The Meaning of the Word

Lexicology and Qur'anic Exegesis

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Stephen R. Burge
Qur'anic Studies Series
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , August
     410 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Words are important. As one of the principle methods for conveying meaning and communication, words form a vital medium for both the transmission of messages as well as the construction of human society, social norms, and religious communities. For this purpose, close examination of written words and their meanings have formed—at least from the point when communities made the turn to literary based social structures—an integral part of the study of scripture as well as the religious systems and discursive formations that are based upon it. From this perspective, S. R. Burge’s edited volume, The Meaning of the Word: Lexicology and Qur’anic Exegesis, is a significant addition to the analysis on Qur’anic reception history, giving insight into the ways and means in which words were used and analyzed in the tafsīr tradition.

The principle aim of the work is to “explore how scholars engaged with words in the interpretation of the Qur’an, and how scholars incorporated discussions of the meanings of Qur’anic words into wider theological and legal disputes” (xxi). Yet, the combined effect of the various essays contained goes far beyond simply describing certain aspects of method and lexicology in Qur’anic reception history, even while consciously limiting its scope to “how medieval and modern exegetes have engaged with questions of the meanings of words in the Qur’an” (xxii), and not discussing the way those words are used in the Qur’an itself. “All of the articles in this volume describe a situation in which there are multiple interpretations of the same words. The introduction to this volume seeks to explore the different ways in which exegetes and interpreters can construct meaning, and argues that there is a need to understand the implications of the different forms of ‘meaning construction’” (xxiv-xxv). Building upon the theoretical foundation laid in the introduction, the remaining essays raise questions and present conclusions that engage with broader conversations within religious and social studies about the role of language in the construction of discourse—what some have termed the “politics of language”—the broader category of scripture as authoritative written record for a community, as well as how to translate the meaning of scripture into quotidian life across time and space.

The Meaning of the Word is divided into an introduction and four distinct sections, each devoted to a different aspect of lexicological readings in the interpretive tradition. In the introduction, Burge lays out the theoretical basis for the essays that follow, delineating specific notions of semiotics, postmodern intertextuality, and the interplay of authorial intent and reader interpretations resulting in “intergesis”—a mixture of exegesis and eisegesis. In essence, Burge—and the volume as a whole—argues that the traditional interpretation of lexical meaning was exceedingly complex. Each of the sections and essays by various authors analyze different aspects of the complex interpretive tradition with papers viewing: lexical methods in the earliest formative period of Qur’anic interpretation, differences in the specific methods and approaches of various exegetes, the usage of lexical methods in juridical or legal exegesis, and issues within Islamic discourse regarding translating the Qur’an.

These varied essays and sections come together to speak to the importance of words and the analysis that can be done based on them. This collection provides important evidence that lexical evaluations and methods of analysis continue to be fruitful methods for viewing the Qur’an and its interpretation. However, the volume also indicates that, particularly in modern Western scholarship, lexical approaches are the most fruitful when paired with some other approach—feminist, literary, semiotic, legal, historical, translation theory, etc. By combining lexical methods with additional other approaches, new vistas of knowledge and information can be opened that will continue to enrich Qur’anic studies as a field, giving greater insight into the Qur’an as a historical document as well as its reception among believing communities.

Beyond this, however, there is an additional aspect of importance within these studies. Connecting each of the essays in this volume, and emerging in interesting ways within them, is the notion that these words are important for more than just the methods by which interpreters make choices. Each of the essays makes, to some degree or another, reference to the notion that these interpretive choices and lexical methods play important roles in the construction, maintenance, and transmission of discursive norms. In a very real sense, they are each involved to a significant degree in the “politics of language,” reflecting how interpretive choices wield discursive power to weld together norms, values, and assumptions socially, religiously, and politically. Even more, these politics of language are influential in the politics of power as they are utilized in establishing and/or reinforcing power structures.

To this point, the volume as a whole may have benefitted from a summary chapter connecting such aspects into a conclusion. Such a concluding chapter could have added to the hermeneutic value of the volume by elucidating how the choices of words, the meanings attributed to them, and the methods used to derive, support, or construct interpretations around them were influential in building Islamic discursive realities.

All in all, The Meaning of the Word illustrates the power of words and their position of importance within the Qur’anic scriptural tradition. In doing so, it points the way forward to greater engagement with words as discursive signifiers, examining their importance in the construction of Islamic identity and understanding, and the navigation of the resulting discursive norms. In bringing together this panoply of essays, Burge provides an important addition to the study of the Qur’an and its reception history that should challenge Qur’anic and religious studies scholars to take more seriously words, and the ramifications inherent in choosing and using them.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Andrew C. Smith is an instructor at Brigham Young University.

Date of Review: 
March 30, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Stephen R. Burge is Research Associate at Institute of Ismaili Studies, London. He is the author of Angels in Islam: Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti's al-Haba'ik fi akhbar al-mala'ik (Routledge, 2012).




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