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Islamo-Biblica in Tafsir Literatures II



Islamo-Biblica in Tafsir ("Qur'an Commentary") Literatures II - Early and later Shi`ism.

Stephen Lambden

In progress 1980s ...

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). 

 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.

The Tafsir attributed to the eleventh Imam Hasan al-Askari (d. 260/873).

Towards its beginning the al‑`Askarī Tafsīr  contains an interesting  dialogue between Moses and God partially rooted in this prophet’s request to see "his Lord" (Q. 7:143).  Without going into details God instructs Moses to the effect that Muhammad and his (Shī`ī) family and  community, are the most honoured among the prophets (al‑anbiyā’) and all other creatures (al‑Askarī, Tafsīr, 15ff).

These two abovementioned early  (9th‑10th cent. CE) Shī`ī Tafsīr  works had  some influence upon  the Bāb (see T. Kawthar, 40a; P.Dalā’il, 48‑9 drawing on `Ayyāshī  / Qummī Tafsīr,  on Q. 2:1; cf. T.Hamd  69:145.).  So too the Tafsīr al‑`Askarī  (Bar‑Asher, 1999:34), a little studied Tafsīr work attributed to the 11th Imam, Ḥasan  al‑`Askarī (d. c.260 /873‑4).1 About half  way through his R. Dhahabiyya  the Bāb utilizes al‑`Askarī’s comments upon a verse of the Sūrat al‑Baqara (Q. 2)  in connection with the ummī  an ("unletteredness") of Muhammad and his own relinquishing the fitra,  (innate, God‑given identity, R. Dhah. 86:84).

The Tafsīr   works of `Alī b. Ibrahīm al‑Qummī (d.10th cent.) and Abū'l‑Naẓr Muhammad al‑Ayyāshī  (fl‑9th‑10th. cent. CE).

Among the foundational Shi`ī tafsīr  works mention should be made of the partially extant though influential  Shī`ī tafsīr   works of Abū'l‑Naẓr Muhammad al‑Ayyāshī  (fl‑9th‑10th. cent. CE) and  the Tafsīr al‑Qur’ān  of `Alī b. Ibrahīm al‑Qummī (d.10th cent.). It must suffice here to note  that the latter work, includes  comments upon the first set of isolated letters A‑L‑M (Alif‑Lā—Mīm,Q. 2:1), holding that they indicate "a portion of the letters of the ism Allāh al‑a`ẓam  (The mightiest Name of God)" (Qummī,Tafsīr 1:43). Qummī’s Tafsīr  includes many non‑literal, imamologically oriented  interpretations. Rippin has noted that Qummī did not simply define "Islam" as "submission" to God but reckoned it submission to the authority of the Twelver Imams (Enc.Rel.14:241). Qummī’s interpretation of  A‑L‑M  (Q. 2:1 etc) was  repeated in later Shī`ī Tafsīr works including the lengthy Persian Tafsīr  Sharīf   of  the philosopher‑theologian student of Mullā Ṣadrā, `Abd al‑Razzāq al‑Lāḥījī (d. c.1072/1662).  Lāḥījī   explained these three isolated letters as an acrostic expressing the phrase anā Allāh al‑mulk  (I am indeed God, the Sovereign)` (Tafsīr Sharīf  I:7).

The Tafsir of Muhammad b. Ḥasan al‑Ṭūsī  (d.460/1067).

Muhammad b. Ḥasan al‑Ṭūsī  (d.460/1067) in his bulky (20 vol.) Shī`ī al‑Tibyān fī tafsīr al‑Qur’ān  (The Clarification of Qur’ān Commentary) explains the verse "When the Lote‑Tree was covered with that which covered it" (Q. 53:16) as  allusion to that which emanates from or covers the  Sidrat al‑muntahā  (Lote‑Tree of the Extremity). He states that "the Sidra (Lote‑Tree) was covered with al‑nūr  (Light), al‑bahā’  (Splendour), al‑ḥusn  (Beauty) and al‑safā’  (Purity) so delightful that there is no end to its depiction" (Tibyān, 9:432).

with Him [God]. It [symbolically] signifies the human brain (al‑dimāgh al‑insānī) which is a seat of intellect and articulation (maẓhar al‑`aql wa’l‑nuṭq)....  its Being is the locus of the divine Command (maẓhar  al‑amr al‑ilāhī) and the seat of the eternal decree (al‑qiḍā’ al‑azalī).  "And the Book Outstretched" (wa’l‑kitāb al‑masṭūr)  is the all‑encompassing form (ṣūrat al‑kull)  according to what interfaces with Him of the established order (al‑niẓām al‑ma`lūm). It is what is engraved in the tablet of the decree (lawḥ al‑qiḍā’) and the Most Great Spirit rūḥ al‑a` ẓam) ... (Ibn `Arabī/ al‑Kāshānī,Tafsir  2:553).

Abū `Alī al‑Tabarsī (d. c. 548/1153)

Returning to a Shī`ī tafsīr work, the Majma` al‑bayān li‑`ulūm al‑Qur’ān (The Compilation of the Explanation of the Sciences of the Qur’ān) of the Shī`ī theologian Abū `Alī al‑Tabarsī (d. c. 548/1153) has been called a Shī`ī  "encyclopedia of  Qur’ānic sciences" (O.A. Abdul, 1977:78). Here al‑Ṭabarsī presents in Arabic characters a Hebrew transliteration of the biblical etymology of the tetragrammation (היְהוָ  = Y‑H‑W‑H, Yahweh),          (= `ehye `āsher `ehye,  Exod. 3:14a, loosely),  "I am that I am" (RSV). He considered it one of the forms of the al‑ism al‑a`ẓam (Mightiest Name [of God]), said in Arabic to be yā ḥayy yā qayyūm   مقيوم يا  يا حي   (O Living One! O Self‑Subsisting!) (Ṭabarsī, Majma` XIX:226). In one of his many  alwāḥ   to  oriental Jews, BA*  reflected such sources  when he used the Arabic transliteration  add for   אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה,  and transliterated the (unvowelled) tetragrammaton يهوه  (= Y‑H‑W‑H) (BA* Ma’idih 4:40; Lambden, 1983:22ff; 1988:66f,155f).

Select Early Ismā’īlī tafsīr  works

Various Ismā’īlī tafsīr  works also contain interesting allegorical and other non‑literal, sometimes esoteric modes of exegesis. Such is the case with the fragmentary Mizāj al‑tasnīm  (The Condition of Tasnīm) of Ibn Hibat-Allāh (d.1760).

Select Safavid era Tafsir works

 Mullā Ṣadrām,  Ṣadr al‑Dīn Shīrāzī (d.1050/1640)

 The important Shī`ī, esoterically inclined tafsīr  works  and ḥikmat al‑muta`āliyya (Transcendent wisdom)  formulations of (Mullā) Ṣadrā al‑Dīn Shīrāzī (d.1050/1640) deserve mention (Peerwani, 1991‑‑>4.2).  His massive  irfā nī  (gnostic)  Tafsīr al‑kabīr  (Weighty Commentary) expresses something of an integration of Avicennan thought, the theosophy of Ibn al‑`Arabī and the ḥikmat al‑ishrāq   perspectives of Yaḥya Suhrawardī. Islamicate biblical citations can be found in various of his works including his commentary on the Uṣūl al‑Kāfī  (see Ch. 4.2). This integration was also furthered by Mullā Ṣadrā’s student and son‑in‑law Mullā Muḥsīn Fayḍ al‑Kāshānī (d.1091/1680)  whose Tafsīr al‑Ṣāfī fī tafsīr kalām Allāh al‑wāfī  (The Pristine Tafsīr...) was particularly influential1. So also the Persian and Arabic `irfānī  commentaries on select sūrahs  of the Q.  of the philosopher and polymathic pioneer of Judaeo‑Christian dialogue Sayyid Aḥmad al‑Alawī (d.c.1050/1650).  His works have been "considered to be one of the outstanding gnostic, theosophical commentaries in the Shī`īte world".2 Those relating to the bible and dialogue will be commented upon below (see Ch. 4.2).

`Abd `Alī al‑Ḥuwayzī (d.1112/1700).        

Various Akhbārī (`tradition centred’) Shī`ī commentators utilized and highlighted the importance of a non‑literal hermeneutic (EIr.1:716‑18; Lawson, 1993). On occasion they set down interesting interpretations to Q. rooted Isrā’īliyyāt materials as found in the traditions (akhbār ). Only  passing mention can be made here to such exegetes. They include `Abd `Alī al‑Ḥuwayzī (d.1112/1700), author of the Kitāb tafsīr  nūr al‑thaqalayn  (The Book of the Commentary on the Light of the Twin Weights).

Sayyid Hāshīm  al‑Baḥrānī  (d. c.1110 /1697).

Sayyid Hāshīm  al‑Baḥrānī  (d. c.1110 /1697) wrote the important  Kitāb al‑burhān fī tafsīr al‑Qur’ān (The Book of the Evidence in the Commentary on the Qur’ān).

 al‑`Āmilī al‑Iṣfahānī (d.1138/1726)

            The Mir’āt al‑anwār wa mishkāt al‑asrār fī tafsīr al‑Qur’ān (Mirrors of Lights and Niches of Mysteries in Commentary upon the Qur’ān) of al‑`Āmilī al‑Iṣfahānī (d.1138/1726) contains an extensive prolegomenon highlighting and expounding the deeper  hermeneutics of qur’ānic exegesis. Included in its extensive alphabetical glossary of key Shī`ite terms are expositions of many biblical‑qurānic figures including Gabriel, Adam, Abraham, Lot, Gog and Magog (Yājūj and Mājūj), Joseph, Israel (Isrā’īl), Solomon (Sulaymān) and Jesus. Corbin described this volume as "one of the monuments of Iranian theological literature, furnishing inexhaustible material for comparative research on the hermeneutics of the Book  among the "People of the Book"" (Corbin. EIr. I:931‑2; Dharī`a  20:264f., no. 2893; Lawson, 1993:195f).1 

     1Nasr, CHI 6:688‑690; Achena, EI2 Supp. `Fayḍ-i Kāshānī’, 305; Lawson, 1993:180ff.

     2 Abdurrahman Habil, IS 1:37+fn.59, 46; Corbin EIIr., 3:228 n. 58 cf.1:644‑646.