From the very beginning the study of the Koran was linked to the study of Arabic grammar and lexicography. By the eighth century two schools of Arabic learning had developed at Basra and Kufa, both in modern Iraq. Scholars known as qurra', singular qari' (literally "readers") were philologians who were specialists on the text of the Koran. Several different readings on the Koran were officially accepted, although all had to be based on the 'Uthmanic codex. The correct philological interpretation of the Koran was essential to all theological speculation on the scripture, as understanding of the grammatical structure and lexical meaning of the text was prerequisite to a correct understanding and application of its teachings. A special branch of learning was devoted to Koranic exegesis, known as 'tasfir'. As well as the study of grammar and lexicography, other resources were used to elucidate the meaning of a Koranic passage. Traditions concerning the circumstances of particular revelations, or concerning the interpretation and teaching of Muhammad were regarded as particularly important, and were collected and recorded.

The correct interpretation of the Koran was doubly important to the Muslim state as not only was the Koran the ultimate authority on all religious questions, but it was also the basis of Muslim law. There are two especially renowned early works of tasfir. These are the commentary of al-Tabari (839-923), which is an encyclopaedic collection of all scholarship in the field, and the Kashshaf of Zamakhshari. This last is particularly interesting since it has gained almost canonical status, despite the heretical beliefs of the author. Zamakhshari was a Mu'tazilite, a group who sought to introduce philosophical principles from Greek rationalism into Islamic thought. They denied the doctrine that the Koran was uncreated and eternal, because this would compromise and encroach on the uniqueness and oneness of God. Instead, they asserted that the Koran was created by God, but their argument was rejected by Islamic orthodoxy.

The theological schools of medieval Islam all sought to support their doctrines with the aid of Koranic exegesis. There also developed a tradition of 'ta'wil' or allegorical interpretation of the Koran, especially in Sufi literature, in which the doctrines of Islamic mysticism are found hidden behind the literal sense of the scripture. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Islamic modernism arose, which sought to revive Islam from its state of degradation by returning to the pure and uncorrupted Islam of the "ancestors". As the oldest source of Islam, the Koran was central to modernists, and they established principles necessary for correct understanding of the text. They held that much traditional exegesis had distorted the teachings of the prophet and careful reinterpretation of the Koran, as the original source of Islam, was the only path to the truth of God. Modernists also sought to reconcile Islam with modern science. Muhammad 'Abduh, the founder of modernism in Egypt, argued that as the literal word of God, nothing in the Koran can be false or antiquated. He attempted to show that much of modern scientific understanding was already present in the Koran. For example, the jinn of sura 2:176 that cause disease are interpreted as microbes, and the words in verse 2:250 "Many a small band has, by God's grace, vanquished a mighty army. God is with those who endure with fortitude" is taken to refer to Darwin's theory of natural selection.

More recently, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, an Indian Muslim scholar, has argued that it is necessary to interpret the Koran against the background of its environment. Therefore it is essential to study the cultures and languages of ancient Arabia and of other Semitic peoples. A study of the historical circumstances in which the Koran originated will facilitate understanding of what the revelation meant to those who received it, and thus clarify the way the scripture was originally interpreted. Dr Rabar, in his study "The God of Justice"(1960), argued that, in order to elucidate the Koran, traditional exegesis and medieval dogmatics should be consulted, but above all, the Koran itself is the greatest aid to interpreting the holy word of God, and different Koranic passages should be used in comparison, in order to throw light on each other. Such ideas are rejected by Muslim orthodoxy, but they do suggest the inception of a more historical view of the Koran, which attempts to distinguish the central religious ideas from the historical remnants of a bygone age.


Occidental critical analysis of the Koran has come some way since Gibbon labelled the work an "incoherent rhapsody of fable". Nevertheless, the continued treatment of the Koran as a historical document, rather than a holy text has meant that most western scholarship remains unacceptable to the majority of Muslims. The following are summaries of some of the more thought-provoking, if contentious, of recent scholarship.


Publication: Qur'anic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation, (1977)

Wansborough took a controversial stance by arguing that the Koran grew out of sectarian controversies over a long time - perhaps 200 years - in the early history of Islam, and was projected back onto an Arabian point of origin. Moreover, he proposes

  By PanEris using Melati.

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