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Usama al-Sayyid Mahmud al-Azhari.

Usama al-Sayyid Mahmud al-Azhari * Introduction to the Principles of Qu'anic Exegesis * Trans. with Introduction and Notes by Mostafa al-Badawi * Islamic Village, 2014 * ISBN 978-09520853-2-4 * PB * 100pp

This brief but important work is the synopsis of a proposed renewal of the Qur'anic sciences of tafsir inspired by the former Grand Mufti of Egypt 'All Jumu'ah and distilled from his teachings by his able student, the author. Originally published in Arabic as Madkhal ila 'ulum al-tafsir, it is the author's introduction to Jumu'ah's 300-page Qur'anic commentary--itself based on lectures delivered at al-Azhar--al-Nibras fi tafsir al-Qu'an al-karim (Cairo: al-Wabil al-Sayyib, 2009), which covers the Fatiha and al-Baqara until verse 26. The Introduction is intended to help students of tafsir as well as engage and inspire its experts. Its two main ideas are that more exegesis is needed for what the author calls the axes (mahawir) and objectives (maqasid) of the Qur'an and, second, that such exegesis must show the relevance and applicability of the Qur'an to contemporary issues. "To transform the verses of the Qur'an into working programs is a most important matter.... It is a scientific endeavour that requires much study and research into the very manner of interpreting the Qur'an [which] forms the background of all the sources of knowledge of the community, its sciences, methods of functioning and cognitive schemes. It defines its identity, shapes its behaviour and influences its history" (p. 24). The author draws abundantly from al-Tahir b. 'Ashur's ten prolegomena to Qur'anic exegesis among many other sources and influences both past and contemporary. It is regrettable that oftentimes precise sourcing is not given and that the book is missing indices and a bibliography.

Usama al-Sayyid is an exceptional young scholar. He became an Azhar professor, a consultant to the president of Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a stellar preacher and an imam of international stature in the lifetime of his teacher 'All Jum'uah. His doctoral defense in 2011 was attended by an international host of Ghazalian-Ash'ari Sufis such as Shaykh Muhammad Abu al-Huda al-Yaqoubi, Ahmad 'Umar Hashim, Shaykh 'Ali al-Jifri and Shaykh Muhammad 'Abd al-Rahman al-Saqqaf among others. Although less than 40 years of age, he has already distinguished himself with a programmatic vision of renewal for what he calls the genuine Azhari intellect and method. He has published manifestos on religious educational reform as well as encyclopedias of hadith transmission chains.

The translation follows the structure of the original with a preface and thirteen terse sections (left unnumbered in the original) that form what the author in his preface calls "the secondary branches and subsidiary purposes" (mahawir far'yya wa-maqasid tabi'a) of the four "major axes" (al-mahawir al-kubra) of Qur'anic purposes, which are "instruction, guidance, miraculousness, and legal rules." This summing up is of course not etched in stone. See, for example, al-Ghazali's six maqasid of the Qur'an, three essential (Allah, the Sirat, the Hereafter) and three complementary (motivation, narratives, way-stations) in Jawahir al-Qur'an, cited in this very book (p. 89); or al-Razis phrase, "the purpose of the Qur'an is either to do something or to leave something" (Tafsir, al-Ikhlas, verse 1); or the four headings the latter lists as "constituting the entire purpose of the Qur'an: theologics (ilahiyyat), eschatology (ma'ad), prophetics (nubuwwat) and the affirmation of the preordained decree (al-qada' wal-qadar)" (Tafsir of the Fatiha, "the name Umm al-Qur'an'); or Shah Waliyyullah's "five categories of knowledge beyond which the Qur'an never goes" in al-Fawz al-Kabir: the science of legal rulings, that of polemic and dialectics, that of didactical instruction and admonishment, that of divine historiography, and that of the last things and eschatology; or the eight headings proposed by Fazlur Rahman in his Major Themes of the Qur'an. The list goes on.

The headings for the author's thirteen sections are rendered as "Principle One of Qur'anic Exegesis," "Principle Two of Qur'anic Exegesis" and so forth. The contents are a mix of classical and contemporary views of particular currency:

1. "The influence of the relationship between the Qur'an and the various sciences on defining the tools and resources of the exegete."

The need for exegetes to be conversant with the thought and sciences of their times was broached in the introductions of several modern commentaries, from the Manar to al-Tahrir wal-Tanwir, and in our teacher Nur al-Din 'Itr's Ulum al-Qur'an among others.

2. "The levels of Qur'anic guidance and their influence on the exegete's understanding of the Qur'an's universal address."

This section ends with a reminder of this universalism as "the foundation of a global concept called 'The Mutual Acquaintance of Civilizations' to replace the concept of the 'Clash of Civilizations'" (p. 35)--the latter term being the classic self-fulfilling prophecy of our times. The author might have also proposed the concept as an ethical, Islamic form of globalism of which today's exegete should be acutely aware.

3. "The Qur'an Explains Itself."

The author cites al-Razi's description of the Qur'an as "a single sura, or even a single verse, each part of which confirms and clarifies the rest," tempered by Ibn 'Ashur's view that this, of course, is not unconditional, "since passages which are similar may still carry divergent meanings." The author should have cited the hermeneutic genre of al-wujuh wal-naza'ir or Qur'anic polysemy. Another, rather glaring omission here is Muhammad Amin al-Shinqiti's (d. 1974) magnum opus on the very subject-matter of the section, entitled Adwa' al-bayan fi tafsir al-Qur'an bil-Qur'an.

4. "The Prophet's Sunna is the second of the two Revelations, its source is the Qur'an and it is the explanation of its meanings."

This indissociability of the two types of wahy--the matluw and the ghayr matluw--is indeed a foundational Sunni principle that shapes all exegesis. Al-Suyuti summed it up in his book Miftah al-jannafil-ihtijaj (also published as fil-i'tisam) bil-Sunna, in the chapter entitled al-Sunnatu bayanun lil-Qur'an (The Sunna elucidates the Qur'an)--a phrase which formed the title of a work by one of the author's teachers, the Azhari linguist and exegete Ibrahim Muhammad 'Abd Allah al-Khuli (b. 1929). The section would have been fine without the last two paragraphs (mentioning al-Jassas and excerpting 'Abd al-Qadir Badran), which I found unrelated to the topic.

5. "The exegete must acquaint himself with the Science of the Principles of Jurisprudence, because it contains important rules for understanding the text and analyzing it."

This section concerns the deduction of rules and the pursuit of precision common to both exegetes and legal theorists as well as linguists. The author cites Ibn 'Ashur's remark that the scholars of usul clarified certain subtleties of Arabic farther than the lexicographers did. A look at al-Razi and al-Baydawi's lexical discussions confirms the accuracy of this observation.

6. "The need of the exegete to keep up with the amplifications in the meanings of verbal expressions (ittisa' madlulat al-tarakib) that accompany the expansion of the limits of knowledge of a given civilization and the cumulative effects of its experiences."

Apart from the citation of Ibn 'Ashur's remarks on the Qur'an's epistemological inimatibility (i'jaz 'ilmi, rendered as "scientific matchlessness"), this very brief section is all-too-similar to the first section and adds little other than very general quotations from Ibn Juzay, Bucaille, Mustafa Sadiq al-Rafi'i and a needless reference to Nostradamus!

7. "The effects of grasping the various manners in which the Qur'an affects the soul on understanding and analyzing the text."

This section is a defense of psychology as an exegetical tool and its indispensability in understanding the Qur'anic idiom as understood by past and present scholars.

8. "The stories of the Prophets are expositions of the various cognitive styles governing mankind throughout history."

The original states munaqashatun li-usul al-manahij al-fikriyya which is not an exposition but an assessment, as evinced by the section's examples of the Qur'anic critique of secularism.

9. "The axes of the various suras of the Qur'an and their influence on understanding the text."

This is perhaps the most novel concept, trying as it does to extract from each sura a single over-riding theme, which it calls axis (mihwar). The author states, "We can discern about 100 such issues which together constitute the essentials of revealed religion ... uncovering dimensions of meaning that had gone unnoticed before, for this approach is new and I have seen no previous authors mentioning it."

10. "Fundamental principles of the Qur'an or independent inference: a practical method applied by the community over the centuries to derive benefit from the verses of the Qur'an."

This section revolves around excerpts from al-Shaffi, Shah Waliyyullah, Ibn 'Ashur, Jumu'ah and others reiterating the well-known exegetical principle that Qur'anic verses are not understood exclusively in terms of immediate contextual meanings and historical circumstances of revelation, but also in terms of timeless meanings unconfined to specific contexts and historical backgrounds.

11. "Divine existential laws governing human societies permeate the Book and form the subject of one of the essential sciences of the Qur'an."

This section cites contemporary sources for the study of civilizational history as integral to Qur'anic hermeneutics in ever-expanding elucidation of what the Qur'an calls the divine custom (sunnat Allah) in His creation.

12. "The science of Qur'anic Purposes (al-maqasid al-Qur'aniyya), one of the most important tools of the exegete."

The author takes al-Suyuti to task for not making this Ghazalian contribution an independent category in his Itqan although he did (73rd category)--only he named it Fi afdal al-Qur'an wa-fadilih (Concerning Superexcellent and Excellent Content in the Qur'an). The author also states that al-Fayruzabadl's work on Qur'anic purposes, identified as al-Durr al-nazim al-murshid ila maqasid al-Qur'an al-karim, is nowhere to be found in print or manuscript form, and that its contents remain unknown to him, but he seems unaware that the first of the six-volume print edition of al-Fayruzabadi's Basa'ir dhawi al-tamyiz fi lata'if al-Kitab al-'aziz contains a sura-by-sura discussion of the maqasid. It might in fact be the same work as al-Durr al-nazim. Perhaps Tafhim al-Qur'an and Fi zilal al-Qu'an might have also been included in the author's purportedly exhaustive survey of the works that address this aspect.

13. "Effect of the Science of Derivatives on understanding the text."

This section presents the valuable concept of ishtiqaq akbar (larger etymology) towards a deeper understanding of the science of Arabic roots (particularly triliterals) where letter transmutation often parallels similar meanings as in hamd (praise) and madh (compliment), but the author should have mentioned that the concept also includes entirely replacing one letter while preserving the original order, as in khatm (sealing)--which Baydawi glossed as katm (concealing) under al-Baqara 2:7--or in the semantic consimilarity of nafaqa, nafada, nafadha, nafasa etc., which all share the meanings of through passage and termination as long as the first two letters are n-f.

The translation at times leaves something to be desired: al-nazm is first rendered as "organizational guidelines" (p. 15) then, two pages down, as "the Qur'anic symphony" when the accurate translation in both cases is "the [Qur'anic] arrangement of words and verses." The translator confuses juz' with hizb as one and the same thing (p. 21 n. 3 "A hizb, also called juz' ...") whereas the juz' is one thirtieth while the hizb is one sixtieth of the Qur'an. Bab ma'ani al-huruf is not "the science that studies the meaning of articles" (p. 47) but of particles (this is probably just a typo). Al-Mawsu'a al-Qur'aniyya al-Mutakhassisa is not "Professional" (p. 78) but rather "Specialized Qur'anic Encylopedia," as was made clear by Jumucah who said in its preface that it was meant to follow up the prior publication of the Mawsu'a al-Islamiyya al-'Amma (General Islamic Encylopedia). I liked the renderings of khawass al-makhluqat as "biology" (p. 27) and of al-namudhaj al-ma'rifi as "cognitive model" (p. 79), but Sunnat Allah as "the Wont of God" (p. 84) is stilted--wont was already archaic 200 years ago according to Samuel Johnson--so why not keep "divine existential laws" which is used on the previous page? The authorial phrase "I say:" (qultu:) is vital in dense or unpunctuated Arabic texts so as to differentiate the main author from others being quoted, but is superfluous in nicely typeset English texts when punctuation and quotation marks preclude the risk of confusion. In the discussion of derivation, the proper transliteration should be "shajja ra'sah and jashsha," not "jasha" (p. 94).

The cover and feel of the book are artful and attractive, with the title material and blurb embossed in a centered box on the front and back cover respectively; the inside is marred by the absence of front and back fly-leaves, very narrow top, bottom and outer page margins, absence of indentation, and lack of differentiation between the line spacing of the main text and that of the excerpts.

Gibril Fouad Haddad

Universiti Brunei Darussalam, SOASCIS
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Author:Haddad, Gibril Fouad
Publication:Islamic Sciences
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2016
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