Dr. Omar Ali-de-Unzaga, Research Associate, The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London. Part of the conference “Reflections on Ismaili Studies: Standing on Poonawala’s Shoulders.”
One of the many subjects covered by Professor Ismail Poonawala in his long and fruitful career has been the Ismaili’s interaction with the Qur’an. This is a topic that, however, continues to be largely misunderstood given the little research that has been carried out on it. One of the reasons for this might be that recent scholarship has tended to focus on the formal genre of Qur’anic commentary (tafsir). Exegesis of course, took place in numerous other genres. In fact, Ismaili works abound with not only scriptural exegesis (of the Qur’an by also of Biblical material), but also with what may be termed ‘ritualistic’ exegesis and ‘cosmographic’ exegesis.
This lecture will consist of two parts: firstly an examination of Prof. Poonawala’s contribution to our understanding of the Ismailis’ approaches to the Qur’an, and secondly a rumination on the pervading myths and misunderstandings concerning this issue. In particular, Ali-de-Unzaga will focus on what may be termed the “paradoxes” that arise when we compare the average understanding of the Ismailis’ attitude to the Qur’an and the historical sources. Some of this paradoxes can be best tackled if expressed in the form of questions, such as: is there such a thing as an (or one) Ismaili interpretation of the Qur’an, or even an Ismaili perspective on how to interpret the Qur’an? In Ismaili Shi‘ism, is the Imam the only rightful interpreter? Why did the Ismailis not engage in tafsir? (or did they)? According to the Ismailis, does the esoteric interpretation (taʾwīl) of the revelation invalidate the literal sense (ẓāhir)? The lecture will be an attempt to unravel the apparent paradoxes in answering these questions.