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The Quran as Text.

The Qur an as Text. Edited by STEFAN WILD. Islamic Philosophy, Theology and Science: Texts and Studies, vol. 27. Leiden: E. J. BRILL, 1996. Pp. xi + 298.

This collection, its editor notes, aspires to be "a worthy sequel" to the earlier volumes of essays edited by Andrew Rippin, Approaches to the History of the Interpretation of the Qur an (Oxford, 1988), and by G. R. Hawting and Abdul-Kader A. Shareef, Approaches to the Qur an (Routledge, 1993). It sees itself as part of a shift in emphasis in Qur anic studies over the last two decades that has seen less concern with the pre-history of the text--its antecedents, the stages of its redaction, etc.--than with the text as we actually have it today, the text which shapes the lives and beliefs of the Muslim community. Originally from a symposium held at the University of Bonn in 1993, the essays themselves (one in French and seven in each of English and German) are quite varied in character. In some respects the collection serves to demonstrate either that Qur anic studies have not yet fully made the shift the editor describes, or perhaps that the contrast between the "old" way and the "new" may have been too sharply drawn. Even while claiming that they are adopting the "new" more literary approach to the Qur an, several of the articles still find themselves unavoidably drawn into speculation about the emergence of the text in the Meccan and Medinan context.

This is perhaps best illustrated by the most substantial of the book's fifteen articles--that by Angelika Neuwirth on the emergence of the Qur anic literary unit, the sara. In a scenario not unrelated to that proposed by Richard Bell but relying more on a reconstruction of the history of ritual in early Islam, she sees the structure and vocabulary of the Qur an's suras developing through four phases. The thirty-two early Meccan suras Neuwirth perceives as having emerged within the context of an early Islamic worship that was grafted onto the rituals of the Ka ba (pp. 84-88). The Meccan suras of the middle period, with their explicit invocations of the kitab, their more complex and defined structure and their rehearsal of the events of salvation history, seem to have emerged from a ritual context that was a reprise of Christian and Jewish liturgies of the word, during the period in which the focus of ritual activity was Jerusalem (pp. 89-91). These liturgical suras give way in their turn to what Neuwirth calls the Rede-Suren, those that are more in the form of a stylized parenetic address in a ritual setting (pp. 95-97). They come from a period when the Ka ba has once more become the focal point for Muslim worship and concern for a connectedness with the earlier monotheistic traditions is less marked. Neuwirth sees here the beginnings of the dissolution of the form the sara had developed as a unified composition that provides all the elements of a complete liturgy. Since this kind of address-sura has no formal closing passage, it would have needed to be supplemented in the liturgy with ritual elements from other existing suras. This dissolution of the liturgical compositional form is clear in the later long suras--Ss. 2-5, 8, 9--which no longer exhibit the signs of a coherent schema governing their composition. Neuwirth suggests that, in spite of their conventional introductions, they have come to function only as "grab bags" (Sammelkorbe) for isolated groups of verses that resemble the classical components of earlier suras but to which are now added quite specific legal provisions (p. 98). Their length and their lack of structure make them unsuitable for liturgical use as a whole and this fact contributes to the development of the now common practice of "Perikopisierung"--treating the whole of the Qur an as a source for excerpting isolated verses or pericopes (p. 99).

Whether one accepts her reconstruction or not, it is clear that Neuwirth's approach here unites a respect for the actual form of the Qur an text with a very insightful proposal about the historical milieu from which it may have emerged. One without the other would not have yielded as engaging a result. Other articles too concern themselves with the historical background of the Qur an much more than with its text, notably that by Claude Gilliot on three aspects of Muhammad's religious milieu: the hanifs, the pre-Islamic Abrahamic religion, and the Prophet's Jewish and Christian informants. Although he recognizes the apologetic and polemical intentions that often lie behind the traditional accounts related to these three questions, he is not prepared merely because of that to reject the possibility that they have some basis in fact. Neuwirth and Gilliot are significant voices in contemporary European Qur anic studies and they are very far from pronouncing the historical-critical study of the Qur an and its background passe. They would surely not agree with Wild, who adopts a firm methodological stance right at the beginning of his very thorough treatment of the concept of "sending down" in the Qur an: he will only concern himself with the text as it currently stands and argues that "questions of scriptural pre-history are irrelevant" (p. 140).

Andrew Rippin's piece on commercial terminology in Qur anic eschatology is concerned principally with the methodological issues involved in the historical contextualization of the text. Taking as his foil C. C. Torrey's approach to this terminology, Rippin argues that, far from reading the Qur an's language of commerce as historical evidence about Mecca's urban economy, we should recognize it as the common coinage of Near Eastern monotheistic eschatology. It is the later Muslim readings, tailored to particular ideological ends, that have created a Meccan-trade context for the Qur an. The sub-text of this essay is the continuing critique, initiated by Wansbrough, of the historical naivete that accepts the Muslim version of the Qur an's original context: since the themes that have seemed to ground the Qur an historically in Mecca are merely Near Eastern commonplaces, there is no reason for presuming that the canon is as early or as Arabian as it is claimed to be.

Judging by the frequency with which his M.A. thesis is cited by the other authors in the volume, the work of Matthias Radscheit will be of some importance in the years to come. In a very insightful article on i jaz al-qur an he proposes that what underlies the challenge the Qur an issues to Muhammad's opponents is neither a concern for a corroborating miracle, nor a claim to the aesthetic inimitability of the language. It points rather to the irrefutable evidence that the prophetic preaching is grounded in the covenant of God with humanity. As such, of course, this i jaz would also be shared by other prophetic proclamations to the ahl al-kitab.

This first section of the book, entitled "Studies on the Text," also contains two text-critical articles--one by Omar Hamdan that takes a rather optimistic approach to the reconstruction of lost early Qur an texts on the basis of non-canonical readings, and a second by Gerd-R. Puin reporting briefly on some peculiarities of orthography, variations in the rasm and in sura order evident in the old Qur an manuscripts found in the Great Mosque of San a in 1972. The section is completed by two more literary-critical articles--by Lamya Kandil on the function of oaths in the Meccan suras and by Tilman Nagel on the Medinan interpolations in those same suras.

The remaining articles have been gathered together and entitled "Studies on the Reception of the Text." The most substantial of these--the text of a lecture by Josef van Ess on language and revelation in classical Islamic theology--was included in the collection fortuitously since it was not part of the original symposium. It is a very valuable survey of the theologians' struggles with the issue of verbal inspiration and provides us with much more nuance and detail than is customary in treatments of this question. Even many who defended the uncreatedness of the Qur an seem to have been aware of the dangers inherent in simply equating that with verbal inspiration. Welcome as it is, the article is frustrating since it has no documentation and the reader is referred to the most recent volume of van Ess' Theologie und Gesellschaft.

It is the issue of verbal inspiration that lies behind the current controversies among Muslim thinkers about new approaches to Qur anic interpretation. The case of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, the Cairo University Qur anic scholar whose marriage was annulled because of his alleged apostasy, hung over the Bonn colloquium like a cloud and continues to cast its shadow over this collection. Although a paper from him is unfortunately not included here, he is often quoted and a substantial article by Rotraud Wielandt is devoted to new Muslim hermeneutical approaches to the Qur an text in the last half century. The larger part of this is devoted to Abu Zayd's work and the hostile reaction to it in Egypt. Another Cairo University scholar, the philosopher Hassan Hanafi, gives a very clear and forthright, if somewhat wooden, presentation and defense of a thematic approach to the interpretation of the Qur an, and it becomes quite clear from his exposition why the approach is considered so dangerous by more conservative Muslims: it expressly leaves out of consideration the question of origins and maintains that no distinction is to be made in this kind of interpretation between sacred and profane, divine and human, religious and secular. Hanafi insists that "an eternal meaning of the Qur an is a hypothesis and a presupposition for which there is no proof" (p. 210). Hence, "there is no theoretical validity, the proof of an interpretation is its power" (p. 211).

The work of Abu Zayd prompted Navid Kermani to some reflections on the aesthetic dimension of revelation and on some similarities between the Muslim understanding of the rasul and the German Romantic ideal of the poet-genius. In contrast to Radscheit, he argues that more weight should be given to the aesthetic in trying to understand the doctrine of i jaz.

The failure of Christian Europe fully to appreciate the Qur an is revealed by Hartmut Bobzin to have been at least partially attributable to the extremely poor translations available. He outlines the sixteenth-century public controversies about the printing of this "treasury of heresies" and shows how one inadequate translation built on another to make the text in various places appear opaque and even ridiculous.

The call to take the Qur an seriously as a given textual corpus regardless of its scriptural prehistory is accompanied by a concern to get at the roots of the tafsir tradition. An increasing amount of manuscript evidence continues to come to light, but the task of sifting it to reconstruct the earliest layers of the interpretative tradition is immense. Miklos Muranyi gives an admirably detailed account of some early tafsir material in the mosque-library of Qairawan and links it with work being undertaken by other scholars. He deals at some length with the methodology that must be followed if one hopes to reconstruct the history by separating out the layers of the tradition, reminding us that Noldeke's caveat about studies of the Qur an text applies no less to this task: "Schone System sprachlicher Prahistorie lassen sich ja aufbauen, aber die Frage bleibt immer, ob die Wirklichkeit nicht doch anders verlaufen ist."

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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1999
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