Moving the Encyclopaedia of the Qur'an forward: an interview with Johanna Pink

    4 January 2021

In celebration of relaunching the Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān Online (part of the larger Qur'anic Studies Online), we sat down with its new Editor-in-Chief, Johanna Pink. We discussed recent developments in the field of Quranic studies, as well as new directions the Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān will take in response to them.

Professor Pink, can you tell us a little bit about yourself, your background and your work?

I came to the field of qur’anic studies through teaching. It was probably my experience of studying with Stefan Wild in the 1990s that motivated me to prepare my first undergraduate class on the Qur’an at the Free University of Berlin in 2006. I still remembered vividly how Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd had talked to our graduate class on “The Qur’an as text” in 1995, shortly after having been forced to leave Egypt. When I put together my own syllabus more than ten years later, I was fairly unhappy with the scope of resources on qur’anic interpretation and, more broadly speaking, Muslim engagement with the Qur’an, especially beyond the Arab world. With regard to the modern period, I found some studies on modernist and Islamist approaches but there was practically no research on more mainstream perspectives, pedagogical practices, or transregional comparisons. That is what I started to try and address in my research. It was also a topic that enabled me to pursue my interest in working with different languages and comparing regional traditions. Through my work on Muslim qur’anic exegesis and, later, Qur’an translations, I built networks and gathered experiences in scholarly organizations, as an editor, principal investigator of research projects, and supervisor of doctoral dissertations. I thoroughly enjoy working in this field because it is so vibrant. Qur’anic studies have made remarkable progress in the past fifteen years or so and scholars have expanded the focus of the field in many exciting ways. The Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an has played an important part in this from the outset, and I feel honoured and grateful to be allowed to continue editing it.

How would you describe the overarching goal of the Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān?

Like any encyclopaedia, it aims to give an overview of the state of the art in its field, which it defines in a broad sense as scholarship related to the qur’anic text, its history, reception and the role it has played for Muslims until this day. One of its characteristic features is the fact that it aims to be accessible to non-specialists. It is, of course, an important resource for Islamicists but it also addresses students as well as academics working in fields such as biblical studies. This is accomplished by either avoiding or explaining technical terminology; the aim is for the entries to be comprehensible even to readers who don’t know Arabic. At the same time, the Encyclopeadia provides quality content that is helpful to experts in the field. This accounts for its wide appeal. We would like to continue this approach with the new editorial board.

Since the end of the first print run of the Encyclopaedia in 2006, did the field of quranic studies experience a notable transformation or breakthrough?

It has experienced many transformations and much more will happen in the coming decades. We have seen breakthroughs in the study of early qur’anic manuscripts that give us a much clearer idea of the Qur’an’s emergence. The late antique context of the Qur’an, including intertexts in other languages such as Syriac, has been explored. The field of epigraphy that gives us much more context on pre-Islamic Arab societies is taking off. There is now more research than ever on the material and linguistic development of the qur’anic text and on its literary structure. The study of tafsir – the genre of the qur’anic commentary – is expanding and coming to be a subdiscipline in its own right. Gender issues have become an important area of study. And the list goes on.

How will the new editorial direction of the Encyclopaedia address this?

We have identified a number of new and vibrant fields that we want to solicit entries for. For example, we will include entries on important manuscripts, on surahs and verses that have played a particular role in Muslim qur’anic exegesis or piety, and on Christian and Jewish texts that are being discussed as intertexts which are relevant to the Qur’an’s discourse. We will continue and expand the effort begun by the previous editorial board to cover important exegetes and qur’anic commentaries. Other topics that merit attention are print culture and standardization, as well as the state of qur’anic studies in various regions of the world, especially in Muslim-majority countries. Besides devoting our attention to these new fields, we have also identified entries that need to be updated or complemented because the state of the field has moved on.

Such transformations usually entail a reworking of many established notions and assumptions. Would that be the case with the Encyclopaedia going forward?

Yes, although we will, of course, aim to strike a balance between reworking existing content and retaining the top-notch scholarship that the Encyclopaedia already contains. But in some cases, paradigms and concepts have shifted. For example, it seems timely to us to update and expand the excellent entry by Ruth Roded on “Women and the Qur’an” to look at gender notions in general, rather than focusing on women exclusively. Moreover, the online format will allow for structural changes. Therefore, we are thinking of creating pages for larger subjects of particular interest, such as “qur’anic commentaries” or “manuscripts”, where links to all relevant entries are collected and preceded by an introductory survey.

How would the readers benefit from this planned update and expansion of the Encyclopaedia? And what kind of contribution would you expect from members in the field?

The new structure will allow readers to gain a better overview of the state of particular fields. They will be able to identify quickly the relevant subfields and topics that are discussed in current scholarship. The inclusion of time stamps will also enable them to trace important developments in the state of the art. Of course, we hope that many scholars engaged in qur’anic studies will use the opportunity to contribute their expertise by pointing us to missing topics or entries that require updating, and more importantly, by updating entries and writing new and original entries!

Finally, what role would you like to see the Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān playing in the field over the coming years?

I hope it will continue to be an indispensable reference work for anyone interested in the Qur’an and all aspects related to qur’anic studies. We want to take up new developments in the field and even set impulses by producing content on topics that are only just starting to attract scholarly attention.

We also want to make full use of the possibilities that an online encyclopaedia offers. This means, besides the structural changes I have outlined before, that we will be able to include updated versions of existing entries while retaining the older versions. It will also be relatively easy for authors to make further updates as new scholarship is published.

In a way, we have it easier than editors who are under pressure to produce a printed encyclopaedia. They are forced to complete each volume by a specific deadline, with no opportunity to make changes after that date. Nor is it possible for them to postpone the inclusion of entries on important lemmata if no suitable authors can be found. The online format allows us to widen our scope without worrying unduly if that means that completeness cannot be immediately achieved. Consistently high quality is more important to us, and it is what the encylopaedia’s readers will benefit from most. We want to the Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān to be the first resource that anyone refers to who is interested in a topic in the Qur’an, a surah, a manuscript, the reception of a Syriac text, or a qur’anic commentary. We are very excited about the opportunity to develop this important reference work. The associate editors will be happy to say more about developments in their areas of specialization and fields of interest.

Thank you for your time!

Text: Elmozfar Ahmed