Readings in Qur'an, Tafsir, and Sira
This course begins with close readings of selected Qur'anic passages. In the course of those readings, key questions of interpretation will be raised. We will then turn to Qur'anic commentaries that take up those questions. Finally, we will read passages from the Life of the Prophet, with a focus of that composed by Ibn Ishaq / Ibn Hisham, which narrativize the occasions for the revelation of the relevant Qur'anic passages and offer other historical detail, often raising new questions in the process.
The core topic for 2011 are those passages in the Qur'an that are interpreted in the tafsirs or the siras as reflecting a conflict between the followers of Muhammad and elders of the Jewish tribe in Medina known as the Bani Qaynuqa'.
The connecting verses (verses of the Qur'an that connect all three sections of the spring, 2011 seminar) are 3:181-182 and 5:64; Also of relevance 3:130, 2:245.
This course leaves open the question of the historicity of the accounts in the commentaries and the sira, or the temporal and geographical provenance of such accounts. It is primarily concerned with the relation of those accounts to the Qur'anic texts they purport to illumine, the interior consistency within specific accounts, and the consistency or tension among different accounts.
The course is divided into three sections
1) Qur'an bi l-Qur'an
A) Sura 3:
Close reading of extended Qur'anic passages. In this case, Sura 3 with special attention to 3:130-3:189.
If Sura 3 is a unit with an interior thematic unity, what are its core themes and how do they work together?
Who are the Ahl al-Kitab? And are they put in a symetrically opposite position vis-a-vis "those who believe." How to the two second-person plural addresses, ya ahla l-kitab and ya al-ladhina aminu, work in the sura? do they form a set of khutba-like mini-units?
How do these generic addresses work with or in tension with the subunits mentioned at other times, such as the various factions (ta'ifat) of the ahl al-kitab.
Specific question #1: Who are those who say (said): "Truly Allah is poor (in need) and we are rich (not-in-need)." 3:181.
B) Sura 5 Selection: verses 44-86
Here the more general term Ahl al-Kitab is supplemented with references to the Bani Isra'il, the yahud, al-ladhina hadu, and al-nasara.
General problem: what is the relation of the yahud in the Qur'an to the bani isra'il: are the two terms synonyms? Do the yahud represent a subsection of bani israel? Can chronology be used to separate the bani isra'il from the yahud? Does the Qur'an provide a clearly demarcated and defined dyad of group identities associated with the term?
These questions of group identity become particularly sharp in the case of 5:64. Qala al-yahud (the Yahud said, the Yahud say): "Allah's hand is fettered," which is followed by a curse on those who make such a statement. Does the term al-Yahud encompass all Yahud, or a large portion of the Yahud, or a representative portion for whom the entire group is responsible? How does the more generic "al-yahud said" in the first part of the verse tie into the acknowledgement of in-group diversity "kathiran minhum" in the second part of the verse?
Excursus: are their any texts associated with the Hebrew Bible, rabbinic or qara'ite traditions, or other texts that might have been attributed to Jews or Israelites, or a group or set of individuals associated with them, that state or imply that the hand of the deity is fettered? Might any such text have been likely to have been known in Arabia at the time of Muhammad? We cannot spend much time on this question, since our main task is to understand how tafsir and sira dealt with the question and not whether historians have been able to identify any such belief, rhetoric, or metaphors within traditions associated with Judaism.
Part II: Selected Commentaries
3:181 and 8:64 in the early commentaries, including Muqatil, Tabari, Zamakhshari, and Ibn Kathir
Specific questions: Who said "truly, Allah it is who is poor and we who are rich?"
Specific question: Who said "God's hand is fettered" according to classical tafsirs? Three names come up early and prominently on in this context: Finhas (Phinehas), Azir bin abi Azir (or Uzayr?); Shas bin Qays. Who would they have been? What did they mean in making these remarks? What was their intention in making these remarks? Why were these remarks viewed as particularly grave? If it was only a handful or even only a single individual who said "God's hand is fettered" why does the Qur'an use the generic plural, and if one person made the statement, why is the curse given in the plural. And, more pointedly, as several commentaries suggest, the Yahud as a group are condemned, why would God condemn them all because of the statement one a few or of one.
The answers to the above question are narrativized by Ibn Ishaq / Ibn Hisham in the account of Muhammad at Medina, years 1-3. Finhas, Azir xx, and Shas bin Qays are presented as elders of the tribe of the banu qaynuqa. The two controversial statements seem to be used in the Sira to explain Muhammad's declaration of war against the Bani Qaynuqa'. At question is the covenant, presented in the Sira, as operative between all the groups in Medina at the time, in the face of the Quraysh of Mecca, and in specific, between the Muslimun and the Yahud of Medina.
In many popular accounts, Muhammad declares war against three Medinan tribes of Yahud in succession, after each violates or is accused of violating the convenant. Yet the passages in Ibn Ishaq / Ibn Hisham raise tantalizing questions about the popular narrative. In this seminar we take only the first war, between Muhammad's followers and the Bani Qaynuqa'.
What specific incidents in the Sira between the two parties, prior to the declaration of war against the Qaynuqa? What does Muhammad say to the Banu Qaynuqa'. What does Abu Bakr say to them? How does the conflict over the insult of a Muslima in the souq of the Bani Qaynuqa' fit into these accounts? What, in short, does Ibn Ishaq / Ibn Hisham suggest was the action of the Banu Qaynuqa' that violated or was perceived by Muhammad as violating the covenant?
The problem of naming group identity as a philosophical issue, a linguistic or semiotic issue, and a general human difficulty.
The question of group identity in the Qur'an: in the tribal code of the jahiliyya, groups were held responsible as a whole for the actions of some or even one of their members. The Qur'an appears to challenge many aspects of such group responsibility. The conflict with Banu Qaynuqa is placed in the Sira at the dawn of Islam. How are the notions of group and individual identity and group identity negotiated within the Sira?
How are group identification and group identify negotiated in terms of divine judgments for the afterlife? and in terms of specific authorization of war and conquest against a group, in this case the Bani Qaynuqa' in a specific historical circumstance?
Is the statement: "the Qur'anic position on the Jews" a meaningful utterance, or can we only speak of Qur'anic positions on various groups associated with Jews in some way?
Comparisons with similar discussions in other traditions (scribes, Pharisees, and Iudaios in the New Testament; etc).