Early Dating of Birmingham Qur’an Fragments Sparks Lively Discussion

cropped-header22.pngQur’an fragments recently discovered in the library of the University of Birmingham have fueled an exciting discussion among scholars and the public about the textual history of the scripture of Islam.  The parchment, which contains portions of Surahs 18 and 20, has been carbon-dated to ca. 568-645 C.E., corresponding roughly to the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad (ca. 570-632 C.E.), making it among the earliest extant Qur’an manuscripts. Such an early dating raises important questions about the history of the Qur’an–questions that are being actively pursued in the IQSA Discussion Group at Yahoo Groups. If you would like to connect with leading experts in Qur’anic studies about this and other developments in the field, we warmly invite you to join our Discussion Group:


This listserv is an exciting venue to actively engage in current academic conversations about the Qur’an. Don’t miss out—sign up today and join the discussion!

 !أهلا وسهلا

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2015. All rights reserved.

Ritual Studies and the Qur’an: Preliminary Thoughts

by Andrew C. Smith*

The usage of ritual as a means of communication, worship, and social construction is a ubiquitous element in human societies. In recognition of this fact, the field of ritual studies has expanded in scope and relevance in the last half century. Yet ritual as an important element within the Qur’an is largely unstudied. This post offers preliminary thoughts on the application of theories and perspectives in ritual studies to the study of the Qur’an.

The study of ritual within the western academy has developed somewhat in tandem with religious studies, with Myth-and-Ritual, sociological, psychoanalytical, and structuralist schools of thought developing distinct approaches to the study of religious ritual. Since the mid-1960s, ritual studies scholars have come to value more interdisciplinary approaches, and to integrate many different fields—such as sociology, anthropology, religious studies, and cultural studies—into the study of ritual. Some of the most prominent thinkers on ritual in the last few decades include Catherine Bell, Ronald Grimes, Mary Douglas, Roy Rappaport, and Clifford Geertz. Their ideas, methods, and tools for studying ritual should form the basis for any study of ritual within the Qur’an.

Muslims praying at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus; photo by Antonio Melina/Agencia Brasil, 2003.

Muslims praying at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus; photo by Antonio Melina/Agencia Brasil, 2003.

For many years, ritual theorists have wrangled over a precise definition of “ritual,” but it is difficult to define because ritual as a category involves human emotions that are subjective and transient, and sometimes defy lingual expression (Muir, 2005, 2). It is also important to recognize that a universal, succinct definition may not only be impossible but also theoretically detrimental to the scholarly study of ritual (Bell, 2009, 82). For this reason, among others, many theorists have moved away from the utilization of strict definitions, preferring to devise more flexible typologies for describing, comparing, and analyzing ritual actions. Some scholars, like Grimes and Bell, go further to simply describe aspects of each ritual as “family characteristics” on a sliding scale of characteristics to determine if something is more or less ritualized. The strengths and weaknesses of these various approaches should be carefully weighed when considering which tools and methods will best fit the analysis of ritual action within the Qur’an.

Ritual as a category is most often studied contemporaneously with its performance, whereby an anthropologist or ethnographer views or participates in a ritual and queries the performers as to its meaning and function. And yet, much of the basis for religious ritual performance is found in written texts like the Qur’an. However, depictions of rituals in the texts may differ from their lived performances. For this reason we must differentiate between the study of ritual in Islam and the study of ritual in the Qur’an.

The idea that Muslims’ performing rituals in the present can shed light on how and why such rituals were performed at the time of the reception of the Qur’an is an assumption that needs to be treated carefully if not outright avoided. Ritual in the Qur’an must be primarily analyzed in its late antique historical context, which is significantly different from later contexts of Islamic ritual. We must consider the rituals contained in the Qur’an in connection with the religious communities of Late Antiquity, not through a lens of origin studies, but in order to understand the concepts of ritual usage that existed at the time, and the ritual symbolism and action from which they were adopted and adapted. For this purpose, research on the historical context and biblical subtext of the Qur’an—like that of Gabriel Said Reynolds and others—is vastly important.

The study of ritual as represented in the Qur’an is necessarily different from the study of ritual as a lived tradition. Researchers on the Qur’an cannot query a ritual’s late antique performers as to its purpose or meaning. They must rely solely upon the written text. At the same time, it must be remembered that written reference to ritual does not constitute ritual itself. Scholars relying on written evidence must also deal with some of the issues that more generally problematize the literary study of ancient texts, including questions of provenance and preservation, as well as the likelihood that a text may not have all the information that one would expect or wish to be present, due to editorial redaction, genre and form, or authorial intent.

To help overcome these and other challenges in studying ritual within the Qur’an, one can look to ritual studies as applied to the text of the Bible, including the works of Gerald A. Klingbeil, Mark McVann, Frank H. Gorman, David P.Wright, and Ithamar Gruenwald. Some of the issues identified within the study of biblical ritual apply directly to the Qur’an, while others apply only tangentially or not at all based on the basic differences between the Bible and the Qur’an in terms of composition, canonical development, etc. For example, the compositional character of the Arabic Qur’an—namely, the usage of sajʿ (rhymed prose)—leads to a general lack of prescriptive ritual designations, because detailed instructions about how rituals are to be performed do not appear to fit well within that artistic style.

Ritual study of the Qur’an is a wide-open field, with great potential for shedding light on the ways that ritual was understood and used by the earliest community of Muhammad’s followers to express their devotion and worship and to declare, create, and maintain their religious and communal identity. The preliminary thoughts presented above barely begin to tap the potential for greater engagement with this area of research. They are meant to stimulate further thoughts and conversations about the role of ritual within the Qur’an and the discourse of the early community of Muhammad’s followers.

* Andrew C. Smith is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Religion at Claremont Graduate University.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2015. All rights reserved.

Ninth SOAS Conference on the Qur’an: Call for Papers*

Proposals are invited for the Ninth SOAS Conference on the Qur’an: “The Qur’an: Text, Society And Culture,” to be held on 11-13 February 2016. The conference series, hosted by SOAS, University of London, seeks to address a basic question: How is the Qur’anic text read and interpreted? The goal is to encompass a global vision of current research trends, and to stimulate discussion, debate, and research on all aspects of the Qur’anic text and its interpretation and translation. While the conference will remain committed to the textual study of the Qur’an and the religious, intellectual, and artistic activity that developed around it and drew on it, contributions on all topics relevant to Qur’anic studies are welcomed. Attention will also be given to literary, cultural, politico-sociological, and anthropological studies relating to the Qur’an.

The primary conference language is English, but papers may be presented in English or Arabic. Further information on the conference series is available on the SOAS Centre of Islamic Studies site HERE. The submission deadline for abstracts is 24 August 2015. 

* Text adopted from the official CFP available on the SOAS website.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2015. All rights reserved.

On Semitic Rhetorical Analysis of the Qur’an

Cover of Michel Cuypers, La composition du Coran (Librairie Gabalda, 2012).

Cover of Michel Cuypers, La composition du Coran (Librairie Gabalda, 2012).

In the latest installment of IQSA’s Review of Qur’anic Research 1, no. 2, Prof. Gabriel Said Reynolds offers a lucid assessment of Michel Cuypers’ provocative 2012 work, La composition du Coran, which analyzes rhetorical structures in the Qur’an to argue for its textual coherence.

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, 2015. All rights reserved.

Traditional and Modern Qur’anic Hermeneutics in Comparative Perspective

by Adis Duderija*

Recent decades have witnessed the emergence of groundbreaking scholarship in Qur’anic hermeneutics, including the works of Hasan Hanafi, Nasir Abu Zayd, Abdolkarim Soroush, Amina Wadud, and Khaled Abou El Fadl, to name but a few. One of the benefits of this growth in scholarship is that it highlights the complexities of the theories and methods in the field.

Cover of Duderija, Constructing a Religiously Ideal Believer (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

Cover of Duderija, Constructing a Religiously Ideal Believer (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

In my Ph.D. dissertation, completed in 2010 and published in 2011, I offer a comparative examination of these complexities and their implications in both traditional and modern Qur’anic scholarship, and delineate the epistemological and methodological tendencies that distinguish modern and traditional approaches with respect to the following seven key criteria.

  1. The Nature of Language and the Nature of Revelation

Traditional approaches to interpreting the Qur’an are heavily philological, with interpretations largely restricted to observable linguistic features of the Qur’an text. According to this methodology, readers retrieve the text’s meaning through analysis of the Arabic grammar, syntax, and morphology. At the same time, the Qur’an text is considered as the verbatim Word of God essentially different from human language. Moreover, its meaning is completely independent of the psychological make-up of the Prophet Muhammad and his prophetic experience. Qur’anic language is thus considered to be operating outside of history and possessed of a fixed meaning that is, in principle, not dependent on human modes of perception and analysis.

Modern approaches recognize that the Qur’an’s language is, at least for exegetical purposes, socio-culturally contingent, and its meaning necessarily operates within the framework of human perception and analysis. The nature of revelation, moreover, is closely intertwined with the mind and the phenomenological experience of the Prophet Muhammad. The interpretational implications are that the Qur’anic text has a historical dimension and that its meaning is conditioned by the cultural contexts in which it was revealed and is read.

  1. The Location and Breadth of Meaning


When interpreting a text, one may posit that the meaning of the text is primarily determined either by the intent of the author, by the form of the text itself, or by the perception of the reader. Furthermore, one may hold that readers are either able to fully recover the meaning intended by the author, or to only approximate the intended meaning.

Traditional approaches largely consider that readers can perceive authorial intent and recover some objective meaning of the text. Since the meaning of the text is fixed, the role of the reader in determining or influencing meaning is minimal. Belief in the objective existence of meaning in the mind of the author, which is readily accessible in a similarly objective fashion to the reader, contributes to the idea that there is only one correct interpretation of the text.

Modern hermeneutical approaches maintain that readers cannot recover authorial intent in a completely objective fashion. Rather, readers with their socio-cultural backgrounds, educations, moral inclinations, etc., actively participate in producing the text’s meaning(s), which can only approximate authorial intent but can never completely and objectively capture it. While the text is fixed in its form, its meaning is not fixed by the author. Even if the text’s meaning is considered static and monovalent, the significance of its meaning is contextually dependent and liable to change. Thus the text can sustain a large number of interpretations. However, to curb unreasonable or unpopular interpretations, some hermeneuticists have recourse to the concept of “communities of interpretation”—groups of readers who share similar cultural perspectives, values, and hermeneutical principles—to argue that the validity of interpretations is relative to, and limited by, the assumptions that characterize such communities.

  1. The Relationship between Text and Context

Traditional philological hermeneutics tends to marginalize the historical context in which the Qur’an text was revealed. Although there is recognition of the historical character and development of the Qur’an when speaking of “occasions of revelation” (asbab al-nuzul) and “abrogation” (naskh), there are no clear hermeneutical models for fully integrating and utilizing these aspects in interpreting the language of the Qur’an. To the extent that historical context is considered, traditional philologists do not systematically distinguish between historical and ahistorical dimensions of meaning to the text. As a result, there is a strong tendency to universalize a historically particular meaning.Photo by Habib M'henni

By contrast, modern hermeneuticists emphasize how the historical context in which the Qur’an text was revealed significantly influenced the text’s form and meaning, and how the historical frames of reference and cultural norms of the text’s initial audience informed their understanding of the nature of the Qur’anic text and its meaning.

  1. Textual Coherence

The Qur’an text was revealed orally over a period of some two decades, and the process of its canonization took decades more. The canonical order of Qur’anic sūrahs does not appear to be governed by chronology; nor does it appear to be governed by theme, as references to themes are often dispersed throughout the Qur’an. Traditional exegetes downplay the essentially oral and kerygmatic nature of the revelation and mainly take a word-by-word segmental and sequential analysis of the canonical text. Thus this approach fails to fully appreciate the Qur’an’s thematic coherence.

cropped-header1.jpgMany modern exegetes recognize the interconnectedness of Qur’anic concepts and themes and undertake a holistic and corroborative-inductive approach to interpreting the Qur’an, based not only on insights stemming from the traditional scholarly principles of conceptual/textual chaining (munāsaba) and corroborative induction (istiqrā’), but also on modern linguistics approaches to textual coherence, sequentiality, and progression. Understanding a Qur’anic concept requires analyzing all relevant passages throughout the text and synthesizing them within a larger thematic framework. The task of interpretation is to discover a “comprehensive constant.”

  1. The Role of Reason in Ethico-Legal Interpretations of the Qur’an

Traditional exegetes heavily restrict the role of reason to its analogical form, so that all ethico-legal interpretations must be linked to textual evidence. If there is no directly pertinent text, then every effort is made to identify an indirectly pertinent text with a common underlying principle and to interpret it in light of its significance to the new case. The underlying assumptions are that ethico-legal knowledge must always derive from revelation and that humans cannot know what is ethically or legally right by independent reason. From this perspective, many exegetes infer a legalistic dimension to all of the Qur’an, so that even those Qur’anic exhortations that could be seen as broadly ethical or didactic are interpreted as positive legal injunctions.



Modern exegetes, on the other hand, emphasize the importance of reason in interpreting the Qur’an and consider the Qur’an itself to be constitutive of reason. Inasmuch as human reason can independently make ethical judgments, the function of revelation is to remind people of  their ethical obligations. Contrary to the traditional legalistic approach, they consider that the Qur’an is primarily ethico-religious in its concern, and that its legal aspects are peripheral to its broader ethical vision and subject to change as societal conditions change. Thus legal interpretations of the Qur’an ought to evolve with evolving ethical values by means of reason—keeping in mind, however, that Islamic ethics is firmly anchored in a Qur’anic religious cosmology.

  1. Interpreting Universal Principles of the Qur’an

All of the aforementioned aspects of traditional hermeneutics make for a rather limited understanding of the Qur’an when it comes to its embodiment of basic ethical values, such as justice and equality, and its underlying objectives, such facilitating public welfare and promoting the common good. On the other hand, all of the aspects of modern hermeneutics contribute to a broader intepretational concern to realize such principle values and objectives.

  1. The Conception of the Prophetic Sunna

It is widely held in Islamic tradition that the prophetic sunnah enjoys exegetical supremacy over independent rational methods, and moreover that this sunnah is entirely and solely embodied in sound Hadith texts. Thus for traditional exegetes, recourse to the sunnah as an exegetical device is necessarily constitutive of, and constrained by, the textual corpus of Hadith. One noteworthy implication of this textual conception of sunnah is that interpretive reasoning, while to some extent important in selecting and evaluating individual hadith reports, is not constitutive of the concept of sunnah itself as an exegetical device.

In contrast, modern exegetes tend to hold a more meta-textual conception of the prophetic sunnah, more in line with how sunnah was understood in the early Islamic era, which does not conflate the concept of sunnah with the concept of Hadith as text. Thus in addition to the traditional Hadith sciences, modern exegetes employ several additional methodological mechanisms to distinguish the prophetic sunnah, the details of which cannot be fully addressed here.

Hopefully this blog post helps to demonstrate the complexity of Qur’anic hermeneutics and the importance for scholars of religion and the Qur’an to be aware of the critical implications of distinct hermeneutical approaches for determining what is a normative “Qur’anic position” on any particular legal, political, or ethical issue.

* Dr. Duderija is Senior Lecturer in Gender Studies at the University of Malaya, and author of Constructing a Religiously Ideal ‘Believer’ and ‘Woman’ in Islam (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2015. All rights reserved.

New Book: Islamic Cultures, Islamic Contexts

Islamic Cultures Islamic Contexts_coverReaders interested in the social and intellectual history of Islamic civilization will find an exciting array of studies in Islamic Cultures, Islamic Contexts: Essays in Honor of Professor Patricia Crone (Brill, 2014). This volume brings together articles on various aspects of Islamic societies and the intellectual traditions and social contexts that contributed to their formation and evolution. Written by leading scholars who span three generations and who cover such diverse fields as Late Antique Studies, Islamic Studies, Classics, and Jewish Studies, the volume is a testament to the breadth and sustained, deep impact of the scholarship of its honoree, Patricia Crone. While researchers in Qur’anic studies may be initially drawn to articles on “intra-qur’anic parallels” (Witztum) and “Jewish Christianity and Islamic origins” (Stroumsa), the entire volume promises to stimulate critical reflections on theory and method in the study of texts and their cultural contexts, and to help situate such reflections from a Qur’anic-studies perspective in broader scholarly discourses on Islamic civilization.

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

New Book: Never Wholly Other: A Muslima Theology of Religious Pluralism

by  Jerusha T. Lamptey*

The observation that the Qur’an has a lot to say about various religious communities and religious diversity in general is not novel. Even a casual reader will quickly encounter references to the Children of Israel, the Jews, and the People of the Scripture; discussions of a multitude of prophets, revelations and scriptures; and descriptions of different types of people, including believers, disbelievers, hypocrites, and associators/idolaters.

Lamptey_NWO_coverThroughout history, these rich and complex facets of the Qur’anic discourse have spurred polemic and apologetic treatises; juridical debates and delineations of the boundaries between believers and disbelievers; and Sufi reflections on the diversity of prophecy in relation to the unicity of God. These facets continue to preoccupy many contemporary scholars, who are particularly interested in how the text is or can be invoked to promote religious intolerance or religious tolerance.

In Never Wholly Other: A Muslima Theology of Religious Pluralism (New York: Oxford, 2014), I offer a critique of some contemporary engagements with the Qur’an’s discourse on religious diversity. While the majority of these interpretations arising in the US context offer a positive read on the reality of religious diversity, they do so by oversimplifying the Qur’anic content. This occurs by privileging parts of the Qur’an that affirm diversity over other more diversity-ambivalent parts of the text. On an interpretive level, such privileging is accomplished by appealing to methods such as progressive revelation, ethical principles, chronology and abrogation.

In response, I propose a new hermeneutical approach that draws its foundational principles—including Qur’anic unity, polysemy, and textual silence—from Muslim women interpreters of the Qur’an. These foundational principles provide a unique starting point, but they require supplementation in order to avoid oversimplification of the Qur’an’s complex discussion of religious diversity. I find this in a critical retrieval of Toshihiko Izutsu’s method of semantic analysis, in particular his focus on semantic fields and relational meaning of Qur’anic concepts.

Combining the methods of Muslim women interpreters of the Qur’an and Izutsu, I then engage in a close and relational re-reading of the text. This re-reading begins with the identification of two distinct, yet overlapping, semantic fields: that of taqwā (God-consciousness) and that of umma (community of revelation). I then explore the complex interconnections among central Qur’anic concepts, including belief, disbelief, submission, association, and hypocrisy, and argue that they fall within the semantic field of taqwā, rather than umma. This means that these concepts or characteristics are not automatically affiliated with particular communities.

This argument leads to my constructive articulation of a Muslima theology of religious pluralism in which I offer an integrated account of the Qur’anic discourse on religious diversity, weaving together questions of creation, human nature, revelation(s), human diversity and interactions, and divine evaluation.

*Lamptey is Assistant Professor of Islam and Ministry at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. She earned her Ph.D. in Theological and Religious Studies, with a focus on Religious Pluralism, from Georgetown University in 2011. Her research focuses on theologies of religious pluralism, comparative theology, and feminist theology.

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