The Sound of Meaning – By Vanessa De Gifis

Vanessa De Gifis on Karen Bauer’s edited volume, Aims, Methods, and Contexts of Qur’anic Exegesis

Karen Bauer, Aims, Methods, and Contexts of Qur’anic Exegesis (2nd/8th-9th/15th c.), Oxford University Press, 2013, 503pp., $99
Karen Bauer, Aims, Methods, and Contexts of Qur’anic Exegesis (2nd/8th-9th/15th c.), Oxford University Press, 2013, 503pp., $99
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We have all heard the philosophical question: If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? A bibliophile may put it another way: If a book is written and no one reads it, does it have meaning?

It has become commonplace in literary studies to acknowledge the critical role of readers’ subjective experiences in realizing what a text means—at least what they think it means. Inasmuch as the nature and function of text per se is the communication of meaning, texts of all sorts (poetic, narrative, liturgical, etc.) attain fullness of meaning in the eyes of their beholders; the more beholders they have, the more complex, sometimes contested, and ultimately enriched their meanings become. The Qur’an, the scripture of Islam, is a profoundly communicative text with a remarkable diversity of readers across time and place. As such, it has inspired a remarkably diverse body of exegetical literature that offers direct evidence of how readers understand its meaning. Aims, Methods, and Contexts of Qur’anic Exegesis brings together new studies by thirteen prominent scholars of Qur’anic exegesis in the medieval Near East in order to explore how readers’ subjectivities account for different interpretations of the scripture and at the same time collectively shape the definitive contours of Qur’anic exegesis (Arabic: tafsir) as a textual genre. Through detailed analyses of key examples from the classical tafsir tradition in historical context, Aims, Methods, and Contexts (hereafter AMC) helps us to understand better how and why people interpret the Qur’an in the ways that they do. In the process, it also furnishes us with new perspectives from which to address a fundamental question of textual interpretation: Where does meaning reside—with the text or with the reader?

In her incisive introduction to the book, Karen Bauer posits “the fundamental questions of the tafsir genre: the extent to which interpretation creates meaning and the extent to which it uncovers meaning in the Qur’an” (7). One of the most curious things about the enterprise of tafsir is how its authors generally aim to retrieve some objective meaning from the text of the Qur’an and in the process document and critically assess a rich array of meanings attributed to the text by different interpreters across time. Such a complex phenomenon suggests that textual meaning is located—or at least sought—at the equilibrium of two forces: the centripetal force of the received text of the Qur’an (tending toward a single objective meaning) in counterpoise with the centrifugal force of readers’ imaginations (tending toward a plurality of subjective meanings).

This equilibrium is continually negotiated among reading communities across time. Feras Hamza, author of the first chapter of AMC, ascribes to the text of the Qur’an a “primary” meaning that endures from the time of its composition, but raises the important question of whether or not uncovering “primary” meaning is necessarily of interest to every reader. At first blush, Hamza’s “primary” meaning seems identical to “objective” meaning, but while it does admit of the possibility of the “objective,” his discussion of the “primary” is less concerned with the location of meaning than with its evolution across time, which occurs at the level of subjective experience. Whether readers create or uncover textual meaning, their personal interests in the text are critical to the evolution of potential meaning into actual meaning, and of past meaning into present meaning.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The main way that both medieval and modern Qur’an scholars have attempted to explain the appearance of new and various textual interpretations—and to justify the perpetuation of the exegetical enterprise—is with reference to their peculiar aims and methods. Exegetes typically wrote significant theoretical and didactic introductions to their tafsirs in which they state the aims of their work. The most salient of these aims was the promotion of new and better methodologies for understanding the Qur’an, and it was principally in this regard that the genre of tafsir advanced. Four chapters in AMC analyze tafsir introductions, including chapters by Walid Saleh and Suleiman Mourad that offer editions and translations of the introductions of Wahidi (d. 1076) and Jishumi (d. 1101) respectively. Jishumi, for example, not only presents a methodological prism for the science of tafsir (including lexicology, syntax, and semantics), but also considers the historical evolution of the science, distinguishing between former and later exegetes: “the former ones are privileged for being the originators and laying down the foundations, whereas the later ones are privileged for their fine organization, eloquent refinement, and enhanced value” (102). His remark reflects the conventional attitude in medieval tafsir that textual interpretation is a collective and cumulative process, in which later readers build and improve upon the ideas of earlier ones in order to achieve a better understanding of the text. Underlying this attitude are two complementary assumptions: on the one hand, textual meaning is at least partly determined by readers’ subjective approaches; on the other hand, the reader with the soundest methodological approach will be able uncover an objectively true meaning in the text.

Today there is a growing interest among scholars of the Qur’an and other religious text traditions to study tafsir on its own terms in order to better understand how Muslim exegetes go about the business of textual interpretation. Whereas in the past tafsir texts were studied often merely as accessories to the study of the text of the Qur’an (on the assumption that earlier exegetes had a firmer apprehension of the objective meaning of the text because they were closer to its “primary” signification at the time of its composition), the contents of AMC show how tafsir in all its dimensions—as literary genre, intellectual exercise, and mode of social interaction—is significant as an object of study in its own right. At the same time, this does not nullify its accessory usefulness, and AMC reveals the persistent and intimate interconnections between contemporary tafsir studies and Qur’anic studies.

It is generally thought that tafsir studies grew out of Qur’anic studies at least partly in response to a piqued awareness among Qur’an scholars of the inherent subjectivity of the tafsir tradition that they had been consulting, which generated a desire to free Qur’anic studies from the presuppositions of that tradition in order to achieve an “objective” assessment of the text of the Qur’an. Some participants and observers in the field have taken “objective” to mean culturally unbiased or ideologically disinterested, but this is at best aspirational. What is usually meant, then, is an honest effort to bracket biases and interests and to focus one’s attention squarely on the Qur’anic text as an “object” presented to consciousness, rather than on the consciousness (read: exegesis) of others.

In the effort to attain “objectivity,” however, it is tempting to overstate the dangers of consulting the subjective interpretations of others, and to flatly reject the use of tafsir texts in the study the Qur’an on the grounds that the Muslim exegetical genre is categorically and exceptionally fraught with subjective bias, prone to scientific flaccidity, and too distant in time to be relevant and helpful to contemporary scholarly discourses. The texts and studies in AMC exhibit a sustained concern among the medieval exegetes for their own grasp of “objectivity” and their use of a variety of sophisticated critical approaches to the Qur’an toward this end, including philological analysis (see, for example, Ludmila Zamah’s chapter on zahiri [“plain-sense” or “visible”] interpretations) and rational argumentation (thoroughly demonstrated in Tariq Jaffer’s chapter on Razi’s [d. 1209] system of inquiry). Although some aspects of their aims, sources, and methods may differ from those in popular use among academics today, that does not necessarily obviate their value or usefulness, any more than contemporaneous cultural or intellectual differences would. When it comes down to it, Qur’anic scholars across time and place have a fundamental aim in common: direct engagement with the scripture in order to understand its meaning. From this perspective, it seems unnecessary—and unprofitable—to wholly extricate the tafsir tradition from the intellectual and literary heritage of modern global Qur’anic scholarship. The natural bifurcation of Qur’anic and tafsir studies boils down to what is the ultimate “object” of study, the Qur’anic text or tafsir texts, and hence to the status of tafsir literature as a secondary or primary source.

Across time and place, subjective experience is what distinguishes us and what connects us. We all have our own peculiar aims, methods, and contexts for reading a text like the Qur’an, but the reality of subjectivity per se is the one thing—apart from the text of the Qur’an itself—that we share in common. Exploring how subjectivity affects our interpretations is the key to fostering mutual understanding—of each other as readers, and of the negotiated meaning of the texts that we share. Aims, Methods, and Contexts of Qur’anic Exegesis epitomizes a vibrant and growing conversation around the Qur’an, whose symphony of voices, past and present, is the sound of meaning being made.