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. Continue reading “On Commentary and Its Uses in the Ottoman World”