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Typology in the Qur’an and Qur’anic Exegesis

Workshop convened by the research group A05 “From Logos to Kalām: Figurations and Transformations of Knowledge in Near Eastern Late Antiquity” (Prof. A. Neuwirth), 1.-2.12.2014


Aqeda Hadjdj Abendmahl

Aqeda Hadjdj Abendmahl

Bericht von Nora Schmidt

Focussing on the method of typological exegesis, a mode of interpretation common to exegesis and historiography, in which a canonical text (often scripture) is connected with historical events, people and ideas in the past, present and future, the ambition of the workshop was to facilitate a fruitful discussion between scholars of late antique and medieval patristic and rabbinic exegesis and scholars of the Qur’ān and its exegesis. With regard to late antique Christianity, and to a lesser extent rabbinic Judaism, the practice is well documented and studied. The workshop encouraged a discussion on how the practice of typology also existed in the history of Qur’anic exegesis, in the sense of the Qur’anic fulfilment of Biblical types and figures, and also in the sense of the fulfilment of Qur’anic types in ensuing centuries of Muslim religious and cultural history. Underlying the method of typological reading is the view that scripture is a unity, that it is analogously related, and that the role of the exegete is to unravel the relationships between the type and the antitype. The ultimate goal of this meeting was to investigate concepts and methods of typological interpretation in late antiquity and the medieval period, and to situate these within the wider context of the transfer of knowledge in the premodern period.

 In his introductory words Islam Dayeh (Freie Universität Berlin) pointed out a twofold aim for an interdisciplinary discussion on typology: First, to share research on the use, the contexts and strategies of typological interpretation in the various fields of its historical manifestation in order to understand to what degree the concrete late antique discourses on typology were relevant to inner-Qur’anic strategies of textual and hermeneutical innovation. And, secondly, the development of a broader understanding of the epistemic potential of exegesis, and particularly of typology.

The first presentation, given by Nora Schmidt (Freie Universität Berlin), showed the need for a commonly shared definition of typology within the framework of the workshop. In her talk about late antique allegorical interpretation and Qur’anic philology, she developed a notion of allegorical interpretation in two constellations: firstly, an estimation of myth often prevalent in allegoresis and, secondly, the esoteric aspect inherent in most allegorical interpretations. She then expanded this notion to two texts from Qur’anic philology, the commentary Majāz al-Qur’ān by the Basran philologist Abu ‘Ubayda, and the work of his pupil Abu ‘Ubayd, entitled Fada’il al-Qur’an. Both texts do not engage with modi of allegorical or typological interpretation. Nora Schmidt argued that the concise “absense” of allegorical and typological readings in Qur’anic philology implied a conscious rejection of the “Deutungsbedürftigkeit” (neccesity of interpretation) of the Qur’ān. She compared the claim of the pure Arabicity and ultimate clarity of the Qur’anic text, as articulated by Abu ‘Ubayda, to the argument of Rabbi Yishmail, that the Torah speaks the language of man. In the ensuing discussion, it was questioned, whether the “absense” of allegorical interpretation in Qur’anic philology could be validly interpreted as a Muslim contribution to late antique debates on allegorical and typological readings and their theological implications.

As the last speaker of the first day, Nora K. Schmid (Freie Universität Berlin) focussed on the Qur’an itself, particularly on the figure of Lot’s wife. She followed the emergence of a very own modus of making sense of this figure in the framework of Qur’anic hermeneutics and before the background of late antique interpretative horizons. Examining the Qur’anic figure’s growing resonance with a debate on literal and allegorical interpretations, which was also sketched by means of glimpses into individual readings of the story of Lot’s wife in the interpreted bible, Schmid came to the conclusion that Lot’s wife, who appears rather de-allegorized in the Qur’an, progressively comes to serve as a symbolic prefiguration of acts of betrayal, thus representing ultimately a moral option for the community forming around the Prophet. Since her story is narrated with an eschatological vantage point – very pronouncedly so in surah 66 – Schmid suggested the Qur’anic rather literal understanding may be understood as extending into a typological one. In the ensuing discussion, the problem of how to distinguish mere “re-enactment” and “typology” in the strict sense was addressed. The speaker particularly saw the eschatological component as an important distinguishing criterion.

The second day of the workshop started with a presentation by Holger Zellentin (University of Nottingham), entitled “Qur’anic Typology beyond Judaism and Christianity”. With regard to Rabbinic and Christian uses of typology, Zellentin distinguished between “positive” and “negative” typology. While the former involves christological debates with its claim to a fulfilment of a historical event in the present, “negative” typology involves a prospect of eschatology. Zellentin drew on the importance of prophetology in the Qur’ān as a strategy of such “negative” typology. The following discussion centred on the distinction between the rhetorical figure of the “exemplum” and “negative typology” with regard to the Qur’anic punishment stories, in particular those centering on Lot and his people. The importance of eschatological notions in the Qur’ān was emphasized and the hypothesis articulated that the Qur’anic debate is to be understood in continuation of late antique tendencies of “realized eschatology”. The eschatological element appeared as an important feature of typology, although this eschatology need not be located in a linear “later” or “hereafter”, but may be represented as already accomplished and located in the present.

The discussion was further enriched by the presentation of Emiliano Fiori (Humboldt Universität zu Berlin), who focussed on Christian interpretation „without typology“, namely that of the school of Antioch and its continuation in the Syriac school of Nisibis. Fiori pointed out that the concrete term and method of typology in late antique Christianity broadened from a specific text critical instrument to a mere way of arguing, involving figurative interpretations in general. The transfer of typological readings to the Arabic religious discourse, which may very probably be mediated by the Syriac school of Nisibis, should be imagined not as a text specific strategy, but as the continuation of an intellectual enterprise, involving attempts to locate the self vis á vis the telos of history.

The first session was completed by the presentation of Nicolai Sinai (Oxford University), who elaborated on the question “Is there typology in the Qur’ān?”. Sinai gave an overview of highlights of typological readings in its Christian fashion and, with regard to the Qur’ān itself, particularly insisted on the distinction of typology from “historical re-enactment”. Focussing on the Qur’anic relationship between the biblical Moses and the prophet Muhammad, Sinai posed the question whether the identification of the prophet with his biblical predecessor could be interpreted in terms of “fulfilment” and “surpassing”, two essentials Sinai suggested for contouring the notion of typology. During the discussion, it was suggested, that this model should be observed less in the relation between the two prophetic personas, than in the relation between Christ and the Qur’anic message as such. The Qur’anic self-image can accordingly be interpreted as “fulfilling” and “surpassing” previous scriptural models. The implied notion of typology, however, is broader than in christological interpretations of the Hebrew Bible.

Samer Rashwani (University of Tübingen) in what followed, went further, attempting to broaden the Christian identification of typology by focussing on specific self- and text-referential terms in the Qur’ān that link the Qur’anic text to debates about the interpretation of scripture. In his talk, entitled “The typological and non-typological patters of Qur’anic history”, Rashwani gave an overview of the Qur’anic terms for its own genre, including mathal, āya, sunna and salaf. He argued that Christian concepts of typology implied a circularity in history, (from prefiguration to fulfilment). This model, relevant in Sufi debates on the perfection of Man (al-insān al-kāmil), referring to archetypes in scriptures, is, to his mind, not prevalent in the Qur’ān. On the contrary, the Qur’anic employment of the term mathal often appears in contexts where miracles are requested (sura 2:214, 59:15). The Qur’an, however, according to Rashwani presents history and the interpretation of history simultaneously. Instead of seeking for transfer of an already established, specifically Christian mode of interpretation, Rashwani advocated a close reading of the Qur’ān’s own terms and the theological and linguistic contexts they appear in (models of history, fulfilment, scripture status and rhetoric of authority).

A critical view on the relevance of typology for the understanding of the Qur’ān was articulated by Amr Osman (Qatar University), who followed up with a presentation on “The Case of Islamic Law as Antitype for Earlier Laws”. Osman compared the model of Christian typology to the Islamic debate on abrogation (naskh). The renewal of the covenant between God and Man by the proclamation of a new revelatory scripture included a new attitude to the laws of the older religions. The Qur’anic engagement with previous divine laws consists in more than simple correspondence. It was discussed, whether the Islamic messenger could generally be seen as replacing heavy laws with lighter ones, as it happens in prohibitions and commands on diet.

In the last panel of the afternoon, Christian Lange (University of Utrecht) then directed the focus again towards eschatological patterns in the Qur’ān. In his presentation entitled “

Typologies of the Otherworld in the Qur’ān and Qur’anic Exegesis” he presented several literary motifs, which, in the Qur’an, appear in eschatological contexts and how they were interpreted by exegetes, focussing especially on al-Maturīdī. Many exegetes such as Ibn al-Mubārak, Ibn abī Shayba and Ibn abī Dunya give interpretative glosses to qur’anic terms as referring to specific, geographically locatable topoi in hell. Those very specific interpretations have been described as “mythifying”. Lange distinguished the method from allegorical interpretations and asked whether they could be called typological. Again the discussion led to the hypothesis of eschatology being an already realized phenomenon in the Qur’anic worldview, as the interpretative glosses of the Islamic exegetes show that the end of times was imagined as a very concrete, and maybe even accomplished reality.

Alexander Kalbarczyk (University of Bochum) finally enriched the discussion with views from Islamic philosophy. In his presentation “Reading the Qur’ān and reading Aristotle”, he focussed on the Qur’ān commentary by Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, particularly his rendering of the term “al-aʿlamin” (the worlds) in the first sura of the Qur’ān. Al-Rāzī takes the term as a point of departure for the speculation on the possibility of the void versus the unity of the world.

Samuela Pagani (Leche University), focused our gaze on the typological dimensions in the Muslim (and specifically, Sufi) understanding of monasticism. In her presentation, entitled “Typological Interpretations of monastic history in the exegesis of Qur’ān 57:27”, she examined the various commentaries on verse 57:27, a verse which has been read by some as being in favour of monasticism and by others as rejecting monasticism. After a close reading of exegetical works that focused on grammatical and lexicographical elements of the debate, Pagani explored the discussion among Muslim scholars on the origins of monasticism (i.e. whether it goes back to the followers of Jesus) and whether the Qur’anic term rahbaniyya means celibacy and how it pertains to the duty of Jihād.

The workshop was concluded by an open discussion on the notion and concept of typology in late antiquity and its use for a better understanding of the intellectual innovations, literary reifications and references in the Qur’ān and commentary culture. The necessity to distinguish between the history of typology and typology as a heuristic notion for better understanding the strategies of textual relations in late antiquity was emphasized. For the time being, typology was described as involving moments of “fulfilment” and/or “surpassing”. Eschatology or, more generally speaking, concepts of history were considered important constituents of this strategy.

 With regard to a planned continuation of the discussion on the topic in a larger conference in 2015 it was remarked that the Shi’ite tradition should be more visibly included, and that more focus should be given to conceptual and terminological aspects of typology.