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.

Qur’anic Cross References and Tafsir al-qur’an bi-l-qur’an

By Mun’im Sirry

A part of the Qur’an Seminar, a year-long initiative directed by Gabriel S. Reynolds from the University of Notre Dame, is to develop a project on cross-references of the Qur’an. This cross-references project will provide for nearly every verse in the Qur’an a selection of other verses which shed light upon, clarify, or explain the verse you are reading.

As is known, the Qur’an in its printed edition has not yet been cross-referenced, in spite of the fact that al-mufassirūn (Qur’an commentators) realized quite early on the central importance of tafsīr al-Qur’an bi al-Qur’an (interpreting the Qur’an through the Qur’an itself). Even some modern Qur’an exegetes like the Iranian scholar Muḥammad Ḥusayn Ṭabaṭabā’ī (d. 1981) claim to follow this method. It must be pointed out, however, that the way Ṭabaṭabā’ī interprets the Qur’an in his al-Mīzān shows that his reliance on the internal evidence of the Qur’an is much less than his use of other sources as he offers not only an explication (bayān) of a given verse, but also an extensive discussion of various aspects such as historical, philosophical, and social aspects. It seems safe to say that in the long history of tafsīr, this tafsīr Qur’an bi al-Qur’an has not been dealt with as an important topic in its own right.

There are only few tafsīrs which bear the title of tafsīr al-Qur’an bi al-Qur’an, two of which are Aḍwa’ al-bayan fi iḍaḥa al-Qur’an bi al-Qur’an by Muḥammad al-Shinqīṭī, and Al-Tafsīr al-Qur’anī li al-Qur’an by ‘Abd al-Karīm Khaṭīb. However, upon close reading, these two tafsīrs are not really tafsīr al-Qur’an bi al-Qur’an as the title seems to suppose. In 1930, the Egyptian scholar Muḥammad Abū Zaid wrote Al-Hidāya wa al-‘irfān fi tafsīr al-Qur’an bi al-Qur’an, which provides references to other passages which in the opinion of the author seems to shed some light on the verse under discussion. However, the cross-references he provided are very limited. In addition, because of his unorthodox interpretations of the Qur’an, his tafsīr was suppressed and he was declared as an atheist by Rashīd Riḍā.

Perhaps, the most extensive treatment and pioneered work on tafsīr al-Qur’an bi al-Qur’an is that composed by Rudi Paret entitled Der Koran: Kommentar und Konkordanz. Paret’s work is certainly very rich, which includes – in addition to possible cross-references – interpretations of and alternate renderings for a given verse or passage. Furthermore, as the term “Konkordanz” may indicate, his Der Koran provides all identical or similar phraseology and usage in different places of the Qur’an, a model that will not be followed in this cross-references project.

Instead, in this project the cross-references are based on connection between words, phrases, themes, concepts, events, and characters. One word may occur several times in the Qur’an, but the cross references will be made only where there is connection in meaning between two or more verses or passages. In doing this cross-references project, several models and methods used for the cross-references of the Bible are consulted, including The New Scofield Reference Bible, The New Treasury of Scripture Knowledge, The Bible Self-Explained, and The Thompson Chain-Reference Bible. As is well-known, the Bible cross-reference has been a long established tradition, while the Qur’an, at least in its printed edition, has not been cross-referenced.

The need of such a work, therefore, is obvious to all readers of the Qur’an, because in the current available printed editions of the Qur’an there is nothing to indicate that certain passages shed light upon, clarify, or explain other passages.

A sample of cross-references of the Suras al-Fātia and al-Baqara

first half munim tablesecond two thirds table

third of thirds table

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2012. All rights reserved.

Notes on Website Translations of the Qurʾan

By Gabriel Reynolds

Perhaps the most obvious way in which studying the Qurʾan in the internet age differs from that of ages past is the ease of accessing numerous translations of the Qurʾan.  In his 1953 article “Some Minor Problems in the Qurʾān,” Franz Rosenthal analyzes 46 different translations of the term al-ṣamad (Q 112:2).  One imagines that his office must have been quite a mess of open books and tattered pieces of paper serving as bookmarks.

Today a single website – – offers 41 different English translations of each verse with a single click (and tomorrow there may be more).  These websites (of which there are a number;, for example, has translations of the Qurʾan in 66 different languages, and into 40 languages) are undoubtedly useful, but in using them a few cautionary notes might be kept in mind.

First, it often seems that the multiplication of verses has a diminishing rate of return; that is, a scholar interested in understanding a difficult Qurʾanic passage (say, Q 3:3-4; 12:110; 13:33; or 108:1), will usually not learn much more about it by consulting 40 different translations, as opposed to 4.

Second, many of these websites categorize translations in religious terms.  Islamawakened does so as follows:

1. Generally Accepted Translations of the Meaning

2. Controversial, Deprecated, or Status Undetermined Works

3. Non-Muslim and/or Orientalist Works

The editors of the website put Yusuf Ali’s original translation under category 2, but the later (Saudi-sponsored) edited version of this translation under category 1.  Evidently philological rigor may not always be the standard for privileging certain translations.  It should also be noted that under “non-Muslim translations” most websites tend not to include those translations generally seen as standard in the academy.  Thus George Sale’s outdated English translation is found on most sites, but those current in the academy like Blachère’s French translation and Paret’s German translation are almost never found (this is the case, for example, with both and

The case of translations suggests that studying the Qurʾan in the internet age can be tricky in its own way.  Other cases, however, are more auspicious.  Websites with other tools for the study of the Qurʾan — such as and — are exceptionally useful, although an explanation of their usefulness will have to wait for a future post!

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2012. All rights reserved.