Commentary (Arabic sharḥ, Ott. Turk. şerh) was one of most widely used forms of textual production in the early modern Ottoman world, and indeed in the broader late medieval and early modern Islamic world (and beyond- commentaries were popular across pre-modern Eurasia in many scholarly and literary traditions). Islamic manuscript libraries are filled with commentary after commentary, as well as super-commentaries (commentaries on commentaries), both frequently featuring marginal comments added by authors, scribes, or later readers. Related to but distinct from the genre of Qur’an commentary (tafsīr), a sharḥ (pl. shurūḥ) could potentially be used to explicate, argue with, modify, interpret, allegorize, or otherwise engage with almost any sort of text in almost any field or genre, though ‘canonical’ texts from the distant and recent past were the most common objects. It was not uncommon, however, for an author to produce a commentary on an important work he himself had written, sometimes as a sort of ‘package deal.’ Commentary was so dominant that there are examples of parodic commentaries, such as the expansive, and deeply scatological one contained in the 18th century work of Yusuf al-Shirbīnī Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abū Shādhūf Expounded.
Commentary literature has often been overlooked or outright scorned in modern-day appraisals of medieval and early modern Islamic literature and knowledge systems, in part because the genre, while still in existence, is far less central to modern-day cultural and intellectual life and thus does not appear to us as especially interesting or significant. Reading through an example of this commentary literature is often not particularly easy, or interesting, and can be rather dry, sometimes excruciatingly so. The abundance of commentaries and super-commentaries on everything from philosophical treatises to poetry collections has often been used as an example of the ‘decay’ and ‘decadence’ of ‘post-classical’ Arabic intellectual and cultural life. However, on closer analysis- which some scholars of Islamic history are increasingly beginning to do, myself included– the genre (or rather, genres) of commentary writing are much richer than first glance would suggest, and beyond their immediate content, the social role of commentary was quite important. These texts were not just exercises in detached scholarship, but played roles akin in many ways to modern forms of electronic communication, especially social media.
The following story, which I’ve selected and translated from a hagiographic and polemical work by the eighteenth century scholar, Khalwatī sufi, and saint Muṣṭafá al-Bakrī (1688-1749), provides an excellent glimpse into the social role of commentary production, as well as some other particularities of early modern Ottoman life. In order to remain close to the topic at hand, I have interspersed my translation with commentary. We begin with al-Bakrī’s description of the usual way of life of the saint in question:
[Shaykh Aḥmad ibn Kasaba al-Ḥalabī al-Qādirī] loved retreat and solitude apart from people, being constantly turned instead towards God. I used to hear about him and greatly desired to meet him so as to derive benefit from him, but when he would come from his journeys back to Damascus he would not open his door to the flow of visitors.
Embracing seclusion, even strict seclusion, has long been a feature of holy men and women in Eurasia and no doubt beyond. It is interesting to think though about the potential symbolism in an Ottoman context: retreat into one’s home identifies the solitary with the private, regulated interior of the home, a space often coded as female–but also redolent of sultanic inner space and privilege. Shaykh Ahmad goes further in restricting visitors: further along al-Bakrī notes that for a little while the shaykh had accepted people, multitudes coming to receive his baraka, but when some people showed up looking to test Shaykh Ahmad’s saintly powers, the saint once again retreated into his home, admitting only close friends.
From among those who did have firm companionship and beneficial love with him was our brother in God Shaykh ‘Abd al-Raḥman al-Summān, God grant him a place of clemency. Once it occurred to him to tell [Shaykh Ahmad] about the coming of Shaykh Qāsim al-Maghribī. So [Shaykh Ahmad] said to him: ‘I would like for you to take these three lines of verse for him to provide commentary on them:
Purify yourself with the water of the Unseen (al-ghayb) if you possess a sirr/ If not, betake yourself to the highlands, to the desert.
Go before an imam, you be his imam/ Pray the dawn prayer in the first of the age,
This is the prayer of the knowers of their Lord/ So if you are from among them, soak the land with the sea!
On the second day he came with the commentary (al-sharḥ). Then [Shaykh Aḥmad] meditated on it, was pleased with it, and so met with him.
Certain points of interest stand out here: first, Shaykh Ahmad uses both poetry and commentary as means of establishing a relationship with a newcomer, while simultaneously testing the new saintly shaykh’s own capacities and sanctity. The poem itself- which I’ve translated rather literally here- is a fairly forward demand that Shaykh Qāsim demonstrate that he belongs to the ranks of the ‘knowers of God’ (sirr, or inner ‘secret’ or innermost self, is a related concept). The request that the new shaykh write a commentary on these verses provides Shaykh Qāsim an effective means of responding to Shaykh Ahmad’s interrogation-from-a-distance.
Poetry was a form well given to social use: poetic forms across the pre-modern Islamic world encouraged interaction, primarily through additions and imitation and citation, in this reflecting many other pre-modern poetic traditions (haiku was the result of an especially social-interactive poetical context, for instance). Commentary, as it turns out, could have a similar function: it allowed the writer to both establish a relationship with the commented upon text and the text’s author, while also including his own thoughts and arguments, in addition to demonstrating his mastery of whatever genre or type of knowledge involved. Analogous contemporary instances could range from Reddit boards to long Twitter essays and threads to such genres as fan fiction. All depend on complex social uses and engagements with texts, often in stylized forms and settings. While explication is important, just as important are the relationships forged, the displays of mastery and skill and humor put on, polemical points scored, and so forth.
Commentary as a demonstration of mastery figures into the second anecdote from the life of Shaykh Ahmad, which comes a little further along from the above:
[Shaykh Ahmad] had memorized the Book of God, and was proficient in knowledge rational and traditional. He would become immersed in a spiritual state and would so sometimes confuse the person listening to him.
A virtuous person who used to frequent the shaykh’s presence related to me that he used to meet with him and hear him speak in ungrammatical Arabic. [This person said]: ‘I said to myself, “It’s as if the shaykh doesn’t know Arabic!”’ Then [Shaykh Ahmad] pointed to me and said, “God be merciful to al-Ajurrūmī,” and mentioned a story about him. He added, “I wrote a commentary on the Ajurrūmiyya, in accordance with the exegencies of the Folk.” He then engaged me in a refined discussion of the science of grammar such that I was utterly amazed!’
The tension between knowledge and the performance of disordered language or immersion in ecstatic states runs deep in the history of Islamic sainthood. We see it here, as well as the shaykh’s saintly powers of knowing someone’s passing thoughts. More apropos to our subject, however, is the way that Shaykh Ahmad responds to that passing thought: the Ajurrūmī he refers to is Abū ‘Abdallah Ibn Ajurrūm (1273-1323) a Maghribi scholar of grammar who lived and died in Fes. He wrote a quite short but incredibly popular and influential treatise on Arabic syntax, the Ajurrūmiyya that Shaykh Ahmad commented upon, and which was the subject of at least sixty, probably more, commentaries of all sorts.
While it is doubtful Shakyh Ahmad’s commentary has survived into the present, there are other instances of commentaries on the Ajurrūmiyya written by sufis, exploring the ‘inner’ or esoteric meanings of the treatise, which on the surface has nothing to do with sufism or indeed theology at all. Such commentaries worked from the principle that Arabic as a language has a connection with God, allowing for even a treatise on syntax to be examined from an esoteric angle. So we see in this short story not only the way in which commentary could be used by someone to establish ‘cultural capital’ and authority, but also the potentially quite creative forms it could take, and the type of reworking of a text a commentary might enact.
Source: Muṣṭafá al-Bakrī, Mazīdī, al-Suyūf al-ḥidād fī aʻmāq ahl al-zandaqah wa-al-ilḥād, edited by and Aḥmad ibn Farīd ibn Aḥmad Mazīdī (Cairo: Dār al-Áfāq al-ʻArabīyah, 2007), 278, 279.
For further reading:
Jonathan P. Allen, “Reading Mehmed Birgivî with ʿAbd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī: Contested Interpretations of Birgivî’s al-Ṭarīqa al-Muḥammadīya in the 17th-18th Century Ottoman Empire,” in Early Modern Trends in Islamic Theology: ʿAbd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī and his Network of Scholarship, eds. Lejla Demiri and Samuela Pagani (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck [forthcoming]).
Joel Blecher, Said the Prophet of God: Hadith Commentary across a Millennium (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2017).
Matthew B. Ingalls, “Zakariyyā Al-Anṣārī and the Study of Muslim Commentaries from the Later Islamic Middle Period,” in Religion Compass 10, no. 5 (May 1, 2016): 118–30.
For a look at the varied social and cultural uses of commentary in another part of early modern Eurasia, see David L. Rolston, Traditional Chinese Fiction and Fiction Commentary: Reading and Writing between the Lines (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997).