The Qur’an is the axial text of a major religious civilization and of a major world language. For both Islamic civilization and the Arabic language the Qur’an consecrates a finality of authority granted to few texts in history. Muslim piety regards the Qur’an as supremely eloquent, supremely wise, and immune from all error or falsehood. Its immaculate nature extends to its physical copies, which are considered inviolable and untouchable except by one in a state of ritual purity. Good Muslim manners dictate that copies of the Qur’an cannot be bought, only piously bestowed in return for a pious gift from the buyer. Through the centuries, Islamic art and calligraphy have lavished upon it many of their most enduring and magnificent masterpieces. When recited, it flows with a sonority which common Muslim opinion holds to be capable of causing tears of repentance and comfort or else a shiver of fear and trembling.
As the ‘Book of God’, the divine arbiter of Muslim life and a model of Arabic usage, it sits inside a vast tradition of commentary and scholarship, Islamic and non-Islamic, pre—modern as well as modern. In the pre-modern Islamic tradition, Qur’anic commentary and exegesis (mfsir) was widely regarded not only as the most meritorious of the religious sciences but also as the one most fraught with danger, because of the grave consequences of error. This, however, did not prevent Muslim parties and groups from engaging in trzfsir with the object of fortifying their ideological positions. The resultant corpus of tufsir contains a wide spectrum of views on the irreversible justice of God, the freedom of the human will, the divine attributes, the ultimate destiny of sinners and a host of other theological, legal and historical issues embedded in the sacred text. The greatest of these tafsirs must rank as among the most subtle and sophisticated commentaries on sacred scriptures in world literature, holding considerable interest for students of comparative religion. Unfortunately their very bulk makes their translation a colossal undertaking, denying them the wider non-Arabic readership they so thoroughly deserve.
The question now arises: can one really understand or appreciate the Qur’an without its tradition of commentary? Can a reader who knows little or nothing of its cultural background make sense of its allusive references or its frequent ad hoc pronouncements? For the scholars of Islam, mastery of the various sub—disciplines of Qur’anic exegesis has always been regarded as an essential prerequisite to authoritative understanding. Among these disciplines are the subsidiary sciences of tafsir such as asbab al—nuzul (historical context), al—nasikhwa’l mansukh (harmony of laws), gharib al-Qur’an (linguistic obscurities), qira’at (variant readings), fm]? (grammar), isti’arat (metaphors), bada’i' (rhetorical excellences) and i"jaz (divinely ordained inimitability). It was upon these sciences that the great exegetes of the Qur’an built their authority. Yet within these fields, controversy was always rife and vivid. No scholar of exegesis would advance an opinion without first engaging with his fellow exegetes, past and contemporaneous. Consensus on a point of interpretation was hard to come by, even on what appear to be simple or straightforward legal or linguistic points. On the larger and more divisive theological issues the debate among exegetes has always contained a wide spectrum of views. However, despite the claims of the exegetes that full understanding of the Qur’an must pass through their scholarly portals, it was recognized from an early period that the Qur’an was, in a memorable phrase, hammalu awjuhin (a bearer of diverse interpretations), somewhat akin to A. N. Whitehead’s phrase ‘patient of interpretation’, cited by Frank Kermode in his definition of a classic. The leeway granted to interpretation issued from the Qur’an’s own classification of its verses as muhkam or mutashabih (Q. 3:7). The word muhkam has commonly been understood to mean ‘explicit’, ‘clear—cut’, ‘fully intelligible’, while mutashabih has been taken to mean ‘indeterminate’, ‘with multiple meanings’ or even ‘ambiguous’. Under muhkam, the exegetes typically included the body of detailed legislation and moral injunctions in the Qur’an, while mutashabih included words and verses which, among other matters, referred to God’s attributes and His relationship to the created world. Here, for example, is how the renowned theologian and exegete Fakhr al—Din al-Razi (d. 1209) dealt with the question of certain problematic attributes of God such as His anger, joy, cunning and love. If taken literally, these can bring God dangerously near to human emotions:
This is an example of how certain exegetes particularly the rationalists among them, have dealt with the problem of God’s seemingly human attributes, though other exegetes would argue that such attributes must be accepted on faith and are beyond rational investigation. Regardless of the interpretive strategy adopted, a common view held among exegetes is that the ambiguous or mutashubih terms or phrases of the Qur’an were deliberately designed by God to stimulate thinking, and are thus very much in line with the Qur’an’s frequent exhortations to mankind to reflect upon the created universe. The exegetes have quite naturally insisted upon mastery of the scholarly curriculum before interpretation can be undertaken, and yet the repeated invitation to mankind to exercise their reason is as timeless, universal and imperative as anything else in the Qur’anic text itself.
If we turn back to the questions posed above, we might argue that a knowledge of, say, conditions in pre—Islamic Arabia would clearly enhance contextual understanding of the Qur’an. But the very allusiveness of the text, its impersonality, its meta—historical tone, seem almost deliberately to de-emphasize context, and to address its audience or readers in a grammatical tense that I have elsewhere called ‘the eternal present tense’.3 Yes, the Qur’an explicitly recognizes the danger of a wilfully perverted reading of the text, but if approached in a pious frame of mind, or what today we might call sympathy, interpretation must in theory be limitless, since God alone is its perfect interpreter (Q. 3:7). Thus, of all sacred texts, the Qur’an is perhaps the one that most self-consciously invites its readers to engage with it exegetically.
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