Quranic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation
Wansbrough (John), Rippin (Andrew), Qur'an
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Cover Blurb

  1. Many believe that the academic study of the Qur’an lags far behind the study of the Bible while being, at the same time, closely modelled after it. Not only are the relevant scholarly resources of the Qur’an less numerous than those available in biblical scholarship, but comparatively speaking the variety of methods employed to deal with the scriptural text has been severely limited. One of the first ground-breaking efforts in Islamic studies was made by .John Wansbrough in his unique work Quranic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation. Written between 1968 and 1972, this revolutionary analysis had a profound effect on the study of Islam. It produced, in the minds of many, a wholly new dichotomy in the approach used in Islamic studies: on one side, the skeptical revisionists and on the other, the trusting traditionalists. Well ahead of his time. Wansbrough questions the very basic assumptions of previous scholars in a way that had never before been attempted. Working with the heritage of Joseph Schacht and Ignaz Goldziher before him, Wansbrough approached the Qur'an in a manner that sees the Muslim tradition as grounded in the dogmas of later centuries. Freed from these constraints, new questions relevant to contemporary scholars had to be asked.
  2. Wansbrough was the first to analyze carefully the documents from the first four centuries of Islam that describe the rise of the Qur'an to the position of absolute authority in the Muslim community. Although these works were known to exist, no modern scholar had actually read them and tried to make coherent sense of the material. Wansbrough carved out new areas of inquiry and debate for scholars and lay enthusiasts alike.
  3. Quranic Studies deserves serious attention, as a stimulating work of scholarship. Its allusions to biblical and Arabian underpinnings have captured many people’s attention and led to numerous exchanges and debates among scholars and others, especially regarding Wansbrough’s claim that the Qur'an was not written down until the third-century hijri (ninth century CE), countering traditional Muslim claims that it originated in the time of Muhammad and was written down shortly thereafter. In response, some decried the publication of Quranic Studies seeing it as a major impediment to fostering a trust of non-sectarian scholarship among Muslims. Now readers can judge for themselves.
  4. Although Quranic Studies was originally intended for fellow scholars, the Internet has considerably widened its accessibility. Used as a source of authority and critical opinion on polemical sites by both Muslims and Christians, Wansbrough‘s work has gained a significant profile among professionals and non-professionals alike. Nonetheless, it appears that many who cite Quranic Studies have not carefully read it. To counter such ideological and non-scholarly treatments of Wansbrough‘s ideas, noted Islamic scholar Andrew Rippin has enhanced the work with a valuable foreword, helpful text annotations, and a much-needed glossary to increase the utility of this seminal work for the many avid readers who desire to know more about Islam.

Amazon Product Description
  1. One of the most innovative thinkers in the field of Islamic Studies was John Wansbrough (1928-2002), affiliated throughout his career with London University's School of Oriental and African Studies. Critiquing the traditional accounts of the origins of the Quran (Koran) as historically unreliable and heavily influenced by religious dogma, Wansbrough suggested radically new interpretations very different from the views of both the Muslim orthodoxy and most Western scholars. He maintained that the entire corpus of early Islamic documentation should be interpreted as literature written in the service of religious faith, not as objective history describing events as they really happened.
  2. This new edition contains a valuable assessment of Wansbrough's contributions by Andrew Rippin (professor of history, University of Victoria) and many useful textual notes by Herbert Berg (associate professor of philosophy and religion, University of North Carolina at Wilmington).

Amazon Customer Review 1
  1. This is a reprint of the 1977 first edition with substantial additional material provided by Andrew Rippin.
  2. John Wansbrough's Quranic Studies is an important and controversial study of the Quran and the Muslim interpretative literature that developed around it. The author, who was Professor of Semitic Studies at London University's School of Oriental and African Studies, and who died in 2002, attempted in the book to establish a new understanding of the form, content and history of the Quranic text, mainly by applying to it ideas and methods developed in academic scholarship on the Bible and the Judaeo-Christian tradition. The end result is an image which is rather different from that provided by the traditional Muslim scholarship that had been the basis of non-Muslim understandings previously.
  3. From the time when it first appeared Wansbrough's work inspired strong reactions both for and against. The American Academy of Religions devoted an issue of its journal to a discussion of it and its implications. But Quranic Studies was addressed primarily to a relatively small group of specialist scholars, and students and general readers often found it difficult to understand. For this reprint, therefore, the publishers have persuaded Andrew Rippin, himself a leading specialist on the Quran and the scholarship concerned with it, to provide translations of Arabic and Hebrew passages that were untranslated in the original, to add many helpful explanatory notes to elucidate Wansbrough's text, and to write a short introduction placing the book in its scholarly context and drawing on memories of Wansbrough the man.
  4. The result is that this seminal work should now be appreciated by a wider readership. Wansbrough himself stressed the tentative nature of his findings - he was attempting to provide an alternative way of understanding something that most people thought they knew, and he accepted that the traditional understanding made sense if one is prepared to accept its presuppositions and methods. For anyone prepared to think anew, however, the book will provide a stimulation and a challenge.

Amazon Customer Review 2
  1. Wansborough uses a form of analysis called "Structuralism" - put broadly and somewhat crudely, it explains Koranic themes by examining the relations and functions of its smallest constituent elements.
  2. Also, on a broader level, structuralism explores the view that there are only a small number of underlying narrative structures that give shape to every story ever told.
  3. In religion, this is usually the 'Salvation' theme, or the idea of a primordial truth that has been buried and lost under the hubris of human folly. Its loss sets the scene for a prophet or a sage to come and re-awaken, re-instruct and in some cases, personally embody that forgotten truth.
  4. In the case of the Koran, Muhammad's oft-repeated mantras and catechisms drive home the point that he has come in the tradition of the old prophets of Jewish lore. His mission: to re-establish the 'deen' or original creed of Allah. In aid of doing this, the Koran "...adopts a limited lexical range with correspondingly high ratios of frequency and distribution" - p. 2 (i.e. it’s repetitive!)
  5. Among the passages of the Koran containing pleas and admonitions to Muhammad's native folks, there are recurrent references that become tiresomely familiar to secular non-devotional readers of the text and are memorised lovingly by the pious. Wansbrough catalogues these oft-repeated themes into the "traditional stock of monotheistic imagery", a typical sub-category includes the motifs of "divine retribution", "signs", "exile" and "covenant." These themes are referential, that is to say, they draw on and reflect upon themes that were known to his audience. They seldom develop into fully-fleshed out conceptions, relying instead of rather patchy references to Jewish stories to give shape to them. A typical example of "divine retribution" is where Muhammad makes reference to the destruction of old towns like Sodom for having annoyed Allah. For the Arabs, there are suitably local reference to the destroyed towns of Ad and Thamud.
  6. Another example of the referential character of the Koran is the doggerel version of the story of Joseph. This surah is an odd one; it was rejected as being part of the Koran by the radical Islamic sect, the Khawarij - they thought it to be a silly and prurient fable beneath the dignity of Allah to re-tell. However, this surah bears evidence to the fact that the main plot line of the story of Joseph was already known to the Arabs of Muhammad's time. There is reference in this surah to Joseph's brother, the mention of him pops up very abruptly and is baffling for those who aren't aware of the sub-plot of the story, namely that Joseph had a brother, Benjamin, who was left at home. Hence, the only way to preserve the logical continuity of the whole sura is to surmise that Muhammad was speaking to an audience already familiar with the story of Joseph. This is just a stark illustration of the referential style of the Koran. Indeed, if further proof were needed, Muhammad often starts his yarns with the phrase "...has the story of so-and-so reached you?"
  7. The above may be a trivial observation, indeed Wansbrough acknowledges that there is nothing new in this. However, what Wansbrough tries to show is that the genius or originality of Muhammad was NOT in digging up these dusty old Jewish fables, but rather in skilfully making the appropriate references so as to demonstrate his mission as falling within that prophetic tradition. Hence, the recurrent themes of the Quran are a compelling and mind-boggling vindication of Muhammad's place within that semitic tradition. It also powerfully sets the theme of the hoary old Salvation chestnut i.e Muhammad coming to re-awaken the forgotten or corrupted 'deen' of Allah - Islam.
  8. I won't say anymore...I think if a person has remained interested so far after reading this review - he/she will probably go on to buy the book. However, I should end with a note of caution - this book is quite heavy going and you really do need a companion copy of the Koran alongside it. In order to understand it you have must read the Quran and repeated its motifs out loud, this way the themes referred to in the book sound familiar. Don't be intimidated into thinking that just because you can't speak Arabic (90% of Muslims can't understand Arabic!) - you won't understand Wansborough's book. The broad themes of the Koran have been translated into English clearly enough for a reasonably intelligent person to get their head round this book. However, this book is only worth the money if you're seriously interested in the Koran; if it’s just a passing lay interest I think you'll dump this book after reading the first few tedious pages.

  • Foreword (Andrew Rippin) – ix
  • Preface – xxi
  • Abbreviations – xxv
  • Bibliography – xxvii
  • Manuscripts Utilized In Quranic Studies (Andrew Rippin) – xxxix
  • Main Text
    1. Revelation And Canon – 1
      1. The document – 1
      2. Its composition – 33
    2. Emblems Of Prophethood – 53
    3. Origins Of Classical Arabic – 85
    4. Principles Of Exegesis – 119
      1. Haggadic exegesis – 122
      2. Deutungsbedurftigkeit – 148
      3. Halakhic exegesis – 170
      4. Masoretic exegesis – 202
      5. Rhetoric and allegory – 227
  • Index – 247
    1. Names and subjects – 247
    2. Technical terms – 249
    3. Quranic references – 252
  • Annotations (Andrew Rippin) – 257
  • Glossary (Andrew Rippin) – 309

Book Comment
  • Prometheus Books (20 Aug. 2004)
  • Present from Pete & Carolyn

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  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2023
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)

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