Encountering Tabataba’i

Encouraged by Dr. Ingrid Mattson, and my own interests in wanting to better understand the broader Islamic tradition, I decided to read and review a book on tafsir (Qur’anic commentary) composed by one of the Shi’a tradition’s most erudite scholars: ‘Allamah Sayyid M. H. Tabataba’i. Here is my, a Sunni Muslim’s, summary and reflection…

The Qur’an in Islam: It’s Impact & Influence on the Life of  Muslims, by ‘Allamah Sayyid M. H. Tabataba’i, trans. by Assadullah ad-Dhaakir Yate (Texas: Zahra Publications, 1987), 118 pages.

Written in Persian with the intension of being translated for an English-speaking audience, The Qur’an in Islam attempts to “make Shi’ism better known in the Western world” (p. 9). It was written by, as Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr relates in the book’s Forward, “one of the great masters of the traditional sciences in Iran” (p. 10). The author, ‘Allamah Sayyid M. H. Tatataba’i, was born in 1903 (or 1892) into a “distinguished family of scholars” (p. 10) and spent most of his life as a student, and teacher, of Islamic sciences. Tabataba’i was a prolific author and despite the hindrance of eye-problems that plagued him until his death in 1981, he continued to write books and articles on the Islamic sciences; especially on the subject of Islamic Philosophy. Through his later life and parallel to his other works he continued to write what would later become a “monumental commentary” on the Noble Qur’an, his Tafsir al-Mizan; a massive twenty-seven volume work (in Arabic, but also translated to Persian) which he “completed in his mid-seventies” (p. 11). The Qur’an in Islam, is considered to be a “synopsis of [that] major commentary” (p. 11).

Only being 118 pages (including the Forward and Index), Tabataba’i does not attempt to convey every point from his voluminous commentary, rather he distills it down to five key elements (separated into chapters): 1) The Value of the Qur’an in the Eyes of the Muslims, 2) The Teachings of the Qur’an, 3) The Revelation of the Qur’an, 4) The Relationship of the Qur’an to the Sciences, and 5) The Order of the Qur’an’s Revelation and the Growth of the Qur’anic Sciences. Though much of the text does deal with the role of the Qur’an in the life of a Muslim, much more of it is focused upon hermeneutics; that is, the methodology through which a text is interpreted. Tabataba’i makes clear in the introduction that the “purpose of this work is to define the position of the Qur’an in such a way that the Holy Book explains itself, rather than giving our own opinions concerning it” (p. 15). This is of course a difficult, if not impossible, position to manifest for any person and, while well-intentioned, one which I do not believe he presents. However, The Qur’an in Islam is still an excellent introduction into the Shi’i approach to the Qur’an, providing for its reader a rational, albeit brief, analysis of some very intricate hermeneutical debates between Sunni and Shi’i Muslims.

The opening chapter, on value of the Qur’an in the eyes of Muslims, begins with an appeal to the reader stating that “[the human being] has no other aim in life but the pursuit of happiness and pleasure” (p. 17), and that this aim directs a human beings every action (whether they realize it or not). Through a masterful stringing together of this point with Qur’anic verses Tabataba’i illustrates that the Qur’an appeals to an innate nature (fitrah) within all of us that can only be nurtured, and thus truly happy, by following the program that it was created for (i.e. Islam). By use of analogy Tabataba’i compares the life of a human being to that of a plant “emerging from a single grain in the earth” and aware of its “future existence” (p. 19) as an ear of wheat, or a walnut tree. While growing, these seedlings do not imitate each other, but rather emerge from the soil in a fashion directed by their own “distinct inherent characteristics” (p. 19). If a human being follows the plan that has been laid out before them, nurturing their innate nature with the following of revelation, they will achieve the moral characteristics that are distinct and inherent within their own design.  The author then concludes that the plan that is laid out for humanity is derived from the Qur’an, and immediately follows this with the appropriate verses of the Qur’an to confirm the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ as a messenger of God.

Chapter Two, the largest chapter of the book, is inaccurately titled “The Teachings of the Qur’an”; it may be more aptly titled “Shi’ite Approaches to Qur’anic Hermeneutics”. Within the thirty-five pages of this chapter Tabataba’i summarizes twenty theological points concerning the interpretation of the Qur’an, such as: its universal application, its perfection and eternal quality, its inner and outer meanings, the explicit (muhkam) and the implicit (mutashabih) verses, the history of Qur’anic commentary, and the use of Imams as authoritative sources of insight. I will only address two of these points. The first, and possibly the most interesting, is the inner and outer dimensions of the Qur’an. It is here where the author most digressed from his stated intention to convey the Qur’an by itself without “giving [his] own opinions concerning it”.  He has, however, succeeded in explaining clearly his own positions.

Tabataba’i relates that “each man has a different capacity of understanding and since the expounding of subtle knowledge is not without danger of misinterpretation, the Qur’an directs its teachings primarily at the level of the common man” (p. 31). To support that beneath this meaning there are other more subtle, and deep, interpretations Tabataba’i cites the thirteenth surah al-R’ad (The Thunder) verse seventeen which says: He sends down water from the sky, so that valleys flow according to their measure. Within the context of this argument the verse offers a beautiful analogy implying that each person (i.e. valley) has varying levels of capacity to understand revelation (i.e. the water from the sky). However, his use of it is based itself upon an interpretation of its inner meaning, the very practice he is trying to deem permissible through citing this verse. Contemporary philosophy would call this “begging the question”. Nevertheless, the use of this verse as an analogy for one’s capacity to learn is a beautiful one.

The second, and most uniquely Shi’i approach, is his discussion of the commentary of the Imams (from the family of the Prophet) as authoritative. Unfortunately Tabataba’i does not provide his evidence for this practice until half-way through the book- though he has referred to it throughout the text. It would have made more sense to move this discussion earlier in the book. As one not familiar with this conception I was genuinely interested in the evidence he would provide, however the only proof he presented was the thirty-third surah al-Ahzab (The Confederates) verse 33 which says: God’s wish is but to remove uncleanliness from you, O people of the Household, and clean you a thorough cleaning. Though he does present other verses to assist the understanding of this verse, I do not find the interpretation convincing. I am still left wondering why the Prophet’s family (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him and his family) should have any greater authority–let alone absolute authority–as Qur’anic exegetes over any other pious and learned Muslim.

In his third chapter, “The Revelation of the Qur’an”, Tabataba’i responds to some orientalist assertions concerning the Qur’an and also some of their more skeptical views pertaining to certain critical points of Islamic theology. Here Tabataba’i conveys his understanding of the orientalist perspective and impressively presents a rationale for one’s submission to revelation over intellect. He states that “The intellect, which recognizes the existence of God, cannot refuse the law. It will always decide in favor of that which revelation demands of man” (p. 79). This is because the “believing man will recognize the importance of the revelation over any personal matter” (p. 80).

The fourth and fifth chapters deal directly with the history of the Qur’an, or more particularly the assembling of the mushaf (the written Qur’an) and its oral and written transmission. Many discussions are given here like the Asbab al-Nazul (occasions of revelation), chronological order of the surahs, the protection of the Qur’an from corruption (which may be surprising to many Sunnis), and the Qira’at (differing recitations of the Qur’an). Tabataba’i does offer some wonderful analyses between both Sunni and Shi’a considerations of what can be used from this historical tradition to help us better understand the Qur’an, like a more critical view of the Asbab al-Nazul narrations and the order of revelation.

Overall I enjoyed this opportunity to expand my knowledge of Shi’i thought through reading this text. I also came to understand better why this particular scholar is respected and greatly revered. I found his arguments intelligent, even while some points did appear lacking.  That being said, ‘Allamah Sayyid M. H. Tabataba’i’s work The Qur’an in Islam does prove a good read for those interested in better understanding a Shi’i approach to the Qur’an.

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