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Clarity, Communication, and Understandability: Theorizing Language in al-Bāqillānī’s I‘jāz al-Qurʾān and Uṣūl al-Fiqh Texts


Abū Bakr al-Bāqillānī (d. 403 AH/1013 CE) is known as a preeminent theorist of both the Ashʿarī school of Islamic theology and the Mālikī school of law, and his writings span a wide range of disciplines. This dissertation brings together his thought in two apparently disparate discourses, uṣūl al-fiqh (jurisprudence) and iʿjāz al-Qurʾān (inimitability of the Qurʾān), to highlight how these discourses are actually in dialogue with each other. It explores the centrality of al-Bāqillānī’s theory of language in his thought and devotes particular attention to his understanding of the role of figurative language.

In his jurisprudential work al-Taqrīb wa-l-irshād fī uṣūl al-fiqh (Proximation and Guidance on the Roots of Law), al-Bāqillānī redefines keywords in Islamic discourse in ways that support his vision of Qurʾānic and human language use. He emphasizes the argument that all language, even figurative language, is systematically understandable according to rules, thereby establishing a consistent basis for legal and theological interpretation.

Al-Bāqillānī’s text on the literary inimitability of the Qurʾān provides another, consistent aspect of his theory of language. His Kitāb Iʿjāz al-Qurʾān (Book of the Inimitability of the Qurʾān) sheds light on al-Bāqillānī’s theory of the relationship between aesthetics and meaning. He distinguishes between rhetorical features that are deeply connected with expressing ideas, which contribute to the Qurʾān’s rhetorical inimitability, and ornamental figures, which do not.

In both texts, al-Bāqillānī explains the meanings of contested terms (including muḥkam, mutashābih, and bayān) in consistent ways that support his own arguments. The understandability and clarity of utterances, and particularly the Qurʾān, emerge as a central concern of al-Bāqillānī’s thought. He establishes the expressive clarity of the Qurʾān as both a sign of its inimitability and a verification of its understandability, thereby setting the practice of exegesis on a stable theoretical footing. In this way, al-Bāqillānī proposes a resolution to the tension between views of the Qurʾān as rhetorical miracle and the Qurʾān as a reliably interpretable basis for Islamic doctrine and law.

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