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Pieter Coppens

Pieter Coppens

NIAS Individual Fellow

Project title

Who Determines What the Qur’an Means: Hermeneutical Authority in Premodern and Modern Islam

Research question

How did the paradigmatic shift in hermeneutical authority between premodern, modern and contemporary Islamic interpretive communities of the Qur’an come about and what was the result for the interpretive practices of the Qur’an?

Project description

During my time at NIAS I intend to explain a fascinating paradox in the development of Qur’an interpretation from late 19th century onwards.

In premodern times, hermeneutical authority was structured along relatively clear interpretive rules, with a near-monopoly for religious scholars. These all had their own interpretations, but generally recognized the possible validity of others’ interpretations and relativized their own position.

From the 19th century onwards, due to technological and societal changes, hermeneutical authority and methods became more fragmented. Qur’an interpretation became an accessible field for literati, activists, academics and lay people, who did not necessarily follow traditional methods and had more diverse motivations in interpreting the Qur’an.

I intend to show how this not necessarily led to more ‘tolerant’ understandings of the Qur’an, or recognition of the relativity of one’s own interpretation, but rather to harder truth claims by all these different interpretive communities. I have dubbed this the ‘Mexican stand-off’ of Qur’an interpretation in Islamic modernity, between ‘religious liberals’, who try to bring back the message of the Qur’an to a set of universal values, ‘religious utilitarians’ who look for pragmatic interpretations to make the Qur’anic message fit within the demands of modern times, and neo-traditionalists, who try to uphold the hermeneutical authority of religious scholars according to what they perceive as premodern standards.


At NIAS I intend to

(1) finish a scholarly monograph on developments in Qur’an interpretation early 20th century that led to the dominance of a Salafi paradigm among religious scholars in interpreting the Qur’an;

(2) work on a grant proposal for a follow up project that combines between the disciplines of book history and anthropology, applying the idea of “historical anthropology” and “the anthropologist as a reader”;

(3) work on a book in Dutch for a general audience that explains major trends and topics in Qur’an interpretation throughout history and their underlying authority struggles.

Selected publications

Seeing God in Sufi Qur’an Commentaries: Crossings between This World and the Otherworld (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018)

“Jamāl al-Dīn al-Qāsimī’s Treatise on Wiping over Socks and the Rise of a Distinct Salafi Method,” Welt des Islams [forthcoming 2022, advance online publication]

Tafsīr Studies and the Conundrum of Normativity,” Journal of Muslims in Europe 11 no. 1 (2022): 36-51.

“A Silent uṣūl Revolution? Al-Qāsimī, iǧtihād and the Fundamentals of tafsīr,” Midéo 36 (2021): 21-61.

“Did Modernity End Polyvalence? Some Observations on Tolerance for Ambiguity in Sunni tafsīr,” Journal of Qurʾānic Studies 23 no. 1 (2021): 36-70.