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The Science of Qur'anic Commentary and the Different Groups of Commentators

After the death of the Prophet a group of his companions, including Ubayy ibn Ka'b, 'Abd Allah ibn Mas'üd, Jabir ibn 'Abd Allah a1-An~?ri, Abü Sa'id al-Khudri, 'Abd Allah ibn al-Zubayr, 'Abd Allah ibn 'Umar, Anas, Abü Hurayrah, Abü MUs?, and, above all, the famous 'Abd Allah ibn 'Abb?s, were occupied with the Science of Commentary. Just as they had heard the Prophet explaining the meanings of the verses, they would transmit it orally to other trustworthy persons.

The traditions specifically concerned with the subject of Qur'anic verses number over two hundred and forty; many were transmitted through weak chains of transmission and the texts of some have been rejected as incorrect or forged. Sometimes the transmission would include commentaries based on personal judgments rather than on a narration of the actual sayings, hadith, from the Prophet. The later Sunni commentators considered this kind of commentary as part of the body of Sayings of The Prophet, since the companions were learned in the science of Qur'anic commentary. They argued that these companions had squired their knowledge of this science from the Prophet himself and that it was unlikely they would say anything, which they themselves had invented. There is, however, no absolute proof for their reasoning.

A large proportion of these sayings, or traditions, about the reasons and historical circumstances of the revelation of verses do not possess an acceptable chain of narration. It should be noted that many of the narrators like Ka'b al-Akhb?r, were learned companions who had belonged to the Jewish faith before accepting Islam. Moreover, it should not be overlooked that Ibn Abbas usually expressed the meanings of verses in poetry.

In one of his narrations over two hundred questions of Nafi' ibn al-Azraq are replied to in the form of poetry; al-Suyüti in his book, al-Itqin, related one hundred and ninety of these questions. It is evident, therefore, that many of the narrations made by the commentators amongst the companions cannot be counted as actual narrations from the Prophet himself; therefore, such additional material related by the companions must be rejected.

The second group of commentators was the companions of the followers (t?bi'ün), who were the students of the companions. Amongst them we find Muj?hid, Sa'id ibn Jubayr, 'Ikrimah and 1?ahb?k. Also from this group were Hasan a1-Basri, 'Ata' ibn Abi Rabab, 'Ata' ibn Abi Muslim, Abü al-'Aliyah, Muhammad ibn Ka'b al-Qurazi, Qatadah, 'Atiyah, Zayd ibn Aslam, Ta'us al-Yamani13) The third group were comprised of the students of the second group, namely, Rabi' ibn Anas, 'Abd al-Rahm?n ibn Zayd ibn Aslam, Abü Salib al-Kalbi and others.

(14)The tabi'ün sometimes narrated the commentary on a verse as a tradition of the Prophet or of the companions and, sometimes, they explained its meaning without attributing a narrator to the source, this they did especially when there was any doubt as to the identity of the narrator. The later commentators treat these narrations as of the Prophet, but count them as mawq4f in their science of the levels of hadith (that is as a tradition whose chain of narration does not reach back to the Prophet).

The fourth group comprised the first compilers of commentaries, like Sufyan ibn 'Uyaynah,(15) Waki' ibn al-Jarrah, Shu'bah al-Ilajjaj and 'Abd ibn I3umayd; others from this group include Ibn Jarir al-Tabari, the author of the famous Qur'anic Commentary. (16) This group recorded the sayings of the companions and the followers of the companions with a chain of narrators in their works of commentary; they avoided expressing personal opinions except, perhaps, Ibn Jarir al-Tabari who sometimes expressed his views by indicating his preference when discussing two similar traditions. The basis of the work of later groups may be traced to this group.

The fifth group omitted the chain of narrators in their writings and contented themselves with a simple relation of the text of the traditions. Some scholars regard these commentators as the source of varying views in the commentaries by connecting many traditions to a companion or a follower without verifying their validity or mentioning their chain of narration. Consequently, confusion has arisen allowing many false traditions to enter the body of traditions, thus undermining the reputation of this section of hadith literature. Careful) examination of the chains transmission of the traditions leaves one in doubt as to the extent of the deceitful additions and false testimonies. Many conflicting traditions can be traced to one companion or follower and many traditions, which are complete fabrications, may be found amongst this body of narrations.

Thus reasons for the revelation of a particular verse, including the abrogating and abrogated verses, do not seem to accord with the actual order of the verses. No more than one or two of the traditions are found to be acceptable when submitted to such an examination.

It is for this reason that Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, who himself was born before this generation of narrators, said, "Three things have no sound base:

military virtues, bloody battles and the traditions pertaining to Qur'anic commentary. " Imam al-Sh?fi'i relates that only about one hundred traditions from Ibn 'Abb?s have been confirmed as valid. The sixth group consists of those commentators who appeared after the growth and development of the various Islamic Sciences and each undertook the study of Qur'anic commentary according to his specialization: al-Zajj?j studied the subject from the grammatical point of view; al-W?hidi and Abü Hayy?n(17) investigated the verses by studying the inflection of the verbs, the vowels and the diacritical points.

There is also commentary on the rhetoric and eloquence of the verses by al-Zamakhshari(18) in his work entitled alKo4uhaf. There is a theological discussion in the "Grand Commentary" of Fakhr al-Din al-R?zi. (19) the gnosis of Ibn al-'Arabi and 'Abd al-Razz?q al-K?sh?ni(20) treated in their commentaries. Other narrators, like al-Tha'labi, record the history of transmission of the traditions(21) .

Some commentators, among them al-Qurtubi, (22) concentrate on aspects of feqh (jurisprudence). There also exists a number-of commentaries composed of many of these sciences, such as Ruh al-bayan by Shaykh Ism?'il Haqqi, (23) Ruh al-ma'?ni by Shih?b al Din Mahmüd al Alüsi al-Baghdadi (24) Ghari'ib al-qur'an by Ni; ?m al-Din al-Nis?büri (25) This group rendered a great service to the Science of Qur'anic commentary in that it brought the Science out of a state of stagnation (characteristic of the fifth group before it), and developed it into a Science of precise investigation and theory.

However, if one were to examine closely the precision of this group's research, one would see. That much of its Qur'anic commentary imposes its theories onto the Qur'an rather than allowing the content of the verses to speak for themselves.

Adopted from the book: "Quran per Islam" by: "Allamah sayyid Mohammad Hossein Tabatabai"

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