Ritual Purity and Buddhists in Modern Twelver Shi'a Exegesis and Law


This paper offers some preliminary notes on the position of Buddhists in Shi'a legal and tafsir (exegesis) discourse with particular emphasis on Muhammad Husayn Tabataba'i's treatment of the subject in his al-Mizan fi Tafsir al-Qur'an. The author concludes that although Tabataba'i introduced some novel elements in Shi'a tafsir relating to the identity of Sabians in the Qur'an, his description, knowledge and assumptions of Buddhism were taken from third-hand sources and were mostly elementary and often incorrect. A study of al-Mizan is nevertheless important as Tabataba'i's views on Sabians and Buddhists set the tone for all later Iranian Shi'a exegetes. This exegetical position is legally significant as it reinforces the position that Buddhists are not to be identified with the Qur'anic Sabians and are thus excluded from any possible kitabi status despite the fact that some Imami jurists may have considered the Buddha to be a divinely sanctioned prophet. This exclusion has the potential to complicate relationships in marriage or other forms of social contact due to ritual purity laws.