Sources of the Quran

Revised by Montgomery Watt




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Sources of the Quran


Chapter 1
The Historical Context

Chapter 2
Mohammed's Prophetic Experience

Chapter 3

The History of the Text

Chapter 4

The external form of the Quran

Chapter 5

The features of Quranic style

Chapter 6

The Shaping of the Quran

Chapter 7
The Chronology of the Quran

Chapter 8
The names of the revealed message

Chapter 9
The Doctrines of the Quran

Chapter 10
Muslim Scholarship and the Quran

Chapter 11
The Quran and Occidental Scholariship



Bell's Introduction to the Quran
Revised by Montgomery Watt

Chapter 10: Muslim Scholarship and the Quran

1 . Interpretation and exegesis

The work of Muslim scholars on the text of the quran Qurn was described in a previous chapter and need not be mentioned here. Ignaz Goldziher in his magistral study of the history of the exegesis of the quran Qurn 1 insisted that even work on the text involved a form of interpretation, and of this he gave examples. This stage merges into the 'traditional' interpretation. The quran Qurn is full of allusions, which were presumably clear at the time of its revelation, but were far from clear to later generations. Thus men appeared who claimed to know who was referred to in a particular passage, and what the incident was which occasioned a passage. In such matters it was easy to allow oneself to be carried away by imagination, and there were many unreliable purveyors of stories. Eventually, however, careful scholars sifted out the accounts which might be regarded as authentic, showing how and when a particular passage was revealed. This became a subdivision of the discipline known as 'the occasions of revelation' (asbab asbb nuzul an-nuzl). The standard work on this subject is taken to be that of wahidi al-Wid (d. 1075), of which there are now printed editions. This work is complemented by that of the later quranic Qurnic scholar suyuti as-Suy (d. 1505), entitled lubab Lubb nuqul an-nuql fi f asbab asbb nuzul an-nuzl, which has also been printed. In the early period there was also much irresponsible elaboration of quranic Qurnic stories, using Biblical and extracanonical Jewish and Christian material, Arab legend, and often sheer invention.

As time went on, especially after non-Arabs became Muslims, it became necessary to have explanations of verses and phrases of the quran Qurn whose meaning had ceased to be obvious. It was necessary to show the precise meaning of a rare word or the correct way to take a grammatical construction or the reference of a pronoun. The first great name in quranic Qurnic exegesis, and indeed the founder of the discipline is held to be ibn abbas Ibn-Abbs, a cousin of muhammads Muammad's, who was from ten to fifteen years old in 632 and who lived until about 687. Such was his reputation, however, that all sorts of interpretations were falsely ascribed to him to gain acceptance for them, and thus little can be known with certainty about his views. It appears to be the case, however, that he employed the method of referring to pre-Islamic poetry in order to establish the meaning of obscure words. 2 A less sceptical view of early quranic Qurnic exegesis has recently been put forward by a Turkish Muslim scholar, Fuat Sezgin. 3 On the basis of the much greater number of manuscripts now known containing a tafsir tafsr or quran Qurn-commentary by an early author Sezgin argues that it is possible to form a good idea of the teaching of at least several pupils of abbas Ibn-Abbs. Most of these manuscripts, however, have not yet been carefully studied, and it is too early to know whether they will yield information of much significance.

The earliest important commentary on the quran Qurn which is extant and readily accessible is the great work of the historian muhammad Muammad jarir ibn-Jarr at tabari a-abar (d. 923), first printed in Cairo in 1903 in thirty volumes and reprinted more than once. As the title (jami Jmi bayan al-bayn an an tawil tawl quran al-Qurn) suggests, this is a compendium of all that was best in the earlier 'traditional exegesis'. For most verses of the quran Qurn at tabari a-abar gives not merely his own interpretation but also quotes the statements of abbas Ibn-Abbs and other early authorities, in each case with the isnad isnd or chain of transmitters through whom it has come to him. There may be a dozen authorities or more for a single difficult phrase. At many points the authorities differ, and there at tabari a-abar, after expounding the opposing views and giving the supporting statements puts forward his own view and his reasons for it. 4 From this vast work it would be possible to gain much information about the interpretations given by earlier commentators such as hasan al-asan basri al-Bar (d. 728); but it is not certain that the results would be commensurate to the efforts involved, since the most distinctive points of exegesis might well have been omitted. The manuscripts mentioned by Sezgin with the views of early interpreters may have been compiled by later scholars from works such as that of at tabari a-abar.

There are numerous other commentaries on the quran Qurn, of which lists will be found in the reference works of Brockelmann and Sezgin. Only a few of outstanding interest need be mentioned here.

A commentary which modern scholars are finding of increasing value is that of zamakhshari az-Zamakhshar (d. 1143), entitled al kashshaf Al-kashshf an haqaiq aqiq at tanzil at-tanzl, 'The unveiler of the realities of revelation'. Officially zamakhshari az-Zamakhshar has not had much influence in the Islamic world because he belonged to the group of heretical theologians known as the mutazilites Mutazilites, who ascribed greater freedom to the human will than did the Sunnites and denied the hypostatic existence of the divine attributes. Only at a very few points, however, do his theological views affect his interpretation of the quranic Qurnic text; and on the other hand he has the great merits of profound grammatical and lexicological knowledge and a sound judgement.

What has often been regarded, especially by European scholars, as the standard commentary on the quran Qurn is that called anwar Anwr at tanzil - tanzl wa asrar wa-asrr at tawil at-tawl, 'The lights of revelation and the secrets of interpretation', by baycdawi al-Baycw (d. 1286 or 1291). This was intended as a manual for instruction in colleges or mosque-schools, and therefore aims at giving in concise form all that was best and soundest in previous commentaries, including important variant interpretations. To a great extent baycdawi al-Baycw follows zamakhshari az-Zamakhshar, though in his zeal for conciseness he sometimes becomes cryptic. He belonged to the main stream of Sunnite philosophical theology, and therefore removed zamakhshari az-Zamakhshar's mutazilite Mutazilite errors. A European edition of this work in two volumes was published at Leipzig in 1846 and 1848, edited by H. L. Fleischer; and two sections (those on suras 3 and 12) have been translated into English, although owing to the nature of the material they are barely intelligible to those who are not also studying the Arabic text. 5

Between zamakhshari az-Zamakhshar and baycdawi al-Baycw came the theologian fakhr ad din Fakhr-ad-Dn razi ar-Rz (d. 1210), who among many other works wrote an extensive commentary of the quran Qurn. The distinctive feature of this commentary is that it includes long philosophical and theological discussions on many matters in accordance with the writer's standpoint, that of the later asharite Asharite school of Sunnite philosophical theology.

A popular short commentary is that of the jalalayn Jallayn or 'the two jalals Jalls', namely, jalal ad din Jall-ad-Din mahalli al-Maalli (d. 1459) who began it, and his pupil, the great scholar jalal ad din Jall-ad-Din suyuti as-Suyt (d. 1505), who completed it. This gives the gist of the accepted views in the briefest possible form.

As a modernizing theological movement has developed in the Islamic world during the last century this has been reflected in a number of new commentaries. 6 In Egypt the most notable is tafsir Tafsr manar al-Manr, the work of a group of scholars associated with the periodical manar Al-Manr 7; while from the Indian subcontinent comes the impressive work of Mawlana Abul-Kalam Azad. 8

2. The theologians

As was seen above (chapter 4, section 4) the dramatic form of much of the quran Qurn is that it is the direct speech of God. Even where this is not the case, as in passages spoken by angels, the assumption is that they say what they have been commanded to say by God. In the theological discussions about to be described, however, the case of verses commanded by God but not 'dramatically' spoken by him was not distinguished from the first. Both sides took it for granted that in the quran Qurn God was speaking.

It is not clear how the discussion began. 9 Some European scholars thought that it had grown out of Christian thinking about 'the Word of God'; but, while some ideas may have been suggested from this quarter, it will be shown that the discussions were not academic but related to important intra-Islamic political questions. It might have been considered obvious that, since the quran Qurn had appeared at certain points in time during the last twenty years or so of muhammad Muammad's life, it could not be regarded as having existed from all eternity. Nevertheless in the caliphate of mamun al-Mamn (813-33) one finds many of the central body of Sunnite theologians maintaining that the quran Qurn is the eternal and uncreated word or speech of God. (The Arabic is kalam kalm allah Allh, properly 'the speech of God' and to be distinguished from kalimat allah Allh, 'God's word', a phrase applied to Jesus in 4.171/69.) Other persons, notably the mutazilite Mutazilite theologians who were in favour with mamun al-Mamn, opposed to this the thesis that the quran Qurn was the created speech of God and was not eternal. The opposition between these two points of view became such that before the end of the reign of mamun al-Mamn an Inquisition (mihna mina) was established, and all persons in official positions like judges and provincial governors were required to affirm publicly that they believed that the quran Qurn was the created and not uncreated speech of God. The Inquisition continued fitfully until shortly after al-Mutawakkil came to the throne in 848.

At first sight it seems strange that an abstruse theological point of this kind should have political repercussions. An examination of the situation, however, shows that it was linked with a power struggle between what may be called the 'autocratic' bloc and the 'constitutionalist' bloc, each of which represented several bodies of common interest grouped together. The theological dispute specially affected the ulema or religious scholars on the constitutionalist side and the secretaries or civil servants on the autocratic side. The latter were inclined towards the views of the shiite Shite sect, part of which at least insisted on the charismatic or divinely inspired quality of the ruler of the community of Muslims. If this point was accepted, it meant that the ruler by his personal inspiration would be able to override the religious law as hitherto understood and practised. At the same time the power of the civil servants and administrators would be increased. The ruler's power would be all the greater if it was also agreed that the quran Qurn was created, since what was created by God was dependent only on his will, and he could presumably have willed to create it otherwise.

On the other hand, if the quran Qurn was the uncreated speech of God and (as they also maintained) an eternal attribute of his being, it could not be changed and could not be set aside even by the ruler of the Muslims (whose special charisma or inspiration was not accepted by those who held this view). It followed that the affairs of the Islamic empire must be ordered strictly in accordance with the provisions of this eternal speech of God. Since the accredited interpreters of this eternal speech of God were the ulema, it further followed that acceptance of the uncreatedness of the quran Qurn enhanced the power of the ulema at the expense of that of the civil servants.

The policy of the caliph mamun al-Mamn and his immediate successors, of which one expression was the establishment of the Inquisition, may be regarded as a compromise. Although belief in the createdness of the quran Qurn was insisted on in opposition to the constitutionalist bloc, the demands of the autocratic bloc were by no means fully accepted. Thus neither bloc was altogether satisfied with the compromise. Most of the ulema weakly submitted to the demand to make a public affirmation of the new doctrine, although ahmad Amad hanbal ibn-anbal refused to do so and suffered as a result, and one or two men lost their lives. 10 It was not this protest, however, which led to a change of policy under al-Mutawakkil but the failure of the compromise to remove the tensions within the caliphate. The abandonment of the Inquisition was one of several steps by which the heartlands of the Islamic world were made predominantly Sunnite and have remained so, with the exception of Persia, until the present day. The uncreatedness of the quran Qurn became a central point of dogma, with the practical corollary that the ordering of state and society was based in principle on the shariah sharia Shara or revealed law as contained in the quran Qurn supplemented by the Traditions about muhammad Muammad's standard practice. Theological discussion passed on to such ramifications of the dogma as the question whether man's uttering (lafz) or pronouncing of the quran Qurn was created or uncreated; but such matters belong rather to the history of theology. 11