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Qur'an Commentaries

The Cambridge Companion to the Qur'an edited by Jane Dammen McAuliffe (Cambridge Companions to Religion: Cambridge University Press) As the living scriptural heritage of more than a billion people, the Qur'an (Koran) speaks with a powerful voice. Just as other scriptural religions, Islam has produced a long tradition of interpretation for its holy book. Nevertheless, efforts to introduce the Qur'an and its intellectual heritage to English-speaking audiences have been hampered by the lack of available resources. The Cambridge Companion to the Qur'an seeks to remedy that situation. In a discerning summation of the field, Jane McAuliffe brings together an international team of scholars to explain its complexities. Comprising fourteen chapters, each devoted to a topic of central importance, the book is rich in historical, linguistic and literary detail, while also reflecting the influence of other disciplines. For both the university student and the general reader, The Cambridge Companion to the Qur'an provides a fascinating entrée to a text that has shaped the lives of millions for centuries. (volume not seen)

Logic, Rhetoric and Legal Reasoning in the Qur'an: God's Arguments by Rosalind Ward Gwynne (Routledge) [Hardcover] Muslims have always used verses from the Qur'an to support opinions on law, theology, or life in general, but almost no attention has been paid to how the Qur'an presents its own precepts as conclusions proceeding from reasoned arguments. Whether it is a question of God's powers of creation, the rationale for his acts, or how people are to think clearly about their lives and fates, Muslims have so internalized Qur'anic patterns of reasoning that many affirm that the Qur'an appeals first of all to the human powers of intellect.
This book provides a new key to both the Qur'an and Islamic intellectual history. Examining Qur'anic argument by form and not content helps readers to discover the significance of passages often ignored by the scholar who compares texts and the believer who focuses upon commandments, as it allows scholars of Qur'anic exegesis, Islamic theology, philosophy, and law to tie their findings in yet another way to the text that Muslims consider the speech of God.

Rosalind Ward Gwynne studied at Portland State University, the Middle East Centre for Arab Studies, Shemlan, Lebanon, and the University of Washington. She was a Fulbright Fellow in Yemen. She is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Tennessee.

Toward the end of his long spiritual retreat, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 505/1111) composed a treatise in which he extracted from the Qur'an five "scales" that would enable the believer infallibly to distinguish divine truth from falsehood. Together these scales constitute "the Just Balance", al-qistas al-mustaqim, mentioned in Qur'an 17:35 and 26:182, the instrument of known weights and impeccable provenance "that is better and fairer in the final determination" (Q 17:35). Ghazali's book is also entitled al-Qistas al-mustaqim, and the five "scales" are five logical syllogisms.

Ghazali had consciously grasped what most others had not: that the Qur'an does not present its content as self-evidently significant but frames it in patterns of argument to show just how that material engages the hearer and the reader — how he or she is to ponder it, understand it and act upon it. Ghazali demonstrated the use of the "scales" by recasting appropriate Qur'anic passages into inference schemata, a technique that not only produces formally valid arguments but adheres more closely to the text than do many works of Qur'anic exegesis (tafsir). The principles of reasoning, explanation and justification are part of the intelligibility that the Qur'an presents as characteristic of God's creation. The very fact that so much of the Qur'an is in the form of arguments shows to what extent human beings are perceived as needing reasons for their actions and as being capable of altering their conduct by rational choice when presented with an alternative of demonstrated superiority. Choice is inevitable, but it is the wisdom and order built into creation that make choice at once a necessary and a meaningful act.

Inspired by Ghazali's short treatise, the present work is a longer and much more detailed analysis of Qur'anic argument. The text of the Qur'an, closely examined, yields more than thirty varieties of explicit and implicit argument, elements of argument, techniques, and demonstrations. For ease of reference, each of these is stipulated to be an "argument." The present arrangement owes something to the discipline of classical rhetoric; yet the Qur'an is not a forum. Arguments change direction and force when they are addressed not to one group of human beings by another human being but to the entire human race by God. God appeals to authority in his pronouncements, but the authority is his own, not that of a third party, as it would be were the same argument to proceed from the mouth of a human being. God argues by cause and effect, but the cause is himself as Creator of the order of nature. And God invites human beings to consider the evidence of his signs, but he shows that the scope of induction is not absolute by reminding them that their minds are limited, that they tend to forget and go astray, and that the conclusions of their specious reasoning often are not only untrue but invalid and hence absurd.

Now, by "Qur'anic argument" I do not mean a jurist's or theologian's rearrangement of Qur'anic passages to yield a conclusion not found in the text of the Qur'an itself. Here "Qur'anic argument" signifies the existence in the Qur'an of full arguments with premises and conclusions, antecedents and consequents, constructions a fortiori, commands supported by justification, conclusions produced by rule-based reasoning, comparisons, contrasts, and many other patterns. These arguments occur within a single verse or sequence of verses; in the latter case due attention has been paid to the occasions of the revelations (asbab al-nuzul) in order not to be misled by any fortuitous contiguity of verses. With a few exceptions, I have not constructed arguments as jurists and theologians did, by combining verses separated by text and time. The exceptions are recurrent arguments such as the reasoning from material phenomena to the existence of a creator: not every premise or conclusion is restated every time. Augmenting one such passage with parallel passages from elsewhere in the Qur'an is both a traditional and a scholarly method for clarifying the meaning.

The fact that many Qur'anic arguments can be analyzed by formal logic is in no way an assertion that Muhammad was "influenced" by Greek or Hellenistic thought, or, for that matter, that Aristotle was a direct recipient of divine revelation.2 Cogent argument is a product not only of formal logical training but of intelligence, language skills, and motivation, as anyone knows who has studied logic but lost an argument to someone who has not.

Because humans are capable of constructing rational arguments, mainstream Muslim scholars have not counted the presence of such arguments in the Qur'an as part of its ijaz ("miraculous inimitability") or proof of its divine origin. According to al-Baqillani (d. 403/1013), his Khurasani Ash`arite colleagues were "crazy about" that idea, "but the basis upon which they are constructing it is, in our opinion, unsound (ghayr mustaqim)." A modern opinion to the same effect was given to me by Dr. al-Sayyid Rizq al-Tawil, Dean of the College of Islamic and Arabic Studies at al-Azhar University.

Because of the rhetorical arrangement of components and the polyvalence of many Arabic words, particularly particles that serve as logical operators, it is not always immediately clear how an argument should be classified. I have identified arguments that can be cast into more than one form and presented the alternate forms. I have analyzed the arguments that have separate identities as rhetorical figures and distinguished their rhetorical and logical elements. As previously noted, I have, with help from the exegetes, made elements implicit in commonly abbreviated arguments explicit in order to recast the arguments in logical form. I have not used symbolic logic but have analyzed all arguments according to concepts developed by the ancient and modern logicians whose field is not symbolic logic but natural language, logos, from which "logic" took its name.

The first three chapters examine how the Qur'an establishes the truths that serve as the premises of all Qur'anic argument. Chapter 1 analyzes elements of the Covenant between God and humanity, the relationship that is the logical key to scriptural argument in Abrahamic religions. Chapter 2 explains two ways in which the Qur'an validates the covenantal premises. First, it presents numerous divine signs as proof of the absolute power of God, Second, it recites events from sacred history, such as the sending of scriptures and prophets, as precedents from which God has not deviated and which are therefore binding upon humans. The concept of normative precedent (sunna, pl. sunan) was integral to the structure of pre-Islamic Arab society; the Prophet's contemporaries would have found it a uniquely effective argument. Chapter 3 examines sunna in its distinctive Qur'anic form: the sunna of God.

Beginning with Chapter 4, we see how the Qur'an uses Covenant, sign, and precedent as known truths to construct complex arguments both explicit and implicit. The chapter uses two separate modes of argument, rule-based reasoning and the logic of commands, to analyze the Covenant as a set of rules validating divine imperatives. Chapter 5 distinguishes "rules" from "laws" and shows how the Qur'an translates divine rules and commandments into laws that apply to human beings but exhibit such juridical nuances as priority, equivalence, exception, and limitation.

Chapters 6 and 7 further expand the repertoire of argument by taking two "common topics" from the field of rhetoric and supplying examples of the multiple forms that each topic assumes in the Qur'an. Chapter 6 analyzes arguments whose power of proof rests upon comparison with known things; it follows the theme of "comparison" in both its positive and negative manifestations, such as the consistent resemblance between God's prophets and the consistently invincible ignorance of their opponents. Chapter 7 deals with "contrast," a much more fundamental principle in that it begins with the difference between God and his creation. In it I show how arguments based upon contrast are indispensable for convincing skeptical humans to discriminate between belief and unbelief in order to make the decisions upon which their souls depend.

Chapters 8 and 9 enter the field of classical formal logic, taking up Ghazali's and Najm al-Din al-Tufi's analyses of arguments and applying them to a broader selection of Qur'anic verses. Chapter 8 discovers examples in the Qur'an of ten of the nineteen possible moods of the Aristotelian categorical syllogism. Chapter 9 examines Qur'anic examples of conditional and disjunctive syllogisms as originally schematized by logicians of the Stoic school.

Chapter 10 uses several extended examples of debates between prophets and their interlocutors to demonstrate how the Qur'an combines various forms of argument to support its teachings, illustrate debating technique and etiquette, and demolish the counter-arguments of the opposition. Chapter 11 presents the conclusions of this study of Qur'anic argument and suggests directions for future research.

Here is a schematic outline of the arguments that appear in this book:

  1. The Covenant
  2. Signs and precedents
  3. The Sunna of God
  4. Rules, commands, and reasons why: Does God work for a purpose? Rule-based reasoning. The logic of commands. Commands, commandments and purpose
  5. Legal arguments: Reciprocity and recompense, Priority, equivalence, entailment, and limitation, Distinction and exception Aristotle's "Non-Artistic" proofs: laws, witnesses, contracts, torture, and oaths; An excursus on performatives
  6. Comparison Similarity Analogy: Parable, Degree
  7. Contrast Difference Inequality Opposition: Opposites and contraries, Contradictories, Reversal, Antithesis
  8. Categorical arguments
  9. Conditional and disjunctive arguments
  10. Technical terms and debating technique

I believe that the reader will be surprised at how thick with argument the Qur'an actually is. It has long been common practice to analyze the Qur'an's historical and legal material, Biblical parallels and divergences, punishment-stories, rhetorical figures, vocabulary and grammar, data that bear on the life of the Prophet and other thematic selections — all indispensable disciplines. But after having previously concentrated upon some of the areas mentioned above, I found that analyzing Qur'anic argument was like discovering a trove of hidden verses.

As often as Muslim thinkers cite Qur'anic prototypes for purposes of argument, comparatively few works have been dedicated to analyzing Qur'anic argument per se. Al-Suyuti (d. 911/1505)5 notes that Najm al-Din al-Tuft "singled the matter out for a treatise (afradahu bi-al-tasnif)"; he does not give the title, but it is Alam al-Jadhal fi Ilm al-Jadal; the Hanbali author died in Hebron in 716/1316. In fact, less than half of that work is what we might call tafsir jadali. The first ninety-one pages are an introduction to juridical debate and forensic logic, including sections on questions and answers, inference (al-istidlal), qiyas, and counter-arguments (al-i`tiradat). Tuft then uses technical terms from those disciplines to analyze Qur'anic argument, and he ends with sections on famous debates and witty exchanges which resemble debates "even though they may not come within their formal boundaries."? Suyuti fails to mention the source for much of his own material, Burhan al-Din al-Zarkashi's (d. 794/1391) encyclopedic al-Burhan fi 'Wurn al-Qur'an.

Some books on Qur'anic argument are simple handbooks meant to aid debaters in their disputations. Kitab Hujaj al-Qur'an by the Hanafi Ahmad b. Muhammad b. al-Muzaffar al-Razi (d. 630/ 1233-34) consists of lists of verses, followed by brief explications and hadith, which were to serve as proof-texts for debates over such topics as predestination, free will, and the Beatific Vision. In his Kitab Istikhraj al-Jidal min al-Qur'an al-Karim, 'Abd al-Rahman Ibn al-Hanbali (d. 634/1236-7) also arranges the Qur'anic arguments not by type or in Qur'anic order, but by the points to be proven, such as the unicity of God and the prophethood of Muhammad. In his final chapter, however, Ibn al-Hanbali discusses the techniques used in the Qur'an to confound the prophets' adversaries and the enemies of God. (I shall examine some of these debates in Chapter 12.) Suyuti mentions neither of these works.

An interesting and far more sophisticated development of the genre can be found in works whose declared purpose is to prove the superiority of the Qur'an over Greek logic. Thus the title of a book by 'Abd Allah b. al-Murtada al-Yamani, known as Ibn al-Wazir (d. 840/1436, apparently unknown by Suyuti) is self-explanatory: Tarjih Asalib al-Quran 'aia Asa-kb al-Yunan. A modern work with many of the same concerns is Manahij al-Jadal fi al-Qur'an al-Karim by Ibn al-Hanbali's modern editor, Dr. Zahir al-Alma`i. Dr. Khalil Ahmad Khalil's Jadaliyat al-Qur'an declares an interest in discovering the political ramifications of the Qur'an's unifying effect as seen in the early Muslims' defeat of the Ethiopians, Byzantines, and Persians." An excellent survey of both traditional and modern works in the field is Jane Dammen McAuliffe's indispensable "'Debate with them in the better way': the construction of a Qur'anic commonplace."12

Though Qur'anic reasoning underlies the immense structure of Islamic theology and law, relatively few books analyze the structure of Qur'anic proofs. This is not to say that Muslim scholars were ignorant of Qur'anic reasoning; on the contrary, they were so deeply imbued with it that it was not even second nature for them but first nature — fitra. For that very reason, I have taken the text of the Qur'an itself as the primary source for this book. My analyses of arguments are supported, supplemented, and (no doubt) sometimes contradicted by material from exegeses and other sources but have not been formed by them in the first instance, except for that initial inspiration from Ghazali.

A distinction is in order here. "Argument" is a multivalent term in English: when translated by the Arabic word jadal, it more commonly indicates "debate." There is, of course, a wealth of literature on that subject, and Qur'anic precedents such as those cited in Chapter 10 are invariably invoked both to legitimate the procedure and to stipulate the etiquette that is to be observed. The Qur'anic models are often obscured, however, by the preoccupation with forensics, that is, by the shift of focus from patterns of proof to techniques for the defeat of adversaries. In spite of the fact that of the twenty-nine mentions of jadal in the Qur'an, all but three (Q 16:125, 29:46, and 58:1) condemn it,' 3 works in the genre are so focused upon the elements of procedure — the techniques employed, the evidence cited, the winner, the loser — that only incidentally do some undertake logical analysis of Qur'anic passages.

That, however, is the sole topic of this book.

Reasoning and argument are so integral to the content of the Qur'an and so inseparable from its structure that they in many ways shaped the very consciousness of Qur'anic scholars. Exegetes internalized the idiom, and perhaps for that very reason it did not become a separate genre within the field of `ulum al-Qur'an. That helps to account for the wide range of approaches to Qur'anic exegesis and for every exegete's conviction that his approach is justified, indeed dictated, by the sacred text, whether his focus is simple commandments and prohibitions or extended logical analysis of the arguments that underlie the entire text. Thus a figure as controversial as Fakhr al-Din al-Razi could be accused of compiling a tafsir that contained everything except tafsir, while he himself wrote at the end of his life that, after experiencing all branches of kalam and philosophy, "I have not found in them either satisfaction or comfort to equal that which I have found in reading the Qur'an."

Muslims esteem not just every verse of the Qur'an but every single word as irreplaceably significant. Amidst the wealth of analysis that countless scholars have devoted to its individual words, verses, suras, themes, structures, and tropes; and to its commands, prohibitions, literary and historical content, theology, and parallels with other scriptures, I have attempted to focus my attention and that of my readers upon what I see as the Qur'an's most basic framework of meaning. After returning to al-Qistas al-mustaqim and reapplying Ghazali's methods to the Qur'an, I discerned in it a far broader range of arguments than Ghazali's five, whereupon I set out to classify the reasoned procedures by which the Qur'an situates its rhetorical, historical, legal, and theological elements on its own spectrum of significance. I have attempted in this book to analyze as many types of Qur'anic argument as I was able to recognize, using English terminology common to the humanities, together with certain indispensable terms in Greek, Latin, and Arabic. I have done it this way for two reasons. First, it seemed beside the point, in a book written in English, to reproduce the Arabic techniques of rhetorical and logical analysis, translate the Arabic terms, and then explain how they work using the terminology that I would be using in the first place. Second, many of the traditional techniques of analysis were heavily influenced by Qur'anic style to begin with; thus using them alone to analyze the text would often yield what were essentially circular arguments.

Herein lies the value of Ghazali's system (and I hope, by extension, of my own): it is largely independent of language structures yet takes full cognizance of meanings to assure that any given argument is appropriately schematized and that all possible schemata have been taken into consideration.

Al-Ghazali epitomizes the scope of Qur'anic reasoning in the following words:

Whoever has a scale determines by it the measure of countless substances. The same is true for whoever has al-qistas al-mustaqim: he has the Wisdom which brings to whoever has received it a great and endless benefit ... All sciences are not present in the Glorious Qur'an in an explicit form, but they are present potentially (bi-1-quwwa), because of the existence therein of the True Scales (al-mawazin al-qist) by which are opened the gates of infinite Wisdom.

Using more technical language, al-Suyuti says essentially the same thing:

The `ulama' have said that the great Qur'an contains all types of proofs (barahin) and evidence (adilla): there is no type of proof (burhan) or evidence (dalala) or disjunction (taqsim) or warning (tandhir) constructed from the entire range of things known by reason or authority which God has not articulated. But He conveyed it according to the customs of the Arabs, without the fine points of the methods of the theologians.

Here follows a summary of the techniques found to be relevant for analysis of Qur'anic argument, with their methodological applications.

  • Chapter 1 established that in the Qur'an all history is sacred history and began with the cosmic rule that is the Covenant. Arguments based on the Covenant in the first instance refer to the contract made when God created the world and endowed human beings with benefits that they undertook to hold in trust with gratitude and reverence, or mismanage at their peril. Ultimately, all Qur'anic arguments are based, directly or at some remove, upon the Covenant.
  • Chapter 2 analyzed two categories of phenomena that provide premises and supporting evidence for arguments based upon the Covenant: (1) the signs (ayat, bayyinat) by which God proves his existence and power; and (2) the precedents (sunan) that he has set throughout history by his practice of sending prophets and scriptures to re-establish the Covenant, validate its contractual terms, remind forgetful humans of their responsibilities, and punish violators.
  • Chapter 3 demonstrated how the Qur'an assimilates the precedents set by sacred history to the particularly strong Arab social concept of precedent, sunna. The result produces arguments based upon precedent that is divine, sunnat Allah, an especially powerful method of addressing the concerns of an audience consisting of both scriptuaries (ahl al-kitab) and pagan Arabs.
  • Chapter 4 used rule-based reasoning, which is a branch of legal logic, and the logic of commands to analyze the uniformity, predictability, and justification of divine laws, examining how the Qur'an distinguishes them from the arbitrary and capricious actions ascribed to deities that are, in the end, imaginary and possess no real power. Because of the status of the Covenant as the cosmic rule that in turn generates countless sub-rules, rule-based reasoning is fundamental to the analysis of divine law.
  • Chapter 5 highlighted the reasoning that supports particular Qur'anic laws, both those that stipulate proper devotions (`ibadat) and those that govern interactions between human beings (mu'amakat). Because the Qur'an is the first source of Islamic law, it would be tautologous to use the methods of Islamic law to analyze the Qur'an, hence the concentration in this chapter upon fundamental legal notions embodied in the text rather than upon the substance of the laws themselves. In the "Excursus on Performatives," I examined a type of utterance that does not describe a legal status but is itself the very act that creates it. Human acceptance of the Covenant is such an act, as is the shahada.
  • Chapter 6 explored Qur'anic applications of arguments based upon comparison, including similarity, analogy, and parable. Analysis of apparent comparisons showed that very often such constructions actually mask quite different forms of reasoning, such as legal arguments, categorical arguments, and disjunction.
  • Chapter 7 demonstrated that the contrast between God and his creation is more fundamental to Qur'anic reasoning than is comparison, and its range of argument is broader, including, among others, opposition, contrariety, contradiction, and antithesis. This reverses the order of importance of comparison and contrast as found in works of Western classical rhetoric, and for that reason it more truly dramatizes Islamic ontology.
  • Chapter 8 recapitulated the first part of Ghazali's unique short treatise on Qur'anic logic, al-Qistas al-Mustaqim, which demonstrates how the first three figures of the categorical syllogism are derived from the Qur'an. With material from Najm al-Din al-Tufi and my own analyses of additional Qur'anic verses, I was able to identify examples of ten of the nineteen valid moods of the categorical syllogism and leave open the possibility that all nineteen may be found within the sacred text.
  • In Chapter 9, I considerably amplified Ghazali's brief presentation of hypothetical and disjunctive syllogisms in the Qur'an. Discussion of hypotheticals was again augmented with material from Tufi, but, as he considered disjunction a mere rhetorical technique, his contributions here are limited.
  • Chapter 10, finally, used several extended examples of debates between prophets and their interlocutors to demonstrate how the Qur'an combines various forms of argument to support its teachings, illustrate debating technique and etiquette, and demolish the counter-arguments of the opposition. Here the forensically-inclined Tuft is indispensable for the connections that he draws between the two vast fields of Qur'anic exegesis and formal disputation.

Finally, having summarized my findings as presented in the first ten chapters, I shall use the present chapter to suggest further lines of research using the same methods.

One who chooses to focus upon the Qur'an itself may wish to discover all instances of a given type of argument, such as argument from precedent or the reasoning that supports divine commands, and expand upon the contents of that argument and its possible variants. It is also a common scholarly procedure to focus upon a single Qur'anic theme, such as the truth of a prophet's message or the importance of prayer, but very often this is done by tracing only textual similarities and variants. Attention to the multiple types of argument that the Qur'an uses to make the point(s) at issue will add new dimensions to both the analysis of the text and the understanding of the audience's reception.

Clearly, the "audience reception" most accessible to the scholar lies in the massive work of the exegetes. One gauge of the evolution of tafsir is the increasing sophistication with which it engages Qur'anic argument, and the methods set forth in this book are useful in evaluating the differences between earlier and later works. Some exegeses, such as those of Zamakhshari and Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, are known for their "rationalist" tone; and Razi in particular has a solid bibliography of works on logic in addition to the content of the extensive methodological preface to Mafatih al-Ghayb that appears in his commentary on the Fatiha. It is all the more instructive, then, to analyze his treatment of Qur'anic arguments that fall outside the realm of logic as he understood it.

Legal exegeses of the genre ahkam al-Qur'an, such as the works of Jassas and Qurtubi quoted in earlier chapters, deserve far more scholarly attention than they have so far received.? I have found that analyzing Qur'anic argument is particularly useful in understanding works of this type, in that one can begin to discern in a systematic manner how the legal point of a passage is or is not dependent upon time and place, and the circumstances, status, and mental state of the people involved. Perhaps for the same reasons, I have found these methods unexpectedly useful as an aid to scrutinizing the reasoning of extremist Islamists, particularly their use of the Qur'an to justify the most violent actions and to exclude other Muslims from consideration as brothers and sisters in faith. I have attempted in my approach to Qur'anic argument to combine methodological rigor with an understanding of Qur'anic priorities. Now when I take up any passage from the Qur'an, any verse chosen at random, I cannot but be aware that the manner in which it argues its own significance is integral to its meaning. I offer the techniques of analysis presented in this book in the hope that others will find them useful additions to the ones that they and other colleagues in the field have developed over so many years. Najm al-Din al-Tufi concludes his section on tafsir with these remarks:

Know that ... I have mentioned only what is self-evident and well-known (zahir an mashhur an) from among instances of debate and cases which involve proof (al-waqa'i` aljadaliya wa-l-qadaya al-istidlaliya); otherwise, when the Qur'an is contemplated, much more will be found in it than I have mentioned, because it appeared as a miracle in its entirety and in its details. And the nature (sha'n) of a miracle is to confound the opponent and prove the opposite of what he alleges, so know this. And perhaps I have failed to [include] something on the topic that is well known, whether through ignorance, or laziness, or being content with something similar to it that has been repeated, or some other similar reason.

In the same spirit of humility, and with the same reservations about having presented only a sample of the whole, I conclude this book.

The Banquet: A Reading of the Fifth Sura of the Qur'an by Michel Cuypers (Rhetorica Semitica) Cuyper's work is a ground-breaking contribution to Islamic-Christian studies and is being warmly received by the Islamic academic community. He applies recent methods of rhetorical textual studies to the analysis of the Qur'an, the holy book of Islam, which previously has been seen by many as a fragmented text with little sense of order. He has achieved a systematic and organised reading of the Qur'an text that is in absolute accordance with the Islamic faith, a task that has never before been accomplished. Muslim and Christian theologians around the world recognise his achievement as one of the most important contributions to an understanding of Islam based on Christian scholarship.

Michel Cuypers is specialist on Biblical and Semitic Studies, and a follower of Charles de Foucauld. Cuypers resided in Iran for twelve years, first at a leper colony in Tabriz, and later studying Persian language and literature in Teheran. He obtained a doctorate in Persian literature from the University of Teheran in 1983. He studied Arabic in Syria and Egypt, and in 1989 he moved to Cairo, where he presently resides as a researcher at the Dominican Institute for Eastern Studies. Since 1994 Cuypers has utilized the method of rhetorical analysis on the composition of the Qur an text. His articles and essays are being increasingly appreciated by Muslim scholars.

Excerpt: I was particularly touched by Cuypers' openness of mind when he asked me to write the preface to this book, since he knows that I practice the historical-philological method. From my point of view, this method no longer needs to be proven. It is solidly supported by a century and a half of academic work of great value by some of the most illustrious Islamists and Arabists. At the same time, it is true that many profound differences on the history of Qur'an come between this method's supporters, for the simple reason that, naturally, they base themselves on the wealth of Islamic textual tradition which is itself marked by many hesitations, contradictions and legends. Despite the existence of different theories on the matter, there are enough of these «areas of shadow» of the Islamic sources, and they are significant enough, to direct the researcher towards a thesis in which the definitive writing-down of the Qur'anic corpus took place over several decades, and seems to have resulted in confrontation between the redactional work of various groups of men of letters who did not always agree with one another.

In addition, works devoted to the Qur'an's structures of composition, at least as Cuypers sheds light on them, can be supported by very little classical Muslim work. The big question which seems to arise is thus, how is it that, for almost a millennium and a half no Muslim scholar turned to the examination of Semitic rhetoric in general, and Arabic rhetoric in particular, to explain the Qur'an's «incoherences» which always struck literary scholars? It was not a lack of desire on their part — the aims of the vast literature of the Nazm al-Qur'an («The organization of the Qur'an») or the I'jaz al-Qur'an («The inimitability of the Qur'an») are, among others, to find plausible justification for the apparent lack of coherence of the Muslims' sacred text. However, among the hundreds and hundreds of commentators on the Qur'an, exegetes and hermeneutical scholars, grammarians and lexicographers, philologists and philosophers, mystics, theologians and legislators, the number of Muslim scholars who have studied the stylistic structures of the Qur'an whom Cuypers quotes can virtually be counted on the fingers of one hand. What is more, on his own admission, from Abu Bakr al-Nisaburi, al-Zarkashi and al-Biqa'i in the Middle Ages, to Amin Ahsan Islahi and Sa'id Hawwa in the present day, none of these unusual and largely unknown authors has managed to come up with objectively convincing results. Cuypers' hypothesis to explain this vast lacuna is that at the time when Muslim scholars began to be interested in the Qur'an's stylistic organization, Semitic rhetoric had already been completely forgotten, covered over by the influence of late-Hellenistic rhetoric. As this was focused on the study of figures of speech and tropes (metaphor, metonymy, comparison, etc.), which only dealt with the smallest units of text (words and phrases), Arabic rhetoric went the same way, ignoring the study of the composition of the discourse, which constituted the basics of Semitic rhetoric. From then on, Arabic rhetoric was powerless to resolve the questions that scholars were asking about the text's organization.

I must confess that, for me, the question remains open; nevertheless, the pertinence and solidity of the work of the author of this book have always struck me. For a long time, I have even shared with him my wish to see brought together in one volume his many articles on the short suras, a wish which is still as keen as ever. For more than ten years, Cuypers has patiently developed his detailed system for rhetorical analysis of the Qur'an. This preface is obviously not the place to explain a very rich method based on such a complex discipline as rhetoric. However, it is appropriate to emphasize that the great technical skill in Cuypers' work is neither free nor arbitrary. On the contrary, it is constantly deployed in rigorous methodology, systematic reasoning, and implacable logic. Cuypers' aim in The Banquet was to know whether the rhetorical analysis which he had applied for so long to the older, short Meccan suras was as pertinent to a long, late Medinan sura such as sura five. To my mind, he has succeeded in a clear and perfectly-mastered way. The conclusion which he draws is that the Qur'an is composed throughout according to the same rhetoric. Among the most obvious implications of this conclusion it seems that, on the one hand, the Qur'an has a literary unity and coherence which make sense and, on the other, rhetorical analysis, based on the examination of the composition, can perfectly well help in the interpretation of the text of the Qur'an, the more so if, as in this book, it is accompanied by a study of the «interscriptural context» (the Qur'an's re-writing of the Bible and the other texts related to it). So the question which fundamentally concerns our author is not the history of the writing of the Qur'an, but the text's significance in its final redactional state. In this sense, the coherence of his approach is constant.

One of the remarkable results which Cuypers' analyses, both rigorous and objective, draw out is what we might call the <<strategic» placing of two types of Qur'anic text. Alongside the traditional distinction between passages dealing with circumstantial events and facts (touching on the domain of belief— 'aqida, pl. aqa'id) and passages containing universal messages (concerning the domain of faith — n), his rhetorical examination clearly shows, in the sura being studied, that the former always have a «peripheral» position, while the latter enjoy a «centrality» which emphasizes their greater importance and sacred nature. Given the main theme of the fifth sura, Cuypers is particularly interested in the relations between Islam and other religions, or more precisely between Muslims, Jews and Christians. He thus shows the peripheral place, and therefore the secondary, almost circumstantial nature, of the passages which deal with tensions and violence towards, and repression of, non-Muslims, and the centrality, and therefore the primordial and universal nature of the passages which phasize the deep unity, harmony and fraternity of the three so-called «Abrahamic» faiths. There is no need to mention the huge importance which such discoveries can bring both spiritually and politically.

I remain convinced of the validity of the analysis which comes from the historical-philological critical method; however, Cuypers' masterful, erudite and coherent approach proves to me that rhetorical analysis can be just as reliable a hermeneutical tool for understanding the Qur'anic text as others. I do not yet know exactly how, but I am sure that the two approaches can complete one another, mutually refining one another and create a breakthrough which is as decisive as it is original for a new exegesis of the great enigma which is the Qur'an.

Like the Bible, the Qur'an now belongs to the universal cultural and religious heritage. The globalization of Islam' and the mass emigration of Muslims to the West have placed their Holy Book within the reach of all, whether or not they share the Islamic faith. While it is physically accessible to all, however, this book cannot be easily tackled. The Westerner who attempts to read it for the first time, particularly in translation, is rapidly thrown off course by this text, with its disconnected sequences, where subjects follow one another and are mixed up among one another without any discernable logic or order. Let us see what Jacques Berque, one of the greatest French specialists of the Qur'an in the twentieth century, has to say on this matter:

Those who, with no preparation, tackle these [suras in the Qur'an] find themselves overwhelmed by its profusion and apparent disorder. Many Westerners mention incoherence — the discussion ranges from one subject to another, without being followed up, and without being exhausted. The same theme and motif return here and there with no discernable regularity. It is impossible to find one's place in a dense text explained neither by the titles of the suras, nor by the breaks which translators introduce arbitrarily, nor by the framework or other indices which they claim to provide us with. All in all, despite some good chunks, it is, one might say, a very deceptive read!

The South African Muslim intellectual Farid Esack admits that «the Qur'an is a difficult book for those who are "strangers" to it to penetrate, and indeed even for many Muslims who simply want to read it».

This rather general observation, in both the non-Muslim and the Muslim worlds, called for research into the composition of the Qur'anic text. Are the different fragments which make it up arranged according to a certain internal logic which brings coherence and unity, that is, a greater intelligibility, to the text? This question is far from new— it was asked of the Qur'anic commentators from the very beginnings of Qur'anic exegesis. In fact, we find it written within the Qur'an itself: «Those who have disbelieved have said: "Why has not the Qur'an been sent down to him all at once?" Thus (have We sent it) that We may confirm level of the text much further. The studies cited above, which are quite brief, do not go beyond examining the division of the long sequences in the suras.

Thus we can see that both from the point of view of Islamic exegesis and from Orientalist study, the question of the text's coherence is of the moment. The development of structural linguistics in the twentieth century was not for nothing.

The solution did not, however, come directly from modern linguistics, but from a particular current in biblical exegesis which took form in the mid-eighteenth century, and which gradually discovered the rules which governed the writings of the books of the Bible. The starting point was the study of «parallel members» in not only the Psalms but also the Prophets, by Rev. Robert Lowth, professor at Oxford and later Bishop of Oxford and then London, in his 35 Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews (1753), which became a classic of biblical exegesis. At the same time, the German Johann-Albrecht Bengel noted the importance of another rhetorical figure, the chiasmus, in the Bible. Beginning with the study of these few figures of rhetoric in the Bible, further observations and systematizations would develop during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and even in the twentieth century.

Today there is no doubt that it is Roland Meynet, who teaches exegesis at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, and the Director of this «Rhetorica Semitica» series, who has pushed the theory and application of what he has called «rhetorical analysis» the furthest'°. Others prefer the term «structure analysis» to differentiate it from «structural analysis»" — the former is interested in the «surface structures» of the text, which can be located from the words in the text, while the latter seeks the «deep structures» of which the author is not normally aware.

This new discipline has recently gone beyond the purely biblical studies. It has shown itself to be pertinent to the study of the composition of other Semitic texts, some — Akkadian and Ugaritic — very ancient, and others of late antiquity— the Islamic traditions (hadiths) in al-Bukhari's great eleventh-century collection", and even to the Qur'an itself. Applying rhetorical analysis to the short and medium Meccan suras of the Qur'an immediately demonstrated that it was the perfect tool for decoding their composition". Less sophisticated than other tools of modern linguistics, it also has the advantage of only using simple terms from every-day language («segments», «pieces», «parts», «passages», etc.), which as a consequence are easily accessible to the non-specialist. The fact that it has been tested for a long time by biblical scholars who marry academic rigor with respect for a text which they consider to be the revealed Word of God, should remove Muslim readers' suspicion — the inopportune use of modern humanities in the study of the Qur'an has sometimes made Muslims afraid that the Qur'an is being reduced to a purely secular object of study, a text like any other, with its sacred nature pared away. While rhetorical analysis shakes up the methods of traditional exegesis, and «desacralizes» it in some way, it suppresses nothing of the sacred nature of the text itself, which is wholly respected as it exists canonically. It simply describes the structure, with the aim of understanding the meaning that that carries.

The pertinence of rhetorical analysis for the long Medinan suras, clearly more complex and apparently more disordered than the brief Meccan suras, remained to be demonstrated, and this is the initial aim of this work. The choice fell on «The Table» sura principally because of its late dating — it is claimed to be the last (or, some say, the penultimate) long sura to be revealed. It was particularly interesting to examine whether such a late text obeyed the same principles of composition as the short suras from the start of the Qur'anic revelation. If the answer were positive, one might be able to extrapolate that the whole Qur'an was composed in the same way, following the same «rhetoric». Let me say at once that this will in fact be the result of our research.

The use here of the term «rhetoric» may puzzle some readers, because it is not used in its usual sense. Literary and Qur'anic studies have, since the dawn of Islamic culture, and undeniably under the influence of late Greek rhetoric, developed a rhetoric which is understood to be the art of embellishing discourse by figures of speech (metaphor, metonymy, synonymy, antithesis, etc). As a consequence it was only interested in the smallest units of the text — the words or sentences. The question of the composition of the discourse as such, which Aristotle tackled in his Rhetoric under the title dispositio (arrangement of the discourse) remained foreign to Arabic rhetoric, despite the questions raised by the Qur'an's composition, or rather its apparent non-composition. It remained powerless to answer these questions. However, rhetoric as we understand it, as «the art of the composition of the discourse» is not unconnected to the art of «figures of speech». Semitic rhetoric, which was used in the East before Greek rhetoric took over, was, of course, based upon some fundamental «figures of speech» — parallelism and chiasmus, among others, but used at every level of the text's organization. «Rhetorical analysis» is precisely the systematization of these figures of speech at their different levels.

It goes without saying that, while we hold that the study of the composition of the text is an indispensable stage of exegesis, it is not the only one. On its own it would not stand up without an examination of vocabulary and grammar. This work does not claim any originality in these areas, which have been widely explored both in Islamic tradition and in Orientalist research. We will occasionally allude to this in the section on «Points of Vocabulary», or during the course of the commentary.

The work of the analysis of the text very swiftly demonstrated the need to bring together the study of its «Composition» (the main section of the different parts of this research) with its «Interscriptural context» (the title of the third section). Both these approaches to the text — analysis of its composition and intertextuality — while different, turned out to complement one another closely. Attention to the immediate literary context of a textual unit— essential in rhetorical analysis — immediately draws attention to its broader context within the book as a whole (what Muslim exegetes call «the commentary of the Qur'an by the Qur'an»), and beyond that, in the external context of all the sacred literature the Book is related tor, which, for the Qur'an means first and foremost the Bible and the parabiblical writings — rabbinic, intertestamental and apocryphal writings, Jewish and Christian liturgical texts, etc18. There is of course no question of criticizing «borrowings», «imitations» or «influences» from apologetic or polemical intentions, as a certain Orientalism in bad taste has done, but rather recognizing that the Qur'an shares a phenomenon which is characteristic of Biblical writings — re-writing. The books of the Bible unceasingly re-appropriate earlier writings, reusing them and turning them to a new perspective which makes revelation advance. The Qur'an does no different, although it does so in a different way from the Bible, as we will see more clearly at the end of our reading: since it positions itself as the final revelation in the Judeo-Christian tradition, it has had to re-assume the earlier traditions while making its own mark on the texts it repeats in this way. Far from reducing the Qur'an to a pastiche of earlier writings, the intertextual or «interscriptural» work we will undertake removes none of its originality, but on the contrary, better draws it out.

The study of the text's composition would be but of limited interest were it not to lead to what is its aim — the interpretation of the text. The intertextual study is, in truth, already a part of this. However, in a further section («Elements of interpretation»), an interpretation which seems to us to come from the composition will be found. We have given the title «elements of interpretation» to this section as we feel that it is for Muslims to interpret more deeply the text of the Qur'an. We therefore make no other claim than to suggest «interpretative angles» (which some may already judge to be rather overcrowded, as the subject matter has sometimes taken us beyond the limits we set ourselves initially!). We have had fewer scruples in our work on the intertextual aspects, which require a familiarity with the biblical literature which Muslim readers rarely possess.

The analysis of the text's composition may seem rather dry and laborious to some. Through our analysis in this work, however, and in the synthesis of the final chapter, we will see that the stakes, both theological and juridical, are high. This is far from being of merely literary or aesthetic interest.

Probably because of the fragmentation of the Qur'anic text, traditional exegesis has most often proceeded verse by verse, without considering their content or the larger textual groupings of which they are part, the result has been an «atomistic» vision of the text, with all verses having equal weight. The great Egyptian reformer Muhammad 'Abduh (d. 1905) already considered that the verses of the Qur'an should not all be read at the same level. He distinguished those verses which proclaimed essential dogmas of the Islamic faith from other, more circumstantial verses whose teaching or prescriptions were linked to particular historical situations and, therefore, susceptible to development. We hope to show that this distinction is reflected in the composition of the text itself, with verses which are «universal principles» often, if not always, having privileged, central rhetorical places, in contrast with other, more particular verses, which surround them; this may have serious consequences for the interpretation of the Islamic faith and law. An objective criterion which is purely formal could support the widely-held opinion among the Muslim «new thinkers» that a distinction needs to be made in the Qur'an between what is universal and unchangeable, and what is an exhortation or prescription governed by the historical circumstances of Muhammad's preaching.

This distinction might operate in particular in sura 5, which gives a certain number of rules for the life of Muslims and also deals at length with Islam's relations with Jews and Christians— all very contemporary questions. The jurisconsults (fuqaha') have depended heavily on the juridical verses in this sura, and many classical commentaries devote many pages to it. While not neglecting them, we will treat them in a more sober manner, not having to consider the developments which Islamic law later gave them. Above all, beyond the hierarchy of rules and laws, we will retain the flexibility which the Qur'an shows in many cases in its rulings, a greater flexibility than is often thought. On the other hand, the relations of the Muslim community with the Jews and, even more, with the Christians, will keep our attention — complex relations arising from convivium (sharing food and marriage with Jewish and Christian women are permitted; Christians are «the closest by friendship» to the Muslims); rivalry and superseding (Islam substitutes the Jewish and Christian covenants); seduction (Jews and Christians are called to conversion); hostility and condemnation (particularly towards the Jews); juridical and dogmatic polemic (particularly towards the Christians); all finally, and unexpectedly, ending with a universalist vision in which the different religions have their place in God's mysterious design for humanity. The sura is not simply a series of anti-Jewish or anti-Christian polemics, as a superficial reading might lead us to think— it also paves the way for what could well become a true « Qur'anic theology of religions», as the structure of the text so clearly holds this meaning. The detour via the study of the composition of the sura in all its subtleties, which might appear rather onerous, will show itself not only useful, but necessary, to reach the message in all its plenitude.

As for the book's title, the reader must wait until the end of the work to understand it, just as the reader of the sura has to wait until the final verses to grasp its traditional title of «The Table». We preferred «The Banquet» to this title, because it obviously includes a table, while also giving the connotation of a festive meal, whose link with the new covenant, the sura's central theme, will be seen. The difference between the sura's title and that of the present work also seeks to signify the gap between the Qur'anic text and its interpretation.

Brief Sketch of Rhetorical Analysis

In the following pages, the reader will find the «glossary of technical terms» used in rhetorical analysis. However, it would seem to be a good idea to start by giving a very general idea of the method used in this approach to the text. The basic principle of composition in Semitic rhetoric is symmetry. The aim of the analysis will, therefore, essentially be to pinpoint the various forms of symmetry which make up the text, defining the relationships which they have with one another, and the textual divisions which they determine.

There are three of these symmetries — parallelism, or parallel construction, when related units of text reappear in the same order (ABC/A'B'C'); concentrism, or concentric construction, when the units of text are arranged concentrically around a center (ABCD/X/D'C'B'A'); and mirror construction, when the central element is missing (ABCD/D'C'B'A').

Alongside these «total symmetries» are also «partial symmetries» which can be located in the text by compositional indicators. We will mention outer terms, when these compositional indicators are found at the beginning and end of the unit they frame (this is what was traditionally called «inclusio»), initial terms, central terms and final terms, when they are respectively at the beginning, middle or end of the two symmetrical units, median terms, which are at the end of one unit and the start of the next (what Biblical scholars call the «link-word»).

The relationship between these terms can be a relationship of identity, synonymy (in its broad sense of «terms of similar meaning»), antithesis, homophony (which we will not encounter in this work), paronymy (or near-homonymy, which is quite frequent in the Qur'an), and also homography (identical spelling, not unusual in the Qur'an once the Arabic diacritical marks, which did not exist at the time the Qur'an was first written down, have been removed).

These indicators and symmetries exist at different levels within the text. They must be carefully distinguished from each other, starting from the lower («inferior») levels and working up to the higher («superior») levels:

  • the member («stich», in Greek) is the primary rhetorical level, usually corresponding to a syntagma;
  • the segmentconsists of one, two or three (never more) members; thepiececonsists of one, two or three (never more) segments;
  • the partconsists of one, two or three (never more) pieces.

The same goes for the four superior levels — the passage, sequence, section and book, each made up of one or more units (in any quantity) of the level which immediately precedes them. Sometimes intermediary levels — sub-part, subsequence and sub-section are added.

Lund's laws

We should add some «laws» or ways of structuring the text to this outline of the method, and we will see the laws applied many times. They were theorized by the American Biblical Scholar Nils W. Lund, who published the results of his analysis of texts from the Old and New Testaments in 1930-40. Given their importance, and the number of times we will refer, explicitly or not, to them, we reproduce five of Lund's seven laws here.

  • First law: The center is always the turning point. The center may consist of one, two, three or even four lines.
  • Second law: At the center there is often a change in the trend of thought, and an antithetical idea is introduced. After this the original trend is resumed and continued until the system is concluded. For want of a better term, we shall designate this feature the law of the shift at the center.
  • Third law: Identical ideas are often distributed in such a fashion that they occur in the extremes and at the centre of their respective system, and nowhere else in the system.
  • Fourth law: There are also many instances of ideas, occurring at the centre of one system and recurring in the extremes of a corresponding system, the second system evidently having been constructed to match the first. We shall call this feature the law of shift from centre to the extremes.
  • Fifth law: There is a definite tendency of certain terms to gravitate towards certain positions within a given system, such the divine names in the Psalms, quotations in central position in a system in the New Testament.

The main divisions of this work, its «chapters», correspond to the analysis of the sura's eight «sequences», its two «sections» and, finally, the whole sura, with a concluding chapter.


At the start of the analysis of each sequence, a schema with a brief commentary gives an overview of the different passages which make it up. The passage titles are then used in the analysis of each one. At the end of each sequence is a table with the whole text, in which those terms which are rhetorically relevant are emphasized.


Each passage is divided into several sections. «The text» of the passage is given first, followed, where appropriate, by «Points of vocabulary», then «Composition», which includes explanatory tables, «Elements of interpretation», and, finally, «Interscriptural context».


The Qur'anic text we have used is the one which has become the official and most widely-known edition, known as the Cairo edition (1923)

It goes without saying that rhetorical analysis can only be practiced on the text's original language, that is, Arabic. However, to avoid too heavy a presentation, and, particularly, to remain accessible to any non-Arabic-speaking readers, we thought it preferable to offer the texts in English translation only. Let us clarify immediately that this translation is no more than a working tool, which follows the Arabic text as closely as possible to bring out the rhetorical particularities, at the risk of becoming an English text which needs correcting. As far as possible, the same word will be translated by the same English word, at least within the same context. We have been inspired by existing translations, in the French Blachère's and Hamidullah's, and in the English Arberry's and Bell's, because of their care to remain literal.

The hyphenation of some words in the translation indicates that these are one word in the original.


The tables give a re-writing of the Qur'anic text, in which:

  • the typeface Minion, Times New Roman, Arial, Arial Narrow and the different styles (bold, italic, small capitals, capitals, etc.) indicate the relationship between matching elements;
  • each line of the re-writing is a member, preceded by a typographical sign such as - / + / = / * / etc., to emphasize the relationships between matching lines, but these signs have no semantic value;
  • the typographical signs are followed by the verse number, for the first member of the verse under discussion, and a letter of the alphabet for the members which follow, to facilitate references to the tables in the explanations;
  • boxes distinguish those units which are linked from the level of the passage.

The tables of pieces, parts and passages are detailed, and typographically distinguish the lower levels of rhetorical units which make them up. However, most of these divisions are not repeated in the tables for the sequences and sub-sequences.


In theory the tables would demonstrate the text's composition on their own. In practice, however, it is necessary to offer some commentary on them. References to the tables are by verse number followed by the letter which corresponds to the member under discussion — «2j» refers to the tenth line of v. 2. When the commentary refers to averse from a sura other than sura 5, the verse number is preceded by the sura number, separated by two periods—«4:6» refers to sura 4,v. 6.

The typesetting has tried to place the tables near to their explanation, placing them on facing pages so that the reader does not need to turn the page to refer to a table. Where it has not been possible to put all the explanations on the same page, the table is repeated on the following double page for the reader's facility.

More than one reader will likely find the stage of the composition and its commentary rather arduous. We are not presenting an essay, but rather a study which, while seeking to be as objective as possible (in a field where absolute objectiv ity is surely an illusion!), requires a certain technicality for which some effort is needed. We have sought to introduce this gradually, giving more detail in the earlier stages of the analysis in the first verses of the sura, in the hope that the reader will then develop a taste for discovering the text from the inside. This text will then appear to him like the architecture of the domes of a mosque, which, when seen from the inside, gradually descend from the summit's central point in wider and wider circles which finish in an octagon, finally reaching the rectangular base which supports the whole structure.

The most important tables, however, are those of the passages and sequences, so the reader who is less interested in the detail of the composition can skip the study of pieces and parts in the «composition» sections. We have included them for those who wish to make a deeper study of the Qur'anic text in order to discover how the text is organized on the basis of the principles of Semitic rhetoric to the smallest detail.

Keys to Arcana: Shahrastani's Esoteric Commentary on the Qur'an by Toby Mayer (Published in Association With the Institute of Ismaili Studies: Oxford University Press) Only preserved in a single manuscript in Tehran, this remarkable twelfth-century Qur'anic commentary by Muhammad b. 'Abd al-Karim al- Shahrastani marks the achievement of a lifelong, arduous quest for knowledge. Shahrastani began writing Mafatih al-asrar or Keys to the Arcana towards the end of his life and the work reflects the brilliant radicalism of his more private religious views. The introduction and opening chapter of this virtually unknown work is presented here in a bilingual edition, which also includes an introduction and contextual notes by Dr Toby Mayer.
In Keys to the Arcana, Shahrastani breaks down the text of the Qur'an and analyses it from a linguistic point of view, with reference to the history of Qur'anic interpretation. The author's ultimate aim is to use an elaborate set of complimentary concepts - the 'keys' of the work's title - to unearth the esoteric meanings of the Qur'anic verses, which he calls the 'arcana' of the verses (asrar al-ayat). A historian of religious and philosophical doctrines, Shahrastani has generally been considered to be a spokesman for the Sunni religious establishment under the Seljuqs. The complimentary concepts in question, however, appear to derive from the Isma'ili Shi'i intellectual tradition, indicating that the author may have been secretly involved in the Isma'ili movement.
Shahrastani 's unusually esoteric and highly systematic exegesis of the Qur'an provides a vivid picture of the mature state of scriptural commentary in the twelfth-century CE. Dr Mayer's meticulous translation of Shahrastani 's Introduction and Commentary on Surat al-Fatiha, supplemented by the Arabic text, allows the reader and scholar access to this intriguing Muslim intellectual work for the first time.


One of the more exciting developments in Islamic Studies over the past few decades has resulted in a radically new assessment of the theological outlook and personality of the celebrated author of the Book of Religions and Sects (Kitab al-Milal wa'l-nihal), Muhammad b. `Abd al-Karim alShahrastani (d. 548/1153). Shahrastani's unconventional approach to the variety of religious and philosophical traditions had already provoked certain questions among his contemporaries, to be sure, and some indeed suspected him of secret sympathies for the 'people of the fortresses', i.e. the Nizari Isma'ilis. But his reputation as a mainstream Sunni thinker of the Ash`ari school had been firmly established by respected biographers such as Ibn Khallikan and Taj al-Din al-Subki, and remained for a long time unchallenged in modern scholarship as well. Especially Shahrastani's major theological treatise, the Nihayat al-aqthim fi al-kalam, seemed to confirm this perception in the eyes of most students of Islamic thought. However, the question of his secret Ismaili affinities was again put on the table in 1956, when Sayyid M. R. Jalali-Na'ini drew attention, for the first time, to the work whose first part appears in the present volume in a revised edition' along with a fully annotated translation and a thoughtful introduction by Toby Mayer, the Mafatih al-asrar wa masabih al-abrar.

Although Jalali-Na'ini described the Mafatih al-abrar only very briefly as a major commentary on the first two chapters of the Qur'an, preserved in a Tehran unicum of 'nearly 1000 pages',2 he nevertheless pointed to its importance as one among Shahrastani's later works, and, in effect, boldly ventured at that time that it might indeed reveal those Ismaili beliefs which, he suggested, the theologian had earlier been compelled to hide behind an Ash`ari mask', due to his position at the court of the Sal.* Sultan Sanjar (d. 552/1157).3 Jalali-Na'ini himself seems to have somewhat modified his position later, apparently now preferring to adopt Shahrastani among the Shi`a more generally,4 and his original suggestion remained without echo until M. T. Danish-pazhuh, adducing evidence from a number of other angles, came forward with a colourful portrait of 'the grand da'i from Shahrastani In the West, the Ismaili thesis received strong support for the first time in 1974. In a seminal lecture delivered to the 7th Congress of Arabic and Islamic Studies held in Gottingen, W. Madelung, focussing on Shahrastani's Kitab al-Musara`a, sharply argued in favour of an Ismaili rather than an Ash'ari inspiration of this famous anti-philosophical treatise.6 But the first in-depth study of the Mafatih al-asrar was undertaken only in the eighties of the past century. Having thoroughly analysed the Arabic text for a period of ten years (1983-93) with his students at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris, G. Monnot concluded unequivocally that the full expression of Shahrastani's thought is to be sought in this Qur'anic commentary, and that it propounds evidently a Nizari doctrine.

Yet another reaction from the traditional camp was still to come. Apart from a simple attempt to dismiss the Mafatih al-asrar as spurious, mention must be made here of the lengthy discussion of the 'Ismaili hypothesis' by D. Gimaret in his introduction to what is unquestionably now the most authoritative European translation of the Kitab al-Milal.

Reiterating against Madelung (and his close colleague Monnot, without naming him) the traditional view that the Nihayat al-aqdam should be seen as nothing less than a systematic defence (rather than an exposition of the limits) of Ash'arism, Gimaret nevertheless recognised the great theologian's originality, adduced himself much of the evidence that speaks against a one-sidedly Sunni presentation of his overall thought, and frankly admitted that `it is undeniable that certain aspects of Shahrastani's personal doctrine as expressed in the Musara` a, the Majlis, and indeed the Milal itself, manifestly evoke major themes of Isma'ilism'." Oddly enough, he did not include the Mafatih al-asrar into his consideration on the grounds that the text was not available to him.

All the more, the present publication of the first volume of the Mafatih both in Arabic and in English fills an obvious gap, and it is my privilege to welcome it here. Toby Mayer's introduction discusses the relevant issues with great perception, and it is a pleasure to follow his subtle argument step by step. As Mayer shows in detail, the Mafátih not only reflects Shahrastani's vast learning in the traditional Qur'anic sciences, but also his reception of Shi'i and Sufi hermeneutics as transmitted from the 'family of the Prophet', as well as being evidence of a profoundly original religious thought based on specifically Nizari Ismaili key concepts. The authenticity of the text seems beyond question given that numerous parallels with

Shahrastani's other works have been identified, including an explicit cross-reference on folio 170B of the manuscript to his discussion of the two prototypes of opposing views, the 'Sabians' and the `Elanifs', in the Kitab al-Milal.

As Mayer also suggests, the anonymous teacher in Qur'anic arcana, to whom Shahrastani alludes in the autobiographical part, presenting him in the role of the no less mysterious 'servant of God' of Q. 18:65, or Khidr, may well have been no one else than Hasan-i Sabbah himself. A word may be added here on the initiatory role of Khidr in Muslim traditions. While this role of the 'eternal saint' has hardly been studied in Isma'ilism it is, of course, profoundly rooted in Sufism, and plays as such a prominent part in the Sufi hermeneutics of Rashid al-Din Maybudi." It would seem, therefore, that Maybudi's Kashf al-asrar should also be considered among Shahrastani's sources, particularly in view of the fact that both Qur'anic commentaries share a common formal structure in so far as they both deal systematically with the exoteric meaning of every piece before going into the arcana. In any case, as Toby Mayer points out, the influence of the Sufi milieu in which Shahrastani moved as a student, should probably not be underestimated. One may also venture that it was thanks to the interest of an influential Shafi'i Sufi family, the Banu Hamuya from Juwayn, that the Mafatih has been preserved in the first place; for the only extant manuscript was copied in 667/1269 from the autograph for Sadr al-Din Ibrahim al-Hamu'i (644/1247-722/1322), the learned Shaykh under whose guidance the Ilkhan Ghazan Khan converted to Islam in 694/1295. His father, Sa'd al-Din (d. c. 650/1232), was known for Shi'i-esoteric leanings," and their common ancestor, Abu'l-Hasan 'Ali b. Muhammad b. Hamuya (d. 539/1144 in Nishapur), was evidently a personal acquaintance of Shahrastani himself." Interestingly, the father of Abu'l-Hasan 'Ali and eponym of the family, Muhammad b. Hamaya (d. 530/1135), was also known as a 'disciple of Khidr'!

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