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For a Renewed Interpretation of the Qur'an: The Lesson of a Great Islamologist

Sandro Magister

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Michel Cuypers applies to the sacred book of Islam the methods already applied to the Bible. The results are astonishing. For example, the most bellicose verses of the Qur'an do not "abrogate" the more tolerant and peaceable ones, as the proponents of holy war presume.

ROMA, June 4, 2007 -- The 38 authoritative Muslims who signed, last October, the "Open Letter to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI" in reply to his lecture on September 12 in Regensburg, have now grown to 100.

Their names and their qualifications are presented at the foot of the "Letter," in a prominent relaunching of it by "Islamica Magazine," the quarterly edited in the United States and printed in Jordan that also handled its initial publication.

The 100 belong to dozens of nations and to different currents of Islamic thought, Sunni and Shiite: an extremely rare occurrence. Among these is Aref Ali Nayed, two of whose essays in response to the lecture in Regensburg were previewed on www.chiesa, and who makes another contribution in the dossier dedicated by "Islamica Magazine" to the theses on faith, reason, and violence that Benedict XVI presented in Regensburg.

Last May 11, Nayed held a "lectio" in Rome, at the Pontifical Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies (PISAI), on the topic of "compassion" as the first attribute of God in Islamic theology. In the past, Nayed -- who holds a post at the University of Cambridge, and is an observant Muslim "of the Asharite school in theology, Maliki in jurisprudential tendency, and Shadhili-Rifai in spiritual leanings" -- was also a docent for two years at the PISAI.

Those in attendance at his lecture, apart from the public, included representatives from the embassies of the Unites States, Russia, and other countries. Also there was the director of "Islamica Magazine," Sohail Nakhooda, a Jordanian.

The following day, on May 12, accompanied by Fr. Migues Angel Ayuso Guixot, the head of the PISAI, Nayed talked with members of the Vatican secretariat of state.

One of the critical points that make understanding between Christians and Muslims difficult is the interpretation of the Qur'an. The "Letter of the 100" does not face this question directly, although it is in the background.

But for some time, a few genuine scholars, both Muslim and Christian, have been dedicating themselves to new interpretations of the Qur'an.

In the Muslim camp, this research is conducted discreetly, and so far it has had little influence on the dominant interpretations.

In the Christian camp, these studies are more out in the open. But they demand much more attention that they receive.

An important interview on this topic appeared in issue no. 4, 2007 of the magazine "Il Regno [The Kingdom]," edited in Bologna by the Sacred Heart fathers.

The guest of the interview is Michel Cuypers, 65, from Belgium, a member of the Little Brothers of Jesus, the religious community founded in the twentieth century by Charles de Foucauld.

Cuypers spent twelve years in Iran, first in a house of care for lepers in Tabriz, and then studying Persian language and literature in Tehran. He received his doctorate in Persian literature at the university of Tehran in 1983. He then studied Arabic in Syria and Egypt, and in 1989 moved to Cairo, where he now resides.

He is a researcher at the Dominican Institute for Oriental Studies, founded in Cairo half a century ago by the Dominican Islamologists Georges Anawati, Jacques Jomier, and Serge Beaurecueil.

Since 1994, Cuypers has concentrated all of his studies upon the composition of the text of the Qur'an, adopting the method of rhetorical analysis. His articles and essays win increasing admiration, including from Muslim scholars. A book of his dedicated to the analysis of one chapter of the Qur'an, "Le Festin: Une lecture de la sourate al-Maida [The Banquet: An Interpretation of the al-Ma'ida Sura]," has just been published in France, with a preface by the eminent Muslim scholar Mohamed-Ali Amir-Moezzi.

The interview published by "Il Regno," originally in French, was conducted by Francesco Strazzari. Here it is:

An interview with Michel Cuypers

Q: Brother Michel Cuypers, talk to us about your research and your new book, "Le Festin: Une lecture de la sourate al-Maida [The Banquet: An Interpretation of the al-Ma'ida Sura]."

A: For a dozen years I have been carrying out a study on the composition of the Qur'an, using a method called "rhetorical analysis," already used in biblical studies. This research takes advantage of two and a half centuries of studies on the Bible, and twenty years ago it was systematized in an excellent way by Roland Meynet, a Jesuit professor of biblical theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

What this means is a rediscovery of the techniques of writing and composition that the scribes of the ancient Semitic world used to create their texts. The word "rhetorical" must therefore be taken in this case in the precise sense of "the art of composition of the text" (which corresponds only in part to what Aristotle meant by the word "dispositio," or rhetoric).

Biblical -- and, more broadly, Semitic -- rhetoric differs completely from that of the Greeks, which has marked all of our Western culture, and also Arab culture, after this opened itself to the Greek cultural heritage.

This is founded upon a simple principle, that of symmetry, which can take on the form of synonymic, antithetical, or complementary parallelism (or the three types of parallelism that biblical exegesis, with Robert Lowth and his "Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews," which appeared in 1753, demonstrated within the Psalms), or again the form of chiasm or "inverse parallelism" (AB/B'A'), and finally "concentrism," when a central element appears between two symmetrical segments of the text (AB/x/B'A').

These correspondences present themselves on various textual levels: elements, groups of elements, etc., extending to seven or eight levels for important texts. The identification of these symmetries permits the division of the text into semantic units and the exposition of its structure, which in turn provides the direction for interpretation. In fact, the final end of this technique of analysis, as of all other forms of exegesis, is that of understanding the meaning of the text. My research is thus absolutely interdisciplinary, because I am applying to the Qur'an a system of analysis that originates in biblical studies.

At first, this was nothing more than a research hypothesis: my intention was that of verifying whether rhetorical biblical analysis was in fact applicable to the Qur'an. I began by analyzing some of the shorter suras, and it soon became evident that this system was perfectly suited to the analysis of the Qur'anic text: nothing changed on the level of theory; all of the principles were precisely verified in the text of the Qur'an.

After the study of thirty or so brief suras attributed to the beginning of Mohammed's prophetic ministry, I decided to start on the analysis of a longer sura. I chose Sura 5 (normally called "The Table," al-Ma'ida in Arabic), because according to tradition this is the last sura in chronological order: in this way, the method could be applied both to the texts from the chronological beginning of the text, and to those from the end. This would permit the drawing of well-reasoned conclusions, and the affirmation that it is plausible that the entire Qur'an is constructed according to these same principles of composition.

Q: Why use rhetorical analysis on the structure of the Qur'an? Earlier you used an "atomistic," fragmentary form of interpretation on small semantic units.

A: The experience of finding oneself disoriented and quickly discouraged before the apparent disorder of the Qur'anic text is one that is absolutely common to every sort of reader, especially to the non-Muslim reader who has not grown up with this text since his childhood. The Qur'an does not unfold in a linear manner, as the progressive development of one or more themes, as Greek rhetoric taught us. In the Qur'an, the subjects are mixed together: no sooner is one theme mentioned than it is immediately broken off, perhaps to reappear later; and some passages introduce topics that are completely extraneous to the context. The reader immediately gets the impression of complete incoherence, and is drawn despite himself into an atomistic, discontinuous reading of fragments independently from one another.

It is worth noting that we modern Westerners are not the only ones to have this impression. In the Qur'an itself, some neophyte converts to Islam point out this matter to the Prophet (Qur'an 25:32), and in the first Muslim generations there were some who criticized this aspect of the Qur'an, which then led to the production of an entire series of works attempting to assert the coherence (nazm) of the Book, but whose arguments are not convincing and deal only with some details, in such a way that the problem remains nonetheless.

Modern Western scholars of Islam have for a long time simply taken note of this incoherence of the text as an evident fact. And because everyone practiced the historical-critical method, the found in the incoherences of the text support for identifying redactional layers, later additions, or revisions, to which they sometimes did not hesitate to give a more "logical" order by moving certain verses.

The search for order within the text thus appeared to be a real challenge. During the 1980's, a few isolated scholars of Islam sought to understand the composition of the brief suras of the Mecca period (the first period of Qur'anic revelation), with very partial results, declaring moreover that it was no longer possible to find any sort of order in the long suras composed in the Medina period (which are placed at the beginning of the Qur'an, but are considered to be the last chronologically). Because my analyses of the shorter suras had produced absolutely positive results, I needed to try the longer Medina suras. From this was born "The Banquet."

Q: How is your form of interpretation different from the others?

A: It is essentially in the fact that the rhetorical analysis of the text allows a contextual reading. The fragmentation of the text has been without a doubt the main reason why all the classical scholars comment on the Qur'an verse by verse, apart from any consideration of the literary context in which the verses are placed. This is the reason why they explain the verses through elements external to the text, what they technically call the "occasions of revelation": by resorting to anecdotes or events from the life of the Prophet, drawn from the traditions (hadīth) attributed to the Prophet or to his companions, they explain the historical reason why this or that verse was revealed, thus attributing to it a specific meaning.

Now, when a verse is put back into its context and enclosed within the textual structure of which it is part, its true meaning often seems to have no need for recourse to these "occasions of revelation," which, it can be conjectured, were often constructed "post eventum" in order to clarify the difficulties of the text.

I'll give an example. Verse 106 of Sura 2 presents these words of God: "We do not abrogate any verse, or cause it to be forgotten, without giving you a better or equal one." This verse has been presented by the jurists, the fuqahā', as the Qur'anic foundation of their theory of abrogation, according to which certain verses of the Qur'an override others. This theory has permitted the resolution of apparent contradictions among verses, especially normative ones. It is considered, therefore, that the more recent verses override the older ones, and in order to determine which are the more recent, it was decided a priori that the tougher and more restrictive verses must be more recent, and that these should override the earlier, more mild or tolerant ones.

Returning to the cited verse, if this is put back into its context, it can be seen that the meaning is absolutely different: it is a reply to some Jews who had protested against Mohammed because he had included modified verses from the Torah in his proclamation of the Qur'an. To this accusation of "falsification," God replies that he is free to abrogate a preceding revelation by substituting a new and better one in its place. This is a matter, therefore, of the abrogation of the Torah on the part of the Qur'an, and not of the Qur'an within itself.

In spite of the fact that a number of Muslim scholars throughout the twentieth century, and still recently the French Islamologist Genevičve Gobillot, have forcefully denounced this error of interpretation, it continues to enjoy widespread popularity. This is a question of great relevance, because the Islamic extremists make use of this argument to assert that especially the harshest verses of Sura 9 (29 and 73), which incite Muslims to fight against the infidels, override roughly 130 more tolerant verses, which instead open the way to peaceful coexistence between Muslims and the other communities.

Faithful to the logic of abrogation as they understand it, the extremists (as ancient commentators had already done) consider Sura 9 as the last one revealed, which abrogates especially the more "open" and tolerant verses of Sura 5, while everything in this latter demonstrates that it is a text-testament that concludes the revelation.

Q: What allows you to assert this?

A: Rhetorical analysis alone does not permit one to reach this conclusion: this is possible through a contextualization of the sura, in the context of an intertextual approach. It contains, in effect, a number of absolutely clear citations from the Bible or from parabiblical texts: the rebellion of the children of Israel, who refuse to enter the Promised Land (taken from the book of Numbers), Cain's murder of Abel, the law of retaliation, a precept from the Mishnah (quoted word for word), apocryphal scenes from the childhood of Jesus, and also a rather mysterious evocation of the last supper (whence the title of the sura).

These things have long been known. But an attentive reading of the text reveals a number of other less evident but no less real biblical echoes, which, taken together, leave no doubt about the deuteronomical background of the surA: the mixture of legal and narrative passages, the central theme of the covenant, the entry into a holy land, the lexicon (the repetition of "today" by God, the injunctions to obey the precepts, etc.).

Deuteronomy presents itself as the prophetic testament of Moses, and concludes the Pentateuch, the Torah: in fact, he dies at the end of the book. According to tradition, Sura 5 was revealed at the moment of the solemn pilgrimage of farewell for the Prophet, who died soon afterward. The resemblance of the two situations is striking, except for the fact that Moses does not enter into the promised land, while Mohammed finds himself with his triumphant community in the holy land of the sanctuary of Mecca.

The account of the revolt of the children of Israel, which first appears in the book of Numbers, is presented again in Deuteronomy. This account is key for understanding all of Sura 5: it illustrates the rejection of the people of the Book, the Jews and Christians, to enter into the Islamic covenant, unlike the Muslims. At the end of the sura, the evocation of the supper is again linked to the theme of the covenant, in a context in which traces can be seen of the farewell discourse of Jesus in the Gospel of John, another discourse-testament. Finally, it must be noted that the sura concludes with the judgment of Jesus, who formally denies before the Lord that he asserted that he was the Son of God, and, on the contrary, solemnly proclaims the purest form of monotheism (5:116-117.

This is the last word, chronologically speaking, of the Qur'anic revelation, and corresponds exactly to the end of the text of the Book, because Sura 112 proclaims the same intransigent monotheism, denying any sort of filiation in God (Suras 113 and 114, two prayers that do not appear in some primitive codices, must be considered, together with Sura 1, as a liturgical bracketing of the Qur'an: Sura 112 is, therefore, the real conclusion of the Book).

Q: Do you consider it important that, at this time, the Qur'an is being approached with scholarly methodologies such as hermeneutics and biblical exegesis?

A: In effect, I consider this of fundamental importance. Traditional Islamic exegesis, after accomplishing all that it could, exhausted its resources long ago: for many decades, it has done nothing but repeat the comments of the first three or four centuries of the Hijra. The great classical commentaries are still texts of reference, and they must be consulted, especially for questions of grammar or philology, but they cannot in any way give a reply to the problems of modern man, who lives in a completely different world.

It is precisely for this reason that important ideological commentaries appeared in the twentieth centuries, the best-known of which include those of the Indian-Pakistani Mawdūdī and Sayyid Qutb of Egypt, an ideologist of the Muslim Brotherhood: these are interpretations of the Qur'an prompted by modern social and political realities. Contemporary Islamic currents make direct reference to these; their slogan is that of returning to the Qur'an, beyond all of the deviations and decadence of the Muslim community's history. But the question is this: how does one "return to the Qur'an"?

The quickest and easiest way is that of projecting upon it one's own personal aspirations, manipulating the text however one pleases. A growing number of Muslim intellectuals are forcefully denouncing this way of proceeding, and are calling for a scholarly study of the text, as Christians have done with the Bible. The road is clearly a long and arduous one, and the results are unforeseeable: this is perhaps the reason for the fear it arouses. On the part of the Muslims, the research in this direction is in its earliest stage, apart from a few exceptions, while the Western Orientalists have for a century and a half provided an enormous amount of data (which can be found especialy in the "Encyclopedia of Islam" and in the very recent "Encyclopaedia of the Qur'ān"). The great centers of Muslim theology, like Al-Azhar University in Cairo, are still very distrustful of these modern methodologies.

Q: How can one arrive at the heart of the Qur'an, without getting caught up in the various interpretive traditions that can cause deviations?

A: The "method," if it can be called this, is no different from the one required by any other sort of scholarly research, and it is the critical capacity. This requires spiritual asceticism: the ability to distance oneself from the object of study, to be ready to question received ideas and make unexpected discoveries (it is not true that one finds only what one is seeking!), not to affirm anything without having demonstrated it, to submit, in studying the text, to the discipline of the modern human sciences (above all linguistics, history, literary criticism).

Muhammad Arkoun, a French thinker of Algerian origin, has asserted with reason and with a bit of humor that the most effective way of fighting against the violence and terrorism of the Islamic extremists would be to make the "Encyclopaedia of the Qur'ān," the result of this kind of scholarly and critical approach to the Book, required reading for young students. The great difficulty is that in the Middle East, education is essentially founded upon tradition and memorization, and not upon reflection and the critical spirit. This is a cultural phenomenon that poses problems for scholarly progress in general, and for the evolution of exegesis in particular.

Q: In your view, could this approach to the text of the Qur'an give an impression of attacking Islam, or, on the contrary, of attaining the purity of the Qur'anic faith?

A: Islam was not established on the basis of the Qur'an alone. The hadīth, which are attributed to the prophet and form the Sunna (or the traditions that can be traced back to the imams for the Shiites), and later the elaboration of Muslim jurisprudence (fiqh) and law (shari'a) have played a role just as important, if not more so. Commentary (tafsīr) on the Qur'an is part of the Islamic tradition. In order to explain the text, the classical commentaries primarily make reference to the "circumstances of revelation," of which I have spoken above, and thus to a principle outside of the text.

Rhetorical analysis, instead, takes under examination only the text as it is, in its canonical version. It methodically abstracts from tradition (at least at first) and, because it approaches the text in a completely new way, it often arrives at interpretations that do not agree with it. Nonetheless, it absolutely does not attack the heart of the Muslim faith; on the contrary, it brings this to light even more, liberating it from the additions that have weighed it down through history.

The example that I gave above is proof of this: the chronological end of the Mohammedan revelation (the end of Sura 5) and the conclusion of the Book (Sura 112) have exactly the same content, emphasizing the fact that Islamic monotheism rigorously rejects the idea of the divine filiation of Jesus: this is at the heart of the Muslim creed. One could make another example of the evocation of the supper in verses 112-115: the traditional commentaries are extremely misleading, because they treat the text as a marvelous account that describes with great gusto the sumptuous foods of the meal that God sends down from heaven.

But an attentive reading instead discovers here many echoes of the discourse on the bread of life, in chapter 6 of the Gospel of John, which immediately brings an entirely different dimension to the text, that of the allusion to the new covenant brought by Jesus and to the decision that the apostles (and the Christians after them) must face: to enter into this covenant, or to pass beyond it, embracing the one brought by Mohammed. A contextual and intertextual interpretation permits one to leave behind an anecdotal reading and to arrive at theological dimensions that were ignored by the ancient commentaries, and yet are absolutely in keeping with the Islamic faith.

Q: Will Muslim theologians understand that rhetorical analysis of the text makes possible an interpretation of it that should permit a renewal of Qur'anic exegesis as it has done for biblical exegesis?

A: These things require time. Let's remember the difficulties at the beginning of modern exegesis in the Catholic Church. There also exist various schools of thought: rhetorical biblical analysis had to assert itself not against, but side by side with the historical-critical approach to the Bible, which was the only school recognized for a long time.

Given the enormous weight of tradition within Islam, one can foresee that things will advance more slowly ("in geological time," as a great expert on Islam has joked). It will be without a doubt the burdensome and difficult task of the Muslim intellectuals -- who will have perfectly assimilated the modern scholarly spirit -- to weave the bond between the traditional theologies and the new approaches to the Qur'anic text. These intellectuals are perfectly aware of what is at stake, and this is why I did not hesitate to ask an eminent Muslim researcher, professor Mohamed-Ali Amir-Moezzi, to write the preface for my book.

Q: Rhetorical analysis places the Qur'an in the context of ancient Semitic literature. What does this entail? What are the consequences?

A: It presupposes above all that the Qur'an should be considered as a literary text. Already in the 1930's, the great Egyptian thinker and writer Taha Husein was reclaiming the right to read the Qur'an as a literary work, beside Homer and Shakespeare. The fact of analyzing the Qur'an under the profile of Semitic rhetoric in effect places this text in the context of the literature of late antiquity.

It is clear that traditional Islam resists such an approach, because the Qur'an is considered a divine word come down from heaven, where it is kept upon a heavenly table. This word is therefore considered as having no connection with any earthly realities. This theoretical position clearly does not hold up in practice: the Qur'an was written, as it itself affirms, in "clear Arabic language," a language that gave rise, from the very beginning of Qur'anic exegesis, to grammatical and lexicological analyses in relation to the existing Arabic language, in a very well-defined place and time.

So there is no evident reason why considering the composition of the text from the point of view of its similarities with the composition of other ancient Semitic texts should pose any real theological problem. Rhetoric, as we define it, is nothing other than the grammar of the text, at a level above that of the words and sentences.

Beyond this possible difficulty, Muslims should rejoice in discovering that this text, so greatly criticized by some for its incoherence, is in reality well constructed, with great precision, sometimes even to the point of sophisticated refinement. This is obviously on the condition of accepting that there can exist within it other forms of logic and rhetoric, different from those of the Greek tradition. Certain Muslims could even interpret this, a bit hastily, as proof of the miraculous nature of the Qur'an.

Q: Here's a question that's often posed: should the Qur'an be taken in its entirety down to the letter, or are there things in it that can be left to the past?

A: This question is also posed in regard to the Bible, and the same answer can be given. The main task of exegesis is to expound the letter of the text as faithfully as possible. But this letter is complex and full of contradictions that seem impossible to resolve. From this arises the necessity of an interpretation that takes into account not only the detail of the text, but also the entirety of the Book.

And if one maintains that these foundational texts are alive, that they still have something to say to us today, their interpretation cannot ignore the moral and spiritual evolution of humanity. A great Egyptian reformist thinker, sheikh Muhammad Abduh (who died in 1905), asserted that all of the verses of the Qur'an cannot be placed on the same level: many are circumstantial, and were applicable in a specific situation, that of the founding of the Muslim community, but have long since been outdated.

Next to these verses, there are others that reflect a universal wisdom valid for all times, and it is upon these that religious faith and practice must be founded. This is what those 38 Muslims -- later growing to 100, and including a large number of grand muftis of various countries -- did in signing the "Open Letter to His Holiness Benedict XVI": in that document, they highlight the verses that permit the peaceful coexistence of Muslims with the other human communities.

This might mean that they implicitly consider the bellicose verses, which are found above all in the already cited Sura 9, as no longer applicable. But this needs to be declared officially and with clarity, and considered as definitive and irrevocable. But here one runs into another difficulty, that of the lack of a Muslim magisterium that could take such a step with authority.

Q: One more question: should dialogue with Islam be cultural or religious in character?

A: Without entering here into the opportunity -- or lack thereof -- for a structural rearrangement of the pontifical curia, it seems evident to me that dialogue with the Muslims, as with all other religions, cannot help but include both of these things.

If one believes the declarations of Vatican Council II, and in particular the declaration "Nostra Aetate," it is clear that Islam represents one of the major religions of our time, closer to Christianity through its historical roots than most other religions are. Its status is certainly different from that of Judaism, the tree onto which Christianity is grafted, but it possesses essential traits in common with our faith, which were pointed out in the conciliar text.

Does not the Letter to the Hebrews itself say that "anyone who approaches God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him" (Heb. 11:6)? And in its turn, the Qur'an declares twice that "those who believe [the Muslims], the Jews, the Sabians, the Nazarenes, and anyone who believes in Allah and in the last day and does what is good, they will not need to fear [hell] and will not be afflicted" (5:59, cf. also 2:62).

But it is true that Islam is not only a religion, it is also a culture, vast and varied just as Christianity is, and this aspect must equally be part of the dialogue. Fr. Georges Anawati, founder of the Dominican Institute for Oriental Studies, loved to repeat: "Neither culture without religion, nor religion without culture."

Read the entire article on the Chiesa website (new window will open).

Posted: 03-Jul-07



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