New technology has a major impact on the Tafsir canon. A conversation with Dr. Pieter Coppens

Faisal Mirza, 12 april 2020

//Translated from the Wijblijvenhier article: "Nieuwe technologie heeft grote invloed op de canon van Tafsir. Een gesprek met dr. Pieter Coppens."//

Dr. Pieter Coppens visualises his academic findings around Tafsir. In this interview by Faisal we dive into the history and future of Tafsir. The crisis is a time of challenges in many areas, but it also has its good sides. It is a relief to see no reports for a month about how bad Islam is for the Netherlands and I do not always have to answer for what some Muslim has said or done in daily life.

But I won't lie, I secretly miss those times. Another nice side of the isolation: you become more productive than usual. For example, I notice on my timeline that Dr. Pieter Coppens - assistant professor at the VU Faculty of Religion and Theology - is enthusiastic about his new academic findings about Tafsir. The images that go with it draw attention and as interested as I can be, I got in touch to find out more about what this means for Tafsir. A world opens up.

Pieter, in between all the Corona messages, I notice that you publish beautiful images. Turn out to be visualizations of data. Aesthetically pleasing, but what are you doing anyway?

Those visualisations are part of a major research project that I am currently working on into the history of tafsir (Quran commentary). In the 20th century, a lot has changed in which Quran comments Muslims consider most authoritative. Nowadays almost everyone has the Tafsir of Ibn Kathir at home, for example, while in the 19th century hardly anyone had heard of him. Then Jalalayn and Baydawi were the most important, with comments in the margins (so-called hashiyas).

That all changed when the printing press made its appearance in the late 19th century, when until then virtually forgotten works were first printed and widely distributed. The sales market was now more present for this, because a larger part of the population was now literate and not only Islamic scholars wanted to read more religious works. For example, the Tafsir of Tabari was known by name and was also seen as a very important work, but it was considered lost for a long time! It was not until 1904 that a rediscovered manuscript was first printed and this work began its triumphal march. I am now trying to reconstruct this major change in what is considered to be the canon of Tafsir in my research.

In my research I look at the role of a scholar from Damascus in the early 20th century in this, Jamal al-Din al-Qasimi (d. 1914). I myself suspect that he was an important person in that paradigm shift, through his Quran commentary in which he frequently quotes Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn al-Qayyim, among others. These are now also names that almost everyone knows, but their writings were only rediscovered and published for the first time in the early 20th century after having been almost forgotten except in a very small Hanbalite circle. My colleague Hayat Ahlili from UU is also doing fascinating research into this.

To better understand Qasimi's place among scholars in Damascus, I mapped the social relationships of scholars of his time in the network program Gephi. In this way I hoped to be able to visualize whether he was part of the core group of great scientists of his time or more of an outsider, who his teachers were, who his students were and with whom they were linked again. Ultimately, I hope to be able to indicate with "social network analysis" whether he really was an influential figure, managed to make "school", and indeed could bring about a paradigm shift. I have to analyze it more deeply, but it seems he was important so far.

Many of his students would later become influential figures in the Salafi movement, start publishing and modern educational institutions, and become politically active. In this way they could give Islam a whole new face in the 20th century. Those beautiful visualisations are actually only a very small part of my research. I do get good reactions, also from fellow academics. This methodology is not used much among (Islam) historians, so I am really trying to do something innovative. I hope that once I have published a few things about it, it will inspire others to do the same and that it will catch on as a research method among Islamic scientists. Islamic history has very extensive biographical literature (the so-called "Tabaqat" works) in which social relations, especially teacher-student, are described in great detail. So you could actually visualize the entire past 14 centuries as one big social network. There is still plenty to do!

To what extent is the effect of printing on Islamic science and Tafsir comparable to the effect of the Internet?

We actually know too little about both to give an unambiguous answer. Strangely enough, research into the effects of the advent of printing is still in its infancy, while this development is more than a century and a half old. The conversation about this is only now getting started with a recently published book by Ahmed El Shamsy, Redisovering the Islamic Classics. I am now trying to make a contribution in the area of Quran comments, but there is still a lot of work to be done in the area of Hadith, Fiqh and Sufism, for example. Research into the rise of the Internet is only now starting to take serious shape. An example of a large project in which Dutch researchers are also involved is Mediating Islam in the Digital Age. That is even more complex, because of course that is a revolution that we are now also in the middle of. What I am saying now is therefore mainly hypothetical, and all still needs to be further investigated and proven. What at first sight both seem to have in common is that religious knowledge is becoming available to a much larger group outside of traditional study circles, including those who have not followed a traditional religious education.

A larger group of people can thus get involved in the Islamic discourse, and also be given the means to "talk back". Think of pamphlets, newspapers or magazines that can suddenly be printed on a large scale, and wherever the religious conversation takes place. I think this has two effects: on the one hand it leads to a flattening and fragmentation of religious authority, and to a breaking of the hierarchical monopoly of traditionally trained scribes. On the other hand, it often also leads to a "hardening" of the religious discourse. You would intuitively think that the increase in diversity of voices and the ability to "talk back" also lead to greater tolerance, but strangely enough, that doesn't seem to be the case. In the pre-modern tradition, the monopoly of interpretation lay with only one group, the top of the scribes, but this seldom led to hard truth claims. Scholars disagreed widely, but always had a certain uncertainty: no one dared to claim with 100% certainty that they had fully understood God's purpose. Moreover, their approach to the text has always been a certain mixture of textual criticism ("philology"), rational philosophy and mysticism, a kind of triangle continuum. People could also differ from one another in where they stood on that continuum. So there was also a certain accepted ambiguity in how one comes to certain knowledge (with a somewhat more difficult word "epistemology").

"In modernity you see that this uncertainty reservation is virtually disappearing: people are becoming more and more convinced that they are right, and they are making much harder truth claims about the meaning of the text of the Koran." - Dr Pieter Coppens

Mysticism is increasingly discredited by the majority, becomes an island in itself, and only textual criticism remains (often 'Puritan', hence perhaps the success of Ibn Taymiyya in the 20th century), with not undisputed 'modern science' as replacement of 'ratio'. So everyone ends up sitting on their own flattened island much more, both as the group they belong to, and in their views on what the path to certain knowledge is. The ancient tradition of scribes affirming their authority through ijazas and study circles still exists, but has now become one island in an archipelago.

The authority form thus goes from a clear hierarchical pyramid to an archipelago of flattening, with several archipelagos that also consist of all smaller islands. In my lectures I schematically represent this crucial process in the following icons (which my students can now dream of):

You could say that through my research on Tafsir, I try to contribute to two larger, long-term projects. As an 'archaeologist' I try to gain a better insight into exactly how that pre-modern pyramid was put together, and as a 'cartographer' I try to map this modern archipelago, which is so difficult to navigate, step by step, in order to make navigating it more transparent. to make. Let me give an example of this that intrigued me very much in my research.

The interpretation of the Qur'anic verse Q53: 11 ('ؤاد مارأىà) ما كذب ال' ، 'The heart has not denied what it / he saw'), has traditionally several interpretations, the three most prominent of which are that the Prophet saw God, or with the eye either with the heart, or that he has seen the angel Gabriel. That is a disagreement that is traced back to Aicha and Ibn Abbas. Usually, scholars listed these options all side by side, without making a choice as to which they thought was the most appropriate. That multiple interpretations were possible was by no means a problem for them. From the second half of the 19th century, in parallel with the rise of the printing press, there is a growing tendency to name only one interpretation as the only correct one. There is a growing consensus that this is a vision of Gabriel through the Prophet, and other interpretation options are slowly disappearing from the scene.

Whereas in the previous centuries it was completely normal to allow multiple opinions to co-exist in tafsir works, sometimes even predominating in the opinion that the Prophet had seen Allah himself, is now consistently only mentioned one option in the works. I suspect that the rise of printing played a major role in this, but not only that: also the increase in literacy through the rise of modern education (which was related to printing) and the entry of modern Cartesian science with the idea of an unambiguous knowable absolutely certain truth played a major role in this. I still know too little about the influence of the Internet, but I can imagine that it will lead to an even greater flattening of religious authority, and to an even more difficult to navigate archipelago of hard truth claims. I am very curious about the findings of the MIDA team!

Interesting! Do you have a desire to go back to the "good old times" where - as you describe - there was more tolerance for each other's opinion and interpretation? Yes or no?

As a scientist, strictly speaking, it is of course not my job to express my preference for one or the other, my job is to observe, describe, analyze and interpret as objectively as possible. It is then up to the reader themselves and public intellectuals to determine what they consider more desirable. If I stepped out of that role for a moment, I would say it can also be dangerous to fall into a false kind of romanticism about the past. Shahab Ahmed and Thomas Bauer have therefore been criticized in relation to their works on an alleged "more tolerant" Islamic experience in pre-modern times. For example, you can ask yourself whether it was really that good to stay at the bottom of the premodern pyramid. I also think it is inherent to the process of "modernity" that it rumbles on like a rudderless train, and in any case it cannot be turned back: what is lost is definitely lost.

You may be homesick for it, but every juncture has its blessings and shortcomings. In any case, you will have to learn to live with the new situation, be able to embrace the uncertainty of the future, and learn to give that nostalgia a place. Charles Taylor, for example, has written great things about it. To stick with the metaphor of 'cartographer' of 'the archipelago of modernity': of course in my personal religious life I do have my preferences for certain places in that archipelago, and I also know how complex it can be that modern archipelago. If my research can contribute to making navigating that archipelago a bit easier, that would be a nice gain from my research. The map I make as a "cartographer" must of course be as truthful as possible, and my personal preferences must not lead to a distorted map. To give an example: at the VU I teach, among other things, the Islamic spiritual counselors of the future. They are residents of that archipelago themselves, but the clients with whom they will soon be working all also live somewhere in that archipelago.

Empathy for the other is a core skill for the spiritual caregiver. They must know very well where exactly they live on that archipelago, why they like it there, but they must also be able to read quickly where the client lives exactly, why they like it there, how that leads to a completely different experience of the Islam, and what that requires of them as spiritual caretakers. If the "map" that I am now slowly helping to draw can contribute to that, I am very happy.

Since we are talking about disruptive innovations ... How do you view artificial intelligence and what effects do you foresee? Will scholars soon include the view of a computer in the discourse?

Uhhhh, I like to answer that with yes or no.

Yeah, you didn't see it coming, did you?


I love your credit. Good luck with your research!

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This project has received the European union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement N°813547.