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The historical development and method of Shi'i tafsir

The interpretation of the Qur'an (tafsir) began right at the time of its revelation and is one of the earliest activities in Islamic sciences. The first exegetes among the Companions of the Prophet were Ibn 'Abbas, `Abdullah ibn `Umar, Ubay ibn Ka'b and others. 1 People used to ask the Prophet all sorts of questions as to the meaning of certain statements in the verses and the Prophet undertook the teaching and explanation of the Qur'an. The Prophet's answers were stored up in the memory of his Companions. After the Prophet's death, a group of his Companions were occupied with the science of commentary and its transmission. Just as they had heard the Prophet explaining the meaning of the verses, they would transmit it orally to other trustworthy persons. 2 Exegesis in those days was confined to the explanation of literary aspects of the verse, the background of its revelation, and occasionally interpretation of one verse with the help of another. Sometimes a few of the Prophet's traditions were narrated.

Followers of these first Companions (Tabi'un), who lived in the first two centuries of hijra, used the same exegetic style. However, they relied more on traditions, and even Jewish sayings and dictums to explain the verses containing details of the previous nations present in Genesis 3 because the tafsir transmission from the Prophet through the Companions and the Tabi'un did not cover all the verses in the Qur'an. Some scholars relied on their knowledge of the language and historical facts of the Prophet's epoch. 4 During the time of the Companions and the Tabi 'un, the science of tafsir was part of the hadith and there was hardly any difference between mufassirun and muhaddithun (traditionists or narrators of hadith) until the complete separation of the two in the early third century, 5 when exegesis became an independent, autonomous science. 6 The activity of tafsir during the first two centuries is reflected by the tafsir of Ibn Jarir al-Tabari. His collections are said to have contained materials from various earlier works and his work is evidence of the general recognition of tafsir in early third century AH. It was the first attempt to comment on the whole of the Qur'an verse by verse. 7

During the second century A.H., Muslim society split into four groups: the theologians, the philosophers, the Sufis, and the people of tradition. This divergence showed itself later in exegesis of the Qur'an. 8 Indeed, after Tabari, the development of tafsir came to be associated with different fields of knowledge, doctrines and thought, and scholars attempted to make their field of knowledge a basis for their commentary in order to support their views from the Qur'an. Scholars working in the field of philosophy considered philosophy a basis for their commentaries while scholars in the legal field employ the tafsir to project the doctrine of their particular school of thought, and so on. 9

For Tabatabai, all these ways of exegesis are defective because they superimpose their conclusions on the Qur'anic meanings, making the Qur'an conform with their ideas. Thus, explanation turns into adaptation. 10 Tabatabai stated that the only correct method of exegesis is that the exegete explains the verse with the help of other relevant verses, meditating on them together. The Prophet and the Imams descended from his progeny always used this method for explaining the Qur'an.4 Similarly Mutahhari explains that the Qur'an constitutes a coherent unified structure and some verses need to be explained with the help of other verses in order to prevent any misunderstanding about certain problems. If a solitary verse is studied without placing it in its proper context, it will give a different meaning from when it is compared with other verses dealing with a similar subject. 11 Also, while Sunni commentators in the early period of tafsir relied primarily on prophetic traditions and those of the Companions and their successors, the Shi'ite commentators, in studying a verse of the Qur'an, viewed the explanation given by the Prophet as proof of the meaning of the verse, and did not accept the sayings of the Companions or their followers as indisputable proof that the tradition came from the Prophet. The Shi'ite commentators only recognized as valid an unbroken chain of narration from the Prophet through members of his family. Accordingly, in using and transmitting the verses concerning Qur'anic commentary, they restricted themselves to the use of traditions transmitted by the Prophet and by the Imams belonging to the Prophet's family. 12

The first generation of Shi'ite commentators and authorities on tafsir were disciples of the Imams and others close to the disciples, who learned the traditions directly from the Prophet and the Imams of the Prophet's family. Among them were such scholars as Zurarah ibn A'yun and Muhammad ibn Muslim, Ma'ruf ibn Kharbudh and Jarir, who were Companions of the fifth and sixth Imams, or Abu Hamzah alThumali (a special Companion of the fourth and fifth Imams) 13. Their traditions have been preserved in the works of the second generation of commentators and compilers of commentaries. These were consecutively :

- Furat Ibn Ibrahim al-Kufi, who lived during the Imamate of the ninth Imam, Muhammad al-Jawad, and might have lived until the first years of the tenth century A.D. He was one of the foremost authorities in Shi'ite traditions and one of the teachers of the famous traditionist al-Qummi.

- Muhammad al-'Ayyashi, a contemporary of Furat Ibn Ibrahim al-Kufi, was a Sunni scholar who accepted Shi'ism, and became a great Shi'a scholar.

- Ali Ibn Ibrahim al-Qummi (d. 307 AH/919-20 AD), who related traditions received from his father who had, in turn, learned them from many of the Imams' disciples.

- Muhammad al-Nu'mani, who survived into the tenth century AD. Al-Nu'mani (d.360 AH/971 AD) was one of al-Kulayni's students. He left an important tafsir that he related on the authority of the sixth Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq. These two generations represent the pre-classical period of Shi'ite tafsir. 14 They avoided any kind of ijtihad or passing of judgement. The Imams were indeed living among Muslims and available for questioning for a period of almost three hundred years.

The third generation of Shi'ite commentators extended over a very long period, well into the sixteenth century AD. They included: al-Sharif al-Radhiy (d.405 AH/1015 AD) and his well-known brother al-Sayyed al-Murtadha (d.436 AH/1044 AD); Abu Ja'far al-Tusi (d.460AH/1067AD) who was a student of al-Murtadha and whose commentary, al-Tybian fi tafsir al Qur'an, represents an important approach in Shi'i tafsir; and his disciple Abu al-Fadl Ibn al-Hasan Ibn al-Fadl al-Tabarsi (d.548 AH/1153 AD). They represent what may be considered as the classical period of Shi'i tafsir. These commentators took a broad approach to tafsir using Shi'i as well as Sunni traditions and also rejected Shi'i popular claims regarding the inauthenticity of the `Uthmanic recension of the Qur'an. 15 Included, too, were later commentators such as alMaybudi al-Gunabadi (sixth century A.H) and his gnostic commentary, Sadr al-Din al-Shirazi (d.1050 AH/1640 AD), Hashim al-Bahrani (d.1107 AH/1695 AD) who composed al-Burhan, `Abd Ali al-Huwayzi (d.1112 AH/1700 AD) who composed the Nur al-Thaqalayn, and Mulla Muhsin Fayd al- Kashani (d.1191 AH/1777 AD) who compiled the work known as al-Safi. 16 Other works of Shi'ite gnostics, such as the 8th AH/14th AD century figure Haydar Amuli, were also included.

The Qur'anic commentaries of Sadr al-Din al-Shirazi, known as Mulla Sadra "are the most important by an Islamic philosopher or theosopher (hakim) and also the most voluminous by a representative of the Islamic philosophical tradition" until Muhammad Husayn Tabataba'i (d.1983) wrote the tafsir al-Mizan. "In the same way that Mulla Sadra's "Transcendent Theosophy" marks the synthesis of the various schools of gnosis, theosophy, philosophy and theology within a Shi'ite intellectual climate, his Qur'anic commentaries mark the meeting point of four different traditions of Qur'anic commentary before him, the Sufi, the Shi'ite, the theological and the philosophical." 17

The final stage of the development of Shi'i tafsir is the contemporary one. Among modern works, the most important are al-Mizan .fi Talsir al-Qur'an by Muhammad Husayn Tabataba'i, al-Bayan fi tafsir al-Qur'an by al-Sayyed AbulQasim al-Khui, and Tafsir-e Nemune by Nasser Makarem Shirazi, this last being oriented more towards youth readership.

1 Tabataba'i, al-Mizan, p.3

2 Tabataba'i, The Qur 'an in Islam, p.47

3 Al-Mizan, p.4

4 M. Abdul, The Qur'an: Shaykh Tabarsi's commentary, p.47

5 Ahmad Amin, Duha al-Islam, II, p.140

6 Ibid p.137

7 M. Abdul, The Qur'an: Shaykh Tabarsi's commentary, p. 52-53.

8 AI-Mizan, p.5

9 M. Abdul, The Qur'an: Shaykh Tabarsi's commentary, p.55 Tabataba'i, al-Mizan, p.9

10 Ibid, p.12

11 Mutahhari, in H. Nasr, Shi'ism Doctrines, Thought, and Spirituality, p. 27

12 Tabataba'i, The Qur'an in Islam, p.50

13 Ibid, p.50

14 M. Ayoub, "The speaking Qur'an and the Silent Qur'an", p. 184

15 Ibid, p.185

16 Tabataba'i, The Qur'an in Islam, p.51

17 H. Nasr, "The Quranic Commentaries of Mulla Sadra", p.45

Adapted from the book: "Mahdi in the Qur'an" by: "N. Vasram and A. Toussi"

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