Recognition and the Qur’ān

The last session of our spring seminar approached the Qur’ān and the Qur’ānic heritage from two largely opposed points of view. Our guest, research professor Anthony Lappin from Maynooth University, opened the session by a detailed discussion of the reception history of the first Latin translation of the Qur’ān as told by the layers of marginal notes and comments appended to the manuscripts. Lappin’s material is rather complex by nature, but it yields us a vivid picture of the ebbs and flows of the Latin understanding and appreciation of the book.


Anthony Lappin (photo Heikki J. Koskinen)

Commissioned in the 1140s by Peter the Venerable, the translation was to serve the purpose of a well-founded refutation of Islam. The work, eventually titled Lex Mahumet pseudoprophete, was carried out in the Cluniac monastery of Nájera by two astronomical translators, Robert Ketton and Herman of Dalmatia, whose appended notes betray a reasonably developed understanding of the Qur’ān and the Arabic exegetical tradition. This expertise was soon lost, however, as a look at some of the thirteenth century manuscripts shows. These abound with a wide variety of more or less imaginative “explanations” of recurrent themes in the Qur’ān; for an illustrative example, the two central jurisprudential terms ḥalāl and ḥarām were all but lost for the subsequent readership.

Although there are several thirteenth century copies of the text, it became the object of a quite unprecedented interest in the fifteenth century. Since the beginning, political questions pervaded the reception of the Latin Qur’ān. Indeed, there are interesting parallels between the tense geopolitical situation of the twelfth century Iberian peninsula, the text’s context of birth, and the fifteenth century with its increasing Ottoman presence. But it is interesting to observe that certain fifteenth and sixteenth century readers, such as Marsilio Ficino, Nicholas of Cusa or Johann Albrecht Widmanstetter, were much more favorably attuned to the “pseudoprophecy” and attempting to read it as a piece of universal wisdom – albeit with often quite idiosyncratic presumptions.

Lappin’s fascinating talk showed that in a sense, little has changed in the Western reception of the Qur’ān. Although scholars of Islam have experienced a decisive upsurge of requests for their expertise after the 9/11 attacks and the steady global presence of fundamentalist interpretations of political Islam, the underlying political interests in the attention to the book and the “law of Muḥammad” are scarcely veiled.

If professor Lappin’s presentation could be characterized as a study of one thread in the history of outsider recognitions of the Qur’ān, my own talk attempted to address the question of whether the ideas of religious recognition and tolerance are to be found in the Qur’ān and the classical exegetical tradition. If we define religious tolerance heuristically as the belief or attitude that another’s religious beliefs can be intrinsically valuable even if (either entirely or partly) untrue, we can argue that such a concept is articulated in the Qur’ān. Indeed, the peaceful nature of the Islamic religion is often corroborated by appeal to such verses as the beginning of 2:256 (There is no compulsion in religion).

Islam is a highly textual religion, and interpreting the Qur’ān in new historical contexts always entails an engagement with the scholarly tradition. Although the situation has become more complex with the twentieth century advent of the fundamentalist claims for broader interpretative authority, the classical exegetical authorities still represent the most important standards according to which Qur’ān is read and taught. For this reason, it is not only historically interesting but also crucially important for contemporary Islamic ethics and interreligious dialogue to look at how these authors understood the passages expressing the alleged Qur’ānic idea of tolerance.

In my brief talk I focused on Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī’s (d. 1209) extensive verse-by-verse commentary, the Mafātīḥ al-ghayb. Rāzī’s concise discussion of Q 2:256 finds it relevant for three questions, all of which pertain to the topic of religious tolerance. Strictures of time, however, forced me to focus on only of them – the theological question of whether free decision (ikhtiyār) is a necessary feature of genuine religious commitment (the other two questions are related to the status of dhimmīs and the validity of wartime shahāda). Interestingly, Rāzī connects this question to the old theological debate of whether, and in what precise sense, human beings are the agents of their acts. This question is theologically problematic, because one natural answer to it threatens to compromise God’s omnipotence and omniscience: if temporary agents are the causes of their acts, then their agency limits that of God; and if they act freely, that is, in a way undetermined by any factors external to them, then God cannot know how they will act before they have acted.

Jari Kaukua (photo Heikki J. Koskinen)

Jari Kaukua (photo Heikki J. Koskinen)

The two opposing views, one emphasizing the free agency and consequent responsibility of human beings, the other sticking to an uncompromised concept of God’s omnipotence, were characteristic of the two main schools of Islamic theology, that is, Mu‘tazilism and Ash‘arism, respectively. In this question, Rāzī sides with the Ash‘arite view but also holds on to the idea that personal choice is necessary for genuine religion.

In the end, it is difficult to see whether he is capable of solving the dilemma, but regardless of that, one interesting observation for the question of tolerance can be made. This is the fact that both of the rival theological schools expressly subscribe to the idea that people should be allowed free choice of religious subscription – at least in the case of responsible adults who are actual unbelievers, as opposed to apostates. If anything, the Ash‘arite view is even more pronounced in this regard: since everything, including the “free” choice of submission to Islam, is in God’s hands, human beings must refrain from forcing their beliefs on each other.

As duly noted in the discussion period, these observation can only constitute a start for assessing the approach of Rāzī and other classical exegetes on our material. Crucial questions to consider will be, for instance, whether and on what basis apostasy is condemned while sticking to this notion of religious tolerance, and on how this material is related to the factual existence of minority religions in classical Islamic societies.