Citation for Qurʿān

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Ayoub, Mahmoud M. , Afra Jalabi, Vincent J. Cornell, Abdullah Saeed, Mustansir Mir and Bruce Fudge. "Qurʿān." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Jan 29, 2022. <>.


Ayoub, Mahmoud M. , Afra Jalabi, Vincent J. Cornell, Abdullah Saeed, Mustansir Mir and Bruce Fudge. "Qurʿān." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed Jan 29, 2022).


[This entry contains four subentries:

History of the Text

The Qurʿān is a unique phenomenon in religious history. It is held by its adherents to exist beyond the mundane sphere as the eternal and immutable word of God, “a glorious Qurʿān [preserved] in a well-guarded tablet” (85: 21–22). It is also an earthly book whose history is intimately tied to the life and history of an earthly community.

Although it was shaped by the Muslim community, the Qurʿān in fact created that community and remains the foundation stone of its faith and morality. Some of its verses were circumstantially determined by the social and religious conditions and questions of the Prophet's society, yet the Qurʿān is believed to transcend time and space.


The Qurʿān is for Muslims the literal word of God revealed to the prophet Muḥammad through the archangel Gabriel. As was customary for some Arabs, known as ḥanīfs, who rejected the idolatrous and immoral ways of their people, Muḥammad periodically left his home for solitary prayer and meditation (taḥannuth) in a cave on Mount Ḥirāʿ near Mecca. During one such retreat in his fortieth year the awesome angel Gabriel appeared to Muḥammad while he slept in the cave after one of his meditations. Taking hold of him, the angel pressed Muḥammad so hard that he thought he was dying. This Gabriel repeated three times with the command “Read” (iqrāʿ ). Muḥammad finally said, “I cannot read.” The angel then recited the first verses of sūrah96, which are traditionally considered to constitute the first revelation of the Qurʿān:

Read in the name of your Lord,the one who created,Created a human being from a clot.Read, and your Lord is Most GenerousHe Who taught with the penTaught a human being that which he did not know.

Frightened by the appearance of Gabriel, Muḥammad went home and asked his wife, Khadījah, to cover him up. It was to that state of fear and trepidation that some of the next revelations made reference, ordering him to “rise and warn” (74:1–2). After a period of uncertainty lasting from six months to two years during which revelation was temporarily interrupted, the Prophet was reassured that the revelations he was receiving were from God and that the spirit he encountered was an angel and not a demon. Thereafter revelation continued without interruption until his death in 632 C.E. The formative history of the Qurʿān was therefore coterminous with the Prophet's life.

Qurʿān and Prophet.

Tradition reports that when revelation came to the Prophet, he fell into a trancelike state. During such times he is said to have seen Gabriel either in human guise or in his angelic form. According to some reports, at the beginning the Prophet found the experience overwhelming and the voice, he said, sound-ed loud and hard like that of the ringing of a bell. The words he remembered and communicated to others. The normal mode of revelation, however, was direct communication (waḥy) by the angel Gabriel.

During the Prophet's life many of his companions, as well as some of his wives, had their own partial collections (maṣāḥif; sing. muṣḥaf) of the Qurʿān, which they used in their prayers and private devotions. Other collections were made by the Prophet's amanuenses, known as the scribes of revelation.

These early collections differed in important respects, such as the number and order of the sūrahs and variant readings of certain verses, words, and phrases. With the spread of Islam outside Arabia, private collections and hence variant readings multiplied. Furthermore, as different codices gained popularity in particular regions of the expanding Islamic empire, the need arose for an official codex. According to classical Muslim sources, the variations dealt with subtleties of pronunciations and accents (qirāʿāt) and not with the text itself which was transmitted and preserved in a culture with a strong oral tradition. According to Muslim tradition, memorization of the Qurʿān was a central practice in the early community and with the decline in the number of people of the early community who knew all of the Qurʿān by heart, the need for an actual text arose. In the Muslim tradition, tawātur means the great accuracy in recitation through which a text is transmitted with minimal changes as it is memorized by many and hence preserved in form and word. This concept is central in the history of Qurʿānic authenticity and extends to certain sayings by Muḥammad, referred to as ḥadīth, which places them in strength and validity among other reports of ḥadīth.

Collection of the Qurʿān.

The crystallization of the Qurʿān as a written text was a long process, and its early stages were shaped by political, theological, and juristic exigencies. Each of the four rightly guided caliphs has been credited with initiating or forwarding this important process. Historians and traditionalists are, however, unanimously agreed that an official codex was adopted under the aegis of the third caliph, ʿUthmān (r. 644–656), within twenty years of the Prophet's death.

The difficult task of eliminating rival codices was gradually but never fully achieved; many peculiarities of the early codices have survived in the official variant readings of the Qurʿān. By the ninth century CE a universally accepted orthography and system of vocalization of the ʿUthmānic codex was fixed. This helped to reduce a multitude of variant readings to seven equally valid ones. Among these, the reading of ʿĀṣim (d. 744), transmitted by Ḥafṣ (d. 805), predominates in most areas of the Muslim world today. The royal Egyptian edition of 1924, which follows this reading and has itself become a standard text has further contributed to its popularity. Most historians agree with the mainstream Muslim belief that despite differing readings, the integrity of the text survived, given the cognitive nature of memory and language in an orally based culture, and the Qurʿān as Muslims know it today is one text with variant readings pertaining to pronunciation and accents only.

Structure and Internal History.

The Qurʿān is a small book, consisting of 114 sūrahs or chapters varying in length from 3 to 286 verses. The sūrahs are not arranged chronologically as they were revealed, but rather roughly by length, placing the longest, “al-Baqarah” (The Cow), at the beginning, and the shortest ones towards the end.

Very early commentators classified the sūrahs as Meccan or Medinan. On the basis of such internal evidence as change in style, idiom, and subject matter of the revelations, modern Western scholarship has divided the Meccan period into early, middle, and late periods. About two-thirds of the Qurʿān was revealed in the Meccan period, which was also the spiritually formative first thirteen years of Islam. The later Medinan period is the phase of statehood and focuses on more juristic and worldly matters, covering the last ten years of the Prophet's life.

There is no precise chronological order to the Qurʿān because the sacred text itself provides no reliable framework for the history of its revelation. Nevertheless, knowledge of its chronology is crucial for an understanding of the early history of the Muslim community and of the variations and continuities in themes during both phases. For example, haphazard readings of issues relating to violence and warfare without a structural understanding could undermine the very ethics of Qurʿānic rules regarding when to raise arms and when to relinquish even self-defense, as the early Muslims were instructed in Mecca.

The Qurʿān makes numerous references to particular events and situations in the life of the Prophet and his society. On the basis of such allusions an important field of Qurʿānic study known as “occasions” or “causes of revelation” (asbāb al-nuzūl) was developed. This subject is closely related to another field, the study of the abrogated and abrogating verses of the Qurʿān. Both fields are, moreover, of great significance for the development of law and theology. But because law and theology have been inexorably bound to the political and sectarian realities of Muslim history, the study of the chronology of the Qurʿān has likewise been deeply affected by political and sectarian considerations.

In itself, the Qurʿān has been a closed book since the death of the Prophet, but the Qurʿān has continued to interact with the history of the Muslim world. From the beginning, Muslims have dedicated their best minds, voices, and musical talents to the exegesis and recitation of the Qurʿān. Due to the metaphorical, lyrical, and circular nature of the Qurʿān, Muslim scholars over the centuries produced many commentaries and exegeses, leading sometimes to highly political and spiritual contentions. For example, during the ʿAbbāsid period, a debate over the nature of the Qurʿān arose between what was then known as the school of Muʿtazilīs—who were influenced by Greek philosophy and who placed an emphasis on reason and rationality—and the schools of orthodoxy known the Ashʿarīyah. The debate was over whether the Qurʿān was the Word of God (kalām Allāh), uncreated, or according to the Muʿtazilīs “created” (makhlūq). The debate became so intense that it led to political rivalry and to the imprisonment of scholars on both sides. The implications were significant for both sides, and the debate continues today, if in somewhat different terms. For the schools of orthodoxy, the Qurʿān was the Word of God and is therefore eternal and immutable, while for the schools of Muʿtazilīs, the Qurʿān was “created” which meant that it was subject to human understanding and reason and that some of its temporal content was subject to change. Both sides found abundant support in the Qurʿān for their views, as the Qurʿān repeatedly describes the Qurʿān as the Word of God but also in some verses refers to solid (muḥkam) verses and obscure (mutashābih) verses (see 2:106).

These disagreements can be viewed as part of a larger debate in Muslim culture, arising from the fact that the Qurʿān deals with both universal matters and with temporal and specific historical incidents. Muslim scholars have varying opinions on the issue of abrogation which is raised in the Qurʿān itself, and on the terms and conditions where this applies. For example, Umm Salamah, the wife of the Prophet, is reported to have questioned why the Qurʿān addressed only males, after which most revelations became gender-inclusive, addressing both male and female believers. (Nouns and pronouns take different masculine and feminine forms in Arabic.)

Of over 6,200 verses, only about 400 deal with juristic matters, and excluding those dealing with ritual, there are not more than two hundred dealing with rules governing matters such as inheritance, divorce, business interactions, and a few other themes. The Qurʿān leaves many worldly matters (e.g., political organization) open while emphasizing general concepts of justice and equity. Yet, given the formation of a state and the expansion of Islam into different cultures, the Qurʿānic tradition tended to focus mostly on juristic matters, with a resulting rise in jurisprudence and the formation of many schools over the centuries, despite the relatively few verses dealing with these issues. The mystical (Ṣūfī) tradition, however, focused more on themes of spirituality and connectedness to God and humanity, which can be seen in commentaries like that of the philosopher, Muḥyī al-Dīn ibn al-ʿArabī. The Ṣūfīs, with their emphasis on spirituality and mystical practices, played a prominent role in the spread of Islam to many parts of the world, but their influence decreased with the increase in more orthodox and juristic schools of Islam. There are several classical commentaries on the Qurʿān in the Sunnī tradition, such as those of Ibn Kathīr and al-Ṭabarī, and in the Shīʿī tradition, like that of ʿAllāmah Muḥammad Ḥusayn Ṭabāṭabāʿī Qummī. During the modern period, the Qurʿānic tafāsir (exegeses) of scholars like Muḥammad Rashīd Riḍā and Sayyid Quṭb impacted collective Muslim consciousness in new ways, raising questions about the challenges facing Muslims in reconciling faith and reason and about the political role of Islam.

While Western scholarship has subjected the Qurʿān to the full rigor of modern historical and literary criticism, contemporary Islamic scholarship has limited itself to criticism of the Qurʿānic sciences. As for the Qurʿān itself, it remains the criterion by which everything else is judged.


  • Bell, Richard. Bell's Introduction to the Qurʿān. New ed., revised by W. Montgomery Watt. Edinburgh, 1970. Basic study in English, still useful, but too speculative and inconclusive.
  • Burton, John. The Collection of the Qurʿān. Cambridge and New York, 1977. Through a thorough analysis of classical juristic, ḥadīth, and exegetical sources, Burton arrives at the opposite conclusion from that of Wansbrough. Burton asserts that the so-called ʿUthmānic codex was in fact the muṣḥaf used during the Prophet's life. Thus it was not ʿUthmān, but Muḥammad who first collected the Qurʿān.
  • Goldziher, Ignácz. Die Richtungen der islamischen Koranauslegung. Leiden, 1970. Classic work on Qurʿānic exegesis originally published in 1920, beginning with a very useful discussion of the history of the Qurʿānic text.
  • Ibn Hishām, Abī Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Malik. Al-sīrah al- nabawīyah. 2 vols.Beirut, 1992. This is one of the earliest sources in Arabic—dating back to the third century after the death of Muḥammad—about the biography and history of Muḥammad and the early Meccan and Medina periods.
  • Jeffery, Arthur, ed.Materials for the History of the Text of the Qurʿān: The Old Codices. Leiden, Netherlands, 1937. Important piece of research into the codex fragments preserved in classical works on the subject.
  • Khūʿī, Abū al-Qāsim al-. Al-bayān fī tafsīr al-Qurʿān. Beirut, 1975. Al-Khūʿī (or al-Khoʿi; d. 1993) was the supreme authority (marjaʿ) in legal and religious matters for the Twelver Shīʿī community. Long before Burton, he arrived at essentially the same conclusion, that “ʿUthmān did not collect a muṣḥaf, but rather united the Muslim community upon an already existing and generally accepted one.” The work also deals with many other important issues in Qurʿānic studies.
  • Lawrence, Bruce. The Qurʿān: A Biography. New York, 2006.
  • Nöldeke, Theodor. Geschichte des Qorāns. Göttingen, 1860. Revised and enlarged by Friedrich Schwally, Gotthelf Bergsträsser, and Otto Pretzl. 3 vols. Leipzig, 1909–1938. Reprinted in one volume. Hildesheim, 1964. Basic work on the history of the Qurʿān.
  • Said, Labib as-. The Recited Koran. Translated by Bernard G. Weiss, M. A. Rauf, and Morroe Berger. Princeton, N.J., 1975. Muslim response to Western critical scholarship on the Qurʿān.
  • Wansbrough, John. Quranic Studies. Oxford, 1977. Using biblical critical methods in the study of the Qurʿān, Wansbrough concludes that the sacred book did not attain its present state until the third century. Similar arguments are presented in his Sectarian Milieu (Oxford and New York, 1978).
  • Welch, Alford T.“Kurʿān.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2d ed., vol. 5, pp. 400–432. Leiden, Netherlands, 1960–. Welch remains one of the few committed proponents of Bell's theories. The article provides a useful overview of Western Qurʿānic studies and a number of the author's own conclusions.

Mahmoud M. Ayoub Updated by Afra Jalabi

The Qurʿān as Scripture

The term Qurʿān, most often translated as “reading” or “recital,” has been linked etymologically to Syriac qeryānā (scripture reading, lection) and to Hebrew miqraʿ (recitation, scripture). Some Muslim commentators have also proposed that it comes from the Arabic verb qarana, “to put together” or “bind together,” thus giving the approximate translation of “a coherent recital” or “a scripture bound in the form of a book.” As a verbal noun (maṢdar) of the form fuʿlān, qurʿān carries the connotation of a “continuous reading” or “eternal lection” that is recited and heard over and over. In this sense, it is understood both as a spiritual touchstone and a literary archetype. As a title, al-Qurʿān refers to the revelation (tanzīl) “sent down” (unzila) by God to the prophet Muḥammad over a period of twenty-two years (610–632 CE). In its more universal connotation, it is the self-expressed ummal-kitāb or paradigm of divine communication (13.39). For all Muslims, the Qurʿān is the quintessential scripture of Islam.

The term “the Noble Qurʿān” (al-Qurʿān al-Karīm, 56.77) is often used to stress the extraordinary nature of this text. Since its divine source makes the Qurʿān a sacred and therefore unique form of communication, its meaningfulness is dependent on the prior acceptance of a faith claim that posits specific assumptions about its historical and metahistorical contexts. Consequently, the Qurʿān's significance for the pious Muslim is entirely different from that seen by the non-Muslim or Islamic secularist. Because each and every written word and recited sound of the scripture is revered by believers in Islam as part of a divine lection, an interpretation of the Qurʿān solely according to the canons of literary criticism or philology can only do violence to the revelation in terms of its meaning to its audience. For this reason, many scholars in the West have ceased speculating on the “actual” origins of the Qurʿān or the historicity of its text and have devoted themselves instead to evaluating the Qurʿān's undeniable surplus of meaning in a combination of literary, cultural, and historical contexts.

As a communication from God, the Qurʿān is the prime theophany of Islam. Because its text consists of divine rather than human speech (kalām Allāh, 9:6), its significance for Muslims is similar to that of the logos (divine word) in Christianity. However, unlike the normative Christian view of the Bible as a divinely inspired discourse (but closely akin to Jewish attitudes concerning the holiness of scripture), the words of the Qurʿān are regarded by most Muslims as divine in and of themselves. Although the fully divine nature of Qurʿānic “speech” is difficult for the secular reader to understand, the importance of this concept should not be underestimated. Modern Muslims still demonstrate their reverence for the Qurʿān by approaching it in a state of ritual purity. At times it may also be treated as a prized artifact—as evidenced by the production of hand-decorated, calligraphic copies (maṣāḥif) and the popularity of Middle-Period Qurʿān manuscripts in collections of Islamic art. Ṣūfīs have long regarded the Qurʿān as a paradigm for all of God's communication with his creation. In the thirteenth century the great Andalusian mystic Ibn ʿArabī (d. 1240) organized the entirety of Al-futūḥāt al-Makkīyah (The Meccan Inspirations), his magnum opus, in conformity with the discourses and “signs” of the divine text.


The text of the Qurʿān is divided into 114 segments or sūrahs (Ar., sūrah; pl. suwār), each of which contains from three to 286 or 287 āyāt (sg., āyah). Although it has been common for Westerners to translate āyah as “verse,” this is misleading. In the first place, the biblical concept of “chapter and verse” does not fully apply to the Qurʿān. Particularly in the case of the longer segments, the surahs may not always discuss themes whose consistency is easily apparent from title to final āyah. Indeed, the names of the surahs themselves may refer only obliquely to the main point of the discourse, and in several cases they have been changed at different times in Islamic history. This process continues even today, despite the increased standardization brought about by the mass printing of official renditions. Surah 17, for example, might be called Banū Isrāʿīl (Children of Israel) in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, while in Egypt and Iran it is likely to be known as al-Isrāʿ (The Night Journey). Each of these names refers to a different theme discussed in the same sūrah. Furthermore, while it is certainly correct to view the Qurʿān as a collection of divine discourses, a single surah may contain more than one discourse. On other occasions (as in the story of Mūsā/Moses), the same discourse may be continued in two or more noncontiguous sūrahs.

The most important reason for not referring to āyah as “verse,” however, comes from the Qurʿān's own use of the term. The words āyah or āyāt are employed nearly four hundred times throughout the text. Most frequently, āyah refers to evidences (āthār) in nature that demonstrate the existence of God. At other times it may refer to a miracle confirming the truth of a prophet's message, a revealed message (tanzīl) in general, or even a fundamental “point” in a particular surah's discourse. Because of its multivalency, āyah can be seen to correspond quite closely to the concept of “sign” in Saussurean linguistics. An important proof of this assertion lies in the fact that “sign” (ʿalāmah) is the most commonly accepted synonym for āyah in Ibn Manẓūr's (d. 1311/12) Lisān al-ʿArab and other influential lexicons of the Islamic Middle Period.

When inscribed in a written Qurʿān or recited on a believer's tongue, āyah is best understood as “a statement in the speech of God.” The totality of these statements, along with a number of non-Qurʿānic inspirations known as ḥadīth qudsī (holy reports), constitute the divine “speech” (parole) as revealed to the prophet Muḥammad. Yet each statement of the Qurʿān was also revealed as a “remembrance” or “recollection” (dhikr or dhikrā, 38:8), whose purpose is to awaken human beings and cause them to look up from the written or recited text, so that they may see the existence of God through his creation. In this case, each āyah of the Qurʿān is also a sign—in the symbolic or semiotic sense—that points to another level of reality that in turn reaffirms the message of revelation. The believer who seeks to develop a sense of the sacred must thus learn two distinct levels of “language” (langue) at the same time—the Arabic text of the Qurʿān itself and the “language” of nature, which is also a manifestation of the speech of God. God created the world as a book; his revelations descended to Earth and were compiled into a book; therefore, the human being must learn to “read” the world as a book. This aspect of spiritual intellection is exemplified in the Qurʿān by the figures of Ibrāhīm/Abraham, who discerned the One God in the multiplicity of heavenly phenomena (6:75–79), and Sulaymān/Solomon, who was inspired to understand the “discourse of the birds” (manṭiq al-ṭayr, 27:16).

Theology and Anthropology.

As an expression of theology, the Qurʿān is first and foremost a demonstration (bayān) of the existence of God. In this guise it acts as a criterion of discernment (furqān or mīzān): “And We gave Moses the Book and the furqān so that you might be guided” (2.55). This discernment—the same as that given to Muḥammad, Abraham, Jesus, and all the other biblical and non-biblical prophets mentioned in the Qurʿān—leads humankind to perceive a single, absolute truth (the only noncontingent reality) that transcends the world of phenomena. This truth is God, whose essence, being unique and exalted, lies beyond the limits of human imagination: “Say: He is Allāh the Only; Allāh the Perfect beyond compare; He gives not birth, nor is He begotten, and He is, in Himself, not dependent on anything” (112). This purely monotheistic expression of divine simplicity is complemented, however, by a more monistic image of a complex deity who is immanent in the world by virtue of being the source of existence itself: “He is the First and the Last, the Outward and the Inward; And He is the Knower of every thing” (57:3). Between these two poles of monotheism and monism stands tawḥīd, the recognition of transcendent oneness that constitutes the theological premise of Islam and the fundamental message of the Qurʿānic discourse.

Despite the radically monotheistic nature of Islamic theology, the discourse about God in the Qurʿān fluctuates repeatedly between transcendence and immanence, the abstract and the concrete, the logical and the analogical: God is one and not a trinity (5:75); lord of the east and the west (55:17); he sends rain and revives the earth (29:63); his “face” will abide forever (55:27). Out of these distinctions arises the tradition of the ninety-nine asmāʿ Allāh al-ḥusnā or “excellent names of God” (7:180), which for later Muslim thinkers expressed the discursive field in which tawḥīd was conceptualized. The central or medial figure who straddles these perspectives (and in Sufism actualizes the excellent names according to his or her ability and destiny) is the human being (insān, masc. pl. nās, fem. pl. nisāʿ). The Qurʿān's use of this generic term demonstrates that both men and women are rational and ethically responsible creatures who occupy an intermediate position in respect to all the oppositions (e.g., true and false, necessary and contingent, or real and unreal) that characterize the Qurʿānic discourse. As such, the most meaningful duty in the life of every person is to submit the ego and intellect to the criterion (furqān) of manifest truth as given in the divine revelation. This act of choice, in turn, is the furqān that separates islām (surrender and submission to the one God) from kufr (“covering up” or denying the reality and moral implications of islām). [See Asmāʿ al-ḥusnā, al-.]

Human accountability is epitomized in the Qurʿān by a generic covenant (33:72) in which preexistent humanity, despite its creaturely limitations, assumes responsibility for the heavens and the earth. This moral and ecological commitment constitutes another furqān by which human actions are assessed. Also called “God's covenant” (ʿahd Allāh, 2:27), this pact was created to distinguish male and female hypocrites (munāfiqūn) and those lost in contingent reality (mushrikūn) from the believers (muʿminūn) who maintain their trust in the absolute (33:73). The human being who trusts in God and is true to God's trust by not breaking this covenant in thought, word, or deed actualizes God's vicegerency (khilāfah, 2:30–33), through which one is able to exercise choice and maintain covenantal responsibility. The society made up of such believing individuals thus constitutes a normative or “axial community” (ummatan wasatan), which acts collectively as a witness to the truth (2:143). This society appears in history as a “community in a state of surrender to God” (ummah muslimah, 2:128) and is exemplified in its penultimate form by the paradigmatic ummah created by the prophet Muḥammad and his companions in Medina (622–632 CE).

Qurʿān and Bible.

References in the Qurʿān to the stories of biblical and extrabiblical prophets and their communities must be viewed from the perspective of the ummah muslimah in order to become intelligible to the Western reader. The historical discourses of the Qurʿān are linked together thematically rather than chronologically, and thus the revelatory concept of the book or divine communication (kitāb) employed in this text has more in common with the genre of wisdom traditions (cf., al-Kitāb al-Ḥakīm [X, 1]) than with that of European historiography or Aristotle's Poetics. For this reason students of Islam whose view of scripture is based on Judeo-Christian models are likely to be confused or even put off by what at first seems to be an incoherent scattering of biblical accounts and apocrypha. If, however, the text of the Qurʿān is read according to its own instructions to Christians and Jews—as a reminder (dhikr) and reaffirmation (muṣaddiq) of universal truths and the essential points of biblical discourse (5:44–48)—its lack of historical detail becomes less of a problem, and the logic of the Qurʿān's self-described complementarity to previous revelations (41:43) is easier to understand. As with every other sign, the purpose of a biblical reminder is to stimulate intellectual awareness, not to provide an exhaustive discussion of a particular person or topic. In the Qurʿān these reminders revolve around the quintessential unity of the Abrahamic tradition and include exemplary and cautionary narratives detailing humanity's acceptance or rejection of the divine message.

Despite the Qurʿān's apparent advocacy of an inter-textual approach to scriptural analysis (5:47–51), a later preoccupation with abrogation (naskh) made the comparative study of revelation more difficult at precisely the time (ninth century CE) when the vocalization of the consonantal text of the Qurʿān fixed its discourse so that a true hermeneutic could become possible. The jurist al-Shāfiʿī's (d. 820) insistence that the Qurʿān was the primary source (aṣl) for Islamic law meant that its prescriptive (muḥkam) āyāt abrogated similar statutes in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Gospels. Subsequent scholars expanded on al-Shāfiʿī's comments and claimed that the words of the Qurʿān constituted a blanket abrogation of the texts of all previous holy books. This opinion was reinforced by the doctrine of the “inimitability of the Qurʿān (iʿjāz al-Qurʿān). Originating as part of a debate over the Qurʿān's challenge to unbelievers to produce a work of comparable eloquence and substance (2:23), by the time of the theologian al-Bāqillānī (d. 1013) this concept had evolved into the idea that the Qurʿān was completely unlike anything that had been revealed before. As a result, contemporary Muslim arguments against the doctrines of other “peoples of the book” (ahl al-kitāb) still tend to recycle earlier polemics against Christianity and Judaism that are found in the Qurʿān itself or in the works of Middle-Period theologians. Only rarely does a Muslim exegete overcome the influence of tradition and undertake a serious study of modern Judaism or post-Reformation Christianity. This is even more the case in regard to polytheistic or nontheistic scriptural traditions, such as those of China and India.


A hallmark of twentieth-century exegesis (tafsīr) is the translation of the Qurʿān into local and regional vernaculars. As early as the eighth century the jurist Abū Ḥanīfah (d. 767) claimed that it was permissible for non-Arabic speakers to recite al-Fātiḥah, the opening surah of the Qurʿān, in Persian. Although other jurists disputed this view as contradicting the Qurʿān's own assertion of its Arabic linguistic identity (cf. 12:2, 16:23), a nativist (shuʿūbī) cultural revival on the Iranian plateau led to Persian translations of the complete text by the eleventh century. These works, however, did not have ritual value. The consensus of ʿulamāʿ has long held that a direct translation of divine speech is impossible. Vernacular editions of the Qurʿān are thus classified as commentaries or interpretations (tafsīr or tafhīm) to distinguish them from the Arabic original. This monadist opinion was authoritatively reaffirmed in the present century by the Syrian Pan-Islamist Muḥammad Rashīd Riḍā (d. 1935), who strongly rebutted Kemalist attempts to make Turkish a language of worship in the 1920s.

Important contemporary translations of the Qurʿān include those of the Indian modernist ʿAbdullāh Yūsuf ʿAlī (in English), the Pakistani reformer and politician Sayyid Abū al-Aʿlā Mawdūdī (in Urdu), and the Indonesian scholar, poet, and independence activist Hamka (in Bahasa Indonesia). In each of these cases the purpose of translation was twofold: to promote the related causes of Islamic preaching (daʿwah) and reform by making the text of the Qurʿān accessible to non-Arabic-speaking audiences, and to counteract translations of the Qurʿān in vernacular or European languages by non-Muslim missionaries and orientalist scholars working for colonial regimes. Of the translators mentioned above, Yūsuf ʿAlī is the least inclined to believe that rendering the words of God into another language implies a decisive departure from the original text. Although he asserts that his desire is to provide an “English interpretation” (tafsīr) of the Qurʿān, the final product (variously entitled The Glorious Qurʿan, The Holy Qurʿan, or The Holy Qur-an, 1934) is more commonly thought of by Muslims as an annotated translation rather than an exegetical work per se. This is primarily because the commentaries are introduced as footnotes or bracketed additions to the translated text. In fact, Yūsuf ʿAlī's avowed goal of making “English itself an Islamic language” has very nearly been realized. His work is at present the most widely available Qurʿān translation in English and forms the basis of the semiofficial Muṣḥaf al-Madīnah al-Nabawīyah printed in Saudi Arabia in 1990.

Mawdūdī's Tafhīm al-Qurʿān (1942–1979), although superficially similar to Yūsuf ʿAlī's work, is indisputably an example of tafsīr. In both his rendering of the original Arabic into Urdu and his extended discussions of each surah, the author's explicit intent is to amplify and clarify a unitary “Islamic message” for daʿwah purposes. Part of this clarification entails transforming the structure of the Qurʿān into paragraphs rather than leaving its text (either in Arabic or Urdu) in the traditional single-āyah format. This innovation is coupled with an analysis of the divine revelation according to the doctrines of the Jamāʿat-i Islāmī, which Mawdūdī founded in 1941. According to this party's point of view, the Qurʿān is both a revolutionary manifesto and a manual for missionaries; its message calls for the reconstruction of human society into an ideologically motivated community of virtue and social activism. As such, its text provides a blueprint for transcending sectarian and legalistic divisions and uniting humanity into a single brotherhood. As an implicitly political work, Tafhīm al-Qurʿān has much in common with Fī ẓilāl al-Qurʿān, an equally influential tafsīr in Arabic by the Egyptian ideologue Sayyid Quṭb (d. 1966). See MAWDūDī, SAYYID ABū AL-AʿLā.

Vernacular translations of the Qurʿān in Southeast Asia first appeared in the 1920s but did not become fully accepted until the 1960s. In most texts the vernacular rendition (in Bahasa Melayu, Indonesian, Sundanese, or Javanese) follows or is parallel to the Arabic original of each āyah and is referred to as an “interpretation” (Malay, terjemah, tafsīr). Prefatory discussions are commonly added, and exegetical material is usually found in the form of extended footnotes, as in Yūsuf ʿAlī's and Mawdūdī's translations. Tafsīr al-Azhar, the translation and exegesis by the West Sumatran scholar and Indonesian independence activist Hamka (Hadji Abdul Malik Karim Amrullah, d. 1981) is notable because of its nationalistic tone. Written in Bahasa Indonesia, this important work is a semi-official tafsīr of the Indonesian Muhammadiyah organization and has been widely disseminated throughout the Malay-speaking world. Hamka is distinctive among Southeast Asian commentators for his use of interlineal exegesis (a technique common in the Arabic tradition) and his reliance upon recent Indonesian history to illustrate specific points in the Qurʿānic discourse. See HAMKA.

Modern Arabic Exegesis.

Modern exegesis of the Qurʿān begins with the writings of Muḥammad ʿAbduh (d. 1905), an Egyptian essayist, jurisconsult, founder of the Salafīyah movement, and rector of al-Azhar University in Cairo. ʿAbduh's exegetical corpus consists of four works: Tafsīr al-fātiḥah (1901), Tafsīr sūrat al-ʿaṣr (1903), Tafsīr Juzʿ ʿamma (1922–1923), and the twelve-volume Tafsīr al-Qurʿān al-Ḥakīm (sometimes called Tafsīr al-manār, 1927–1935), which was completed after his death by Rashīd Riḍā. As a neotraditionalist scholar who felt an affinity for Muʿtazilī rationalism, ʿAbduh was influential in reviving the earlier genre of reason-based exegesis (tafsīr biʿl-raʿy), which except for the writings of certain Ṣūfīs had lain dormant for centuries. Also an avowed Spenserian social evolutionist, he saw the regulatory āyāt of the Qurʿān as corresponding to natural law, and he characterized the process of evolution as part of “God's sunnah” (sunnat Allāh, 48:23) or unchangeable pattern of conduct. He generally rejected the possibility of miracles as contradicting this principle but excepted the Qurʿān, whose miraculous uniqueness serves to awaken human reason to the truth of Muḥammad's prophecy. Claiming to follow the noted theologian al-Ghazālī (d. 1111), ʿAbduh asserted that even the ambiguous (mutashābihāt) āyāt should be open to analysis using the tools of modern thought. Once Islam was understood through the light of modern knowledge, the rectification of religious practice demanded that Muslims also take on the reformation of society as a whole. As a justification for this position ʿAbduh cited the first part of āyah13:11: “God will never change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.” See ʿABDUH, MUHAMMAD.]

A direct successor to the ʿAbduh-Riḍātafsīr is Sayyid Quṭb's (d. 1966) Fīẓilāl al-Qurʿān (In the Shade of the Qurʿān). Written for the most part between 1954 and 1964 during the author's longest period of imprisonment, this posthumously published work adopts many of the positions—both explicit and implicit—of ʿAbduh's earlier tafsīr. This reflects the fact that Quṭb's mentor, the Egyptian reformist and political activist Ḥasan al-Bannā (d. 1949), was a student of ʿAbduh's disciple Muḥammad Rashīd Riḍā. Like its predecessor, Fī ẓilāl al-Qurʿān is also an example of tafsīr bi al-raʿy. Despite numerous appeals to the precedent of the Prophet and his companions, Sayyid Quṭb rivaled ʿAbduh in his faith in modern science as a universal criterion for knowledge, going so far as to quote British scientific journals in his exegesis. Both authors also distinguished themselves as advocates of social and intellectual reform and were equally fond of citing āyah13.11 as a justification for sociopolitical activism.

Sayyid Quṭb differed from his predecessor, however, over the degree to which change dictates compromise with alien sociocultural systems. Although ʿAbduh maintained a traditional aura of legitimacy as an Islamic scholar and jurisconsult, he was also a political accommodationist who regarded British administration and scientific positivism as evolutionary advances over a decayed and ignorant Muslim society. Sayyid Quṭb by contrast, as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was a committed anticolonialist and anti-imperialist who sought to revive a Qurʿān-based “Islamic system” (al-niẓām al-Islāmī) that remained true to the cultural and social values established by God and Muslim consensus. While fully modern in his belief in the unitary message of the Qurʿān and skeptical of the accuracy of many prophetic traditions (ḥadīth), Sayyid Quṭb nonetheless rejected the examples of both the Uniteds States and the Soviet Union as societies where man is either made a commodity or reduced to little more than a machine. Western imperialism, he asserted, had created a “new ignorance” (jāhilīyah) in the Muslim world, where an original, faith-based consciousness of God (taqwā) was replaced by a “jāhilī consciousness” characterized by immorality, political corruption, and a servile reliance on Western paradigms. As the title to his tafsīr, In the Shade of the Qurʿān, indicates, the Qurʿān serves Muslims not only as a source of guidance but also as a refuge from destructive influences. See QUṭB, SAYYID.

Apart from translation, the most important hallmark of modern exegesis of the Qurʿān has been the tendency to view each surah as a unified discourse. In itself this approach is not new. As early as the eleventh century it was followed by the influential Ṣūfī al-Qushayrī (d. 1073) in his exegesis Laṭāʿif al-ishārāt (The Subtleties of Symbolism). In the following century the Andalusian legist Abū Bakr ibn al-ʿArabī (d. 1148) bemoaned the lack of interest in intratextual hermeneutics (ʿilm al-munāsabāt), and the subject was brought up again in the fourteenth-century tafsīr of Badr al-Dīn al-Zarakhshī (d. 1391). Until the twentieth century, however, such opinions were rare, and the usual approach was to view each surah as an atomistic collection of discontinuous narratives. In recent times Western attacks on the coherence of the Qurʿān have led to an apologetic defense of the text that vindicates its present structure by demonstrating the existence of thematic unities.

Although this approach is now followed by most modern commentators, one of the clearest examples of ʿilm al-munāsabāt can be found in Al-mīzān fī tafsīr al-Qurʿān (The Balance of Judgment in the Exegesis of the Qurʿān, 1973–1974), an influential Shīʿī tafsīr in Arabic by the noted Iranian philosopher and theologian Sayyid Muḥammad Ḥusayn al-Ṭabāṭabāʿī (d. 1981). He begins his exegesis of each surah by identifying its central theme, which he calls its “purpose” or “intent” (gharad). This theme is discovered by examining the surah's opening, its end, and the general flow of discourse. The actual commentary is then divided into subtexts, which correspond to discursive changes in the divine speech.

It is important to note, however, that Ṭabāṭabāʿī does not impose an artificial unity on the Qurʿān, nor does he conceive of his exegesis as an example of tafsīr bi al-raʿy. As a scholastic theologian and strict follower of the uṣūlī (source-oriented) jurisprudential tradition of Twelver or Imāmī Shiism, he prefers to let the Qurʿān “explain itself by itself” (tafsīr al-Qurʿān biʿl-Qurʿān) following a statement of Imam ʿAlī: “One part of the Qurʿān explains another, and one part witnesses to the other.” Rejecting the concept of reason-based exegesis as a matter of principle, Ṭabāṭabāʿī first tries to explain ambiguous āyāt by syllogistically referring to others whose meaning is apparent. Next he turns to the extensive corpus of exegetical traditions left behind by the Shīʿī imams. When using a purely scholastic approach, as in his discussions of grammatical points, semantics, or human nature, Ṭabāṭabāʿī takes great pains to ensure that his conclusions are in overall agreement with the consensus of previous Imāmī scholarship. See ṬABāṭABāʿī, MUḥAMMAD ḥUSAYN.

Qurʿān and Modernism.

In recent years the Qurʿān has become a touchstone for controversy as well as piety. Nowhere has this been more the case than in modernist polemics, many of whose practitioners view the Qurʿān through the lens of ideological precommitment. Particularly prominent is the debate over the empowerment of Muslim women, who have become both combatants and prize in the struggle between Western critics of Islam and their Muslim opponents. A recent discussion of the Qurʿān from a womanist point of view is Amina Wadud's Qurʿān and Woman (1992). First published in Malaysia, it is presently used as a manifesto by the “Sisters in Islam” movement in that country. In her approach to the Qurʿān the American Wadud attempts to lay the groundwork for nontraditional tafsīr from a scripturally legitimate perspective. Borrowing heavily from the semantic analyses of the Japanese Qurʿānic scholar Toshihiko Izutsu and the modernist exegesis of the Pakistani Islamicist Fazlur Rahman (d. 1988), she postulates a distinction between the historically and culturally contextualized “prior text” of the Qurʿān and a wider metatext that conveys a more tolerant and universalistic worldview. Her conclusion is that while the Qurʿān indeed acknowledges functional gender distinctions based on biology, it does not propose essential or culturally universal roles for males and females. In fact, the assignment of gender distinctions based on early Arabian precedent would eliminate the transcendental nature of the Qurʿān by reducing it to a culturally specific set of discourses. Wadud argues her point by demonstrating the Qurʿān's stress on the “primal equality” of men and women, examining the issue of equity in the afterlife, and semantically analyzing Qurʿān-based legal terminology relating to women and the family.

Another use of the concept of “prior text,” although with very different results, can be found in Al-risālah al-thāniyah min al-Islām (The Second Message of Islam) by the radical Sudanese modernist Maḥmūd Muḥammad Ṭāḥā (d. 1985). Essential to Ṭāḥā's doctrine is a distinction between two categories of the prophet Muḥammad's followers—the muslim (one who submits himself fully to God) and the muʿmin (one who acknowledges the truth of the Qurʿān and the Prophet's message). During Muḥammad's lifetime the Prophet himself was the only true muslim, since he alone could submit himself to God completely. For this reason the community that the Prophet created in Medina was composed only of muʿminūn—those who followed the historically and culturally contextualized example of Muḥammad. This early stage of faith (īmān) is exemplified by the Medinan surahs of the Qurʿān and constitutes the “first message of Islam.” As a formal religious tradition, it is characterized by the sharīʿah. Because it reflected its era and culture, however, the resulting “nation of believers” was unsuited to modern social and intellectual conditions.

The coming age of islām, by contrast, will be characterized by humankind's readiness to comprehend fully the universal message of the Qurʿān, which appears in the Meccan revelations. Not limited by an outdated “prior text” like the Medinan surahs, which modern conditions have abrogated, the Islam of the Meccan period is open-ended and subject to further elaboration. Consequently, the “nation of Muslims” born under the influence of this era will be one of tolerance, gender equality, social democracy, and a science-oriented approach to knowledge. Not content to be bound by the sunnah, Ṭāḥā, the “teacher” (ustādh) of this “second message of Islam,” affirms the continuity of divine guidance by proclaiming himself a post-Muḥammadan “messenger” (rasūl): “one to whom God granted understanding from the Qurʿān and is authorized to speak” (p. 42).

Surprisingly, given the radical and even heretical nature of Ṭāḥā's doctrine, it still reflects exegetical issues that have occupied practitioners of tafsīr since the very beginnings of the genre. Although the universality of the prophetic sunnah is seldom debated, the question of its applicability to contemporary conditions has always been important. The historical study of Qurʿān exegesis continually reveals how much the discipline of tafsīr depends on prior methodologies. Muḥammad ʿAbduh's and Sayyid Quṭb's reliance on tafsīr bi al-raʿy, for example, reprises the approach utilized by the influential Middle-Period commentator al-Ṭabarī (d. 923). Even Amina Wadud's undeniably modern use of semantic and “prior text” analyses echoes more mystically minded commentators such as Ibn ʿArabī and al-Qushayrī. Undoubtedly certain methodologies, such as translation and intratextual hermeneutics, have become more prominent in recent times; this is only natural given the increasingly non-Middle-Eastern demographic profile of the Muslim world and the resulting demand for a crosscultural discourse. Yet the very fact that many new commentaries recall previous approaches highlights the authority of tradition in Islam and the continued self-referentiality of Muslim exegesis. After all that has been accomplished, one threshold of Qurʿānically legitimate exegesis remains to be crossed—a systematically comparative approach to scriptural analysis.

Apart from the approaches to the Qurʿān referred to above, the late twentieth century has seen the flourishing of a variety of new ideas in the area of Qurʿānic interpretation. One of the broad trends associated with such ideas is what we may refer to as “contextualist” (as opposed to “textualist”). The “textualist” trend remains the most widely adopted approach by the interpreters of the Qurʿān to this day. Textualists rely on a referential theory of meaning to determine the meaning of the Qurʿān, drawing mainly on linguistic rather than social or historical analysis. Scholars who follow this trend often believe that the language of the Qurʿān has concrete, unchanging references, and therefore the meaning and relevance that a Qurʿānic text had upon its revelation still hold for the contemporary context.

The contextualist trend, broadly speaking, adopts the view that the textual study of the Qurʿān must be accompanied by knowledge of the social, cultural and political conditions of the time of revelation. Contextualists engage not only in linguistic analysis, but also adopt approaches from alternative fields such as hermeneutics and literary theory. In general, the scholarship of contextualists is often associated with a form of Islamic reformism. For many contextualists, meaning is dependent upon the socio-historical, cultural, and linguistic contexts of the text. Contextualists further argue that subjective factors will always intervene in our understandings, that is, the interpreter cannot approach the text without certain experiences, values, beliefs, and presuppositions influencing their understanding (Esack, pp. 73–77). This approach appears to be more relevant in relation to the interpretation of the ethical-legal texts of the Qurʿān. In the following we will briefly look at four scholars who could be considered part of such a trend (although they themselves might not use the label “contextualist” to refer to their work): Fazlur Rahman, Mohammad Arkoun, Mohamad Shahrour, and Khaled Abou El Fadl.

Fazlur Rahman (d. 1988), a Pakistani-American scholar, spent most of his adult life studying and teaching in the U.K., Canada, Pakistan, and the U.S. Rahman firmly believed that one of the primary purposes of the Qurʿān was to create a society based on justice. He saw the prophet Muḥammad as a social reformist who sought to empower the poor, the weak, and vulnerable. He viewed the Qurʿān as a source from which ethical principles could be derived rather than a book of laws. For instance, Rahman argued that the practice of family law in Islamic history had not accorded females the equal rights to which they appear to be entitled based on the Prophet's example and teachings of the Qurʿān.

Rahman's primary contribution to the debate on the Qurʿān in the twentieth century was his position that in order to understand the Qurʿān, Muslims must move away from reductionist and formulaic approaches to the Qurʿān, which do not recognize its social, historical, and linguistic context. His emphasis on the context of revelation has had a far reaching influence on contemporary Muslim debates on key issues such as human rights, women's rights, and social justice. Rahman argued that without being aware of the social and political conditions of the society in which the Qurʿān was revealed, one could not understand fully its message. Thus the emphasis on the “context.”

Mohammad Arkoun (b. 1928) is culturally Berber, French, and Arabic and is a pioneering scholar of contemporary Islamic thought and Qurʿānic studies in particular. Arkoun is not generally respected by traditionalist Muslim scholars, due to his rather ‘secularist’ approach to analysis of the Qurʿān and the apparent influence of intellectuals such as Derrida, Baudrillard, and Foucault on his work (Günther, p. 137). A key element of Arkoun's thinking is his questioning of Islamic orthodoxy, and his view that orthodoxy is equivalent to an ideology and is thus subject to a historical process. Orthodoxy involves a “learned culture,” which is steeped in writing and which is expressed through the state. This “orthodoxy” is opposed by a “heterodoxy,” which facilitates a popular (and populist) culture, which makes use of (the freer, less stable) “orality” and is present within (or creates) a segmented society (Günther, p. 141).

Mohamad Shahrour (b. 1938), a Syrian civil engineer and self-taught scholar of Islam, has written extensively on Islam and the Qurʿān. He argues that contemporary Muslims need to reconsider and question the meaning and relevance of Islam's foundation texts. Essential to Shahrour's thought is his differentiation between the divine and the human understanding of the divine reality. He argues that, owing to developments in knowledge, contemporary scholars are much better placed than those in the past to understand the “divine will.” As such, Shahrour seeks to create a new framework and methodology for understanding the Qurʿān, and to this end has created his own categories for approaching the Qurʿān (Christmann, pp. 267–269). He questions the established patterns of reading the Qurʿān. The method by which Shahrour proposes to do this is called “defamiliarization,” which involves “the explicit wish to undermine the well-established canon of interpretations and to suggest alternative ways of reading a text.” Shahrour wants his readers to understand the Qurʿān “as if the Prophet has just died and informed us of this book,” thus approaching the Qurʿān as if reading it for the first time. (Christmann, pp. 263–264). For him, the Qurʿān must be approached in a manner relevant to contemporary concerns and needs of Muslims today.

Khaled Abou El Fadl (b. 1958) is a leading scholar of Islamic law and a traditionally trained Muslim jurist. His major work, Speaking in God's Name: Islamic Law, Authority and Women, seeks to address the role of the authoritative reader of religious texts, challenging the way in which self-proclaimed “scholars” of the Qurʿān, particularly in modern times, assume the role of God. He argues that in many cases, such “scholars” displace God's authority, which he describes as “an act of despotism.” (Abou El Fadl, p. 265). Abou El Fadl highlights the importance of focusing on the interaction between the author of the Qurʿān (God) and the reader, and the authoritative reader's responsibility, by virtue of this special position as interpreter of the text, to act as a faithful “agent” for the “principal” (God), and refrain from imposing their own subjective opinions unless they are clearly stated. The framing of a debate in this manner—which highlights the subjectivity of the reader's position—is clearly an attack on those who “speak in God's name” by claiming the supposed authenticity and infallibility of “literalist” or textualist approaches. He also promotes the idea that there are many possible interpretations of the Qurʿān, and opposes the views of conservative scholars who claim a monopoly on the interpretation of the Qurʿān. Abou El Fadl suggests that Muslim scholars and interpreters of the Qurʿān should use an approach that is rooted in the traditions of Islam and the Muslim experience. His recommendation is that Muslim scholars should start with the Muslim experience and consider how such discourses might be utilized in its service.

These new ideas have generated heated debates among Mulsims about the meaning and relevance of the Qurʿān and how that can be ascertained. With influences from a wide range of areas from semiotics to hermeneutics on modern scholarship of the Qurʿān, particularly among Muslims, we are more likely to see an added intensity in these debates.

See also TAFSīR.


  • Abou El Fadl, Khaled. Speaking in God's Name: Islamic Law, Authority and Women. Oxford: Oneworld, 2001. The author looks at the role of the authoritative reader of the Qurʿān, challenging the way in which self-proclaimed ‘scholars’ of the Qurʿān assume the ‘role of God’.
  • Ayoub, Mahmoud M.The Qurʿan and its Interpreters, vol. 1.Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984. Synopsis of Middle Period exegeses of the Qurʿān through surah 3(Āl ʿImrān). The introduction covers the history of tafsīr. A second volume was published in 1992.
  • Chodkiewicz, Michel. An Ocean without Shore: Ibn ʿArabi, the Book, and the Law. Translated by David Streight. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993. Superb discussion of the Ṣūfī approach to the Qurʿān in Ibn al-ʿArabī's Al-Futūḥāt al-Makkīyah.
  • Christmann, Andreas. “ ‘The form is permanent, but the content moves’: the Qurʿanic text and its interpretation(s) in Mohamad Shahrour's al-Kitāb wal-Qurʿan.” In Modern Muslim Intellectuals and the Qurʿan, edited by Suha Taji-Farouki, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, pp. 263–286. A good introduction to Shahrour's ideas about the Qurʿan.
  • Cragg, Kenneth. The Pen and the Faith: Eight Modern Muslim Writers and the Qurʿān. London: Allen & Unwin, 1985. Introduction to the importance of the Qurʿān in modern Islamic thought, for the nonspecialist.
  • Esack, Farid, Qurʿan, Liberalism and Pluralism: An Islamic Perspective of Interreligious Solidarity Against Oppression, Oxford: Oneworld, 1997. Esack provides an alternative view of the Qurʿān in relation to modern concepts of liberalism and pluralism.
  • Gäthe, Helmut. The Qurʿān and Its Exegesis: Selected Texts with Classical and Modern Muslim Interpretations. Translated and edited by Alford T. Welch. Berkeley, 1976. Thematic exposition of classical and modern tafsīr, more useful for its examples than for a history of the genre.
  • Greifenhagen, F. V.“Traduttore Traditore: An Analysis of the History of English Translations of the Qurʿān.”Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations3.2 (December 1992): 274–291. Excellent overview of polemical and nonpolemical translations in English, with a very useful bibliography.
  • Gunthur, Ursula, “Mohammad Arkoun: towards a radical rethinking of Islamic thought.” In Modern Muslim Intellectuals and the Qurʿān, edited by Suha Taji-Farouki. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, pp. 125– 167. A good introduction to Arkoun's ideas about the Qurʿān.
  • Hawting, G. R., and Abdul-Kader A. Shareef, eds.Approaches to the Qurʿān. London and New York: Routledge, 1993. Useful overview of traditional and modern approaches to exegesis.
  • Izutsu, Toshihiko. God and Man in the Koran: Semantics of the Koranic Weltanschauung. Tokyo: Keio Institute of Cultural and Linguistic Studies, 1964. One of the classics of Qurʿānic studies, and the best semantic analysis of this text written in the modern period.
  • Jeffery, Arthur. The Foreign Vocabulary of the Qurʿān. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2007. Classic philological study of Qurʿānic terminology as it relates to other religions and cultural systems originally published in 1938. Especially useful for the advanced student of Arabic.
  • Jeffery, Arthur, ed.Materials for the History of the Text of the Qurʿān: The Old Codices. New York: AMS Press, 1975. The only in-depth study of variations in the Qurʿānic text in early Islamic history. Originally published in 1937; requires knowledge of Arabic.
  • Mawdūdī, Sayyid Abū al-Aʿlā. Towards Understanding the Qurʿān. Translated by Zafar Ishaq Ansari. Leicester: Islamic Foundation, 1988. Excellent English translation of Tafhīm al-Qurʿān, by the director of the Islamic Research Institute in Pakistan.
  • McAuliffe, Jane Dammen. Qurʿānic Christians: An Analysis of Classical and Modern Exegesis. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Interesting study of the portrayal of Christians and Christianity in the Qurʿān.
  • Quṭb, Sayyid. In the Shade of the Qurʿān.Vol. 30. Translated by M. Adil Salahi and Ashur A. Shamis. London: MWH, 1979. Competent translation of the last part of Fī Ẓilāl al-Qurʿān.
  • Rahman, Fazlur. Major Themes of the Qurʿān. Minneapolis, MN: Bibliotheca Islamica, 1980. One of the better modernist approaches to the Qurʿān, best read as an apologetic response to polemical scholarship.
  • Saeed, Abdullah. Interpreting the Qurʿan: Towards a Contemporary Approach, Abingdon, UK and New York: Routledge, 2006 It provides some ideas for interpreting the Qurʿān's ethical-legal texts within a contextualist framework.
  • Ṭabāṭabāʿī, Muḥammad Ḥusayn. The Qurʿān in Islam: Its Impact and Influence on the the Life of Muslims. London: Zahra, 1987. Discussion of Ṭabāṭabāʿī's tafsīr methodology and a useful introduction to Imāmī Shīʿī exegesis. His Tafsīr al-Mīzān is presently being translated into English.
  • Ṭāḥā, Maḥmūd Muḥammad. The Second Message of Islam. Translated and edited by ʿAbd Allāhi Aḥmad An-Naʿīm. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1987. ṭāḥāʿs exegesis is considered to be radical and heretical by many.
  • Wadud, Amina. Qurʿan and Woman. 2d ed.New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. The most effective Muslim response to the feminist critique of Islam yet written.
  • Welch, Alford T, and J. D. Pearson. “ḳurʿān”. In Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 5, pp. 400–432. Leiden: Brill, 1960. Useful introduction to the history of the Qurʿān for the nonspecialist, although the philological and Orientalist approach of its author is outdated.

Vincent J. Cornell Updated by Abdullah Saeed

The Qurʿān in Muslim Thought and Practice

Because Muslims view the Qurʿān as the very word of God, it naturally occupies the central place in their religious life. It is the one means for discovering the will of God and for measuring the success of a life lived in accordance with it. The Qurʿān has shaped the individual and collective lives of Muslims in many ways.

The Qurʿān was revealed to Muḥammad in large and small portions over some twenty-two years (610–632). Furthermore, the revelations it contains are related to the situations in which they were revealed and thus become a record of the society of Muḥammad's time and constitute the most important source for tracing the historical development of Islam from its origins in Mecca to its maturity in Medina.

These two roles are important for understanding not only the times of the Prophet, but also much of the later religious history of Muslims. Early Islamic history—even allowing for sectarian and other differences in periodizing and interpreting it—has paradigmatic value for Muslims, and the Qurʿān is universally admitted to be central to that history. It is not surprising that all later movements, whether of radical change or of moderate reform, whether originating at the center or at the periphery of the Islamic world, have sought to ground themselves in the Qurʿān or at least to seek support from it. A typical instance is the Khārijī movement during the caliphate of ʿAlī. Displeased with ʿAlī's decision to accept arbitration (taḥkīm) as an alternative to a military solution of the dispute with Muʿāwiyah I, the Khārijites appealed to the Qurʿān, declaring its verdict alone acceptable and that of human arbitrators invalid. For their part, the troops of Muʿāwiyah had, in order to avert imminent defeat, already impaled copies of the Qurʿān on their spears and waved them on the battlefield, practically forcing ʿAlī's camp to accept arbitration.

The Qurʿān and Literacy.

Arabian culture was oral; its transformation from preliterate to literate was due mainly to the Qurʿān. The notions of “writing,” “reading,” “pen,” and “book” are found in some of the early revelations. For instance, according to a generally accepted view, the very first revelation consisted of the first five verses of what is now sūrah96: “Read in the name of your Lord Who created: He created man from a clinging matter. Read, and your Lord is Most Gracious, the One who taught by means of the pen: He taught man what he did not know.”

According to some scholars, the second to be revealed was sūrah68, al-Qalam (the Pen), which takes its name from the opening verse. The Qurʿān as a whole is called a “book” in numerous verses. The Qurʿān repeatedly insists on writing down the details of a loan transaction (2:282–283) and enjoins that the manumission contract be made in writing (24:33). Numerous scribes were employed by Muḥammad to preserve the scriptural text, and reading and writing were encouraged in general. The prisoners taken by the Muslims in the Battle of Badr (624) between the Muslims of Medina and the Quraysh tribe of Mecca were given the opportunity to win their freedom by teaching a certain number of Muslims how to read and write. A fundamental transformation was thus brought about in the consciousness of the Arabs: a nonliterate culture rapidly became a literate one.

An important element of the new consciousness was the notion of book as law, for law now came to be identified with something more than custom and tradition passed down orally from earlier times; it came to mean something laid down in writing. Sūrah98:3 represents a coalescence of the notions of book and law; the word kutub (writings) in that surah means “laws, regulations.”

The Qurʿān as the Foundation of Scholarship.

The idea of the Qurʿān as a book of law, or indeed as a code of life, was to have further important consequences. It gave rise directly or indirectly to the major disciplines of Islamic learning and led to the proliferation of literature in each. Ḥadīth (prophetic tradition), or rather the sunnah (path) of Muḥammad embodied in ḥadīth, is regarded as the authoritative explication of the Qurʿān. The sciences of the Arabic language, from lexicography to grammar to rhetoric, were developed in order to reach an accurate understanding of the Qurʿānic text. The need to understand the legislative content of the Qurʿān gave rise to Islamic law and legal theory. The fundamental theological issues in Islam understandably revolve around certain verses of the Qurʿān. Historiography originated with the aim of elaborating the Qurʿānic view of religious history, according to which Adam was the first bearer of the divine message and Muḥammad the last.

Many Muslim scholars believe that the growth in Islam of religious sciences and of learning in general was inspired by the Qurʿān. They point to the Qurʿān's repeated urgings to study the universe, which is regarded as furnishing āyāt (signs) that point to the existence of a merciful and just creator of the universe. A connection is thus established between science and religion: study of nature becomes a sacred pursuit; acquisition and dissemination of knowledge of all kinds takes on a religious significance; and a spirit of empirical inquiry and investigation is engendered that expresses itself in various areas of scholarly activity. Sūrah2:164 may be taken as typical in this regard:

"Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and the earth, the alternation of night and day, and what God has sent down from the sky in the form of water—reviving by means of it the land after it has become barren, and spreading in it animals of all kinds—and the causing of the winds to blow in different ways, and the clouds that are held under control between the heavens and the earth, there are signs for those who would exercise reason."

The Qurʿān's Place in Muslim Society.

The Qurʿān plays a major role in Muslim societies in at least five realms. First, as the fundamental text of Islam, it is cited as the ultimate authority in all matters pertaining to religion. Thus the Qurʿān furnishes the basic tenets of Islam, the principles of ethical behavior, and guidance in general or specific terms for social, political, and economic activities.

Second, the Qurʿān is used in liturgy. In each of the five obligatory prayers of the day, the opening sūrah of the Qurʿān, al-Fātiḥah, is recited with other portions. During Ramadan, the month of fasting, the Qurʿān is recited in special prayers (tarawih) offered congregationally every night after the fifth and last prayer, usually with the goal of completing a recitation of the entire Qurʿān during the month.

Third, the Qurʿān is used as a basic vehicle of education. A large majority of the world's Muslim population is non-Arabic-speaking, yet in most Muslim societies the first alphabetical system children learn is usually the Arabic, and they do so in order to be able to read the Qurʿān. Beginning with a primer, young students work up to reading through the Qurʿān, usually under the guidance of the local imām of the mosque. The completion of a child's reading of the Qurʿān is often celebrated publicly, with the child receiving gifts and being the center of attention. Special importance is attached to completing the first reading of the Qurʿān at an early age, and even in Western countries it is not unknown for a Muslim child to complete his or her first Qurʿān reading before entering public school at the age of five. The Qurʿānic education of children is not confined to mere reading of the text; it often includes inculcation of basic scriptural teachings.

Fourth, the Qurʿān is an element of many nonliturgical social events. In ordinary conversation, some Muslims might swear by the Qurʿān in support of their statement or contention, whereas witnesses in courts of law swear by the Qurʿān that they will speak nothing but the truth. To complete a recitation of the Qurʿān (khatmat al- Qurʿān) at the death of a loved one is a custom in several parts of the Muslim world. Often, to invoke the blessings of God (tabarruk), the Qurʿān is recited at the start of a construction project or of shooting a film, at a school debate or a medical seminar, and even at political rallies and at the commencement of parliamentary proceedings.

Fifth, the Qurʿān has artistic uses. The art of reciting Qurʿānic verses in a beautiful voice (tajwīd) and the art of Qurʿānic calligraphy are among the most highly developed skills in Islamic culture. Most mosques have inscriptions from the Qurʿān, and tajwīd competitions at local, regional, and international levels are popular events, with good reciters often becoming celebrities and their Qurʿān recordings becoming bestsellers.

The belief that all Muslims, even those who have never learned Arabic, should be able at least to read the text of the Qurʿān derives from the fact that the Qurʿān is regarded as the very word of God. The act of reciting the divine word is thus, in its own right, a good and pious act that brings blessings (barakāt). The disjunction between recitation and understanding produces the curious result that even in parts of the Muslim world that do not have a long history of Islamic scholarship, the art of recitation may be very highly developed; Malaysia and Indonesia are notable examples. In another area, the doctrine of iʿjāz (the inimitability or matchlessness of the Qurʿān) sets standards of linguistic excellence and makes an intimate knowledge of the Qurʿānic text—displayed in one's ability to recognize a Qurʿānic quotation or to cite verses appositely—a mark of good education.

The Qurʿān in the Modern World.

In modern times renewed emphasis has been placed on the Qurʿān as the fundamental source of guidance, though this has been interpreted in several ways. Some distinguish between the kernel and the husk of Islamic tradition, identifying the Qurʿān as the kernel and denying the normative value of the other religious sciences. Others seek to reassert the primacy of the Qurʿān in the hierarchy of Islamic sciences, pointing out that although theoretically the Qurʿān has always been the most important source of Islam, ḥadīth and sectarian fiqh (jurisprudence) have in practice relegated it to a secondary position, usurping its rightful position. Still others maintain that the masses need to be educated in Islam and that Qurʿānic learning should form the basis of this religious training. In the eighteenth century Shāh Walī Allāh of India, defying opposition, translated the Qurʿān into Persian, after which it was rendered into many regional and local languages of India. His primary aim was to make the Qurʿān accessible to the people, and his legacy in this regard has endured.

In whatever terms the primacy of the Qurʿān is asserted today, a number of modern Muslim reformist thinkers have made the Qurʿān their main reference point. This is true of Sayyid Aḥmad Khān and Abū al-Kalām Āzād of India, Sayyid Abū al-Aʿlā Mawdūdī, of Pakistan, Sayyid Quṭb of Egypt, Muḥammad Rashīd Riḍa of Syria, and Ibn Bādīs of Algeria. All these writers chose the medium of Qurʿānic commentary to present their thoughts and ideas. What sets these commentators apart from others is the fact that, in addition to explaining the Qurʿānic text in a general way, they respond to modernity by developing an argument based on a careful selection and systematic interpretation of key Qurʿānic terms and concepts. Mawdūdī and Sayyid Quṭb, for example, develop at length the Qurʿānic notion of the conflict between Islam and jāhilīyah (non-Islamic ignorance), extrapolating the notion from the Arabian context and presenting it as an enduring truth of history. In doing so they aim to show the relevance of the Qurʿānic message for the present and to motivate Muslims to play their role in history. The centrality of the Qurʿān in modern Muslim thought is also evident from the importance attached by scholars in law and other fields to developing a new principle of Qurʿānic interpretation. Fazlur Rahman has in several works stressed the need to take a fresh approach to the Qurʿān, because only such an approach can lift Muslims out of the intellectual morass in which they find themselves. In Islam and Modernity he proposes a process of Qurʿān interpretation that “consists of a double movement, from the present situation to Qurʿānic times, then back to the present” (p. 5). The important point here is not the details of this “double movement” but Fazlur Rahman's view of the pivotal role the Qurʿān can play in reorienting Muslim life and rejuvenating Muslim thought. This is a view on which Muslim scholars, for all their conceptual and methodological differences, would all agree.

While a new, coherent principle of Qurʿānic interpretation for modern times that would serve as both a counterpart and a counterweight to the classical principle is yet to come into existence, it is nevertheless true that modern Qurʿānic interpretation differs from the classical analysis in some significant ways. For example, modern commentators, aware that they are writing for largely lay audiences, seldom expound at length the philological and theological aspects of the Qurʿānic text with which classical commentators were often preoccupied. Instead, they tend to deal with Qurʿānic teachings and ideas that have wider and more tangible sociopolitical implications and to help Muslim readers eager to learn how scripture can provide guidance on issues arising out of the impingement of modernity on Muslim lives and societies.

Much of the global Muslim community now resides outside what has historically been thought of as the Muslim world. Western countries like Britain, France, Germany, and the United States are home to significant numbers of Muslims, including scholars who comprise indigenous converts as well as immigrants. Because of the exigencies of the situation of Muslims in the West, the interpretation of the Qurʿān by Muslim scholars living in the West has developed some new features. This interpretation, for example, emphasizes those verses of the Qurʿān that seem to privilege pluralistic over exclusivist perspectives, interpreting jihād, primarily, a struggle either against social ills or for spiritual perfection.

In the Muslim world, the slow and sometimes nonlinear empowerment of women has given rise to the establishment of public study circles led and organized by women scholars. Such study circles have yet to win the approval of the religious establishment, but through the use of modern technologies such as the Internet, they have reached a wide audience and have been well received by ordinary Muslim women. One reason for the popularity of such study circles is that their teaching is conducted in a format and at a level that women find accessible. For example, the women teachers often explain Qurʿānic verses by citing examples from ordinary domestic life and invite participation in discussion, while avoiding the use of intimidating jargon.



  • Bennabi, Malek. Le phénomène coranique. Damascus, 1977. Translated into English as The Qurʿānic Phenomenon. Salimiah, Kuwait, 1983. Originally published in 1946.
  • Cragg, Kenneth. The Pen and the Faith: Eight Modern Muslim Writers and the Qurʿan. London: Allen & Unwin, 1985.
  • Denny, Frederick Mathewson. “Islam: Qurʿan and Hadith.” In The Holy Book in Comparative Perspective, edited by Frederick M. Denny and Rodney L. Taylor, pp. 84–108. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1985. See especially pp. 94–97.
  • Denny, Frederick Mathewson. “Qurʿān Recitation Training in Indonesia: A Survey of Contexts and Handbooks.” In Approaches to the History of the Interpretation of the Qurʿān, edited by Andrew Rippin, pp. 288–306. Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
  • Esack, Farid. The Qurʿān: A Short Introduction. Oxford: Oneworld, 2002.
  • Nelson, Kristina. The Art of Reciting the Qurʿān. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985. A new edition was published in Cairo and New York in 2001.
  • Rahman, Fazlur. Major Themes of the Qurʿān. Minneapolis: Bibliotheca Islamica, 1980.
  • Rahman, Fazlur. Islam and Modernity: Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.
  • Robinson, Neal. Discovering the Qurʿan: A Contemporary Approach to a Veiled Text. London: SCM Press, 1996.
  • ṭabāṭabāʿī, Muḥammad ḥusayn. The Qurʿan in Islam: Its Impact and Influence on the Life of Muslims. London: Zahra Publications, 1987.

Mustansir Mir

Commentaries on the Qurʿān

Commentary on the Qurʿān is a genre that attempts to explain and elucidate the contents of the Islamic revelation. The Arabic word tafsīr means interpretation or exegesis, and it is commonly used to indicate this genre as well as the activity itself. As the direct word of God in Arabic “brought down” (revealed) to the Prophet Muḥammad, the Qurʿān is the central document of the Islamic tradition, and the tafsīr genre simultaneously interprets the Qurʿānic text and maintains or reinforces its status as sacred authority and divine revelation.

A variety of tafsīr styles exists, but in its most essential form tafsīr consists of a section of Qurʿānic text, usually a verse (āyah), but perhaps a phrase or even a single word, followed by comments on the meaning and/or significance of the passage. The comment may be as brief as a simple synonym for a scriptural word, or it may include an exhaustive examination of the theological and legal implications of the passage. Among the issues most commonly addressed in tafsīr are lexical and grammatical difficulties, the elaboration of narrative elements, and legal implications. Verses may be compared and contrasted with other verses. Explanations of the background and context in which the verse was revealed are frequently included. Opinions of the Prophet's Companions and other prestigious early figures are common, as are opinions of other scholars and exegetes. Very often, divergent opinions are listed, and the commentator may or may not state a preference among them.

Qurʿānic commentary developed into a genre with well-defined rules and standards, and like other Islamic sciences, there were limits to speculative interpretation. The most reliable sources of knowledge, scholars generally agreed, were reports or comments (ḥadīth) passed on from reliable authorities, usually early members of the community. (More intuitive exegesis is often labeled taʿwīl, although actual usage of that termis frequently synonymous with tafsīr.) An oft-cited ḥadīth of the Prophet says, “He who interprets the Qurʿān by his own opinion (raʿy), let him take his seat in the Fire.” This ḥadīth is often cited in relation to a larger theme of Islamic scholarship: the distinction between transmitted knowledge and that achieved by rational thought or ratiocination. In Qurʿānic exegesis this opposition is represented by two terms. Al-tafsīr bi-l-maʿthūr refers to exegesis consisting of the transmission of reports (riwāyah) from early authorities, while al-tafsīr bi-l-raʿy indicates “exegesis by [personal] opinion.” As classifications for works of the genre the two terms are problematic because they refer mainly to form and not to content, and most works contain some combination thereof. Scholars also recognized that the transmitted reports from early authorities themselves were often based on personal opinion. However, the distinction is useful in highlighting a tension between differing sources and methods of interpretation. This tension is an indication that Qurʿānic commentary was subject to certain rules of the genre; there were limits to acceptable understanding and legitimate exegesis.

Although the Qurʿān is sui generis, its exegesis is not, and commentaries on the Muslim scripture are part of the Islamic scholarly tradition and are similar to other types of commentary. Tafsīr is but one of the Islamic sciences, and it is dependent on those other sciences for much of its content and methodology. Exegetical material is almost invariably classified into one or more intellectual areas: lexicography, grammar, prophetic history, law and jurisprudence, and/or theology.

Much of the material and the terminology found in Qurʿānic commentaries were developed in these other disciplines. Further, a number of subgenres in the Qurʿānic sciences exist, such as the study of recitation, variant readings, orthography, synonyms, abrogation, etc., any of which may be found in the mature tafsīr tradition although they are not necessarily part of exegesis. Tafsīr provided the occasion for this material to be brought together in the service of understanding the Qurʿān and affirming its exemplary status, placing the scripture at the heart of Islamic doctrine and education.

Origins of the Tradition.

The conventional Muslim view is that the most authoritative exegete is Muḥammad himself, and thus a certain pride of place is given to tafsīr al-nabī (exegesis of the Prophet). Much more abundant, though, is commentary from the early generations, those known as “the Companions” (contemporaries of the Prophet) and especially “the Followers” or “Successors” (those of the following generation, who spread to the regional cities of the expanding Islamic lands). Such exegetical traditions (reports) tended to be either simple explanations of a verse's meaning or a description of the context in which the verse was revealed. The Companions and Followers had the advantage of being closer to the religious, cultural, and linguistic milieu of the revelation, and were thus more authoritative. The glosses and comments attributed to early figures such as al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī (d. 728 CE), Ibn Abī Ṭalḥa (d. 737), and Qatada (d. 736), among others, may be found throughout the genre. Opinions differ, however, as to whether such figures ever produced actual commentaries of their own. The earliest compositions that can be definitively described as the work of a single scholar date from the mid-eighth century CE

Since there are no written sources of ḥadīth or tafsīr for at least the first century and one-half after the death of Muḥammad, and there are numerous contradictory reports in later compilations. Some scholars have been skeptical of the authenticity of the sources for the very early period. Debate has centered on the ḥadīth literature, but the same questions apply to the early exegetical traditions as well, namely, whether the later collections (beginning from the late second and early third Islamic centuries) reliably and accurately represent the words of the earlier authorities and transmitters, or are they replete with fabrications and corruptions. There are good arguments for both the traditional and the skeptical views. (Medieval Muslims were of course well aware that many transmitted reports were later fabrications, but they did not doubt that the tradition as a whole was trustworthy.)

At one end of the spectrum, it is argued that references in biographical and bibliographical works to tafsīr of first- or second-century authorities (e.g., “Tafsīr so-and-so”) indicate that such figures did indeed compose works similar in form and content to books of tafsīr as we now know them. A number of such works have been published in recent years (e.g., the Tafsīr of Sufyān al-Thawrī [d. 778], of Sufyān b. ʿUyayna [d. 811], and others), but in most cases these are hypothetical reconstructions based on reports found in later sources, and there is no firm evidence that they existed as distinct, written works. In at least one case there does seem to be a reliable manuscript dating to the mid-eighth century: the tafsīr of Mujāhid (d. 722). However, this work is not simply the Qurʿān commentary of Mujāhid; it is one particular version of his exegetical material as it was transmitted from Ādam b. Iyās (d. 835) from Warqāʿ (d. 776) from Ibn Abī Najīḥ (d. 749). The comments of Mujāhid in this manuscript (and its published edition) differ significantly from those attributed to him in the later work of al-Ṭabarī, for example. Similar discrepancies abound with other authorities, and it is unlikely that definitive, standard editions of such “books” existed at this early stage. But even if this version of “Tafsīr Mujāhid” was not a standard work that later scholars relied upon, it nonetheless appears to correspond to one of the “strands” of transmitted reports associated with Mujāhid. The existence of various recensions and differing versions under a single name is a more likely scenario than the large-scale fabrication of reports that some skeptics have suggested. What this indicates is that Qurʿān commentary, like other Islamic sciences, was a living tradition, one in which various versions of a given “text” of work could be in circulation, perhaps recorded by dictation, or perhaps as notebooks or aides-mémoire. This combination of oral and written transmission could account for many of the discrepancies as well as various additions and omissions.

Formation of the Tradition.

It seems certain that the definitive written recording of exegetical and other works began in the eighth century, and here we begin to find scholars approaching the Qurʿān with different concerns and objectives. The most basic form of exegesis in these early sources is paraphrastic, that is, consisting of short paraphrases or glosses on the phrase or words in question. The technique is found in one of the most important early commentaries, that of Muqātil b. Sulaymān (d. 767). Although harshly criticized by later scholars for its poorly authenticated traditions and for dubious theological views, Muqātil's tafsīr was nonetheless widely known, and in many places it goes beyond paraphrase to “narrative exegesis.” Here various references in the Qurʿān, most notably those to pre-Islamic prophets, are set within narratives which often draw on biblical materials and the Near Eastern milieu generally. This type of exegesis gives priority to the story; the scriptural references gain an interpretive context from the story while simultaneously giving authority to the narrative. Its origins may lie with the tales of storytellers and popular preachers, who presented such narrative material for popular consumption, often in a manner that did not meet the standards of later orthodoxies.

Other exegetes were concerned with religious practice. Abū ʿUbayd's (d. 838) work on abrogation (Naskh al-Qurʿān [Abrogation of the Qurʿān]) is an example of an early exegetical work that focuses on a particular aspect of Islamic practice—those verses whose rulings or judgments may have been abrogated by subsequent verses. Such concerns, primarily legal in nature, are found dispersed in a variety of forms in early exegetical sources. The aforementioned Muqātil, for example, composed a commentary on 500 āyāt (verses), divided according to subjects of legal interest such as marriage, contracts, fasting, pilgrimage, prayer, and others.

Without doubt the most important development in this formative stage, however, was the beginning of philological analysis of the Qurʿān. The Majāz al-Qurʿān of Abū ʿUbayda (d. 824) was one of the first works to explicitly tackle the nature of language in the Qurʿān—although the word majāz in his title has come to mean “figure of speech,” Abū ʿUbayda was referring to the explication or “rewriting” of difficult passages. However, his main concern was to relate the language of the Qurʿān to the proper Arabic of the Bedouin, its most eloquent speakers, and thereby to relieve the revelation of any alleged solecisms. He also used citations of Arabic poetry to help explain Qurʿānic words or passages. Abū ʿUbayda followed a commentarial format in his work; the slightly later Ibn Qutayba (d. 889) did not, but his Taʿwīl mushkil al-Qurʿān (The Interpretation of the Problematics in the Qurʿān) deserves mention nonetheless for its devotion to stylistic and rhetorical features of the scripture, topics that would eventually be incorporated into the tafsīr genre itself.

At the same time there arose a class of grammatical exegesis that usually carried the title Maʿānī al-Qurʿān or Iʿrāb al-Qurʿān (literally understood respectively as “Significations” and “Declension” of the Qurʿān, but in fact the scope of each was much wider in matters of semantic and linguistic interest). Especially important here are the commentaries of al-Farrāʿ (d. 822) and al-Akhfash al-Awsaṭ (d. 830). The development of philological sciences and their incorporation into the burgeoning science of Qurʿānic exegesis was a crucial step in the formation of the genre. Along with exegetical reports from the Prophet and early authorities, the attention to grammar, syntax, and lexicography would form the basis of Qurʿān commentary. This philological orientation, along with the commentarial format concentrating on sections of Qurʿānic text, means that knowledge of Arabic and its grammar is essential for reading tafsīr. Even Qurʿān commentaries written in languages other than Arabic tend to assume an understanding of the original language (although this is less the case in the modern period).

The Classical Period of Qurʿān Commentary.

All of the elements mentioned above (readings, lexicography, grammar, tradition, prophetic history, stylistics) find their way into the commentaries of the tenth century. The major work in this period, and probably the most important in the history of the genre, is Jāmiʿ al-bayān fī taʿwīl āy al-Qurʿān (The Collection of the Clear Expression in the Interpretation of the Qurʿān's Verses”) of al-Ṭabarī (d. 923). This voluminous commentary is distinguished not only by its incorporation of the preceding strands of scholarship but also by the adoption and conscious expression of a Sunnī orthodoxy. Al-Ṭabarī's contribution lay in the scrupulous documentation of his sources and their chains of transmission (isnāds), the establishment of grammar and lexicography as the basic tools of interpretation, and the careful extrapolation from philology and tradition to legal and theological judgments. The vast majority of the work consists, then, of citations of earlier (seldom contemporary) sources. These are organized according to their interpretations, after which al-Ṭabarī usually gives his own verdict on the correct understanding of the verse or passage. (In that, al-Ṭabarī is clearer than many subsequent exegetes would be—he is unambiguous in distinguishing his own judgments and those of others.)

Other major Sunnī works of this period include the Baḥr al-ʿulūm (The Sea of the Sciences) of al-Samarqandī (d. 983) and the Tafsīr of Ibn Abī Ḥātim al-Rāzī (d. 938), both consisting primarily of transmitted traditions. That of al-Māturīdī (d. 944), Taʿwīlāt ahl al-sunnah (The Interpretations of the People of the Sunnah), despite its title, is a commentary with a significantly nonorthodox orientation—that of the theological school named for its author (Māturīdism).

Although the tenth century saw the definite emergence of the Sunnī exegetical tradition, other works of exegesis appeared at the same time that were similarly products of sectarian orientation, but whose form had not reached the maturity or consolidation represented by al-Ṭabarī, nor, perhaps more importantly, did they aspire to the “encyclopedic” format of his and others’ grand commentaries. These would include, to name a few, the Ibāḍī Tafsīr of Hūd b. al-Muḥkim (d. second half of ninth century); a mystical treatise ascribed to the Imām Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq (d. 765); several other Imāmī Shīʿī works (see below), and the Ṣūfī interpretation of al-Tustarī (d. 896). The main quality that differentiates these from the contemporary work of al-Ṭabarī is the singularity of their concerns—the attention is less toward maintaining the status of scripture, and of preserving all that is known about it, than toward promoting a sectarian or methodological agenda.

Within the Sunnī world, one of the next major works was the Kashf al-bayān (The Revealing of the Clear Exposition) of al-Thaʿlabī (d. 1053). This work appears to have been both innovative and influential, although its reputation suffered from the later criticism that too many of his traditions were unsound and unreliable. Nonetheless, his commentary formed the basis of several books of tafsīr by his student al-Wāḥidī (d. 1076), as well as that of al-Baghawī (d. 1122). Among the monuments of the tafsīr genre of this period, two works must be mentioned. The first is al-Jāmiʿ li-aḥkām al-Qurʿān (The Compendium of the Qurʿān's Legal Judgments) of al-Qurṭubī (d. 1273), which despite an overall legal orientation remains in the encyclopedic class of commentaries and displays remarkable exegetical subtlety and generosity. The second is the Mafātīḥ al-ghayb (Keys of the Unknown) of the Ashʿarite Fakhr al-dīn al-Rāzī (d. 1210), of which it was famously said, “It contains everything but tafsīr.” This enormous work is perhaps the closest we have to a philosophical commentary on the Qurʿān; al-Rāzī usually divides his comments into questions (masāʿil) that address the various implications and the arguments concerning them.

Two important examples of tradition-based commentary are the Tafsīr of Ibn Kathīr (d. 1373) and al-Durr al-manthūr (The Scattered Pearls) of al-Suyūṭī (d. 1505). (Note that although al-Suyūṭī's tafsīr is tradition-based, he also composed an invaluable handbook of Qurʿānic sciences, al-Itqān fī ʿulūm al-Qurʿān [The Perfection in the Sciences of the Qurʿān], which covers a large number of philological and rhetorical topics.) Not all commentators by this time, however, felt it necessary to compile works of such length and to provide full chains of transmission for their sources. Abbreviated (though still formidable) commentaries were produced by al-Wāḥidī (mentioned above), and included al-Māwardī's (d. 1058) al-Nukat wa-l-ʿuyūn (The Fine Points and Key Aspects) and al-Muḥarrar al-wajīz (The Abridged Collection) of Ibn ʿAṭiyya (d. 1147). Doubtless the most popular abridged commentary is the Tafsīr al-Jalālayn (Tafsīr of the Two Jalāls), so-called because it was begun by Jalāl al-dīn al-Maḥallī (d. 1459) and completed by his student, the aforementioned Jalāl al-dīn al-Suyūṭī. This is basically a handbook of Qurʿānic exegesis in which the glosses are extremely terse, but it nonetheless assumes significant knowledge and background in the relevant fields.

In this period, then, between al-Ṭabarī's tafsīr and that of the Jalālayn, we see the establishment of the norms of the genre: the commentarial format, the use of early exegetical traditions, and the philological foundations of interpretation. We see the vast encyclopedic format, which seems to have a goal of both maintaining the Qurʿān's status as divine revelation and of validating the particular views or positions of a community. Alongside interpretation we find attention to the correct reading and pronunciation, as well as efforts to preserve the text and all that is known about it. At the same time, the genre becomes standardized to a degree that abridged and abbreviated works of varying length could appear, such that there was a consensus about acceptable methods and conclusions, and that these were well incorporated into the world of medieval Islamic education.

Sectarian Exegesis and Other Currents.

The Imāmī Shīʿī commentary provides an interesting parallel to the development of Sunnī exegesis. In the same way that in the Sunnī tradition the Prophet and members of the early community were the most authoritative interpreters of the Qurʿān, for the Shīʿah correct exegesis was the do-main of ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib and his descendants, namely, the Imāms. Thus for the Imāmīs, too, traditions from specific early authorities form the backbone of the exegetical genre. The ninth and tenth centuries saw the appearance of several Imāmī works, among the best known are the tafsīr of al-Qummī (d. latter half of ninth century) and that of al-ʿAyyāshī (d. probably early tenth century). These commentaries have as their sole objective the promotion of Shīʿī doctrines (and concomitant denigration of Sunnism). Among the exegetical techniques one finds the frequent accusation that the Qurʿānic text has been corrupted by the Sunnīs to hide the true message and the uncovering of various allusions to the House of the Prophet and its enemies. The early Shīʿī exegetes show little interest beyond this sectarian agenda.

This changed however, in the eleventh century, during which scholarly Imāmism underwent a number of transformations that brought it closer to mainstream intellectual activity. Following on the heels of legal and theological refinements, Imāmī tafsīr developed greater scholarly sophistication. The first important work was the Tibyān (The Demonstration) of Abū Jaʿfar al-Ṭūsī (d. 1067), which not only dealt extensively with matters of grammar, philology, and variant readings, but accepted non-Shīʿī sources and contained little or none of the hostility of his predecessors. The following century saw the second major work of this kind, the Majmaʿ al-bayān (The Confluence of the Clarification) of al-Ṭabrisī (d. 1153), which relied heavily on al-Ṭūsī's Tibyān.

The other group that produced a number of Qurʿān commentaries was the rationalist theological sect of the Muʿtazilah. The Muʿtazilites were uncompromising in their denial of any attributes to God, as well as in upholding the view of a just God. A number of scriptural verses appear, on the face of it, to give anthropomorphic descriptions of God and to suggest that God is responsible for evil and injustice, and the Muʿtazilah went to great lengths to interpret these verses in light of their own doctrine. A number of commentary-style works were produced with this objective, notably the Mutashābih al-Qurʿān (The Ambiguous Passages of the Qurʿān) of the Qāḍī ʿAbd al-Jabbār (d. 1025). Like the early Shīʿī tafsīr and others, these commentaries were narrowly concerned with asserting their own sectarian position and not with the Qurʿān as a whole. But what really sets the Muʿtazilah apart in terms of exegesis is that their sectarian identity was based on a hermeneutical method, and thus closely related to the process of interpretation itself.

The Muʿtazilah also produced large-scale encyclopedic commentaries from an early stage. An important early work, which has not survived, is that of Abū ʿAlī al-Jubbāʿī (d. 915). Several manuscript fragments of the Tafsīr of the well-known Muʿtazilite grammarian al-Rummānī (d. 384/394) do remain. The very important commentary of al-Ḥākim al-Jishumī (d. 1101), al-Tahdhīb fī l-tafsīr (The Refinement in Exegesis) has also been preserved in manuscript. All of these were very large works that addressed variant readings, occasions of revelation and other such topics, even if the dominant concern or orientation is with Muʿtazilī doctrine (and with philological topics, in the case of al-Rummānī). Although they cite the opinions of very early exegetes, the tafsīr of the Muʿtazilah contains very little in the way of tradition or transmitted reports, relies much more on individual reasoning, and was roundly condemned by many later scholars. Al-Zamakhsharī (d. 1144) was a Muʿtazilite philologist whose Qurʿān commentary, al-Kashshāf (The Revealer) was similarly censured by later writers yet remained nonetheless in widespread use due to the virtuosity of its explanations despite its (subdued and often hidden) sectarian tendencies.

The relation between Muʿtazilī and Imāmī exegesis illustrates something of the nature of tafsīr composition. Imamism had, by the eleventh century, adopted a number of Muʿtazilī theological tenets, and two commentaries which present a thoroughgoing Muʿtazilī viewpoint are those of the Shīʿī authors al-Ṭūsī and al-Ṭabrisī. A comparison of these works reveals a large degree of dependence. A good portion of al-Ṭūsī's Tibyān seems to be copied often directly from the Tafsīr of al-Rummānī, while the Majmaʿ al-bayān of al-Ṭabrisī appears to consist largely of passages taken from the Tibyān and from the commentary of al-Ḥākim al-Jishumī. This practice was clearly acceptable and widespread, assuring the preservation of earlier commentaries. At the same time it is remarkable that, despite the copying and repetition, each of these works retains its own distinctive character.

Less bound by conventional rules of the genre was mystical or Ṣūfī exegesis, which bears a certain resemblance to early Shīʿī interpretations with its often esoteric readings and its division between literal and hidden meanings. (As mentioned above, a mystical work is ascribed to the sixth Imām, Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq.) Certain symbolic or esoteric interpretations may be found in the earliest stages of tafsīr, but on the whole they were not incorporated or developed in the classical tradition. A small but significant subgenre of Ṣūfī exegesis persisted; among its most important practitioners were al-Sulamī (d. 1021), who composed Haqāʿiq al-tafsīr (The Truths of Exegesis) as well as a smaller supplement to that work, and al-Qushayrī, who wrote a lengthy commentary entitled Laṭāʿif al-ishārāt (The Subtle Allusions).

Post-Classical and Modern Commentary.

The commentarial format was one of the most characteristic features of Islamic scholarship, and this format came to determine much of the nature of scriptural interpretation in Islam. It is sometimes linked to the supposed intellectual decline or stagnation of the Islamic world in the post-classical period (broadly, after the fifteenth century CE). Some have suggested that the format of repeated glosses on the same texts and super-glosses on previous commentaries would eventually exhaust itself as well as impose stifling limitations on thought and expression. There may be some truth to this view, but it is important nonetheless to understand the strengths of the commentary format, that it engaged not only the text of revelation, but also the ongoing and cumulative experience of the community. The commentator may appear to have been forever looking to the past, but was in fact firmly rooted in the present and is not only building on the knowledge and insights of previous generations but adding to it and making way for the next generation. The challenge for the exegete lay in the effort to produce something distinctive within the well-defined conventions of the genre. At the same time, the commentary had a kind of preservative function, by which all kinds of material from earlier periods was retained—in the case of tafsīr, commentaries often included details and digressions having little bearing on the meaning of the verses.

These qualities are clear in a number of post-classical Qurʿān commentaries. Scholars have paid little attention to tafsīr in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but this period contains some fascinating works, such as the Rūḥ al-bayān (The Spirit of the Clarification) of Ismāʿīl Ḥaqqī al-Brūsawī (d. 1725), Rūḥ al-maʿānī (The Spirit of the Significations) of al-Ālūsī (d. 1850), and the Maḥāsin al-taʿwīl (The Beautiful Qualities of the Interpretation) of Jamāl al-dīn al-Qāsimī (d. 1914). These commentaries represent well the intellectual trends of their age. Although the works of al-Brūsawī and al-Ālūsī are too diverse and varied to be labeled specifically “mystical” commentaries, they nonetheless have notable Ṣūfī content. That of al-Qāsimī illustrates nicely the dual orientation of the commentary toward both the past and the present; it is notable for the preservation of some ideas of the Salafī scholar Ibn Taymīyah (d. 1328), as well as digressions that reflect the changes of the worldview of an Arab Muslim scholar at the turn of the twentieth century. When compared with exegesis of the earlier, “classical” period, these late commentaries may seem at first to be of less relevance for those concerned with the meanings of the Qurʿān, but in fact they are continuing the tafsīr tradition by maintaining the status of the scripture as the central text of the Islamic tradition and scholarship.

Traditional commentaries continued to appear in the modern period, but many of the better-known and influential works of this time were markedly different from their predecessors. The main factors are two. The first is the impact of modernity and the colonial experience, with the unprecedented interaction with foreign powers, people, and ideas, especially in scientific areas. The second factor is the spread of literacy and book printing, and the subsequent fact that the audience for Qurʿān interpretation had grown beyond the specialized scholars who produced and used the medieval commentaries. As a result, the individual commentator has much more latitude in his methods and approaches.

One of the first concerns of the modern period was to reconcile the Qurʿān, or the views expressed therein, as perfectly compatible with recent scientific developments (or, in a subgenre, to demonstrate that recent scientific developments are already described in the Qurʿān). Muslim “modernists” attempted to bring Islamic belief and practice into conformity with the apparent facts of the modern world. Some exegetes, for example, attempted to deny or minimize the miraculous or supernatural elements of the scripture.

The attempt to align Qurʿān and science, though, was but one aspect of a larger tendency away from the scholastic emphasis on early tradition and Arabic philology (though these were not ignored). While the premodern tradition concentrated overwhelmingly on the formal aspects of Qurʿānic language, some modern commentators shifted the emphasis to more subjective qualities such as themes or meanings, and more explicitly to the import of the text not just for the scholarly classes but for all of the Muslim community.

Perhaps the best-known representative of this kind of tafsīr is the Tafsīr al-Manār (The Beacon), which is the work of Muḥammad ʿAbduh (d. 1905) and his disciple Rashīd Riḍā (d. 1935). This tafsīr, running through to part of the twelfth sūrah (Yūsuf) consisted of excerpts drawn from the journal of the same name. Like much of subsequent modern tafsīr, the Manār is much more transparent (compared with earlier commentaries) in its reflection of the political and cultural circumstances in which it arose. The Manār was not the only Qurʿān commentary to have journalistic origins; the same was true of the Algerian reformer Ben Badīs (d. 1940), who published his exegesis in his reformist journal, al-Shihāb (The Comet).

Another significant and unconventional tafsīr that is very much a product of modernity is Fī ẓilāl al-Qurʿān (In the Shade of the Qurʿān). Its author, Sayyid Quṭb (d. 1966), was an Egyptian literary critic who became a prolific member of the Muslim Brotherhood (and ideologue of one of its more radical offshoots). His commentary is remarkable for its conscious break with the scholastic tradition, its emphasis on the rhetorical qualities of the Qurʿān, its symbolic and quasi-allegorical interpretations, and his strict views on the importance of personal faith and its political and social ramifications.

As mentioned above, one of the main aims of premodern tafsīr was the preservation of knowledge regarding the Qurʿān, in which the status of scripture was maintained and validated via the experience of the community. In modern commentary there is a tendency to downplay the importance of community and continuity. Many modern movements, whether Salafī or modernist in orientation, promote an emphasis on the Qurʿānic text itself as source of guidance and law, without the intermediaries of tradition and generations of conservative scholars, who are seen to have led the community astray (albeit for different reasons). Thus one sees the promotion of a direct, unmediated reading of the Qurʿān, with rights of interpretation (to varying degrees) granted to those without a traditional education in the Islamic sciences.

Although “Western” scholarship on the Qurʿān and early Islam has revealed a number of interesting avenues of exploration for the history and composition of the Qurʿān, these topics, usually influenced by biblical criticism, have not found their way into Muslim commentaries. Although there have been some efforts to study the Qurʿān from what may be called a “literary-critical” angle, these have been met with deep hostility on the part of religious scholars and others. Two notable Egyptian examples are the works of Muḥammad Khalaf Allāh in the 1940s and Naṣr Ḥāmīd Abū Zayd in the 1990s though neither composed a full-fledged commentary. The opponents of these and other works accuse their authors of denying the historicity, and thereby the unique authority, of the text of the revelation. Similarly, given that a basic component of Muslim doctrine is that the Qurʿān is the direct and final revelation from God, in Arabic, such approaches as source criticism, the suggestion of non-Islamic influences, or textual corruption may appear blasphemous to even the most liberal believer.

Tafsīr is a formal genre firmly rooted in traditional Islamic education, but the modern period has seen significant challenges both to the traditional form of the commentary and the near-monopoly of religious scholars on interpretive authority. However, the commentarial genre is but one of the ways in which Muslims have attempted to understand and interpret their revelation. The meanings of the Qurʿān have been, and continue to be, a topic of discussion and debate among scholars of law, language and theology, but also poets, mystics, philosophers and others. While tafsīr may have an integral role in Islam's intellectual history, it should not be considered to be the only path for reflection on the meanings of the Muslim scripture.

See also TAFSīR.



  • Berg, Herbert. The Development of Exegesis in Early Islam: The Authenticity of Muslim Literature from the Formative Period. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon, 2000. Probably the best and most thorough account in English of the debate surrounding early Islamic sources, with particular reference to tafsīr.
  • Sezgin, Fuat. Geschichte des arabischen Schriftums. Vol. I. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1967. Sezgin argues for the authenticity of early Islamic sources and the early existence of “books” of tafsīr. This book is also an invaluable bio-bibliographical source for the first four Islamic centuries.

The Genre

  • Calder, Norman. “Tafsīr from Ṭabarī to Ibn Kathīr: Problems in the Description of a Genre, Illustrated with Reference to the Story of Abraham.” In Approaches to the Qurʿān, edited by G. R. Hawting and A. K. A. Shareef, pp. 101–140. London: Routledge, 1993. A rare article that attempts to define characteristics of the genre and demonstrates a deep intellectual appreciation of the commentary form and of Qurʿānic hermeneutics.
  • Dammen McAuliffe, Jane. Qurʿānic Christians: An Analysis of Classical and Modern Exegesis. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. A survey of selected commentaries on verses dealing with Christians, this work also has an extremely useful introduction to the study of the Qurʿān and its interpretation.
  • Fudge, Bruce. “Qurʿānic Exegesis in Medieval Islam and Modern Orientalism.”Die Welt des Islams46, no. 2 (2006): 115–147. A discussion of the place of tafsīr in the medieval Muslim scholarly world and the history of its study in the West.
  • Goldziher, Ignaz. Die Richtungen der islamischen Koranauslegung. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1920. Although this book is somewhat dated in terms of its sources, it remains unsurpassed as a study of the field.
  • Rippin, Andrew, ed.The Qurʿān: Formative Interpretation. Brookfield, Ver.: Ashgate, 1999. This collection contains a number of very useful articles on a variety of related topics.
  • Wansbrough, John. Qurʿānic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977. This work is best known for the author's controversial views on Islamic origins. This is somewhat unfortunate because whatever one's views on Wansbrough's conclusions (and many of his claims have been disproven), his work, especially the chapter on “Principles of Exegesis,” contains many stimulating and interesting observations. Not for beginners, however.

Specialized Studies

  • Bar-Asher, Meir M.Scripture and Exegesis in Early Imāmī Shīʿism. Leiden; Boston: E. J. Brill; Jerusalem: Magnes Press, The Hebrew University, 1999. Bar-Asher's work is a fascinating study of Imāmī Shīʿī commentary up to the tenth century.
  • Gilliot, Claude. Exégèse, langue et théologie en Islam: l’exégès coranique de Ṭabarī (m. 311/923). Paris: J. Vrin, 1990. An excellent study on an individual author and his works.
  • Gimaret, Daniel. Une lecture muʿtazilite du Coran: Le tafsīr d’Abū ʿAlī al-Djubbāʿī (m. 303/915.)Paris and Louvain: Peters, 1994. An effort to reconstruct the lost commentary of this early Muʿtazilite by extracting citations from later sources, this work gives a good idea of the concerns of Muʿtazilite exegesis along with many examples of non-sectarian glosses and interpretations.
  • Saleh, Walid A.The Formation of the Classical Tafsīr Tradition: The Qurʿān Commentary of al-Thaʿlabī (d. 427/1035). Leiden; Boston: E. J. Brill, 2004. Another excellent study on an individual author and his works.

On Ṣūfī Commentary

  • Böwering, Gerhard. The Mystical Vision of Existence in Classical Islam: The Qurʿānic Hermeneutics of the Ṣūfī Sahl al-Tustarī. Berlin; New York: de Gruyter, 1980. Böwering gives a thorough and meticulous examination of the work of a single Ṣūfī commentator.
  • Nwyia, Paul. Exégèse coranique et langue mystique. Beirut: Dar el-Machreq éditeurs [distribution: Librairie orientale], 1970. This work is an important study of the origins and development of mystical exegesis.

Modern Qurʿān Commentary

  • Baljon, J. M. S.Modern Muslim Koran Interpretation, 1880–1960. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1961.
  • Jansen, J. J. G.The Interpretation of the Koran in Modern Egypt. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1974.

Translations of Qurʿān Commentary

  • Ayoub, Mahmoud. The Qurʿān and Its Interpreters, vols. 1–2. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984–1992. A very valuable resource, Ayoub gives helpful summaries of the topics discussed and debated over the centuries. However, it is not a translation, and therefore does not give one an idea of what it is like to actually read the commentaries themselves.
  • Beeston, A. F. L.Bayḍāwī's Commentary on Sūrah 12 of the Qurʿān. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963. This is an excellent introduction to reading tafsīr in Arabic because it contains the Arabic text of this popular medieval commentary, a translation, and detailed notes; this work is very useful for any student of the classical language.
  • Gätje, Helmut. The Qurʿān and Its Exegesis: Selected Texts with Classical and Modern Muslim Interpretations. Edited and translated by Alford T. Welch. Rockport, Maine: Oneworld Publications, 1996. This work contains short translations on a wide variety of topics. It can be read profitably without any prior experience or background.
  • Ṭabarī, al-. The Commentary on the Qurʿān. Edited and translated by J. Cooper. London; New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. Covering initial sections of al-Ṭabarī's massive work, this is also very useful, although it illustrates well the difficulties of translating this material.

Bruce Fudge

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