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.

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

For more information, please visit here.



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.