Join IQSA in Baltimore!

Our inaugural events in Baltimore are quickly approaching! If you’re planning on joining us on Friday, November 22nd and have not yet RSVP’ed, send us an email at or visit our Facebook event page today! Don’t forget, Friday’s events are free and open to the public (while the rest of the weekend’s activities require registration with SBL or AAR).

Furthermore, a sneak preview of our detailed program book will be featured in this space before the conference, so be sure to check back regularly. Hope to see you all soon!

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

Robert Alter’s ‘The Art of Biblical Narrative’ and Qur’anic Narrative

By Leyla Ozgur Alhassen

Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative[1] is an introduction to the literary elements of Biblical narrative, and can be an extremely useful work for scholars of Qur’anic narrative. Below, I highlight certain aspects of Alter’s analysis of Biblical repetition and type-scenes, which can be especially useful for studies of Qur’anic narrative style.

According to Alter, Biblical narrative establishes patterns of repetition and then makes strategic changes in them; this can then serve the purpose of “commentary, analysis, foreshadowing, thematic assertion”[2] and “development of plot.”[3] We thus see “how substantially the same materials can be redeployed in order to make different points.”[4]

When we discuss repetition, it is useful to realize that there are many forms in which repetition can occur. Alter includes a list of repetitive techniques found in Biblical narrative, and all of them can be found in the Qur’an. His list moves from a small to a large scale: 1) Leitwort, the semantic root of a word is used repeatedly and in a variety of ways; 2) Motif, “a concrete image, sensory quality, action, or object recurs through a particular narrative”; 3) Theme, “an idea which is part of the value-system of the narrative . . . is made evident in some recurring pattern”; 4) Sequence of actions, a sequence of actions is repeated in “three consecutive repetitions, or three plus one, with some intensification or increment from one occurrence to the next, usually concluding either in a climax or a reversal”; and 5) Type-scene, “an episode . . . in the career of the hero which is composed of a fixed sequence of motifs.”[5]

The type-scene is a particular kind of repetition, which Alter discusses in detail. Alter lists examples of type-scenes in the Bible; many are also found in the Qur’an: “the annunciation . . . of the birth of the hero to his barren mother; the encounter with the future betrothed at a well; the epiphany in the field; the initiatory trial; danger in the desert and the discovery of a well or other source of sustenance; the testament of the dying hero.”[6] It would no doubt be a fruitful project to compare this list with Qur’anic narrative, and to see if there are other type-scenes more commonly found in the Qur’an. As with other kinds of repetition, the type-scene can be used in different ways; it can be “aborted,”[7] or “the total suppression of a type-scene may be a deliberate ploy of characterization and thematic argument.”[8]

According to Alter, the type-scene serves “an eminently monotheistic purpose: to reproduce in narrative the recurrent rhythm of a divinely appointed destiny in Israelite history.”[9] It would be worthwhile to explore ways in which the type-scene and other Qur’anic narrative devices similarly serve a monotheistic purpose in the Qur’an. In Alter’s work, we can see many ways in which insights from studies of Biblical narrative—repetition and type-scenes in particular—can be usefully applied to studies of Qur’anic narrative, and similarly be used to serve monotheistic purposes.

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

[1] Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative. New York: BasicBooks, 1981.
[2] Alter, p. 91.
[3] Alter, p. 100.
[4] Alter, p. 56.
[5] Alter, pp. 95-96.
[6] Alter, p. 51.
[7] Alter, p. 60.
[8] Alter, p. 61.
[9] Alter, p. 60.

“Fragmentation and Compilation” Workshop at the Institute for Ismaili Studies, London

By Holger Zellentin

This past week, an exciting conversation took place at the Institute for Ismaili Studies in London. The event was convened by one of the Institute’s researchers, Dr. Asma Hilali, who brought together a broad range of researchers in Qur’anic studies. The workshop was the second installment in a series titled “Fragmentation and Compilation,” which seeks to explore the difficult conceptualization of partial transmission and re-arrangement of various “particles” relating to the Qur’an. Among the elements considered in terms of their fragmentation and subsequent compilation were sketches of individual Qur’anic verses and their arrangement within the Qur’an (and beyond), Qur’anic reading instructions and textual variants, and the role of Jewish literary frameworks and exegetical traditions in our understanding of the Qur’an. Presentations were given on material evidence such as: the Ṣan‘ā’ palimpsest (Asma Hilali), early Qur’anic graffiti from Arabia (Frédéric Imbert), the various voices used in Qur’anic discourse (Mehdi Azaiez), the Qur’an’s integration of Jewish exegetical topoi (Holger Zellentin), and on the compositional features of Tafsir collections (Stephen Burge).

Photo by Frédéric Imbert

Photo by Frédéric Imbert

The presenters’ initially distinct points of departure were united by more than their common focus on the text of the Qur’an. Aziz Al-Azmeh served as a brilliant and erudite discussant, probing the theses and turning the focus of the public discussion towards one overarching topic: the palpability of both unity and dynamism within the Qur’anic text, in its traditional form as well as in its various early iterations. The discussion among the presenters and the notable guests (such as François Déroche, Gerald Hawting, and Hermann Landolt) explored two topics in particular. The first constituted the possibilities and challenges inherent to integrating a study of Qur’anic manuscripts with a study of the Arabian Qur’anic graffitis from the first two centuries after the Hijra. Adjacent foci here were the dating of the earliest graffitis; the importance of the Parisino-Petropolitanus codex from Fusṭāṭ (Ms. Arabe 328); and the difficulties pertaining to the carbon-dating, the palaeography, and the reconstruction of the Ṣan‘ā’ 1 palimpsest. Secondly, the discussion repeatedly returned to the limits and imperatives of considering a basic chronology of the Qur’an, and the need to differentiate between the development of micro- and macroforms: i.e. between individual stories or traditions and the Surahs as a whole. A more objective way of establishing an inner Qur’anic chronology, it was suggested, is perhaps the increasingly precise tracing of the relatively pointed appearance of Syriac and Rabbinic literary form and content in specific Surahs.

More than a few doctoral theses are yet to be written covering even the most basic preliminaries connecting the material evidence of the text with its relationship to Late Antiquity. The conference was framed by a discussion of the state of the field of Qur’anic studies, and included a presentation of recent research projects housed in Berlin, Notre Dame, and Nottingham. Overall, the open atmosphere and spirit of respectful inquiry was a great success for the organizer and the hosting institution. Those who have missed the event will be able to read the proceedings in a publication edited by Dr. Hilali.

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

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Would you like to see your work featured in this space? IQSA welcomes your blog submissions. Whether an interview, a summary of current research, or a report on an event in the world of Qur’anic studies, the format for our weekly posts is flexible.

Posts are ideally about 500 words, and can be written in the language of your choice. Send us your entries at We hope to hear from you!

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

Claiming Tradition Colloquium at Pembroke College, Oxford

By Nicolai Sinai

OXFORD—In doing modern Islamic intellectual history, it is easy to succumb to the temptation to concentrate one’s analytic efforts mainly on the specifically “modern” aspects of the thinkers and texts in question. In part, this may simply result from identifying one’s subject as “modern Islamic and/or Arabic thought,” extending, as it does, an implicit invitation to think primarily about the novel themes, ideas, and modes of communication that distinguish the intellectual production of the 19th and 20th centuries from earlier ages. In addition, apologetic presentations of modern values and ideas as already enshrined in the canonical sources of Islam often trigger predictable interventions by Western scholars—insisting, for example, that the Qur’anic reference to shūrā cannot really be equated with a call for democracy. However, to primarily position writers of the colonial and post-colonial periods against the background of contemporary events and modern Western thought entails the risk of viewing their moorings in the pre-modern tradition as superficial and rhetorical, or as precluding the exercise of any agency over it. Thus modern writers emerge either as strategically employing traditional concepts and ideas in order to serve as transparent guises for what are “really” imported Western notions, or as compulsively (and sometimes aggressively) parroting ancient traditions in an act of intellectual resistance.

Studying the intellectual history of the modern Islamic world, then, requires a difficult hermeneutical balancing act: without overlooking contemporary references, it is imperative to accord appropriate weight to the manifold and often complex ways in which Islam’s canonical texts and the pre-modern interpretive tradition are invoked, redirected and reconfigured—even where this does not directly contribute to locating an author on an ideal spectrum running from “modernism” to “Islamism.”

That such an approach can potentially facilitate a perception of modern Islamic texts and thinkers as more sophisticated and intellectually serious than they are often presented to be—this was the underlying conjecture throughout the colloquium “Claiming Tradition: Modern Re-Readings of the Classical Islamic Heritage,” which was held at Pembroke College, Oxford, on 27–28 September 2013.

After a keynote lecture delivered by Prof. Carole Hillenbrand dealing with classical and modern understandings of the term jihād, ten scholars based in the UK and Europe examined modern re-appropriations of pre-modern texts, genres, and figures. The topics discussed included modern Shi’ite legal theory (Robert Gleave) and Sunni hadith criticism (Christopher Melchert), modern contestations over the status of Abū Ḥanīfa (Ahmad Khan) and over the significance of Ibn Taymiyya’s anti-Mongol fatwas (John Hoover), 20th-century Qur’anic exegesis (Islam Dayeh, Nicolai Sinai, Karen Bauer), the use of classical Arabic poetry by Yemeni Jihadists (Elisabeth Kendall) and of the Islamic biographical and historiographical tradition in Zaynab Fawwāz’s (d. 1914) dictionary of famous women (Marilyn Booth), and finally the selection and arrangement of  ʿUmar Sulaymān al-Ashqar’s (d. 2012) popular compilation of eschatological traditions (Christian Lange).

From different angles, all the papers illustrated the need for an in-depth mastery of pre-modern sources by students of the intellectual history of the modern Islamic world, as well as the intrinsic interest of modern debates even for scholars of classical Islam.

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