June 2010

The tafsir of al-Tabrisi, continued, this time from the largest section, dealing with the overall ‘meaning’ of the surah. Below is his interpretation of the first verse; the next two will follow in a few days.

On the Meaning (al-ma’anā)

[v. 1]

God addressed His Prophet regarding the enumeration of His benefit upon him, saying, ‘We gave to you al-kawthar.’ They [the exegetes] differ regarding the interpretation of al-kawthar: it is said, it is a river in Paradise. On the authority of ‘Aisha and ibn ‘Umar, ibn ‘Abās said: ‘When [the surah] ‘We gave you al-kawthar’ descended (nazalat), the Prophet of God, peace and prayers of God be upon him, ascended the minbar and recited it to the people. When he descended (nazala), the people asked: “O Prophet of God, what is that God gave you?” He replied: “A river in Paradise, whiter than milk, straighter than an arrow shaft, its brim is [made of] domes of pearl and sapphire. A green bird returns to it which possesses necks like the necks of the long-necked camel.” They said: “O Prophet of God, what are the benefits of this bird?” He replied: “Have its benefits not been reported?” They replied: “Nay.” He said: “Whoever eats this bird and drinks the waters, he attains the good will of God.”’ And it is related, on the authority of Abū ‘Abd Allāh, that he said: ‘A river in Paradise, He gave His Prophet, peace and prayers of God be upon him, as compensation for his son.’ And it is said: it is the basin of the Prophet, peace and prayers of God be upon him, upon which the people on the day of the Resurrection are more numerous than a gift.

And ’Ans said: ‘One day the Prophet of God, peace and prayers be upon him, provided for us a clear and certain proof which he manifested to us when he was taking a nap then lifted his head smiling. So I said: “What made you laugh, O Prophet of God?” He replied: “There just now descended to me a surah,” then he recited Surah al-Kawthar, then said, “Do you understand what al-kawthar is? We replied: “God and His Prophet know!” He said: “It is a river which my Lord has promised to us, upon it is goodness in abundance; it is my basin to which my community will return on the day of the Resurrection. Its vessels are of the number of the stars of heaven. Then the horn [of the angel of the Resurrection] will stir them, and I will say: O Lord! Verily they are my community. He will say: ‘You do not know what they brought about after you.’” [This hadīth] is related by Muslim in the Sahīh.

And it is said that al-kawthar is abundance of good things, according to ibn ‘Abās, ibn Jabīr, and Mujāhid. And it is said that it is prophecy and the Book, according to ‘Ikrama. It is said it is the Qur’an, according to al-Hasan. It is said it is abundance of companions and adherents according to Abū Bakr ibn A’īsha. It is said it is abundance of descendents and progeny; that is, the abudance of his progeny is manifested from the sons of Fātima, so that their number is without reckoning, and He joined to the day of the Resurrection the prolongation of them. And it is said it is intercession, as related by al-Sādiq and al-Lafaz. And all [of what has been mentioned] is possible, so it is incumbent that one tolerate all that is mentioned from the various opinions (al-aqwāl)- so God, exalted and glorified is He- has given him abundance of good (al-khayr al-kathīr) in this world and promised him abundance of good in the Other World, and all of these opinions are an elaboration of this summation- that it is abudance of good things in the two worlds.


Surah al-Kawthar is one of the short, somewhat enigmatic final surahs of the Qur’an. Despite its brevity, it contains several matters that proved to be of abiding interest to medieval exegetes: curious vocabulary (including two hapax legomenons), somewhat odd syntax, and the common Qur’anic problem of what feels like a background narrative informing the surah. However, as is so often the case in the Qur’an, no narrative is actually supplied by the text; no context at all is forthcoming in the text itself. It was the task of medieval exegetes to supply an informing narrative to explain the ambiguity of these short verses. Thus within a short space the exegesis of Surah al-Kawthar provides an excellent example of many of the concerns and techniques of medieval Muslim commentators. It also presents a concise introduction to the problems of translating and interpreting the Qur’an, and how those two concerns intersect. I will be presenting here, over the next few weeks, several samples of medieval exegesis dealing with this surah, drawn from a wide range of commentary styles. My hope is that this selection of material will provide interested readers with a taste of some of the many ways in which medieval Muslims interacted with their sacred text. And while I am not as conversant with contemporary Muslim approaches to the Qur’an as I am with medieval approaches, modern Islamic commentary on the Qur’an tends to be much more in continuity and in conversation with the medieval tradition than, say, most contemporary Christian approaches to the Bible. Hence an understanding and appreciation of medieval Islamic exegesis is arguably key for better understanding between contemporary Muslims and non-Muslims, particularly between those of us who also have sacred scripture and its community-based interpretation at the center of our faith and practice.

My choice for an introduction comes from the Qur’an tafsīr (commentary) of Fadl ibn al-Hasan al-Tabrisī (b. 470/1077-8, d. 548/1154), the Majma’ al-Bayān fī al-Tafsīr al-Qur’ān. Al-Tabrisī (sometimes vocalized al-Tabarsī) was an Imani Shi’a, but his tafsīr drew extensively upon ‘mainstream’ Sunni traditions, and represents a culmination of the classical Sunni tafsīr tradition that had been taking shape for several centuries before. His tafsīr makes for a good introductory text due to both its mid-point location in the medieval exegetical tradition, and because of his acute sense of organization. Helpfully, al-Tabrisī divides his material into sections according to the exegetical content. Hence particular grammatical or syntactical issues are given their own section; differences in voweling of the text are assigned a section; and the overall ‘meaning’ of the text is given the (usually) longest section. I have done my best at rendering the grammatical explanations into English; these are, for me, more difficult both to understand and even more so to translate. Nonetheless, these somewhat obtruse matters are vital parts of Qur’an tafsir. Indeed, grammatical exegesis was, for some medieval exegetes, the chief function of tafsīr, a concern that becomes more understandable in light of the emerging doctrine of the inimitability of the Qur’an. In contrast, in some ways, to the concerns of many medieval Christian exegetes, the specific linguistic content and nature of the Qur’an was generally of extremely high importance to Muslim commentators, resulting in very close attention to the intricacies and obscurities of the text’s grammatical and syntactical workings. The fact of the Qur’an’s being in Arabic was not incidental for the Muslim exegete; rather, it was fundamental to his understanding and interpretation of the text.

Closely related to concerns of grammar and syntax, issues of vocabulary are somewhat easier to convey in English, but still present a challenge. For instance, in this surah, the stand-out word is the eponymous term al-kawthar, which I have left untranslated everywhere it appears. My reason for doing so should become clear: there is no consensus what this Qur’anic hapax logomen means. According to some authorities, it means ‘abundance [of good]’; for others, it is a place in paradise- either a river, or a basin of water. And then there are more interpretations: by the fifteenth century, al-kawthar had been assigned almost every imaginable signifaction from the conceptual world of Islam. Al-Tabrisī provides the reader with many of them, instead of trying to reduce the tradition to a manageable homogeny, he presents the somewhat over-grown feeling diversity of interpretations. This ‘decentralized,’ multivalenced quality is in fact central to the nature of the tafsīr tradition, and is not simply due to editorial timidity on the part of a given exegete.

As for the other issues that arise in the context of this sample of tafsīr, I will address them point-by-point in my ‘super-commentary’ on the tafsīr. My comments appear in {brackets}. I have divided al-Tabrisī’s exegesis into two halves, the first of which is below, the second of which I will post in the next day or two. Also, in conjunction with this project, I am developing a bibliography and a glossary of terms, both of which will address the history of Qur’an interpretation and wider issues of medieval exegesis, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish. And as always, if you have a question, comment, or correction, please let me know.

Fadl ibn al-Hasan al-Tabrisī. Majma’ al-Bayān fī al-Tafsīr al-Qur’ān. Volume 4. Qum: Maktabat Āyat allāh al-‘uzma al-Mar’ashī al-Najafī, [1983]. 548-550.

Surah al-Kawthar

[This surah is] Mekkan, according to ibn ‘Abās and al-Kalbī. [It is] Medinan according to ‘Akrima and al-Dahāk, and it is three verses in toto.

{Surahs, fairly early on, came to be grouped according to their reputed place of revelation: either Mekka or Medina. However, as evident from what al-Tabrisī tells us, there was often lack of agreement on the correct provenance.}

On Its Virtue (fadluhā):

According to the hadīth of my father, whoever recites it [the surah], God will give him to drink from the rivers of Paradise, and He gives of the wage according to the number of each sacrifice the servant presents Him in the day of ‘Eid, and they draw near to the people of the Book and the associators. Abū Basīr, on the authority of Abū ‘Abd Allāh, said: whowever recites ‘Verily, we gave you al-kawthar…’ in his obligatory prayers and in his superogatory prayers, God will give him to drink on the day of resurrection from al-Kawthar, and his spokesman is Muhammad.

{The ‘virute’ of a surah is a relatively late component of the tafsīr tradition that seems to have become ‘mainstream’ in the eleventh century, though not without dispute. The shorter surahs especially would come to be associated with all sorts of gracious benefits that God would bestow upon whoever recited them. Some of the benefits, as here, are directly related to the content of the verse; others, particularly the final very short surahs, would convey the same spiritual (and perhaps temporal) benefits as reciting the entire Qur’an. This somewhat magical use of the Qur’an was not limited to recitation: amulets and other incantational devices were prescribed by quite orthodox ‘ulama, including as rigorous a man as ibn Kathīr, disciple of the hardline reformist ibn Taymiyya.}

On Its Interpretation (tafsīruhā)

God condemns in this surah the one who abandons ritual prayer and forbids almsgiving, and He mentions in this surah that those who did that lied to him [Muhammad], so He gave to [Muhammad] plenteous good things and commanded him with the observance of the ritual prayer, saying: ‘In the name of God the compassion, the merciful: Verily, we gave to you al-kawthar, so pray to your Lord and offer sacrifice; verily, the one who hates you- he is cut off.’

On the Vocabulary (al-lugha)

Al-kawthar is [of the pattern] fū’al from [the word] al-kathira, and it is the thing which is, in this matter, in abudance- al-kawthar is abudance of good things and gifts, in two aspects: the gift of conveyance of property, and the gift of other than the conveyance of property. So He gave him al-kawthar, [that is] He gave him conveyance of property just as He gave the wage, and it originated in a gift which one gives when one receives [something]. And the one who hates (al-shānī’) is the hateful one, and the ‘one cut off’ (al-abtar), it originated from the ‘cut-off’ donkey. And he is cut off, sinful. And in the hadīth of Zīyād: he delivered a cut-off address, because he did not praise God in it and did not pray for the Prophet, peace and prayers be upon him.

On the Expression (al-a’rāb)

And [the imperative verb] ‘sacrifice,’ its object is omitted, that is, [it would be] ‘Sacrifice your animal intended for sacrifice,’ just as the pronoun is omitted in his saying ‘They are the clan that envy slows down,’ that is, envy slows them down, that is, that they are connected to slowness. As for the His saying: ‘The one who hates you, he is cut-off’: the missing syntactical element is ‘not you,’ that is, ‘he is the one cut off, not you,’ because he mentioned you, significantly, in the nominative. ‘I mentioned:’ I mentioned with me [?] and ‘divided, cut-off,’ are predicates of a nominative clause.

{I am unclear on the final sentence of this passage; however, the basic gist of this passage should be clear. Al-Tabrisī senses that for some of the surah’s clauses certain elements seem to be missing, a common occurrence in the Qur’an. Hence supplying missing syntactical elements (taqdīr) would become a central concern of most exegetes; sometimes the missing elements are fairly obvious and unproblematic. Elsewhere the exegete can considerably modify the sense of the text by supplying what he deems to be missing- which may or not be the case here.}

On the Sending Down (al-nazūl)

It is said that this verse descended regarding al-‘As ibn Wā’al al-Sahmī, that he saw the Prophet of God, peace and prayers be upon him, leaving the mosque (al-masjid), then the two encountered each other at the door of the Banu Sahm and spoke with each other. And people of Quraysh were sitting in the mosque and when al-‘As entered they said, ‘Who were you talking with?’ He replied, ‘The cut-off one (al-abtar).’ Before this, ‘Abd Allāh, the son of the Propeht of God, peace and prayers be upon him, had died (and he was the offspring of Khadīja). And they used to call whoever did not have a son ‘cut-off’ (abtar), so Quraysh called him ‘cut-off’ and ‘one who cuts off’ due to the death of his son, according to ibn ‘Abās.

{As I mentioned above, many verses of the Qur’an seem to have a story of some sort behind them, either as part of the structure of the verses, or as a story lurking behind them, as here. Medieval exegetes sensed a need for narrative in both the narrative absences and elipses, and in the seeming narrative behind a verse’s revelation. The latter- the ‘why’ of a verse’s revelation- fits in a particular category, asbāb al-nuzūl, ‘causes of revelation.’ In this case, the story about Muhammad’s mocker al-‘As explains why the enigmatic third verse was revealed: as a clever rebuke. Not all verses, or even most verses, have asbāb al-nuzūl, and as we will see in the next installment, there are other ways a verse can be inserted in a narrative.}

The following are two fatwas- legal opinions issued by a mufti, a Muslim jurist qualified in both knowledge and application of Islamic law- from a multi-volume collection of fatwas of Maghrebi, Andalusian, and Ifraqian origin. The collection was compiled in the fifteenth century, but the fatwas apparently range in dates. Unfortunately, the editorial apparatus gives little indication of exact date or place of origin; only in certain cases does internal evidence provide clues to those sorts of things. However, these fatwas are filled with interesting insights into both the process of Islamic law in the Muslim Far West and into the concerns and exigences of these communities (for instance, in these, dermatological problems…). I hope to translate and share several more sets of fatwas from this collection in the coming weeks and provide a taste of both of these aspects, and hopefully shed some light on the how and why of medieval Islamic legal reasoning and concerns.

So here is the first fatwa I’ve selected, followed by my commentary. I should warn you, however, the subject matter is a little, well, icky:

[Scratching Scabbies in the Mosque]

Sīdī Ahmad al-Qabāb asked about a man who had many scabies on him (bihi jarab kathīr), so that when he went to the mosque for ritual prayer he itches them so that the skin peelings (qushūr) of the scabbies fall off in the mosque, and he is not able to desist from that. Is it permissible for him to enter the mosque or not?

He answered: I did not find any text about this! (lam ajadu fīhā nassan) But if he prays outside the mosque with their prayers if he is capable, it is a precautionary for him.


This first fatwa is quite short, and the mufti does not provide us with a great deal of transparency in his legal reasoning for his opinion. But it raises a couple of important issues in medieval Islamic law: first, questions of ritual purity and bodily propriety. As we will see from the second fatwa, the fact that our unfortunate scabies sufferer is not only scratching vigorously but transgressing the ritual space of the masjid with his skin peelings is a problem- or at least our mufti thinks it is a problem, with the condition that he has found nothing written about it. That is, and this is the second important issue raised here, he can find no legal precedent that addresses this problem. While he doesn’t tell us as much here, the succinct opinion he gives is built on analogy with other rulings concerning bodily propriety and the transgression of ritual space with bodily fluids and other forms of ritual impurity. This process of analogy from previously established cases to a new one is one of the central elements of Islamic law, and part of the flexibility and multi-valency of the legal process.

[More on Scratching]

Sīdī ‘Abd Allāh al-‘Abdūsī asked about a man with an itch during ritual prayer, so that he scratched a lot on account of that, but did not interfere with either the words or external actions of the ritual prayer. So should he start the ritual prayer over or not?

He answered: As for itching during ritual prayer, if on account of necessity it occurs to him in that he is incapable of desisting, and if the pain would distract him if he did not itch, then [scratching] is permissible to him and he does not impair his ritual prayer, unless he greatly prolongs [the scratching] or it distracts him so that he does not know what he is praying- then his ritual prayer would be voided. But if necessity does not compel him, but rather he scratches purely out of pleasure, that is disagreeable. And in the Traditions six [things] are from Satan, that is, on account of him, and scratching is mentioned [among them]. So then, if he prolongs greatly or it distracts him so that he does not know what he is prayer, he ought to start over, and if not, then no.

I said: The master, God’s mercy be upon him, did not discourse about what fell from the skin peelings of the scabbies due to this scratching since he wasn’t asked about that. But the answer for Sīdī Ahmad al-Qabāb has preceded it earlier in this volume.


Here we see, not concerns with ritual purity as such, but with the intention and action of ritual prayer. The question is: does this man’s persistent scratching invalidate his prayers? The scratching would invalidate his prayers, our mufti says and the questioner implies, if it was so intense that he could no longer pay attention to what he was saying and thus would be unable to register the significance of the words. In other words, the validity of ritual prayer is contingent on one’s active cognition of it. Mere repetition without registering is not enough; mumbling through the words while being overwhelmed by a wave of itching would necessitate stopping and resuming later- presumably once one’s itch had subsided… However, in the interest of what a Christian canonist might refer to as economy, some distraction, if it cannot be avoided, is permissible, provided one can still keep his mind (mostly) on prayer.

On the symbol of the ministry of the saints that is to be seen in the natural world:

1. An illustration of what is hidden in seedlings can be seen through the labours which the saints and (other) godly persons endure in themselves for the sake of God. For under the ordinary appearance of (seeds) at the time when the land is tilled April’s own transformation keeps hidden the abundance of ineffable transformations and the beauty of the various variegated colours which it will (in due course) bring out and display, as a wonderful vesture and adornment for the earth that had been nurturing the (seeds) within itself.

2. This symbolic significance which can be recognized in tiny seeds holy people engrave spiritually in their minds when their ministry is depressing and darkened, as a demonstration that the Creator’s power will be made known in them, and they wait expectantly to see in themselves, as a result of the strength of these ordinary labours, an ineffable transformation which will become perceptible as a result of (or, after) them, through the workings of the Holy Spirit which they will receive subsequently in accordance with the progress of their ascetic conduct.

St. Isaac of Nineveh, ‘The Second Part,’ Chapters IV-XLI, trans. Sebastian Brock, in the CSCO, vol. 555.