The Genres of Tafsir

The following is an excerpt from the introduction to the 18th century Moroccan Sufi Ahmad ibn ‘Ajiba’s mystical commentary on the Qur’an. He provides in this excerpt an excellent summary of the ‘genres’ of tafsir from the perspective of a scholar who was both trained in the full range of traditional Islamic exegesis and who embraced the particularly Sufi mode of interpretation later in life.


The Prophet’s saying, ‘Every verse has an outer aspect and an inner, a limit and a vantage point’ thus means that the outward is for those such as the grammarians, the experts in language and declension. The inward is for those concerned with the meanings of words, the commandments and prohibitions, parables and narratives, the affirmation of God’s oneness, and other like teachings of the Qur’an, such being the domain of the exegetes. The limit is for the juridical scholars (al-fuqaha) who are concerned with the derivation of rules from the verses, who come to a verse and then carry its arguments as far as possible but without addition. The vantage point (al-muttala’u) is for the people of spiritual truths among the greatest of the Sufis, where, from the outward meaning of a verse, they look down, as it were, into its inward meaning. Then are unveiled to them, through reflection upon the verse, its mysteries, teachings, and mystic sense.

Literally, muttala’u means any place from which one may look down upon something from its highest to lowest point and this word is mentioned in a sound hadith referring to the ‘terror of the vantage point’ by which is meant a place of approach from which one will look down upon the events of the Last Day. Thus too can it be said [in Arabic], ‘Where is the vantage point of this question?’ meaning its point of approach, which is literally an elevated point from which something may be seen from its highest to lowest limits. In a like manner do the people of spiritual truth look down from the outward meaning of a verse into the mysteries of its inward dimension and then plunge into the depths of the ocean. And God Most High knows better.

Ahmad ibn ‘Ajiba, Al-Barh al-Madid (The Immense Ocean), trans. Mohamed Fouad Aresmouk and Michael Abdurrahman Fitzgerald (Louisville: Fons Vitae, 2009), 3-4.

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.}

Two on Anger

As I was reading through Annabel Keeler’s translation of the ninth-century Sufi Sahl al-Tustari’s commentary on the Qur’an (available online) this evening, I came across the passage below, and was immediately reminded of a quite similar story from the Desert Fathers of fourth-century Egypt (and perhaps Palestine as well); the second story is also reproduced below. Are these two stories related? Obviously the details are slightly different, but the similarities are still pretty remarkable, if only for a congruence of values. Yet even the forms of the two stories are quite similar, enough to suggest to my mind the possibility of a relationship. There were, at some point, stories of the Desert Fathers translated into Arabic in Egypt, and these stories certainly circulated all over the Middle East and beyond. Could some of them have somehow entered the early Sufi milieu, enough to show up in the extant texts? I wouldn’t discount it…

That said, it was good to come across this story- I needed it personally. Unlike the anonymous Muslim and Christians, I have not yet overcome anger or reached a point of letting go of things. Anger is a viscous enemy; God grant us all the grace of resisting it!


It was related that there was a man among the devout worshippers (‘ubbād) who never used to get angry, so Satan came to him and said, ‘If you get angry and then show patience your reward will be greater. The devout worshipper understood him, and asked, ‘How does anger come about?’ He said, ‘I will bring you something and will say to you “Whose is this?” to which you should say, “It’s mine.” To which I will say, “No it’s not, it’s mine.” ‘ So, he brought him something and the devout worshipper said: ‘It’s mine!’ to which Satan said: ‘No it’s not, it’s mine!’ But the worshipper said, ‘If it’s yours, then take it away.’ And he did not get angry. Thus did Satan return disappointed and aggrieved. He wished to engage his heart so he could get what he wanted from him, but he [the worshipper] found him out and warded off his deception.

Sahl al-Tustari, Tafsir al-Tustari Q. 114.4


Two old men had lived together for many years and they had never fought with one another. The first said to the other, ‘Let us also have a fight like other men.’ The other replied, ‘I do not know how to fight.’ The first said to him, ‘Look, I will put a brick between us and I will say: it is mine; and you will reply: no, it is mine; and so the fight will begin.’ So they put a brick between them and the first said, ‘No, it is mine’, and the other said, ‘No, it is mine.’ And the first replied, ‘If it is yours, take it and go.’ So they gave it up without being able to find a cause for an argument.

Paradise of the Desert Fathers

Milk, Blood, Human Anatomy… and Qur’an Exegesis?

Last term I worked through a fairly prodigious stack of Qur’an commentaries (tafsir) dealing with vv. 66-69 of Surah al-Nahl (Q. 16):

66 And verily, you have a sign in the cattle: We give you to drink from what is in their bellies, from between stomach-refuse (farth) and blood, milk pure, palatable for the drinkers. 67 And from the fruits of the palm and the grape you take an intoxicant and wholesome sustenance; verily, in that is a sign for people who think. 68 And your Lord revealed to the bee: take from among the mountains houses, and from among the trees and from what [people] erect as trellises, 69 then eat from all the fruits, then travel on the easily treadable paths of your Lord. One takes from their bellies a drink, variegated of colour; in it is a medicine for the people. Verily, in that is a sign for people who understand.

I wrote some about my project here and here; I’m now working on a couple of new projects, one dealing with constructions and uses of the ideology/doctrine of futuwwa– literally, ‘youngmanliness,’ sometimes translated as ‘Islamic chivalry,’ a probably inapt term from what I know so far of futuwwa. My other project deals with mostly tenth and eleventh century Sufi approaches and embodiments of the doctrine/practice of tawakkul– also a difficult term to translate into English! It literally means ‘trust,’ but it conveys a very absolute trust in God, which can entail a sort of quietism and almost Dao or Zen-like avoidance of doing and being, in some ways.

Anyway, I realized that I have a great deal of translated material left over from last term, and some of it is really fun stuff (though, granted, I’ve an odd idea of fun I suppose). Some of it is in a more polished, presentable form than other passages. The one below, by Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (b. 543/1149, d. 606/1210) on part of the first verse in this passage, is definitely one of the more accessible for those not accustomed to the rather esoteric genre of tafsir, and was much easier to translate into a comprehensible form in English. Plus, al-Razi’s idea of how to do scripture exegesis is pretty entertaining- he pulls in material from all over the place, including, for this passage, long discussions of human and animal anatomy, which draw upon the conventions of good Galenic, Hellenistic medical theory and description. Al-Razi was obviously conversant in the science of his day, and draws upon in explicating the Qur’an- a process which also ties science into the Islamic scriptures, legitimizing both in a fashion. In so doing, he does come into conflict with previous exegetes- their description of the relation of the stomach-contents, blood, and milk in the stomach does not stand up to the test of science, so it has to be replaced something than does not contradict investigative observation (by which al-Razi likely has in mind the established Galenic tradition more than anything).

Besides helping to explain the verse- which task, one might argue, could have been done with rather less ink spilled!- al-Razi also induces in the reader a Qur’anically-keyed but scientifically developed appreciation for the wonders of God’s creative power and providence. Plus, I suspect, al-Razi enjoys these things and enjoys showing off his knowledge of them- a small vice, perhaps, but if so, one I and probably most of you, dear readers, are guilty of… Al-Razi concludes the passage with an interesting analogy between God’s creative transformation of food into blood into milk, and His creative transformation of the dead on the Day of Resurrection. This question of how the dead are raised is of course a very old question, going all the way back to St. Paul and his querying Corinthians. It becomes all the more pertinent for Muslims- and Christians and Jews- with the reception and valorization of Greek philosophy, especially Aristotle, which tended to cause difficulties for the doctrine of bodily resurrection. Al-Razi is aware of these problems, having been educated in philosophy and kalam (dialectical theology is one way to translate this term); his linking of scientific description and philosophical problems with bodily resurrection is, I think, quite clever. All in all, I found this a charming passage, and very revealing of how a well-educated, albeit pretty exceptional, thirteenth century Muslim could imagine both the physical world of creation and its intersection with the textual world of the Qur’an.


… [W]e say: The commentators say: the intention of His words: from between stomach-contents (farth) and blood: is that these three are produced in one place, the stomach-contents at the bottom of the stomach, the blood in the top, and the milk in the middle; we have indicated about that saying in regards to the difference of perception and investigative trial, because the blood, if it were produced in the top of the stomach (and in the ruminating-stomach [as well]) then it is necessary that whenever one vomits one would vomit blood- and that is certainly false! As for us, we say: The intended meaning in this verse is that milk is produced from a portion of the blood, and the blood is produced from a portion of the subtle stuff in the stomach-contents, which is the eaten stuff operative in the ruminating-stomach, and this milk is begotten from the portions which are produced in what is between the stomach-contents first, then produced from what is between the blood second, and God has clarified these thick, fatty portions, and created in them the attributes which are in view of becoming milk, beneficial for the body of the child, and this is what we have brought about on this matter, and God knows best.

The fourth issue: Know that the happening of milk in the breast and its attribution with attributes which are, in consideration of it, befitting for the nourishment of the child, consisting of wondrous wisdom and marvelous secrets, the soundness of the intellect seeing that it does not occur except by the direction of the Wise Doer, the Merciful Director, and He makes it clear in certain aspects:

First: that God created in the bottom of the stomach a ‘deliverer’ [so the literal meaning- I suppose this is some valve that I ought to recall from my undergraduate freshman year anatomy class but don’t…] from which departs the heavy stuff of food. When the person takes food or thin drink which is suitable to that ‘deliverer’ there does not depart from it a thing from that food and drink, so that its digestion is completed in the stomach, and it attracts what is made limpid in it to the liver, and the heavy stuff remains here. Then that ‘deliverer’ opens and expels the heavy stuff, and this is among the wonders which are not possible except by the direction of the Wise Doer, because whenever there is need of the retention of food in the stomach there is an occurrence which suits that ‘deliverer,’ and when the need to eject that matter from the body arises, it opens, and the happening of the application is one time, and the voiding another, by the reckoning of need, and the regulation of the ‘deliverer,’ from what does not arise except by the direction of the Wise Doer.

The second: That God placed in the liver a power [qūwat] which attracts the subtle portions occurring in that food or drink, and which does not attract the condensed portions, and He created in the bowel a power which attracts those condensed portions which are heavy, and which absolutely never attracts the subtle portions. And if the occasion on the contrary was for the differentiating of the wellbeing of the body then the order of the arrangement would be corrupt.

The third: that God placed in the liver a digestive power, so that these subtle portions would digest in the liver and turn into blood, then He placed in the gallbladder an attractive power towards yellow bile, and in the spleen an attractive power towards black bile, and in the kidney an attractive power for the increase of water, so that the blood remains limpid, befitting for the nourishment of the body. And He specified each one from among these members with that power and special quality, impossible but for the direction (tadbīr) of the Wise, the Knowing.

The fourth: that in the time in which the fetus is in the womb of the mother, there is directed from that blood a plentiful portion to [the womb], until raw matter becomes through growth members of that child and he increases in size, and when the fetus separates from the womb of the mother that portion is directed to the flank of the breast for the production of milk from it which is nourishment for the child. And when the child grows larger that portion is no longer directed to either the womb or to the breast; on the contrary, it is directed generally into the body of nourishment, and that blood flows, at all times, into other members beneficently for wellbeing- and the wisdom [of this] is not attributable except to the direction of the Free, the Wise Doer.

And the fifth: That at the production of milk in the teat, God has caused to occur in the nipple of the teat a slight keenness and a narrow pore, and for what is this pore is very narrow? For when there does not exit from it except what has the goal of purity and subtlety, and as for the condensed portions, it is not possible that they exit from this narrow regulator, so they remain inside, and the purpose in the occurrence of this slight keenness, and the narrow regulator in the head of the nipple of the breast is that, like [in the operation of] the strainer, everything that is subtle leaves, and everything that is thick remains inside and does not exit, and by this means the milk becomes pure, befitting for the body of the child, ‘palatable for the drinkers.’

The sixth: that God inspired the child to suckle; then verily the mother, whenever she feeds, bit by bit, the nipple of the breast in the mouth of the child, that child is in the state he takes in suckling, and if the Merciful, Free Doer did not inspire that small child that special state, then the sating of thirst would not occur by the production of that milk in the breast.

The seventh: we have made clear that God, however, created the milk from the remnant of the blood, and He created blood from the nourishment which the animal receives. The sheep, when it takes herbage and water, God creates blood from the subtle stuff of those portions, then He creates milk from some of the portions of that blood, then verily milk occurs in three states regarding differing natures: what is in it of oil is hot and wet, and what is in it of water is cold and wet, and what is in it of cheesiness is cold and dry, and these natures are what are potential in the herbage which the sheep eats. It is evident from this that these bodies do not cease transforming from attribute to attribute, from state to state, with some of them being incongruous with others, and some of them not resembling others, and in this you see that these states occur through the direction of a wise, merciful Doer who regulates the state of the world with regard to the suitable beneficence of the servants. So glory to Him who witnesses all of the minute particles of the world high and low in the perfection of His power and the ends of His wisdom and mercy, to Him is creating and command, God, the Blessed, Lord of the worlds!

Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, Mafatih al-Ghayb (al-Tafsir al-Kabir)

Bees, the Power of Music, and Other Wonders

I decided- yesterday, in fact- to add to my term paper on Qur’an tafsir material from Fakhr al-Din al-Razi’s (543/1149- 606/1210) massive Qur’an commentary, Mafatih al-Ghayb– Key to the Unknown, also known as al-Tafsir al-Kabir, the Great Tafsir. The later appellate is especially apt- al-Razi’s commentary is not only huge, stretching to some thirty printed volumes in one edition, but is also both wide and deep in subject matter. For the limited little bit that I am covering for my paper- verses 66-69 of Surah al-Nahl– al-Razi has a regular field day talking about the wonders of animal physiognomy and the marvels of bees. While he touches on grammatical issues, the bulk of his commentary is taken up with descriptions of digestion, blood and milk production and transportation within the body, the details of beehive construction, and where honey comes from (which, for al-Razi, is an odd mix of traditional Aristotelian speculation on ‘honeydew’ and the, as it has turned out, more accurate Qur’anic idea of honey as bee secretion). Among the wonders of the bees that al-Razi includes is one ‘wonder’ that no other commentator I have examined includes, and is a practice I have in fact never encountered anywhere else. Here is the relevant passage, first in Arabic, then in my translation:

والرابع: أنها إذا نفرت من وكرها ذهبت مع الجمعية إلى موضع آخر، فإذا أرادوا عودها إلى وكرها ضربوا الطنبور والملاهي وآلات الموسيقى وبواسطة تلك الألحان يقدرون على ردها إلى وكرها، وهذا أيضاً حالة عجيبة

‘And the fourth [wonder]: That whenever they flee from their nest and go as a group to another place, and they [the beekeepers] desire their return to their nest, they play the tanbur, music-makers, and [other] instruments of music, and in the midst of these tunes [the beekeepers] are able to return them to their nest- and this also is a wonderful case!’

Well. What appears to be going on here is a dislocated swarm, and beekeepers who wish to return the errant swarm to their nest. Such a situation in itself is not unusual, but the means our Khurisani (presumably) beekeepers employ is one I am not familiar with. It would seem that the music al-Razi describes is meant to make the bees sedate and thus manageable, similar to the use of smoke to calm bees. But beyond this brief passage, I have so far been unable to find any other examples of music being used in bee-management (I suppose that’s the right word), in any part of the world.

If you, dear reader, happen to have knowledge of a similar case, either in ‘folklore’ or Classical science or mythology or whatever, or in actual practice, please share. Besides the fact that this is a fascinating little anecdote, I am interested in uncovering al-Razi’s sources for his tafsir– is this something he has himself observed or otherwise heard about, or is it something one might find in a written source, perhaps even a translation from the Hellenistic world? God knows best…

* N.B.: My use of al-Razi, whose commentary is not available in my university’s library, has been made possible by the truly wonderful website, which has a massive collection of classical tafsir online, free and easily accesible. Most are in Arabic, but there are also a few English translations. For the struggling graduate student, this is a particularly welcome resource- tafsir are usually expensive and bulky; though, nothing awes vistors to your office like an enormous Arabic tome opened on your desk…

Milk, Blood, and Devotion

Pardon the paucity of posting- it goes without saying that I’m keeping busy here at the mid-point of the semester, though that’s not really a good excuse for not writing, since I manage to find time to waste on less productive things on-line…

One of my projects that’s keeping me busy involves looking at various Qur’anic tafsir– commentaries- on verses 67-69 from Surah al-Nahl, the Surah of the Bee. The verses in question deal with, among other things, the eponymous bee, which brings up a surprising range of questions for the various commentators I’ve looked at so far. The most exhaustively covered aspect regarding the bees seems to be a phrase that describes honey as a medicine for people (or at least the commentators all suppose that honey is what’s being referred to- like much of the Qur’an, there is a great deal left unsaid. Qur’anic commentators were exploiting the silences in the text long before it was cool to do things like that…). Before the bit about the bee, however, there is a description of milk and where it comes from: ‘Truly, you have in grazing beasts a sign- we give you to drink from their bellies what is between blood and stomach-contents (farth, a rather difficult word to convey into English): milk pure, palatable for drinkers.’

This gives rise to all sorts of questions for commentators, who tackle their material in a surprisingly wide-ranging manner. This is one of the things that has struck me in learning to read tafsir: that while there is indeed a remarkable continuity and stability in these writings, there is also great diversity, especially in how the material is arranged, and what sorts of ‘standard’ questions the author picks, and even more importantly, what he chooses to say about those questions. The following is a nice example of some of the issues one finds in tafsir, and how they might matter in working out what all these authors are doing with the text of the Qur’an, its interpretative tradition, and its devotional use:

‘The second question/disputed matter: God pointed out the greatness of His power in the pure issuing out of milk from between the stomach-contents and the blood, from between the red of the blood and the filthiness of the stomach-contents (al-farth). And though the two had been joined together in one receptacle, when you look to its colour you find it white, plainly pure from the filth of its neighbor. And when you drink it, you find it palatable (sā’igan), against the disgustingness of the stomach-contents- meaning, then, [milk’s] deliciousness. And some say sā’igan to mean no one chokes on it, and truly it has this attribute. However, the notation [above] still holds regarding the deliciousness and pleasantness of the taste, [as opposed to] the odiousness of the neighbor from which it is separated while in the stomach, that is, the disgusting stomach-contents.

‘This is a power that is impossible except to the Regulator of all things for [their] benefit.’

Ibn ‘Arabi, Ahkam al-Qur’an, 1145.

This brief excerpt comes from an eleventh to twelfth century commentator, Ibn ‘Arabi of Seville (not that Ibn ‘Arabi from al-Andalus, but a different, far less well-known, and much easier to read and decipher Ibn ‘Arabi), in his Ahkam al-Qur’an, which is a selective tafsir: he only deals with ayah that, ostensibly, have a legal importance.

But as you might have noticed, there’s not really any legal matters at play here. This excerpt follows a long grammatical excursion, and is followed by a legal/hermeneutical question. While I’ve just started this particular tafsir, I would suggest that we see in this small example that even a seemingly narrowly focused work is not in fact so narrow. Nor, I might suggest, should we understand legal matters in general as being carefully divided off from things we might rather label ‘devotional.’ Rather, things seemingly as mundane as legal matters and grammar and vocabulary explanation can provide opportunities for expanding the text’s devotional and contemplative possibilities. Here, Ibn ‘Arabi is dealing with a question of word meaning: the proper connotation of sā’igan. Ibn ‘Arabi resolves it by offering two possibilities, and indicating which he thinks is preferable. Like any grammatical explanation, the commentator is here guiding the reader into a new understanding of the text, creating a new text. But why? Obviously one of the primary reasons one employs a tafsir is to simply understand the often eliptical and opaque words of the Qur’an- otherwise, one ends up confused in many places. The text calls out for an interpreter, if only on the grammatical and syntactic level. How a given commentator reshapes the text depends on all sorts of factors- what elements he chooses to emphasize, which authorities he draws upon, even how he organizes his material. Each commentator arrives at a somewhat different text, a text that can, from then on, be experienced through the lens he has created for us.

Among the concerns of commentators, and the one I want to focus on here, is that of guiding the reader into the ‘devotional’ meaning of the text, a meaning that will guide him as he reads the Qur’an for himself, whether in a contemplative setting or in a public-liturgical one or as part of further study. As al-Ghazali argues in Volume 1, Book 8 of the Ihya, proper recitation of the Qur’an- recitation that becomes ‘present’ (hudur) to the heart- depends upon a good understanding of the text itself. This involves, obviously, understanding grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, but I would suggest that it also involves being guided into the ‘worshipful’ junctures of the Qur’an, some of which may not be immediately obvious. In the case of the passage above, the text itself indicates that the giving of milk is a ‘sign,’ an ‘indication,’ (‘ibratan); in this case, Ibn ‘Arabi points out again what has already been ‘pointed out’ (nabah) in the text. If the reader missed the significance, the commentator reiterates and expands it, and directs him to the proper response: wonder and praise over the power of God.

The vocabulary question, then, becomes a textual fissure from which Ibn ‘Arabi can direct the reader, not simply to a better understanding of a given word, but to a better understanding of the power of God in the natural world. By unpacking the text, he deepens the reader’s awe and reverence associated with this single ayah, which the reader can then retain when he comes back to this ayah in any other context. It also has the function, I think, of not only explicating the potentially hairy syntax of the Qur’an, but also of more closely linking the textual ‘sign’ to the physically perceived world of cows and milk. By emphasizing the process of milk-production, the commentator can perhaps guide his reader to recollection of the ‘sign’ even when the reader is outside of the text itself- say, drinking milk or seeing a cow. Either within or outside the text, the intent, I think, is to evoke in the reader worship, devotion towards the Creator. While textual explication on a very straightforward level is important, obviously, it is not necessarily the only or even primary concern.

This is also true, I think, for both Eastern and Western Christian commentators: even the long lines of often times dry grammatical explanation ultimately direct back to a devotional- for lack of a better word- use of the scriptures. This is in fact a rather important point that cannot be stressed too often: for medieval users of scripture- Christian, Jewish, Muslim- the text is not simply an artefact to be examined. It is always the words of God speaking and offering a means to approach the Divine. Text does not exist for text’s sake; even the driest of commentators (and trust me, they can be terribly dull, across confessional lines…) is working towards a deeper and more knowledgable experience and understanding of God through his exegesis. Even in, say, the ‘Antiochian’ tradition of exegesis, there is a very marked difference between the ‘historio-critical’ and what a late antique or medieval exegete is doing, though the external forms may on first glance appear similar.