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The Muslim Samson: medieval, modern and scholarly interpretations

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 June 2008

Andrew Rippin
Affiliation:
University of Victoria, email: arippin@uvic.ca

Abstract

The biblical figure of Samson (Judges 13: 1–16: 31) is not mentioned by name in the Quran. He was, however, incorporated by medieval Muslims such as al-Ṭabarī and Tha‘labī into the quranic prophetic world. How and why that was accomplished is the initial focus of this paper. While the medieval ability to find Samson in the text of scripture was admittedly limited, the attempt does illustrate the process of fitting scripture into a pre-existing world view itself composed on the basis of a variety of competing priorities. That world view does not always agree with the biblical text, nor with the full dimension of the living traditions of Judaism and Christianity; rather, the overall cultural framework of the Islamic tradition necessitated a range of interpretive strategies, dictated by the demands of the interpretive situation. Putting this medieval interpretive process in focus provides a context for discussing some modern Muslim views of Samson, about whom it is sometimes proclaimed proudly that he is not to be found in scripture. Why that position should be taken proves revealing of the process and the priorities of modern quranic interpretation. Marked by the abandonment of the value of tradition, contemporary interpretive strategies involve the same hermeneutical processes found in the medieval approach – the fitting of world views to the text of scripture – with the primary difference to be located in the rejection of the accumulative nature of the interpretive enterprise. Finally, the role of modern “secular” scholarship interacts with Muslim tradition by its focus on the boundaries of a strict scriptural text as the source of Islam. The scholarly focus on the textual is seen in a world view not of confessional dogma but one that still supports a confessional position that is also textually focused. It pretends to an appearance of being “scientific”. Scholarship plays its own political role within the process of modern interpretation.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London 2008

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