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Topical Style of Traditions in Islamic Jurisprudence

In order to bring closer to the mind the conception of topical exegesis, we can explain the difference between these two styles of exegesis by referring to what we find in Islamic jurisprudence.

In one sense jurisprudence is an interpretation of what the Holy Prophet and the Infallible Imams have said or have done. We are aware of the books in which in the course of the discussion of the rules of law, traditions have been mentioned consecutively, each tradition having been quoted separately, and studied from the viewpoint of the implication of its language, its chain of transmitters or its text, or from all these angles, depending on the method followed by each book. This is what has been done by the commentators of the Four Books (Usul Kafi, Tahzib, Istibsar and Man La Yahzaruhul Faqih) and the commentator of the Wasa'ilush Shi'ah. But most of the books on Islamic law have not followed this method. They have divided juristic discussion according to the needs of life, and have quoted the relevant traditions under every question of law to derive and elucidate the Islamic point of view regarding it. This is the topical style in regard to the rules of law, and the style mentioned above was the split style in regard to the interpretation of juristic traditions. Now let us study the general style of the books of jurisprudence.

The juristic book al Jawahir is virtually a comprehensive commentary on the traditions contained in the Four Books. But this book does not explain each tradition separately. It has arranged the traditions according to the needs of life. The book has been arranged subject-wise and divided into chapters. There are, for example, chapters of sale, agreement, reclamation of barren land, marriage and so on. In these chapters the relevant traditions have been collected and explained, and then under each question of law the relevant traditions have been checked against each other and after taking all of them into due consideration, rules of law have been derived. It may be mentioned that it is not enough to know the meaning of a tradition, for no tradition in isolation can lead us to a rule of law.

We can arrive at a rule of law or a rule of life only after studying all the traditions which may possibly have any connection with the question under study. Similarly we can deduce a doctrine or a theory only after an extensive and thorough study of all the traditions on the subject. Nothing can be deduced from one single tradition.

This was the topical style of explaining the juristic traditions. By holding a comparison between the Qur'anic and the juristic studies you can find out the difference between topical and split styles of the exegesis of the Qur'an.

While topical style became popular in connection with juristic questions and was so developed that in the books of jurisprudence all rules of law are arranged in their appropriate chapters, a totally opposite trend developed in connection with the exegesis of the Qur'an. The style which dominated exegesis for about 13 centuries was split style. Every commentator of the Qur'an considered himself bound to explain the Qur'an verse by verse like his predecessors. The result was that topical style became the common and popular style in jurisprudence and split style in exegesis.

The studies which are confined to the occasions of revelation, abrogative and abrogated verses and the explanation of the words and the phrases used in their secondary meanings in the Qur'an, are in some cases known as topical exegesis. They should not be given this name.

These studies are no more than a collection of certain subjects picked from split exegesis. Hence they should not be called topical exegesis, which materializes only when we study a doctrinal, social or some other vital subject of life and evaluate it from the viewpoint of the Qur'an. It appears to be most likely that as much as topical style has helped in the advancement and expansion of juristic thought and inquiry, the split style of exegesis has caused stagnation of the Islamic thought in the Qur'anic field and has blocked its continuous progress; so much so that centuries have passed since the books of Tabari, Razi and Tusi were compiled but Islamic thought in the field of exegesis has not gone a step further than these books and nothing new has been added to Islamic research in this field.

During all this period exegesis has been static and in a state of immobility. It has taken no step forward except in some very insignificant cases. It remained static at a time when many changes were taking place in different fields of life. Hence by holding a comparison between the two above-mentioned styles we can explain why split style has been a factor of the stagnation of exegesis and why the topical style has been effective in the progress and expansion of the process of deduction of the rules of Islamic law. Then we can conceive clearly why one style has gained popularity while the other style became obsolete.

As it is necessary that our conception of these two styles should be clear and definite, some points of the difference between them are explained below:

Adopted from the book: "Trends of History in Qur'an" by: "Ayatullah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr"

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