Unlocking the Medinan Qur’an

Conference Report: International Workshop held at Pembroke College, Oxford   (19–21 March 2017)

The surahs and passages that are commonly associated with the Medinan period of Muhammad’s life occupy a key position in the formative history of Islam. They fundamentally shaped later convictions about the paradigmatic authority of Muhammad and thereby fueled the post-Qur’anic emergence of the hadith canon; they constitute an important basis for Islam’s development into a religion with a strong focus on law; and it is by and large only in Medinan texts that we find injunctions to militancy and an explicit demarcation of Islam from Judaism and Christianity. A proper comprehension of the Medinan Qur’an is thus crucially important to our understanding of Islamic religious history in general. At the same time, the Medinan surahs have proven much more recalcitrant to scholarly analysis than the texts that are customarily assigned to the Qur’an’s Meccan period. The workshop Unlocking the Medinan Qur’an, funded by the British Arts and Humanities Research Council (grant reference AH/M011305/1), assembled an international group of scholarly experts, from doctoral students to senior professors, to grapple with the Qur’an’s Medinan layer from a variety of methodological vantage points and historical premises. A generous donation by Brian Wilson, a long-standing benefactor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Pembroke College, made it possible to open up the proceedings to a much more extensive audience than had originally been anticipated.

Perhaps the most fundamental question to be posed during the workshop was whether and to what extent the subdivision of the Qur’anic corpus into an earlier Meccan and a later Medinan layer, a division inherited from medieval Islamic scholarship, remains a valid assumption for contemporary literary and historical research. Most speakers seemed comfortable continuing to employ the distinction, if only to designate the fact that the material that medieval Muslim and/or modern scholars have allocated to the Qur’an’s Medinan period is united by a certain number of salient stylistic, terminological, and doctrinal features that set it apart from the remaining portions of the Islamic scripture. Many of the papers accordingly explored specific themes and preoccupations that are prima facie characteristic of the Medinan Qur’an. Andrew O’Connor (University of Notre Dame) investigated the significantly increased status and authority that Medinan surahs ascribe to the Qur’anic Messenger, memorably characterised by David Marshall as Muhammad’s “godward movement”, and examined cases in which the Medinan surahs’ signature demand of obedience to “God and His Messenger” seems to be present in, or foreshadowed by, Meccan surahs. A flip side of the Medinan surahs’ demand for obedience to the Messenger is constituted by their denigration of some of their recipients as “hypocrites” lacking in obedience and commitment, a term whose etymology and meaning was analysed by Devin Stewart (Emory University). Legal and ritual commandments in the Medinan surahs were addressed by Angelika Neuwirth (Free University Berlin) and Holger Zellentin (University of Nottingham). Neuwirth reconstructed the likely pre-history of the change of the direction of prayer (qiblah) mandated in Q 2:142–150, maintaining that it most likely supplanted a qiblah towards Jerusalem that had already been introduced prior to the hijrah, while Zellentin examined the late antique context of a number of legal and law-related passages such as Q 4:15–18, which Zellentin argued contains a prohibition of sex between men and of sex between women.

Perhaps the central problem in the study of the Medinan surahs is the question of their literary organisation as well as their compositional history. The topic was first broached by Marianna Klar (SOAS), who presented an analysis of the opening section of Q 2 (vv. 1–39) in the light of a multitude of lexical and structural parallels from other surahs, both Meccan and Medinan. Klar argued that the introduction of Q 2, which is strikingly reminiscent of two Meccan surah openings, was crafted in order to serve as the prelude to an already extant Medinan sermon beginning at v. 40. Adam Flowers (University of Chicago) proposed that Medinan surahs should generally be seen as secondary compilations of genetically independent prophetic utterances and outlined an analysis of Q 49 into its component pronouncements. Nora K. Schmid (Free University Berlin) contrasted the different ways in which both Meccan and Medinan surahs employ questions and then went on to embed the Qur’anic use of questions in late antique literary culture. Nicolai Sinai (University of Oxford) examined the phenomenon of serially iterated paragraph openers, especially vocatives, showing that these are frequently employed to engender compositionally meaningful patterns of clustering and alternation that serve as the structural backbones of many Medinan texts.

The workshop’s remaining presentations engaged in a study of specific surahs or passages. Walid Saleh (University of Toronto) undertook a detailed analysis of Q 16, which Saleh proposed to read, not as a Meccan surah that was subsequently updated by a number of Medinan insertions, but rather as a “transitional text” documenting the incipient emergence of some key themes and concepts of the Medinan Qur’an. Gabriel Reynolds (University of Notre Dame) analysed Q 61 and 66, two comparatively short surahs that are conventionally classed as Medinan. Responding to Andrew Bannister’s recent contention that the Qur’an’s heavy reliance on formulaic language points to oral composition, Reynolds reminded the audience of Gregor Schoeler’s finding that Abbasid-era poetry that was certainly composed in writing can nonetheless be highly formulaic. An opposing position – namely, that the employment of formulaic systems does indicate oral composition – was espoused by Cecilia Palombo (Princeton University), whose paper focussed on the use of formulaic language in different Qur’anic accounts of the Israelites’ worship of the Golden Calf. Joseph Witztum (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem) examined the passages in which the Israelites (Q 2:55–56 and 4:153) and Moses (Q 7:143) demanded or requested to see God. Witztum presented a comprehensive study of the Biblical and Rabbinic antecedents to these passages and analysed the Qur’anic adaptation of pre-existing exegetical and narrative motifs. Karen Bauer (Institute of Ismaili Studies) emphasised the importance of studying Qur’anic constructions of and appeals to emotions, putting forward a detailed case study of what Bauer termed the “emotional plot” of Q 8. The workshop’s concluding presentation by Neal Robinson was dedicated to Q 5. After a critical review of Michel Cuypers’ recent monograph on the text, Robinson proceeded to explore the surah’s complex intertextual resonances, with a particular focus on the concluding section about Jesus (vv. 109–120), and put forward a novel argument in favour of dating the text to the year 631 CE.

-Nicolai Sinai, University of Oxford

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2017. 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.