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Language as Power: Literary Interpretations of the Qur'an in Early Islam


How did pre-modern Muslim exegetes view the mediating role of language in accessing the Qur'an's meaning? What conception of language undergirded their arguments? And what sources of normative authority informed their interpretive canvas? By pursuing this cluster of questions, this essay aims to sketch a picture of the relationship between language and revelation in pre-modern traditions of Qur'an exegesis. More specifically, I conduct a close reading of the Qur'an commentary authored by the prominent Twelver Shi‘i theologian, poet, and historian, al-Sharif al-Radi (d.1015 ce). Al-Radi's commentary is a literary exegesis of the Qur'an; in it he presents his concern with ambiguity in the Qur'an and presents language as the hermeneutical key to resolving it. I argue that al-Radi's invocation of varied grammatical rules and his construction of literary arguments were embedded in a particular epistemological and theological conception of the normative relationship between language and revelation. Further, I also interrogate the historically specific conditions and the variety of intellectual currents and vectors (other than sectarian affiliation) that informed al-Radi's hermeneutical choices. By paying close attention to describing the multivalent interpretive traditions that informed al-Radi's Qur'an hermeneutic, this article highlights the conceptual problems attached to the very category of a “Shi‘i Qur'an hermeneutic,” a category that stands authorised through the unsound assumption that sectarian identity and hermeneutical horizons readily correspond in a predictable and seamless fashion. It is precisely this assumption of neat correspondence between sectarian identity and hermeneutical temperament that this essay seeks to challenge and disrupt.

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1 One reference that illustrates the diversity of approaches that constitutes the tradition of Shi‘i exegesis is the entry on “tafsir” in the encyclopedic compendium, Da'iratul ma‘arif buzurg islami, which lists the variety of methods and styles associated with Qur'an commentaries composed by Shi‘i scholars in different time periods.

2 See Bar Asher, Meir, Scripture and Exegesis in Early Imami-Shi‘ism, (Boston, 1999); idem. “The Qur'an commentary ascribed to Imam Hasan al-Askari,” in Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 24 (2000), pp. 358-379; Steigerwald, Diane, “Twelver Shi‘i Ta'wil” in The Blackwell Companion to the Qurʼan, (ed.) Rippin, Andrew, (Malden, 2006); Ayoub, Mahmoud, “The speaking Qur'an and the silent Qur'an: a study of the principles and development of Imami Shi‘i tafsir,” in Approaches to the History of the Interpretation of the Qur'an, (ed.) Rippin, Andrew, (Oxford, 1988), pp. 177198 .

3 Meir Bar Asher, Encyclopedia Iranica, s.v. “Exegesis ii. in Shi‘ism,” in Vol. IX, Fasc. 2, pp. 116-119.

4 Ibid .

5 Steigerwald draws on Ayoub's article on Imami Shi‘i tafsir to state: “The main principle of Shi'i exegesis is based on the fact that the Qur'an has an outer dimension and an inner dimension which has up to seven inner dimensions.” See Diane Steigerwald, 2006, p. 385; Ayoub, 1988, p. 187. This reference to the apparent/hidden dialectic of the Qur'an's meaning is supported by a saying of the sixth Shi‘i Imam, Ja‘far al-Sadiq.

6 Only the fifth volume of this text is extant. It includes al-Radi's commentary on the third sura of the Qur'an, Al ‘Imran, and on the first few verses of the fourth sura, al-Nisa. See Haqa'iq al-ta'wil fi mutashabih al-tanzil, vol. 5, introduction by ‘Abd al-Husayn al-Hilli, edited by Muhammad al-Rida Al Kashif al-Ghita, (Beirut, 1986).

7 A focus on the Qur'an's ambiguous verses is often associated with the Mu‘tazili school. Elsewhere I have explored in some detail the interactions between al-Radi's Qur'an hermeneutic and Mu‘tazili thought, especially in connection to al-Radi's relationship with his teacher, the major Mu‘tazili scholar, Qadi ‘Abd al-Jabbar (d.1025 ce). See Thaver, Tehseen, “Encountering Ambiguity: Mu‘tazili and Twelver Shi‘i Approaches to the Qur'an's Ambiguous Verses,” Journal of Qur'anic Studies, 18, no. 3 (2016), pp. 91115 .

8 Abdel Haleem, Translation M. A., The Qur'an: English translation and parallel Arabic text, (Oxford, 2010).

9 My own deployment of the label “Shi‘i” and “Shi‘i exegesis” in this article should be understood in the meaning of Shi‘ism not as a predetermined entity, rather as “an ongoing argument”, made possible and centrally visible in particular historical conjunctures of authoritative debates, discord, and disagreement and dissent. I want to be clear that with this approach, I do not deny the heuristic value, or the existence, of a Shi‘i identity. This is evident from my own use of this term. However, I do hold that what it stands for cannot be canonised into a predictable and predetermined entity, even if we are bound by language to refer to it by this name. A sustained discussion on “identity” is beyond the scope of this article, however for this particular reading I am indebted to and would refer the reader to Abeysekara, Ananda’s The Politics of Postsecular Religion: Mourning Secular Futures, (New York, 2008), pp. 84100 , and his “Identity for and against Itself: Religion, Criticism, and Pluralization,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 72, no. 4 (2004), pp. 973--1001.

10 For instance, in the edited volume, Literary Structures of Religious Meaning in the Qur'an, two articles on al-Radi's exegetical works brought attention to the distinctly literary taste and aesthetic of al-Radi, but no attempt was made to situate his intellectual ambitions in the broader context of scholarly and imperial life in tenth century Baghdad. See Ayoub, Mahmoud, “Literary Exegesis of the Qur'an: The Case of Sharif al-Radi” and Kamal Abu-Deeb, “Studies in the Majaz and Metaphorical Language of the Qur'an: Abu ‘Ubayda and al-Sharif al- Radi,”in Literary structures of religious meaning in the Qur'an, (ed.) Boullata, Issa J., (Richmond, 2000). Moreover, Abu-Deeb assumes that al-Radi's foray into the topic of the Qur'an's ambiguous elements reflects his Shi‘i background and the supposed familiarity of any Shi‘i scholar with the Qur'an's hidden (batini) meanings. (Abu-Deeb, 2000), p. 316.

11 Cl. Cahen, “Buwayhids or Buyids,” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, Brill Online, 2012; Kraemer, Joel L., Humanism in the Renaissance of Islam , (Leiden, 1992); Lenn Evan Goodman, Islamic Humanism, (New York, 2003).

12 Mottahedeh, Roy P., Loyalty and Leadership in an Early Islamic Society, (London, 2001), pp. 98104 .

13 Khalikan, Ibn, Wafayat al-A‘yan, translated by Slane, De, 4 vols, (Paris, 1848–1871) vol. ii, p. 167 . Cited in Isam ‘Abd ‘Ali, Al-Sharif Al-Radi: His Life and Poetry, p. 44.

14 Fuller discussions on the intellectual and literary climate during the Buyid period can be found in: Alshaar, Nuha A., Ethics in Islam: Friendship in the Political Thought of al-Tawhidi and his Contemporaries, (New York, 2015), chapter titled “The Buyid Social Imaginary,” pp. 27-58; Naaman, Erez, Literature and the Islamic Court, (Abingdon, 2016); Donohue, John, The Buwayhid Dynasty in Iraq: Shaping Institutions for the Future, (Leiden, 2003); Kraemer, Joel L., Humanism ; Maafizullah, Kabir, The Buwayhid Dynasty of Baghdad 946-1055, (Calcutta, Iran Society, 1964).

15 Ouyang, Wen-chin, Literary criticism in medieval Arabic-Islamic culture: The making of a tradition, (Edinburgh, 1997), chapter titled “Functions of Poetry in Medieval Arabic-Islamic Society”, pp. 55-83.

16 al-Baghdadi, Al-Khatib, Taʾrikh Baghdad, vol. ii, (Cairo, 1931), pp. 246247 .

17 “Sabian” here refers to his association to the Sabians of Harran, a community who followed an old Semitic polytheistic religion but had a strongly Hellenised elite. They adopted the Qur'anic name Ṣabiʾa during the 3rd/9th century so as to be able to claim the status of ahl al-kitab and thus avoid persecution. See F. C. de Blois, “Ṣabi,’” in Encyclopedia of Islam, Second Edition, Brill Online, 2012.

18 For biographical overviews on al-Sharif al-Radi see ‘ al-Ghani Hasan, Abd, al-Sharif al-Radi, (Cairo, 1970), Sayyid al-Kilani, Muhammad, al-Sharif al-Radi, (Cairo, 1937), Mahfuz, al-Sharif al-Radi, (Beirut, 1938), and Abu ‘Ali, Islam, Al-Sharif Al-Radi: His Life and Poetry, (Ph.D. dissertation, Durham University, 1974).

19 Schmucker, W., “MubahalaEncyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, (Brill Online, 2013), (accessed April 5, 2014).

20 Qur'an 3:61, Translation Haleem, The Qur'an.

21 Massignon, Louis, La Mubahala de Medine, (Paris, 1955); Idem., La Mubahala de Medine et l'Hyperdulie de Fatima, (Paris, 1955).

22 Louis Massignon, translated by Mason, Herbert, The passion of al-Hallaj: mystic and martyr of Islam, (Princeton, 1982), p. 154 .

23 Victor Tolan, John, Saint Francis and the Sultan: The Curious History of a Christian-Muslim Encounter, (Oxford, 2009), p. 296 .

24 Ma‘mouri, Ali, “Bar Rasi-i Ta'rikhi-i Ayah-i Mubahala wa Baz Tabha-yi Kalami-i An,” Fasalnamah-i Shi'ah Shanasi 5, no 19 (1964), pp. 85100 ; al-Din Muhammad Washnawi, Qawam, Ahl Bayt wa Ayah-i Mubahala, (Qom, 1972); Rada Ansari, Muhammad, Asrar-i Mubahala, (Tehran, 1963).

25 Poet and warrior from the late sixth century of the common era, who mourned the past glories of his tribe al-‘Adwan.

26 Al-Radi, Haqa'iq, 114.

27 In rendering majaz as linguistic transgression or transgression from normative modes of expression, I have followed David Vishanoff. As he explains, “majaz is often translated “figurative” or “metaphorical,” but this suggests a much narrower concept than is usually in view, so I will most often translate the word in its most basic sense of crossing over or passing beyond, using the terms “transgression” and “transgressive,” which should be understood without the strong negative connotation they have in English.” See Vishanoff, David, The Formation of Islamic Hermeneutics: How Sunni Legal Theorists Imagined a Revealed Law, (New Haven, 2011), 21 .

28 For a detailed account and analysis of this debate, see Mahdi, Muhsin, “Language and Logic in Classical Islam,” in von Grunebaum, G.E. (ed.) Logic in Classical Islamic Culture, (Wiesbaden, 1970), pp. 5183 . Also see Chen Ouyang, Wen, “Literature and Thought: Re-reading al-Tawhidi's Transcription of the Debate between Grammar and Logic” in The Heritage of Arabo-Islamic Learning: Studies Presented to Wadad Kadi, (ed.) Pomerantz, Maurice A. and Shahin, Aram A. (Leiden, 2016), pp. 444460 .

29 Mahdi, “Language and Logic in Classical Islam”, p. 60. Mahdi also succinctly explains, “Matta's original thesis was based on the assumption that logic as it were builds a bridge or forms an intermediate stage between language and science or knowledge of the intelligible meanings, between conventional opinions and scientific knowledge. Al-Sirafi denies this place to logic. The necessary condition for attaining intelligible meanings is language, and logic does not provide a necessary bridge between the two. Logic does not transcend language and its conventional character, but merely reflects a particular linguistic convention or the rules and characteristic ways that a particular linguistic group agrees upon in speaking its language. To call upon non-Greeks to learn Greek logic is not to provide them with a universal instrument of thought, but with the characteristic structure of the Greek language, which is of no use unless one plans to learn that language.” Ibid., p.66.

30 Kraemer, Humanism, pp. 11-15.

31 Ibrahim Qummi, Ali ibn, Tafsir al-Qummi, (Beirut, 1991), v. 1, p. 112 .

32 al-Hasan al-Tusi, Abu Ja‘far Muhammad ibn, al-Tibyan fi tafsir al-Qur'an, (ed.) al-Amin, Ahmad Shawqi and al-‘Amili, Ahmad Habib Qusayr, (Najaf, 1957), vol. 2, pp. 484486.

33 Thaʻlabi, ibn Muhammad, Ahmad, al-Kashf wa-al-bayan ‘an tafsir al-Qurʼan, (ed.) Ba'uthman, Salah [et al.], (Jeddah, 2015), v. 8, pp. 385389.

34 Qur'an 3:36, Translation Haleem, The Qur'an.

35 Al-Radi, Haqai'q, 84.

36 Ibid .

37 Al-Radi, Haqai'q, 86.

38 Al-Radi, Haqai'q, 86-87.

39 Although I previously render majaz as linguistic transgression (see footnote 27), when used in opposition with the term haqiqa, majaz carries the narrower sense of “metaphor.”

40 Vishanoff, Formation of Islamic Hermeneutics, 22; Heinrichs, “On the Genesis of the Haqiqa-Majaz Dichotomy,” Studia Islamica, no. 59 (1984), p. 136.

41 See Heinrichs, “On the Genesis”, p. 136.

42 Carter, Michael, “Language Control as People Control in Medieval Islam: The Aims of the Grammarians in Their Cultural Context,” al-Abhath, 31, (Beirut, 1983), pp. 6584 .

43 Structurally, al-Radi's work partially fits into a scheme termed the question and answer (masa'il wa ajwiba) style common to theological argumentation during this period. In his work on ‘Abd al-Jabbar, Gabriel Reynolds points out that this method of presenting one's argument developed as a tool through which a scholar would demonstrate his position rather than inductively deriving it. Other such tactics employed to achieve this goal included for instance the positing of questions by hypothetical opponents, and then driving those hypothetical interlocutors to a logically untenable position. See Reynolds, A Muslim Theologian in a Sectarian Milieu: ‘Abd al-Jabbar and the Critique of Christian Origins, (Leiden, 2004), 26. The beginning of each chapter in al-Radi's commentary follows this scheme of staging and then engaging the question of a hypothetical interlocutor.

44 Scott, David, Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment (Durham, 2004), p. 53 .

45 Larkin, Margaret, The theology of meaning: ʻAbd al-Qahir al-Jurjani's theory of discourse, (New Haven, 1995), pp. 3138 .

46 See Weiss, Bernard, “Medieval Muslim Discussions of the Origin of Language,” Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenla¨ndischen Gesellschaft 124, (1974), p.34 .

47 Majaz is rendered as linguistic transgression from normative modes of expression. See footnote 27.

48 “What the Qur'an attempts to forge is a human self and subjectivity, a definitive trait of which is its complete transparency vis-à-vis God. This transparency involves the recognition that the self is always known (included watched, observed, heard) by God, and, most importantly, held accountable by God—thereby underscoring the profundity of the theme of human responsibility that characterises the scripture.” Khan, Ruqayya, Self and Secrecy in Early Islam, (Columbia, 2008), p. 8.

49 “. . .I merely raise the possibility that numerous selections (dealing with secrecy) from early Arabo-Islamic ethical and literary discourses are suggestive of attempts to compensate for a perceived determining Qur'anic phenomenology of “self as transparent”. How so? By persistently and consistently maintaining the need for creating spheres of secrecy and privacy in intrapersonal and interpersonal relations”. Khan, Self and Secrecy, p. 127. And, “A defining trait of secrecy paradoxically is that it is always accompanied by revelation. This trait is also found in the Qur'an and early Arabo-Islamic ethical and didactic texts such as Kitman. This inextricability of secrecy and revelations, in turn, generates its own paradoxes that constitute the trope of the secret in early Arabic love literature—paradoxes embracing motifs regarding self, subjectivity, body, and gender relations”. Khan, Self and Secrecy, p. 95.

50 Abu Deeb, Kamal, “Al-Jurjani's Classification of Isti‘ara with Special Reference to Aristotle's Classification of Metaphor,” Journal of Arabic Literature 2 (1971), pp. 4875 .

51 Khalid, Adeeb, Islam after Communism: Religion and Politics in Central Asia, (Berkeley, 2007), p. 7 .

52 I would like to thank Carl Ernst, David Vishanoff, and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and feedback. Thanks also to Mohsin Kadivar and Muhammad Habib for generously reading parts of the texts with me, and to Rick Colby, who commented on parts of this article as the respondent to the panel at the 2013 American Academy of Religion conference, where an earlier version was presented. This project was supported by the Bard Research Fund at Bard College.

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