This book constitutes the first comprehensive attempt at describing the genre of Qur’anic exegesis (tafsir) in its broader intellectual context. Its aim is to provide a framework for understanding the boundaries of tafsir and its interaction with other disciplines of learning, as well as the subgenres and internal divisions within the genre. It discusses the emergence of the genre in the beginnings of Islamic history and the changes and potential ruptures it has experienced in later times, the role of hadith, law, language, philosophy, theology and political ideology for the interpretive process, the regional dimension, the influx of modernist ideas and the process of writing tafsir in languages other than Arabic.
The volume is divided into five sections, the first of which is devoted to the formation of boundaries. It deals with the emergence of tafsir as an independent genre distinguishable from, but interwoven with, non-Islamic religious traditions, hadith scholarship, storytelling, linguistics and early theological controversies.
The second section of the volume further elucidates issues of the emergence, affirmation and permeation of disciplinary boundaries alluded to in the first section, the relevance of which naturally increased with the differentiation of the scholarly arena and the emergence of disciplines like law, Hadith and linguistics.
The third section contains chapters that demonstrate how tafsir can be used as a vehicle of self-assertion, in order to express dogmatic ideas and to set up ideological and theological boundaries, by Sunni and non-Sunni exegetes alike. They also demonstrate that this function of tafsir has to be taken into consideration when examining an exegete’s choice of methodology. Yet, given the prevalence of dogmatic preoccupations, the question is raised as to whether the concept of a ‘dogmatic tafsir’ makes any sense and whether a dogmatic agenda can ever be entirely absent from works of tafsir, although there might be differences in degree.
The fourth section of this volume includes chapters that renegotiate conventional genre boundaries, which are usually based on the – implicit or explicit – assumption that a ‘proper’ work of tafsir is a complete commentary on the Qur’an written by a (mostly pre-modern) religious scholar in Arabic. However, these boundaries are difficult to define clearly and might entail the risk of not doing justice to large segments of Muslim exegetical activity.
Finally, the fifth section takes a closer look on the ways in which the genre of tafsir has changed in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; its chapters do not have an exclusive focus on changes and ruptures, but also give close attention to continuities and to the ways in which the tafsir tradition, or parts of it, are appropriated in order to serve the exegetes’ concerns. Thus, while pointing out new developments, they do not disassociate modern exegetical activities from the ‘genealogical tradition’ of tafsīr that has been described above.
For synopses of individual chapters, see the Introduction, pp. 10–20.