The following is a pair of Muslim saints’ lives, included in a biographical compilation (Luṭf al-samar wa qaṭf al-thaman) by an early 17th century Ottoman author from Damascus, Najm al-Dīn al-Ghazzī, the scion of a prominent family of ‘ulama, and one of the more prolific Damascene authors of the first part of the 17th century. His biographical histories include many saints’ lives, with a special emphasis on holy men with whom he or his saintly brother Shihāb al-Dīn al-Ghazzī had contact. Perusing the pages of these collected lives, a veritable ecosystem of sainthood and sanctity comes to life, populated by individuals of striking piety and of often controversial actions and behavior. Sainthood was and is a deeply social phenomenon, particularly in the Ottoman world wherein no ecclesial or political authority offered canonical guidance in the question of who was and was not a ‘true’ friend of God. Rather, something of a consensus among devotees would emerge, often alongside challenges from other directions, concerning a given person’s sanctity and closeness to God.

In the first life which I have translated here, we meet an enigmatic majdhūb, or possessed saint, who displayed seemingly erratic and irrational behavior, interpreted by those around him as the manifestation of jadhb, or divine attraction. Like many such majadhīb, he seems to have come from a rural environment, and in lieu of complex doctrinal teachings, he manifested his sainthood through strange, even shocking actions. And like many such possessed saints, he deliberately transgressed social boundaries, in particular, strictures on gender segregation and contact. His companion, Dervish Ḥusayn, was also marked by his transgressing of social norms, in his case, through living for a time an extremely hermetical life, even refusing to speak directly to most pious visitors. Yet before we imagine a gulf between such ‘transgressive’ forms of sanctity and the scholarly ‘ulama class from which our author hailed, al-Ghazzī also describes the ties of members of the ‘ulama with these two saints. Dervish Ḥusayn, for instance, made an exception to his hermit’s life to discuss religious matters with al-Ghazzī and his shaykh.

Finally, these two lives, in addition to revealing aspects of the ecology of sanctity that animated the Ottoman world- not just Damascus, obviously- is also a poignant look at a natural disaster that hit the city and took the lives of both saints. The seventeenth century was a period of intense climatic flux across the Ottoman world, and indeed across Eurasia and North America. For already marginal ecologies and landscapes such as that around Damascus, the intense weather patterns often associated with this period of climatic instability could be quite tragic. Indeed, al-Ghazzī ends his life of Dervish Ḥusayn with a note of sorrow, a rather rare intrusion of emotion in a genre known for its workmanlike nature more than its emotional depth. Lives of holiness could generate social bonds among people otherwise quite distant, bonds whose emotional traces could live on long after the physical death of the holy person.


Ḥasan al-Sayyid al-Majdhūb, the believed in. It is possible that he was from one of the villages outside of Damascus. He entered Damascus and dwelt near the Umayyad Mosque, by Bāb al-Ghazāliyya, for two years, being provided for from the unknown realm of God (min ghayb Allāh), from what the people gave him as charity, they believing in him. Then he moved to the Yalbagha Mosque, below the Damascus Citadel, and dwelt near it. Then there was a day in which a man from the Mevleviyye, from the faqīrs of Molla Hunkār, sat near him. A cat came and received something from the hand of the Mevlevi, who then killed the cat. So Sayyid Ḥasan stood up and killed the Mevlevi! Then he was turned over to ‘Ali Ḥasan Pasha ibn Muḥammad Pasha the Vizier—who was then the nā’ib of Damascus—who asked him: ‘Why did you kill this man?’ He answered: ‘Because he killed my cat!’ So he released him due to his jadhb.

After this he moved to a garden, in the area of Arza, that was part of cultivated lands. A group of people from this area reported to me that in the wintertime the snow would not touch him when it fell, nor would it affect the place in which he was. He was not harmed by either heat or cold, summer and winter. The people sought to visit him here, come to him with food and drink, sometimes perceiving from him mystical unveilings. Next, he moved to the summit of Mount Qāsiyyun, dwelling in the Grotto of Scarcity, between the Grotto of Blood and the Cave of Jibrīl. Shaykh Ḥusayn al-Rūmī associated with him—he used to worship in that wadi before him for some two years—as well Shaykh Abu Bakr al-Dabbāgh, though he died before the other two of them, they remaining after him. The people, men and women, went up to visit the two, with many women believing in him. Sometimes they would unveil their faces and he would touch them, they receiving blessing through his touch. Sometimes women would seek him out in order to fulfill some need of theirs and it would be fulfilled. He was immersed, he neither rationally understanding nor being rationally understood. Disapproval from many fell upon him, the main object of the disapproval being the unveiling of women before him.

On Monday, the 13th of Ṣafar, in the year 1018 (May 5, 1609), the 8th of May (Ayyār), before noon, a cloud-mass came in which were roaring winds, strong thunder, and sheets of lightning. Then its clouds heaped up and grew denser, then great strong hail began to fall, the size of musket-balls, at three or four different points in time, concentrated on the Ṣālaḥiyya [Neighborhood] and the Mount, mostly on its western flank, much of it on the city of Damascus itself, to the point that courtyards and alleyways were filled with hail. The valleys of the Ṣālaḥiyya began to flood from the storm, particular the valley in which is the Grotto of Scarcity, the flash-flood sweeping along houses and tombs, many among the living dying, a group of buried dead being brought forth as if resurrected from the dead. Due to the force of that flood a deep channel was gouged out in that area, and great rocks were dislodged. Among those who were swept up and buried by the flood were Sayyid Ḥasan—the subject of this entry—and his companion the dervish Ḥusayn al-Rūmī. Sayyid Ḥasan was pulled out on Tuesday, the 14th of Ṣafar, the aforementioned year of 1018, and a massive crowd of men and women attended his funeral procession, the women being more numerous than the men, because they made up the greatest number of his devotees. Among those present were Shaykh Muhammad ibn Shaykh Sa’d al-Dīn, and his son ‘Īsa and his brother Sa’d al-Dīn. I prayed as imam for him and for the woman who died with him under the destruction brought down by the aforementioned deluge. Later that day, the dervish Ḥusayn was extracted, and was buried the following day in accordance with what will be mentioned in his biographical entry.

Ḥusayn al-Rūmī the Dervish, dweller on Mount Qassiyūn for two years. He came to Damascus as a young man, devoting himself to acts of worship. He frequented our shaykh, Shaykh al-Islam Shihāb al-Dīn al-‘Aythāwī, and would ask him about matters of religion. Then he secluded himself in a little cave near the Grotto of Scarcity on Mount Qassiyūn, retreating to it, narrowing its entrance upon himself. He would not go out to anyone who intended to visit him, so people would pay visitation to him from behind a veil. Our shaykh—God be merciful to him—used to make visitation to him, I with him, and he would come out to us and discuss various matters with the shaykh, asking him of religious matters that occurred to him, and he would give him indications in various sorts of acts of worship, our shaykh thus giving him instruction.

There was upon him the luminosity of obedience and the traces of sanctity. He remained in that state for two years, then Shaykh Abu Bakr al-Ḍabbāgh gathered to him and dwelt in the Grotto of Scarcity, the two coming together for acts of obedience to God. Then Shaykh Ḥusayn got married, and lived with his wife in a little house built for him nearby his cave, Shaykh Ḥasan the aforementioned joining with him subsequently.

When the flash-flood, mentioned in the entry on Sayyid Ḥasan, came, on Monday, the 13th of Ṣafar, in the year 1018, it picked up rocks of the valley, carrying them along and engulfing the house in which he lived, he and Sayyid Ḥasan being in the house along with a woman, the sister-in-law of Shaykh Husayn’s wife. They all perished under the rubble. Sayyid Ḥasan and the woman were pulled out Tuesday morning, and I prayed over them together as previously mentioned. Dervish Ḥusayn was not seen, only being found in the evening of the day, and pulled out. The next day, Wednesday, he was washed and shrouded, and our shaykh went forth for the prayers over him. It was not easy for me to be present at his funeral due to the love between him and I and my belief in him. He was buried alongside Sayyid Ḥasan on the summit of Mount Qassiyūn. God be merciful to him!

Najm al-Dīn al-Ghazzī, Luṭf al-samar wa qaṭf al-thaman, j. 1, 402-405, 416-417

The following is a translated excerpt from a work by an Ottoman scholar writing in the first half of the sixteenth century, Aḥmad ibn Muṣṭafá Ṭāshkubrīʹzādah. Ṭāshkubrīʹzādah wrote a number of works in Arabic and Persian (and perhaps in Ottoman Turkish-not sure on that though), including a tabaqat (biographical dictionary) on early Ottoman ‘ulama (scholars). All of the scholars have some sort of connection to the emergent Ottoman state structure, either as salaried teachers or muftis, judges in shari’a courts, or as waqf administrators. Many of the members of the ‘ulama Ṭāshkubrīʹzādah considers, however, were Sufis or otherwise mystically inclined, such as the scholar treated in the biography below. In fact, there is no sharp division between “mysticism” and the more “exoteric” religious sciences and practices. Indeed, as this example also shows, these scholars could reconcile, at least notionally, both exoteric, even secular demands, and more mystical impulses and desires.

There is a lot going on in this entry (which is richer in personal details than the majority of Ṭāshkubrīʹzādah’s entries-here, the richness is due to Ṭāshkubrīʹzādah’s personal connection to the subject), but I will only note one other aspect: the treatment of the central Islamic discipline of Qur’an interpretation. On the one hand, we see a very practical concern: Muhyi al-Din’s creation of a sort of introductory text-book for people new to the discipline (and, in the Ottoman context, people who would be unlikely to have any form of Arabic as their first language). On the other hand, we also see a deeply mystical approach to interpretation, reminiscent of some rather radical forms of Sufi hermeneutic and exegetical practice. Both of these “exoteric” concerns (Baydawi’s commentary is hardly mystical stuff) and a deeply, even controversially, mystical approach to exegesis seem to have coexisted for this scholar. I will leave it to the reader to imagine what all this might mean for how we think about the early Ottoman ‘ulama, and perhaps the ‘ulama as a “class,” particularly in relation to “mystical” groups and ideologies.

And among them is the Knowledgeable, the Doer, the Virtuous, the Noble, Mulla Muhyi al-Din Muhammad ibn al-Shaykh the Knower of God the Exalted Maslah al-Din al-Qujawi:

He read under the ‘ulāma of his land then joined to the service of Mulla al-Fadil ibn Afdal al-Din, then became a teacher in the madrasa of Khawajeh Khayr al-Din in Constantinople, and married the daughter of Shaykh Al-‘Arif bi-Allah al-Shaykh Muhyi al-Din al-Qujawi. Then the call of retreat and seclusion overwhelmed him, so he abandoned teaching, with a salary of fifteen dirhams per day in the way of retirement being appointed to him. And he sought to have it decreased, saying, “Ten dirhams is sufficient for me.” And he remained in his house, busying himself with exalted knowledge and worship. He was modest and humble, satisfactory in way of life, praiseworthy in behavior, and was beloved of the people of soundness. He used to purchase his necessities in the market himself and bear them back to his house himself, with the people wanting to serve him, but he was not satisfied unless he carried it out by his own hand, modest towards God and harsh on the lower self. And he used to transmit tafsīr in his mosque, sons of the land gathered to them, seeking to listen to his words, seeking blessings for themselves; many benefited through him. He wrote a marginal commentary on Baydawi’s tafsīr, containing and uniting in one place the benefits that were variously scattered in the books of tafsīr, with clear, easy interpretations in order to benefit the beginner. He wrote an explanation of al-Waqā’i fi al-Fiqh, an explanation of al-Farā’id al-Sarajia, an explanation of al-Muftāh lil-‘Alāma al-Sakākī, and an explanation of the famous qasida al-Burda. He died in the year 950 (1543).

He said, may God be merciful to him, “If a verse from the verse of the Magnificent Qur’an gives me difficulty, I turn to God—exalted is He—then my heart is widened until the measure of the world and the rising of sun and moon in it- I do not know which of the two is which. Then a light appears so that there is a guide to the Preserved Tablet—then I take from it the meaning of the verse.” He said—may God be merciful to him—“If I act according to firm intention, I do not desire sleep unless I am sleeping in the Garden. And if I act according to permission, this state is not present in me.” And he used to have great love towards this lowly servant [the author]. And he [the author] was part of a group that did not vaunt him and did not choose the appointment of judgeship without direction from him. And he had bid me to it [judgeship], and he related to me that one of his sincere companions had been a judge, had left judgeship for a time, then re-entered judgeship—and he was a sound, truthful man. “So I asked him about the cause of his re-entry, and he replied: ‘I had, through my judgeship, a connection to the Prophet of God, peace and prayers be upon him, and I saw him in a dream once every week. Then I left judgeship in order to increase nearness to him [Muhammad]. But after abandoning judgeship I did not see what I had seen while a judge. Then I saw [in a dream] the Prophet of God, peace and prayers be upon him, and said to him: “O Prophet of God! I abandoned being a judge in order to increase my closeness to you—but it has not transpired as I had hoped.” Then the Prophet of God, peace and prayers be upon him, said: “The relationship between me and between you was stronger during [your] judgeship than when you abandoned it, because you, when you were a judge, were occupied with the well-being (aslāh) of your self and of my community, but when you abandonded judgeship you were only occupied with the well-being of your self. When you increase in well-being (aslāh) you increase in proximity to me.’” The mercifully protected Mulla said: “I speak the truth of his words, and the man was truthful. So I advise you that you choose the judgeship and do good to your self and to others.” These are his words—may his secret (sirruhu) be hallowed.

Aḥmad ibn Muṣṭafá  Ṭāshkubrīʹzādah, Al-Shaqāʼiq Al-Nuʻmānīyah Fī ʻulāmāʼ Al-Dawlah Al-ʻUthmānīyah (Bayrūt, Lubnān: Dār al-Kitāb al-ʻArabī, 1975), 245-6.

Continued from last week’s post, the tafsir of al-Tabrisi on the 108th surah of the Qur’an, Surah al-Kawthar. Previous posts:

Part One

Part Two, ii.

I must apologize for the somewhat more provisional nature of the following translation. As I have marked in a couple of places with [?], I was rather stumped by some more intricate bits and odd vocabulary usage. This second half of the surah’s commentary has several issues of liturgical usage that assume the reader’s prior knowledge, and hence this block of commentary probably feels more opaque than the previous one. It continues themes of integrating the Qur’an with wider Islamic belief and practice, both by bringing incidents from the traditional account of the life of Muhammad to bear on the verses, and by seeking to understand them in light of Islamic ritual practice. And as with previous examples, we see a lot of multivalency. A word like al-nahr- which I have largely translated ‘sacrifice’- is in fact not so simple, and is interpreted in a wide number of ways here. It can even come to mean a particular hand arrangement in prayer- which at first glance seems a long ways from its standard lexical meaning. Our author, like many commentators, tends to avoid giving his definite opinion, and instead usually lets various understandings stand as equally viable solutions.

[v. 2]

‘So pray to your Lord and sacrifice.’ God enjoined upon him [Muhammad] thanksgiving for the exceedingly great grace, in that God said: ‘so pray’ the prayer of the festival, because He followed it up with the sacrifice, that is, ‘and sacrifice’ your sacrifical animals- this according to ‘Atta’, ‘Akrima, and Qatāda. Ans ibn Mālik said: the Prophet of God, peace and prayers of God be upon him, used to sacrifice before he prayed, so [God] commanded him to pray [first], then sacrifice. And it is said: the meaning of ‘So pray to you Lord’ is the obligatory prayer of early morning with the addition of ‘and sacrifice’ the body in [the valley of] Mina, according to Sa’īd ibn Jabīr and Mujāhid. Muhammad ibn Ka’ab said that people used pray to other than God and sacrifice to other than God, so God, Exalted is He, commanded His Prophet, peace and prayers of God be upon him, that his prayer and his sacrifice be through the body [?] a means of approach to Him and purely devoted to Him. And it is said: the meaning of ‘So pray to your Lord’ is the written prayer and the facing of the qibla with your sacrifice. And the Bedouin say: ‘Our camps engage in intercine fighting (tatanāhir),’ that is, those slaughters those, meanings he faces him. And [the poet] recited: ‘Abū Hakm- are you the uncle of Mujālik and master of the people of al-Ibtāh of intercine strife?’ That is, some slaughtered some, and this is the opinion of al-Fara’a.

As for what is related on the authority of ‘Alī, that its meaning is ‘Lay your left hand upon the right, opposite the sacrifice during the prayer’: it is not sound, because all of its pure transmitters have related it alongside a differing [opinion], which is that the meaning is ‘lift your hands before the sacrifice during the prayer.’ On the authority of ‘Umar ibn Yazīd: he said: ‘I heard Abū ‘Abd Allāh say regarding His saying “So pray to your Lord and sacrifice”: “It is the lifting up of your hands in front of your face.”’ And ‘Abd Allāh ibn Sanān related similar reports.

And on the authority of Jamīl: he said: I said to Abū ‘Abd Allāh, “So pray to your Lord and sacrifice,” and he said, “With his hand, like this”- meaning, facing the qibla with his hands before his face during the opening of the prayer.’ And on the authority of Hamād ibn ‘Uthmān: he said: ‘I asked Abū ‘Abd Allāh, “What is ‘the sacrifice’ (al-nahr)?” He raised his hand to his chest, saying, “In this manner.” Then he lifted them above [his chest], saying, “In this manner.” Meaning, the facing of his hands towards the qibla during the opening of ritual prayer. And it is related, on the authority of Muqātil ibn Jayān, on the authority of al-Asbagh ibn Nabāta, on the authority of the Commander of the Muslims [‘Alī]: ‘When this surah was sent down, the Prophet, peace and prayers of God be upon him, said to Jabrīl: “What is this sacrifice that my Lord has commanded to me?”’ He [Jabrīl] said: “It is not a slaughtered sacrifice; rather, He commanded you, when you enter into the state of ritual purity for the canonical prayer, that you lift your hands when you exclaim ‘God is great,’ when you makes raka’as, when you raise your head from the raka’as, and when you bow down.”’ Verily, it is our ritual prayer, and the prayer of the angels in the seven heavens. For if there is for everything an ornament, then the ornament of ritual prayer is the lifting of the hands at every exclamation of ‘God is great!’ The Prophet, peace and prayers of God be upon him, said: ‘The raising of the hands is part of submission (al-istikāna).’ I [‘Alī?] said: ‘What is submission?’ He said: ‘[It is mentioned in] the recitation of this verse: ‘So they do not submit to their lord, nor submissively seek Him.’ al-Tha’alabi and al-Wāhid relate this in their commentaries.

[v. 3]

‘Verily, he who hates you, he is cut-off.’ Its meaning is that the one who despises you, he is cut off from good things, and he is al-‘As ibn Wā’al. And it is said: its meaning is that he is most diminished, most humiliated, by his being cut off from every good, according to Qatāda. And it is said: its meaning is that he has no son in reality and that whoever is ascribed [as being related] to him is not through his son. Mujāhid said: ‘The cut-off’ (al-abtar) is he who has no progeny, and it is an answer to the saying of Quraysh: ‘If Muhammad (peace and prayers of God be upon him) has no progeny, he will die, and we will finally be relieved of him and his religion will be obliterated, and if no one remains to follow his summons, his order is cut off.

And in this surah are indications of the sincere truthfulness of our Prophet, peace and prayers of God be upon him, and of the soundness of his prophecy:

The first of them: that he could relate what was within the souls of his enemies and what proceeded from their tongues, and that did not attain to him, but it is incumbent upon what he related [ie, it befell his enemies as opposed to him].

The second of them: that He said: ‘We gave you al-kawthar,’ so He manifested how his religion expanded, his command was exalted, his descendants increased until his lineage was greater than every other lineage, and there is nothing of that in this state [of being cut off].

The third of them: that all of the eloquent people of the ‘Arabs and the non-‘Arabs have failed to produce anything like this surah, in regards to the conciseness of its utterances within its bounds. They have desired its [ie the Qur’an’s] nullification since the Prophet, peace and prayers of God be upon him, was sent, up to this the present day- and this is the aim of the inimitability [of the Qur’an].

The fourth of them: that [God] promised [Muhammad] aid against his enemies, and related to him their downfall and the cutting off of their religion or progeny. The intrinsic significance regarding what is reported by Him in this concise surah is from the similarity of the sections to the divisions and ease of the exits of the particles [?] through the beauty of the combination and the receptivity of each of its meanings by what He displays through that which is not hidden to he who is aware of the interworkings of the speech of the ‘Arabs.

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.}

Another singular little story from the Kitab al-Futuwwa of the thirteenth century Sufi al-Ardabili; this one is one of the odder stories I’ve come across, and that’s probably saying something. I think the moral is that, first, delicacies are bad for spiritual health, as the immediate context is warnings (through rather more clear stories) against indulging in ‘soft’ living. However, I suspect that the story could also be a parable about the transitory nature of this-world (al-dunya). Maybe.


Abu ‘Abdallah al-Rudhabari said: Abu Ali bought a load of white sugar, and called a group of confectionists, and they made from that sugar a wall out of sweets, and upon it were balconies, and in the wall were mihrabs [carved] in columns and with variegation of colour- all of it from sugar! Then he called to the Sufis so that they might raze it, smash it, and pillage it.



Sweetmeat sellers in the street alongside Qarawiyyin Mosque, Fes, Morocco. The brightly coloured sweets you see here are the sort I imagine (though don’t know, not being up to speed on thirteenth century candy-making….) composing the wall in the story- if so, they were pretty tought to tear down, as these things are quite a task to eat!