Three leading Shia Mufassirin

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By: A. Toussi

a) Shaykh Tabarsi
Shaykh Abu Ali Fadl al-Tabarsi was a Shi’ite theologian who produced a tafsir of the Qur’an which enjoys wide acceptance, even among non Shi’ite scholars. Al-Dhahabi describes Shaykh Tabarsi as a moderate Shi’i scholar, who does not indulge in exaggeration and refrains from cursing any of the Companions.36
Very little has been written about him and his works by modern scholars and nothing at all by Western scholars, and even the Encyclopaedia of Islam is silent on his account. Musa O. A. Abdul seems to be the only author who has dedicated a book in English to Shaykh Tabarsi and his commentary.
Shaykh Tabarsi was born in 468 AH/1075 AD in Iran during the Seljuq period. He lived for many years in Mashad where he engaged himself in public teaching until the year 523 AH/1128-29 AD and wrote many valuable works concerned with the propagation and defense of the Shi’ite doctrine, the Imams, their qualities and sayings, theology, ethics, grammar, etc.
He then moved to Sabzawar where, at an advanced age, he wrote his famous commentary on the Qur’an Majma’ al-Bayan li ‘ulum al-Qur’an. He noted in the preface to Majma’ al-Bayan that he began writing the book when he was over sixty.
He also produced two other minor tafsir works: al-Kafi al- shafi and Jawami al-Jami. In Sabzawar, he devoted twenty- five years to teaching and writing and died there in the year 548 AH/1153 AD.
Shaykh Tabarsi’s fame both as a scholar and as a theologian rests on his tafsir works, the major one of which is Majma’ al- Bayan li-‘ulum al-Qur’an. In the preface to this work, Shaykh Tabarsi gives the reasons for his writing it and for his choice of title. He also describes the methodology used in the commentaries on every verse.
At the time of the work’s preparation, there were already some tafsir works in circulation, written by both Sunnite and Shi’ite scholars. The Jami’ al-Bayan by Tabari and al-Tibyan by al-Tusi had impressed him most. Shaykh Tabarsi combined these two titles, both having the same meaning, and entitled his own tafsir Majma’ al-Bayan.
The tafsir was completed in 534 AH/1139 AD but was not published for the first time until 1268 AH/1851 AD. Tabarsi divides his commentary on every passage into five sections: introductory discourse, reading guide, language discourse, revelation and circumstances surrounding it, and meaning. He employs ta’wil in many cases to deduce the inner or implied meaning of a verse.
When a passage relates to a theological, jurisprudential or philosophical issue, Tabarsi gives the views of all sides and then gives his own judgement and standpoint when it differs from that of his school of thought. Indeed, the originality of Tabarsi’s commentary is that he gives his readers an opportunity to see the varying opinions on different issues mentioned in the Qur’an. He then discusses these views and declares his own stand.
Al-Dhahabi says that his tafsir, apart from what it contains of his Shi’ite and Mu’tazilite views, indicates the deep penetration of its author into different branches of knowledge. He draws upon the statements from his predecessors among the mufassirin and declares his choice among them.37 His tafsir has a wide coverage of historical facts, of the statements and opinions of philologists, traditionists, commentators and poets.
There is also a good coverage of the various schools of thought. It contains many philological studies and references to ancient poetry. This tafsir is a compendium of all sciences connected with the studies of Islam and to which specialists from any field of Islamic sciences can refer.
Shaykh Tabarsi’s affiliation to Shi’i school of thought can be traced in his commentaries but he has also shown on many issues that he is an independent thinker and sometimes holds different conclusions from that of the Shi’ites.
This commentary is unanimously accepted by Muslim scholars, Sunnite and Shi’ite, and some scholars consider it as a leading work on tafsir even up to the present day due to the richness and variety of its contents. It is one of the very few works which have enjoyed such wide acceptance.
Shaykh Tabarsi has shown interest in many theological issues in his commentary, such as the issue concerning the Imamate of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the practice of taqiyyah (dissimulation of one’s faith), the infallibility of the Imams, God’s Justice etc. He also discusses the issue of the Mahdi, his advent at the End of Time, the purpose of his coming and his rule.

b) Banu Amin
Banu-ye mujtahedeh sayyedeh Nusrat Begum Amin al- Tujjar Isfahani,38 known as Banu Amin, was born in 1256 Sh/1877 AD in Isfahan and is said to be descended from Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib through both her parents. She first went to school at five and started to learn Arabic language and literature at twelve because of her early interest in Islamic studies.
At fifteen, she married her cousin, Haj seyyed Muhammad Amin al-Tujjar, who was a famous businessman in Isfahan. Banu Amin had nine children but eight of them died very young from diseases like diphtheria, smallpox, typhoid fever, pneumonia or through miscarriage.
A few years after her wedding, at the age of twenty, she started to study Islamic sciences, such as Fiqh, Usul, tafsir, hadith and hikma, with a private teacher, Ayatollah Mir Muhammad Najaf Abadi, who tutored her at home.
She was a strong follower of Molla Sadra Shirazi’s philosophy and was qualified to gain a profound understanding of Molla Sadra’s Kitab al-Asfar al-arba’a al-‘aqliya (The Book of the Four Journeys), her favourite subject of study.
Among Islamic works, after the Asfar, she was much interested in compilations of traditions (hadith) and tafsir, particularly the tafsir work Majma’ al-Bayan by Shaykh Tabarsi. She later followed Shaykh Tabarsi’s method in her own tafsir (Makhzan al-‘Irfan fi Tafsir al-Qur’an) of the Qur’an. She was, and still is, the first woman Mufassir (commentator) of the entire Qur’an.
The originality of her tafsir was based on the fact that it was a mixture of exoteric interpretation of the Qur’an and spiritual teachings of a gnostic journey and pilgrimage (sayr-o- suluk-e ‘irfani). Banu Amin is said to be the founder of this new method of interpretation.
After having spent twenty years of her life studying Islamic sciences, at the age of forty she produced her first work, Arba’in Hashemiya (Forty Hashemi Traditions). This work reached the howza al-‘ilmiyah (traditional religious education centre) of Najaf in Iraq, and was warmly approved by the ‘Ulama. Banu Amin thus became famous for the first time among the ‘ulama and reached the degree of Ijtihad.
Indeed after several written examinations from the greatest ‘ulama of Najaf in Islamic sciences such as fiqh (jurisprudence), hadith (traditions), or Qur’an, she was given permission of Ijtihad (the application of reason to the solution of legal issues) and Istenbat-e ahkam-e shar’i (deduction of the main rules of conduct). She was then the only mujtahedeh of her time.
After that, Banu Amin devoted herself to writing, teaching and doing research in the field of the Islamic sciences. Her works, with a brief description, are as follows in chronological order:
1. Arba’in Hashemiya (Forty Hashemi traditions) in Arabic: According to ‘ulama custom, whenever a religious scholar collected forty authentic and documented hadith and was able to teach Usul and Ahkam to believers through these hadith, he then earned the permission of Ijtihad.
Banu Amin was the first woman to collect and provide a commentary on forty hadith in the field of Tawhid and other attributes of God, Akhlaq, Ahkam, with the expression of philosophy, mysticism and jurisprudence. She published them under the title of Arba’in Hashemiya.
2. Makhzan al-laali fi Manaqeb Mawla al- Mawali: This work is dedicated to Ali ibn Abi Talib and his virtues.
3. Seyr-o-suluk dar ravesh-e awliyah va tariq-e seyr-e So’ada: This work explains the method and stages of the gnostic in his spiritual ascent toward God.
4. Ma’ad ya akharin seyr-e bashar (The resurrection or the last journey of the Human): This work is about life after death.
5. Ravesh-e khushbakhti va towsiye be kh‚haran-e imani (The road to happiness and recommendation to the sisters in Faith)
6. Akhlaq va rahe Sa’adat (Ethics and the way to happiness): This work is Banu Amin’s translation, with notes and commentary, of the work of Shaykh Ahmad ibn Maskuyeh, Tahdhib al-Akhlaq wa Tat-hir al-A’raq.
7. Makhzan al-ëIrfan fi Tafsir al-Qur’an (A wealth of Gnosis in the Interpretation of the Qur’an): This tafsir consists of fifteen volumes.
8. Jami’ al-Shatat in Arabic: This work is a collection of all the examination questions of the ëulama and Banu Amin’s replies after becoming mujtahedeh.
9. Al-Nafahat al-Rahmaniyah fi al-waridat al- qalbiyah in Arabic: This work concerns Banu Amin’s personal spiritual and mystical experience, her visions and dreams.
Her works cover a large part of the Islamic sciences such as Fiqh (jurisprudence), Usul (fundamentals of religion), Falsafe (philosophy), Hikma (wisdom), ‘Irfan (Gnosticism), Hadith (Prophetic traditions,) Tafsir (interpretation) and Akhlaq (ethics).
Apart from her intellectual activities, Banu Amin also founded a high school for girls (Dabiristan-e Amin) and a religious education centre (Maktab-e Fatemeh).
A great number of ‘ulama used to visit Banu Amin for the purpose of discussing scientific and spiritual subjects. They came from Isfahan, Tehran, Qum, and Najaf, and included Allama ‘Abd al-Husayn Amini (Kitab al-ghadir), Ayatollah Haeri Shirazi, Ayatollah Safavi Qummi, Allama Tabataba’i (al-Mizan), etc. Banu Amin died in Isfahan on June 16, 1983 (1362 Sh/1403 AH).

c) Allama Tabatabai
Allama Sayyed Muhammad Husayn Tabataba’i was one of the great masters of the traditional sciences in Iran during this century. He was born in 1321 AH/1904 AD into a distinguished family of scholars in Tabriz where he also undertook his earliest religious studies.
He pursued more advanced studies in Najaf and then returned to Tabriz in 1353 AH/1934 AD. In 1945, following the Soviet Occupation of Azerbaijan, he migrated to Qum where he settled until his death in 1402 AH/1981 AD.
From this centre of religious learning, his knowledge began to spread throughout Iran and even beyond. He soon became recognized as one of the major intellectual figures of Shi’ism.
He was an extremely prolific author in addition to teaching throughout the week. He wrote a profusion of books and articles of major intellectual import. His fame rests on his various works, the most significant being his great exegesis of the Qur’an al-Mizan fi Tafsir al-Qur’an.
He wrote several major philosophical works, such as Usul-e Falasafah va Ravesh-e Rialism (The Fundamentals of Philosophy and the Doctrine of Realism) in five volumes, a comparative study of Islamic philosophy and various modern schools of thought, especially Marxism.
He edited the Asfar of Sadr al-Din al- Shirazi with his own commentary, and a selection of commentaries on other masters antecedent to Shirazi, these last collected in seven volumes. Later he composed two masterly summaries of Islamic philosophy: the Bidayat al- Hikam and the Nihayat al-Hikam.
Meanwhile, Allama Tabataba’i continued to work on his Qur’anic commentary, Tafsir al-Mizan, which he finally completed in his mid-seventies. This monumental commentary consisting of more than twenty volumes (written in Arabic and translated into Persian) is one of the most important Qur’anic commentaries of this century and bears witness to its author’s mastery in the domain of the Qur’anic sciences.
This commentary, based on the principle of having one part of the Qur’an interpret other parts (al-Qur’an yufassiru ba’duhu ba’dan), is a summa of Islamic religious thought, in which the sciences of the Qur’an, theology, philosophy, gnosis, sacred history and the social teachings of Islam, are all brought together. He describes the method he adopted in the preface to his tafsir of the Qur’an.
Allama Tabataba’i was not only an outstanding scholar but also a person of great spiritual realization who lived constantly in the remembrance of God. Allama Tabataba’i was, at one and the same time, one of the greatest Qur’anic commentators, a leading contemporary Islamic philosopher in the tradition of Ibn Sina, Suhrawardi and Mulla Sadra, and a gnostic who was at home in both the metaphysical works of Ibn ‘Arabi and the inebriating poetry of Rumi and Hafiz.
36. Muhammad Husayn al-Dhahabi, al-Tafsir wal-Mufassirun, II, P.142
37. Muhammad Husayn al-Dhahabi, al-Tafsir wal-Mufassirun, II, P.104
38. I made a summary of these three works for the life of Banu Amin: 1- Tayyebi N., Banu-ye Irani, 2- Khalili, Marjan Amu : Kuwkab-e durri, 3- Bidhandi, Naser Baqiri, Banu-ye Nemune

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