EXEGESIS ii. In Shiʿism



ii. In Shiʿism

Shiʿite exegetes, perhaps even more than their Sunni counterparts, support their distinctive views by reference to Koranic proof-texts. A major distinction is that the Shiʿite exegetes attempt to find in the Koran explicit references to such themes as the Imams’ supernatural and mystical qualities, the Imams’ authority in interpreting the Koran and other religious scriptures, or the Shiʿite duty to obey the Imams and to dissociate from their enemies.

Principles and methods of Shiʿite exegesis. A fundamental principle of Shiʿite exegetical tradition is that the authority to interpret the Koran is reserved for ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭāleb (q.v.) and his descendants, the Imams. In a well-known Hadith, cited in both Sunni and Shiʿite sources, Moḥammad declares: “There is one among you who will fight for the [correct] interpretation of the Koran just as I myself fought for its revelation, and he is ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭāleb” (enna fīkom man yoqātelo ʿalā taʾwīl al-Qorʾān kamā qātalto ʿalā tanzīlehe wa howa ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭāleb; ʿAyyāšī, I, p. 15, cf. ibid., p. 17; Šahrestānī, p. 144, tr., Gimaret and Monnot, I, p. 543, n. 531, where further sources are cited; Poonawala, 1988, pp. 209-10). This idea of ʿAlī and (implicitly) also his descendants being presented by the Prophet himself as interpreters of the Koran is also deduced from other traditions, the most famous of which is “the tradition about the two valuable things” (ḥadīṯ al-ṯaqalayn), i.e., the two things that Moḥammad is reported to have bequeathed to his believers. There are significant differences between the Sunni and the Shiʿite exegetical tradition regarding both the identity of these two things and the interpretation of the Hadith. According to one version, the two valuable things are the Book of God and the Prophet’s practice (Ebn Esḥāq, tr., p. 651). Other versions of this tradition, recorded in both Sunni and Shiʿite works, mention as the ṯaqalān the Koran and the family of the Prophet (ahl al-bayt). The explanation given in Shiʿite sources as to the discrepancy between the two versions of this tradition is that while in Sunni exegesis the practice of the Prophet is considered a tool for the interpretation of the Koran (and is therefore mentioned in conjunction with the Book itself), in Shiʿite tradition, the family of the Prophet plays the equivalent role: only through the mediation of the Imams, the descendants of the Prophet, both the esoteric and exotoric meaning of the koranic text are revealed to believers. The ṯaqalān are further viewed as being forever intertwined with each other (lan yaftareqā) or, in the words of Abū Jaʿfar Moḥammad Ṭūsī (d. 460/1067), one of the eminent Imami exegetes: “This tradition proves that [the Koran] exists in every generation, since it is unlikely that [Moḥammad] would order us to keep something which we cannot keep, just as the family of the Prophet, and those we are ordered to follow, are present at all times” (Ṭūsī, I, pp. 3-4). From here to the creation of the metaphor describing the Imams as “the speaking book of God (ketāb Allāh al-nāṭeq)” the path is short indeed (Borsī, p. 135; Ayoub, p. 183, n. 17; Poonawala, 1988, p. 200).

Among Shiʿites, allegory and typology became favorite methods of interpreting the Koran. Nevertheless, only heterodox factions such as the Noṣayrīs and the Druze went so far as to view the internal meaning of the Koran as the exclusive binding authority, and consequently developed an antinomian attitude toward the religious laws of the Koran.

An illustration of the allegorical approach of Shiʿite Koran exegesis may be seen in the interpretation of the Night Journey of Moḥammad referred to in the the Koran (17:1). Although aware of the traditional interpretation of this verse as referring to an actual journey during which the Prophet was borne from Mecca to Jerusalem, Ismaʿili as well as Noṣayrī authors interpreted this passage as a symbol of the spiritual progress of the Imams or of other persons within the divine realm (for the Ismaʿili approach, see Qāżī Noʿmān Maḡrebī, p. 337; for the Noṣayrī interpretation, see the epistle of Abū ʿAbd-Allāh Ḥosayn b. Hārūn Ṣāʾeḡ in Bar-Asher and Kofsky, pp. 243-50).

Shiʿite Koran exegesis is further characterized by a radical anti-Sunni bias. Many Koranic verses whose apparent meaning (ẓāher) has a negative connotation or refers generally and vaguely to evil or to evildoers are taken, through allegorical interpretation (bāṭen), to refer to specific historical figures among the outstanding personages of Sunni Islam. Frequently repeated negative Koranic expressions such as baḡy (insolence), faḥšāʾ (indecency), monkar (dishonor), al-fojjār (the wicked), al-mofsedūn fi’l-arż (corrupters on earth), al-šayṭān (Satan), al-maḡżūb ʿalayhem (those against whom [God] is wrathful), al-żāllūn (those who are astray), and the like are interpreted as referring to the enemies of the Shiʿites in general or to specific persons among them, particularly the first three caliphs, two of Moḥammad’s wives (ʿĀʾeša and Ḥafṣa, the daughters of the first and second caliphs, respectively), the Omayyads, and the ʿAbbasids. In an utterance attributed to the Imam Moḥammad al-Bāqer, he goes so far as to state that “every occurrence in the Koran of the words ‘Satan says’ is [to be understood as referring to] ‘the second’ [namely the caliph ʿOmar b. al-Ḵaṭṭāb]” (laysa fī l-Qorʾān [šayʾ] ‘wa qāla al-šayṭānδ ellā wa howa al-ṯānī; ʿAyyāšī, II, p. 223). In another tradition, cited in the same source, a more general formulation of this idea is also attributed to this Imam: “Whenever you hear God [in the Koran] mentioning one of this community [i.e., the Muslims] in a positive way it is we [i.e., the Shiʿites who are meant], while when you hear God mentioning a people of the past negatively, He is referring to our enemies” (ʿAyyāšī, I, p. 13).

In other cases Shiʿite exegesis is designed to support the Shiʿite doctrine of the imamate and concepts derived from it, examples being ʿeṣma (impecancy of prophets and Imams), šafāʿa (intercession of prophets and Imams on behalf of their communities), badāʾ (appearance of new circumstances that cause a change in earlier divine ruling, q.v.), and barāʾa (dissociation from the enemies of the Shiʿites, q.v.); and in the case of the Ismaʿili, Druze, and Noṣayrī factions, also the concept of the cyclical creation of the world and the transmigration of souls.

Another current characteristic of early, primarily Aḵbārī, Shiʿite exegesis is the use of variant readings (qerāʾāt) of the Koranic text or, in certain cases, the addition of words believed to have been omitted from the Koran. Such textual alterations are based on the assumption that the Koranic text is flawed and incomplete. Those scholars who held the view that the Koranic was corrupt believed that the Mahdi will reveal the true text and uncover the original intention. It is worthwile emphasizing, however, that very rarely one comes across such alterations in tafsīr works of proto-oṣūlī commentators (like those of Ṭūsī and Ṭabresī). Examples of these alterations are the common textual variants aʾemma (Imams) for omma (nation or community), or readings in which slight changes are made in the word imam itself. The implication of these variants is that the institution of the imamate (emāma) and other principles associated with it originate in the Koran. For example, most early Shiʿite exegetes read aʾemmatan (leaders) rather than ommatan (nation) in the verse 3:110: “You are the best leaders ever brought forth to mankind” (kontom ḵayra aʾemmaten oḵrejat le’l-nās; cf. Qomī, I, p. 110; ʿAyyāšī, I, p. 195); or in the verse 2:143: “Thus We appointed you midmost leaders” (wa kaḏāleka jaʿalnākom aʾemmatan wasaṭan; cf. Qomī, I, p. 63), etc.

Prominent among the other type of alterations is the insertion of certain words that are generally proclaimed to be missing from the ʿOthmanic Codex of the Koran. These are primarily the words a) fī ʿAlī (concerning ʿAlī) in various Koranic verses, such as 2:91: “Believe in what God has revealed to you [concerning ʿAlī]” (āmenū bemā anzala Allāh [fī ʿAlī]); or verse 4:166: “But God bears witness to what He has related to you [concerning ʿAlī]” (lākenna Allāh yašhado bemā anzala elayka [fī ʿAlī]); or b) the words āl Moḥammad (the family of Moḥammad) or occasionally āl Moḥammad ḥaqqahom (the rights of Moḥammad’s family) as the object of a verb from the root ẓlm (to do an injustice to, to usurp), which appear often in the Koran. Shiʿite commentators believe that this addition stresses that the injustice referred to by words and verbs derived from the root ẓlm alludes specifically to the injustice perpetrated against the family of the Prophet and his offspring. The same method is applied with regard to other doctrines. The insertion of the words fī walāyat ʿAlī (concerning the [duty of] loyalty to the house of ʿAlī) in several places in the Koran is intended to provide scriptural authority to the doctrine of walāya, as the addition of the words elā ajalen mosamman (for a given time) to the so-called motʿa verse (4:24), is meant to emphasize the temporary nature of motʿa marriage.

Other methods of Shiʿite Koran exegesis are based on the word and letter order and calculations of the numerical value of letters. In his interpretation of sura 108 (“al-Kawṯar”) the Ismaʿili dāʿī Abū Yaʿqūb Sejestānī (d. ca. 361/971) presents a transposition of the words and letters of the sura, thus reading into it the Shiʿite tenet of waṣāya, the rank of plenipotentiary among the Imams (Poonawala, 1988, pp. 218-19). The technique of numerical calculation of letters is primarily applied to the mysterious letters (fawāteḥ) appearing at the head of twenty-nine suras. Thus, for example, the letters alef, lām, mīm, ṣād (the numerical value of which is 161) at the head of sura 7 (“al-Aʿrāf”) allude, according to an account attributed to the Imam Moḥammad al-Bāqer, to the year 161 of the Hejrī calendar (=777 C.E.), in which the Omayyad dynasty was predicted to fall (ʿAyyāšī, II, p. 2).

Major Shiʿite exegetes and their works. The earliest Imami-Shiʿite Koran commentaries known to us are from the end of the 3rd/9th century. These include the works of Forāt b. Forāt Kūfī (q.v.), Abu’l-Nażr Moḥammad ʿAyyāšī (q.v.), and ʿAlī b. Ebrāhīm Qomī, all of whom flourished in the last decades of the 3rd/9th century and beginning of the 4th/10th century, that is, prior to the Great Occultation (al-ḡayba al-kobrā; see ḠAYBA), which occurred in the year 329/941. Somewhat later is Moḥammad b. Ebrāhīm Noʿmānī (d. ca. 360/971), to whom is ascribed a treatise constituting a sort of introduction to the Koran (Majlesī, XIX, pp. 94-131). Other compositions are Ḥaqāʾeq al-tafsīr al-qorʾānī, a small exegetical treatise of Sufi character attributed to Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq (d. 148/765), and Tafsīr al-ʿAskarī, a comprehensive haggadic commentary on the first two suras of the Koran, attributed to Imam Ḥasan al-ʿAskarī (d. 260/874). The most outstanding tafsīrs of the post-Occulation period are al-Tebyān by Abū Jaʿfar Moḥammad Ṭūsī (d. 460/1067), the Majmaʿ al-bayān by Abū ʿAlī Ṭabresī (d. 548/1153), which is clearly dependent on the al-Tebyān, and the Persian Rawż al-jenān by Abu’l-Fotūḥ Rāzī (fl. the first half of the 6/12 century, q.v.). Some very comprehensive Imami-Shiʿite tafsīr works, which are mainly compilations of early sources, were composed in Persia under the Safavids. Among these the most prominent are Taʾwīl al-āyāt by Šaraf-al-Dīn ʿAlī Ḥosaynī Estrābādī (fl. 10th/16th century), Ketāb al-ṣāfī by Moḥammad b. Mortażā Kāšānī (d. 1091/1680), and Ketāb al-borhān by Hāšem b. Solaymān Baḥrānī (d. 1107/1695 or 1109/1697). Representatives of modern Imami Koran exegesis include al-Mīzān by Moḥammad b. Ḥosayn Ṭabāṭabāʾī and Men waḥy al-Qorʾān by Moḥammad-Ḥosayn Fażl-Allāh. Needless to say, exegetical material other than Koran commentaries per se proliferates in all genres of Imami literature (for a detailed survey of Shiʿite tafsīr works, see al-Ḏarīʿa III, pp. 302-7, IV, pp. 231-346).

Ismaʿili doctrinal writings include a vast amount of exegetical material, but little is known of specifical Ismaʿili exegetical compositions. Among the few exegetical works that have come down to us are Asās al-taʾwīl of the dāʿī Noʿmān b. Ḥayyūn Maḡrebī (d. 363/973-74) and Ketāb al-kašf ascribed to the dāʿī Jaʿfar b. Manṣūr Yaman (fl. the first half of the 4th/10th century; for other Ismaʿili tafsīr works, see Poonawala, 1977, index, s.vv. tafsīr, taʾwīl).

The Zaydī exegetical tradition remains largely unexplored, and most Zaydī works of tafsīr are still in manuscript form. The Zaydī Imams Qāsem b. Ebrāhīm Rassī (d. 240/860), al-Nāṣer le’l-Ḥaqq Oṭruš (d. 304/917), and Abu’l-Fatḥ Nāṣer b. Ḥosayn Daylamī (d. 444/1052) are among those credited with a tafsīr (al-Ḏarīʿa IV, pp. 255, 261; Abrahamov, pp. 17-43). A Koran commentary is also ascribed to Abu’l-Jārūd Zīād b. Monḏer, the founder of the Zaydī-Jārūdī sub-sect named after him Jārūdīya (al-Ḏarīʿa IV p. 251). The work is not preserved; however, excerpts of it are incorporated in the afore-mentioned tafsīr of ʿAlī b. Ebrāhīm Qomī (Bar-Asher, 1991, pp. 50-56). Another outstanding Jārūdī scholar who is credited with writing a tafsīr is Aḥmad b. Moḥammad Hamaḏānī, better known as Ebn ʿOqda (d. 333/946; al-Ḏarīʿa IV, p. 251). Finally it is worth mentioning the Fatḥ al-qadīr of Moḥammad b. ʿAlī Šawkānī (d. 1250/1834), one of the best-known and most prolific authors of the late Zaydīya.

As for the exegesis of @golāt (q.v.), such as the Druze and the Noṣayrīs, although the Koran is widely cited and often commented on in their sacred writings, there is no evidence of Koran commentaries as such penned by these groups.



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(Meir M. Bar-Asher)

Originally Published: December 15, 1999

Last Updated: January 20, 2012

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