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  • Two Faces of the Qur’ān:Qur’ān and Muṣḥaf
  • Angelika Neuwirth (bio)

Introduction: Qur’ān and Rhetoric, Balāgha

Every prophet is given a sign that testifies to his rank as a messenger. Moses, who was sent to the Egyptians, had to convince addressees with magic. To eclipse them he had to perform a miracle, changing a rod into a snake and changing the snake back into the rod. Jesus made his appearance in an age when the most prestigious discipline was medicine; he therefore had to work a medical miracle: resurrecting the dead. Coming still later, Muḥammad was sent to a people who would no longer be won by physical miracles, but—being particularly committed to rhetoric, balāgha—demanded a more sublime prophetic sign. Muḥammad, therefore, had to present a linguistic and stylistic miracle to convince them. He presented a scripture, the Qur’ān.1

This review of the prophetic missions, often evoked since the time of its first transmitter, the eighth-and ninth-century polymath al-Jāḥiẓ, seems to hit an important point in the perception of the kind of scripture the Qur’ān constitutes. Although one might object to the classification of the two great messengers preceding Muḥammad as professionals in magic and medicine, the classification of Muḥammad and the Qur’ān as closely related to linguistics and rhetoric is certainly pertinent. His communication of the message is in fact the central part of his mission, unlike Moses and Jesus whose significance relies on both deeds and words. Not only by virtue of Muḥammad’s addressing a linguistically demanding audience should the Qur’ān be acknowledged as particularly closely related to balāgha, but also for another reason about which the authors of the above-quoted classification were arguably less conscious. I am referring to the peculiar iunctim of speech and meta-speech in the Qur’ān. Unframed by any narrative scenario, the entire Qur’ān is speech as such. Qur’ānic speech, moreover, is not limited to the oral communication of a message to listeners, but is often a metadiscourse, a speech about speech, a comment on the Qur’ānic message itself or on the speech of others. The Qur’ān—so one might summarize the classifications of prophets related above—was sent down not in an age where amazement could be aroused by extraordinary deeds, but where a speaker successfully confronted and vanquished another, eclipsing the argument of the other in what in Islamic theology would later term i‘jāz, meaning to “render the other rhetorically impotent.” That age was neither an age of magic, nor of science, but an age of exegesis. The Qur’ān accordingly presents itself as a highly rhetorical and often metatextual document that reflects an ongoing debate.

In light of these considerations, the problem underlying the present crisis in Western Qur’ānic scholarship—the seemingly unbridgeable divide between a traditional position that regards the Qur’ān as the literary outcome of a prophetic mission in Mecca and Medina during the first half of the seventh century CE, and a skeptical position that ascribes its compilation to a later syncretistic Mesopotamian community2—appears to reflect a mistaken premise, very much like the problem that tormented the customs inspector in the famous Tijuana anecdote (Boyarin 2004:1):

Every day for thirty years a man drove a wheelbarrow full of sand over the Tijuana border crossing. The customs inspector dug through the sand each morning but could not discover any contraband. He remained, of course, convinced that he was dealing with a smuggler. On the day of his retirement from the service, he asked the smuggler to reveal what it was that he was smuggling and how he had been doing so. “Wheelbarrows; I’ve been smuggling wheelbarrows, of course.”

I mention this humorous anecdote to argue that what Qur’ānic scholars should be looking for is not the whereabouts of a literary compilation called “Qur’ān,” let alone asking “What the Qur’ān really says,” but should instead be looking at the Qur’ānic text as a “medium of transport,” triggering and reflecting a communication. The Qur’ān in its emergent...

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