Medieval Islamic Models of Revelation: Hermeneutical Consequences Then and Now.

At the 2005 American Academy of Religion meeting, while interviewing for jobs, I finally found a way to present the gist of my main research project, The Formation of Islamic Hermeneutics, in a way that would engage a general religious studies audience (with the help of a few props).

“Medieval Islamic Models of Revelation: Hermeneutical Consequences Then and Now.” American Academy of Religion, Philadelphia, November 21, 2005.

Here is a pdf of the paper.

Here is the abstract:

Medieval Muslim jurists’ competing interpretive theories embodied profoundly different visions of law, revelation, and the relationship between them.  The Zahiri Ibn Hazm envisioned law as a language game, in which the details of the law unfold like theorems from God’s axiomatic utterances.  The Mu`tazili `Abd al-Jabbar pictured revelation as a signpost erected by God in the midst of creation, indicating the consequences of human actions in plain speech.  The Ash`ari al-Baqillani regarded the words of revelation as dim and partial indicators from which human beings may infer the content of God’s eternal, inscrutable command.  The Hanbali Abu Ya`la portrayed revelation anthropomorphically, likening it to a human ruler’s speech that brings about obligations performatively.  Many of the fundamental questions about language and meaning addressed by these medieval models remain contested in contemporary Islamic hermeneutical discourse, where they now have the potential to generate dramatic changes in interpretation and law.

The Risāla of Muḥammad ibn Idrīs al‑Shāfiʿī (d. 204/820): Its Structure, Composition, and Significance

At the 2004 American Oriental Society meeting I presented part of Chapter 2 of my dissertation:

“The Risāla of Muḥammad ibn Idrīs al‑Shāfiʿī (d. 204/820): Its Structure, Composition, and Significance for Islamic Legal Theory.” American Oriental Society, San Diego, March 13, 2004.

Much of this material did not make it into my monograph The Formation of Islamic Hermeneutics, but was published later in a separate article “A Reader’s Guide to al-Shāfiʿī’s Epistle on Legal Theory (al-Risāla).

Here is a pdf of the conference paper.

Here is the abstract:

Despite several important studies, the structure and composition of al‑Shāfiʿī’s Risāla, and its relation to subsequent legal theory, remain a puzzle.  Several scholars have been driven to reorder the text or posit multiple stages of redaction in the late 3d/9th century.  Its reputation as the founding text of Islamic legal theory has been rightly called into question.

The difficulties presented by the text may be substantially alleviated if it is read as a sequence of three related but distinct parts, each with its own thesis and internal organization.  These parts are distinguished by formal characteristics as well as content.  Part 1 (through ¶568) seeks to demonstrate that the Qurʾān is a clear, consistent, and comprehensive statement of the law, by using the Prophetic Sunna and analogy to elaborate on summary Qurʾānic injunctions, and by exploiting the many ambiguities of Arabic to reconcile conflicting texts.  Part 2 (¶569-960) shows how to resolve conflicting traditions within the Prophetic Sunna, principally by exploiting linguistic ambiguities.  Part 3 (¶961-1821) gives procedures for arriving at formally correct rulings when, even with the aid of the well-established Sunna, the Qurʾān does not yield definite answers to legal questions.

When read in this way, the text as it now stands appears sufficiently coherent to represent the minimally edited lectures of a single scholar, possibly al‑Shāfiʿī.  Furthermore, although the Risāla does not display the same structure as later legal theory manuals, it does introduce both the major hermeneutical problem of legal theory (the correlation of law with revelation) and the classical solution to that problem (the analysis of linguistic ambiguity.)  This contribution was not ignored, but on the contrary was disputed and elaborated already during the 3d/9th century.  This paper thus reaffirms but also redescribes the central role of the Risāla in the development of Islamic legal theory.

Some Epistemological and Hermeneutical Dimensions of the Doctrine of the Created Qurʾān

At the 2002 American Academy of Religion meeting in Toronto I presented work I had been doing toward the chapter on the Mu`tazila in my dissertation, which eventually became Chapter 4 of The Formation of Islamic Hermeneutics. This was my first presentation to the AAR, and I was very grateful for respondent Jane McAuliffe’s encouraging comments.

“Some Epistemological and Hermeneutical Dimensions of the Doctrine of the Created Qurʾān.” American Academy of Religion, Toronto, November 25, 2002.

Here is a pdf of the paper.

Here is the abstract:

The Muʿtazilī theologian ʿAbd al‑Jabbār (d. 415/1024) contended that the Ashʿarī defense of God’s eternal speech undermined its epistemological value.  He sought to ensure the Qurʾān’s reliability as a source of law by arguing that it is one of God’s acts, a created piece of evidence from which humans are to infer God’s will.  This view had three consequences for his hermeneutics.  First, the Qurʾān cannot communicate in the same manner as human speech.  Second, interpretation consists in reducing all the different forms of Qurʾānic speech to indicative statements about the legal values of acts.  Third, the Qurʾān cannot be ambiguous.  Contemporary discussions of Islamic legal and interpretive theory have paid little attention to such questions about the nature and function of the language of revelation.

In Defense of Ambiguity: The Legal Hermeneutics of al‑Bāqillānī

My very first national conference presentation was given in the warm, congenial, and supportive setting of the American Oriental Society meeting in 2002. I presented highlights of the first chapter I wrote for my dissertation, which eventually became Chapter 5 of The Formation of Islamic Hermeneutics:

“In Defense of Ambiguity: The Legal Hermeneutics of Abū Bakr Muḥammad b. al‑Ṭayyib al‑Bāqillānī (d. 403/1013).” American Oriental Society, Houston, March 23, 2002.

Here is a pdf of the paper.

Here is the abstact:

In al‑Taqrīb wa‑l‑irshād, a recently discovered early work on Islamic legal theory, the Ashʿarī theologian and Mālikī jurist Abū Bakr Muḥammad b. al‑Ṭayyib al‑Bāqillānī (d. 403/1013) employs the Ashʿarī defense of God’s eternal speech to advance the hermeneutical project of al‑Shāfiʿī’s Risāla.

al‑Bāqillānī constructs his interpretive theory around the ambiguity of the language of revelation.  He consistently maintains that a revealed expression may be interpreted only in accordance with established Arabic usage, but if it has more than one possible literal meaning, one must suspend interpretive judgment.  For example, he argues that without additional evidence one cannot decide whether or not an imperative expresses a command; whether a command entails an obligation or a recommendation; whether an utterance means one or more than one of its possible meanings; whether an expression that could be general is intended as general or particular; or whether a particular text modifies a general text.

This systematic defense of ambiguity supports the hermeneutical vision embodied in al‑Shāfiʿī’s Risāla.  Recent scholarship on the Risāla has studied its attempt to reconcile the law with the Qurʾān and Prophetic Sunna, but has failed to identify its key methodological tool:  the systematic exploitation of the ambiguity of the Arabic language, which allows interpreters to reconcile divergent texts into a coherent legal system.  al‑Bāqillānī’s Taqrīb provides the theological underpinnings for this hermeneutics of ambiguity.  He argues his case for the indeterminacy of meaning by appealing to the Ashʿarī doctrine that God’s speech is an eternal attribute (maʿná), of which the words of revelation are a created expression (ʿibāra).  He uses this separation between maʿná and ʿibāra to create an interpretive space between verbal forms and the meanings they express.  His work therefore represents a justification of the Shāfiʿī vision of legal theory on the basis of Ashʿarī theology.

Reading Scriptures Across Religious Lines in Colonial India

This paper, presented while I was a graduate student at Emory University, compares two Hindus, two Christians, and two Muslims who wrote about one another’s scriptures–some appreciatively and some critically–during the long and fascinating 19th century in India. I loved this research, and I still hope to turn it into a major publication someday. In the meantime, here is a pdf of the paper as delivered. It may be cited as:

David R. Vishanoff. “Reading Scriptures Across Religious Lines in Colonial India: Interreligious Conflict and Reconciliation, and the Intrareligious Contestation of Identity.” Religion, Identity, and Reconciliation conference, Emory University Graduate Division of Religion, Atlanta, March 31, 2001.

The paper summarized a much longer and more theoretical but less well written paper that I submitted to Emory as my minor field general examination, of which a pdf is available here.