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God’s Meanings or Interpreter’s Meaning? A Case Against Disambiguation
The Edinburgh Companion to Qur’anic Literary Studies
Swansea University Author: Salwa El-Awa
Ambiguous expressions of all sizes and levels of complexity are commonplace in the Qur’an; they are observable at all planes of text and in various Qur’anic themes and significantly affect interpretation of their meanings. This paper focusses on lexical ambiguity which is studied in tafsīr and ʿulu...
|Published in:||The Edinburgh Companion to Qur’anic Literary Studies|
Edinburgh University Press
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Ambiguous expressions of all sizes and levels of complexity are commonplace in the Qur’an; they are observable at all planes of text and in various Qur’anic themes and significantly affect interpretation of their meanings. This paper focusses on lexical ambiguity which is studied in tafsīr and ʿulūm al-Qurʾān under the auspice of alfāẓ al-wujūh and under al-mushtarak al-lafẓī in uṣūl al-fiqh and fiqh al-lughah. Those works include lists of lexical items and exegetical remarks on their variety of meanings and, particularly in tafsīr and uṣūlī, arguments leading to disambiguation with the aim of identifying one meaning as ‘al-wajh’ or ‘ar-rājiḥ’ (plausible) meaning. However, apart from the uṣulī distinction between types of lexical items as Muṭlaq (unqualified) and muqayyad (qualified) ʿām (general) and khāṣṣ (specific), discussion of alfāẓ al-wujūh is often characterised by a lack of a systematic approach to categorisation of the multiple-meaning words in the Qur’an and the source of their ambiguity. Moreover, it does not go much beyond the references to grammatical analysis and usage in pre-Islamic texts, in offering a methodological explanation of how the ‘intended’ or ‘plausible’ meanings suggested by the interpreters have been arrived at. Discussions of their interpretations aim to disambiguate those lexical items by eliminating all their possible meanings (wujūh) except one as ‘al-wajh’ or ‘al-maʿnā ar-rājiḥ’. The questions perused in this chapter are what type of ambiguity multiple-meaning lexical items in the Qur’an exhibit (a question of definition), whether they should be interpreted by resolving or maintaining their ambiguity and the impact of either approach on recipients’ understanding and application of the text (questions of interpretation). The chapter proposes a combination of a linguistic classification and a pragmatic approach to the interpretation of alfāẓ al-wujūh and applies it to a number of words found in ayāt al-aḥkām contexts. The categorisation is drawn from Zhang (1998) where multiple-meaning words are classified into fuzzy, vague, general and ambiguous. It aims to identify a number of alfāẓ al-wujūh under each category and propose a clearer understanding of the causes of their ambiguity than that offered by the classical approaches. The process of interpretation is then analysed using a pragmatic Relevance Theory-based approach to identifying the intended meanings and the implications of both disambiguation and maintaining the ambiguity. The chapter concludes that ambiguity in the Qur’anic text is an intentional communication tool utilised to broaden the scope of the text and allow wide-ranging applications and that by disambiguating an ambiguous expression without an explicit textual indication, the interpreter would be unjustifiably narrowing down the text’s intended broad range of meanings and thus defying the purpose for which the text is formed the way it is.
Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences