Review of Walid A. Saleh’s Article on Al-Wāhidīs

Review of Walid A. Saleh’s Article on Al-Wāhidīs


Views on the Interpretation of Dāll in Q. 93:7

In his paper, "The Last of the Nishapuri School of Tafsīr: Al-Wāhidī (d. 468/1076) and his Significance in the History of Qur'ānic Exegesis," Walid Saleh, looks at the gradual privileging of theological constructs over philological readings of the text as discourse moves towards unifying themes more acceptable to particular theologies.[1]

Saleh, in my humble opinion, employs modern textual criticism inter alia to proffer his thesis. This short review of Saleh's paper focuses on that aspect of his critique. In his article, Saleh adduces an example from al-Wāhidī's al-Basīt in relation to Q. 93:7[2] to indicate that the exegetical approach of al-Wāhidī, a philologist, grammarian and exegete, was, at times, compromised at the hands of Sunni creed that, in his opinion, had impacted many other exegetes; even al-Zamakhsharī (d. 1144).[3] In that sense, al-Wāhidī's al- Basīt, according to Saleh, is at variance with his later approach to the Qur'ān, for example in al-Wasīt.

Saleh's thesis and argumentation are problematic for a number of reasons:

Firstly, even though Saleh's assumption that theological views impacted exegetical constructs is corroborated by textual and other historical evidence quite clearly,[4] the indication that exegetes as al-Zamakhsharī (known and respected for his linguistic analyses) and even al-Wāhidī himself (in al-Wasīt), to name two of the many others, overlooked philological aspects in their attempts to reconcile the apparent meaning with their overall understanding of the Prophet's characterization and is in want of further evidence. There is not enough evidence provided by Saleh to show convincingly that other meanings or interpretations privileged by these exegetes were not possible grammatically or would have been clearly incongruous in the given context of the verse. The assumption that the literal or apparent meaning of a verse (zāhir) is always the more accurate one in philological terms is flawed. First of all, a simple reading of any lexicon of Classical Arabic for instance will show that even in terms of literal meanings possibilities other than "misguided" etc. do exist for the word.[5] Moreover, even in terms of textual analysis based on philology, meanings of words are seen within the context of sentence(s), paragraph(s), and overall theme(s), etc. Inter alia, it is often the qarā'in (contextual indicators in a text) that take preponderance in such analyses for privileging one possible meaning over another. In looking at these contextual indicators, it is not only the literal meaning that has to be considered but also the literary use of the word or phrase in a certain context.[6] This aspect is significant in itself irrespective of whether the idea of infallibility of the prophets as constructed by the Sunni scholars in question is necessarily evidenced by the Qur'ānic text or not.

An aspect of these contextual factors one has to take into consideration is that, despite such references in the Qur'ān to certain instances of irregularity in some prophets in relation to Divine expectation of them,[7] there are evident characterizations of the Prophet in terms of inerrancy in communication of Divine logos as well as in terms of being on the "right" fitrah (nature): for example, the character of Abraham is often invoked as an epitome of monotheism in the context of the Prophet's own mission.[8] It is very hard to imagine that, with this interpellation of the monotheistic identity, retaliatory comments from the Prophet's opponents would not have emerged in relation to his past polytheism if that had been the case and that the Qur'ān then would not have countered that criticism just as it did in terms of comparatively lesser accusations of his being a poet, someone possessed, etc. Even in terms of extraneous evidence outside the Qur'ānic text, it is hard to imagine that narratives would not have found their way into mainstream hadīthliterature and would not have been widely invoked or discussed at some point or the other in relation to characterizations of the Prophet. Entertaining the possibility of systematic or progressive eradication of such reports is equally untenable if one understands the nature of transmission of reports of various kinds, both ahādand mutawātir. Early, public manifestations of polytheistic proclivity in the Prophet should have become a major issue later.

Finally, internal context of the text of the sūrah itself becomes an impediment to readily accepting Saleh's thesis. As adumbrated before, literary use of the word has to be understood in its context. For example, in Antony's famous speech in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, continual reference to Brutus as "honorable man" will not be understood as figurative only by a novice. As already mentioned, even in terms of literal meanings, possibilities other than "misguided" etc. do exist for dāll. If modern textual analysis has to be employed to critique earlier constructs in history, it is also important to look into other possibilities in modern interpretations of import. Saleh's thesis, therefore, will also have to compete with modern textual interpretations by exegetes who, on the bases internal, textual evidence of the sūrah and philology, proffer that "you were wandering [in pursuit of guidance]…" is a more plausible a translation of the word in this context.[9]

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