Peter Wright and Abdur-RahmanAbouAlmajd in dialog about Modern Qur'anic Hermeneutics .
We have a fresh opportunity to reflect about Hermeneutics.
At this point Professor Peter Wright is going to talk about his views of Modern Qur'anic Hermeneutics .
Hermeneutics in Islam leans on a lengthy tradition of tafsir, the exegesis of usually the Qur'an. Peter Heath posed in 1989 that "the modern study of Islamic hermeneutics is in its infancy” and Peter Wright adds more, in this dialog he shows some of his thoughts.
Dr.Peter Wright is an historian and critic of religious literatures, specializing in Islamic studies.
He is currently an assistant professor of Islamic studies in the Colorado College Religion Department, where he served as the Faculty Advisor for Arabic and Islamic Studies in 2013. His research interests include the Qu'ran; Hermeneutics (pre-modern and modern, Muslim and non-Muslim); Islamic history and civilization; intertextual relations between Muslim, Biblical and para-biblical traditions; Hadith and prophetic biography; Islamic law and legal theory; and Islam in the Americas.
Book Chapter: “Islam: Submission to God” in Leslie Stevenson, David L. Haberman, and Peter Matthews Wright, Twelve Theories of Human Nature, 6th edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press (2013), pp. 137-153 (peer-reviewed). Book Chapter: “The Qur’anic David” in Constructs of Prophecy in the Former and Latter Prophets and in Other Texts (Ancient Near Eastern Monographs/Monografiassobre el AntiguoCercanoOriente), edited by Lester L. Grabbe and MartiiNissinen, Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature Press (2011), pp. 187-196 (peer-reviewed). Review of The Qur’an and its Biblical Subtext by Gabriel Said Reynolds, New York: Routledge (2010) in Relegere: Studies in Religion and Reception Vol. 1, No. 1 (Summer 2011), pp. 219-223. Peer-Reviewed Journal Article: “Critical Approaches to the ‘Farewell Khutba’ in IbnIshaq’s Life of the Prophet” in Comparative Islamic Studies 6.1-2 (2010), pp. 215-248. Peer-Reviewed Journal Article: “After Smith: Romancing the Text When ‘Maps Are All We Possess’” in Religion and Literature 42.3 (Notre Dame: Autumn 2010), pp. 93-122. Review Essay: “From Politics to Metapolitics: Norman O. Brown’s The Challenge of Islam” in Discourse: Journal for Theoretical Studies in Media & Culture 32.3 (Wayne State University Press: Fall 2010), pp. 338-347. Encyclopedia Article: “Qur’an,” The Encyclopedia of Muslim-American History, New York: Facts on File, May 2010 (peer-reviewed). “Auf dem Spiel stehtnichtsgeringeresals die Freiheit” (“At Risk Is Nothing Less Than Freedom”), published by the German on-line journal Sicherheit-Heute (Security Today)
Q: First of all I wonder what made you focus on the Qur'an?
PW: I call myself a “humanist of the Old School.” By that I mean I am interested in human beings and how they find and make meaning in their lives. I am particularly interested in the part that language plays in this process. In many colleges and universities in the United States, my interests fit well with the non-sectarian academic study of religion. That’s how I found my way to the field of Religious Studies at a public university. I began my graduate studies in the history of religions in August 2001. My intention was to focus upon aspects of Islamic thought and practice in U.S. history—an abiding interest of mine. In fact, I wrote my M.A. thesis on the Islam-themed African American social movements of the early 20th century. But when the tragedy of September 11, 2001 occurred, I decided to focus my doctoral studies on the Qur’an as a way to understand the beginnings of the Islamic tradition and its development in Late Antiquity. So I moved from contemporary questions to more ancient ones. What ties the two interests together are the ways in which the sacred texts of Islamic tradition are interpreted by various groups of Muslims, and by non-Muslims as well.It is to questions of interpretation (hermeneutics) that I continually return.
Q: There’re several new translations of the Qur’an have been prepared. you have not looked at all of them, but you have found that the translation by whom is of very high quality?
PW: When considering the translation of any text, the first thing to keep in mind is that every translation is an interpretation. Islamic tradition contains a theory of translation that many individuals coming from a Protestant background find strange: the notion that the Qur’an is, in principle, untranslatable. I happen to think that there is real merit to the traditional Islamic view. Of course, we know that Muslims began to produce interlinear translations of the Qur’an very early and, as a practical matter, it would have been unwise to refuse to do so. Non-Arabic speaking converts to the religion in Iran and elsewhere wanted to know the meaning of what they were taught to recite. Translating the “recitation” was a concession to that desire. But the principle remains: the Qur’an is an Arabic revelation and much of its semantic riches reside in its original tongue. When I tell that to my students I often hear deep sighs in the room. It’s at that point that I quote Thoreau:“The heroic books, even if printed in the character of our mother tongue, will always be in a language dead to degenerate times…It is worth the expense of youthful days and costly hours, if you learn only some words of an ancient language, which are raised out of the trivialness of the street, to be perpetual suggestions and provocations.” But to answer your question, I tend to favor the English translation of Muhammad Asad.
Q: Could you elaborate on your studies of the Qur’an?
PW: One thing that became obvious to me when I began to translate the canonical text of the Qur’an is that it is very much engaged with its audience. The “Qur’anic voice” (presumed by believers to belong to God) not only speaks about individuals and groups in its audience, but also speaks directly to them. This is one reason that the Qur’an is rhetorically very compelling. People most often experience the Qur’an as a recited text and, to the extent that they identify with the individuals and groups addressed in that text, they find themselves addressed directly by the recitation as well. As an historian, I became very curious about the individuals originally addressed by the Qur’an—who were they? And who composed the various groups mentioned? Of course, my interest in knowing more about the historical context of the Qur’an’s original recitation is nothing new. Muslim scholars began to study this very subject within a century or two of the Prophet’s death and to compile traditions that placed particular passages of the Qur’an in an historical context. This is the asbab an-nuzul (occasions of revelation) literature.In the early days of my scholarly investigations, I explored that literature. However, as an historian, I was not satisfied with it because it was not conducted in accordance with modern historical methods. But even if it had been conducted in accordance with thosemethods, I would have wanted to explore more about the “occasions” of Qur’anic revelation because the traditional accounts cover only a relatively small proportion of the Qur’an. So I needed to figure out how to do more with the texts we have: I needed to find a way to tease out more historical information from the Qur’anic recitation than what has been handed down in Islamic tradition.
Q: Did you figure that out?
PW: That’s an excellent question. I think the most honest answer I can give is: further historical investigation will either confirm or disconfirm my findings. The problem with approaching the Qur’an in this way is that it was not delivered as an historical record: it is a collection of prophetic admonitions, declamations, exhortations, prayers. The Qur’an is perfectly suited to the devotional purposes to which Muslims have put it for the past 15 centuries. However, to the frustration of historians everywhere, it does not say, “On such and such a date at such and such a time in such and such a place, God moved the Prophet to say the following to his Meccan (or Medinan) neighbors(or supporters or enemies, etc.)….” Qur’anic discourse is very much “in the moment.” Verse after verse of the Qur’an simply begins with the command, “Say [this]…” Or the Qur’anic voice begins with an oath: “I swear by thehour of withering heat [‘asr]…” etc. Now, again, the great intellectuals of the early Islamic tradition investigated these contextual aspects of the Qur’an, but they did so without having at their disposal the tools of modern historians. This is not a criticism of those early scholars: one cannot blame a person in the past for not using a tool that had not yet been invented! As a modern scholar of the Qur’an, however, I don’t have the luxury to avoid using the tools that are available to me.
Q: Can you give us some examples of your findings?
PW: Without getting too technical, I can say that I found that the Qur’an’s original audience was much more sophisticated in terms of its knowledge of biblical literatures (both canonical and non-canonical) than the Islamic tradition might lead one to believe. The “Qur’anic voice” knows its audience better than that! And so it alludes to a wide variety of biblical materials—some still extant, others lost—in the course of admonishing, declaiming, exhorting, praying, etc. In my view, this is very significant, because it reminds us that Arabic-speaking peoples were part of the cultural mix of Late Antiquity that produced the “religions of the book” we know today as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. They were not confined to the Red Sea basin and kept ignorant of what was happening in the Eastern Mediterranean in the early centuries of the Common Era. Far from it! Once this historical fact is acknowledged, we can re-read the traditional histories of the Islamic movement contained in the ahadith and the sira literature and re-discover that ArabianJews and Christians played active roles in the development of Islam. Fred Donner at the University of Chicago has written an excellent book (Muhammad and the Believers) that attempts to recover some of this history. I wrote my dissertation before Fred wrote his book, but in my dissertation I relied, in part, upon an early article that he published in a Lebanese journal.
Q: Well, I discussed with Fred Donner about his work (Muhammad and the Believers), I remembered Patricia Crone saying "The
crazed hodgepodge that Fred Donner has now been taken apart – longer
dismemberments no doubt to follow,It would be difficult for you to gloss this comment of Patricia Crone on his work.
PW: The meaning of every text depends upon its contexts. This hermeneutical principle holds true even for book reviews. I respect Professor Crone’s scholarship and have benefited from it over the years. I am among the few Islamicists I know who has kind words for her attempt to reconstruct the original context of the early Muslim community, a book she co-authored with Michael Cook: Hagarism. I read that book in graduate school and learned a lot from it. One thing I learned is that one cannot proceed methodologically as Cook and Crone did. They took the position that one cannot glean any reliable historical information about the early community from the texts that it produced because those texts reflect the views of religious “insiders.” On that basis, they attempted to reconstruct the beginnings of Islam from “outsider” materials alone. It was an interesting experiment, and an eccentric one. No one in any field of historical investigation tries to proceed in that fashion. Every one understands that “outsiders” also have biases and the real craft of historical inquiry and writing resides in a judicious utilization of the available evidence—whatever its provenance. “Judiciousness” in this case means taking into consideration the possible biases and blind spots that each piece of textual evidence may contain. Is this procedure foolproof? Absolutely not. But it’s the best method available to historians. So Cook and Crone’s Hagarism was not the “game changer” that they hoped it would be. In fact, it has been relegated to a kind of scholarly curiosity—unfairly in my view. I think it should continue to be read for the data it provides us about the early days of Muhammad’s movementand as a cautionary tale about historical method. Anyway, that, in my opinion, is the context for Crone’s review of Donner’s book. Donner builds his argument on the basis of very judicious readings of the Qur’an and other early Muslim texts (the Constitution of Medina, for example). His interpretations of the texts are nuanced by his knowledge of archaeological, numismatic, inscriptional and other evidence, including “outsider” texts. I don’t agree with everything in his book, but I do agree with him that “insider” texts are valuable sources of historical information—if we do not read them naively. It has been a while since I read Dr. Crone’s review of Donner’s book, but the lasting impression it made upon me was that she was still trying to vindicate her Hagarismthesis and method by means of a negative review of Muhammad and the Believers. I think that’s unfortunate. Whenever we read the work of our colleagues, we have to keep in mind that they, like us, are human, all too human.
Q: I remembered what Fred M. Donner saying too” I think, much more reasonably be described as a 'crazed hodgepodge'. I think, and many readers agree, that my reconstruction of how Islam began is much more plausible than hers. This is not to deny the importance of her work, even "Hagarism", which really set the agenda for contemporary work on Islam's origins 35 years ago. As Albert Hourani once said to me, the authors of Hagarism "weren't getting the right answers, but they were
asking the right questions," which is a major contribution in itself.”
What would you add?
PW: I agree with Donner and Hourani. And I hope I don't appear too harsh on Patricia Crone. As I said, I have benefited from her work and I hope that I made that clear. But unless my recollection of her review of Fred's book is totally off the mark, she was quite dismissive of it--unreasonably so, in my view. The only other thing I would add is that historical scholarship at its best is open-ended: new evidence may always be found that can make old theories obsolete. Any assertions I make about the past are necessarily tentative and debatable and contingent upon the next evidentiary discovery. To think otherwise is not to be an historian but an ideologue.
Q: Why do you think it is important to study the early history of Islam in the way you are advocating?
PW: Two reasons. First, as an historian, it is important to me that the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and about others accurately reflect the available evidence. This is a matter of scholarly integrity or professional ethics. The second reason is also ethical but in a different (yet related) way. We live in a time when Muslims in general and Arab Muslims in particular are frequently portrayed in North America and Europe as utterly foreign and uncivilized. I think such a view becomes untenable when we study the evidence of the historical development of our civilization. Scholars of Late Antiquity like Fred Donner, Peter Brown, Guy Stroumsa, and myself (among others) understand the rich intercultural relations that produced what we call “Western civilization” and the “Muslim world.” Modern Qur’anic hermeneutics is just another way to approach the subject of our shared past. In the process, we discover new dimensions of the Qur’an. After 15 centuries, the holy book still has new things to teach us.
Abdur-RahmanAbouAlmajd: Thank you very much, Professor Peter Wright.
Peter Wright: It was my pleasure. Thank you.
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