The literal meaning, between Christian worlds and Muslim worlds (7ᵗʰ‒15ᵗʰ centuries)

Conference organized at the Dominican Institute of Oriental Studies (Cairo)

February 15ᵗʰ‒17ᵗʰ, 2024

By pointing the finger at the “literalism” or “fundamentalism” of this or that religious movement, current events willingly bring to the forefront the notion of the literal meaning of sacred texts, whether it is claimed as the only authentic meaning or denounced as an oversimplification. The apparent simplicity of the literal meaning, presented as the obvious meaning of a text, beyond any interpretation or hermeneutic approach, is nevertheless called into question by studies of linguistics, which have long shown that it is a constructed meaning, whose definition always presupposes a hermeneutic framework, even if it is implicit1.

With regard to the hermeneutics of the holy texts of Christianity and Islam, it is through medieval debates that these frames of reference, which have already been the subject of numerous studies, were established. For the Christian West, from the pioneering works of Henri de Lubac2 and Beryl Smalley3 to the rich synthesis of Gilbert Dahan4, the history of the progressive conception and canonization of multiple meanings is now known, showing in particular the essential role played by the historia (or littera): far from being the forgotten element of medieval Latin exegesis, it is, on the contrary, affirmed not only as the foundation of the spiritual senses, but also as a rich sense in itself, which can be analyzed at different levels. This harmony elaborated by scholarly hermeneutics does not prevent the existence of spiritual movements with a claimed strict literalism. This richness of studies on Latin hermeneutics contrasts, however, with their weakness with regard to other Christian worlds, notably the Byzantine universe.

The Islamic field, in spite of a large number of studies, seems to have resisted synthesis so far. It is true that the literal meaning of sacred texts is the subject of distinct disciplinary approaches, particularly in legal theory (uṣūl al-fiqh)5 and in theology, which helps to explain the diversity of technical terms that can designate the literal meaning (ẓāhir, ḥarfī, lafẓ, naṣṣ). Above all, there are deep divisions at stake, which may be confessional (the fruitful dialectic between the external meaning, ẓāhir, and the internal meaning, bāṭin, a structuring element in Shiism6, is the object of strong criticism in Sunnism) or methodological between the different legal and theological schools (the question of the literal meaning is central in the major controversy that opposes ḥanbalism to muʿtazilism and then to ašʿarism7).

The rich work carried out on either side of the religious frontier hardly meets each other. However, medieval Christian and Islamic hermeneutics share essential sources in the heritage of Hellenistic civilization and the practices of interpretation of Judaism. Having faith in a God who reveals Himself through the word, the two religious traditions also share important issues, although they approach revelation in very different ways. The existence of a sometimes intense intellectual circulation between the two civilizations in many other areas further justifies the value of a rigorous comparative approach that would shed light on both fields of study.

This comparative approach does not, however, aim to highlight simple convergences or reciprocal influences. It is not certain that the literal meaning used by the two traditions can be the object of a single definition, in different theological and hermeneutical frameworks; perhaps the notion does not even cover similar realities: comparative study can serve to clarify these distinctions, and thus to account for the complexity of the notion of literal meaning. The conference does not aim to deal with all the topics related to literalism, but rather to clarify the meanings of the literal meaning. The expected proposals will therefore focus on the place of this literal meaning in hermeneutic questioning.

The conference deliberately covers a vast chronology, the boundaries of which have value in both fields: the seventh century corresponds to the beginning of Islam, but also to that of the High Middle Ages —a naturally less absolute beginning, so much so that the patristic roots remain active and essential. As for the fifteenth century, which ends in the Christian world on the threshold of the Reformation and the new hermeneutic questioning it implies, it also marks the end of the classical period in the Islamic world, leaving the Ottoman and Safavid civilizations in particular to other studies.

The comparative approach of the conference implies a real effort of understanding between scholars working on usually watertight fields. This is why the speakers will commit to send in their interventions one month before the conference, and to prepare a well-argued reaction to two interventions that they will have read beforehand.

Papers will be given in English.

The conference will take place from February 15ᵗʰ to 17ᵗʰ, 2024 in Cairo. Proposals for papers should be sent (, ) before June 30ᵗʰ, 2023. The papers will be published in the Mélanges de l’Institut dominicain d’études orientales.

  1. See for instance J. R. SEARLE, « Le sens littéral », in Langue française, n°42 (1979) pp. 34-47.
  2. H. DE LUBAC, Exégèse médiévale. Les quatre sens de l’Ecriture, Paris, Aubier, 1949-1964, 4 vol.
  3. B. SMALLEY, The study of the Bible in the Middle Ages, 3e ed., Oxford, Blackwell, 1983 (original ed. : 1952).
  4. G. DAHAN, L’exégèse chrétienne de la Bible en Occident médiéval (XIIᵉ-XIVᵉ siècle), Paris, Le Cerf, 1999.
  5. In this important field has been published the only synthesis available to date: R. GLEAVE, Islam and Literalism: Literal Meaning and Interpretation in Islamic Legal Theory, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2012.
  6. CH. JAMBET, Le Caché et l’Apparent, Paris, L’Herne, 2003.
  7. See in particular J. VAN ESS, Theologie und Gesellschaft im 2. und 3. Jahrhundert Hidschra, Berlin/ New York, De Gruyter, 1991, vol. 4.