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.

10 thoughts on “Book review: Aims, Methods and Contexts of Qurʾanic Exegesis

  1. Great review! But I am ashamed to admit that I do not fully understand Gabriel’s statement, that tafsir deserves to be studied for its own sake, “and not only as an accessory to the study of the Qurʾan”. If tafsir is not an accessory to the study of the Qur’an, then what is it, “in its own sake”? True, it has aims, methods and contexts which deserve to be studied, but aren’t these first and foremost developed in order to explain the meaning of the Qur’an?

  2. This work looks very valuable, and this review is excellent. I can’t wait to look at a copy of this book.

  3. While I am at it: another query emerging from Gabriel’s review text: if the aim is to study the Qur’an as text, as opposed to through the lens of tafsir, why is “Late Antiquity” a more neutral lens for viewing the Qur’an “as text” than tafsir? Methodologically speaking, it seems more reasonable to say that Late Antiquity is one approach to the Qur’an, tafsir is another. Unless of course one looks for the roots of tafsir in Late Antiquity? (But now I’m just trying to be difficult!)

    • Hi Ulrika – Thank you for your excellent (and challenging) questions! I meant to refer to the way in which tafsir is frequently discussed “along the way” in papers and books dedicated to Quranic Studies. Yet from a scholarly perspective aren’t papers and books focused on tafsir just as important? It would be good, for example, to have an “Encyclopedia of Tafsir” — in which there were in depth studies of mufassirun, their methods, periods or genres or schools of tafsir, etc. — next to the Encyclopedia of the Qur’an.

      I think Late Antiquity is different, since we might ask how the Quran itself is dealing with Late Antique literature, traditions etc.


      • Hi Gabriel! Thanks in return! There are several issues emerging from your text about Bauer’s book. For sure, research on tafsir is important, even very important, and there remains generations of work to be done to in that respect. The issue which really determines how such research is structure is whether or not tafsir is seen as a scholarly discipline and as such simply earlier than current attempts to explain the Qur’an — such as those undertaken by IQSA’s members — or if it is something else, in the sense of ‘confessional’, ‘law-oriented’, and so on? I am for methodological and substantial reasons unwilling to separate tafsir from contemporary scholarship when it comes to whether one reads meaning into the Qur’an or finds a meaning which sits there and waits to be discovered. “Late Antiquity” projects are no more scholarly than al-Tabari’s tafsir, for both methodological and,substantial reasons. There is “stuff” in the tafsirs about the origins of Islam and the Qur’an which is equally historical in its approach to the text and its relations with Jews and Christians. The question is if one is interested in identifying tafsir as actually having something to say about the Qur’an as a historical document, or not? An Encyclopedia of Tafsir is a great idea, if it focuses on methodologies etc. But essentially the medieval muffassirun’s views on subjects of entries in Encyclopedia of the Qur’an are ALSO part of the history of research on the Qur’an. And whatever argument advanced to counter this statement needs to consider in what way current Qur’an research is less subjective/institutionalised/discursive/you-name-it than medieval scholarship? There are of course differences between scholars, also in terms of the quality of research, but that difference does not in a straightforward manner follow the distinction between tafsir and contemporary scholarship.

  4. Having given the question of an Encyclopedia of Tafsir further thought, I asked “what would be a really useful tool for research on tafsir?” For me that would be: an “Encyclopedia of methodologies in Islamic disciplines and Islamic studies”, where the crossings between “traditional” Islamic disciplines and modern ones which study Islam can be mapped, preferably with links to such excellent tools as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which already contains lots of entries on Islamic topics/thinkers, as part of their effort to build a Universal Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Tafsir would thus be part and parcel of general methodologies, which would shed light on how it relates to other Islamic disciplines, as well as “other kinds of Islamic studies”, or how to put it.

  5. Hi Ulrika, Thanks for your thought-provoking comments! I think that your questions about whether tafsir can tellus anything about the Qur’an really echo the questions that Hamza raises in his essay in the volume. I also mention the issue of whether tafsir and the Qur’an can be considered separately in my introdution (p. 7-8 especially). I do think that tafsir is inherently connected to the Qur’an, but as the essays in the volume show, there are many methods present in tafsir, and many approaches. I find it useful, therefore, to study it as a literary genre, to try to understand how the methods and intellectual contexts of these texts shape the content of these works. The methods in tafsir are naturally different from, say, the methods in fiqh, in Adab, in ta’rikh, or in hadith, because these genres all have distinct aims and a distinct purpose. But just becuase they present different information, or present it indifferent ways, it doesn’t mean that they are meant to be read separately. It is likely that authors in one genre took the others for granted, at least to a certain extent. And of course there is some crossover between them, particularly in the Classical period and beyond. Tariq Jaffer’s article highlights the crossover from falsafa into Fakhr al-Din al-Razi’s tafsir; Roberto Tottoli meanwhile focuses on the differences between hadith works and tafsir works. And for fiqh, there is crossover in many tafsir works, but also there is the whole genre of Ahkam al-Qur’an, which focuses especially on fiqh rulings. The point I’m making is that, while tafsir’s genre constraints are important to take into account, it is by no means a monolithic genre that has one approach to the Qur’an. And of course some works of tafsir will have a closer reading of the Qur’anic verses than others.

  6. Thanks Karen for the insights into the book, which looks really great! I hope you didn’t take my critical comments here as aimed at the book? They were aiming at Gabriel’s review of it, and the way he framed the relationship between tafsir and “the study of the Qur’an as-it-is”, to put it somewhat too simply, to stress the point. While everyone can agree that scientific methods and technical support tools have developed since early medieval times, hermeneutics and interpretive methods have actually not: it is the same epistemological and methodical questions that arise again and again and again. Now the adherents of “we study the Qur’an as it really is”, i.e. against the background of Late Antiquity. meaning comparing it with Christian and Jewish and other materials, aregue that they represent a more “neutral scientific” way of explaining the Qur’an’s origins than for example al-Tabari’s explanation. But that is not hermeneutically or methodically tenable. It is A way of explaining the Qur’an, with its own context-dependent interests and aims, but no less biased than explaining the Qur’an with reference to tafsir. But then, we all tend to spin our own favourite approaches as the most interesting/worthwhile etc. ones … I myself being no exception, of course! 🙂 Much like you say in your excellent book: the reason another tafsir was produced was because another scholar wanted to promote his own view of how the Qur’an should be read. Just replace tafsir for “monograph” or, if short of time, “article”. Academic competition in Abbasid Baghdad was probably even sharper than in today’s academic market.

    It should also be noted that there is a lot of historical data in tafsirs, although it is scattered and not welded into a coherent scientific narrative of the origins of the Qur’an. But that is perhaps not because the exegetes were loath to discuss these matters, or because they were religious apologists. It may have been because it was self-evident to them, and they instead focused on deriving law and doctrine from the Qur’an (the text’s Sitz im Leben).

    I skid off topic somewhat here, sorry about that!

    • Hi Ulrika, no I didn’t take it as a critique of the book, but I thought maybe some of the essays in the book spoke to your concerns. I any case, I think you raise some really interesting issues here. I particularly like the point that certain matters are not discussed because they may have been self-evident to the mufassirun.

      • Well, yes! Even such a primer as Ibn Hisham’s edition of Ibn Ishaq’s Sira puts the Prophet and the Qur’an in the midst of Jews and Christians; this can be seen as naîve “piety”, as I think Emran El-Badawi puts it in his new book, or as a fundamental historical awareness that the Qur’an is unintelligible except against the background of the communities who identify with the Bibles. If the purpose was to produce piety, why make the entire revelation dependent upon the Bible? For sure, “legitimisation”. But then again, if someone wants to delete historical traces of connections with Judaism and Christianity and claim divine origins, why use the same historical traces to “legitimise” the new message? In my view, the whole enterprise of declaring early Muslim historians and exegetes as religious apologists (i.e. takfiring them from the academic community) trips over the very concept of ahl al-kitab. if we understand that term literally. Being a non-religious person myself, I never cease to be fascinated over how radically historical Islamic historical writing actually is, and that there seems to be no conflict between history and revelation, at least not in the early histories. I would even say that it is the ‘western’ discursive practice of not identifying with Islam which makes it hard for us to understand that Muslim historians did not see the historical relationship between the Qur’an and the Biblical literature/s as a problem of faith. Hard to prove, of course, but still: Does “Christian academic culture” have a problem reconciling history and faith? And what does that imply in terms of the treatment of Islamic history?

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