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What is Topical Exegesis?

Exegetic Trends

It is an indisputable fact that with regard to the exegesis of the Qur'an there is a variety of views, and diverse methods are followed by every school of thought. This can be clearly observed with a careful study of the books of exegesis of the Qur'an.

Some commentators confine their attention to the literal aspect of the verses and explain the Qur'an from the viewpoint of its wording, its diction and its inimitable style.

Some others pay exclusive attention to the special features of its meaning and its contents and subjects.

There is a third group of the commentators who explain the verses of the Qur'an on the basis of traditions (Ahadith) or explain each verse by comparing it to some other verse or verses. In this connection they also draw in the reports handed down from the Holy Prophet and the infallible Imams, and in the absence of such reports, they refer to the exposition of the verses by the companions of the Holy Prophet and those who followed them.

Again there are some commentators who with a view to justify the position held by their particular school try to reconcile the Qur'an with the opinions of that school. Finally there are some commentators who are not attached to any particular school and try to derive the answers to their questions direct from the Qur'an. They judge the correctness or incorrectness of any opinion only on the basis of what the Qur'an says. They have no preconceived ideas of their own.

There are some other schools also, but we do not intend to dwell on them. All that we want to explain here is that on the whole there are two methods or two styles of the exegesis of the Qur'an which we would like to study.

One of these two styles may be called the "split" style and the other the "unified" or the topical style.

While commenting on the Qur'an in accordance with split style, the commentator arranges his commentary within the framework of the Qur'an according to the sequence of its verses. He divides the verses into sections and explains each section with the help of the tools available with him, such as the literal meaning of each verse and its reasonable connotation in the light of the relevant traditions and other verses of the Qur'an having a common concept or a common context. He makes every effort to pay full attention to these things in his commentary to bring out the correct meaning of each section of the verses.

Naturally when we speak of split exegesis, we mean the most advanced form of it, as available today, for exegesis has gradually developed from the simple explanation of a few verses to its present advanced form which covers the whole Qur'an.

The history of this style of exegesis goes back to the period of the companions of the Holy Prophet. In the beginning it consisted of a commentary on a few verses only, which sometimes included the explanation of the words also. With the passage of time a need was felt for the exegesis of the whole Qur'an. Accordingly in the end of the third century and the beginning of the fourth century commentators like Ibn Majah, Tabari and others expounded the whole Qur'an and produced the most advanced models of split exegesis.

In the split style of exegesis foremost attention is paid to the literal meaning of the verses with a view to be able to understand the contents of the Qur'an. In the beginning it was quite simple to understand the meanings of the words, but it became difficult as the distance from the period of the revelation increased. Though knowledge and experience have advanced, as a result of historical events the situation has changed, and proportionately this type of exegesis also has become complicated. Ambiguity has surrounded the contents of many words and verses. This difficulty of understanding the meanings has led to the compilation of the most complex works on the commentary of the Qur'an as they exist today.

In these commentaries we find that the commentator expounds the Qur'an verse by verse from the beginning to the end, for there are so many verses which with the passage of time need explanation. Meanwhile many cases of supporting evidence have been traced. They are also explained by the commentator.

In this connection it may be mentioned that we do not mean to say that a commentator in the course of split exegesis does not refer to other connected verses or does not take a note of them for the purpose of understanding the meaning of the verses under study.

Reference to other relevant verses is a common and usual practice. Similarly a reference is made to the traditions and reports also.

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

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