What is the horizon of Qurʾānic studies in the West? (12ᵗʰ‒18ᵗʰ centuries)

Sana Bou Antoun

PhD student at Paris-IV Sorbonne Université

icon-calendar Tuesday November 10ᵗʰ, 2020

Western studies of the Qurʾān have a very ancient history, dating back to the 12ᵗʰ century, and it is important to study this history in order to better understand the stakes of the current situation. Consisting mainly of translations exercises accompanied by commentaries in which extensive philological remarks and polemical content are intertwined, these Qurʾānic studies bear witness to the ambivalent relationship between West and East, and therefore between European specialists in Semitic languages and the Qurʾān.

Several factors have triggered the interest of scholars in Europe in the Middle Ages for the Qurʾān. Some scholars initially considered that the Arabic language could be used to better understand Hebrew and other Semitic languages. Others had a plan to convert Muslims to Christianity. And finally, others wanted to better understand Islam, which they spontaneously analyzed as a Christian heresy.

If before the 12ᵗʰ century the Qurʾān was known to the West only through the eyes of Eastern Christians, the Latin translation of Robert of Ketton in 1143 provided direct access to the text to Western scholars. Using an elegant Biblical Latin language, and relying on classical commentaries, such as that of al-Ṭabarī (d. 310/923), the translation of Robert of Ketton is certainly intended to refute the Qurʾān, but by taking it seriously.

The situation changed in the 14ᵗʰ century with the humanist scholars during the Renaissance era, who were in a conflictual relationship with the Ottoman Empire, and who insisted more on the political dimension of the figure of the Prophet Muḥammad than on his ethical and eschatological message. Humanists also relegated Arabic to a second place behind Hebrew. The first translations into European vernacular languages were published in this time.

The anti-clericalism and anti-Christianity of the 17ᵗʰ and 18ᵗʰ centuries in Europe then tended to present Islam as a more rational religion than Christianity. As for the dominant position of Hebrew in Semitic studies, it was reinforced by Protestantism.

As John Tolan writes, Qurʾānic studies in the West have first and foremost been a mirror for the European intellectual tradition, reflecting its own internal questions, concerns and debates on Biblical and religious issues in general.

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The History of MIDEO

MIDEOMiscellanies of the Dominican Institute for Oriental Studies in Cairo—is a periodical set up in 1954 by IDEO’s first members. These Miscellanies are mostly academical contributions from the members of the Institute and from scholars collaborating with them. Its articles are in French, in English or in Arabic.

Meeting the objectives of the Institute, MIDEO publishes original works on Islam according to its sources; it focuses on theological and philosophical issues as well as on the history of doctrines. It aims at moving beyond the mutual misunderstandings that exist between our cultural and religious traditions, and this through in depth research. It pays a close attention to the contemporary evolutions of scholarly research on these topics.

The diversity of the topics covered, as well as the relevance of some contemporary issues, can be inferred by consulting the list of articles published since 1954. Since 2004, the monographs collection “Les Cahiers du Midéo” completes the periodical. Since issue 30 (2014), each issue of MIDEO gathers articles on a specific topic as well as text editions and varia. Beginning with issue 31 (2015), MIDEO is freely available online.

Interactions between Twelver Shiites and Christians

This volume 35 is made up of a dossier gathering most of the papers presented at the conference held in April 2018 at the Institut Catholique de Paris on the interactions between Imamites and Christians. Starting from the hypothesis that history, theology, and literature bear witness to the intercultural dimension of encounters and relationships, the authors show how the identities of each person have been shaped and constructed. The history of missionaries, accounts of travels, diplomatic letters from writers or polemicists shed light on the reality of these exchanges and the linguistic, cultural and theological transfers, beyond a dogmatic, hegemonic and closed vision of theological statements.

Click here to read it online (full text free edition)…

De Koran herontdekt

Emilio Platti, De Koran herontdekt, Averbode: Uitgeverij Averbode|‌Erasme N.V, 2020, 96 pages.

De afgelopen jaren is het wetenschappelijk onderzoek naar het ontstaan van de Koran en de vroege Islam in een stroomversnelling geraakt. Islamoloog en dominicaan Emilio Platti behandelt in dit boekje twee nieuwe belangrijke inzichten.

Hij beschrijft de invloed van jodendom en christendom op de profeet Mohammed en de vroege Islam. Daarnaast verduidelijkt Platti dat de algemeen aanvaarde tekst van de Koran (de textus receptus) vroegere versies kent die naar Mohammed zelf teruggaan. De auteur verduidelijkt de consequenties hiervan voor een beter begrip van de Koran en van de Islam.

Click here to buy the book online…

Mysticism Comes to School

Notes on a Work in Progress, by Simon Conrad

PhD student at Princeton University

icon-calendar Tuesday October 20ᵗʰ, 2020

When he returned from Cambridge in 1930 with his doctorate in his pocket after nine years of study, Abū al-ʿIlā ʿAfīfī (1897‒1966) was determined to introduce Sufi studies at the Egyptian University. This idea was considered preposterous by his peers, who wanted to entrust him with the teaching of logic.

His doctoral work consisted in systematizing Ibn ʿArabī’s (d. 638/1240) thought, which he treated as a philosopher of intuition, on par with contemporary philosophers such as James (1842‒1910) or Bergson (1859‒1941), rather than as a mystic. If on a personal basis, it is indeed mysticism that interests ʿAfīfī, defined as the intuitive understanding of the divine, his academic project is above all to propose an analysis of the texts of the Arab-Islamic heritage with contemporary tools.

A discreet intellectual and mystic, ʿAfīfī nevertheless entered into public debates with his contemporaries on the question of the opposition—which he refused—between a supposedly spiritual East and a materialistic West, or on the epistemological status of intuition: he considered that intuition could indeed be a source of knowledge in its own right.

Abū al-ʿIlā ʿAfīfī, like others invested in bringing the mystical tradition to the fore at this time, constitutes a missing link in the history of the Arab thought in the era of decolonization, and sets the stage for more flamboyant thinkers such as Abū al-Wafā al-Taftāzānī (1930‒1994) and ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Badawī (1917‒2002).

Reciting in the Early Islamic Empire (7ᵗʰ‒9ᵗʰ centuries)

Third IDEO Conference in Cairo (and on Zoom)

icon-calendar October 16ᵗʰ‒18ᵗʰ, 2020

Keynote Speaker: Prof. Devin J. Stewart, Emory University (Atlanta)

Scientific coordination: Anne-Sylvie Boisliveau (IDEO, Strasbourg) & Asma Hilali (Lille)

The questions raised by the topic of recitation are many and sometimes difficult to define, as Devin Stewart summed up perfectly in his concluding remarks. The first difficulty is methodological: we are talking about a fundamentally oral phenomenon of which we are looking for traces in written texts. The different contributions showed the diversity of the existing material:  lapidary inscriptions, ostraca, papyri and manuscripts. The information concerning recitation is either contained in more or less codified marginal or interlinear notes, or to be deducted from the verbs used to describe the way in which the content of the text is transmitted.

More fundamentally, the topic of recitation forces us to reconsider the definition of what a text is. The case of the homily is paroxysmal: learned by heart from possibly written notes, then pronounced with more or less loyalty to the initial project, taken in notes by some listeners during or after the hearing, then written by a professional author according to established literary canons, then put into circulation in a version that may be reread by the person who delivered it. In this case, what is the “text” of this homily? The Coptic Eucharistic prayers, after having been required to be improvised for a long time, stabilized under the influence of linguistic changes and dogmatic quarrels. The text of the Qurʾān developed and stabilized at the same time as it was disseminated, both in written and oral forms.  In other later cases, the transmission of some texts maintained the illusion of an oral transmission, through reading or reciting, while the actual process happened entirely through in written form.

Unfortunately, the online format did not allow us to make place for recitation in Zoroastrianism, Judaism or in Byzantium. One issue that could not be discussed either was the power of the recited words. The recited proclamation of a text has a different impact from its reading, public or private. Can this impact be studied? More generally, what are the aims of recitation? Teaching, transmission, piety, aesthetics, acquisition of good deeds, reinforcement of the authority of the text by the dramatization of its recitation?

All these questions will be the topic of MIDEO 37 (2022). The deadline for sending your contributions is February 1st, 2021. Please click here for more details…