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.

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).

A first reading of Le Coran des historiens (Cerf, 2019)

Adrien de Jarmy

PhD candidate at Sorbonne Université, IDEO/IFAO Fellow

icon-calendar Tuesday February 11ᵗʰ, 2020

While the classical Muslim exegetical tradition considers the Qurʾān as a starting point, and focuses on clarifying its obscure points by referring to the life of the Prophet and His sayings, the contemporary tendency of many researchers in the West is to consider it as a point of arrival. In other words the Qurʾān is the product of Late Antiquity, which collects previous religious, philosophical and cultural traditions. A third tendency is to study the Qurʾān alone, outside of its Late Antique context and outside of the Islamic tradition.

This Coran des historiens chooses the second approach, that of the context of Late Antiquity, excluding the studies of researchers such as Jacqueline Chabbi or Michel Cuypers who study the Qurʾān for its own sake, or the school of Angelika Neuwirth who does not reject the Islamic tradition as a source of interpretation of the text.

The point of view of Guillaume Dye, one of the two editors of the book, is that the Qurʾān is a complicated, composite text, neither the work of a single man, nor a closed book, but an open collection that builds up gradually in discussion with this Late Antiquity context. Contrary to the Islamic hagiography which gives the Caliph ʿUṯmān (d. 35/656) the role of editor of the text in its final consonantical version, Guillaume Dye identifies the reign of the Umayyad Caliph ʿAbd al-Mālik (d. 86/705) as the political and cultural context that most influenced the text.

The Coran des historiens consists of one volume of twenty historical studies and two volumes of a systematic analysis of the entire Qurʾānic text. It is an essential tool for researchers and readers of the Qurʾān, regardless of their approaches and beliefs.

Searching for the Takārīr in medieval Egypt: a quest to bridge over fragmentary evidence

Hadrien Collet

French Institute for Oriental Archaeology in Cairo

icon-calendar Wednesday January 22ⁿᵈ, 2020

Historically, the kingdom of Takrūr is one of the first regions in West Africa have adopted Islam, in the middle of the 5ᵗʰ/11ᵗʰ century. This kingdom is not unknown to Arab authors: al-Masʿūdī (d. 345/956) mentions it in a book attributed to him, Aḫbār al-zamān. After the fall of Baghdad in 656/1258, Cairo became the new center of the Islamic civilization and the presence of Takārīr (sg. Takrūrī) began to be documented there for the first time, in the broad meaning of “Muslims of West Africa”. They were either passing through Cairo on their way to Mecca, or coming to study with a teacher, or settling down.

The first documented pilgrimage of a king of Takrūr to Mecca is that of mansā Mūsā in 724/1324. The arrival in Cairo of his caravan of 15,000 men, reported by al-Maqrīzī (d. 845/1442) in his book Sulūk li-maʿrifat duwal al-mulūk, made a strong impression on the local population. He brought with him twelve tons of gold, which drove down the market price for many years.

Finally, between the 13ᵗʰ and the 15ᵗʰ centuries, sources mention about twenty Sufi Saints from Takrūr, buried and venerated in the Qarāfa cemetery in Cairo.

Relics and the Religious Topography of Cairo

Richard McGregor

Professor of Islamic Studies at Vanderbilt University in Nashville

icon-calendar Tuesday November 26ᵗʰ, 2019

Thanks to the precise study of the path and destiny of certain relics (the heads of al-Ḥusayn,  Muḥammad b. Ibn Abī Bakr or Alī Zayn al-ʿĀbidīn, prayer mats, footprints, turbans…), it is possible to write a history of Muslim piety and political power games. The Sufis traditionally link the cult of the relics to the following Qurʾānic verse: “And their Prophet said to them, ‘Surely the sign of his kingship is that the coffer will come up to you; in it (are) a Serenity from your Lord, and a remnant of what the house of Mûsâ and the house Hârûn left (behind), the Angels carrying it. Surely in that is indeed a sign for you, in case you are believers’”(Q. 2 (al-Baqara), 248). Among the sultans who have most encouraged the veneration of relics, the case of al-Ḥākim bi-amr Allāh (d. 411/1021) is significant. He built mosques in Cairo to house relics of the Prophet that he had stolen from Madinah and organized prayers for the flooding of the Nile. In the following centuries, these relics were moved to other places: Ribāṭ al-Āṯār, the mausoleum of al-Ġūrī, the mosque of al-Sayyida Zaynab, the ministry of Awqāf at the Citadel, the palace of ʿAbdīn and the mosque of al-Ḥusayn, where they are today. It is striking to note that despite their popular and political importance, it is not easy to follow the relics in textual sources, where they constantly appear and disappear.

The History of Devotion to the Prophet Muḥammad through its Manuscripts

N. A. Mansour

PhD candidate at Princeton University

icon-calendar Wednesday November 13ᵗʰ, 2019

N. A. Mansour, whose PhD dissertation deals with the transition from manuscripts to printed books, focused during this seminar on what is probably the most popular book in the Islamic tradition: Dalāʾil al-ḫayrāt wa-šawāriq al-anwār fī ḏikr al-ṣalāt ʿalā al-nabī al-muḫtār, a collection of prayers for the Prophet, compiled by a Moroccan Sufi and faqīh, Muḥammad b. Sulayman al-Ǧazūlī (d. 870/1465). The many manuscripts of this piety book, scholars say, would represent about 30% of all the Arabic manuscripts. It is still very popular, even if the development of Salafism was an obstacle to its diffusion. These manuscripts are often of great interest to the researcher, when they contain prayers copied at the end of the text, marginal comments (usually grammatical) or prescriptive advice on how to use this or that prayer. The success of the book makes it an important witness to the themes disseminated in popular piety: not only the place of the figure of the Prophet, but also the glorification of God through his attributes or the place of the believer in cosmology or salvation history.

Analyzing the Emergence of Muḥammad’s Authority in the Maġāzī Literature

Adrien de Jarmy

PhD candidate at Sorbonne Université, IDEO/IFAO Fellow 2019‒2020

icon-calendar Wednesday October 30ᵗʰ, 2019

Using a quantitative method, which includes traditions related to the Prophet and the Companions, and measures their distribution in ancient works of the Muslim tradition, Adrien de Jarmy tries to identify the political-religious thresholds and dynamics that mark the evolution of the representations of the Prophet. Moreover, in the Kitāb al-maġāzī, in the Muṣannaf of ʿAbd al-Razzāq al-Ṣanʿānī (d. 211/826) which includes 96% of the stories transmitted by Maʿmar b. Rāšid (m. 153/770), the Prophet is depicted above all as a warrior and does not occupy such a central place as he does in the Sīra of Ibn Hišām (m. 213/828), where he is omnipresent both as legislator and as a miracle worker. It would seem that after the ʿAbbāsid revolution in 132/750, political power needed to justify its link to the Prophet to both legitimize its ability to govern and to convince Jewish and Christians to convert to Islam by encouraging the emergence of an imperial historiography, which was not the priority of the Umayyads. It may also be that the Muṣannaf of ʿAbd al-Razzāq, written in Yemen, reflects peripheral concerns different from those prevailing in Baghdad, while at the same time informing us about the state of historiography at the end of the Umayyad period. Finally, it may be that some of these stories come from oral folk traditions (quṣṣāṣ) that have made their way into the biographical narratives that would eventually become canon.

A Word of Explanation on the Language and Grammar of the Qurʾān

Dr. Abd al-Hakim Radi, Professor of Arabic Literature, Literary Criticism, and Rhetoric in the Department of Arts at Cairo University and member of the Arabic Language Academy in Cairo

Jean Druel, O.P., Director of IDEO and scholar in the history of Arabic grammar

icon-calendar Tuesday September 10ᵗʰ, 2019

At a lecture he gave last November, Jean Druel, O.P. outlined a history of the Arabic language in connection with other Semitic languages. He discussed the question of the status of the language of the Qurʾān and its link with the historical phases of Arabic, highlighting some specific features of each phase which now coexist in use.

At this seminar, Dr. Abd al-Hakim Radi wished to respond to Jean Druel’s lecture, focusing in particular on the status of the Qurʾānic language and its specific eloquence, which culminates in the question of the linguistic miracle of the Qurʾān. He also discussed the question of the normative grammar of the Arabic language and its authority to judge the Qurʾānic language. He explained that instances in the Qurʾān that may violate rules of the Arabic language could be authentically justified in the itself, without any contradiction, due to the flexibility of the Arabic language and the diversity of its ancient dialects, which are all authentically Arabic and eloquent. He also explained that Muslim scientists have extensively dealt with these issues in the past.

In the end, the difference between the two researchers is that Jean Druel, O.P. discusses these different states of the Arabic language from the point of view of their historic succession, while Dr. Abd al-Hakim Radi considers this linguistic diversity within a single language without history and without development.

The place of the sunna in the Risāla of al-Šāfiʿī (d. 204/820)

Dr. Ahmad Wagih

Professor at the Faculty of Dār al-ʿUlūm, Cairo University

icon-calendar Monday June 24ᵗʰ, 2019

In this book, considered as the foundation of the Islamic legal theory, al-Šāfiʿī (d. 204/820) discusses the position of two distinct and opposing groups, the “Iraqis” and the “Hijazis”, on the question of legal arguments: what kind of evidence is lawful, and what strength do each type of argument has in relation to the others? One of the disputed issues is the autonomy of the Sunna in legal argumentation. Unlike later works, the Risāla of al-Šāfiʿī follows an apologetic outline, that is not systematic. In his argumentation, al-Šāfiʿī gives a central place to the Prophet, and therefore to the Sunna and to the ḥadīṯs, in relation to the Qurʾān, and this, since the very first pages of his Risāla. He justifies this by referring to many verses from the Qurʾān, such as this one: “Believe in Allah and His Messenger” (Q. 4 al-Nisāʾ, 136), among other verses.

Ibn Taymiyya and the God of the Philosophers

Adrien Candiard, O.P.

PhD candidate and IDEO member

icon-calendar Tuesday April 23ʳᵈ, 2019

In the ninth volume of his large book Darʾ taʿāruḍ al-ʿaql wa-l-naql, which constitutes a precise and extremely informed refutation of rationalist ideas, Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728/1328) devotes almost fifty pages to the refutation of Aristotle’s metaphysical ideas, as presented by Ṯābit b. Qurra (m. 288/901) in his Talḫīṣ.

Unlike philosophers who all presuppose an autonomy of reason in relation to the revelation, Ibn Taymiyya defends the idea that revelation is reason and the starting point of all reasoning.

God cannot be the final cause only (Aristotle’s “unmoved mover”), but must be considered at the same time the efficient cause, which contradicts Aristotle. For Ibn Taymiyya, revelation teaches us that God is both Ilāh (“God”, the final cause as an object of adoration) and Rabb (“Lord”, the efficient cause as a creator). Ibn Taymiyya also refutes the idea that the world is eternal, which is incompatible with revelation, regardless of what philosophers who claim to be Muslim say. Finally, he defends the non-Aristotelian idea that there is willingness in God, as a primary cause. It is by His willingness, and not driven by his desire or by any need, that God creates the world.

The “God of the philosophers”, to use Blaise Pascal’s phrase, is not the revealed Creator God, but only the fruit of the error of a human reason that would be abandoned to itself.