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Lasting Effects: The Rise of Print Culture

There are two aspects of the Qur’anic commentaries of Esack, Engineer, Wadud, and Barlas that struck me over the course of my research: namely, their brevity and accessibility. Historically, commentaries were encyclopaedic in scope, massive exegetical works that would usually run up to twenty dense volumes.[1] Indeed, there are references in Islamic biographical dictionaries—a prominent literary genre in Muslim history—of commentaries comprised of fifty to even one hundred volumes.[2] It is precisely because classical commentaries were so vast that scholars were forced to produce what Saleh has termed ‘madrasa commentaries’, or abridged versions of well-known commentaries that could practically be taught to students in Islamic seminaries.[3] The length of traditional commentaries stands in sharp contrast to those of contemporary liberationist and gender egalitarian female exegetes, which are single-volume works and, thus, significantly shorter: Esack’s Qur’an, Liberation and Pluralism is 288 pages; Barlas’ ‘Believing Women’ in Islam is 254 pages; and Wadud’s Qur’an and Woman is 118 pages. While Engineer does not have a single work that focuses solely on the Qur’an—his exegesis is spread out in a number of books—they, too, are relatively compact: Islam and Liberation Theology is 238 pages; On Developing Theology of Peace in Islam is 200 pages; and The Rights of Women in Islam is 183 pages. In addition to their brevity, I was struck by how easily I could access their writings, all of which were available for purchase through book markets. In terms of acquisition, my labours as a researcher were minimal. In the past, however, learning was, physically speaking, an immensely demanding vocation. A medieval scholar was essentially an itinerant traveller, constantly setting off for distant lands to gain knowledge. Consider the journeys of the medieval scholar ibn ‘Arabi:

So the great Spanish mystic Ibn Arabi (b. 1165) travelled from Murcia to Seville, to Tunis, to Fez, to Cordoba, to Almeria, to Tunis again, to Cairo (twice), to Jerusalem (twice), to Mecca (twice), to Baghdad (twice), to Mosul, Malatya, Sivas, Aksaray, Konya, and Damascus where he died in 1240.[4]

It is important to note here that scholars did not travel merely to acquire various texts and obscure manuscripts, but rather to read these intellectual works with other scholars. Unlike the modern world, in which the written word is the dominant mode of knowledge transmission, learning was historically defined by oral culture. For writing ‘was not the mechanical representation of an author’s meaning, and in this sense there was no simple “presence” of an author in a text.’[5] In order to be read, then, a text had to be read out loud in the presence of its author or a scholar who had an ijaza (license) to teach that specific text, which he would have acquired either by studying the text with its author or another scholar who had done so.[6] In this section, I will argue that these twin aspects of the commentaries examined in this book—brevity and accessibility—reflect the lasting impact that print culture has exercised on Qur’anic exegesis in general and on thematic Qur’anic exegesis in particular.

Over the past two centuries, the printing press has become a formidable force in Muslim societies. Printing emerged in the Islamic world in the nineteenth century, taking off in South Asia in the 1820s and 1830s and in the Ottoman Empire, Iran, and Egypt in the second half of the century.[7] The very first question that the researcher faces, then, is what explains the roughly 350-year gap between the rise of the press in the Islamic world and Christian Europe, wherein printing emerged in the late fifteenth century, playing a key role in the Protestant Reformation (1517-1648)? According to the historian Francis Robinson, the answer lies in the privileged place of orality in traditional Islamic learning, for the printed word challenged the oral word, undermining ‘what was understood to make knowledge trustworthy, what gave it value, what gave it authority.’[8] In fact, it was because of the potential threat that the printing press posed to religious authority that the ‘ulama became the first Muslims to exploit the press, publishing their own tracts in order to reach new audiences and consolidate their authority.[9] The rise of print has been accompanied since the mid-twentieth century by the steady spread of state- sponsored mass education, which has increased the literacy rate considerably.[10] In the Arab Middle East, for instance, mass education emerged in the 1950s in Egypt and Morocco and in the early 1970s in Gulf countries like Oman and Yemen.[11] As a result, by the late 1980s ‘a critical mass of people with post-secondary education, capable of sustaining an expanded internal market for newspapers, periodicals, and books, began to emerge.’[12] Although the literacy rate in modern Muslim societies is significantly higher than at any point in history, one should be careful not to over-estimate this phenomenon and, thus, the influence of print. India, Bangladesh, and North Yemen are illustrative examples of the limited reach of the press, in which literacy rates in the early 1990s were 36 per cent, 20 per cent, and 14 per cent, respectively.[13]

The rise of print culture and popular literacy has led to a remarkable expansion in the ranks of Islamic knowledge production.[14] As the anthropologist Dale Eickelman and political scientist James Piscatori have observed, a distinguishing feature of contemporary Islam is that ‘discourse and debate about Muslim tradition involves people on a mass scale.’[15] Despite the initial attempts of the ‘ulama to harness the press, this technology, as numerous scholars of contemporary Islam have indicated, has served to subvert religious hierarchy.[16] Today, the ‘ulama are no longer the sole, even principal, interlocutors of Islamic thought. Rather, a new class of Muslim intellectuals educated in seemingly secular fields such as medicine and engineering, history and literature, journalism and the social sciences have entered the exegetical circle, vigorously debating the meaning of Islam.[17] It is within this specific context that we need to situate the exegetes in this book, all of whom have been trained in the so-called secular university, with the notable exception of Esack who also attended a madrasa. This new class of interpreters, moreover, employ modes of reading that differ considerably from those of traditional Islamic scholarship, exhibiting little interest in the inherited, interpretive tradition, either out of ignorance or because this tradition, so they argue, is simply out of touch with the problems and needs of the contemporary world.[18] As we have seen, all the exegetes considered in this study, especially Wadud and Barlas, share this critique. Indeed, the very bypassing of the tradition constitutes a radical challenge to the ‘ulama’s authority, for the commentary was a core, discursive site wherein authority was historically reproduced. The following passage by the Islamic historian Muhammad Qasim Zaman deftly demonstrates the interplay between traditional exegesis—in this case, a commentary of hadith based on the lectures of the South Asian scholar Rashid Ahmad Gangohi (d. 1905)—and the construction of the ‘ulama's authority as a class:

But it is not only Rashid Ahmad’s presence, or his personal authority, that is perpetuated through this commentary. Muhammad Yahya, who wrote down the lectures; his son Muhammad Zakariyya, who added an introduction and glosses to his commentary; and Abu’l-Hasan ‘Ali Nadwi (d. 1999), the former rector of the Nadwat al-‘Ulama of Lucknow and the most influential Indian religious scholar of his generation... who added a short biography of Muhammad Zakariyya to it, are all part, in varying measures, of a select group that this commentary helps to consolidate, celebrate, and link both with the earliest generations of Islam, and with other scholars of all times engaged in the venture of transmitting similar materials. Each scholar, dead or living, shares some of the lustre of the others and adds some of his own authority to this company.[19]

It should be hardly surprising, then, when mainstream traditional scholars criticize new readings of the Qur’an that engage the text directly, as traditionalists are well aware that they have much to lose in terms of religious authority. That being said, it is important to underline that although print has allowed new communities to interpret scripture who would otherwise have been excluded from Islamic knowledge production, in particular women,[20] the ‘ulama have also benefited greatly from print technology, which has enabled them to gain access to Islamic texts that would have been rare commodities in the manuscript age, as well as provided them with a cheap and efficient means with which to spread their own interpretations.[21]

Print culture not only democratized the producers of Islamic knowledge, but also drastically enlarged its audiences: that is, the consumers of Islamic knowledge. This development can be discerned most acutely in the growing number of commentaries that were written for the expressly public media of journals and newspapers. For instance, the Qur’anic exegesis of Abduh and Rashid Rida (d. 1935)—two pioneering Islamic reformists—first appeared in the Egyptian journal al-Manar (The Light Stand) between 1927 and 193 5,[22] and is precisely why it is referred to as Tafsir al-Manar, or the Commentary of al-Manar. Muslim South Asia provides another compelling example of the movement of Qur’anic exegesis from private scholarly circles to the domain of mass media. Earlier this chapter noted the widely distributed commentary of the Islamist thinker Mawdudi, titled Understanding the Qur’an (Tafhim al-Qur’an). Like Abduh’s and Rida’s exegesis, Understanding the Qur’an first appeared in a journal that was edited by Mawdudi and in which, over the course of thirty years (1942-72), he published a running exegesis of the entire text.[23] Upon completion, the various journal articles were collected and compiled into book format. That one of the most influential interpreters of the Qur’an was a journalist—Mawdudi worked as an editor for numerous newspapers throughout his career, such as The Muslim, the official media mouthpiece of the Society of Indian ‘Ulama (Jami‘at-i ‘Ulama-i Hind)[24]—is significant, reflecting the massification of Islamic discourse in general and of Qur’anic exegesis in particular. The looming presence of the West was a key factor that spurred Abduh and Mawdudi to try to reach out to and influence a larger audience. Indeed, the Qur’anic scholar Stefan Wild has argued that modern Muslim exegesis cannot be understood without appreciating the global context in which it has emerged: namely, the superior military and economic might of the modern West.[25] Abduh’s chief objective was to prove to Muslims that Islam was compatible with modernity, portraying Islam as, to borrow the words of the historian Yvonne Haddad, ‘the champion of progress and development’.[26] Similarly, Mawdudi wrote in an environment wherein young Muslims, impressed by the achievements of the West, were adopting Western lifestyles and therefore, in order to counter this devious trend, targeted his commentary not at the ‘ulama but at the average, lay Muslim reader.[27] In addition to journals and newspapers, books have become an increasingly popular medium for Islamic discourse, especially in the Middle East and South Asia, which have undergone an Islamic revival since the 1970s. Not to be confused with lengthy, dense, and costly scholarly works, these ‘Islamic books’ are often short, attractively designed, and cheap, thereby being accessible and appealing to a mass readership that lacks advanced literary skills.[28] It is difficult to over-emphasize the popularity of such religious literature. Focussing on topics like Qur’anic exegesis, the shari‘a, and women’s issues, these books have acquired an enormous readership, especially amongst university students.[29]

And it is this broader context that can provide critical insight into the current state of Qur’anic commentary and, specifically, the increasing popularity of thematic commentary. The massification of Islamic discourse, with millions of Muslims now able, via a publication market, to access Islamic texts, has fundamentally diversified the craft of commentary, significantly shortening exegesis and shifting from a full-scale, encyclopaedic treatment to a partial, thematic one. These transformations were inevitable, for the commentary had to adapt to its new audiences, which were not only exponentially larger but also unschooled in complex, scholarly methods of exegesis.[30] Whereas a traditional scholar might have had the time and training to read a convoluted, twenty-volume work, this was simply not an option for the overwhelming majority of lay readers. Clarity and conciseness now became key features, for in order for a text to be read, to gain widespread distribution, it had to respond effectively to the demands of its readers, being able to capture and to sustain their interests—a feat that would be difficult to achieve with a lengthy, dense text. (Indeed, a key reason why a number of modern sequential commentaries are popular, particularly those of Mawdudi and Qutb, is because of their lucid and engaging prose, deliberately aimed at these new lay audiences. Print culture, therefore, has also exerted an influence on full-scale, sequential exegesis itself, diversifying its writing styles.) Clarity and conciseness are actually defining traits of the Islamic books that have become popular in recent decades, written in clear prose—sometimes even in the local vernacular language—and strikingly compact, mostly taking the form of manuals, pamphlets, and primers.[31] Thus, while the encyclopaedic commentary is not in decline, its form is somewhat anachronistic—it was designed for a completely different audience. A child of its time, it addressed (or at least was originally designed to address) a small, closely knit circle of scholars. Its sheer breadth and the disparate, disconnected nature of its verse-by-verse hermeneutic are at variance with contemporary needs for lucidity, succinctness, and the ability to speak to a mass readership. In contrast, thematic exegesis, by focussing on a specific subject or set of related subjects rather than offering a comprehensive exposition, is not only considerably shorter but can centre on issues that are of pressing concern and relevance, or merely of general interest, to its readers. This form of commentary, then, is closely tied to the modern phenomena of print culture and mass literacy, of new producers and consumers of Islamic knowledge.

In this section, I have used the thematic approaches of the interpreters examined in this book as a point of departure to make a larger argument about thematic commentary and its relationship to print culture. In doing so, however, I do not mean to imply that their writings are situated within the type of popular Islamic literature that we have discussed above. Rather, all the exegetes considered in this book, with the exception of Engineer, are academics and publish with university or academic trade presses like Oxford University Press (Wadud), University of Texas Press (Barlas), and Oneworld Publications (Esack). As such, their commentaries belong to a genre within contemporary Islamic literature that speaks to a more elite readership that is familiar with their complex hermeneutical methods and theoretical frameworks.[32] That being said, their commentaries are still shaped by external factors. Indeed, there are remarkable parallels between the forces exerted on their writings and on popular Islamic literature. Clarity and marketability, for instance, have become crucial criteria for academic publication houses. Discussing the transition from doctoral dissertation to book, Gregory Colon Semenza—a scholar of medieval English literature— writes:

editors will be focussed on numerous practical considerations. How much need is there for such a book? Is this book likely to sell? How much work will the press need to ready the book for publication? Whereas jargon may sound intelligent to you, it will likely suggest to an editor your inability to communicate clearly____In constructing a prospectus, you must communicate the marketability of the project without surrendering its intellectual integrity.[33]

In certain ways, the transformation of a thesis into a book—shifting from an audience of a handful of examiners to hundreds, even thousands, of readers—is a microcosm of our preceding discussion on the movement of Islamic discourse from restricted scholarly circles to a mass readership. As noted in the above passage, in order to be accessible to specialists in other fields, as well as lay readers, an academic book needs to be able to ‘communicate clearly’ and without ‘jargon’. Secondly, while contextual information may need to be added in order to make the book comprehensible to those in other disciplines, the process is, essentially, one of ‘pruning’, such as removing the literature review section, long discussions of methodology, and extensive footnoting.[34] Conciseness is especially acute in trade publishing, as it is more difficult to maintain the reader’s interest over a lengthy work.[35] So just like mainstream print culture, the demands of academic print culture are at variance with the voluminous and convoluted nature of traditional exegesis. Thematic commentary, on the other hand, with its eschewal of encyclopaedic comprehensiveness and focus on select topics, is simply more compatible as an exegetical format. Moreover, traditional commentary’s approach of reading one verse after another without amassing meanings in a systematic way, and of mustering prior interpretations without necessarily offering new ones, conflicts with academia’s accent on advancing knowledge, on forwarding original arguments.[36]

Qur’an of the Oppressed

  • [1] McAuliffe, ‘The Tasks and Traditions of Interpretation’, 183.
  • [2] Saleh, 20. 2 Ibid, 21.
  • [3] 48 Francis Robinson, ‘Technology and Religious Change: Islam and the Impact of
  • [4] Print’, Modern Asian Studies 27 (1993): 237.
  • [5] Timothy Mitchell, Colonising Egypt (Berkeley: University of California Press,1988), 150.
  • [6] Robinson, 237-8. On modes of learning in the medieval Muslim world, seeJonathan Berkey, The Transmission of Knowledge in Medieval Cairo: A Social Historyof Islamic Education (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992) and KonradHirschler, The Written Word in the Medieval Arabic Lands: A Social and CulturalHistory of Reading Practices (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012). For aclassic study of the continued importance of orality in traditional Islamic education inthe twentieth century—focussing on learning practices in the Moroccan city ofMarrakesh in the 1920s and 1930s—see Dale F. Eickelman, ‘The Art of Memory:Islamic Education and its Social Reproduction’, Comparative Studies in Society andHistory 20 (1978): 485-516.
  • [7] Robinson, 232-3.
  • [8] Ibid, 234. Historians have also pointed out that print took longer to spread in theMuslim world due to the technical difficulties of reproducing a cursive, ligaturedscript with early forms of movable type. As a result, lithography emerged faster inMuslim societies, such as in Southeast Asia. See Michael Laffan, The Makings ofIndonesian Islam: Orientalism and the Narration of a Sufi Past (Princeton: PrincetonUniversity Press, 2011). For two important anthropological studies on the impact ofprint culture, focussing on Jordan and Yemen, see Andrew Shryock, Nationalism andthe Genealogical Imagination: Oral History and Textual Authority in Tribal Jordan(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997) and Messick, The Calligraphic State.
  • [9] Robinson, 240. 2 Taji-Farouki, 14.
  • [10] 55 Eickelman and Piscatori, 40.
  • [11] 56 Ibid, 39. 5 Robinson, 250.
  • [12] 58 While my focus in this section is on print media and its seminal impact on
  • [13] Qur’anic exegesis, it is important to note that new media technologies—such ascassettes, satellite, video, and the internet—have also exerted a lasting influence oncontemporary Islam. See, among others: Charles Hirschkind, The Ethical Soundscape:
  • [14] Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics (New York: Columbia University Press,2006); Dale F. Eickelman and John W. Anderson eds., New Media in the MuslimWorld: The Emerging Public Sphere (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press,2003); and Gary R. Bunt, iMuslims: Rewiring the House of Islam (Chapel Hill:University of North Carolina Press, 2009).
  • [15] Eickelman and Piscatori, 39.
  • [16] Robinson, 245; Eickelman and Piscatori, 43; Taji-Farouki, 13; Peter Mandaville,Global Political Islam (London: Routledge, 2007), 309.
  • [17] Wild, 278 . 2 Ibid.
  • [18] 63 Zaman, 52. Gangohi’s work is an exegesis of Sahih al-Bukhari, a central hadith
  • [19] collection in Sunni Islam.
  • [20] There are, of course, historical exceptions to this patriarchal tendency, especiallywith regard to the mystical tradition. See al-Sulami.
  • [21] Zaman, 54.
  • [22] Wild, 280. In addition to his exegetical contributions to al-Manar, Abduh—atraditional scholar trained at the Cairo-based Islamic University of al-Azhar—waschief editor of the official newspaper of the Egyptian state, al-Waqi‘a al-Misriyya. SeeYvonne Haddad, ‘Muhammad Abduh: Pioneer of Islamic Reform’, in Pioneers ofIslamic Revival, ed. Ali Rahnema (London: Zed Books, 2008), 32.
  • [23] Nasr, 103-4.
  • [24] Ibid, 100. It is interesting to note that although Mawdudi always identified as ajournalist and layperson, he actually completed the Dars-i Nizami, the standardmadrasa curriculum in South Asia. This aspect of Mawdudi’s life, moreover, onlybecame known after his death. See ibid, 101.
  • [25] Wild, 276-7. 3 Haddad, 46.
  • [26] 71 Saeed, Interpreting the Qur’an, 17.
  • [27] 72 Eickelman and Piscatori, 40. As the authors note, the French Arabist Yves
  • [28] Gonzalez-Quijano was the first to coin this term.
  • [29] Dale F. Eickelman and Jon W. Anderson, ‘Print, Islam, and the Prospects forCivic Pluralism: New Religious Writings and their Audiences’, Journal of IslamicStudies 8 (1997): 55.
  • [30] This dynamic has been reinforced with the emergence of new media technologies such as the internet, which has made it possible for anyone, irrespective ofeducational level, to access effortlessly the Qur'an and other Islamic texts—often inthe form of brief articles and discussion threads/forums—and to partake in religiousdebate from the comfort and privacy of one’s home. Television has, of course, played akey role in accelerating the massification of Islamic discourse, most notably with therise of popular televangelists like the Egyptian Amr Khaled (b. 1967). Khaled hasbecome something of a phenomenon in the Arab street, despite the fact that he has notraditional Islamic training, having studied accounting at Cairo University. Theargument could be made that it is precisely Khaled’s lay background (in addition tohis exploitation of satellite television) that has enabled him to secure such massivefollowings, imbuing him with a certain earthly appeal—a worldly relevance—to theaverage, uneducated Muslim listener.
  • [31] Eickelman and Piscatori, 42-3.
  • [32] Taji-Farouki, 15.
  • [33] Gregory Colon Semenza, Graduate Study for the 21st Century: How to Build anAcademic Career in the Humanities (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 219.
  • [34] Beth Luey, Handbook for Academic Authors (Cambridge: Cambridge UniversityPress, 2010), 40-1.
  • [35] Ibid, 161-2.
  • [36] This actually reflects a paradox in the relationship between the scale and natureof knowledge in traditional learning on the one hand and contemporary academia onthe other. For despite the majestic size of traditional Qur’anic commentaries, and ofmedieval Islamic scholarly works in general, their aims were markedly modest,humble: to seek (talaba) and to preserve (hafaza) knowledge rather than the granderobjective of originating knowledge, of forwarding bold and entirely new understandings. Conversely, the culture of contemporary academia celebrates, indeed is definedby, originality and radical creativity while, at the same time, emphasizing succinctnessand lucidity. I am grateful to James McDougall for this insight.
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