Safavid Devotional Art in Steel, Script, and Scroll

A Safavid pierced steel plaque, probably late 17th century, featuring a calligraphic rendering of part of a poem in praise of Muḥammad, Fāṭima, and the Twelve Imams, formerly part of a larger set distributed in a shrine or similar structure. Metropolitan Museum of Art 1987.14

Pierced metal plaques such as the one above must surely count among the most spectacular instances of Safavid art to modern eyes, with their stark contrasts, incredible fineness of detail, bold clean lines surrounding delicate ornament, and obvious evidence of extremely skilled craft. Plaques such as this one- see below for another, quite similar example- once formed part of the interior of Safavid shrines, either to one of the Twelve Imāms or to the far more frequent imāmzādehs, the descendents  of the Imāms, who were also more likely to be found in Safavid controlled territory (there were also cases of saints’ shrines of various sorts being ‘converted’ to an imāmzādeh after the rise of the Safavids). Others were found on the tombs of Safavid shahs and in the massive shrine complex of Ṣafī al-Dīn, the Safavid eponym, in Ardabil. In 1550 large number of such plaques were ordered and installed by Shah Tahmāsp I in the shrine of Imām Riḍā in Mashhad, with further production through the rest of the Safavid dynasty.

The interior of the shrine of an Imām or an imāmzādeh, from a circa 1550 Safavid Fālnāmeh (‘book of divination’). Besides showing the internal architectural layout of a Safavid shrine, it provides a nice view of the activity that might go on there. (David Collection Inv. no. 28/1997)

So far as I know none remain in situ, a consequence of their likely original location- probably upon the grill-like structure surrounding the location of the tomb itself (see the 16th century illustration above for an idea of what such a space would have looked like). Such structures, as well as the built fabric of shrines in general, tend to be subject to great use, wear-and-tear, and continual renovation; as a result these plaques were dispersed and now reside in various museums and collections. Originally, however, they would have been visible to those making pious visitation (ziyāra) to the holy people whose tombs they adorned.

Decorative Plaque Plaque
Another Safavid pierced plaque, here extolling the last of the Twelve Imāms, also from the late 17th century. (Freer & Sackler F1997.21)

In terms of content, these plaques extoll and in some cases supplicate the prayers of the Twelve Imāms, as well as Muḥammad and Fāṭima, acting both to channel the intercessory power of these figures while linking the entombed person to the ‘People of the House.’ While devotion to the Twelve Imāms was not limited to Shi’i Muslims historically- contemporaneous Ottomans who would have regarded themselves as good Sunnis venerated the Twelve Imāms as well- such devotion was especially central to Shi’i Islam and to Safavid religious identity. These plaques signaled, to those who could read them (or have them read to them), that centrality, while also acting as inscribed requests for intercession, connecting the People of the House and their baraka to whatever shrine their names were place within. The sheer skill, time, and resources that were involved in producing such works were in themselves acts of devotion (along with the patronage of such work).

CBL Is 1623
Above and below: sections from a Safavid Qur’an scroll written in ghubār (‘dust’) script with extensive illumination (Chester Beatty Library Is 1623)


Continue reading “Safavid Devotional Art in Steel, Script, and Scroll”

An Ottoman Remix

Ottoman Qur'an Mounting

This curious piece, which consists of three early medieval (9th or 10th century) Qur’an folios written in un-voweled Kufic script pasted together then attached to a piece of paperboard and framed with lovely floral border devices, dates (probably) to the eighteenth century, and was produced somewhere in the Ottoman world. It is currently held in the Freer and Sackler Gallery (S1998.8).

Besides it intrinsic loveliness- the bold angular Kufic script contrasts nicely with the delicate flowing lines of the floral elements- this piece of artistic ‘remixing’ presents some questions which I at least cannot answer with any certainty but are worth asking anyway. What was the original setting and intention of this piece? Would it have been in a collected volume of similar pieces or of other ‘remixes’ (calligraphy, paintings, and drawings taken from their original contexts and remounted in new settings, primarily)? Or would it have been displayed, similar to a hilye-i şerif? How would an Ottoman viewer have understood this presentation: was it seen as a link with the far distant Islamic past, or perhaps as an especially potent means of connecting with the power of the Qu’ranic text? Or was the point of this display simply to show a nice instance of Kufic script, or perhaps to appreciate the folios as something along the lines of antiques? Was there something special about these folios- for instance, we know that very old Qur’an volumes and folios in the Ottoman world and elsewhere were sometimes treated as relics due to their assumed linkage with a key figure in the deep Islamic past. Was that the case with these folios? Or was something else entirely being done with this piece, something that is perhaps now unrecoverable for us?

Neighbors, Strangers, and Travellers

Sufi exegesis of the Qur’an was often quite divergent with the broad consensus of ‘exoteric’ exegetes: Sufis ‘heard’ different things in the Qur’an, and looked for more ‘esoteric’ depths to the established meanings other exegetes worked within. Yet at the same time Sufi exegetes did not reject those meanings. In fact, they very much operated within the wider exegetical scheme. This exegetical scheme could manifest itself in quite subtle ways, ways that remind us that in late antique and medieval ‘scriptural communities’ scripture was never read in isolation from exegesis or from the wider religious and cultural life of the community. Rather, scripture and scriptural exegesis became deeply integrated in the thought-worlds of writers across the spectrum, almost to the level of an automatic ‘reflex’. This reflex shows up quite well in comparing two seemingly quite different exegetical approaches to the same verse.

In the first example, a citation in al-Sulami’s tafisr of the great formative Sufi teacher Sahl al-Tustari, what we would probably call ‘allegory’ is clearly being deployed. The second example is a much longer and much more ‘traditional’ passage from the voluminous al-Tabrisi, an eleventh century author who consolidated much previous material and recrafted it according to his particular literary scheme. At first glance the two passages seem to have little in common, save a shared reference. Al-Tabrisi does not point out any allegorical or mystical significance; al-Tustari gives no ‘literal’ meaning. However, informing al-Tustari’s interpretation, in fact making it understandable, is the ‘literal’ exegesis that lies in the background. The verse in and of itself is relatively unclear, especially the odd term ‘adjacent neighbor.’ It is only with an exegetical unpacking that the various terms can be differentiated and explained. It is this unpacking that al-Tustari’s exegesis takes advantage of. Knowledge of this ‘literal’ exegetical background also gives an unspoken, deeper significance to al-Tustari’s symbolic equivalences. To explain: if the heart is the nearby neighbor, we know from the ‘literal’ exegesis that it has the most ‘rights’ and is, according to some commentators, to be understood as a kinsmen: someone related by blood, and not merely physical proximity. The adjacent neighbor, understood by al-Tustari to be the ‘lower self’, retains rights as well, but is essentially foreign: either distant geographically or unrelated in terms of blood. The companion, understood by literal exegetes to be someone you are traveling with, is the intellect: a helper in the way, essentially. Finally, the bodily limbs, if equated with the traveller (who is by definition a foreigner to be treated with hospitality), are for the spiritual adept not truly essential, but still important and to be treated with care. All of these meanings depend upon two levels of background knowledge: knowledge of the wider exegetical apparatus for this verse, and knowledge of Sufi terminology. Once again we see the importance of approaching Sufism- especially early Sufism- as a movement very much embedded in and interacting with the wider Islamic tradition, and not as an exogenous thing grafted onto ‘orthodox’ Islam.

The Texts

His saying, exalted and glorious is He: [And show kindness to] to the neighbor who is close [to you], and to the adjacent neighbor [or: unrelated neighbor], and to the companion nearby, [and to the traveller].

Sahl [al-Tustari], God be merciful to him, said: the neighbor who is close is the heart, and the adjacent [or distant, see below] neighbor is the self (al-nafs), and the companion alongside is the intellect (al-‘aql), which comes to know the imitation of the Way and the Law. The traveller is the bodily limbs that are obedient to God, exalted and glorified is He.

Tafsir al-Sulami, Q. 4.36

The neighbor who is close and the adjacent neighbor: it is said: its meaning is the neignbor who is close through kinship, and the adjacent neighbor is one with whom you and he have no kinship, according to ibn ‘Abbas, Mujahid, Qatada, Dahak, and ibn Zayid. It is said that the intended meaning here is a neighbor close to you through Islam, while the adjacent neighbor is the non-believer distant in terms of religion. It is related that the Prophet, peace and prayers be upon him, said: ‘There are three sorts of neighbors: a neignbor who possess three rights (huquq)- the right of the neighborhood, the right of kinship, and the right of Islam; a neighbor who possess two rights- the right of the neighborhood, and the right of Islam; and a neighbor who possess the right of the neighborhood, [namely], unbelievers among the People of the Book.’ Al-Zajaj said: the neighbor related to you is he who is close to you and you are close to him, and who knows you and you know him. And the adjacent neighbor: the stranger [or simply the one who is more distant]. It is related that the limit of a neighborhood runs out to forty houses, and it is related that it is forty dhara’ [approx. eighty feet]. He said: it is not possible that the intented meaning is the neighbor who is close through kinship, because mention of kinship and the commanding of good deeds towards them came earlier, through His saying and to those nearby. It is possible to answer him that [this meaning] is possible. Mention of kinship had come before because a neighbor, if related by kinship, possesses the right of both kinship and neighborship. The relative who is not also a neighbor still has the right of kinship reckoned to him, while the singularities of the related neighbor are presented as preferable through this mentioning [?].

And the companion nearby: in its meaning are four intepretations: the first of them: that he is a comrade on a journey, according to ibn ‘Abbas, Sa’id ibn Jabir, and others. And good deeds towards him are by way of benifience and proper companionship. The second of the interpretations: that it is one’s spouse, according to ‘Abdallah ibn Sa’ud, ibn Abu Layla, and al-Nakha’i. The third of the interpretations: that he is one cut off from his journey, hoping for some benefit from you, according to ibn ‘Abbas in one of the reports [he relates], and according to ibn Zayd. And the fourth of the intepretations: that he is a servant who serves you. However, the first interepretation makes allowance for the other two [to be correct also].

And the traveller: its meaning is the traveler on the road, and there are two ideas contained therein: that he is the traveling stranger, according to Mujahid and al-Rabi’. And it is said: he is a guest, according to ibn ‘Abbas. He said: Showing hospitality to a guest for up to three days is a commonly acknowledged good deed (ma’ruf), and every such good deed is an act of almsgiving. And Jabar related that the Prophet said: ‘Every commonly acknowledged good deed is an act of almsgiving. It is concordant with the good deed that you meet your brother with a joyful face, and that you empty your bucket into the vessel of your brother.’

Tafsir al-Tabrisi, Q.4.36

Breaking Down the Golden Calf

The following is a translated selection from the early Sufi commentary on the Qur’an authored/compiled by al-Sulami, a Sufi who lived a little after the great foundational figures of early Sufism. Al-Sulami, in this commentary and in other works of his, worked to draw the various strains of Sufism that had developed, sometimes in relative independence from each other, into a coherent body of doctrine and practice. This commentary was part of that process. In this excerpt, which deals with a verse  which retells the famous story of the children of Israel and the Golden Calf, our author has collated various interpretations which interpret the calf allegorically as the nafs of the human person. Nafs– variously translated as self, soul, ego- is one of those multivalenced words that Sufis delighted in coining and employing; they are words that have a history both in the milieu of Eastern Christianity monastic spirituality and practice and in the textual world of the Qur’an. But rather than try to explain further, I will leave you to the following explorations al-Sulami has collected here:

Surah al-Baqrah [Q. 2]. 54: His saying, exalted is He: ‘Verily, you have oppressed yourselves by your taking [as an object of worship] the calf [in the wilderness].

It is said: the ‘calf’ (‘ijl) of every person is his self (nafsuha), and whoever humbles it and turns away its desire and passion, he has been freed from its oppression.

His saying, exalted is He: ‘Turn (tawbū) to your Creator, slaying (fa-aqtalū) your selves.’

It is said: If the first step in spiritual conduct is repentance (altawbah)- and repentance is the destruction of the self (al-nafs) and slaying it through abandoning the passions and cutting it off from desire)- then how is attachment to a thing among the stations of the sincere believers? In its first step is the destroying of the life-blood [of the self].

And it is said: ‘Turn to your Creator’: return to Him through your inner secret self (asrārikum) and your hearts; ‘slay your selves’ through being rid of it [the self]- for it is not even worthy to be someone’s rug! And Abū Mansūr said: The Truth does not begin one upon a path otherwise [than in this manner], and its beginnings are destruction [of the self].

God, exalted is He, said: ‘Turn to your Creator, slaying your selves.’ As long as discrimination and reasoning keep you company, you are in the essence of ignorance, until your reason is misled, your notions go, your connections fail- then, perhaps, perhaps…

Al-Wāstī said: The repentance of the children of Israel was the annihilation (fanā’) of their selves, but for this community [Muslims] it is more intense: the annihilation of their selves and the annihilation of their desires alongside the remaining of their corporeal traces.

Fāris said: Repentance is the effacement of humanness and the rooting of divineness. God, exalted is He, said: ‘So turn to your Creator, slaying your selves.’

Surah al-Kawthar: The Tafsir of al-Baydawi

Still within the ‘mainstream’ tafsir tradition, the following selection comes from the famed- and still widely used- tafsir of ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Umar ibn ‘Ali Abu al-Khayr Nasr al-Din al-Baydawi, a thirteenth century Shafa’i scholar and jurist from the city of Shiraz. Unlike al-Tabrisi’s tafsir, which is relatively expansive, al-Baydawi composed a much briefer tafsir, that depends to a certain extent on the reader’s prior knowledge of the exegetical tradition and method. As Waled Saleh has argued, these shorter tafsir seem to have arisen out of a pedagogical need, either as an instrument in instruction by a master in exegesis or a student’s own study aid. For those familiar with the Western Christian tradition of exegesis, these shorter commentaries are somewhat reminiscent of the glosses that emerge for Scripture study in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

As you read, imagine that this is your first introduction to the exegetical tradition on this passage- does it seem sufficient? Is it understandable (and keep in mind that I have expanded a bit to make the conciseness a little less concise and more understandable)? What else might a medieval student or interested reader use a commentary of this length for?

Al-Baydawī, Tafsīr Anwār al-Tanzīl wa Asrār al-Ta’wīl

Mekkan, three verses.

In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful.

‘Verily, we gave you’- [there is a variant] reading of antīnāka-al-kawthar’: prodigious abundant good, of knowledge, deed, and the exaltation of both worlds. And it is related, on [Muhammad’s] authority, peace and prayer be upon him: ‘[Al-kawthar] is a river in paradise, and my Lord promised me it- in it is abundant good- sweeter than honey, whiter than milk, colder than snow, softer than cream; its brims are of chrysolite. Its drinking vessels are made of silver; he who drinks of it does not thirst [again].’ And it is said: a basin is in it. And it is said: [al-kawthar] is his sons and descendents, or the ‘ulamā’ of his community, or the glorious Qur’ān.

‘So pray to your Lord’: so persevere in the canonical prayer devoted only towards God, exalted is He, differing from the one heedless [of God’s grace], the hypocrite- [rather, be] grateful for His graces, for the canonical prayer is the uniting of the various parts of gratitude. ‘And sacrifice’: The torso [of the sacrificial animal], which is the best of the goods of the Bedouin. And give alms to the needy, differing from he who turned them [the needy] away and deprived them of small kindnesses (cf. Q. 107.5-7). [This] surah is complementary to the preceding surah. The canonical prayer [here] has been interpreted as the prayer of the festival, and the sacrifice as the [whole] slaughtered animal.

‘Verily, he who hates you’: whoever hates you, God hates him. ‘He is cut-off’: he who has no offspring, for no descendants remain to him, no glorification of remembrance, but as for you [Muhammad], your progeny remains, [as does] the glorification of your fame, the praise of your virtue- up to the day of the Resurrection, and there is for you in the Other World what is beyond description.

On the authority of the Prophet, peace and prayers of God be upon him: ‘Whoever recites Surah al-Kawthar, God will give him to drink from every one of His rivers in Paradise, and He will write [to his account] ten good deeds with the number of every sacrifice which the servant offers on the day of the great sacrifice.’

Surah al-Kawthar, Part Two, ii

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.

Surah al-Kawthar, Part Two, i.

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, Part One


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.}

It Is Written

Where and how scripture shows up- literally, on what surfaces, in what media- is something that interests me as much as the question of how it is being used in ways we recognize more readily as ‘textual.’ These are some textual/architectural/public uses of scripture I’ve come across; their application of the scriptural voice is at once similar to and different from more ‘conventional’ employments of scripture, whether in sermon, commentary, theology, liturgy, etc. These sorts of public, ‘architectural’ inscriptions operate on different levels, speaking on different registers, depending on their surroundings while also penetrating their surroundings and forming them (much as sacred scriptures both shape the reader/exegete even as she shapes them). Where these texts appear works hand in hand with the texts’ significance within the wider tradition, as this sampling hopefully shows. As usual, I am very much thinking out loud here, and have only given this topic the briefest of thought, though it deserves a lot more.


Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans, Summer 2008: The scene: big swathes of empty green, where there used to be a neighborhood. There are hardly even bones here now, or if there are they lie beneath the switchgrass and caney reeds and brush. The air is thick, heavy, silent, except for a thudding hammer from one of the few centers of human habitation left here. The text is also crying out, even if its voice looks a little muffled, the vicious heat and humidity of the Deep South no friend to plywood and ink. No matter. The emotional power of the original passage is amplified here in this space of dry (or wet and humid perhaps) bones; it fits the place and fits the place to it.

Sihrij Madrasa, Fes, Spring 2009: This is a somewhat neglected Marinid madrasa (these madrasas being rather more like dorm complexes for the educational activities that took place in the neighboring mosques); but the calligraphy is still bright and compelling. It of course fits the space: besides the continual pre-eminence of the Qur’anic text in Islamic societies, the institutional setting makes the choice of Qur’anic text (operating both as edificational/educational material and edifying decoration) all the more apt. As the students- whose study would consist primarily of Qur’an and hadith- come in and out of the space of the madrasa, the selected texts of the Qur’an (which unfortunately cannot here identify- if anyone in Fes who might happen to read this would like to go by and transcribe, that would be truly wonderful) would become part of the architecture of the student’s daily life, daily perception, daily thought, action. Written on the wall, written on the heart…

Lower Ninth again. The text resilient, always speaking, in the midst of storm, decay. The flowers of the field may fade…

Moulay Idriss Shrine, Fes: This is one is rather different from the madrasa. The calligraphy is somewhat sparser, and the setting is not an enclosed, institutional- particular- space, but is on an external wall. Albeit still within the sacred precinct of the shrine, this now worse-for-the-wear (yet still holding on, like the battered scripture text of the Lower Ninth) slice of scripture shows itself to the passing crowds. It helps mark out the sacred space around and especially within it, and create it, and reflect it. Even to those passing by who are unable to literally read the text, it is readable as a particular thing, a sacralizing thing.  It is recognizable as being part of the sacred, even to those who do not know its literal, strictly textual meaning. It still works. This is, I think, one of the important parts of public scripture, of scripture made stone or wood or whatever and placed on display, grafted into signs and walls and amulets and so on. It blurs the line between literate and non-literate reception and what comes in between- all have some reception of this text, some access to its power, to its meanings, and themselves help construct the meaning.