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Lecture by Al-Babtain Visiting Fellow Salwa El-Awa

Dr. Salwa El-Awa delivers a talk on Wednesday, November 2nd, on "Ambiguity in the Qur'an".

This week, Dr. Salwa El-Awa will be visiting Leiden. On Wednesday, November 2nd, she will give a talk on "Ambiguity in the Qur'an" to which you are all invited. The lecture takes place at Lipsius, room 001 from 3-5 pm. In her talk, dr. El-Awa includes some historical backgrounds and examples from across the Qur'an and addresses differences in translations. For registration, please send an email to c.el.morabet@hum.leidenuniv.nl

God’s Meanings or Interpreter’s meaning? A Case Against Disambiguation

Multiplicity of meaning in the Qur’an is studied under the auspice of “alfdh al-wujh” in Tafsr (Qur’anic exegesis) and Ulm al Qurʾn (classical Qur’anic studies) and under “al-mushtarak al-lafdh” in Ual al-Fiqh (Principles of Jurisprudence) and Fiqh al-Lughah (Philology). The focus of those studies is mostly the interpretation of lexical items that bear more than one meaning.

Ibn Jinni, however, presents multiplicity of meaning as a widespread phenomenon in the language in general, not limited to the single word, highlighting its heavy presence in the Qur’anic text (Ibn Jinn, 3:164-6). Indeed, the phenomenon, known in linguistics as ‘ambiguity’, is not limited to lexical items but extends to phrases and entire sentences. Ambiguous expressions of all sizes and levels of complexity are commonplace in the Qur’an; they are observable at all planes of text, from the one-letter particles through to the sentence and the verse as well the textual level, where it is evident in the interpretations of relations between consecutive passages within one surah.

Whether the ambiguous item is complex or simple, it pauses an immediate problem for the interpreter: Which of the multiple meanings represent the text producer’s intention? The standard approach among classical interpreters, jurists included, is to identify the various plausible meanings of the word/expression and argue that only one of them is most likely intended (rji), usually based on immediate or situational contextual indications (qarnah) (El-Awa, 1998).

In this talk, I employ principles from Relevance Theory, a theory of human communication and cognition, to explain why ambiguity exists and how it affects text interpretation. I categorise the various types of ambiguity in the Qur’an and analyse examples to show how they would be interpreted by resolving or maintaining their ambiguity and the impact of either approach on the recipient’s understanding and application of the text’s meaning. I argue 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, the interpreter would be defying the purpose for which the text has been formed the way it is.

The initiative is organised by LUCIS and the Al-Babtain Leiden University Centre for Arabic Culture.

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