Andrew Rippin and Abdur-Rahman Abuo-Almajd in dialog about Qur’anic studies


We have a fresh opportunity to reflect about Qur’anic studies. At this point Professor Andrew Rippin is going to talk about his views of Qur’anic studies

Andrew Rippin is Professor of History and former (2000-2010) Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Victoria, Canada. His publications include The Qur’an and its interpretative tradition and Muslims, their religious beliefs and practices (4th edition, 2012). He is the editor of theBlackwell Companion to the Qur’an.

Q:  First of all I wonder what made you focus on the Qur’an?

Andrew Rippin: I started my education in the field of religious studies in general, and my interest in the Qur’an is just an outgrowth of that. As a major scriptural text which, at the time I was undertaking my graduate degrees, had not received a lot of attention in the academic world, I saw an opportunity to investigate something different yet similar to the Bible with which I was more familiar.

 Q: It is known that the field of your interest is Qur’anic studies; what made you take up Qur’anic studies?

Andrew Rippin: In doing my MA thesis on the word haram in the Qur’an – a topic that came out of a general religious studies interest in notions the sacred and the profane – I started reading works of tafsir which I found fascinating. I discovered that I enjoyed reading the works from people of the past and seeing those authors work to derive as much meaning aspossible from the Qur’an. In that interaction with the Qur’an I saw tremendous creativity, ingenuity and diligence on the part of the mufassirun. I found it fascinating!

Q: I want to know how you find Qur’anic studies today.

Andrew Rippin: This is a very exciting but also difficult time to be involved in the study of the Qur’an. The number of people working at universities who see their focus of study as being on the Qur’an and tafsir has grown enormously and there is a lot of very good work being produced.
At the same time, the public attention to Islam has produced some strains on all of us and has also attracted some writers who are not interested in scholarship but are more concerned with forwarding their own agendas (whether that be in support of Islam or against it).
This makes scholarship much more political and, on occasion, difficult to negotiate. Another thing that has changed enormously in recent years – and this is definitely for the best – is that those of us in far-flung universities no longer work in isolation and we are no longer writing for a very limited audience.
I continue to be surprised and delighted by the attention some of my work receives from around the world and the extent to which interchanges with those in the Muslim-majority countries are possible and fruitful.

Q:How do you assess its tremendous influence on today’s societies and politics?

Andrew Rippin: I think perhaps I have answered some of this in the previous question.

Q: Could you elaborate on your studies in the Qur’an.

Andrew Rippin: My interest has always been on tafsir although I have found myself writing on much wider aspects of Quranic studies and Islam in general. My focus on the earliest period of Arabic writing about the Qur’an has taught me much about how the Qur’an gained status and authority in the Muslim community at large.
It has also taught me much about interpretation itself – how it is a necessary part of reading any text and how it changes according to the historical, social, economic, political and cultural context. That lesson has allowed me to see how interpretation was not only a key activity in the past but continues into the present.

Q: Do you think all the Qur’an is about is killing and using swords and nothing thing else?

Andrew Rippin: Of course not! One doesn’t have to read very much of the text to realize the broad extent of its various themes.
However, it is necessary to be open about the fact that the Qur’an does speak about killing people and using swords. One can’t simply ignore the passages that don’t seem to agree with modern principles.
Rather, and this is what the study of tafsir shows us, we have to understand how Muslims have gone about understanding and implementing (if they have) such verses. The real issue here is the popular perception (among some Muslims and non-Muslims) that just because the text seems to “say” something then that means all Muslims must implement those apparent statements.
Such a position forgets the history of interpretation, the pragmatics of life, and the changing conditions of human existence.

Q: Why do you think some Christian writers on Islam and the Qur’anic studies often have a negative view of both?

Andrew Rippin: I don’t think one can generalize in this way. There are some writers who are explicitly Christian but who have written very perceptive works on the Qur’an. But overall I think one needs to be very careful about such observations; they are based on superficial notions. Just because someone lives in Canada (or elsewhere) and has a name that does not seem Muslim does not make him or her a Christian.
Nor should be one be guided in this way of thinking to believe that because someone has a “Muslim” name that they will necessarily have a “better” view of Islam and the Qur’an.
I think it would be more profitable to separate academic writers from those who have only superficial knowledge and still feel entitled to write about Islam. It is the latter group who sometimes (but not always) will convey a negative view because of their own particular agendas.
I would admit that there are some pseudo-scholars in the academic world also, but the nature of academic disciplines is that such people generally become quite marginal to the mainstream of activities.

Q: I found some incorrect quotes Qur’anic studies for example in “What every American needs to know about the Qur’an?” by William J. Federer, Do you agree that all the while attacking Islam and Muslims. This is not a well researched book, it is a one-sided hatchet job?

Andrew Rippin: I have not seen Federer’s book but I did look at the Wikipedia page devoted to him.
On the basis of what is written there, there would be no reason to believe that the book would be of any value other than to further Federer’s own very conservative and very American sense of values.
It is unfortunate that such works tend to get distributed among certain portions of the American population: they only serve to re-affirm existing stereotypes and prejudices. Unfortunately we academics are not always very successful in making the results of our research accessible to the population at large.

Q: Could you give us some examples for some mufassirun you enjoy reading their works and they have a great effect on tafsir today?  

Andrew Rippin: I have always enjoyed the earliest works most of all – those of Muqatil, al-Farra, Abu Ubayd, Abu Ubayda, the approaches of whom come together in the work of al-Tabari. My PhD dissertation was on asbab al-nuzul works and I have worked with al-nasikh wa’l-mansukh works also so those are important parts of my work.

Q: How do you assess the future of the Qur’anic studies?

Andrew Rippin: It has a very bright future. One of the reasons is the new generation of scholars who are now populating many religious studies programs today. They come with enthusiasm, critical perspective, well developed skills and often a deep cultural appreciation of the Qur’an.

Abdur-Rahman Abuo-Almajd: Thank you very much, Professor Rippin.