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Sidra 2

The Sidrat al-Muntahā in the Tafsīr and Tarikh of Abu Ja`far Muhammad ibn Jarīr  al-Ṭabarī (d. 310/922) and its Persian recreation by Bal`ami.

Stephen N. Lambden

Being updated and revised April 2014.

Abu Ja`far Muhammad b. Jarīr  al-Ṭabarī, (d. 310/922)

         The Tafsir  of the great Persian-born Sunnī Qur'ān commentator and historian Abu Ja`far Muhammad b. Jarīr  al-Ṭabarī, (d. 310/922) was foundational for many subsequent Sunni and Shi`i exegetes of the Qur'an. The Shi`i polymathic sage Muhammad Baqir Majlisi (d. 1111/1699/1700) quite frequently cites his commentary in his huge encyclopedia the Bihar al-anwar (Oceans of Lights). 

Commenting upon Q. 53:8 in this Tafsir entitled Jami' al-bayān 'an tā 'wīl āy al-qur 'ān  (The  Assembling of the Exposition of the Exegesis of the verses of the Qur'an)   al-Ṭabarī refers to a tradition relayed from Anas ibn Mālik about the night of the ascent or celestial mi`rāj. Gabriel is said to have ascended with the Messenger of God unto the seventh heaven such that they attained a level unknown to any except God. The Sidrat al-Muntahā appeared and thereby the Omnipotent  (al-jabbār) All-Powerful Lord (rabb al-`izzat) came close by and revealed what He willed to the Prophet about the obligatory prayers for the Muslim community (Jami' al-bayān, 13:45).  In the course of expounding Qur'an  53: 11 -- "His [Muhamad's] heart lies not of what he saw" -- al-Ṭabarī cites an Islamic tradition deriving from a certain Ibrahim ibn Ya`qūb al-Jūzjānī through (among others)  an `Abd-Allah (servant of God):

حدثنا إبراهيم بن يعقوب الجوزجانيّ، قال: ثنا عمرو بن عاصم، قال: ثنا حماد بن سلمة، عن عاصم عن رزّ، عن عبد الله، أن النبيّ صلى الله عليه وسلم قال: " رأيْتُ جِبْرِيلَ عِنْدَ سِدْرَةِ المُنْتَهَى، لَهُ سِتُّ مِئَةِ جَناح، يَنْفُضُ مِنْ رِيشِهِ التَّهاوِيلَ الدُّرَّ والياقُوتَ

The Prophet [Muhammad] ... said, "I saw Gabriel nigh the Sidrat al-Muntahā. He had six hundred wings and from his beard were shaken off  embellishments of  pearls and ruby (al-tahawīl al-durr wa'l-yāqūt)" (al-Ṭabarī, Tafsir, 13 [27]:60).

The vision of the Prophet was a vision of the amazing celestial form of Gabriel who is associated with the equally gigantic Sidrat al-Muntahā. This was a truthful glimpse of Gabriel whose wingspan, another tradition cited by al-Tabari had it, stretched between the East and the West of the cosmos (ibid).    

Certain hadith recorded by Ṭabarī, establish a suggestive parallelism between Moses' and Muhammad's visionary and auditory experiences of God.

         عن كعب أنه أخبره أن الله تبارك وتعالى قسم رؤيته وكلامه بين موسى ومحمد، فكلَّمه موسى مرّتين، ورآه محمد مرّتين...

In his Tafsir on Qur'an 53:13ff he records that the Yemenite Rabbi and convert to Islam  Abu Isḥāq Ka`b al-Ahbar (d. 32/652) informed a contemporary that  "God apportioned vision (ru'yat) of Him and converse (kallām) with Him between Moses and Muhammad. This  such that Moses conversed with Him [God] on two occasions and Muhammad saw Him on two occasions" (Jami` al-Bayān  [13] 27: 62-63; cf. Qur'an 53: 13b = "another time", implying two visions).  It was much disputed whether Muhammad actually saw God directly or his vision was an indirect encounter with Gabriel. The former viewpoint came to be rejected although a variant of the above tradition from Ka`b  associated with  `Abd al-Ḥamīd ibn Bayān (d. ADD) had it that while Muhammad saw God once, Moses conversed with Him twice:

قال: سمعت كعباً، ثم ذكر نحو حديث عبد الحميد بن بيان، غير أنه قال في حديثه فرآه محمد مرّة، وكلَّمه موسى مرّتين

"So Muhammad saw Him once  and He conversed with Moses twice" (al-Tabari, [13] 27: 62-3).

Moses' Sinaitic experience of God and/ or converse with God is contrasted with Muhammad's  Mi`rāj generated vision of His Lord or "one terrible in Power" (Gabriel?) (Qur'an 53:5b).  Muhammad, it seems to be presupposed,  had a more intimate visionary experience. al-Tabari records that commentaing upon Qur'an 53:11   the greatly respected Ibn `Abbas ( d. 68 / 687) affirmed the veracity of the Prophet's vision. :    قال ابن عباس قد رآه النبيّ صلى الله عليه وسلم.   "Ibn `Abbās said, `The Prophet -- may be blessings and peace of God be upon him -- did indeed see Him [God-Gabriel]

Commenting upon Qur'an 53: 14 =  عِندَ سِدْرَةِ الْمُنْتَهَى ("nigh the Sidrat al-Muntahā")  in his Tafsir al-Ṭabarī states:

  وقوله: { عِنْدَ سِدْرَةِ المُنْتَهَى } يقول تعالى ذكره: ولقد رآه عند سدرة المنتهى، فعند من صلة قوله: [ رآهُ  ] والسدرة: شجرة النبق. وقيل لها سدرة المنتهى في قول بعض أهل العلم من أهل التأويل، لأنه إليها ينتهي علم كلّ عالم   

 And His speech [in Q. 53:14], "nigh the Sidrat al-Muntahā";  He says, exalted be His mention, "And he indeed saw Him nigh the Sidrat al-Muntahā" ... And the Sidrat [al-Muntaha] is the tree of the nabq [Jujube Tree] (shajarat al-nabq). And it has been said regarding it, "Sidrat al-Muntahā, in the opinion of some of the educated among the exegetes (ahl al-`ilm min ahl al-ta`wil), is that at which the knowledge of every world terminates..." (Jami` al-Bayan,  13 27:63).

Following this al-Tabari records a tradition again stemming from the fountainhead of Isrā'īliyyāt  Ka`b al-Ahbar:

حدثنا ابن حُميد، قال: ثنا يعقوب، عن حفص بن حميد، عن شمر، قال: جاء ابن عباس إلى كعب الأحبار، فقال له: حدثني عن قول الله:  { عِنْدَ سِدْرَةِ المُنْتَهَى عِنْدَها جَنَّةُ المَأْوَى } فقال كعب: إنها سدرة في أصل العرش، إليها ينتهي علم كلّ عالم، مَلك مقرّب، أو نبيّ مرسل، ما خلفها غيب، لا يعلمه إلا الله.

"...Ibn `Abbas came unto Ka`b al-Aḥbar and said to him, `Transit for me regarding the utterance of God [in the Qur'an] " Nigh the Sidrat al-Muntaha (Lote-Tree of the Extremity"), nearby the Garden of Repose  (jannat al-māwā)" [Q. 53:14-15] and Ka`b said,`The Sidra was established at the base of the[Divine] Throne (fi asl al-`arsh). Before it terminates the knowledge of every world (`ilm kulli `alam), [like even that of] an Angel of the Proximity (malak muqarrib) [cf, the muqarrabin - Cherubim] or a sent Messenger (nabi mursal).  He [God] created it [ the Sidra Tree or knowledge beyons it] something unfathomable [hidden] (ghayb). None can comprehend it except God Himself". 

At this point al-Ṭabari records another  tradition again stemming from Ka`b al-Ahbar as relayed to Ibn `Abbās:

"Ibn `Abbās  came to Ka`b al-Aḥbar and said to him, "Narrate for me about the saying of God [in the Qur'an], ""nigh the Sidrat al-Muntahā, nearby the Garden of Repose (jannat al-māwā)" [Q. 53:14-15] whereupon Ka`b replied, "Such refers to a Lote-Tree (sidrat) at the foundation [base]  of the Divine Throne (fī aṣl al-`arsh). Thereat terminates the knowledge of every world [including]  an angel brought nigh unto God [cherub] (malak muqarrib) or a Prophet who is a sent Messenger  (nabī mursal). Whatsoever lieth beyond it is hidden for none knoweth it save God" (Jami` al-Bayan, 27:63).

Another similar tradition is recorded immediately after the above and again refers to the authority of Ka`b al-Ahbar:

                                   حدثني يونس، قال: أخبرنا ابن وهب، قال: قال أخبرني جرير بن حازم، عن الأعمش، عن شمر بن عطية، عن هلال بن يساف، قال: سأل ابن عباس كعباً، عن سدرة المنتهى وأنا حاضر، فقال كعب: إنها سدرة على رؤوس حملة العرش، وإليها ينتهي علم الخلائق، ثم ليس لأحد وراءها علم، ولذلك سميت سدرة المنتهى، لانتهاء العلم إليها.

We informed the son of Wahb [ibn Munabbih] [and] he said `I was informed by ..... that Ibn `Abbās asked Ka`b [al-Ahbar] about the Sidrat al-Muntahā and I was present [witnessing that] Ka`b said. "It is a Lote-Tree (sidra) above the heads of the bearers of the Throne. At it terminates the knowledge of all the creatures. It is thus not for anyone to claim knowledge of what is beyond it. Wherefore is it named the Sidrat al-Muntahā (Lote-Tree of the Extremity) for knowledge terminates about it".

وقال آخرون: قيل لها سدرة المنتهى، لأنها ينتهي ما يهبط من فوقها، ويصعد من تحتها من أمر الله إليها. ذكر من قال ذلك:

 Others, al-Tabari notes (see above), reckoned that the Sidrat al-Muntahā is so called because it "terminates whatever descends from above it".

Tabari on Qur'an 53:16  إِذْ يَغْشَى السِّدْرَةَ مَا يَغْشَى  

In context this verse reads in translation.                     

"[14] Indeed, he saw him another time by the Lote-Tree of the Boundary [15] nigh which is the Garden of the Refuge, when there covered the Lote-Tree that which covered; his eye swerved not; nor swept astray. Indeed, he saw one of the greatest signs of his Lord.

 The key root-verb gh-sh-a indicating, to cover, envelop, enshroud...  is also used in the oath opening the Surat al-Layl (The Surah of the Night, Q. 92) which commences:

وَاللَّيْلِ إِذَا يَغْشَى  وَالنَّهَارِ إِذَا تَجَلَّى

Arberry translates these two verses [my transliteration added] of Qur'an 92:1-2 as

[1] By the night enshrouding (wa'l-layl idha yaghshā) [2] and the day in splendour (wa'l-nahar idhā tajalla).

This is reminiscent of the biblical burning bush being "covered" or enveloped by the divine.


The Persian receation of al-Tabari's Tafsir by Abu `Ali Muhammad Bal`amī (d. 387/997) and others

        A very early Persian quasi-Tafsir work is the highly creative and Qiṣaṣ al-anbiyā' (stories of the prophets) oriented translation (actually a recreation!) of the abovementioned Jami` al-Bayān Tafsir of al-Tabarī . This was accomplished by a group of `ulamā including Abu `Ali Muhammad Bal`amī (d. 387/997)  for Manṣūr ibn Nūḥ (d.365/976), the Samānid ruler of Transoxiana and Khurasan who found the Arabic difficult. While the qur'anic Sūrat al-Nūr (Q. 24) all but becomes a Persian account of the `Slander of `Ā'isha' (Ayesha), the translation-recreation of the Sūrat al-Bani Isra'il (17) here named the Sūrat al-Isrā' (the `Surah of the Night Journey') and the (Per.) Sūrat-i Subḥān (Surah of Glorification) (see Q. 17:1 opening),  includes a quite lengthy and unusual account of the Mi`rāj of the Prophet (Bal`ami, Tafsir, 909-918). The Sidrat al-Muntahā is not mentioned in this extended and sometimes eccentric Persian  account of the ascent of the Prophet in which attention is often focused upon the "fourth heaven". Located therein the Sidrat al-Muntaha seems to be conflated with the  Shajarat al-ṭūbā (Tree of Blessedness) (cf. Q. 13:29): 

"And also in the fourth heaven I [Muhammad] saw all of the Spirits of the Prophets (hamih arvaḥhā-yi payghambarān) and saw and experienced the proximity therein of the Shajarat-i Ṭūbā (Tree of Blessedness) and Bayt-i Ma`mur (Frequented House)" (Tafsir, 914).

The Tarikh al-rusul wa'l-muluk ("The History of Prophets and Kings").

On al-Tabari and the `Sidrat al-Munataha' see below on the Tarikh al-rusul wa'l-muluk ("The History of Prophets and Kings").

The Tarikh al-rusul wa'l-muluk of al-Tabari

        Numerous other Islamic literatures contain references to the Sidrah and / or the Sidrat al-Muntahā as the following few examples must suffice to illustrate.  Many historical sources which deal with the mission of Muhammad have occasion to mention his Mi`raj and in so doing refer in various ways to the Sidrat al-muntaha'. Especially important in this respect is a passage in the  Tarikh al-rusul wa'l-muluk ("The History of Prophets and Kings") of  al-Ṭabarī  where there is account of the prescription of the first Islamic rituals prescribed by God, notably worship or al-salat (ritual prayer). This is followed by an account of the ascent of the Prophet to the seventh heaven, a version of the mi`rāj story in which the Sidrat al-Muntaha and its fruits are described. Qur'an 53: 16 on the covering or enveloping of the Sidrat al-Muntaha,  is explained in the light of its nearness  of God to the Sidrat al-Muntahā.

Then he took him to Paradise, and there before him was a river whiter than milk and sweeter than honey, with pearly domes on either side of it. "What is this, Gabriel?" he asked. Gabriel replied, "This is al-Kawthar, which your Lord has given to you, and these are your dwellings." Then Gabriel took a handful of its earth and lo! it was fragrant musk. Then he went out to the Sidrat al-Muntahā, [tr.127] which was a lote tree bearing fruits the largest of which were like earthenware jars and the smallest like eggs. Then his Lord drew nigh, "Till he was distant two bows' length or  nearer." Because of  [1159] the nearness of its Lord the lote tree became covered by the like of such jewels as pearls, rubies, chrysolites, and colored pearls. God made revelation to his servant, caused him to understand and know, and prescribed for him fifty prayers (daily).

W. Montgomery Watt & M. V. McDonald, the English translators of this volume of al-Tabari have a footnote (p.     fn. 127) at the above refernce to the Sudrat al-Muntahā

"The "lote tree of the utmost boundary" is spoken of in the description of Muhammad's second vision in Surah 53:14. The following phrase about being "distant two bows' length or nearer" is from verse 9 describing the first vision. Though many Muslim scholars associate the second vision with Muhammad's "night journey" or ascent to heaven, this is improbable since the main verse referring to tlu· "night journey" (17:1) was revealed about the middle of the Meccan period, while the passage 53:13-18 almost certainly refers to a very early experience."