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 for more information.

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

Rhetoric and Representation in Qurʾanic Polemics (Interview Series Part 5)

An Interview with Hamza M. Zafer, by Mehdi Azaiez


This week IQSA continues its interview series with Hamza M. Zafer, PhD student in Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University. In this interview, Zafer presents his research on the Qur’an’s polemical discourse and its articulation of a distinct communal consciousness — the ummah.

Can you tell us about your background in Qurʾanic Studies and your approach to the field?

I am a doctoral candidate in Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University and am currently a fellow with the Qur’an Seminar at the University of Notre Dame. I am pursuing an interdisciplinary research program, unified by an interest in the emergence and expression of religio-communal ideologies among monotheistic groups in the late ancient Near East. My program of study has focused on three evidentiary domains: (1) the Qurʾan and early Muslim exegesis, (2) the early Arabic historiographical corpus and (3) late Midrashic Literature and the Targumim. My dissertation, titled “The Ummah Pericope: Rhetoric and Representation in Qur’anic Polemics,” is a detailed exploration of the Qurʾan’s religio-communal ideology in its late antique context.

My study of the Qurʾan is grounded in both linguistic and literary approaches, adapted to account for the text’s particularities. The crucial underlying assumption of my analysis is that the Qurʾan constitutes a closed text—one with a distinct pre-classical context, a unique literary logic, and an evolving, albeit coherent, internal ideology. My synchronic investigation of Qurʾanic data, without recourse to its early Muslim mediations, attempts to elucidate how the Qurʾan’s polemical program is contingent on various late ancient Near Eastern discourses on communal election and soteriological legitimacy.

A secondary part of my work addresses diachronic questions about the development of communal consciousness among the earliest Muslims. I am interested in exploring: how the Qurʾan’s communal addressees and interlocutors are historicized in the early Muslim corpus, how this historicization produces and polices particular communal boundaries, and how these boundaries are negotiated by liminal subjects and heterodox voices.

Can you share some details about your current project?

The textual focus of my current work is a complex (and fascinating) cluster of verses at the heart of Surat al-Baqara that I have tentatively labeled the Ummah Pericope: Q2:104−152. This pericope, which forms a distinct thematic and formal unit within the Sura, is the Qurʾan’s most explicit expression of communalism. The pericope is comprised of a series of polemical engagements with interlocutors along three broad and overlapping modalities of communal consciousness and boundary-making. It presents the ummah as:

(1) a juridical entity: individuals or groups constitute an ummah when they adhere to the dīn—an ahistorical category with permeable boundaries;

(2) a prophetological entity: individuals or groups constitute an ummah when they are vicarious recipients of nubuwwa—a semi-historical category with somewhat permeable boundaries;

(3) a genealogical entity: individuals or groups constitute an ummah when they share patrimony—a historical category with impermeable boundaries.

My study of the Ummah Pericope shows that the Qurʾan’s polemical negotiations of various late ancient communal theologies cannot be reduced to any single supersessionary statement. Rather, the Qurʾan’s polemical program is made up of a heterogeneous set of codes that subvert, contest, co-opt and re-appropriate aspects of these discourses into an emergent ideological agenda, anticipating the formation of a distinct community—an ummah.

A second aspect of this project highlights and characterizes fissures between the Qurʾanic text’s communal ideology and its post-Qurʾanic permutations. Through three case studies on reports of intermarriage and conversion, I analyze how the Qurʾan’s presentation of the ummah is reconfigured in early historical writings to respond to entirely different doctrinal anxieties and polemical agendas. I explore how early parenthetical literatures mediate the Qurʾan’s multivalent concept of ummah as a juridical, prophetological and genealogical fact into novel statements of communal consciousness and boundary-making.

What contribution do you hope this particular project will make to the field?

This study supports the notion that the Qurʾan and early Muslim writing constitute transitional rather than originary texts, i.e. that the rise of an Islamic religio-cultural system, as embodied in the early Arab polity, is a burgeoning of particular late antique tendencies rather than an abrupt religious, political and cultural rupture in the Near East. It further supports the idea that late ancient material in the Qurʾan and early Muslim writing is evidence of intentional engagement(s) and meaningful intertextuality, rather than residue from a wholesale and inexpert program of borrowing.

Furthermore, this project raises certain key questions about the nature and status of “evidence” in the study of the Qurʾanic text and its temporal and spatial context. Although my study relies heavily on the Qurʾan’s contemporaneous and precursory literatures, I approach the text holistically and privilege its internal literary and formal structures in my analysis. In this way, I avoid reducing my study of the text to excavating linguistic evidence to posit external sources and tracing textual pedigrees. This approach guides my treatment of narrative material in the Ummah Pericope. I illustrate that the pericope’s presentation of biblical and post-biblical narrative material rests on calculated divergences and adaptations, expressing distinct ideological and polemical agendas, and that the Qurʾanic presentation of such material is not simply the product of semantic or formal atrophy from distant “originals.”

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