The Qur'an

A Form-critical History

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Karim Samji
Studies in the History and Culture of the Middle East
  • Berlin, Germany: 
    , March
     315 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Literary studies of the Qur’an, beginning with premodern Muslim scholars seeking to demonstrate and understand the inimitability of qur’anic discourse, have investigated its literary devices, styles, and rhetoric. Modern scholarship has further sought to classify the various modes or genres of qur’anic discourse, but largely without any rigorous methodological framework. This volume by Karim Samji,  The Qur'ān: A Form-Critical History, seeks, in painstaking detail, to provide such a framework, drawing extensively from the discipline of form criticism in biblical studies as exemplified by Hermann Gunkel and his successors.

An introduction outlines the development of biblical form criticism and situates this approach among other modern critical approaches to the Qur’an. Samji then lays out the book’s “application of form criticism to the Qur’anic corpus” (31) in five chapters, each dealing with a major genre: prayer, liturgy, wisdom, narrative, and proclamation. Each chapter follows the same format: after a brief introduction to the genre, it identifies the introductory formulaic expressions that mark the genre, hypothesizes the social settings of the genre, classifies the various types or forms of the genre, and ends with a short summary. Samji provides profuse illustrative examples from the Qur’an, quoted both in transliteration and in the English Qur’an translation of Alan Jones (occasionally modified). The end rhyme of most examples is indicated since it is an important structural device that demarcates discrete textual units. A concluding chapter briefly considers genre classification before exploring the possibilities that genre criticism offers for a historical analysis of the Qur’an independent of extra-qur’anic Islamic traditions (which are problematic due to their relatively late date and theological tendencies). A massive bibliography and a very useful subject index round out the volume.

Some examples will illustrate Samji’s approach. The first genre considered is prayer. Three literary markers of prayer are identified: the vocatives Rabbanā (“Our Lord”), Rabbi (“My Lord”), and Allahūma (“O God”). Three social settings for prayer are explored: private (individual), domestic, and corporate; the latter includes a discussion of the Fātiḥa, the opening surah or chapter of the Qur’an, as an entrance-oath or introitus, and distinguishes between duꜤāʾ as (individual) “prayer” and ṣalāt, one of the pillars of Islamic practice, as (corporate) “worship.” After acknowledging that most of the prayers in the Qur’an are embedded in narratives in which they are voiced by various characters, a variety of prayer forms are described and illustrated: conversational, petitionary, penitential, complaint, imprecatory, praise and rhetorical. Scholarly references in the footnotes for this chapter are dominated by studies of prayer in the Hebrew Bible, although some studies of prayer in the Qur’an by German scholars are also cited.

Another example is provided by the fourth major genre: narrative. No less that fourteen formulae marking this genre are identified, among them wa-ḑrib lahum mathal (“and coin for them a similitude”), idh (“when”), wa-dhkur (“and remember”), and wa-tlu Ꜥalayhim nabaʾa . . . idh (“and recite to them the narrative of . . . when”). A disappointingly short section on contexts suggests a variety of original settings for qur’anic narratives ranging from village wisdom to sermons to oral folklore. Twelve narrative forms are delineated: anecdote, similitude, parable, paradigm, controversy story, example story, report, summary report, historical story, legend, episode, and saga. The Arabic mathal is classified as referring not just to one form but several: similitude, parable, and paradigm. Prophetic characters in narratives are described as “mnemohistorical,” using the term coined by Jan Assmann for a description of the past not as it necessarily happened but rather as it is variously remembered.

Especially helpful is Samji’s identification of the distinct formulae associated with each genre. Used together with other markers of genre such as thematic content and style, these formulae provide a more objective means of recognizing genres in the Qur’an.  

The genres analyzed in each chapter are extremely broad; so broad, in fact, that the various forms of the genres identified in each chapter could be considered as genres in their own right, making the chapter titles meta-categorizations of genres. Some genres, such as prayer and liturgy, seem to overlap in parts. Other genres, such as apocalyptic or law, are conspicuous by their absence. Apocalyptic or eschatological discourse, seen by many scholars as especially characteristic of the Qur’an, appears only under other forms of genre, such as litanies of praise (123), admonition (148), instruction (167) or in certain narratives. Law appears under the genre of “proclamation”—where one might expect sermonic or oracular forms, instead one encounters what are called regulatory forms, that is, various rules (legislation) for the formation of the nascent Islamic community: rules of inclusion, exclusion, authority, purity, ritual, order, propriety, property, matrimony, punishment, and war. Of note here are the parallels drawn to the community rules found in the Dead Sea Scrolls corpus. Finally, since the use of qur’anic genres in the historical-critical study of the Qur’an is only explicitly explored in the concluding chapter, it seems that the book would have been more accurately subtitled “A Form-Critical Inventory.”

Although Samji strives for methodological rigor, in common with other studies of genre, his work is strewn with various descriptive and technical terms in a field that that does not seem to have much standardized vocabulary. A quick perusal of the index shows references to a multitude of different formulaic markers of genre and other technical terminology ranging from anacrusis to typology. A desideratum would be a glossary of standardized terms.

Despite these quibbles, Samji’s work is an erudite, meticulously organized, copiously referenced and important contribution, and will hopefully inspire further rigorous form-critical analyses of the Qur’an. It is accessible not only to students and scholars of the Qur’an but also to students and scholars of the Bible, especially those familiar with form criticism.


About the Reviewer(s): 

Volker Greifenhagen is professor of religious studies at Luther College, University of Regina, in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.

Date of Review: 
July 11, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Karim Samji is assistant professor of history at Gettysburg College.


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