The Vernacular Qur’an: Translation and the Rise of Persian Exegesis is the first major study in a Western language of the development of Persian exegetical writing and the early vernacularisation of Qur’anic learning. Through a study of a range of sources, spanning from the 8th century CE to the 13th century CE, the author, Travis Zadeh, re-evaluates the role of translation in spheres of ritual praxis, religious conversion and Qur’anic hermeneutics. The Vernacular Qur’an explores the history behind the juridical resistance to translating the Qur’an, the theological debates concerning the nature of the divine speech and the rise of Persian exegetical writing.
The introduction examines the history behind the notion that Muslims do not translate the Qur’an, both within Islamic history and within Orientalist scholarship. The practices of interlinear and exegetical translations of the Qur’an into Persian are contextualised within a broader set of scriptural hermeneutics in Persian, as developed by Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians. While Muslims have indeed translated the Qur’an into various vernaculars, these translations have not historically been presented as replacing the original Arabic of the Qur’an. An exploration of this is the basis for the first section of the book (Chapters 1 through 5).
In the initial chapters, Zadeh investigates the early juridical and theological debates on the translatability of the Qur’an, which emerge in the 8th and 9th centuries CE. This includes a study of the early Hanafi view that those who had yet to master Arabic should be allowed to perform ritual recitation using a translation of the Qur’an; the role of non-Arab mawali (clients) in the production of Qur’anic learning; the development of the doctrine of Qur’anic inimitability (i‘jaz); and the theological debates about whether the Arabic of the Qur’an was a reflection of divine speech.
The second part of the book (Chapters 6 through 12) focuses on the vernacularisation of formalised Qur’anic learning between the 10th century CE and the 13th century CE. In addition to early oral Qur’anic translations by preachers and missionary ascetics, the writing of early rhyming translations dovetails with the emerging exegetical tradition. This process of vernacularisation took place in homiletic contexts of early conversion as well as in the context of courtly cultures.
The Persian commentary and interlinear translation known as the Tafsir-i Tabari, said to have been commissioned by the Samanids, is examined as an early example of the patronage of Persian exegetical literature within the court. Beyond the courtly contexts surrounding the production and reception of the Tafsir-i Tabari, the history of early Persian exegetical writing is intertwined with the institutionalisation of madrassa education within Eastern Iran and Central Asia. Of particular importance, in this regard, is the commentary and translation, the Taj al-Tarajim, completed by the Shafi’i jurist of Tus, ‘Imad al-Din al-Isfara’ini (d.1079 CE). This work reveals a profound interconnection with Abu Ishaq al-Tha‘labi’s (d.1035 CE) al-Kashf wa’l-Bayan and marks an important chapter in the development of Nishapuri exegesis.
In addition to the commentarial traditions of Sufis and the Shi‘a, Zadeh investigates the Persian exegetical writing produced by the Karramiyya, a prominent Sunni ascetic movement of Khurasan and Transoxiana. The production and circulation of the major commentary by the Karrami ascetic Abu Bakr al-Surabadi (d.1100 CE), entitled the Tafsir al-Tafasir, marks an important stage in the development of Persian exegesis.
The conclusion turns to the Persian commentary by Mu‘in al-Din al-Nishaburi (fl.1153 CE), the Tafsir al-Basa’ir, produced within the Ghaznavid court. This work is emblematic of the circulation of Persian exegetical writing, as it crossed networks of scholars from Anatolia to South Asia. Here Zadeh follows the broad arc of the vernacularisation of religious literature in the ensuing centuries and the emergence of Persian as a cosmopolitan language of prestige and learning.
Through a series of detailed case studies, this book analyses the relationship between Qur’anic hermeneutics and vernacular cultures, the religious elite, institutions of education and dynastic authority. It presents for the first time to an English readership a broad array of archival material, drawn from the Middle East, Central Asia and South Asia, covering several centuries of Islamic history.