Growing Pains of Qur’anic Studies

by Devin Stewart*

libraryOn the one hand, the explosion of interest in the Qur’an over the past several decades is a blessing, as it has produced a sharp rise in the rate at which scholarship in Qur’anic studies is being produced, as well as in the number of different approaches. Entire fields of inquiry that had been moribund for the latter half of the twentieth century have now come alive, including study of the manuscript traditions of the Qur’an and the relationship between the Qur’an and Jewish and Christian texts. On the other hand, such burgeoning interest means that, as with Biblical scholarship, the number of people writing on the topic is large, the number of studies is huge, and one must wade through a morass of published material presenting rehashed versions of old theses in order to find significant advances.

There is nothing wrong with a professor of creative writing, like Reza Aslan—or even the local motel night-clerk for that matter—publishing on the Qur’an, as long as the individual in question has something worth saying. To cast doubt on the person’s right to do so is indeed to make an ad hominem argument, and if one wanted to waste time, one could trump up a case and characterize Aaron Hughes as an expert in Jewish philosophy who is less than ideally qualified to issue judgments about the Qur’an or early Islamic history. Indeed, there are few doctoral programs in Qur’anic studies per se, so we could probably whittle down the category of professional scholars of Qur’anic studies to nearly nil. But, as a medieval Arabic adage has it, lā taʿrif al-ḥaqq bi’l-rijāl fa-taqaʿ fī mahāwī al-ḍalāl (“Do not know truth by the man, lest you fall into the abyss of error”). The issue is not whether the proponent of an idea is an amateur or a professional. Amateurs are capable of producing important results as long as they do their homework; conversely, professionals are capable of error if they don’t do theirs. The proof is in the pudding. After all, Michael Ventris, the architect who deciphered Linear B—to my mind one of the most brilliant achievements in the humanities in the twentieth century—was by all accounts an amateur. The problem with Aslan’s posts on this blog is that they do not present anything new and interesting about the Qur’an, and so fall into that benign but unfortunate category of scholarship-lite™, which, as the Qur’an becomes increasingly popular, will not go away anytime soon. The appropriate response is probably silence, or perhaps a disgruntled yawn in the privacy of one’s living room.

IQSA might serve to raise the average quality of publications on the Qur’an by continuing to do what it has set out to do: holding conferences, publishing a journal, fostering global scholarly exchange, and so on. By guiding interested parties to what has been done in scholarship to date, we may avoid reinventing the wheel, which in my view is a major problem in Qur’anic studies, because many writers on the Qur’an have only limited knowledge of Arabic and maybe one or two other languages and so do not take adequate account of what has been done in medieval and modern scholarship in many different languages—especially modern German scholarship. The publication of the Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an (not to mention its translation into Persian, currently in progress) was a major step in remedying this situation, as were the publications of English and Arabic translations of Goldziher’s Die Richtungen der islamischen Koranauslegung and Nöldeke’s Geschichte des Korans, but additional guidance would be useful in the form of bibliographical guides (such as Karimi-Nia’s Bibliography of Qur’anic Studies in European Languages) for neophytes of all stripes.

​One quick way for investigators to orient themselves to existing scholarship before proposing what they think is a novel interpretation of a Qur’anic passage is to look at Rudi Paret’s Der Koran: Kommentar und Konkordanz, which gives parallel verses for passages in question and also brief reports on much of the previous scholarship on the passage. Like Brockelmann’s Geschichte der Arabischen Litteratur, Paret’s book may be used to some effect even by those without a profound knowledge of German, although some familiarity with German certainly helps.  I have often found that our Qur’an seminar sessions benefit from an initial look at Paret to avoid reinventing the wheel.

* Devin Stewart is Associate Professor of Arabic and Middle Eastern studies at Emory University.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2015. All rights reserved.

New! A Bibliography of Qur’anic Studies

By Andrew Rippin



Following is the text of my foreword to Morteza Karimi-Nia, Bibliography of Qur’anic Studies in European Languages (Qum: Center for Translation of the Holy Quran [CTHQ], March 2013). The bibliography is comprised of 8812 entries; as described in Karimi-Nia’s introduction, it is an exhaustive bibliography of books and articles published in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, and Latin, within the time-span of 1500-2012 CE. The works catalogued fall in the following categories: general books and bibliographies, Qur’anic sciences (all branches), history of the Qur’an, Qur’anic scripts and manuscripts, tafsīr works and studies, history of tafsīr and the exegetes, Qur’an translators and translation studies, Qur’anic vocabulary and etymology, studies focusing on Qur’anic verses, Suras, personages, or concepts, Qur’anic scholars, the Qur’an and challenges of the modern world, and critiques of Western Qur’anic works. It does not include translations of the Qur’an as such.


A bibliography is defined as “a list of writings relating to a given subject.” It is that, of course, but it is also so very much more. A bibliography serves to define a field of study and to document that field’s history, contours, and participants. It displays in a lucid way how areas of interest come and go over time, and, in its silences and absences, suggests areas of investigation that still need attention.

This bibliography of Qur’anic studies tells us a great deal about our discipline as it has unfolded in European languages. Several observations may be made. For one, the extent of this bibliography has reached proportions that no individual scholar could hope to be intimately acquainted with all of its entries. That state of affairs reflects not only the general phenomenon of the explosion of knowledge—and of the access to that knowledge—in contemporary times but also the significant increase in interest in the scholarly study of the Qur’an in recent decades. The range of topics that this bibliography covers is impressive as well; it is possible to see the emergence of sub-disciplines within Qur’anic studies in the way subjects start to cohere: manuscript studies, tafsīr studies, textual studies, thematic studies, historical studies, the Qur’an in ritual, and so forth.

It is also worth noticing the range of names associated with the scholarly endeavor of Qur’anic studies reflected in this bibliography. Given that all this writing is in European languages, it is notable that the names of the authors reflect the global diversity that is the academic world today. On the basis of those names alone, one would have difficulty in asserting that research in this area is the domain of one particular culture, language, ethnicity, gender, or religion. This fact signifies a number of things. It shows that the Qur’an has truly entered into the canon of world literature, subject to analysis through a wide range of methods, approaches and presuppositions. It also uncovers a hopeful message for the future. I often encounter expressions of distrust when it comes to considering writings about the Qur’an stemming from “outside” Islam. Certainly it is possible to point to entries in this bibliography that no reputable scholar would wish to cite as anything other than a component in the history of the discipline: the existence of bias and questionable motives on the part of some writers must be acknowledged and we must all be alert to the need to detect it (and to teach our students how to assess their sources critically). However, what a bibliography such as this shows us is the active dialogue and debate that is taking place in the academic world of Qur’anic studies across every border and boundary. And that, I believe, is a positive sign that should encourage further development of scholarly studies of the Qur’an and its world.

In the end, however, a bibliography is primarily a research tool, one that allows us access to what other scholars have investigated. The importance of that cannot be overstated. Scholarship must take place as a conversation, a back-and-forth between the individual academic and the scholarly community. It is only in such a way that scholarship can move ahead; that is also how we come to understand the history of why certain questions have become focal points for investigation and why research questions are framed in the way that they are. Every new piece of scholarship must, if it is to be useful and significant, stand in an acknowledged relationship with what has come before it. Thus, this bibliography is an indispensible tool, and all scholars of the Qurʾān from all around the world owe a substantial debt of gratitude to Morteza Karimi-Nia for his efforts in producing this invaluable resource.

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