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Qur'anic Hermeneutics: Al-Tabrisi and the Craft of Commentary (review)

From: Journal of Shi'a Islamic Studies
Volume 5, Issue 4, Autumn 2012
pp. 473-480 | 10.1353/isl.2012.0060

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This monograph, which began life as a doctoral dissertation, purports to describe the form and function and the process and method of Qur'anic commentary by selecting specific topics and passages from the mediaeval Shi'a Qur'an commentary Majma' al-Bayan li-'Ulum al-Qur'an of Abu 'Ali al-Fadl ibn al-Hasan al-Tabrisi (d. 548/1154) thereby using it as a case study.

Fudge writes that the choice of this commentary lies in its significance as occurring at a crucial juncture of Shi'a Islamic intellectual history, breaking away as it does from past Shi'a commentarial forms, which concentrated specifically on doctrinal issues whereas Majma' al-Bayan deals with every aspect of the Qur'anic text. Further, this study observes that Majma' al-Bayan has much more in common in terms of method, content and sources with Sunni commentaries, citing Imami Shi'ism's adoption of many principles of Mu'tazilism as the reason for such commonality, though the author does note that the same qualities can already be seen in an earlier Shi'a Qur'an commentary, namely, al-Tibyan of al-Tusi (d. 460/1067). The author also cautions that this study is neither a comprehensive study of Majma' al-Bayan nor that of its author.

The study of the form and function of Qur'anic commentary is undertaken in the first two chapters of this work while the study of its process and method takes place in the third and fourth chapters. However in the first chapter, the study of the form and function of Qur'anic commentary is undertaken from a general perspective - that is, from beyond the sectarian tradition to which Majma' al-Bayan belongs while in the second chapter, the same concerns are studied from within the sectarian tradition to which Majma' al-Bayan belongs.

Beginning with a discussion of 'scripture' and 'commentary', Fudge contends that a scripture is scripture because of the community which holds it sacred and which has a relationship with it, which helps maintain its scriptural status. One way that such a relationship between community and scripture is actualized, observes Fudge, is by the exercise of scriptural commentary of which Qur'anic commentary is an example. Hence the primary function of scriptural commentary is to maintain the scripture's scriptural status, and it fulfils this function in several ways such as emphasizing the special circumstances of its origins; exploiting scriptural content in theology, law, jurisprudence, rituals, liturgy and other areas; maintaining certain assumptions regarding the scripture such as its coherent and logical arrangement, internal consistency, and lack of superfluity and other inconsistencies; maintaining that its contents are profound and morally acceptable and using various strategies to maintain these assumptions such as symbolism, allegory, chronograms, and numerology, as well as suggesting that there are multiple meanings to it or different understandings of it. All the aforementioned, writes Fudge, which attempt to maintain a scripture's scriptural status, are fulfilled via the exercise of scriptural commentary. Thus Fudge simultaneously delineates the function of scriptural commentary and the ways in which such function is fulfilled.

There then follows a study of the forms of Qur'anic commentary during which Fudge endeavours to point out how some of the above-mentioned ways necessary to help preserve the scripture's scriptural status are actualized in the tradition of Qur'anic commentary. This study is carried out in light of a brief historical study of the development of Qur'anic commentary by considering a range of commentaries from the earliest to those authored before the twentieth century. Here, Fudge observes that the earliest commentaries had two main concerns: lexical and contextual; and he illustrates these with examples, observing that the earliest commentaries focused on small units of verses without considering the broader meaning of the verses or the implication of whole clauses. Their method of exegesis was periphrastic while drawing on reports from the Prophet and the earliest Muslims. Later, philological analysis was introduced to Qur'anic commentary and by the tenth century the entire Qur'an rather than specific passages was the subject of exegetical consideration, in the style of a line by line exegesis, and including materials of recent...

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