Dr. Peter Riddell delivered a lecture on Tafsir during a CIU course. Here, Riddell presents the Tafsir principles within Islamic exegesis and different styles within Tafsir literature. 


 Here starts the auto-generated transcription of Dr. Peter Riddell’s Lecture: Tafsir (Pt.1):


Welcome back to understanding the Quran. We’re going to turn our attention now to the question of commentaries on the Quran, known in Arabic as tafsirah Quran. The word tafsir, t a f s I r, is a term that you need to be familiar with. It refers to exegesis or commentaries, and you’ll hear it often used in connection with this course. Now before we consider commentaries on the Quran, I’d just like you to take a moment to think about commentaries on the Bible.


What commentaries do you have? What commentaries did you study if you studied theology in a seminary? What, were the commentaries? Were the biblical commentaries that you consulted? Were they ancient commentaries?


Were they modern commentaries? What different kinds of commentaries on the Bible have you encountered? How would you differentiate between them in terms of style? They are all important questions in connection with biblical studies. And the same sorts of questions, occur in terms of the study of the Quran as well, in terms of the study of tafsir, al Quran, exegesis of the Quran.


Now what I’d like to do is I would like to begin, this lecture by looking at a few general principles of tafsir before we actually look at some commentaries. I hope you’re keeping in touch with the Moodle page because you will see on the Moodle page that, I have uploaded quite a number of different commentaries, different, Muslim commentaries on the Quran. And they’re listed as tafsir ibn Abbas, tafsir atustari, and so forth. You have quite a number of them listed there. Now we will delve into those commentaries shortly.


Before we do so, I would like to first talk about principles of commentary writing, principles of exegesis on the Quran. Now Andrew Rippon is an important scholar on this topic, he has written a lot about the study of the Quran and exegesis of the Quran and Ripon identifies a traditional division of Islamic commentaries into 5 different types. First, there are the traditional, the tradition based commentaries, the Arabic is Tafsir bin Mathur, that is those commentaries that draw draw very heavily on the traditions, on the Hadith accounts for the common commentary task. Secondly, there are the dogmatic commentary, says Ribbon. Those are the commentaries that draw more on rationalist, speculative kind of thinking.


We’ll look at some examples of that in due course. There are also mystical commentaries, commentaries produced by Sufi mystics. There are sectarian commentaries, commentaries produced by people belonging to certain sectarian groups, perhaps Shiite commentaries, and then there are modern commentaries produced in the mod the modern period. Now we’ll look at examples from of all of those. A very good book on this topic is the book by Jane McAuliffe called Quranic Christians, an Analysis of Classical and Modern Exegesis.


And what McAuliffe does in this book is she looks at the how the commentaries deal with Christians, with narratives about Christians that occur within the Quran. Now what does McAuliffe have to say? Well, she observes that in the case of Koranic exegesis, classical and modern tafsir is essentially coherent and homogeneous. The classical, the commentaries written 100 of years ago, over a 1000 years ago, and the commentaries written today are largely coherent and homogeneous, she says. That’s very interesting.


There are limited numbers of hermeneutical principles, limited numbers of techniques and methods of commentary writing in the Islamic materials. And she says that modern exegetes are fully conversant with their classical predecessors. In other words, there’s a straight line of transmission and dependency from classical to modern. Now this is very different from the biblical context where there have been many commentaries written down the ages, but modern commentators don’t necessarily ground their commentary by referring to the classical commentaries. It’s a very different principle.


And that difference derives from essentially different perspectives on the authorship of scripture. For Muslims, Muslims believe that the Quran is God’s word, God’s direct word, the words of God directly transmitted by Mohammed without change. And therefore, Muslims are very very cautious about commenting on that word that is considered to be the actual speech of God. In the case of the Bible, the Christian view of the Bible is that the Bible is an inspired text recorded by people under inspiration. Now that allows for a greater measure of evolving Christian engagement with the text according to contemporary context and environments.


So I’ll just like you to digest that. I’d like you to think what kinds of questions in that context, given the caution of Muslims for dealing with the text, what kind of questions might be inappropriate for Muslim exegetes, whether classical or modern? Just think about that. The fact is because early Muslim scholars were cautious in dealing with the Quranic text because the Quranic text was seen as God’s direct word, there was great conservatism in the exegetical process. In writing commentary on the Koranic text, Muslims were very, very cautious.


You find this quote by Abu Abu Bakr, the early the very first caliph we encountered him, in an earlier lecture. And he said, which sky could provide me with shade and which earth could bear me if I were to say something concerning the book of God, which I do not know. In other words, pity me if I were to say something about the Quran, which I would do which I do not know, if I were to speculate without knowing. So you get the sense of caution in dealing with this question of commenting on the Quran. And this this caution, this conservatism in commenting on the Quran was very prominent in the very early centuries of Islam and even applies today as well.


Now it was ultimately resolved by the identification of a hadith, which stated that whoever interprets the Quran according to his own light will go to hell. In other words, every interpretation had to be traceable to Mohammed, not to the individual commentator. No personal judgments were permitted and only linguistic explanations were acceptable. And what that really meant was that the only form of commentary on the Quran that was acceptable in the early years was use of the Hadith on the Quran. I do encourage you to obtain Jane McAuliffe’s book if you’re interested in this topic, if you’re planning to write an assignment on this topic.


And she says in approaching, exegesis of the Quran, it’s important to have an understanding of Koranic chronology. And the principal commentaries are tafsirmusalsal. In other words, what that means is chain commentaries, the the the method of commentary writing that was established from right up until the modern day is a little bit of a Quran is given and then a commentary, a little bit of a commentary. So a bit of Quran followed by a bit of commentary like a chain. Quranic chronology is a very important concept to understand as well.


Now McAuliffe restates this this point, really, when she says that Koranic Koranic commentary writing, except Sufi writing, is remarkably cohesive and continuous body of discourse, fully preoccupied with an established range of concerns and considerations. And this is the big point of departure with Christian commentary writing on the Bible. Christian commentary writing has a sense of dynamic evolution, changing with the times to address changing context, not being bound down by preceding methods and so forth. That’s a dynamic process. Whereas in the case of commentary writing of the Quran, new commentaries owe much to their predecessors, to former generations of commentators.


John Wansbrough, who we encountered in an earlier lecture, writes some interesting things about the study of commentary writing in the Quran as well. He also came up with a categorization for different kinds of commentaries, and he uses, terminology which, is probably best translated. He says that there are 5 kinds of Koranic exegetical works, 5 kinds of commentaries. There are narrative commentaries. There are legal commentaries.


There are textual commentaries. There are rhetorical commentaries, and there are allegorical commentaries, says Wansbrough. And he undertook a major task, really, of surveying a whole different set of commentaries and he came up with these elements or procedural devices as he calls them, which occur across 5 different exegetical styles. So he set out in front of him a whole range of different commentaries on the Quran and asked what are the component features of these commentaries, and that is a list of them, Variant readings, proof texts, lexical explanations, grammatical explanation, and so forth. It’s interesting to consider that list of elements within Quranic commentary writing in the light of what elements are present in biblical commentary writing, how many of these issues occur in Bible commentary.


One of the books which I have given a link to on the Moodle page is this book by Ahmed von Denfer, Uluma Quran. And we encountered this book when we were discussing, translation of the Qur’an. Now this is an important work also in the context of, commentary writing of exegesis of the Quran. So as we take stock and as we move ahead with this topic, I do want you to be not simply studying the Islamic materials, but asking for points of connection and disjuncture between Islam and Christianity, between the Quran and the Bible? How does this material on the commentary writing on the Quran square with commentary writing on the Bible?


As a Christian, how will you respond to some of the claims of Muslim commentators? That question will be unpacked as we go along in succeeding lectures. Welcome back to understanding the Quran. We’re continuing on with our, consideration of commentary writing on the Quran. Tafsir al Quran.


Remember that word tafsir, exegesis or commentary writing. What I’d like us to do now is to turn our attention to actual commentaries, and we’re going to get a taste as to some different styles, some excerpts from the different commentaries. Now as I said in the last lecture, I’ve included on the Moodle page links to the key, Islamic Commentaries, that we’re going to be referring to. And, we will draw on those as we go through these slides now. Now the first kind of commentary writing which I want to deal with are those commentaries that draw very heavily on hadith or narrative for the commentary task.


Those commentaries that in explaining a Quran verse decide to do so by telling a story or by quoting a hadith rather than engaging in philosophical thinking. So these are the narrative and the hadith based commentaries. Let’s go back to the very early years. This commentator by the name of Muqhatil ibn Suleiman, he died in 765 AD. Now that’s about 133 years after Mohammed.


So this is these are early times. And let’s cast our mind back to our discussion in the earlier lecture about the Hadith. Remember that the Hadith collections were canonized in the 800. So this man died in 765 before the canonization of the Hadith collections. So think about what that means.


If he used Hadith before they’d been canonized, questions might be asked about some of the hadith that he used because the canonical collections were not yet available. Now on the Moodle page, I’ve uploaded a a document which includes commentary on the first chapter of the Quran, surah 1. So I’d like you to stop the recording now and read that link, that page. Get a feel for style. Look to see how he’s using hadith.


Ask yourself questions about the feel of the commentary, its stylistic features? Is it narrative? Is it hadith based? Do you get a sense of any philosophical thinking? Make notes as you go through.


We’re going to be looking at quite a number of excerpts from different commentaries and it’s a good idea to be taking notes of your impressions as you read each one as you go along to try and get a sense as to evolving commentary style because this is what happened in Islam. The very early commentaries depended very heavily on story and on hadith. And later on, the later commentaries brought in philosophical thinking as we shall see. Let’s move on to the next commentary. That is the tafsir of Atabari.


Now this is a great watershed moment in Islamic history. At Tabari was a great early scholar, and his great commentary really does represent a watershed moment in the history of Islamic commentary writing. His style is very hadith based. He explains the Quran by use of the hadith. That’s what he tends to do.


He died in 923. So this is still fairly early, though, 300 years after the death of Mohammed. But, of course, unlike the previous commentator, this man died after the Hadith had been canonized and so he was able to draw on the respectable canonical collections of Hadith. Therefore, his commentary is regarded as quite respectable. In fact, it’s a it is a significant commentary in the history of the field.


He was a very significant man. He lived in Baghdad. His significance was such that he even had a a law school named after him. He was part of a great conflict that took place at the time, between a group called the Mu’tazilites and the Hadith followers. I will say more about that later.


But he was a champion of the use of hadith, and he stood against those early Muslims that wanted to engage more in a reasoned philosophical speculative kind of approach to writing commentary on the Quran. They were the, and we’ll talk more about them later. And his commentary is entitled the collection of explanations for the interpretation of the Quran. He also wrote a great history, a history of the world called the history of messengers and kings. And it presented itself as a history of the world from creation until his time, until 915 AD.


And it’s been translated into English in 39 volumes. Now his inclination towards historical writing in part explains his inclination to use of the hadith in his commentary writing. He wasn’t a philosopher. He was very much a historian. He was a Hadith expert.


That was his style in his two great works, his Koranic commentary and his great history. Now what I’d like you to do is, again, to stop your recording and to look at a sample of Tabari’s exegesis, which is presented in the book by Helmut Gachi, the Quran and its exegesis, published in 1996, pages 123 to 125. That those pages present a translation of Tabari’s commentary on chapter 5 of the Quran verses 114 and following. As you read that, ask yourself, does it differ in any way, stylistically, from the earlier commentary we saw by, or does it feel much the same? What’s going on in the cometary star?


This was the period of narrative, really. It was a this was the heyday of hadith based or narrative based commentary writing on the Quran. And this was the safe approach to exegesis in this early period at a time when Muslims were very cautious about writing commentaries on the Quran because they were afraid of being seen to write something that was from them and not from Mohammed. So narrative commentaries and deep based commentaries were very popular. Now John Wansbrough, as we saw in the earlier lecture, considers narrative exegesis to be the very earliest type of exegesis.


And I’m now going to look at 3 great narrative commentators. The first one I’m going to look at has recently been the subject of a of a detailed study by Walid Saleh, who wrote the book, the formation of the classical Tafsir tradition, focusing on the Quran commentary of Athalibi. Athalibi, that’s the name of this particular commentator. He died in 10 1035 AD. So it’s still early days, 400 years after the death of Mohammed.


His approach was very narrative based. His commentary was entitled in English, translated as unveiling and clarifying the interpretation of Quran, And he draws very heavily on stories of the prophets. Now I’d like you to hold that idea because we’re gonna be talking in detail about stories of the prophets in a couple of lectures. But he, again, he draws on stories. It’s narrative.


His commentary has been somewhat controversial as we see in this statement by a Muslim scholar, Abu Abu Ghaffar ibn Ismael al Farisi, who says that Athalabi’s commentary contained many traditions and many sheikhs names. But there are some scholars who considered that it could not be trusted, and its reporting was not reliable. Why is that? We’ll talk about the reason in a couple of lectures. But there is some suspicion among some Muslim scholars about the narrative style of commentaries for reasons that we will discuss shortly.


Now the commentator we just considered, athalaby, produced a commentary which formed the basis of the next one we’re looking at. That is the tafsir al Bahawi. Al Bahawi. Al hossein, ibn Mas’ud, ibn Muhammad, al Alema, Abu Muhammad al Farah al Barawi he based his commentary very much on the comment the previous commentary that we considered. He also was interested in traditions.


He wrote a collection of traditions and his commentary is entitled the signposts of the revelation. But it also has been quite controversial. This man died in 11 22 AD. And some of the criticisms have come from people like ibn Taymiyyah, who wrote, Bahawi’s commentary is a bridge from that of athalibi, but he safeguards his commentary from inferior traditions and heretical opinions. Al Qattani is not as persuaded.


He says they can be found in it doctrines and anecdotes, which can be judged by their weakness or shallowness. Again, we find some suspicion coming from some scholars about the narrative based approach to commentary writing. Why is that? We’ll consider that shortly. But in the meantime, I’d like you to stop the recording and to read an excerpt from this commentator from that’s available on the middle page where there is a translation of his commentary on surah 18 verses 75 to 79.


Again, as you read, ask yourself how the style compares to the previous examples that you looked at of exegesis. We come now to yet another narrative commentator, and yet again, we find that this commentator depended on the last one that we saw. And in fact, they were sort of like a chain of of transmission where one commentator who died in 10 36 left a commentary which formed the core of another commentator who died in 11/22, who left his commentary, which became the core of this commentator who died in 13 40. So you can see the interdependence of the story based narrative style of commentaries. This, commentator’s name is Al Khazin.


He wrote a commentary which can be translated as the core of interpretation in the meanings of revelation. His commentary is is quite widely used. It has had quite an impact in Southeast Asia, in Indonesia, Malaysia down the centuries. It’s also found in collections of manuscripts in India. It’s been quite a significant commentary.


And in many ways, this commentary by Alkazin is the window into the whole narrative style of commentary for many Muslims because it records what the previous commentators did and makes them available to the masses. That’s an important commentary. But it also, of course, is subject to suspicion, And we hear this in the, statement of this modern writer, Adhabi. He read Al Khazin’s commentary, and he said, I read a great deal in this commentary, and I found that it made mention in detail of the Istrah Iliad. Hold that idea.


We’ll come back to that. There was much which Al Khazin copied from many commentaries which were concerned with this matter, such as the commentary by and others. But he mostly does not comment on that which is cited from the Israelite nor does does he look at it with the eye of a discerning critic. On a number of subjects, he passes on from the story without clarifying for us its weakness or falsehoods except on rare occasions.