Islamo-Biblical in Tafsir Literaturtes I - Up to al‑Ṭabarī (d. 310/ 922).

Islamo-Biblica in Tafsir ("Qur'an Commentary") Literatures I  - until al‑Ṭabarī  (d. 310/ 922).

The Bible and Isrā’īliyyāt  in Tafsīr   (Qur’ān commentary).

Stephen Lambden - Notes from the 1980s - to be corrected and supplemented.

The massive body of Islamic tafsir and associated literatures in middle eastern and other languages contain a vast amount of Islamo-biblica. Though seldom containing very many biblical citations in the light of widespread post-qur'anic concepts of (over-emphasized) tahrif  -corruption or falsification of the biblical text -, an increasing number of  historically ignored or marginalized Islamic writings containging Tafsir materials and Islamo-biblica are becomming known. An increasingly numerous body of only  recently studied and discovered biblically informed writings are gradually becomming known in the 21st century.

Undue reliance on Jewish or Christian traditions relayed by ahl al‑kitāb (People of the Book) for exegetical and other purposes came to be frowned upon in certain early Muslim circles. Such caution, however, failed to prevent the  widespread  exegetical use of Isrā’īliyyāt in numerous early and later tafsīr  works.1 As one might legitimately speak of Isrā’īliyyāt traditions in the Q., `Tafsīr Isrā’īliyyāt’ is a phrase used to indicate Muslim commentary by means of Abrahamic religious scripture and tradition.  In this connection Newby has stated that "during the first century, material from the haggadic and midrashic sources of Judaism and the hagiologic writings of Eastern Christianity were assiduously collected for commenting on the Qur’an and for constructing histories of the pre‑Islamic world" (1980:685 [Abstract]).

            Early tafsīr works rich in Isrā’īlyyāt, including Islamicate or Islamo-biblical citations and paraphrases, were composed by many Muslim Q. commentators. No comprehensive or detailed history of the presence (or absence) of  Islamicate or Islamo-biblical citations in tafsīr  literatures has yet been written though Goldziher (1878), Goldfield (1988, etc –>bib.)  and others have touched upon it as will be noted below.


      1 The following tradition recorded by Dawūdī in his Ṭabaqāt al‑mufassirīn  illustrates this, "A man asked al‑A`mash [2nd century], `Why do men avoid the tafsīr   of al‑Mujahid?’ He answered, `Because they think that he used to ask the people of the Book"  (Dawudī, II:307 cited Ayoub 1:30).

Early tafsīr   works

`Abd Allāh b.`Abbās (d. c. 68/687).

            `Abd Allāh b.`Abbās (d. c. 68/687), a paternal first cousin of Muhammad,  was known as al‑ḥi[a]br  al‑`arab  (Rabbi  of the Arabs). Many Muslims have regarded him as the  father of tafsīr   because he is thought to have written the first Islamic  tafsīr   work (Goldziher,1970:65f; Sezgin GAS I:25; Goldfield,1981). Exegetical traditions stemming from Ibn `Abbās are especially rich in  lexicographical insights and the Islamification of Isrā’īliyyāt.  A knowledgeable companion of  the Prophet,  he was  an important collector and transmitter of biblical legends stemming from the Yemeni Jewish convert Ka`b al‑Aḥbār  (Rippin 1991:166).  Many of his associates and students were important second century mufassirūn (Q. commentators) who also transmitted [85] exegetically influential Isrā’īliyyāt.  A number of versions of his (reconstituted) Tafsīr   entitled Tanwīr  al‑miqbās min tafsīr Ibn `Abbās  are in print.1  At the very  beginning of his Tafsīr  the following  Jewish‑Christian rooted  ḥadīth   is cited relative to the first word bism  of  the first qur’ānic  basmala,

The "B" (al‑bā’) is the splendour [beauty] of God (bahā’ Allāh), his delight (biḥjat), his adversity(bilā’), his grace (baraka)  and the commencement of his Name al‑bārī` (The Creator) ..." (Tanwīr, 3; Lambden,1986:1ff; Wasserstrom, 1995:165‑171).

            Like other  early mufassirūn  (Q. commentators) Ibn `Abbās made frequent use of non‑literal, interpretation. Goldfeld has noted that his view that without being allegorized the Q. "might have no meaning to later generations" (1988:17, 25‑27). There seems to have been a close relationship between the (first Imam) `Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib (d. 40/661) and Ibn `Abbās. The latter is reported to have said, "What I took from the interpretation of the Quran is from `Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib".  The possibly proto‑Shī`ī companion, Ibn Mas`ūd, allegedly stated that `Alī was heir to both "the outward and the inward" dimensions of the Q. (Dhahabī, al‑Tafsīr 1:189‑90 cited Nasr, ed. 1987:29). Traditions expressive of the Shī`ī affirmation of deep, inner senses in the Q. are especially found in statements of the fourth and sixth Imams, Muhammad al‑Bāqir (d. c.126/743) and Ja`far al‑Ṣādiq (d. c. 148/765). They allegedly held that

If the revelation of the Q. only had meaning with regard to the person or group of people to whom one or another verse was revealed, then the entire Q. would be dead today. Nay, rather! the sacred Book, the  Q., is alive. It will never die for its verses will be fulfilled among the people of the future just as they have been fulfilled among those of the past (Ibn `Āmilī al‑Iṣfahānī, Tafsīr mir`āt al‑anwār, I: 5‑6; Corbin [paraphrase in]1995:90; cf. Lawson, 1993:195f).

In the Tafsīr  ascribed to him Imam Sādiq has stated that deep senses and mysteries are enshrined in the Q.  His Tafsīr  contains a statement to the effect that the Q. consists of  `ibāra  (expression) and ishāra  (allusion). The former is essentially the ẓāhir  (exterior) and bāṭin (interiority) aspects of the Q. which are the preserve of the common believer. Its deeper allusive (ishāra) dimension is the inward delight of the khawaṣṣ, the privileged  elect  (Ja`far al‑Ṣādiq, Tafsīr, 123, cf. Nwyia. `Ishāra EI2 IV: 114, Exégèse,156ff). 

  From the earliest times, a non‑literal, hermeneutical orientation has been maintained in Imamī, Sufi, Ismā’īlī, Twelver Shī`ī and other tafsīr works.  Exegetical authority is vested in the prophet and the Imams who are believed to have sanctioned non‑literal modes of qur’ānic exegesis (Bar‑Asher, 1999:87ff). By means of allegory, typology and other forms of exegesis‑eisegesis, the Q. was held to enshrine levels of meaning appropriate to successive generations. It has bāṭinī (inner, esoteric) dimensions as well as ẓāhirī  (outer, exoteric) senses.  This is the case in those Shī`ī sources in which the mutashābihāt   (needing interpretation, Q. 3:7) verses of the Q. are given imamological or esoteric significances (Lawson, 1993; Habil, IS1:24‑47; Bar‑Asher, EIr. X:116‑119).

Tafsir among the Shi`ite  Imams from `Ali ibn Abi Talib (d.49/661) to the sixth Imam Ja`far al‑Ṣādiq (d.148/765) and the eleventh Imam Hasan al-Askari (d. 260/873).

 Reputed master of the `ulūm al‑ghayb (the esoteric sciences) the sixth Imam Ja`far al‑Ṣādiq (d.148/765) is believed to have authored an allegorically oriented Tafsīr  work  (al‑Ṣādiq, al‑Tafsīr; Habil, 1987 ch.3; Sells, 1996:75f). One of his several acrostic interpretations of  بِسْم  (bism "In the name..") of the first basmala  in the opening Sūrah (al‑fātiḥa ,Q.1) of the Q., states:

The bism  ("In the name [of ]") is composed of thee letters: the ب ( "b") signifies his Eternity (baqā), the  س  "s" (al‑sīn) his Names  (asmā’)  and the م  "m" (al‑mīm) his Dominion (al‑mulk). Thus the faith of the believer is mentioned by him throughout his Eternity (bi‑baqā’ihi)  while the servitude of the aspirant (al‑murīd)  is indicated through his Names (al‑asmā’) and of the gnostic (al‑ārif)  in his transcendent  abstraction (fanā’)  from the kingdom by virtue of His  Sovereignty over it (Tafsīr al‑Ṣādiq, 1978:125  cf. Tabarī, Tafsīr 1:53‑55;T. Ṣādiq, 125; cf. Biḥar 2 9:238).

Certain of Ja`far al‑Ṣādiq’s interpretations of the Q. interpret prophetological themes including Moses’ request to see God (Q.7:143, cf. Exodus 33:18‑23). The Imam makes Moses a prototype of the `ārif  (gnostic, `mystic knower’) while the request to see God becomes an interior event within the reality of Moses. The negative response to Moses’ request, the lan tarānī  ("Thou shalt  not see me [God]"), is interpreted as indicating the impossibility of direct beatific vision because mystical fanā’ (annihilation of the "self")  precludes "seeing": "How can that which passes away (fānin)  find a way to that which abides (bāqin)?" (trans. Sells, 1996:80). Through non‑literal exegesis the transcendence of God is maintained.

Mujāhid b. Jabr al‑Makkī (d. c.104/722)

  Sunnī and Shī`ī sources regard Mujāhid b. Jabr al‑Makkī (d. c.104/722) as a diligent, apparently proto‑Shī`ī Q. commentator and an avid collector of expository pre‑Islamic lore.  A rationalist pupil of both Ibn `Abbās and Imam `Alī, he collected Abrahamic and related materials expository of the Q. (Ibn Sa`d, Tabaqāt, 5:344, 467). Mujāhid is even said to have travelled to Babel (Babylon) in order to more adequately expound the qur’ānic legend of the fallen angels Hārūt and Mārūt. Isrā’īliyyāt traditions linked to him are found throughout the tafsīr  tradition. They are registered in the influential Tafsīr  of Ṭabarī.  Probable Abrahamic or Jewish-Christian influence through Mujāhid is  seen in exegetical traditions pointing to Muhammad being, like the divine Jesus, "seated" upon the celestial Divine Throne (cf. Ps.110:1; Rev. 3:21).1

Muqātil b. Sulaymān al‑Khurāsānī (d. Baṣra, 150/767)

 The possibly Zaydī (Shī`ī) commentator Muqātil b. Sulaymān al‑Khurāsānī (d. Baṣra, 150/767) was a very important  early  transmitter of Isrā’īliyyat. In his historically oriented Tafsīr  he gave much attention to the "biblical pre‑history" of verses, as Versteegh refers to the Isrā’īliyyāt.2 Muqā til cited many exegetical traditions that can be traced back to the ahl al‑kitāb  (people of the Book). His haggadic type exegesis leaves little unexplained. The name, for example, of the namla (female ant) with which Solomon held converse is given as jarmī  (Muqātil,Tafsīr   III:299 on Q. 27:18).

That God taught Adam all the "names" is taken by Muqātil to mean those of the (post‑) Edenic  animals (ibid, I:98 on Q. 2:32).The name of  مُوسَى   (Mūsā = Moses) is divided into two and given a Coptic etymological meaning: مُو ( = water) + سَ (= tree) (Tafsir III:337). Rooted in Jewish‑Christian traditions (Josephus, Antiq. Ii.9.6; Philo Vita Moys, I.4, etc) this exegesis was  repeated and developed by later Muslim commentators including al‑Ṭabarī and Ibn `Arabī.1 It is an etymological exegesis repeated in the Shaykhī writings  of Sayyid Kāẓim and in at least one Bahā’ī source (Rashtī, Qāsida, 9; AB* cited in Ishrāq Khāvarī, QI.IV:1543). 

 A good example of Muqātil’s tafsīr Isrā’īliyyāt  is the following comment upon a phrase of the celebrated `Throne Verse’ (āyat al‑kursī = Q. 2:255). Without iṣnād   Muqātil quotes the following from Wahb b. Munabbih as deriving from the ahl al‑kitāb :

"Four  angels (arba`at amlāk)  bear the [divine] Throne [Seat] (kursī); every angel has four faces.  Their  legs are situated beneath the [foundational] Rock (al‑ṣakhra) which lies beneath the lowest earth (al‑arḍ al‑suflā) extending [for the distance of]  a 500 year journey; and between all [of the seven] earth[s] is a 500 year journey!

  • (1) [There is] an angel (malak) whose face has the appearance of a man [human form] (alā ṣūrat al‑insān) which is the archetype  of forms ( sayyid al‑suwar). Of God he requests sustenance for the progeny of Adam (al‑rizq li’l‑ādamiyyīn).
  • (2) [There is] an angel whose face has the appearance of the exemplar  of cattle (`malak wajhihi alā ṣūrat sayyid al‑an’`ām) which is the Ox (al‑thawr). Of God he requests sustenance for the cattle [animals]  (al‑bahā’im).
  • (3) [There is] an angel whose face has the appearance of the exemplar  of the birds (sayyid al‑ṭayr)  which is the Eagle [Vulture] (al‑naṣr). Of God he requests sustenance for the birds (al‑ṭayr)...
  • (4) [There is] an angel whose face has the appearance of the exemplar  of beasts of prey ( ṣūrat  sayyid al‑sibā`) which is the Lion (al‑asad). Of God he requests sustenance for the beasts of prey (al‑sibā`). (Muqātil, Tafsir  I: 213 on Q. 2:255b  cf. V:222)

 This exegetical tradition is rooted in a version of the quasi‑cosmological Merkabah  (`throne‑chariot’) vision of the first chapter of  Ezekiel which is foundational for later Jewish merkabah mysticism (cf. Ezek.10). While Ezekiel 1:10 mentions "the four faces of the four creatures which he [88] visioned", the Ezekiel Targum understands this to signify four multi‑faceted faces (4X16) equaling 64 faces (tr. Levey, AB13:20; cf. Rev 4:6b‑9). That the qur’ānic image of the celestial Throne of God was of central cosmological and mystical importance is evidenced by the `Throne verse’ (Q. 2:255). This text was given a variety of  symbolic and esoteric significances by the twelver Imams and by numerous Sufi and other exponents of the `ulūm al‑ghayb (Islamic esoterica).1

Early Sufi Tafsir: Sahl al‑Dīn al‑Ṭustarī (d. 283/896).

  Sufi allegorical‑mystical tafsīr  is very closely related and at times identical to Shī`ī tafsīr.  A [89] non‑literal hermeneutic is often adopted. The Tafsīr al‑Qur’ān  attributed to Sahl al‑Dīn al‑Ṭustarī (d. 283/896) is perhaps the oldest continuous Sufi tafsīr.  It is related to but goes beyond the tradition of Ibn `Abbās. Commenting upon the isolated  letter al‑qāf  in the sūra  of the same name (Q. 50), Ṭustarī reckons that it outwardly (ẓāhir)  indicates the first created, world‑surrounding,  Mt. Qāf (al‑jabal, Tafsīr,  92). The creation in six days mentioned in the Sūrat al‑ḥadīd  (Iron, Q. 57:3 cf. Gen.1) is expounded relative to the "He is the First and the Last"  and associated with the al‑ism al‑a`ẓam  (most mighty Name of God), with the six verses which commence sūra 50. (ibid, 98).

 Tustarī’s exposition of Q. 7:172 revolves around the concept of the pre‑eternal covenant (Q. 7:172f; 33:7) which became highly significant in Shī`ism, Sufism and Bābī‑Bahā’ī primary sources (e.g. QA 69:281; BA* HWP: nos. 19 & 71). It is presupposed that a pre‑existent, archetypal Adam was the primogenitor of a proto‑humanity which mystically existed in the "loins" of this archetypal human. This Adam was further related to the Logos‑like pre‑existent nūr al‑Muḥammadiyya  (Light of Muhammad) (Bowering, 1980:145ff; Sells 1996:92‑95).

The Arabic Tafsīr of Muhammad ibn Jarir al‑Ṭabarī  (d. 310/ 922) and its Persian recreation by Abū `Alī Muhammad  Bal`amī (d. c. 387/997) .

            Bypassing other early tafsīr works, the foundational, massively erudite Jāmi`  al‑bayān `an ta’wīl  āy al‑Qur’ān (The Assembling of the Exposition of the Exegesis of the verses of the Q.) of Abū Ja`far Muhammad b. Jarīr  al‑Ṭabarī demands mention. It is cited approvingly in many Shī`ī sources including the Biḥar al-anwār  of Majlisī. Drawing on the accumulated mass of exegetical traditions, al‑Ṭabarī incorporates paraphrased biblical history and Isra’iliyyāt exegetical traditions often as relayed by Wahb b. Munabbih from the ahl al‑kitāb (Newby 1980: 688). Though he tends to avoid the direct citation of both the Hebrew Bible and the NT., he does make considerable use of biblical paraphrase including a "detailed account of the story of the conquest of Canaan by Joshua"1 and of Gospel narratives of Jesus’ life and miracles. In upholding the post‑qur’ānic notion of the literal taḥrīf ("corruption", "falsification") of both parts of the Bible, he had somthing of a negative effect on the Muslim view of the Bible (see below).

            The Arabic tafsīr  of al‑Ṭabarī was early, freely "translated" ( actually recreated) into Persian prose  by a group of  `ulamā  including Abū `Alī Muhammad  Bal`amī (d. c. 387/997). This for Manṣūr b. Nūḥ (d. 365/976), the  Samānid ruler of Transoxiana and Khurasan who found the Arabic difficult. The translation was apparently authorized by a fatwa rooted in Q.14:4 which had it that all pre‑Ishmaelite prophets and kings had spoken Persian (Tarjumih‑yi tafsīr‑I Ṭabarī 1:5; Storey, 1:2).2 Aside from the qur’ānic text, relatively little of the Arabic tafsīr is directly translated into Persian. Instead, the translation is interrupted by Persian versions of stories of the prophets and even legendary tales culled from the Shāh‑nāma epic of Firdawsī (d. 411/1019‑1020). Numerous Isrā’īliyyāt in the form of qiṣaṣ al‑anbiyā’ stories absent in Ṭabarī’s Arabic original are scattered throughout and central to the reworked Persian Tasfīr  of  Bal`amī.  

 In the Persian Ṭabarī,  Moses’ request to see God in Q. 7:143 is literally translated then commented upon in some detail. The shattering divine theophany is seen as an indirect vision of God’s amr  ("Logos") which caused  Mount Sinai  to be split into  six pieces. Three pieces were translocated to Mecca and three to Medina (Tafsīr  [Per.] 2:534‑7).  Within this Persian Tasīr  select Jewish and/or Christian and  Zoroastrian traditions are registered. This perhaps with the aim of consolidating recent converts in their Islamic faith and / or inviting `people of the Book’ into the Islamic fold (Meisami, 1999:35‑37).1

1 Qiṣaṣ al‑anbiyā’ are fundamental to this Persian Tafsīr. The Sūrat al‑nūr  (Q.24), for example, is wholly  replaced by the partially exegetical story of the `Slander of `Ā’isha’.



     1 Tehrani, Dharī`a, IV: 244 No 1186; Smith, 1970:58‑9f; Ayoub 1984 = 1:27‑32 Though there are continuing doubts as to its authenticity a recent printing is Beirut: Dār al‑Kutub al‑`Ilmiyya,1412/1992.

     1Ibn Ḥanbal, Musnad  I:375f; etc.; Rosenthal, tr. Ṭabarī, Tarīkh, 1:75ff; Dhahabī, Siyār A`lām, noted Sālīḥī, 199X:10; Rippin, Mudjāhid,  EI2. 

            2 See Lawson,1990: 214f, 1993:130; Plessener [Rippin] `Mukātil b. Sulayman’ EI 2 VIII: 508‑9.

     1Tabarī, Tafsīr, I:280 on Q. 2:51/ tr. Cooper, 309 ; Maḥādarat, 130; Fuṣuṣ, 197f / tr. Austin, 254.

     1 The relationship between Merkabah mysticism and Islamic thought awaits detailed analysis (Halperin, 1988, App. 2). Both the `arsh (Throne) and the kursī  (Seat) are mentioned in the Q. In his Mirāt al‑anwār  (Mirror of Lights) the Shī`īte theologian and qur’ān exegete Abū’l‑Ḥasan al‑`Āmilī al‑Iṣfahānī  (d. Najaf 1138/1726) records that al‑`arsh   (among other things) is borne by the Prophet and the Imams etc who are the bearers [custodians] of the knowledge of God, the locus of which is the `arsh  ("Throne")  (`Āmilī Iṣfahānī, Mirat,  I:236‑7)

     1 See Hirschberg `Bible: Religious Impact’ in Islam’ EJ., 4 [CD]; Ṭabarī, Tarīkh, 514ff;  trans. Brinner, History  III:96ff.

     2 In Abrahamic (Jewish and Islamic) traditions God and/or the ancients are reckoned to have spoken Hebrew, Syriac or Arabic.