The Meaning of the Word: Lexicology and Tafsir Project

The Meaning of the Word project is being run by the Qur’anic Studies Unit in the IIS and is being organised by Dr. Stephen Burge.

This project will comprise two main events:

The project will culminate in an edited volume of articles selected from the workshop and guest lectures that will be submitted to the Qur’anic Studies Series, published by Oxford University Press, in association with the IIS. This edited volume will examine and explore different aspects of the interplay between lexicology and exegesis, providing a valuable resource for those working in the study of the Qur’aninfo-icon and tafsir.

Description of the Project

One of the most common exegetical tools in the interpretation of the Qur’an is the explanation of single words (i.e. lexicology, lugha, ‘ilminfo-icon al-lugha). The basic intention of tafsir is to understand what the text actually means. Whilst lexicology is frequently regarded as playing a crucial part in the interpretation of the Qur’an, there are few studies of how exegetes approach these questions.

Qur’anic Studies has benefited from studies discussing what the words in the Qur’anic text mean, particularly in the field of comparative Semitic philology, where such studies have been a staple of Western scholarship on the Qur’an. Yet, there have been very few considerations of how the Islamic interpretive tradition engaged with lexicological problems themselves. Is there an established methodology in the way in which exegetes deal with lexicology? To what extent did Arabic linguistics and lexicography influence exegesis? How are discussions of individual words used in theological debates? None of these issues have been given much attention in the study of tafsir. Issues of kalaminfo-icon, Sunni-Shi‘i debates, jurisprudence, gender issues and mysticism often rely on words in the Qur’an, their meaning and their interpretation. Comparative philologists often focus entirely on the meaning of words in the Qur’an in its own historical context – such studies are of great benefit to studies of the Qur’an, but it is just as important and interesting to explore how Muslim exegetes engaged with these same words, and how words were interpreted by different people, schools and faith communities.
Areas of the Project
The role of lexicology in exegesis is a wide topic for discussion, so the project is focusing on four areas in particular:

1. The role of lexicology in specific rflections on the Qur’anic text.
The aim is to understand how exegetes use the meanings and interpretations of individual words to support theological worldviews. Law, theology, philosophy, Sufisminfo-icon and Shi‘isminfo-icon are areas that would benefit from an understanding of how the language of the Qur’an and the use of lexicology is used to inform these debates.

2. The methods employed by exegetes when dealing with questions of lexicography.
How do exegetes approach the interpretation of words from a methodological perspective? The aim is to understand the methodologies of different exegetes, consider questions that arise from these methodologies and to place discussions of lexicology in a wider context.

3. Specific issues of lexicological concern.
Particular words or types of words often raise questions in the exegesis of the Qur’an, such as words of foreign origin, names of people and places, and words that only appear once (mufradāt, hapax legomena). How do different exegetes approach these questions?

4. The Translation of the Qur’an.
Translating the Qur’an raises very specific questions about what words mean. How do translators, both medieval and modern, approach translating Arabic into a different language? To what extent is translation an act of exegesis?