The Revealed Text:
From Tafsir to Deconstruction

There can be no denying that the Muslim's stake in the history of the Revelation is as paramount as it is in its truth. Indeed, ‘such is in the nature of Islam (and other so-called historical religions) that there has always been and always will be a relationship between what Muslims believe to be true and right and what they believe to have taken place in early Islamic history.’ (Muhsin Mahdi: ‘On the Use of Islamic History: An Essay’, in Arab Civilization, ed. by G.N. Atiyeh & I.M. Oweiss, Albany, N.Y., 1988, p 64.) Given this insight, then, it is really baffling that in the face of a highly circumspect, perchance subversive, neo-Orientalist movement that seeks under the pretext of critical scholarship to untie the Muslim from his historical moorings, all that the scholars of Islam seem to be doing is to bury their heads in the proverbial sand.

The latest addition to the revisionist school of Orientalism - which began with Joseph Schacht but which has grown wilder in its fantasies with each additional contribution by Patricia Crone, Michael Cook, Martin Hinds et al, not to forget the diametrically opposed contentions of the odd, teacher and pupil, couple, John Wansbrough and John Burton - is David Powers. His present book, more confounding and demented than anything presented so far, makes the most fantastic allegation that ‘the Muslim community is not in possession of the original reading and understanding of several Qur'anic verses’! (In reality, only two verses, pertaining matters of inheritance, are under discussion.) However, in order to arrive at this position, Powers is also forced to reject, lock, stock and barrel, Schacht's claim, which has the sanctity of the Hudud in the Orientalist establishment, namely that Islamic Law began in the second century, at least a hundred years after the Prophet's death. Powers, on the contrary, holds that ‘Islamic law did begin to develop in the Prophet's lifetime, albeit not in the manner that Islamic tradition relates.’ The original, ‘proto-Islamic’ law, he observes further, was a fact of Qur'anic legislation, but it was a fact that was ‘virtually ignored' by Schacht.
Works Discussed in this Article:

Studies in Qur'an and Hadith-: The Formation of the Islamic Law of Inheritance. By David S Powers. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1986. 263pp. 

Approaches to the History of the Interpretation of the Qur'an. Ed. by Andrew Rippin. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1988. 334pp.

The Commentary on the Qur'an: Al-Tabari, Abu Ja’far Muhammad bin Jarir. Vol 1, Abridged Eng. Tr. by John Cooper. Oxford University Press, 1987. 492pp. 

Powers' entire argument rests on an arbitrary re-construction of the Qur'anic verse 4:12: (Wa-in kana rajulun yurathu kalalatan..... Wallahu ‘alimun halimun-) into: Wa-in kana rajulun YURITHU kalalatan aw IMRA'ATAN wa-lahu akhun aw ukhtunì_ fa-li-kulli wahidin minhuma al-sudusu. Fa-in kanu akthara min dhalika fa-hum shuraka' fi'l-thuluthi min ba’di wasiyyatin YUSI biha aw daynin ghayra mudarrin wasiyyatan min allahi. Wallahu ‘alimun halimun. (The author's tahrif has been capitalized.) The meaning of the re-vocalized verse then reads: ‘If a man designates a daughter-in-law (kalalatan) or wife as heir, and he has a brother or sister, each one of them is entitled to one sixth. If they are more than that, they are partners with respect to one third, after any legacy he bequeaths or debt, without injury. A Commandment from God. God is knowing, forbearing.' Should one accept this reading ( and there is no reason that one should), the Qur'an here speaks about the designation of a testamentary heir. Against this conjecture, however, stands the compact consensus of Islamic history. Or, in Powers' own words: ‘To the best of my knowledge, no scholar, Sunni or Shi’i, Muslim or non-Muslim, has ever considered even the possibility of such a reading.’ (His emphasis). Even more damaging to this hypothesis is the perfectly self-explanatory and transparent nature of the extant reading itself.

Pivotal to Powers' re-construction of the Islamic law of inheritance is the identification of the obscure and difficult word kalala and the determination of its original meaning. Searching for the root k-l-l in cognate Semitic languages, Akkadian, Aramaic, Syriac and Hebrew, Powers comes to the conclusion that in all these languages, the word corresponding to the Arabic kalala functions as ‘a female kinship term’, ranging in meaning from ‘daughter-in-law’ and ‘bride’ to ‘sister-in-law’. Against this interpretation stands the general consensus of Muslim lexicographers and authors who give its meaning as ‘one who dies leaving neither parent nor child’. Powers’ suggestion is that since the non-consanguine female-in-law inherits when the deceased leaves neither children and parents, there is no discrepancy between the etymological and the derived senses of the word. However, far more disturbing than this innocuous etymological discovery is the author's claim that this shift in meaning represents a deliberate disguise of the Qur'anic text and that it had political motives. Indeed, Power contends that there is a link between the Qur'anic word al-kalala - along with the recurring motif in later Sunni literature that concerns the Caliph ‘Umar's perplexity over its meaning - and the question of political succession.

Starting from the insight that unlike any other legal system of the Near East, Islamic law ‘accords a surviving spouse the status of full legal heir' and ‘that Muslims throughout the world have tended to disregard the Qur'anic verses awarding shares of inheritance to women, in general, and wives, in particular', Powers is able to re-trace the evolution of the Islamic law of inheritance to his own satisfaction. His first assumption is that the Qur'anic legislation annunciates two complementary principles of inheritance, found in verses 2:180 and 2:240 ("the bequest verses") and in 4:11-12 ("the inheritance verses"), that were also actually applied at the time of the Prophet and his immediate successors. However, the social and economic situation of the Community following the great conquests demanded compulsory rules that would divide up property in an egalitarian manner. Consequently, during the first century A.H., ‘the distinction between testate succession and intestacy was virtually eliminated.' Further, based on the doctrinal claim that ‘the inheritance verses' had abrogated ‘the bequest verses' and the additional support provided by the Hadith, "No bequest to an heir", there was ‘a shift of emphasis from heirs to shares'. The classical law of inheritance, ‘ilm al-faraid, had arrived.

All that Powers has been able to demonstrate by his frantic efforts to ‘de-construct' the Qur'anic text is the possibility that when/if re-vocalized in the manner suggested by him, the verse 2:120 would still - grammatically and semantically - ‘make sense'. However, between this possibility and the actual evidence, no matter how slim, that this indeed was the original reading of the sacred text, yawns the abyss of history, nay of the truth itself. For, speaking merely logically, what may exist in Powers' mind, what is clearly a mental construct, need not be a fact of existential history. The burden of proof lies with Powers. He must demonstrate that the Muslim Community actually possessed the reading proposed by him in its hands and that it tampered with it to suit its historical and political situation. For the Community, the present reading is the reading, not because it is the only (theoretically and linguistically) possible reading, but because it is the only revealed reading; the only reading that is authentic and hence true.

Moreover, had this principle been permissible, namely that every time a reader encounters any difficulty in understanding the Scripture, he is entitled to the reconstruction of the text itself (!), then Tabari and other Muslim authorities whom Powers quotes so selectively, would not have not have passed on these semantic and syntactical problems ‘unsolved'. Nor would the Muslim community have waited for the arrival of a western author to retrieve the ‘original' meaning of the Revelation. Needless to say, given the nature of Arabic language, where a simple change of vowel is sufficient to transform a grammatical subject into an object or an active voice into a passive one, the possibilities of such ‘word-plays' are endless. One wonders how long will it be before we are informed that the Qur'an proclaims the doctrine of the sonship of Jesus or the election of the Jewish race. Nay, any pretension that the Qur'anic text may be re-constructed to suit the whim of the reader must be rejected out of hand!

Given the fact that any, speculative, reconstruction of the Qur'anic text and its history exposes the ‘critical' scholar to serious ‘hermeneutical dilemmas', one approach has been to focus the scholarly attention on the ‘reader reaction' instead. Thus, in the opinion of Andrew Rippin, the editor of the volume under review, who, otherwise, has distinguished himself by ardently championing the ‘methodology' of John Wansbrough; ‘To re-create a history of the reaction to the Qur'an in terms of what people have actually thought it means, through an analysis of exegetical texts, appears to be a most appropriate, intellectually convincing, and rewarding task for the modern scholar of the Qur'an.' Of course, the model for this kind of activity has already been supplied by Goldziher, who in his celebrated series of lectures delivered at the University of Uppsala in Sweden in 1913 (later published as Die Richtungen der islamischen Koranauslegung (Leiden, 1920), suggested a typology of tafsir-studies, subdividing its historical development into its ‘traditional, dogmatic, mystical, sectarian and modern' tendencies. Rippin's work, a compilation of conference papers, tries to follow the pattern set by Goldziher with only slight modifications. However, the essays, even if these be ‘explorations in the field', do not attempt to present a ‘rewritten Goldziher and could easily, in the opinion of the editor, be expanded into monographs. In other words, the present collection is meant to supply an authoritative, state of the art, perspective on Tafsir studies.

Whatever its other merits, Rippin's book reveals no unity of approach nor provides any theoretical overview of the intellectual issues involved in this field. Such, of course, is the state of the present, revisionist, Qur'anic studies that each new discovery contradicts the previous one and no two established opinions are alike. Tafsir studies proves out to be no exception. Thus, we have a spectrum of opinions that cannot be presented as a synopsis: Leemhuis in his attempt to find tangible evidence for a date ‘upon which one may peg the existence of tafsir material', comes across a copy of a tafsir ascribed to Mujahid ibn Jabr (d 104/722), thus refuting Wansbrough's assertion ‘that the historical process reflected in tafsir cannot be reconstructed before the beginning of the third/ninth century'; Adrian Brocket argues, on the basis of a comparison of the Hafs and Warsh transmissions, ‘that variants have no significance for Muslims and have been misinterpreted by the scholarly community outside Islam' - a conclusion that flies in the face of what Rippin himself has written on the subject. The internal contradictions of the revisionist establishment are a legion.

The collection also includes some rewarding essays on the different genres of exegetical literature itself. For instance, Issa J Boullatt's essentially historical treatment of I’jaz al-Qur'an lends much support to the Muslim claim about the inimitability of the Qur'anic style and pleads for ‘the need for a new trend in Western scholarship that studies the Qur'an for itself and as a literary text, a scripture having its own proper referential system, and independent of any other consideration.' Powers' and Rippin's contributions on the exegetical genres of abrogation and lexicography, on the other hand, are in the typical revisionist vein and question ‘the overall picture of the establishment of a fixed religious system called "Islam".'! The Muslim share of this scholarly enterprise is represented by the two odd essays on the sectarian dimensions of exegesis; one, dealing with the principles and development of Imami Shi’i tafsir by Mahmoud Ayoub, and the other, concerning the Isma’ili ta'wil of the Qur'an by Ismail Poonawala. Under the pretext of delineating the historical posture of the dissenting communities, both these writers give vent to their own sectarian prejudices that do little credit to their scholarship. The final section, dealing with the exegetical activities in modern Malaysia, Indonesia and Pakistan, is quite informative, but mostly descriptive. However, the editor's comment that these essays show ‘how the Qur'an can be adapted and adopted outside its cultural, geographical and historical origins' is more revealing of his own ignorance than of any limits inherent in the universality of the Qur'anic revelation.

Whatever the motives of the revisionist school of Qur'anic studies, and not all of these can be imputed to the scholarly quest for historical ‘truth', the internally inconsistent and self-contradictory results of these researches so far have only underscored the need for rechecking early Muslim sources. Thus, the appearance of an abridged translation, by ‘a young English Muslim', of Tabrari's justly renowned tafsir, Jami’ al-Bayan an ta'wil ay al-Qur'an, is a welcome event. Anyone aware of the Herculean immensity of the task alone, not to speak of its very daunting demands of linguistic intuition and erudition, would appreciate the debt that the students of Islamic history owe to the translator, his Muslim patrons and the reputed publishers for undertaking this venture. In fact, the publishers deserve to be especially congratulated for bringing out such a clear and pleasing edition of a cumbersome text that has all the disadvantages of diacritical marks and the multiplicity of script forms.

The initial inspiration for this abridged English version, according to the translator, was provided by M. Pierre God‚, whose French rendering of the old Egyptian edition (Cairo, 1321-28 A.H.) is under preparation, and of which three volumes have appeared to date. However, Cooper soon found the problems of translating a work of such complexity ‘through the intermediary of a second language' insurmountable. Hence, he relied directly on the new Arabic edition by Shakir and Shakir (Cairo, 1955-69) which has set ‘new standards for the publication of tafsir texts'. However, since the new edition is incomplete, the translator laments, ‘the later volumes of the English translation will necessarily, like the French, have to be based on the older edition.' Another point of note is that whilst this translation ‘attempts to include all the important variant opinions about interpretation from the Tradition', it keeps ‘the variant opinions of the grammarians and the experts in recitation' to a minimum. There are many other devices, necessitated by the logic of abridgement, that avoid repetitions and make the text more readable but which compromise matters of scholarly detail.

The translator's Introduction, though providing a most useful summary of the textual and exegetical history of the Qur'an, is nevertheless marred by its cognitive ambivalence. In terms of ideological and epistemological commitment, it is torn between two loyalties and tries to balance itself between the traditionalist and the revisionist extremes. Besides depending on the authoritative Muslim sources, thus, Cooper relies on the researches carried out by modern scholarship. Significantly, however, whereas Nöldeke, Bell and Watts are all given due recognition, there is no mention of Wansbrough, Burton and other revisionists. Obviously, the translator has chosen a midway position in order to commute comfortably between the reverent Muslim tradition and its less critical modern interpreters. Needless to say that though such a cautious and tentative stance may adequately capture the general mood of the Community, it is not going to stem the tide of irreverent ‘de-constructionism'. Nor is it going to silence the radical revisionists who dismiss the whole corpus of early Muslim scholarship as a monumental complex of castles built in the sacred air of ‘salvation history.' Perhaps, the concluding volume of this translation should present a critical survey of the academic field of Qur'anic studies and attempt its own de-construction of the revisionist project.

More reprehensible from the traditional point of view is the fact that Cooper's work makes too many concessions to the unsubstantiated claims of modern scholarship and diverges too often from the Orthodox opinion to be wholly trustworthy. For instance, his admission that ‘it was thus a purely consonantal text which was established by ‘Uthman codex, and the possibility of variant readings based on different vowelling was not thereby eliminated' (p xxii) clashes head on with the most fundamental doctrine of the tawatur of the Qur'an. Similarly, Cooper's account of the ‘variant codices', accepting that ‘the main point on which they diverge concern five short prayer-like suras, of which the ‘Uthmanic codex contains three (suras 1, 113, and 114); Ibn Mas’ud included none of them, while Ubaiy's codex contained the three together with two others that have never been part of the canonical text' (p xxi-xxii), is totally uncritical and misleading.

Suffice it to say in the present context that whereas Muslim scholars display a complete unanimity in maintaining the tawatur of the Sacred text, modern revisionists are at a loss as to how to account for the alleged existence of variant codices. Here, for instance, is how John Burton appraises the matter: ‘Appeals to the Companion codices is a common exegetical device, aimed at countering, elucidating, or even evading the ‘Uthmanic text, the so-called Companion codices could only have been posterior, not prior, to the ‘Uthman text.' (The Collection of the Qur'an, Cambridge, 1977; p 218.) Indeed, Burton believes that the so-called masahif of Ibn Mas’ud and Ubaiy need not have existed at all! (pp. 219-20). Apart from Cooper's insensitivity to matters of dogmatic belief and his lack of insight into the nature of the Community's consensus concerning the authenticity of the Qur'anic text, his translation also displays the occasional lapses of faulty comprehension (pp. 172, 187, 212 etc) or some unbecoming scars of the printer's slips (Cf. Pp. 90, 109, 114, 244, 409, 436, 437, 467, 475 for the Arabic text and pp. 103, 262, 339, 492 etc for the English translation) On the whole, however, Cooper's translation is quite reliable and his English has the easy flow expected of a native speaker. In sum, though Cooper's translation consciously situates itself midway between a popular version and a critical edition, and though it is certainly useful for the general reader and the scholar alike, the work does not dispense with the scholar's craving for an authoritative redaction and reconstruction of Tabari's text.

There can be no denying that much of the present craze to dismiss early Muslim sources as ‘unreliable' is based on a tendentious view of Islam's role in world history. Thus, even in purely academic studies dealing with the first two centuries of Islamic rule in the Near East, one comes across indictments like ‘the ideological intransigence of Islam vis-a-vis the Western world today' (P Crone & M Hines: God's Caliph, Cambridge, 1986, p 110). Or, there is a feeling of utter despair at the scholar's ability to sift the Islamic material and reconstruct a plausible historical scenario. The Islamic source-material, we are told, ‘has an extraordinary capacity to resist internal criticism...: one can take the picture presented or one can leave it, but one cannot work with it.' (P Crone: Slaves on Horses, Cambridge, 1980, p 4; her italics) Occasionally, one encounters even the confessional: ‘The overall situation is thus an unfortunate one... Instead of the data serving to determine our general notions, it is our general notions which determine the way in which we interpret the data. (M Cook: Early Muslim Dogma, Cambridge, 1981, p 155; emphasis mine.) It is difficult not to think of Rumi's famous story in the Mathnawi: like the blind men feeling an elephant, each revisionist has his/her particular view of Muslim history.

No historiographer would dispute today that ‘all historical narratives contain an irreducible and inexpungable element of interpretation.' The classical, Muslim, account of the formation of ‘Islam' is as much of an interpretation as is its modern, secularist, reconstruction. However, unless we wish to regard the distinction between the ‘fact' and ‘fiction' of our history as totally irrelevant, we are obliged to resist any disfigurement of our history and of our truth. Our silence in the face of the current subversive movement merely confirms the fact that our traditional intellectual establishment is incapable of meeting the modern assault. We do not even have academically competent scholars of Arabic any more! In our academic hierarchy, the scientist and the technician ranks much higher than the historian and the humanist, Let no one forget, however, that the nation that prefers its topmost brains to become nuclear physicists may acquire the Bomb, but it is sure to loose its soul.