Al-Jabri’s exegetic methodology and the presentation of the Qur’an
Mariangela Laviano 11 September 2015

The Qur’an: Text and Context

During the last years of his life, al-Jabri concentrated his attention on a direct  dissertation of the Qur’an. The book in which he addresses the Holy Book consists of two part. The first is an introduction to the Qur’an, entitled Madḫal ilā al-Qur’ān al-karīm, “Introduction to the Noble Qur’an” (2006), and the second is a sort of Qur’anic commentary entitled Fahm al-Qur’ān al-hakīm. Al-tafsīr al-wāḍiḥ ḥasab tartīb al-nuzūl “Understanding the Qur’an. A clear exegesis based on the order of descent” (2008), based no longer on the ‘uṯmānian organisation of the surahs (order and length of the chapters still read today) but according to the chronological order in which the revelation was passed on. Although not entirely innovative, in his opinion this criterium shows harmony between Muhammad’s biography and the development of the path followed by the generation and genesis of the Qur’an.

As known, the Holy Book of Islam plays a fundamental role in the life of Muslim society and its religious contents are often manipulated and exploited. This last aspect influenced enormously the thoughts of the Moroccan Intellectual, who, following the deadly attacks of September 11th 2001, started to ask himself on what perceptions the Qur’an results in among Muslims, the modalities of definitions attributed to it, and, in particular, the methodological approach used for reading the Holy Book. Basically, al-Jabri proposed on the one hand to disperse the text’s ideological and preaching exploitation, while on the other presenting the Qur’an to the broader public, Arab-Muslim and not, as the fundamental Book that has led to awareness of a world-crossroad in which different civilisations and cultures have coexisted and shared the same spaces. In presenting the Qur’an, al-Jabri essentially investigates two large areas; the Book and its contents. More specifically, he addresses three key subjects; the Qur’anic environment, hence the milieu in which the three (Semitic) revealed religions originated; the creation of the Holy Book, hence the process of its generation and genesis, and, finally, the narrative, hence the stories present in the Qur’an, which he considers Qur’anic events (and not historical ones), which are justified within the framework of the revelation and therefore having their own objectives and finalities. One aspect of significant interest is the issue of Muhammad’s illiteracy (ummiyya) according to which this concept is not related to the Qur’an’s miraculous characteristics. On the basis of various arguments, the author states that nothing in the Qur’an proves that the Prophet did not know how to read and write. Describing Muhammad as the “illiterate Prophet” (al-nabī al-ummī) does not means he was illiterate but rather that he belonged to the community (umma) of those to whom the Book had not been revealed. Similarly, the word mmiyūn, in the Qur’an, is referred to Arabs rather than to the People of the Book (ahl al-kitāb), hence Jews and Christians. This new idea about the Prophet clashes with what the ‘ulamā  have stated so far, saying that Muhammad did not know how to read or write. According to historical-biographical sources, one cannot be certain as far as the Prophet’s literacy is concerned, and in this sense the Qur’an is not very clear. As used in the Qur’an, the word ummiyya and its derivatives does not have just one meaning, but a range of meanings depending on various contexts. Among them, for example, it can mean not knowing the Scriptures and therefore a sort of  “gentile”. This issue is of significant importance and the traditional interpretation has concentrated a great deal on this subject in order to eliminate any suspicion regarding the fact that Muhammad might have read ancient Holy Books and therefore have written the Qur’an himself, thereby eliminating the Holy Book’s miraculous aspect and consequently his prophetic calling, The Prophet, according to al-Jabri, was capable of reading and writing[1]. Analysing matters in this manner, the Moroccan intellectual places the Qur’an in “its” context, proposing reflections on the nature of Muḥammad’s revelation that are not entirely new but symbolise the continuity of the divine message to humankind.

The Qur’an and its Phenomenon

Starting with the following verse: “Indeed this is a revelation from the Lord of the Universe – which the truthful spirit has carried down –  to your heart that you might become one of those who warn others – in clear Arabic language. (a revelation embodied) in the scriptures of the ancients”[2], al-Jabri summarises the Qur’an in five main points: the revelation (waḥy), Gabriel (loyal spirit), Muḥammad (he who warns), clear Arab language (means of the revelation), previous revelation (ancient Holy Books). The combination of these five points leads to a three dimensional discussion of the Qur’anic phenomenon. An atemporal dimension that emerges in the revelation between Muḥammad and previous Messengers; a spiritual dimension reflected in the period during which the Prophet received and accepted the revelation; a social-religious dimension concerning the process of Muhammad passing on the message to his people.

The “Qur’anic phenomenon” (al-ẓāhira al-qur’āniyya) and the path it followed during the twenty-three years of the revelation are not just a spiritual experience, a prophetic mission and a message (risāla), but also an “Arab phenomenon” (al-ẓāhira al-‘arabiyya) because of its linguistic, social and cultural affinity. Al-Jabri therefore believes that the “Qur’anic phenomenon” is the expression both of the Qur’an and of the cultural-religious traditions represented by “Qur’anic sciences” (‘ulūm al-Qur’ān), traditions, therefore, that must not be eliminated, but that need to be constantly interpreted and re-interpreted over and over again.

Al-Jabri’s methodology for a reinterpretation of the Qur’an and of its phenomenon

According to the Moroccan intellectual, the Qur’an is a concentrate of ethics, but it is its interpretations that constitute that turāṯ that is the subject of an objective critique. Al-Jabri approached the Qur’an as a philosopher and not as a theologian. In his discourse on the Holy Book he refers to the principle invoked by many ‘ulamā according to whom the “Qur’an defines itself” without, however, excluding the various versions (riwāyāt) on which the classic tafsīr relies. The methodology he proposes for a reinterpretation of the Qur’an and its phenomenon is based on the disjunctive/re-conjunctive theory, the explanation of which proceeds in the light of those two principles (already used by the author for a systematic and objective reinterpretation of the cultural traditions) present in the introduction of his book Naḥnu wa-l-turā[3].

On the basis of these principles, the Qur’an will be read as a text that is contemporary both unto itself and to us. It is hence a reinterpretation based on contemporaneity at two “levels” and at two “speeds”. It is contemporary to itself for its social, cultural and linguistic aspect and thus its meaning will be contemporary regards to its own context; It is contemporary to us only as far as its understanding and intelligibility is concerned.

Ensuring the Qur’an is contemporary to itself will mean separating it from us, while making it contemporary to us will mean bringing it closer and connecting it to us. Its interpretation will therefore be based on the concepts of “disconnection” and “reconnection” understood as essential methodological steps. The first stage, separating the Book from the readers, is of fundamental importance since the Arab reader reads passively without exploring or researching, but simply applying his own reference system. The direct consequence is that reasoning no longer becomes an interpretive effort (iǧtihād) but simply remembering. What al-Jabri proposes, consists in materially achieving a detachment of the meaning before reading the words. The second phase, instead, consists of connecting the Text to the reader only at a level of understanding, and therefore the field of interest of the reader himself.

Al-Jabri’s interpretation of the Qur’an and of religious traditions, which one can define as “rational”, therefore places emphasis on individual and rational interpretation, valorising each individual’s use of reason. His textual and historical approach excludes a priori the more spiritual and mystical defending the holiness of the Qur’an but not of its interpretations.



[1]M. A. al-Jabri, Madḫal ilā al-Qur’ān al-karīm. Fī al-ta‘rīf bi-l-Qur’ān, vol. 1, al-Markaz dirasāt al-waḥda al-‘arabiyya, II ed., Bayrūt 2007.

[2]Al-Šu‘rā (26), 192-196. Il Corano, Italian translation by A. Bausani, Biblioteca Universali Rizzoli, Milan 1988.

[3]M. A. al-Jabri, Naḥnu wa-l-turāṯ. Qirāāt mu‘āṣira fī turāṯinā al-falsafī, al-Markaz al-ṯaqāfī al-‘arabī, Bayrūt 1993.

Mariangela Laviano is a scholar of Arabic and Islamic studies. She successfully obtained the Licentiate in Arabic and Islamic Studies at the PISAI (Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies). In recent years, she has been deepening her study of Islamic sciences and interreligious dialogue with a focus on the exegesis of the Qur’ān. In 2004 she obtained a first-level university Master’s Degree in Intermediterranean Mediation: Economic Investment and Intercultural Integration at the University Ca’ Foscari (VE) during which she examined in depth Euro-Mediterranean relations with an internship in Morocco. In 2001, she graduated in “Eastern Languages ​​and Civilizations” at the University of Naples “L’Orientale” where she began the study of Arabic and Islam.