, then, requires a difficult hermeneutical balancing act: without overlooking contemporary references, it is imperative to accord appropriate weight to the manifold and often complex ways in which Islam’s canonical texts and the pre-modern interpretive tradition are invoked, redirected and reconfigured—even where this does not directly contribute to locating an author on an ideal spectrum running from “modernism” to “Islamism.”

That such an approach can potentially facilitate a perception of modern Islamic texts and thinkers as more sophisticated and intellectually serious than they are often presented to be—this was the underlying conjecture throughout the colloquium “Claiming Tradition: Modern Re-Readings of the Classical Islamic Heritage,” which was held at Pembroke College, Oxford, on 27–28 September 2013.

After a keynote lecture delivered by Prof. Carole Hillenbrand dealing with classical and modern understandings of the term jihād, ten scholars based in the UK and Europe examined modern re-appropriations of pre-modern texts, genres, and figures. The topics discussed included modern Shi’ite legal theory (Robert Gleave) and Sunni hadith criticism (Christopher Melchert), modern contestations over the status of Abū Ḥanīfa (Ahmad Khan) and over the significance of Ibn Taymiyya’s anti-Mongol fatwas (John Hoover), 20th-century Qur’anic exegesis (Islam Dayeh, Nicolai Sinai, Karen Bauer), the use of classical Arabic poetry by Yemeni Jihadists (Elisabeth Kendall) and of the Islamic biographical and historiographical tradition in Zaynab Fawwāz’s (d. 1914) dictionary of famous women (Marilyn Booth), and finally the selection and arrangement of  ʿUmar Sulaymān al-Ashqar’s (d. 2012) popular compilation of eschatological traditions (Christian Lange).

From different angles, all the papers illustrated the need for an in-depth mastery of pre-modern sources by students of the intellectual history of the modern Islamic world, as well as the intrinsic interest of modern debates even for scholars of classical Islam.

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

Upcoming Colloquia in the UK

Thanks to Nicolai Sinai and Mehdi Azaiez

Islamic Studies Colloquium


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

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


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


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


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

For more information, please visit here.

Ms. mehdi-azaiez.org

Ms. mehdi-azaiez.org

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

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

Convenor : Asma Hilali


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Day 1 : Monday, 30 September 2013

12:00 Arrival of speakers at hotel and lunch

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

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

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

Discussant : Prof. Aziz al-Azmeh

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

16:00 Break

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

Chair : Holger Zellentin

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

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

19:00 : Speakers’ Dinner

Day 2 : Tuesday, 1st October 2013

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

Chair : Mehdi Azaiez, University of Notre Dame, Indiana

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

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

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

11:00 General Discussion

12:00 Speakers’ Lunch

For more information, please visit here.

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