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Modernist Qur’anic exegesis in an age of transformation: apologetics, translation and the movement of ideas in the early 20th century

funded by Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), December 2018–November 2021

This project connects two fields of research: First, the history of Muslim exegesis of the Qur’an, and second, the transregional history of Muslim modernism in the early 20th century with a focus on Egypt and the Malay-Indonesian world.

Its goal is to understand modernist Qur’anic exegesis as it emerged around the turn of the century. Modernism, here, is understood as a transregional intellectual discourse that was concerned with reforming Islam in a way that equipped Muslims to overcome their perceived backwardness. Modernist Qur’anic exegesis was a global phenomenon whose reception, appropriation and translation was facilitated and guided by the availability of print media. The project is going to look at the dispersion of modernist ideas in Egypt and the Malay world during the first third of the 20th century. In doing so, it will seek to identify the specific local circumstances in which modernist exegesis was produced and published.

The project is interested in studying these developments as part of the history of Qur’anic exegesis (tafsir). As such, it pays particular attention to the tension between the established genre of the Qur’anic commentary and the desire or even pressure to develop novel exegetical approaches. It uses tafsir as a lens through which to examine broader developments such as the spread of print media, the reform of educational institutions and the religious response to various forms of Western dominance throughout a period of time that was in itself dynamic and characterised by ruptures.

Since the number and scope of exegetical sources from the first third of the 20th century is vast, the project narrows the focus of inquiry to a specific theme: that of apologetics. We will focus on such topics that are related to an exegetical problem posed by a specific Qur’anic segment of text and that clearly serve the defence of Islamic religious doctrines, scriptures or figures against European and/or Christian critics. The choice of this subject issue is related to the enormous importance that confrontations or engagement with imperial and colonial administrators, Orientalists and Christian missionaries had for Muslim scholars and intellectuals.

By analysing a corpus of Egyptian and Malay-Indonesian exegetical sources and comparing their approach to the above-mentioned exegetical problems, we hope to shed light on the agents and media through which modernist ideas spread, the changes they underwent in the light of political transformations, the ways in which they were selectively adapted to local contexts and the persistence and re-appropriation of exegetical traditions.

Project staff

Prof. Dr. Johanna Pink

Dr. Majid Daneshgar




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