Language as power: Literary interpretations of the Qur'an in early Islam

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How did pre-modern Muslim exegetes view the mediating role of language in accessing the Qur'an's meaning? What conception of language undergirded their arguments? And what sources of normative authority informed their interpretive canvas? By pursuing this cluster of questions, this essay aims to sketch a picture of the relationship between language and revelation in pre-modern traditions of Qur'an exegesis. More specifically, I conduct a close reading of the Qur'an commentary authored by the prominent Twelver Shi'i theologian, poet, and historian, al-Sharif al-Radi (d.1015 ce). Al-Radi's commentary is a literary exegesis of the Qur'an; in it he presents his concern with ambiguity in the Qur'an and presents language as the hermeneutical key to resolving it. I argue that al-Radi's invocation of varied grammatical rules and his construction of literary arguments were embedded in a particular epistemological and theological conception of the normative relationship between language and revelation. Further, I also interrogate the historically specific conditions and the variety of intellectual currents and vectors (other than sectarian affiliation) that informed al-Radi's hermeneutical choices. By paying close attention to describing the multivalent interpretive traditions that informed al-Radi's Qur'an hermeneutic, this article highlights the conceptual problems attached to the very category of a “Shi'i Qur'an hermeneutic,” a category that stands authorised through the unsound assumption that sectarian identity and hermeneutical horizons readily correspond in a predictable and seamless fashion. It is precisely this assumption of neat correspondence between sectarian identity and hermeneutical temperament that this essay seeks to challenge and disrupt.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)207-230
Number of pages24
JournalJournal of the Royal Asiatic Society
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 1 2018
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Cultural Studies
  • General Arts and Humanities


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