Studying the Qurʾān in a Broader Context: Late Antiquity, Gender, Modern Commentaries and Translations

 

To continue with our interviews to celebrate the Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān Online, we sat down with the Associate Editors: Suleyman Dost (Brandeis University) and Shuruq Naguib (Lancaster University), to discuss their role in the Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān and the new directions it will take.

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Dr. Suleyman Dost, how did you get interested in the academic study of Qurʾān? What are the turning points in your intellectual journey in the field?

I wish I could point to a moment of epiphany but the closest I can get to it would be two classes I took during my graduate years at Chicago, one on Arabic epigraphy by Fred Donner and another on the Qur’ān by Angelika Neuwirth. I had the vague idea of doing something that involves material culture in early Islamic history and happily ended up working on the Qur’ān and Arabian epigraphy.

How do you think that the Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān will contribute to the ongoing developments of Quranic studies? And how would you describe your contribution to it?

The Encyclopedia of the Qur’ān is an invaluable resource for anyone working on the Qur’ān. The print edition does a wonderful job of touching on almost every aspect of Qurʾānic Studies with articles written by the foremost scholars. There are certain subsets of the field, however, that have witnessed so many new developments, discoveries and revisions. That is why having an online addendum to the print edition was sorely needed. My own field of interest in particular, i.e. epigraphy, paleography and manuscripts, has enjoyed an incredible boom in the last few years and I am hoping to carry the best scholarship in these areas to the EQO.

There is a rise of three influential areas within the academic studies of the Qurʾān: the Qurʾān in the context of late antiquity; gender and the Qurʾān; and the study of tafsīr: modern commentaries, and translations of the Qurʾān. How will the Encyclopaedia address these areas? Will one or the other be addressed more prominently?

I think the way the editorial team was composed is a testament to the fact that the encyclopedia aims to represent all these areas prominently and ride on the excitement in the recent scholarship in these areas. For my part I can say that the placement of the Qur’ān as an interlocutor in wider religious debates of late antiquity will help the scholars of the Qur’ān have closer collaborations with the scholars of Classics, Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.

Do you think any other areas will be influential in the coming decades? How will the Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān address these developments?

I can only speak to my field and on that note I can say that new epigraphic discoveries, both pre-Islamic and early Islamic, will transform the ways in which we approach the genesis of the Qur’ān. The advantage of continuing the EQ in an online format will certainly help us become more flexible in assessing the trajectories in the field of Qurʾānic Studies and adjusting to all and any upcoming trends.

As an expert in early Islamic history, How will the recent studies of early Qurʾānic manuscripts affect the Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān?

The scholarship on early Qurʾān manuscripts is important for several reasons: for studying manuscripts qua material artefacts, for the clues they contain for the textual transmission of the Qurʾān, and for what they can tell us about philological intricacies of early Arabic. There has been much work done lately on all these points. I believe that our job at the EQO is to have it do what the best encyclopedic resources do: give the readers the latest state of the art and direct them to the sources that they need to look at for further information.

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Dr. Shuruq Naguib, you are an expert in gender studies, but before we go into depth about this, could you tell us about your research interests?

With gender becoming a salient category of analysis in the 1990s, interest in gender studies has been largely but not solely linked with feminist scholarship. In the study of Islam, the application of the gender lens, however, has a complicated history, serving not only to analyse, critique and reform, but also to otherize Islam and Muslims. These competing teleologies eventually paved the way for an emergent, post-colonial feminist and gender justice hermeneutics of the Qurʾān. This hermeneutic sits at the intersection of academic and theological discourses, enriching our knowledge of the Qurʾān’s lived and embodied reception and interpretation.

This is one of my main research interests, and how I became intrigued by dis/continuities in the reception history of the Qurʾān, working my way from the present to the past. I am also interested in the history of post-classical tafsīr, particularly the encounter between classical Qurʾān hermeneutics and balāgha, which encompasses a range of Arabic linguistic and rhetorical disciplines that have flourished in the Eastern part of the Muslim world (al-mashriq). Some might think there is a wide gap between these two fields of enquiry. Yet through my work I discovered that, in addition to their being two illuminating, and sometimes widely contrasting, examples of the Qurʾān in context, there are important continuities because of the linguistic turn evident in feminist interpretations of the Qurʾān.

What are your thoughts on the state of art in Quranic Studies? And what is the potential impact of the Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān in shaping the field?

The publication of EQ coincided with the height of my doctoral research. Since then, I have extensively drawn upon it for research and teaching. As my colleague Dr Dost points out, however, there have been many important and exciting developments in the subfields of Qurʾānic Studies. For example, there has been a plethora of studies on gender and the Qurʾān with sustained methodologies and preoccupations, and with bodies of highly specialised studies on the history, status and impact of particular verses, such as Q. 4:34.

The Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān online will provide an up-to-date account that takes an expansive, global view of Qurʾānic Studies today. This, I believe, will bridge the gap between current subfields of Qurʾānic Studies. I also hope it will better enable scholars and students to develop an overarching grasp of the field and hold broader conversations that mitigate the inclination to work in a siloed way.

There is a paradigm shift in gender studies from focusing on women towards a wider focus on all aspects of gender. What is your opinion about this? And what kind of changes we may see in the Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān?

The conception of gender has transformed the way we understand distinctions between men and women as socially constructed rather than biologically given. However, the early feminist focus was on women. Further theorizations of gender challenged the biological givenness of not only gender but also sex, highlighting the importance of studying both as a system of cultural representation in which masculinity and femininity are mutually constitutive. This is echoed for example in Celene Ibrahim’s recent work on Women and Gender in the Qurʾān, 2020. We are also seeing more work that looks at the construction of other genders beyond the male/female distinction in tafsīr and other premodern sources (Ash Geissinger, 2020). This constitutes a more profound engagement with gender theory, with some interesting critical interrogation of the theory itself (Asma Barlas, 2019; Celene Ibrahim, 2020).

There are also different approaches within the area of women and feminism in Qurʾānic studies. Can you elaborate a little bit on this? How do you think the Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān will deal with that?

One contribution of the EQO will be to map out these different approaches, providing critical scholarly accounts of their intellectual and conceptual contributions and limitations. This requires sensitivity and openness to the overlap between political and intellectual projects in this area of Qurʾānic Studies. I say this because in many fields of the Arts and Humanities, Gender and Women’s Studies approaches are marginalised as political advocacy. In my view, all epistemic frameworks have an underlying politics, some are more explicit than others. So, I hope that EQO will help illustrate that gender analysis is central for understanding the history and reception of any foundational text, including the Qurʾān, for example in relation to the Qurʾān’s role in shaping Islamic norms pertaining to power, authority, leadership, and social organisation.

The online format of the Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān opens up opportunities for better interaction between authors and readers. For instance, readers would be able to suggest corrections, propose new entries or comment on published entries. Would you be open for such interaction?

Interactive online formats are greatly promising. In the age of decolonizing knowledge, this would widen access, allowing expertise and talent to be engaged far and wide. Global conversations amongst specialized experts, for example, in the regional and local histories of tafsīr, could happen via the EQO interface. This would help scholars piece together the reception history of the Qurʾān, which remains schematic until now. Obviously, this interface will have to be well thought out and quality controlled to avoid the pitfall of producing a cacophony.

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Text: Mohammed El-Mursi and Giulia Cali Quaglia