Arabic Inscriptions at Shivta in the Early Islamic Period

By Bilha Moor*

Moor, Bilha. “Mosque and Church: Arabic Inscriptions at Shivta in the Early Islamic Period.” JSAI 40 (2013), pp. 73-141.

This study examines a missing puzzle piece in the history of Shivta (Sobata) and its monuments, as it sheds light on the transitional period between Byzantine and Islamic rule in southern Palestine. For the first time, it presents and analyzes the undated Arabic inscriptions found at the mosque and the North Church of the town in the excavations of 1933-34. Comprehensive paleographic analysis dates the inscriptions to the Umayyad or early ‘Abbasid period, ca. 700-760 CE. The study also shows that some of the inscriptions comprise a uniquely large and early corpus of Qur’anic verses, second only to the Umayyad Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem (72 AH/691-2 CE).

View towards the south square of Shivta (Photo by B. Moor)

View towards the south square of Shivta (Photo by B. Moor)

Altogether there are seven Arabic inscriptions written in angular script,none of which is dated. Six of them had been incised on limestone, and found at the mosque. Another very large painted inscription on plaster was divided and removed from a wall in the North Church by the excavators, and has been kept in separate frames ever since. All the inscriptions are now kept at the Rockefeller Museum, Jerusalem.

Of special interest for IQSA members would be four inscriptions from the mosque, signed by three calligraphers. These are mainly comprised of Qur’anic verses.  Altogether thirteen verses from six different Suras were chosen, both makkiyya and madaniyya. None of the inscriptions consists of a whole chapter; in fact, there are four verses maximum per inscription. One inscription combines four verses from four different Suras. Occasionally, the verse has not been cited in its entirety, though the inscription has been wholly preserved.  One inscription demonstrates that the calligrapher, or the person who chose the verses, took some liberties and edited one of them by simply skipping or omitting a line, or a few words. Another inscription evinces a remarkable combination of two almost identical verses from two different Suras.

The verses address several fundamental issues in Islamic belief, namely: God as the creator, Muḥammad as the messenger of God, and the opposition to shirk, as if to declare the dogma of the new Muslim sovereigns. One verse, concerning the acceptance of other messengers in general, might have consciously addressed the Christian population of the town—who presumably continued their religious practices in the undamaged churches of Shivta—and tried to bring them closer to the new growing Islamic faith.

* Bilha Moor is a Rothschild postdoctoral fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), Department of the History of Art and Archaeology. 

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

A review of A.J. Droge, The Qur’an: A New Annotated Translation

By Ayman Ibrahim

One of the major goals of IQSA is to encourage research, discussion, and scholarship on the Qur’an and its literary features and historical formation. Arthur Droge’s The Qur’ān: A New Annotated Translation is a very positive contribution to the growing research on Islam’s scripture, particularly with regards to translating its meanings. Successfully placing his work within serious scholarly studies, Droge is to be congratulated and commended for his critical annotated translation, and its detailed, articulate, and thorough investigation. He “aims not at elegance but strives for as literal a rendering of the Arabic as English will allow” (xxxv). He is interested not only in the scholarly theories and methods surrounding the interpretation of the Qur’an but also in its relationship to pre-Qur’anic texts. Droge is evidently knowledgeable of and comfortable with the texts of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, as well as the interacting discourses of the Qur’an with them. Moreover, he demonstrates great awareness and familiarity with other earlier translations of the Qur’an by Muslims (Pickthall, Yusuf Ali, and Abdel Haleem) and non-Muslims (Bell and Arberry) (xxii, xxvi).

51rvkcm01IL._SY300_Methodologically, the author adopts and builds upon earlier studies, such as those of Daniel Madigan’s The Qur’ān Self Image and Gabriel Reynolds’s The Qur’ān in its Biblical Subtext, by attempting to understand the Qur’an on its own terms, setting “the traditional story of Islamic origins aside” (xiii). Droge acknowledges that this approach in dealing with the Qur’an is not the most common, as “both religious and secular scholars are committed to the view that the Qur’an corresponds to the career of Muḥammad” (xi). However, he convincingly argues for his approach, affirming that the Qur’an does not demand the reader to distinguish between different chronological periods or geographical places to understand the text (xi-xii). It is obvious that Droge does not seek controversy, as he shows restraint in the questions he asks (xiv), and the claims he makes (xxvi, xxxii). Yet he still supports his choice of such a critical approach, as he affirms that: “reverence may be a religious virtue, but it should not be a scholarly one” (xiii). Adopting such an approach does not mean that he dismisses tradition altogether. Throughout his analysis, he refers and reflects on the tradition for comparison and contrasts, without “letting tradition (sīra and tafsīr) fill in the gaps or predetermine the meaning of the [Qur’anic] text” (xxxvi).

In his attempt to adhere to the literal English rendition of the Arabic text, Droge demonstrates competency, as he provides impressive word choices. Two examples will make my point here. First, consider Surat ‘Āl ʿImrān (Q 3:49), especially the part of the verse which reads annī akhluq lakum. Yusuf Ali and Abdel Haleem render the verb akhluq as “make,” while Pickthall and Sher Ali as “fashion,” and Hilali-Khan as “design.” For no obvious reason they seem to refrain from rending the verb as “create,” although two verses earlier (Q 3:47) they render yakhluq as “creates.” Droge chooses the correct literal English rendition: create. In his word choice, he is not only accurate but also consistent, as he renders this same verb root similarly throughout the text (e.g. compare Q 2:21, 29, 164, 228). Second, consider the word al-ṭāghūt, which perplexes translators. Although the Qur’an clearly links it with al-shayṭān in (Q 4:76), Pickthall renders it “idols,” Yusuf Ali “Evil,” Khalifa “tyranny,” and Abdel Haleem, “an unjust cause.” Droge keeps it in the text as al-ṭāghūt, and offers adequate explanations in footnotes, referring to its other occurrences and suggesting a textual meaning (Q 2:256, 257; 4:51, 60, 76; 5:60; 16:36; 39:17). While he affirms that the word could be merely another name for al-shayṭān, he still explains the semantic range of the word, referring to a possible related word in Ethiopic, holding tight to a literal rendition, as much as English allows. This is an excellent choice by Droge. It is noteworthy to mention, however, that unlike al-ṭāghūt, he treats the word fitna differently (e.g. Q 2:191, 193, 217; 8:39, 73; 9:47, 48, 49). Acknowledging its apparent various meanings, he translates it within the text, using different words (persecution, trouble, discord), depending on the text. He offers an explanation for his word choice in a footnote. While in both cases of al-ṭāghūt and fitna he is faithful to the apparent meaning of the word, as he strives for the literal rendering, it seems that his treatment of al-ṭāghūt (keeping it without translation within the text) is a bit better than that of fitna (translating it differently in the various passages throughout the Qur’an).

The translation is very attractive, and one of its major strengths lies in its extensive reliance on references and explanations—the entire text is annotated in a meticulous and detailed way. Moreover, the Index (461-488) is one of the features of the book that students and teachers may find very helpful. While Droge lists important works on the Qur’an in his “Guide to Further Reading” (xxxix-xli), it would make the translation even more helpful to readers if there were some indications of important and relevant secondary studies when appropriate and needed, especially after specific explanations offered in the footnotes. For instance, in sūrat al-Baqara (Q 2:30; footnote #38), after explaining the word khalīfa, it would be helpful to refer to some scholarly works that treat such an important word; similarly, Q 2:106, footnote # 130, and so forth. Obviously, this would make the volume a bit larger in size, yet it would definitely add to its great value for students.

There are very few typographical errors. The word wādi should be wādī (xvi), al-Ṭīn should be al-Tīn in Sura 95, and the name of the prophet Hūd is erroneously written Ḥūd throughout the text (with a ḥā’ as the first letter, instead of hā’). It is a pleasant relief to know that these minor errors have been corrected in the upcoming second printing, which will be released before the summer of 2014, according to the author. Moreover, some of Droge’s word choices need more explanation. Consider the word ḥaṣab in Surat al-Anbiyā’ (Q 21:98). The author renders it “coals,” but there is no stated explanation regarding this decision. There should be an annotation here, at least a brief note indicating the nature of his rendition. The same goes for umma in (Q 12:45), abbān in (Q 80:31), and so forth. It is understandable that Droge works with the standard Cairo Arabic (uncritical) text of the Qur’an. It will be interesting to see if future translations of the Qur’an explore the possibilities raised by emendations to that text. However, these minor causes for critique do not undermine the exceptional effort done in this valuable translation. They are understandable in a work of this size, especially in its first edition.

This translation is an excellent one. I have already assigned it in my class, “Islamic Texts: Qur’ān and Ḥadīth.” Droge’s work provides the field of Qur’anic Studies with a rich and meticulously researched translation that is particularly appropriate at a time when interest in the Qur’an is growing. The field of Qur’anic Studies is in need of rigorous academic scholarship more than ever, and Droge’s translation of the Qur’an provides just that.

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


Announcing IQSA’s Inaugural Executive Board

The International Qur’anic Studies Association is pleased to announce its inaugural ARExecutive Board. We are honored to welcome a wonderful roster of Qur’anic Studies scholars to the Board, including:

Please see our updated People page for a full listing.

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

New book: Shaping a Qur’anic Worldview

By Vanessa De Gifis*

It is commonplace in Islamic studies to acknowledge, in a general or clichéd way, that the Qur’an has an influence on Islamic thought and society. My new book, Shaping a Qurʾānic Worldview, was motivated by the desire to better understand the practical mechanisms by which Muslims bring the Qur’an to bear on real-world decision making. It is the first book to systematically examine references to the Qur’an in early medieval Islamic politics in light of classical Arabic-Islamic rhe9780415735964torical and grammatical-semantic theories.

Classical theoretical considerations of rhetorical circumstance, author-audience interlocution, and grammatical-semantic features inform my own approach to correlating the circumstances and techniques of Qur’anic referencing. I deploy the basic interrogatives─when, who, what, where, how, and why─that correspond to distinct yet interrelated areas of authorial deliberation manifested in political texts:

  • When does Qur’anic referencing occur?
  • Who are the interlocutors?
  • What Qur’anic elements (verses, themes, literary forms) appear?
  • Where along the rhetorical trajectory do Qur’anic elements appear?
  • How are Qur’anic elements grammatically rendered and framed?
  • Why are Qur’anic references logically or rhetorically persuasive?

To illustrate the critical connections between the formal techniques of Qur’anic referencing and the socio-historical circumstances of their execution, the book presents a case study of Arabic texts attributed to the ʿAbbāsid Caliph al-Maʾmūn (r. 813-833 C.E.), who is famous for entwining scriptural theology and political machination in his controversial “test” (mihna) to enforce the doctrine of the createdness of the Qur’an, and whose rule coincided with the maturation of classical Islamic political thought and literary culture. Rhetorical analysis reveals how Qur’anic referencing functions as analogical exegesis, whereby verses in the Qur’an are reinterpreted through the lens of subjective experience, and at the same time socio-historical experiences are understood in Qur’anic terms. Through strategic deployment of scriptural references within the logical scheme of rhetorical argument, the Caliph constructs moral analogies between paradigmatic characters in the Qur’an and people in his social milieu, and situates himself as a pivotal moral reformer and agent of divine command, in order to persuade his audiences of the necessity of the Caliphate and the religio-moral imperative of obedience to his authority.

The Maʾmūnid case study contains classical examples of ubiquitous themes and techniques of Qur’anic referencing, indicative of the nature and function of the phenomenon across historical periods. Exploring the use of the Qur’an in rhetorical argument is especially apt to discern inter-subjective, negotiated understandings of the Qur’an, in a mode of interpretation that is inherently and deliberately more dialogical than conventional exegetical literature. My aim with the book is to contribute to ongoing scholarly inquiries about the rhetorical features of the Qur’anic corpus and to stimulate broader conversations about the practical impact of the Qur’an on the articulation of distinctly Islamic moral values and historical vision.

*DeGifis is Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies and Graduate Advisor for Near Eastern Languages at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. Her book, Shaping a Qurʾānic Worldview, will be available in e-book form on April 11, 2014. She welcomes correspondence at

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