Qurʾānic Studies and Historical-Critical Philology

The Qurʾān’s Staging, Penetrating and Eclipsing of Biblical Tradition

In: Philological Encounters
Angelika Neuwirth Freie Universitat Berlin

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Qurʾānic scholarship in the west today tends to privilege historical queries, focusing on fragmented texts, their alleged subtexts, and the codex’s earliest venues of transmission. It usually abstains from attempts at making sense of the text as a literary artifact, let alone as an epistemic intervention into the reception of the Bible. Such concerns are left to philology which—if we follow Sheldon Pollock—is a tripartite venture: a query for “textual meaning,” an investigation into the text’s traditional understanding, i.e. its “contextual meaning,” and finally a re-thinking of one’s own scholarly preconceptions and responsibilities, the “philologist’s meaning.” Few topics are better suited to demonstrate the urgency of complementing historical with philological research than the Qurʾān’s controversial relation to the Bible. A fresh approach—updating the time-honored but somewhat fusty historical critical method—is required: a diachronic, yet contextual, and moreover holistic, reading of the Qurʾān. This paper will discuss texts that—featuring Muhammad and Moses respectively—reveal two major shifts in the relationship between the Qurʾān and Biblical tradition.

Historical research should not be left alone: philology’s two assets, the contextual reading and moreover the researcher’s self-reflection, need to be admitted to the stage of Qurʾānic Studies. Christian interpretation of the Bible that, for historical and political reasons, has until now not taken the Qurʾān into account, could benefit substantially from the Qurʾān’s Biblical criticism, let alone its intrinsic challenge to rethink prevailing exclusivist positions.

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