Prof. Dr. Johanna Pink about Qur'an exegesis

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Thu, 2022-01-27
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Dr Johanna Pink in the YouTube interview



In a series about Qur’an and Bible exegesis Dr. Johanna Pink of the University of Freiburg, Germany, speaks in an interview on YouTube about Qur’an tafsir [tafsīr] or exegesisJohanna Pink was one of the first students to use the Arab-West Report database for her PhD dissertation at the University of Bonn on new religious communities in Egypt in 2002, including Baha’is [Bahā’ī]. She is now teaching Islamic studies in Freiburg and is one of the world’s greatest authorities on Qur’an exegesis. She is involved in the FRIAS Research Project, contemporary Qur’anic exegesis in historical perspective. Yohanna Pink earlier published in Arab-West Report a paper titled ‘Nationalism, religion and the Muslim-Christian relationship: teaching ethics and values in Egyptian schools,’ April 16, 2003. In 2018 she reviewed our student intern James Digby’s paper on the Bahāʾī Faith in Egypt.


The interview starts with memories to Dr. Nasr Abu Zayd [Naṣr Abū Zayd], a close friend of Arab-West Report. He believed the Qur’anic text to be divine, but the text was written in a human language, and he thus believed that the rules of literary analysis could be applied. Naṣr Abū Zayd’s views were novel in his time, and he was sharply attacked by those with a traditional tafsīr education. This is probably related to him not being educated as a traditional Muslim scholar. I knew Dr. Naṣr Abū Zayd well and have spoken with Dr. Hamdi Zaqzouq [Ḥamdī Zaqzūq] in the mid 1990s, then Minister of Awqaf and recognized Muslim scholar. Dr. Zaqzūq told me he was not shocked by the views of Dr. Naṣr Abū Zayd and said that many other scholars had similar views but Dr. Naṣr Abū Zayd’s views had become known to a wider audience which stirred the feathers of those who disagreed with him.


Tafsīr or exegesis is very diverse and complex but also needs to follow specific rules. The scholar needs to provide his sources. Some tafsīr is verse by verse, other tafsīr is by theme, by order of revelation (popular in Turkey 20 years ago) or otherwise organized.


Dr. Johanna Pink distinguishes between classical tafsīr such as Al-Tabari [al-Ṭabarī] (839-923 CE) and modern tafsīr. Muhammad Abdu [Muḥammad ʿAbduh] (1849-1905), one of the early modern tafsīr scholars disliked traditional tafsīr scholastic arguments and grammar niceties since he found no meaning, message or guidance for the Muslim believers. Many modern Muslims are turned off by classical tafsīr because they cannot find a meaning. One of the co-founders of our NGO, the Center for Arab-West Understanding, Dr. Abd el-Mo’ti Bayoumi [ʿAbd al-Muʿtī Bayyūmī], wrote his PhD about Muḥammad ʿAbduh and lived in this tradition.


Some classical mufassir (author of tafsīr) are still much quoted by modern mufassir such as al-Ṭabarī who is often presented as objective, without a leaning to Sufism, Shi’a [Shīʿa] or Muʿtazilah (rationalist), since he collected the tafsīr of his time. He is thus believed not to have had an agenda but this, Dr. Johanna Pink says, is not true. In some tafsīr one finds critique on Shīʿa thoughts. Dr. Johanna Pink believes those comments on al-Ṭabarī reflect a Sunni-centric perspective.


Dr. Pink’s statements on Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328) are highly interesting. He is known for his polemics against Christians and many modern-day Islamists base their thoughts on his writings. He did not call himself a mufassir but provides an exegesis that later was seen as tafsīr. He treats parts of the Bible as revelations of God as long as these scriptures do not contradict his beliefs. He uses these parts of the Bible to interpret the Qur’an and he believes Muslim scriptures can interpret the Bible. This is not commonly done by Muslim exegetes.  


Modern tafsīr developed in response to Europeans who had conquered most Muslim nations. Many of these Christians were committed Christians. Christian missionaries followed in the footsteps the European colonizers and presented themselves as people of the Scriptures. Prayer was always important in Islam, but many scholars believed their presence needed a new tafsīr with attention for Muslim ethics and norms.


Rashid Ridda [Rashīd Riḍā] (1865-1935), a scholar in the early Salafiyya movement, wrote the Tafsīr al-Manār. He approaches more contemporary issues through the broader scope of methodology it employs for the interpretation. Another well-known tafsīr is from Sayid Qutb [Sayyid Quṭb] (1906-1966), a major ideologist in the Muslim Brotherhood. Quṭb knew he was not a trained mufassir and did not call himself so but later followers called his work tafsīr.


Modern tafsīr is deeply influenced by media. In the past mufassir wrote for a scholarly audience but with modern mass media it became important to address a wider audience. An example are the sermons of shaykh Muhammad Metwalli al-Sha'rawi [Muḥammad Mitwallī al-Shaʿrāwī] (1911-1998) on Egyptian TV. His sermons were later collected and have been published as the tafsīr al-Shaʿrāwī. Modern media exegesis has now been absorbed in the tafsīr tradition.


A last subject Dr. Johanna Pink discussed are the Qur’an translations, in particular important to non-Arabic speaking Muslims. In different languages one can find different translations, some literal and others providing more explanations. There are obvious difficulties with anthropomorphic expressions about God such as God’s hand, feet and throne. Salafis want to translate this literal but not expand on the meaning of anthropomorphic expressions. Other Muslims do.


This interview about Qur’an tafsīr is highly interesting and, not surprisingly, one sees with these different tafsīr and translations the great diversity of thought one finds in the Islamic world.


Please click here to listen to the interview.
Please click here to listen to the audio file only.



January 27, 2021


Cornelis Hulsman

Editor-in-Chief Arab-West Report