• The basic intention of Qur’anic exegesis (tafsir) is to understand what the text of the Qur’aninfo-icon means. Before attempting to understand anything of the Qur’anic worldview and its ethical values, there is a need for exegetes to engage with the individual words found in the Qur’an itself. Yet, exegetes and translators, whether medieval or modern, have different theological perspectives, which influence how they do this. Many modern scholars have recognised that lexicology (the study of words and their meaning, rather than the collection of words’ meanings, i.e. lexicography) plays an important part in exegesis, but there are very few studies of how exegetes use lexicology to develop their interpretations of the Qur’an or that address lexicology in Qur’anic in any depth.

    This volume, consisting of chapters by twelve leading, established and young scholars, begins to address this gap in the scholarship. It is divided into four sections that provide different reflections on the relationship between lexicology and Qur’anic interpretation. As a whole, it provides the first in-depth discussion focusing on the relationship between the interpretation of the Qur’an and the meanings of words, from the beginnings of Qur'anic exegesis to the contemporary period.

    The Introduction, by S.R. Burge (Chapter 1), utilises the chapters in the volume to explore how interpreters construct meaning, and the ways in which exegetes give meaning to words. In it, Burge draws on Norman Calder’s ideas about the genre of tafsir, as well as on the field of semiotics, to illustrate that exegetes can give meaning to words in a number of different ways. The process of giving a definition to a word is extremely complex, and anyone studying the Qur’an needs to be aware of this.

    Section I analyses the earliest attempts to explore the meaning of words in Islamic thought. Kees Versteegh (Chapter 2) presents an analysis of the ways in which early exegetes gave glosses to Qur’an words, that is, by defining a word in the Qur’an through a synonym. Versteegh argues that, in his tafsir, Muqatil b. Sulayman (d. 150/767) exhibits the use of stock interpretations, which appear consistent throughout the entire work. Herbert Berg (Chapter 3) explores the debates about the early exegete ‘Abd Allah Ibn ‘Abbas (d. ca. 68/687), a Companion of the Prophet Muhammad, and an early exegete. Many scholars have questioned whether the interpretative Hadithinfo-icon attributed to him can be considered authentic, and one common theory is that these Hadith represented a ‘school’ of interpretation. Berg questions this theory through an analysis of a number of verses in the tafsir by Muhammad b. Jarir al-Tabari (310/923). The final chapter in this section, by Christopher Melchert (Chapter 4), compares the interpretation of three words (siyaha, hikmainfo-icon and siddiq) in the lexicographical, exegetical, Hadith and zuhd (renunciant) material. Melchert argues that the Hadith and zuhd literature often provides definitions of Qur’anic terms that are unaffected by doctrinal influences.

    Section II presents four cases studies of lexicology in classical Qur’anic exegesis. The first, by Claude Gilliot (Chapter 5), explores the handling of lexicology by Abu’l-Hasan ‘Ali al-Wahidi (d. 468/1076), in his al-Tafsir al-basit, through a comparison with Tabari’s exegesis. Burge (Chapter 6) examines the way the word falaq (Q. 113:1) has been interpreted by different medieval exegetes, as well as in lexicographical works. He argues that although exegetes almost always give this word the same meaning, the way in which they defend the lexical reading is very different, depending on the methodology and hermeneutic approach that the exegetes employ. Devin Stewart (Chapter 7) examines the Mufradat alfaz al-Qur’an by al-Raghib al-Isfahani (d. 422/1031) and the phenomenon of ‘cognate substitution’ – the process whereby a new morphological form is used in the Qur’an in order to account for the internal rhyme scheme. Stewart concludes with an examination of the Qur’anic terms for Hell found in the Qur’an, which are often subject to cognate substitution. The final chapter in this section, by Toby Mayer (Chapter 8), explores the mystical lexicology of Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Karim al-Shahrastani (d. 548/1153), illustrating the ways exegetes can apply metaphysical readings of words to generate an understanding of divine mysteries.

    Section III explores the relationship between lexicology and legal debates in both the medieval and modern periods. The first chapter in this section, by Agostino Cilardo (Chapter 9), looks at how different words used in the Qur’an to denote relatives (arham, walad, aqrabuna, ‘asaba, ikhwa and mawaliinfo-icon) were important to legal interpretations and discussions of inheritance law, and he highlights the differences and similarities of the various the Sunni and Shi‛i schools of law. He ends with a discussion of specific cases dealing with inheritance. Ayesha Chaudhry (Chapter 10) examines how exegetes dealt with the word nushuz in Q. 4:34 and Q. 4:128; this word (usually interpreted as ‘disobedience’) is applied in the Qur’an to both husband and wives, but the exegetes interpret the word differently when it is applied to women. Chaudhry argues that this is because the exegetes are imposing a hierarchical worldview on the Qur’anic text. The final chapter in this section, by M. Brett Wilson (Chapter 11), explores the interpretation of a specific verse about fasting (Q. 2:184) and the heated debates in early twentieth-century Turkey on whether the Ramadan fast was obligatory or not. The verse, and its exegesis, became a flashpoint of debate about modernism and traditionalism, revealing that words and their interpretations have wider social and political ramifications.

    Lastly, Section IV examines the debates about translating the Qur’an into other languages. Travis Zadeh (Chapter 12) looks at how legal scholars of the early twentieth century incorporated an older tradition about the translation of the Fatiha into Persian by Salman al-Farisi (d. after 23/644), a close Companion of the Prophet, and the first Persian convert to Islam, into contemporary debates. Stefan Wild (Chapter 13) looks at the contemporary context, exploring the translation of the Qur’an in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and the ways in which the translation of the Qur’an can enter the realms of ideology, theology and politics. Wild concludes that translations are now a part of wider Islamic culture, far outnumbering editions printed in Arabic, typifying the global aspect of contemporary Islam.

  • Notes on Contributors

    Note on Transliteration, Conventions and Abbreviations


    1.         Introduction: Words, Hermeneutics, and the Construction of Meaning

                S.R. Burge


    Section I: Lexicology and the Formative Period of Qur’anic Exegesis

    2.         In Search of Meaning: Lexical Explanation in Early Qur’anic Commentaries

                Kees Versteegh


    3.         Lexicological Hadithinfo-icon and the ‘School’ of Ibn ʿAbbās

               Herbert Berg


    4.         The Interpretation of Three Qur’anic Terms (Siyāḥa, Ḥikma and Ṣiddīq)

    of Special Interest to the Early Renunciants

    Christopher Melchert


    Section II: Lexical Methodologies in Action: Four Case Studies

    5.         The Use of Lexicography in the Great Qur’anic Commentary of al-Wāḥidī

    (d. 468/1076)

    Claude Gilliot


    6.         Authority and the Defence of Readings in Medieval Qur’anic Exegesis: Lexicology

    and the Case of Falaq (Q. 113:1)

                S.R. Burge


    7.         Poetic Licence and the Qur’anic Names of Hell: The Treatment of Cognate Substitution in al-Rāghib al-Iṣfahānī’s Qur’anic Lexicon

                Devin Stewart


    8.         Paradoxes in Shahrastānī’s Lexicological Methodology

               Toby Mayer


    Section III: Words, Interpretation and Legal Disputes

    9.         From Qur’aninfo-icon to Fiqhinfo-icon: Sunni and Shi‘i Tafsīr on the Inheritance Verses and the ‘Named Cases’ (al-Masāʾil al-Mulaqqaba)

                Agostino Cilardo


    10.       Marital Discord in Qur’anic Exegesis: A Lexical Analysis of Husbandly and Wifely Nushūz in Q. 4:34 and Q. 4:128

                Ayesha S. Chaudhry


    11.       The Optional Ramadan Fast: Debating Q. 2:184 in the Early Turkish Republic

                            M. Brett Wilson


    Section IV: The Word in Translation: Medieval and Modern Disputes

    12.       The Fātiḥa of Salmān al-Fārisī and the Modern Controversy over Translating the Qur’an

                Travis Zadeh


                13.       The Qur’an Today: Translating the Translatable

                            Stefan Wild


    Index of Qur’anic Citations

    Index of Qur’anic Words and Phrases

    General Index



  • Dr. Stephen R. Burge

    Stephen Burge joined The Institute of Ismaili Studies as a Research Associate in 2009, having completed his doctorate at the University of Edinburgh. He has published a monograph on angels in Islam, as well as a number of articles on angels, exegesis and interpretation. He is also co-editing and translating a volume of the Anthology of Qur’anic Commentaries Series on the Pillars of Islam, and editing a volume entitled The Meaning of the Word: Lexicology and Qur’anic Exegesis . His main research interests are the works of Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti, hadith studies, tafsir (Qur'anic Exegesis) and...Read more