Qur’anic Counter-Discourse

by Mehdi Azaiez*

My new book, Le contre-discours coranique (Berlin: DeGruyter, 2015), focuses on a distinctive literary form in the Qur’an: “counter-discourse”—that is, the discourse of the Qur’an’s opponents as represented in the qur’anic text itself. Qur’anic counter-discourse appears in the form of direct reported speech, easily identifiable by the formula “they say.” The first example in the canonical text appears in Q Baqarah 2:8:

وَمِنَ النَّاسِ مَنْ يَقُولُ آمَنَّا بِاللَّهِ وَبِالْيَوْمِ الْآخِرِ وَمَا هُمْ بِمُؤْمِنِينَ

wa-min al-nās man yaqūlu āmannā bi’llāh wa-bi’l-yawm al-ākhir wa-mā hum bi-muminīn

Among the people are those who say, We believe in God and the Last Day, but they do not believe.

We can easily recognize the statement marked above in bold as the words of an (anonymous) opponent. My book identifies such statements throughout the qur’anic text, and examines them from historical, linguistic, and rhetorical perspectives.

Historically, counter-discourse implies the existence of vocal opponents to the Qur’an. What, then, does such discourse reveal about these opponents’ identities and beliefs, and about the historical context in which they reportedly spoke? Linguistically, counter-discourse in the Qur’an consists of distinctive narrative and dialogical forms. What forms are used in the qur’anic text to record opponents’ sayings, and what forms are used to refute them? Rhetorically, counter-discourse seems to pose interesting ontological and argumentative paradoxes. How does a text considered by most Muslims to be divine speech incorporate the speech of those who are not divine, and who deny the Qur’an’s message? How does the qur’anic text give voice to opposition without legitimating it?

My book aims to address these questions in three stages. The first identifies and defines the subject (Chapters I-III), the second determines and quantifies a corpus of evidence (Chapters IV-V), and the third analyzes this corpus by querying its themes, forms, and evolution (Chapters VI-IX). This last stage includes both synchronic and diachronic approaches. I first undertake an intratextual reading of the Qur’an. I describe the discursive operations through which the Qur’an represents multiple voices (e.g. God, believers, disbelievers) and constructs counter-discourse and apologetic discourse. Indeed, the speech of opponents is never reported without reply, and we repeatedly encounter the emblematic formula of “they say . . . say . . .” (yaqūlūna . . . fa-qul . . .). This dialogue between counter-discourse and reply creates what can be called an argumentative question (a recent linguistic notion in the theory of argumentation). With this in mind, I analyze reported oppositional speech in terms of the replies it entails, paying special attention to how one counter-discourse can receive multiple different qur’anic replies.

I then undertake an intertextual reading, querying the possible usage of counter-discourse in late antique texts, namely biblical and parabiblical literatures such as Christian apocrypha and the Talmud. This considerable task is only introduced in my book. Comparative analysis of some eschatological qur’anic and talmudic counter-discourses has already yielded encouraging results, as I have shown in “Les contre-discours eschatologiques dans le Coran et le traité du Sanhédrin” (in Déroche et al., eds., Les origines du Coran: Le Coran des origines [Paris: Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, 2015], 111-128).

Throughout Le contre-discours coranique, I propose a formal typology of qur’anic counter-discourse, assess its distribution and importance, and outline its formal and discursive features (e.g., types of refutation, types of opponent, and internal evolution). Diagrams, graphs, and tables accompany the study in order to enhance our appreciation of this discursive corpus.

Let me now highlight some of my findings. In quantitative terms, 588 verses contain some type of counter-discourse. There are three types: past (e.g., of Pharaoh or the people of Noah), present (e.g., against the Qur’an or Muhammad), and future (e.g., of the damned in hell). Respectively, they comprise 38%, 46%, and 16% of all qur’anic counter-discourses. The majority of “present” counter-discourses represent the important mise en scene of adversaries situated in the time of the qur’anic revelations. These adversaries argue against God (29%), against Muhammad (27%), against the Qur’an (20%), against final judgment (19%), and against the community of believers (6%). On the other hand, qur’anic replies to their arguments aim to strengthen the Qur’an’s author (the qur’anic God), its primary addressee and enunciator (Muhammad), its actual enunciation (the Qur’an as a process of divine revelation), its message (especially one of the most recurrent themes: eschatology), and its secondary addressees (the first community of believers). The presentation of counter-discourses and their replies is done with strategic constraints that aim at denigrating the qur’anic opponents. These strategies are principally isolation and focus. With the help of examples from Sūrat al Furqān and Sūrat al-Wāqiʿah analyzed in Chapter VIII of my book, I demonstrate how the counter-discourses are neutralized by the fact that they are in the minority, decentralized, and surrounded by statements that refute them.

An important aim of Le contre-discours coranique is to address the question of how analysis of counter-discourse can help us better understand the socio-historical context of the emergence of the Qur’an. To say that the text of the Qur’an reflects a context of sectarian polemics is not new. What my book offers, however, is a fresh analysis of present counter-discourses that strongly supports recent suggestions—namely by Crone, Hawting, and Reynolds—to enroll qur’anic polemics in the religious controversies of Late Antiquity.

It is likely that the historical portraits of Muhammad’s opponents in the traditional Islamic sources (especially the sīrah literature) are problematic. To put it more precisely, the opponents of the Qur’an were probably not pagans. Their objections, as reported in qur’anic counter-discourse, are mostly monotheistic in character. Statements that imply that they may have been pagan are very few (see my Chapter VII), and appear to be based on a discursive strategy of exaggeration that is typical of polemical language. Moreover, there are striking similarities of themes and formulations in present counter-discourses between the Qur’an and parabiblical texts. Especially in eschatological counter-discourses, one can easily perceive how the text of the Qur’an reflects a theological agenda that is distinct and yet nonetheless enrolled in a continuum with Talmudic literary forms, themes, arguments, and counter-arguments. On the whole, qur’anic counter-discourse seem more readily explainable in light of late antique Christian-Jewish polemics rather than solely through the lens of later Muslim exegesis.

*Mehdi Azaiez is Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies at KU Leuven (Belgium).

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

New Book: Never Wholly Other: A Muslima Theology of Religious Pluralism

by  Jerusha T. Lamptey*

The observation that the Qur’an has a lot to say about various religious communities and religious diversity in general is not novel. Even a casual reader will quickly encounter references to the Children of Israel, the Jews, and the People of the Scripture; discussions of a multitude of prophets, revelations and scriptures; and descriptions of different types of people, including believers, disbelievers, hypocrites, and associators/idolaters.

Lamptey_NWO_coverThroughout history, these rich and complex facets of the Qur’anic discourse have spurred polemic and apologetic treatises; juridical debates and delineations of the boundaries between believers and disbelievers; and Sufi reflections on the diversity of prophecy in relation to the unicity of God. These facets continue to preoccupy many contemporary scholars, who are particularly interested in how the text is or can be invoked to promote religious intolerance or religious tolerance.

In Never Wholly Other: A Muslima Theology of Religious Pluralism (New York: Oxford, 2014), I offer a critique of some contemporary engagements with the Qur’an’s discourse on religious diversity. While the majority of these interpretations arising in the US context offer a positive read on the reality of religious diversity, they do so by oversimplifying the Qur’anic content. This occurs by privileging parts of the Qur’an that affirm diversity over other more diversity-ambivalent parts of the text. On an interpretive level, such privileging is accomplished by appealing to methods such as progressive revelation, ethical principles, chronology and abrogation.

In response, I propose a new hermeneutical approach that draws its foundational principles—including Qur’anic unity, polysemy, and textual silence—from Muslim women interpreters of the Qur’an. These foundational principles provide a unique starting point, but they require supplementation in order to avoid oversimplification of the Qur’an’s complex discussion of religious diversity. I find this in a critical retrieval of Toshihiko Izutsu’s method of semantic analysis, in particular his focus on semantic fields and relational meaning of Qur’anic concepts.

Combining the methods of Muslim women interpreters of the Qur’an and Izutsu, I then engage in a close and relational re-reading of the text. This re-reading begins with the identification of two distinct, yet overlapping, semantic fields: that of taqwā (God-consciousness) and that of umma (community of revelation). I then explore the complex interconnections among central Qur’anic concepts, including belief, disbelief, submission, association, and hypocrisy, and argue that they fall within the semantic field of taqwā, rather than umma. This means that these concepts or characteristics are not automatically affiliated with particular communities.

This argument leads to my constructive articulation of a Muslima theology of religious pluralism in which I offer an integrated account of the Qur’anic discourse on religious diversity, weaving together questions of creation, human nature, revelation(s), human diversity and interactions, and divine evaluation.

*Lamptey is Assistant Professor of Islam and Ministry at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. She earned her Ph.D. in Theological and Religious Studies, with a focus on Religious Pluralism, from Georgetown University in 2011. Her research focuses on theologies of religious pluralism, comparative theology, and feminist theology.

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

Rhetoric and Representation in Qurʾanic Polemics (Interview Series Part 5)

An Interview with Hamza M. Zafer, by Mehdi Azaiez


This week IQSA continues its interview series with Hamza M. Zafer, PhD student in Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University. In this interview, Zafer presents his research on the Qur’an’s polemical discourse and its articulation of a distinct communal consciousness — the ummah.

Can you tell us about your background in Qurʾanic Studies and your approach to the field?

I am a doctoral candidate in Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University and am currently a fellow with the Qur’an Seminar at the University of Notre Dame. I am pursuing an interdisciplinary research program, unified by an interest in the emergence and expression of religio-communal ideologies among monotheistic groups in the late ancient Near East. My program of study has focused on three evidentiary domains: (1) the Qurʾan and early Muslim exegesis, (2) the early Arabic historiographical corpus and (3) late Midrashic Literature and the Targumim. My dissertation, titled “The Ummah Pericope: Rhetoric and Representation in Qur’anic Polemics,” is a detailed exploration of the Qurʾan’s religio-communal ideology in its late antique context.

My study of the Qurʾan is grounded in both linguistic and literary approaches, adapted to account for the text’s particularities. The crucial underlying assumption of my analysis is that the Qurʾan constitutes a closed text—one with a distinct pre-classical context, a unique literary logic, and an evolving, albeit coherent, internal ideology. My synchronic investigation of Qurʾanic data, without recourse to its early Muslim mediations, attempts to elucidate how the Qurʾan’s polemical program is contingent on various late ancient Near Eastern discourses on communal election and soteriological legitimacy.

A secondary part of my work addresses diachronic questions about the development of communal consciousness among the earliest Muslims. I am interested in exploring: how the Qurʾan’s communal addressees and interlocutors are historicized in the early Muslim corpus, how this historicization produces and polices particular communal boundaries, and how these boundaries are negotiated by liminal subjects and heterodox voices.

Can you share some details about your current project?

The textual focus of my current work is a complex (and fascinating) cluster of verses at the heart of Surat al-Baqara that I have tentatively labeled the Ummah Pericope: Q2:104−152. This pericope, which forms a distinct thematic and formal unit within the Sura, is the Qurʾan’s most explicit expression of communalism. The pericope is comprised of a series of polemical engagements with interlocutors along three broad and overlapping modalities of communal consciousness and boundary-making. It presents the ummah as:

(1) a juridical entity: individuals or groups constitute an ummah when they adhere to the dīn—an ahistorical category with permeable boundaries;

(2) a prophetological entity: individuals or groups constitute an ummah when they are vicarious recipients of nubuwwa—a semi-historical category with somewhat permeable boundaries;

(3) a genealogical entity: individuals or groups constitute an ummah when they share patrimony—a historical category with impermeable boundaries.

My study of the Ummah Pericope shows that the Qurʾan’s polemical negotiations of various late ancient communal theologies cannot be reduced to any single supersessionary statement. Rather, the Qurʾan’s polemical program is made up of a heterogeneous set of codes that subvert, contest, co-opt and re-appropriate aspects of these discourses into an emergent ideological agenda, anticipating the formation of a distinct community—an ummah.

A second aspect of this project highlights and characterizes fissures between the Qurʾanic text’s communal ideology and its post-Qurʾanic permutations. Through three case studies on reports of intermarriage and conversion, I analyze how the Qurʾan’s presentation of the ummah is reconfigured in early historical writings to respond to entirely different doctrinal anxieties and polemical agendas. I explore how early parenthetical literatures mediate the Qurʾan’s multivalent concept of ummah as a juridical, prophetological and genealogical fact into novel statements of communal consciousness and boundary-making.

What contribution do you hope this particular project will make to the field?

This study supports the notion that the Qurʾan and early Muslim writing constitute transitional rather than originary texts, i.e. that the rise of an Islamic religio-cultural system, as embodied in the early Arab polity, is a burgeoning of particular late antique tendencies rather than an abrupt religious, political and cultural rupture in the Near East. It further supports the idea that late ancient material in the Qurʾan and early Muslim writing is evidence of intentional engagement(s) and meaningful intertextuality, rather than residue from a wholesale and inexpert program of borrowing.

Furthermore, this project raises certain key questions about the nature and status of “evidence” in the study of the Qurʾanic text and its temporal and spatial context. Although my study relies heavily on the Qurʾan’s contemporaneous and precursory literatures, I approach the text holistically and privilege its internal literary and formal structures in my analysis. In this way, I avoid reducing my study of the text to excavating linguistic evidence to posit external sources and tracing textual pedigrees. This approach guides my treatment of narrative material in the Ummah Pericope. I illustrate that the pericope’s presentation of biblical and post-biblical narrative material rests on calculated divergences and adaptations, expressing distinct ideological and polemical agendas, and that the Qurʾanic presentation of such material is not simply the product of semantic or formal atrophy from distant “originals.”

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

Translation and Exegesis: Travis Zadeh’s The Vernacular Qur’an

By Michael Pregill


The claim that Muslims do not translate the Qur’an, or rather that a translation of the Qur’an is not
 really the Qur’an at all but only a dim approximation of the basic sense of the text, has often been 
repeated by scholars. This notion has even informed the production of translations by Muslims 
themselves at times, as in the case of Marmaduke Pickthall’s famous The Meaning of the 
Glorious Koran (1930)—the title implying that the text in English represents only the meaning,
 with something substantial literally having been lost in translation. It is difficult to escape the
 conclusion that any rendition of the Qur’an into the vernacular—that is, into any language other 
than the original Arabic—should and must have a secondary and marginal status in Islamic

But there is a paradox here, inasmuch as the public recitation and explanation of the Qur’an has
played a significant role in attracting converts to Islam since the earliest days of the community’s
 expansion after the Arab conquests. Historically, the process of reciting and explaining the 
Qur’an surely involved some element of translation; the parallel with the reading of the Torah 
and exposition of targum in Jewish synagogue services is obvious here. Further, scholars have
 often asserted (at least since the time of Goldziher’s seminal Die Richtungen der islamischen
 Koranauslegung, 1920) that tafsir (Qur’an commentary) most likely originated in this context, 
built upon the most ancient understandings of the Qur’an that had circulated among the earliest
followers of the Prophet. Initially grounded in the need to interpret the Qur’an’s essential message
for converts—often with considerable mythological and homiletic expansions—this tradition 
eventually coalesced into one of the core disciplines within the ulum al-Quran or “Qur’anic 
sciences.” All of this implies that translation of the Qur’an has in fact been central to Islamic 
society, at least at times, and that such translation has been absolutely vital for the survival and
 expansion of the community at numerous junctures in Islam’s long history.

The complex relationship between translation of and commentary upon the Qur’an is explored in
 depth in Travis Zadeh’s magesterial and far-ranging study, The Vernacular Qur’an: Translation
and the Rise of Persian Exegesis (Oxford University Press in association with the Institute of
 Ismaili Studies, 2012), which specifically examines the phenomenon of translation as it lies at
the foundation of both Persian literary and Iranian Islamic religious tradition. The significance 
of this study cannot be overstated. Iran was most likely the first region or culture area outside
 of Arabia proper to achieve a Muslim majority. Further, several of Iran’s urban centers became
preeminent centers of religious learning in the ninth and tenth centuries, producing ulama whose 
works became critical for the further development of the religious sciences, especially hadith; 
and, as is well known, by the high Middle Ages, so-called New Persian came to rival—and 
eventually surpass—Arabic as the preeminent literary language of Islamic society, at least in the 
eastern regions of the Dar al-Islam.

Zadeh’s study explores the intersections between theological and juridical controversies,
 devotional practice, and an emerging Persian literary culture, informed both by an admirable command of the theoretical literature on translation and a nuanced understanding of the complex 
conjunction of factors that contributed to the misrepresentation of Qur’an translation as somehow
 inferior or illegitimate. In Western scholarly discourse, the claim of the Qur’an’s untranslatability 
originates in medieval Christian polemic, in which Muslims’ supposed insistence that the Qur’an
 can only be approached in the original Arabic was caricatured as proof of Muslim “rigidity” 
and legalism – ritual rectitude purportedly being more important in Islam than rational 
understanding. This gross oversimplification of Muslim attitudes was then reinforced by the
 misapprehensions of more contemporary (and well-meaning) scholars such as Wilfred Cantwell
 Smith, who inadvertently conflated theological assertions of the Qur’an’s inimitability with some
 jurists’ opposition to the use of verses of the Qur’an in other languages in the devotional context
into a blanket prohibition on translation that somehow applied to all times, places, and contexts.

Smith thus characterized an opposition to translation as somehow essential to Islam, but as 
Zadeh demonstrates, the translation of the Qur’an into Persian, even for devotional purposes,
 appears to have been a basic fact in the Iranian milieu; the “early pattern of wrapping the sacred 
language of the Qur’an in Persian reflects the practical hermeneutic, if not liturgical, importance
 of approaching scripture through a linguistic medium other than Arabic” (133). Moreover,
translation into Persian was not simply driven by the practical considerations of disseminating 
the Qur’an in a recently converted, and thus only superficially acculturated, population. 
Rather, Zadeh’s theoretically sophisticated approach shows that the general recognition of the
 polyvalence of scripture—for example, the idea that the Qur’an was revealed in seven ahruf 
(modes or recitations)—opened up a wide discursive space in which many scholars not only 
tolerated but even explicitly sanctioned the ongoing use of the Qur’an in Persian and other
languages for a variety of purposes.

Astonishingly, Zadeh’s treatment of his subject stretches from the period just after the Arab
 conquests of the seventh century all the way to the flourishing of Persian tafsir in the eleventh 
and twelfth centuries with figures such as Abu’l-Futuh al-Razi, Surabadi, and Isfara’ini, as well
 as discussing the later reception of this tradition in subsequent centuries. Even as the use of
 Persian renditions of Qur’anic verses was largely abandoned in specifically devotional contexts,
 the dynamic interplay between the Arab and Iranian cultural and linguistic milieux continued to 
inform the evolution of Islam in the Persian-speaking world. As their tradition matured, Iranian 
scholars continued to have a complicated relationship with Arab Islamic religious authority and
 exegetical discourse—especially the latter, as “exegesis served as a platform for the articulation
 of religious commitments” (448), particularly as attitudes towards Persian came to inform and in
 turn be inflected by sectarian considerations.

This brief notice hardly does justice to Zadeh’s wide-ranging, yet lucidly argued and eloquently written, treatment of the Qur’an in Persian and the Persianate world. We may hope that his nuanced and imaginative study draws attention to this long-neglected subject and inspires new scholarly research in this area in the future.

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