Role of Topical Exegesis in the Development of Islamic Research
First of all we should know that the method, which is followed by a commentator in split exegesis, is mostly negative. He takes one or more interconnected verses without any prior planning and tries to interpret them in the light of the literal meaning of the text with the help of the general indications of its intendment. These indications may be internal or external. Anyhow, in all cases the commentator keeps his attention confined to the verse or the verses of the text and does not go a single step further.
We call this style negative, because in it the role of the commentator is just to listen to what the verses of the Qur'an say, though of course, with a clear mind, keen literary sense and good knowledge of grammar and figures of speech. The commentator, so to say, sits besides the Qur'an to listen to what it says. This position makes the role of the Qur'an active and that of the commentator passive or rather negative, for the Qur'an gives only as much as the commentator can take and assimilate. Consequently he records in his book only as much as he can understand from the meaning of the text.
But a topical commentator follows a different method. Before selecting a social or an ideological subject or a subject concerning life or the world he must concentrate enough attention on that subject and in order to collect the necessary data study the ideas and experience of others. He must know the connected problems and their solutions as so far suggested by human thinking. He should be aware of the questions raised in connection with the subject (method of historical application) and any difference of opinion existing in regard to it. When equipped with this data he studies the Qur'anic verses, he is no longer a dull listener or a mere reporter. When he studies a problem in the light of the Qur'an, he deals with a vast amount of human ideas and extensive human studies. When he begins his study of the text of the Qur'an, he puts questions and the Qur'an answers.
The topical commentator, in the light of his data based on human efforts and studies tries to find out the viewpoint of the Qur'an in regard to his subject. He comprehends the opinion of the Qur'an by holding a comparison between the Qur'anic text and the data acquired by him from the ideas and views of others.
As such the results of topical exegesis are always consistent, well coordinated and concern the questions of human experience. These results show the signs of the limits fixed by the Qur'an in respect of that subject of human life. That is why we say that topical exegesis is a sort of a dialogue between the Qur'an and the commentator, and not a negative reaction to the Qur'an. Topical exegesis is an active and purposive work, as the result of which the Qur'anic text is used to throw light on some big truth of life.
In respect of the Qur'an Imam Ali, the Commander of the Faithful, says in one of his sermons: "Make the Qur'an speak to you. It will never speak, but I tell you that it is the knowledge of what is going to happen and what has happened in the past. It is the remedy of all your maladies. It regulates and coordinates your affairs." (Peak of Eloquence)
Imam Ali, the true son of the Qur'an has said: "Make the Qur'an to speak". This is the finest way of describing the task of topical exegesis, which has been described as a talk with the Qur'an and putting questions to it regarding every subject with a view to finding answers to them.
As such the basic difference between topical exegesis and split exegesis is the role of the commentator. In split exegesis his role is negative. He only listens and notes, whereas in topical exegesis, he must have an idea of the entire human heritage. He must have with him the ideas of his age so that he may put up to the Qur'an the outcome of human experience, so that the Qur'an, at which falsehood cannot come from before it or behind it, may express its opinion and the commentator may derive this opinion from all relevant verses put together, not from any isolated verse or verses.
Thus in topical exegesis the Qur'an and the reality combine together, for topical exegesis begins from reality and ends at the Qur'an. On the other hand, split exegesis begins from the Qur'an and ends at the Qur'an. It has nothing to do with reality and life. In topical exegesis realities of life are put up to the Qur'an because it is our guardian, our patron and our refuge. Life must be led under its guidance.
That is why it is said that the Qur'an's power of guardianship and patronage permanently manifests itself. It is this quality of permanent guidance to which the traditions refer when they describe the Qur'an as inexhaustible. That is what the Qur'an itself has also said: The words of Allah could not be exhausted. (Surah Luqman, 31:27)
Indeed the divine truths are endless. The bounties of the Qur'an are unlimited, whereas the literal exegesis is limited and exhaustible, for nothing new can be added to the literal meanings. Even if some words acquire some new meanings, the Qur'an cannot be taken to signify them, for any new meanings or any new terminology which have emerged after the revelation of the Qur'an cannot represent the intention of the Qur'anic verses. Any term which has come into use since the revelation of the Qur'an has no connection with the Qur'an.
As such the inexhaustibility of the Qur'an can be established only through topical style of exegesis. This style proves that the Qur'an is a record of the past as well as of the future knowledge. It is a remedy of our ailments. In it we can find the basis for regulating our affairs. Through it we can know the celestial view about all terrestrial happenings.
As such topical exegesis is capable of rapid development, for human experience makes it blossom. When the Qur'an is studied in the light of human experience, new discoveries are made. That is the true way of understanding Islam.
Adopted from the book: "Trends of History in Qur'an" by: "Ayatullah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr"
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