Divine Illustrations: A Reflection on Allegories in the Qur’an

In this Qur’an We have presented every kind of illustration for people but man is more contentious than any other creature (Q. al-Kahf, 18:54).

Comparisons, allegories, and examples from the world around us are used in the Qur’an by God to not only illustrate a point, but evoke emotion.  These examples enrich the lessons, by associating a concept (like resurrection) to the world around us (like plant life after rainfall); and through them higher meanings become more familiar and recognizable. Yet, human beings, who are the most contentious of creatures, do not always reflect.  Led instead by passion—and the seeking of lower desires—human beings become blind to not just these examples within the Qur’an, but also the world around them from which these examples are drawn.  They do not witness the signs (ayāt) in the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of night and day.  Nor do they recognize the examples within the Qur’an (like those following) but, instead, ask “by this what does God mean?”

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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.

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