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The Rule of the Koran? Semitic Rhetoric

The surprising results of research that began with the question: is it possible that such a fundamental text is as disordered as it appears? A work of structural decoding shows in reality that the Holy Book of Islam is very elaborate in literary terms and that its constructive rules are the same as those of the Bible.

This article was published in Oasis 10. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2019-06-19 15:15:00

My research on the Koran, which found its first point of arrival in the publication of my book Le Festin. Une lecture de la sourate al-Mâ’ida, was born at the same time as a question and an encounter. It is a part of the experience of every non-Muslim reader who did not grow up from childhood onwards with the Koran to feel dismayed and soon discouraged by the apparent disorder of the text, above all if he or she reads it in translation. Given that I personally had this impression, I posed my first question: is it possible that a text of such religious and cultural importance is as disordered as it seems at a first reading? I did not find a truly satisfactory answer to this question in the Islamic traditions or in the classic or modern commentaries on the Koran, or in the works of Koran scholarship or on the inimitable character (i‘jaz) of the Koran. As regards Western orientalism, it was until very recently totally dominated by the historical-critical school which was interested above all in the genesis of the text, in the history of the drawing up of the Koran. Seeing its composite character as evident, it drew arguments from it in order to establish the chronology of the various textual fragments. It was only after the 1980s that sporadic studies on the structure of the text began to be studied: first on the suras of Mecca (Crapon de Crapona, Angelika Neuwirth, Mustansir Mir); then on those of Medina (A.H. Mathias Zahniser, Neal Robinson), but with results that seemed to be interesting but still too partial. As far as I was concerned, the question remained in practice unsolved. The answer did not come to me from Islamist or Koran studies but from my encounter with the first theoretical books of Roland Meynet, a Professor of Biblical Exegesis at the Gregorian University of Rome: L’analyse rhétorique (1989) and Réthorique sémitique (published in 1998 in the Italian edition but previously in Arabic in 1993). Since this last collective work analysed Biblical texts and Muslim prophetic traditions (hadîth) with the same method, the idea came to me of applying the same procedure to the text of the Koran. The first attempts soon showed that good results were possible. After publishing a series of articles on the analysis of about thirty short or medium-length suras of the first epoch (Mecca) from the preaching of Mohammed, it seemed to me to be necessary to address a long sura from Medina which went back to the last period of his preaching. The long suras of Medina, indeed, are seen as being particularly composite in character. Hence the difficulty but also the interest and the challenge in attempting to decode their structure, if there was a structure. I chose sura 5 because, according to a certain tradition, it was said to be in chronological terms the last of the revelation of the Koran. In this way, as far as this was possible, would have been tested the validity of the method for the texts attributed both to the beginning and to the end of the preaching of Mohammed. This would have enabled it to be reasonably affirmed that, very probably, the Koran in its entirety was constructed according to the same principles as its composition. My research thus has a decidedly interdisciplinary character because I apply the same system of analysis which emerged from biblical exegesis to Koranic exegesis, without changing the theory in the least, although, in converse fashion, it certifies its validity. Without doubt, the most important result of my research was to demonstrate that the Koran, despite appearances, is a deliberately constructed text which is very elaborate in literary terms. Mine is not a subjective statement designed to support the Islamic quasi-dogma of the inimitability of the Koran: it is an observation that derives from a methodical and rigorous analysis of the text itself. This analysis, indeed, demonstrates that the text of the Koran obeys exactly the same rules of Semitic rhetoric which were discovered for the first time in the Bible, but which are not confined to it. In an important document (L’interpretazione della Bibbia nella Chiesa, 1993) the Pontifical Biblical Commission describes the analysis of Biblical rhetoric in the following way: ‘Rooted in Semitic culture, [the Biblical literary tradition] manifests an evident taste for symmetrical compositions, thanks to which relationships are established between the different elements of the text. A study of the multiple forms of parallelism and other procedures of Semitic composition must allow a better discernment of the literary structure of tests and thus arrive at a better understanding of their message’. According to this rhetoric, which is very different from the Greek rhetoric of which we are the heirs, a text is composed on the basis of a complex interplay of symmetries. These can be expressed in three forms or three figures of composition: • Parallelism, when textual elements in a two to two relationship are arranged in a parallel way: for example ABC//A’B’C’: Originator of the heavens and the earth thou art my Protector in this world and the next [Koran 12:101] • Chiasm (mirrored composition or inverted parallelism), where the related elements correspond to each other in a crossed or ‘mirror’ form: for example ABC/C’B’A’: (A) Do Those, (B) not think that they shall be raised up (C) unto a mighty day (C’) a day (B’) when Mankind shall stand (A’) before the Lord of all being [Koran 83:4-6] • Concentric composition, when a central ¬element is interposed between two poles of a symmetry, for example ABC/x/C’B’A’. A very important contribution of Roland Meynet to this method (whose beginnings go back to the middle of the eighteenth century) is the distinction that he makes between the various levels of the text. The interplays of symmetry, marked in the text by semantic correspondences of terms (repetitions, synonymies and antitheses), exist, in fact, at different levels which are organised into an authentic system: they are first and foremost members (which often correspond to a syntagm, a proposition, a short verse) grouped in two or three segments (the traditional couplet or triplets) which in their turn are grouped in twos or threes at a higher textual level, that of passages, and so on for a whole series of levels (part, passage, sequence, section), and on to the whole book. The Doubts of Historical Criticism The great interest of this exegetic method as regards the Koran is that it allows each verse to be located in its immediate literary context. The whole of traditional exegesis proceeds in an opposite way, commenting on each verse, in a so-to-speak atomistic way, without taking the context into account. In the best of cases a verse is related to another passage located elsewhere in the Koran (what exegetes have defined as ‘commentary on the Koran through the Koran’), but very rarely is the meaning of verse looked for beginning with its immediate context. Most of the time they are explained with reference to historical facts external to the text (some event or anecdote or other in the life of the prophet or his companions), held to be the ‘occasions of revelation’ (asbâb al-nuzûl) of these verses. Historical criticism, however, legitimately calls into question the authenticity of many of these ‘occasions of revelation’ which seem, instead, to have been manufactured subsequently to explain a verse of varying degrees of obscurity. Reinserted in its literary context, the meaning of a verse often emerges without it being necessary to have resort to the artifice of these supposed historical contexts. It is obvious that the meaning of the text suggested by analysis of the rhetoric can at times be distant from that of the classic exegetic tradition. Another aspect of my research, which again concerns interpretation, is appreciation through the structure itself of the text of certain verses located at the centre of large concentric constructions. In Semitic rhetoric the centre always has a particular importance as a key for the interpretation of a text as a whole. At times one observes an authentic paradox between the central verses which display great openness, a sort of universal wisdom, and the peripheral verses which enclose them and which are more severe, exclusive or polemical. This is especially important in sura 5 in which many verses are polemical in relation to Jews and Christians, whereas other central verses open a space of existence and salvation for the ‘peoples of the Book’ (Jews and Christians) side by side with Muslims. The two verses that follow each occupy the centre of two passages, which in their turn are located in symmetrical places in sura 5. To every one of you We have appointed a right way and an open road. If God had willed, He would have made you one nation; but that He may try you in what has come to you. So be you forward in good works; unto God shall you return, all together; and He will tell you of that whereon you were at variance. [Centre of the passage 5:48-50] Surely they that believe, and those of Jewry, and the Sabaeans, and those Christians, whosoever believes in God and the Last Day, and works righteousness – no fear shall be on them, neither shall they sorrow [Centre of the passage 5:65-71]. One immediately grasps the interest of this observation as regards inter-religious dialogue and a possible theology of religions in Islam. But rhetorical analysis was not my sole discovery in the study of sura 5 (as in other surats). A careful reading of the text convinced me of the existence of numerous references to previous texts: first of all the Bible (the Old and New Testament), but also rabbinical texts (the Mishnah) or apocryphal texts (The Childhood of Jesus). Some of these references have been known about for some time but others are new or unexpected (such as Deuteronomy, some Psalms, chapter 6 of the Gospel According to St. John, passages from the Gospel According to St. Matthew, or the Letter to the Hebrews). I propose to interpret these implicit references not as loans, imitations or plagiarisms, as too often, wrongly, has been done by polemical Western criticism, but as re-readings of source-texts, redirected in the sense of a new specifically Koranic theology; rather like the Bible itself never ceases to re-read certain episodes, such as that of Easter, declining them and giving them new meanings with each re-reading. The Instruments of the Human Sciences It is still too early to understand how this research will be received in learned Muslim circles. Intellectuals accustomed to modern critical thought in France, the Maghreb, the Lebanon or Iran have received it very favourably. It seems to correspond to a wish which has been expressed for some years by many of them, that of undertaking a new exegesis of the Koran more in accord with the modern world, taking advantage of the instruments of the human sciences which have obtained extraordinary results as regards the modern exegesis of the Bible. For that matter, I have been able on a number of occasions to present my research to audiences of Muslim religious, professors of law or theology, in Egypt, in Syria and in Iran, or to mixed audiences made up of Muslims and non-Muslims in France and England. The dominant reaction of Muslims has been positive, mixed perhaps with a certain surprise (why is a Christian religious doing this work?) and puzzlement when confronted with the novelty of the research which overturns the classic exegetic tradition that is familiar to them. However, the most important recognition, on the Muslim side, was the prize of the secretariat of the international prize for the book of the year of the Ministry of Culture of Iran, awarded in February to Le Festin as ‘one of the best new works in the field of Islamic studies’. The recent translation of the book into English and the translation into Arabic which is currently underway will certainly provoke new reactions. As regards my future work, I am preparing a theoretical work on the composition of the Koran in which will be presented in a systematic way all the rules of Semitic rhetoric which govern it, with abundant examples taken from the Koran. This should allow students and researchers, both Muslims and non-Muslims, to carry on this work so as to steadily arrive at a ‘new exegesis of the Koran’ which many people hope for. In reality, historical criticism has already provided a notable quantity of elements for such an exegesis, to be found in particular in the famous Encyclopédie de l’Islam, in the recent Encyclopedia of the Qur’ân (edited by Jane Dammen McAuliffe, Brill, Leiden 2001-2006) or in the Dictionnaire du Coran (edited by Mohammed Ali Amir-Moezzi, Laffont, Paris, 2007). But one may think that in traditional circles rhetorical analysis could be more easily accepted than historical criticism, which is often adjudged to be not very respectful of the sacred character of the text because of the manipulations that it proposes to make that text more logical. Rhetorical, instead, leaves the canonical text intact: it is content to demonstrate its structure and interpret it accordingly. This kind of scholarly approach to the text should preserve exegesis of the Koran from the great temptation of literalism which is so broadly practised at the present time within Islam (as is the case with Christianity and the Bible) by fundamentalist currents. To think that one can understand the text immediately, taking it literally, is an illusion that becomes reduced most of the time to projecting one’s own ideas onto the text and choosing within the text those verses that are in agreement with those ideas. The ‘return to the Koran’, which is invoked by various contemporary Islamic tendencies, however legitimate and necessary it may be, is not an easy process. It is not enough to rid oneself of the weight of a tradition that has become too heavy. One must again become aware of the difficulties of ‘reading’ these ancient texts, from which we are separated by fourteen centuries of culture. The return to the text of the Koran can not longer do without the patient and long work of a modern scholarly exegesis. The task is still immense.