Theses Doctoral

The Stories of Joseph and the Cave: Reading Modern Qur’anic Commentaries in the United States

Rahman, Ebadur

The publication of Qur’an commentaries authored by contemporary Muslims provide glimpses into influential trends that have been competing for the attention of contemporary Muslims. This dissertation primarily examines three works of Qur’anic translation and exegesis (Ar. Tafsīr) in the English language. These works are representative of three influential trends or schools of thought in contemporary Islam: an “Islamist” or “Activist” trend represented by Abu’l ‘Ala Mawdudi, a rationalist-modernist trend represented by Muhammad Asad, and a Salafi trend represented by the Mubarakpūrī English abridgement of the medievalist Ibn Kathīr's hadith-based tafsir. These commentators often engage earlier Qur’anic commentaries and make choices about which voices and positions from the “classical legacy” they foreground, highlighting what they believe may resonate with their readers.

The first chapter provides an historical overview to some of the major trends in Qur’anic exegesis. The second chapter provides background on the commentators, including the social and political contexts of the commentators as well as their education and important aspects of their careers. The third and fourth chapters focus on two chapters of the Qur’an (Q12 and Q18) as these appear in the three commentaries, highlighting how modern commentators reflect their own concerns and context and their various reform projects in their interpretations of Muslim scripture. I supplement the main three commentators with a sample of contemporary living voices who also comment on these two Qur’anic chapters to highlight how Muslims continue to reinterpret the Qur’anic texts in relation to what they see as most relevant and meaningful. Chapter five looks at how these works have been received and considers how they offer a window into the contestation taking place in contemporary Islam. I conclude with a reflection upon my own teaching of these two chapters in a university setting. While the Islamic scholarly traditions and Qur’anic commentaries are a multilayered, polyvalent tradition, these traditions are often (unfortunately) truncated by many contemporary Muslims.

I try to highlight certain areas where the contemporary commentaries are, on the one hand, generally narrower than the rich polyvalent traditions of the premodern exegetical tradition, but on the other hand, move in new directions as Muslims today relate their readings of scripture to contemporary concerns. This analysis of contemporary Qur’anic commentaries and their commentators moves beyond freezing Muslims into the fixed category of the “premodern.” Though the three commentaries were chosen to be representative of three important trends in modern Islam, the dissertation is also careful to show that the boundaries between these approaches are often fluid, providing concrete examples of how contemporary Muslims are reinterpreting Muslim scripture, affirming and selecting from the premodern tradition, critical of certain aspects of that tradition, and also adding their own voices to make the Qur’anic text speak to their modern situations.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Ewing, Katherine P.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 6, 2022