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Direct Engagement with Scripture

Thematic commentary has become a prominent genre in contemporary Qur’anic exegesis. Conventional commentaries are referred to as tafsir musalsal (literally, ‘linked’ commentary), as they commence with the first verse of the first chapter, continuing in a sequential manner to the last verse of the final chapter, and therefore are usually large, multivolume works.[1] However, not all sequential commentaries cover the entire text, but rather specific chapters or parts. The Egyptian Qur’anic exegete Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905) is a case in point, producing sequential commentaries on select sections of the text, such as the first chapter (Surat al-Fatiha, or the Chapter of the Opening) and the last part (Juz’ ‘Amma), which is comprised of thirty-seven chapters.[2] In contrast to this linear format, thematic commentary focuses, as its name suggests, on a particular subject. As we have seen, all the commentators considered in this book read scripture thematically, exploring topics like socioeconomic liberation, gender justice and religious pluralism. To be sure, thematic commentaries do not necessarily have to centre on a single subject and can address a host of different topics. For instance, Rahman—whose hermeneutic we have encountered at various points in this study— authored a highly influential thematic commentary on Muslim scripture, titled Major Themes of the Qur’an (1980). The chapters in this commentary were devoted to different, and yet clearly interrelated, topics, such as ‘God’, ‘Man in Society’, ‘Eschatology’, and ‘Proph- ethood and Revelation’.[3] While the majority of thematic commentaries are nonlinear, it is worthwhile noting the work of an exegete who has reflected on the Qur’an thematically but in a distinctly linear fashion: namely, the Egyptian Islamic scholar Muhammad al-Ghazali (d. 1996). Beginning with the first chapter and ending with the last, al-Ghazali approached each chapter as a unified, cohesive unit, unpacking its dominant themes and linking them together as he moved, sequentially, through the text.[4] Furthermore, although thematic commentary has become an increasingly popular mode of exegetical reflection, it is important not to portray conventional, verse-by-verse commentary as being in decline. On the contrary, it remains a robust and influential mode of reading scripture. For example, Qutb and Mawdudi—two pioneering figures in Islamist thought encountered earlier—wrote sequential Qur’anic commentaries that have attained mass circulation amongst Muslims.[5] Indeed, Maw- dudi’s commentary is currently ‘one of the most widely read sources of its kind in Urdu’,[6] while Qutb’s may well be ‘the most widely translated and distributed Islamic book of all time’.[7]

A key insight that the exegeses of Esack, Engineer, Wadud and Barlas reveal in terms of thematic commentary is the desire to engage the actual text of the Qur’an rather than its historic interpretation. As has been seen throughout this book, they all underline the privileged status of the Qur’an as the Word of God. This critical differentiation between scripture and its interpretation is most pronounced in the gender egalitarian readings of Wadud and Barlas, the former pointing out the fallibility of the exegetical tradition as a thoroughly human construct, and thus limited to the contextual baggage of the exegete,[8] while the latter goes even further by arguing that the conflation of scripture and interpretation effectively erases ‘the distinction between God and humans’.[9] This desire to engage the text directly, however, is not restricted to the exegetes examined in this book. Rather, it characterizes the craft of thematic commentary. Consider Rahman’s exegesis. Throughout the commentary, he makes extensive references to the Qur’anic text, as exemplified by the following excerpt that explores the issue of free will:

There is no doubt that the Qur’an does make frequent statements to the effect that God leads aright whom He will and leads astray whom He will, or that God has ‘sealed up’ some people’s hearts to the truth, etc. (2:8, 142, 213, 272; 14:4; 16:93; 24:35; 28:56; 30:29; 35:8), although more often it says that ‘God does not lead aright the unjust ones,’ ‘God does not guide aright the transgressors,’ ‘God guides aright those who listen, are sincere, fear God.’ (2:26, 258, 264; 3:86; 5:16, 51, 67, 108; 6:88, 144; 9:19, 21, 37, 80, 109; 12:52; 13:27; 16:37, 107; 28:50; 39:3; 40:28; 42:13; 46:10; 61:5: ‘when they went crooked, God bent their hearts crooked’ (61:7; 62:5; 63:6). [sic] This means that man does something to deserve guidance or misguidance.[10]

In fact, in the entire work there are only three references to classical and medieval commentators: two referring to al-Tabari,[11] one to ibn Taymiyya.[12] This emphasis on the actual letter of scripture can also be found, though to a lesser extent than in thematic interpretation, in sequential Islamist commentaries. The exegesis of Qutb is an illustrative example, as he shows little interest in the inherited interpretive tradition, seeking instead to understand the Qur’an through the Qur’an itself, as well as the hadith.[13] Such direct engagement with scripture stands in sharp contrast to classical commentary, which was based on interpreting the text through earlier exegetical writings.

Indeed, a commentary was so dependent on its predecessors that the Qur’anic scholar Walid Saleh has described classical exegesis as a ‘genealogical tradition’, for each commentary was in a ‘dialectical relationship’ with the interpretive tradition as a whole and, therefore, cannot be studied in isolation of this tradition.[14] To put it another way: classical exegesis was not so much a commentary of the Qur’an as a commentary of (past) commentaries. This hermeneutic, moreover, was not restricted to scripture, but extended to other traditions like the shari‘a, which ‘developed largely by means of interpretive elaborations on basic [legal] texts.’[15] Textual holism, or a commitment to an integrated reading of the Qur’an, is intrinsically connected to thematic commentary’s direct engagement with the text. As discussed in the preceding two chapters, Wadud and Barlas have deep-seated grievances with the traditional format of verse-by-verse commentaries and call for a more holistic approach to scripture, claiming that the text itself supports such a unified reading.[16] The lack of textual holism in the interpretive tradition was actually a key motivational force behind Rahman’s commentary, which argues that a thematic approach can yield greater insight into the Qur’an’s worldview, or its ‘cohesive outlook on the universe’.[17] Another leading exponent of thematic exegesis, the Egyptian intellectual Hassan Hanafi (b. 1935), echoes Rahman’s thesis, writing that thematic commentary can uncover the underlying message—the conceptual heart—of the Qur’an, while linear and sequential commentaries hastily jump from one theme to the next without accumulating meanings, without connecting them together in a systematic way.[18] They are, to use Rahman’s wording,

‘atomistic’.20 The arguments forwarded by Wadud, Barlas, Rahman, and Hanafi betray a curious paradox of exegesis: specifically, that in order for an interpretation to be holistic, providing insight into the text’s wider worldview, it has to be partial, qualified, thematic. Conversely, conventional verse-by-verse commentaries are atomistic precisely because they are encyclopaedic and exhaustive. Indeed, thematic interpretation and textual holism are inextricably linked; there is an underlying, dialectical interplay between the two. To be sure, I am not claiming that the origins of textual holism, as a reading strategy, are to be found in thematic exegesis, but rather that the nature of thematic reflection necessitates a holistic reading strategy, and vice versa. Textual holism is an inescapable aspect of thematic exegesis because of the nature of the thematic task, as the exegete needs to sift through the entire text with a particular subject in mind, relating the various component parts together in a coherent manner. This is especially acute in the context of Muslim scripture (as opposed to, for instance, the Bible, which is comparatively more linear) since the Qur’an is markedly achronological, with various historical figures, communities, and episodes spread out in different parts of the text. The Exodus—which, as we saw in Chapter 2, is the principal paradigm of Esack’s liberation theology— is a case in point. The Qur’an does not relate the entire life of a prophet in one piece, the sole exception being Joseph, whose story appears in a single extended narrative in Q. 12:3—101.21 While Moses is mentioned roughly 140 times,22 making him the most cited prophet in the Qur’an, these references are scattered in forty- four different places in the text.23 So when Esack wanted to examine Moses’ life, he had no choice but to engage in a holistic reading, working through the full text and carefully piecing together the various accounts.

Hanafi, ‘Method of Thematic Interpretation of the Qur’an’, in Islam in the Modern World, ed. Hassan Hanafi (Cairo: Anglo-Egyptian Bookshop, 1995), 407-28.

  • 20 Rahman, Islam and Modernity, 2.
  • 21 Sells, 15. The Qur’an, of course, has its reasons for this eclectic treatment of prophetic narratives. Rather than presenting a comprehensive account of a given prophet’s life, the text presumes prior knowledge of these figures and events—through the Old and New Testament narratives—drawing upon select aspects of their lives in order to flesh out wider lessons.
  • 22 Esack, The Qur’an: A User’s Guide, 154. 23 Sells, 15.

  • [1] Jane D. McAuliffe, ‘The Tasks and Traditions of Interpretation’, in The Cambridge Companion to the Qur’an, ed. Jane D. McAuliffe (Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press, 2006), 183.
  • [2] Rotraud Wielandt, ‘Exegesis of the Qur’an: Early Modern and Contemporary.’ InEncyclopaedia of the Qur’an, ed. Jane D. McAuliffe (Georgetown University, Washington,DC). Consulted online on 8 May 2012. Juz’ (pl: ajza’) literally means a ‘part’, and isone of the ways in which Muslims have sectioned the Qur'an. Altogether there arethirty parts, allowing Muslims to recite the entire Qur'an in a month, such as inRamadan. The last part—popularly known as Juz’ ‘Amma—consists of the shortestchapters and among the first that Muslims memorize. It takes its name from the firstverse of the chapter that it begins with. Referring to the promise of resurrection andthe Hereafter, the verse reads: ‘About what do they question each other (‘ammayatasa’aluna)?’ (Q. 78:1).
  • [3] Rahman, Major Themes of the Qur’an, ix.
  • [4] Muhammad al-Ghazali, A Thematic Commentary of the Qur’an, trans. AshurA. Shamis (Virginia: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 2000), x.
  • [5] Muhammad Qasim Zaman, The Ulama in Contemporary Islam: Custodians ofChange (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 39. See Sayyid Qutb, In theShade of the Qur’an, 18 vols., trans. and ed. Adil Salahi and Ashur Shamis (Markfield,Leicestershire: The Islamic Foundation, 2015) and Sayyid Abul A’la Mawdudi,Towards Understanding the Qur’an: Abridged Version of Tafhim al-Qur’an, ed. andtrans. Zafar Ishaq Ansari (Markfield, Leicestershire: The Islamic Foundation, 2008).
  • [6] Sayyed Vali Reza Nasr, ‘Mawdudi and the Jama‘at-i Islami: The Origins, Theoryand Practice of Islamic Revivalism,’ in Pioneers of Islamic Revival, ed. Ali Rahnema(London: Zed Books, 2008), 104.
  • [7] Johannes J.G. Jansen, as quoted in Zaman, 39.
  • [8] Wadud, ‘Alternative Qur’anic Interpretation and the Status of MuslimWomen’, 11.
  • [9] Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam, 79.
  • [10] Rahman, Major Themes of the Qur’an, 15.
  • [11] Ibid, 74; 76-7. 5 Ibid, 31-2.
  • [12] 14 McAuliffe, ‘The Tasks and Traditions of Interpretation’, 200. On Qutb and the
  • [13] Qur’an, see Ronald Nettler, ‘A Modern Islamic Confession of Faith and Conception ofReligion: Sayyid Qutb’s Introduction to the Tafsir, fi Zilal al-Qur’an’, British Journal ofMiddle Eastern Studies 21 (1994): 102-14. For a comprehensive intellectual biographyof Qutb, see John Calvert, Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism (NewYork: Columbia University Press, 2010).
  • [14] Saleh, 14-15.
  • [15] Brinkley Messick, The Calligraphic State: Textual Domination and History in aMuslim Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 30. Insofar as mybook is a study of Muslim writings on the Qur’an—that is, a commentary ofcommentaries—it adheres (admittedly inadvertently) to a classical hermeneutic.
  • [16] Wadud, Qur’an and Woman, xii; Barlas, ‘The Qur’an and Hermeneutics’, 24.While Barlas devotes more attention to the Qur’an’s ‘auto-hermeneutics’—a readingstrategy that will be discussed in detail shortly—than the other exegetes in this book,Wadud also makes an autohermeneutical claim by describing her holistic reading as a‘hermeneutics of tawhid’, thereby invoking the Qur’an’s central theme: namely, theundivided unity of God.
  • [17] Rahman, Major Themes of the Qur’an, xi.
  • [18] Massimo Campanini, The Qur’an: Modern Muslim Interpretations, trans.Caroline Higgit (London: Routledge, 2011), 75. For the original citation, see Hassan
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