SOAS University of London

Department of the Languages and Cultures of the Near and Middle East

Early and Classical Qur'anic Exegesis: Literature and Thought

Module Code:
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Taught in:
Full Year

This is a text-based module which sets out to provide a structured examination of the literature, scholarship and thought which defined the early and classical tradition of Qur'anic exegesis (tafsir), drawing distinct attention to its enduring legacy and importance. With a concern for both historical context and theoretical content, the module will explore not only the historical genesis of normative exegesis, but also its place within the broader context of the classical Islamic sciences. 

With reference to the original Arabic sources, students will translate, analyse and review key elements of a broad selection of the seminal commentaries and texts produced within the field, including legal, theological, rhetorical, linguistic, narrative, mystical and even philosophical treatments of the Qur’an.  

This will also extend to a study of the rich vein of super-commentaries and marginalia produced by exegetes. The synthesis of interpretive strategies and constructs will be reviewed with the aim of assessing the discipline’s constructive assimilation of resources; developments within modern tafsir literature will also be explored.  With reference to the spectrum of contemporary academic scholarship associated with the study of tafsir, due emphasis will be placed upon encouraging students to develop a critical understanding of the dynamics of tafsir and the function of the discipline within the wider matrix of classical Islamic intellectual thought.  


Students should possess the equivalent of 4th year BA Arabic language

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

On successful completion of this module a student . . . 

  • should gain an understanding of the historical background of the early and classical scholarship associated with the interpretation of the Qur’an
  • will appreciate key aspects of the history of the development of hermeneutical constructs
  • will be able to analyse in Arabic seminal exegetical texts and treatises of the early and medieval tradition
  • should appreciate the broader intellectual significance of the exegetical tradition within the context of the classical Islamic sciences and trace the impact of ideas between disciplines and spheres of learning
  • should be able to evaluate current academic discourses on the early, classical and modern exegetical traditions of Islam, showing an awareness of developments in the field
  • should be able to show an awareness of the context of current debates, arguments and methodological frameworks germane to the study of tafsir


This module will be taught over 20 weeks with a one-hour lecture and one-hour seminar per week.

Scope and syllabus

The module readings and lectures are based on selected aspects of the major themes and topics outlined below.

  1. Historical genesis and the issue of origins and authenticity: the formative periods
  2. Authoritative sources and the epistemological bases of tafsīr: traditional distinctions between tafsir and taʾwīl
  3. Traditionalist contra rationalist strategies: the fusion of normative tafsīr
  4. Legitimacy of tafsīr and the expression of opposition to its practice
  5. Lexical theories and the Qurʾān’s vocabulary: homonymic function, etymology, and polysemy as exegetical devices
  6. The treatment of Qurʾānic narrative and exempla; the substrate of late antique religious narratives: internal dynamics and imperatives
  7. The conceptual bases of paraphrastic and periphrastic exegetical treatments of the Qurʾān.
  8. Towards the synthesis of hermeneutic categories and paradigms for the broaching of tafsīr
  9. Constructs, theories and interpretive strategies: grammatical suppletion and ellipsis; redundancy and completeness in the  context of speech; abrogation; loci probantes; hyperbaton and hysteron proteron; intertextuality;  inimitabilty; and parable
  10. Seminal texts and treatises
  11. Pursuit of the aesthetic: literary commentaries
  12. The juridical compass of tafsir: legal commentaries
  13. Traditionalist strategies: accentuating isnād based approaches
  14. The function of dialectical treatments: theological commentaries
  15. Mystical and philosophical commentaries
  16. Trajectories of the sub-genre
  17. The Phenomenon of super-commentaries, marginalia and the role of prolegomena
  18. Contemporary tafsir: nexuses and trajectories

Method of assessment

• One 3000 word essay submitted on day 1, week 1, term 2 (50%)
• One 3000 word essay submitted on day 1, week 1, term 3 (50%)

Suggested reading

Core reading list

  • Abbott, Nabia. Studies in Arabic Literary Papyri II, Qur’ānic Commentary and Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1967.
  • al-Dhahabī, Muhammad. Al-Tafsīr wa’l-mufassirūn: baḥth tafṣīlī 'an nash'at al-tafsīr wa-taṭawwurihi wa-alwānihi wa-madhāhibihi. 3 vols. Cairo: Dar al-Kutub al-Ḥadītha, 1961-62.
  • Gätje, Helmut. The Qur'ān and its Exegesis: Selected Texts with Classical and Modern Interpretations. Translated by Alford T. Welch. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976.
  • Görke, Andreas and Johanna Pink (editors).  Tafsir and Islamic Intellectual History: Exploring the Boundaries of a Genre, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2013.
  • Hamza, Feras and Sajjad Rizvi with Farhana Mayer. The Anthology of Qur'ānic Commentaries: On the Nature of the Divine. Edited by Feras Hamza and Sajjad Rizvi with Farhana Mayer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Rippin, Andrew. The Qur'ān: Formative Interpretation. Aldershot: Variorum, 1999.
  • Sezgin, Fu'āt. Geschichte des arabischen Schriftuums. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1967-84. (Band I)
  • Shah, Mustafa. Tafsīr: Interpreting the Qur’ān. London; New York: Routledge, 2010.
  • Versteegh, Kees. Arabic Grammar and Qur'ānic Exegesis in Early Islam. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1993.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules