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Ambiguity, Hermeneutics, and the Formation of Shi‘i Identity in Al-Sharif Al-Radi’s Qur’an Commentary

In this study, the writer examines how al-Radi negotiates the interplay between literary exegesis and sectarian theology and pay particular attention to the function that religious identity played in his interpretive framework during a strikingly cosmopolitan period under the Buyid dynasty.

This dissertation addresses the question of how the relationship between language and revelation was articulated and contested in the Muslim intellectual tradition during its formative years. The specific context in which I explore this question is that of tenth century Baghdad, a moment when the authority of knowledge traditions rooted in logic and indebted to Greek philosophy were aggressively challenged by scholars who valorized the Qur’an and Prophetic tradition as the overarching sources for norms in Islam. These debates over the relative merits of “logic” and “language” as primary foundations of knowledge were intimately tied to a much larger hermeneutical and indeed theological problem and question: how should one understand the relationship between human language, which is culturally and temporally specific, and divine revelation, which is transcendent, universal, and applicable across time and space? This is the central question that informs the conceptual landscape of this dissertation.

Specifically, the writer analyzes the Arabic Qur’an commentary of a prominent Shi‘i theologian, poet, and historian of 10th century Baghdad, al-Sharif al-Radi (d.1015CE).  His commentary, titled Hermeneutical Realities in [Uncovering] the Ambiguity of Revelation (Haqa’iq al-Ta’wil fi Mutashabihat al-Tanzil), takes a distinctly literary approach to the Qur’an. In this work, al-Radi identified the Qur’an’s “ambiguous verses” as those verses deemed to contain theological, linguistic, and other difficulties that require the extensive exertion of hermeneutical energies.

The writer examines how al-Radi negotiates the interplay between literary exegesis and sectarian theology and pay particular attention to the function that religious identity played in his interpretive framework during a strikingly cosmopolitan period under the Buyid dynasty (955-1055CE), when religious thinkers, litterateurs, and rulers alike participated to create a rich and lively milieu of intellectual exchange. The writer argues that far from adopting rigid methods that conform to fixed sectarian templates, al-Radi strategically mobilized the literary trope of Qur’anic ambiguity for remarkably varied hermeneutical and political projects. Conceptually, he argues for a more carefully historicized approach to the study of Qur’anic exegesis that strives to understand the malleable ways in which individual Muslim thinkers have engaged the questions of language, authority, and interpretation at specific historical conjunctures.

Bibliographic Information

Title: Ambiguity, Hermeneutics, and the Formation of Shi‘i Identity in Al-Sharif Al-Radi’s Qur’an Commentary

Author(s): Tehseen Thaver

Presented in: Not Published.

 Language: English

Length: 224 page

A dissertation submitted to the faculty of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the Department of Religious Studie.

Ambiguity, Hermeneutics, and the Formation of Shi‘i Identity in Al-Sharif Al-Radi’s Qur’an Commentary

About Ali Teymoori

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