Philosophical Perspectives on Modern Qur'anic Exegesis: Key Paradigms and Concepts by Massimo Campanini
Philosophical Perspectives on Modern Qur'anic Exegesis: Key Paradigms and Concepts, by Massimo Campanini, is a very interesting book and actually quite important in signaling the arrival of philosophy in modern times as part of Qur'anic studies. In the past the discipline has tended to be on the outskirts of the study of the religion of Islam and its Book, but in recent years philosophy has crept closer and closer to the mainstream discussion of the Qur'an. Campanini has made a real contribution not only to our understanding of the Book but also to how to go about studying it.
Like many good reads it has heroes and villains, and in the former camp are Nasr Abu Zayd and the school of Fazlur Rahman, however they are labeled, while the enemy is unsurprisingly those who fail to see the relevance of philosophy to the understanding of the Qur'an. A point that Campanini could have made more of is that the latter group, who are hostile to philosophy, base their position on the philosophical argument that philosophy can make no contribution to the understanding of [End Page 312] the Qur'an. This is not just a denial of a role for philosophy but an argument for that denial, and so it enters into the area of philosophy itself, and one can see the attraction of such a position. Why should philosophy be useful for the understanding of religion, since religion consists of what God tells us, and, as the Qur'an puts it at 54 : 17, it is "easy to understand"? We are told how to behave and what is true and that we should just accept it and act accordingly. To a degree philosophy works its way in because of course the formulations of religion are not usually that obvious and we need to work out precisely what they mean, when to apply them, and so on—the basic issues that occur in all faiths. Here philosophy can be useful, and, as Campanini says in most of the book, it is really about what it is for religious language to have a meaning. If to grasp that meaning involves an understanding of the context within which the original claims were made, how far do they remain relevant in different times and places? How far ought we to be prepared to vary the scope of the claims in different contexts? This seems to go against the idea of a transcendent deity who produces laws and truths for every time and every place, yet who also had to work initially within a particular cultural context that framed how religious truths were produced.
This is a factor with which many of the thinkers in this book struggle. They want to regard the Qur'an as an immutable and perfect source of legislation and truth, and yet also argue for changes in how these aspects of Islam are interpreted over time. What the book could really do with is a thoroughgoing theory of meaning, and Campanini seeks to replace this with a phenomenological account of Islam that does not really throw much light on the issue of meaning at all. It seems to me that his stress on the apophatic nature of Islam and its definition along Husserlian/Heideggerian lines does not get us very far, since all religions can be seen as apophatic and so there is nothing distinctive about such a phenomenological strategy. Perhaps there is not supposed to be, in which case the results are hardly definitive about Islam alone. In the last part of the book there is much wrestling around with ideas like Being and Logos and nihilism, and using the phenomenological thinkers and their modern Islamic followers as plausible interpreters of the Qur'an. It is interesting to see how verses from the Qur'an can be made to fit into such approaches, and in this section the hero is definitely Hasan Hanafi, and very rightly so since he has long championed this sort of approach. We start with objective truths about God and we end up with political action, and obviously the sorts of action that are appropriate change from time to time and from place to place.
Should we take seriously, though, the idea that God now expects us to be socialists, as Hanafi argues? He certainly expects us to be active and participate in social life, but many Muslims would not regard themselves as having to be socialists, or indeed anything as specific as that, from their reading of the Qur'an. One of the surprising aspects of much Islamic fundamentalist economic theory is how conservative it is, how much it values private enterprise and the operation of markets. This is not the place to enter into the discussion of whether the Qur'an advocates a left- or right-wing economic policy or political platform, but the fact that there can be debate shows that it is not helpful to produce from an analysis of a religion a set of conclusions that is limited to a particular set of political principles and ideas. [End Page 313]
What is clear from the accounts of the Qur'anic commentators in the book is how crucial the concept of meaning is to their work. What does it mean for a scriptural passage to be relevant today and how can we work out what it means now as compared with what it meant originally? How can we find out who its original audience was supposed to be, and what problem was it designed to answer then? The different approaches of the various thinkers provide a clear and accurate view of Islamic thought on the topic, albeit with rather more Arab than Iranian thinkers. This would be a useful book to use in courses on theology and Islamic philosophy, and the description of the variety of thinkers and their views would give students interesting material to reflect on and discuss in class.
In conclusion, this is an innovative and valuable addition to the growing literature on the Qur'an and philosophy and is worth serious attention.