Philosophical Perspectives on Modern Qur'anic Exegesis

Key Paradigms and Concepts

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Massimo Campanini
Themes in Qur'anic Studies
  • Sheffield, England: 
    Equinox Publishing Limited
    , October
     120 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


It is a commonplace belief that academic study in the humanities in general, and religion in particular, should not be tablīghī—aimed at proselytization—but critical. The goal of the academic study of religion is an attempt to make sense of other cultures, languages, and traditions (such as philological understanding); it ought not to be in the business of providing a fix for or response to historical ambiguities. Yet Massimo Campanini’s Philosophical Perspectives on Modern Qur’anic Exegesisis a theological-defensive version of Islamic apologetics. If I were asked to introduce an apologetic work on modern Qur’an commentaries to my colleagues and students, one of my first choices would be Campanini’s. Although he insists on saying that modern (German) philosophy is behind his reasoning, he writes as a theologian or missionary whose argument is based on the notion that “being in Islam is God and God discloses Himself in the Qur’an” (viii). Such a basis simply cannot be considered as the backbone of a scholarly volume. The author seeks to find “the door of the secrets of Being,” and so it would be asking too much to expect any critical discussion of modern quranic exegetical works. 

Campanini does not specify his target audience. Campanini only provides his readers with some apologetic “facts” that are regularly taught in Islamic seminaries, such as “God … is the end of human actions.” He doggedly pursues his agenda of proving that earlier understandings based on “interpretation,” such as Nietzsche’s comment that “No, facts is precisely what there is not, only interpretations,” are simply not relevant because, he states, “we have the Qur’an­­­.” To define the features of the Qur’an, he indirectly confronts recent works from the Western revisionist school. In order to do so, he lists some theologically based expressions about the Qur’an: “[the Qur’an] is a solid certainty, irrespective of whether t­­he Qur’an was composed just after the prophet’s death, or in ‘Abd al-Malik’s time or later…the Qur’an is a fact like the world, existing before interpretation … the Book is a firm reality just as God is a firm reality” (6-7).

For Campanini, Western philosophers (and only rarely some scholars, like Kenneth Cragg) are the means by which he can persuade his readers that the Qur’an is both an event and “discrimination.” Campanini attempts to direct philosophical arguments towards the conclusions he wants to reach, but in fact the philosophers he cites do not follow his approach. For him, Nietzsche is a nihilist; as such, Heidegger is the appropriate philosopher whose arguments, according to Campanini, fit with Islamic quranic arguments: “I believe that Heidegger’s proposal is useful to better define the role of the Qur’an” (13). In addition, Campanini does not see any place for historians’ accounts of the historicity of the Qur’an. For him, the historical contexts of the Qur’an, as analyzed by Fred Donner, Herbert Berg, Herald Motzki, and others, are replete with “shrewdness,” here meant pejoratively. Consequently, he does not provide his readers with an alternative view that would allow them to critically investigate his book in the light of modern scholarship. His references, supposedly showing that the Qur’an and Islam are separate from “other ideologies and religions,” are primarily based in the Qur’an and ḥadīth

Subsequently, Campanini examines the difference between tafsīrand ta’wīl, or exegesis and interpretation. According to him, tafsīr does not have the potential to reveal the “inner meaning of the text.” Instead, ta’wīl has this potential, and by employing such a hermeneutical approach, the inner meaning of quranic verses can be disclosed. However, he does not discuss earlier works that have tackled the issue of quranic tafsīrand ta’wīl from a theological and philosophical perspective, and how his work can fill the gap. 

In the chapter entitled “Symbols,” after rehashing what has been frequently expressed by Muslim theologians and apologists on the view in Islam of Muhammad as an exemplar, Campanini unsurprisingly refers to the works of Montgomery Watt, who expressed the view that Muhammad’s experience was “real and sincere.” As Campanini is selective in relying on Western philosophers, so too is he selective in referring to Western scholars of quranic studies. He certainly requires the argument of Montgomery Watt, whose works have been frequently admired in the Muslim world, unlike those of John Wansbrough, Patricia Crone, or David Powers.

The rest of Philosophical Perspectives on Modern Qur’anic Exegesis, on the basis of the abovementioned points, has nothing in particular to add, and one may indeed wonder what, if anything, is the point of this book. In order to demonstrate this, it will be helpful to highlight Campanini’s comments on “the Temple”: “in all religions, the temple plays a central role”; “In Islam, the temple … is obviously the mosque”; “the mosques … are houses established for the service of God prescribed by the Law”; “In the Qur’an, the world masjid with its plural masājid occurs 28 times” (37-38). After this, he lists various quranic verses. The rest of his arguments are those that have been studied by any Muslim or student of Islam in schools or madrasas regarding the nature of the mosque, Ka‘ba and qibla, and how they are represented by the human heart in mystical treatises and poetry.

This book certainly tries to shed lights on the importance of and contribution to (modern) philosophy in order to provide a better understanding of scriptures (particularly the Qur’an) and interpretation. However, it fails to critically discuss exegetical hermeneutics in light of social and political contexts. The one-sided analysis of Islamic teachings and sources, without due attention to the situation of modern critical scholarship inside and outside of Western and Muslim academies on revelation, the compilation of the Qur’an, and Muhammad’s prophecy, does not allow readers in general and experts in particular to view modern quranic exegetical works from a philosophical perspective. This type of publication, the importance of which is seen by editors and publishers in light of current political and social difficulties (the emergence of ISIS and radicalization, for instance), desires to unite the people of the world; however, it seems that such monographs will have little place in the academic and intellectual discourses through which people discuss social and political issues.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Majid Daneshgar is Junior Fellow and Marie Curie Fellow of the European Union at the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies at Albert Ludwigs University of Freiburg.

Date of Review: 
June 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Massimo Campanini was born in Milan in 1954. He graduated in philosophy at the University of Milan in 1977 with a thesis on Giordano Bruno’s thought. Later he obtained a degree in Arabic at the Institute for the Middle and Far East of Milan in 1984. Lecturer in history and institutions of the Muslim world at the University of Urbino and of Arabic culture at the University of Milan; reader in History of Islamic countries at the Oriental University in Naples; presently, he is Associate professor of Islamic studies at the University of Trento. He published about 100 scientific articles and 30 books, a few of them translated in Spanish, Portuguese and Serbo-croatian. In English he published The Qur’an: The Basics 2nd edition (Routledge 2016), Introduction to Islamic Philosophy (Edinburgh University Press 2008) and The Qur’an: Modern Muslim Interpretations (Routledge 2011).


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.