The Search for Meaning: Tafsīr, Hermeneutics, and Theories of Reading

In: Arabica
Author: S.R. Burge 1
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  • 1 Institute of Ismaili Studies

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This article explores the process of exegesis in light of post-modern literary theories, particularly those regarding hermeneutics and reading. The article considers exegetes in their role as both a reader of the Qurʾān and as the author of an exegesis. Both of these actions, reading and writing, have an impact on the way in which the tafsīr is produced. As a reader, an exegete responds to the text of the Qurʾān in a way which confirms and conforms to his own theology and worldview. As a writer, an exegete attempts to convince his (or her) readers of the validity of his (or her) own views and interpretations of the text. However, the aims and objectives that an exegete has for a work also have an impact on the way the tafsīr is actually shaped. (Post)modern views of reading and writing can explain how a single text can generate such a wide range of interpretations in Qurʾānic exegetical works.

  • 1

    Jane Dammen McAuliffe, “Exegetical Sciences”, in The Blackwell Companion to the Qurʾān, ed. Andrew Rippin, London, Blackwell, 2006, p. 403-419; Walid A. Saleh, The Formation of the Classical Tafsīr Tradition: The Qurʾān Commentary of al-Thaʿlabī (d. 427/1035), Leiden, Brill, 2004; id., “Ibn Taymiyya and the Rise of Radical Hermeneutics: An Analysis of An Introduction to the Foundation of Qurʾānic Exegesis”, in Ibn Taymiyya and His Times, ed. Yossef Rapoport and Shahab Ahmed, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 123-162; Norman Calder, “Tafsīr from Ṭabarī to Ibn Kathīr: Problems in the description of a genre, illustrated with reference to the story of Abraham”, in Approaches to the Qurʾān, ed. Gerald R. Hawting and Abdul-Kader A. Shareef, London, Routledge, 1993, p. 101-140.

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  • 2

    Cf. Noel James Coulson, A History of Islamic Law, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1990, p. 75-76.

  • 7

    Ibid., p. 363-364.

  • 8

    Yasin Ceylan, Theology and Tafsīr in the Major Works of Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, Kuala Lumpur, International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization, 1996.

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  • 10

    See Karen Bauer, “Introduction”, in Aims, Methods and Contexts of Qur’anic Exegesis (2nd/8th-9th/15th Centuries), ed. Karen Bauer, London, Oxford University Press-Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2013, p. 1-16.

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  • 11

    George Aichele and Gary A. Phillips, “Exegesis, Eisegesis, Intergesis”, Semeia, 69-70 (1995) p. 7-18, p. 14.

  • 16

    Ibid., p. 100-1.

  • 18

    Louise M. Rosenblatt, The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work, Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1978, p. 13.

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  • 19

    Cf. Paul Ricœur, Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning, Fort Worth, The Texas Christian University Press, 1976, p. 14-18; see also Frye’s discussion of metaphor, Northrop Frye, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, San Diego-New York, Harcourt Inc., 1983, p. 53-77.

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  • 22

    Aichele and Phillips, “Exegesis, Eisegesis, Intergesis”, p. 8.

  • 23

    James A. Sanders, Canon and Community: A Guide to Canonical Criticism, Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1984, p. 43.

  • 31

    Cf. Yasin Ceylan, Theology and Tafsīr in the Major Works of Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, p. 15-17; and Walid A. Saleh, In Defense of the Bible: A Critical Edition of al-Biqāʿī’s Bible Treatise, Leiden, Brill, 2008, p. 21-33.

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  • 34

    Heath, “Creative Hermeneutics”, p. 182 [Heath’s emphases].

  • 36

    See Diane Steigerwald, “Ismāʿīlī Ta⁠ʾwīl”, in The Blackwell Companion to the Qur’an, p. 386-400.

  • 38

    Cf. al-Ṭabarī, Tafsīr, xxx, p. 481-482; see also Stephen R. Burge, “Authority and the Defence of Readings in Qur’anic Exegesis: Lexicology and the Case of falaq (Q. 113:1)”, in The Meaning of the Word: Lexicology and Qur’anic Exegesis, ed. Stephen R. Burge, Oxford, Oxford University Press-Institute of Ismaili Studies, forthcoming.

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  • 39

    Cf. M. Brett Wilson, “The First Translations of the Qurʾān in Modern Turkey”, The International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 41/3 (2009), p. 419-435.

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  • 41

    See Bauer, “Introduction”, p. 12-14.

  • 42

    Cf. Umberto Eco, The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Text, Bloomington, University of Indiana Press, 1979, p. 24-27; see also Omar Alí-de-Unzaga, “Citational Exegesis of the Qurʾān: Towards a Theoretical Framework for the Construction of Meaning in Classical Islamic Thought. The Case of the Epistles of the Pure Brethren (Rasāʾil Iḫwān al-Ṣafāʾ )”, in The Construction of Belief: Comparative Perspectives Reflections on the Thought of Mohammed Arkoun, ed. Aziz Esmail and Abdou Filali-Ansary, London, Saqi-Agha Khan University, 2013, p. 168-193.

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  • 43

    Fred Leemhuis, “From Palm Leaves to the Internet”, in The Cambridge Companion to the Qurʾān, ed. Jane Dammen McAuliffe, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 145-162.

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  • 44

    Nargis Virani, “ ‘I am the Nightingale of the Merciful’: Rumi’s Use of the Qurʾan and Hadith”, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 22/1-2 (2002), p. 100-111.

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  • 46

    See Sheila Blair, Islamic Inscriptions, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1998.

  • 47

    Dervla Sara Shannahan and Qurra Hussain, “ ‘Rap on ‘l’Avenue’; Islam, aesthetics, authenticity and masculinities in the Tunisian rap scene”, Contemporary Islam, 5/1 (2010) p. 37-58; Suad Abdul Khabeer, “Rep that Islam: The Rhyme and Reason of American Islamic Hip Hop”, Muslim World, 97/1 (2007), p. 125-141.

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  • 48

    Cf. Alí-de-Unzaga, “Citational Exegesis of the Qurʾān”, p. 185-187.

  • 49

    See Marianna Klar, “Stories of the Prophets”, in The Blackwell Companion to the Qurʾān, p. 338-349, esp. p. 342-344; and Roberto Tottoli, “Narrative Literature”, in ibid., p. 467-480.

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  • 51

    Cf. al-Ṭabarī, Tafsīr, vi, p. 186-205; al-Kisāʾī, Vita Prophetarum, ed. Isaac Eisenberg, Leiden, Brill, 1922-1923, i, p. 72-73; and al-Kisāʾī, The Tales of the Prophets of al-Kisāʾi, transl. Wheeler M. Thackston, Boston, Twayne Publishers, 1978, p. 77-78.

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  • 52

    See al-Kisāʾī, The Tales of the Prophets of al-Kisāʾi, p. 78.

  • 53

    Cf. Stephen R. Burge, “The Bible in Islamic Folklore”, in Biblical Reception in the World’s Folklores: A Handbook, ed. Eric Ziolkowski, Berlin, De Gruyter, forthcoming.

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  • 54

    John Wansbrough, Qurʾānic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation (New Edition), Amherst, Prometheus Books, 2004, p. 38, see also p. 177-185; cf. John Burton, The Sources of Islamic Law, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1990, p. 20.

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  • 56

    Ibid., p. 8-9.

  • 58

    Ibid., p. 42; id., The Perfect Guide to the Sciences of the Qurʾān, transl. Ḥamid Algar, Michael Schub, and Ayman Abdel Haleem, Reading, Garnet, 2011, p. 57.

  • 59

    Eco, The Role of the Reader, p. 24.

  • 63

    See Walid. A. Saleh, “The Last of the Nishapuri School of Tafsīr: Al-Wāḥidī (d. 468/1076) and His Significance in the History of Qurʾānic Exegesis,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, 126/2 (2006), p. 223-243.

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  • 64

    Karen Bauer, “The Muslim exegete and his audience, 5th/11th-6th/12th centuries”, in The Islamic Scholarly Tradition: Studies in History, Law and Thought in Honor of Professor Michael Allan Cook, ed. Asad Q. Ahmed, Behnam Sadeghi, and Michael Bonner, Leiden, Brill, 2011, p. 293-315.

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  • 65

    Alí-de-Unzaga, “Citational Exegesis of the Qurʾān”, p. 187.

  • 71

    Cf. Tariq Jaffer, “Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī’s System of Inquiry: Doubt and the Transmission of Knowledge”, in Aims, Methods and Contexts of Qurʾānic Exegesis (2nd/8th-9th/15th Centuries), p. 241-261.

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  • 72

    See Hamza (ed.), On the Nature of the Divine, p. 385.

  • 74

    Al-Suyūṭī, al-Durr al-manṯūr, v, p. 47; see also Stephen R. Burge, “Scattered Pearls: al-Suyūṭī’s Hermeneutics and Use of Sources in al-Durr al-manthūr fī’l-tafsīr bi’l-ma⁠ʾthūr”, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 24/2 (2013), p. 251-296, p. 266-270.

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  • 75

    Elizabeth Mary Sartain, Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī: Biography and Background, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1975, p. 33-37; and Éric Geoffroy, Le soufisme en Égypte et en Syrie sous les derniers Mamelouks et les premiers Ottomans: orientations spirituelles et enjeux culturels, Damascus, Institut Français de Damas, 1995, p. 49.

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  • 76

    See Richard J.A. MacGregor, “A Sufi Legacy in Tunis: Prayer and the Shadhiliyya”, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 29/2 (1997), p. 255-277. Al-Suyūṭī also wrote a work in this genre, al-Suyūṭī, ʿAmal al-yawm wa-l-layla, Cairo, Muṣṭafā l-Bābī l-Ḥalabī, 1946.

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  • 80

    Rudolf Bultmann, “Is exegesis without presuppositions possible?”, in Existence and Faith: Shorter Writings of Rudolf Bultmann, transl. Schubert Miles Ogden, London, Hodder and Stoughton Ltd., 1961, p. 342-351, p. 344 [originally published as “Ist voraussetzungslose Exegese möglich?”, Theologische Zeitschrift, 13 (1957), p. 409-417. Bultmann’s hermeneutic method has been critiqued, cf. Barrie A. Wilson, “Bultmann’s hermeneutics: a critical examination”, International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 8/3 (1977), p. 169-189.

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  • 81

    Bultmann, “Is exegesis without presuppositions possible?”, p. 351.

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