THE COMMENTARY ON THE QURAN, VOL. 1, BY AL-TABARI
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 The Commentary On The Quran By Al Tabari
  • Book Author:
Imam al-Tabari
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The commentary on the Quran, vol. 1, by al-tabari

THE TRANSLATOR’S INTRODUCTION

THIS is the first of five volumes in which it is intended to present an abridged English translation of the whole of Tabari’s commentary on the Qur’an. This commentary consists in greater part, although by no means entirely, of pronouncements on the interpretation of passages of the Qur’an made by the early generations of Muslims, and handed down in the customary Islamic form of Tradition ( adıth, khabar). Indeed, the important place which Tabari’s commentary has held in the Islamic world since its inception is due to the comprehensive collection of these Traditions relevant to Qur’anic interpretation which is to be found therein. in many cases, it provides the only extant source for these early pronouncements.

The purpose of this introduction is to place Tabari’s commentary within the historical framework of the development of Qur’anic exegesis. A short account will also be given of the sources most frequently cited by Taban and of the history of the text of the Qur’an.

Abu Ja’far Muhammad b. Janr b. Yazid b. Kathir b. Ghalib al-Taban was bom at the end of 224 or the beginning of 225 (=AD 839) in Amul in northem Iran, in the region then known as Tabaristan, from which his name, al-Taban, derives. Because he had shown early intellectual promise, his well-to-do father sent him to study in the religious centre of Raiy, near to present-day Tehran. After preliminary studies there, he left for Baghdad, apparently in the hope of studying with the great Traditionist Ahmad b. Hanbal (d. 241/855), founder of the last of the four great Sunni schools of law. There are differing accounts of whether he actually did so or not, for he arrived in Baghdad around the time of lbn Hanbal’s death.

in his late twenties or early thirties he began his joumeys to the important centres of lslamic leaming in search ofTraditions. This was a customary joumey for those who wished to collect Traditions, for one of the main criteria of the authenticity of a Tradition is its chain of transmission (isniid). Traditions were handed down from one trans­ mitter to another, and their names were recorded, the subsequent chain being prefaced to each Tradition in some such form as: ‘A reported to…

Are there foreign Languages in the Quran

……. The tribe of the Quraish said: ‘Why was this Qur’an not sent down in a foreign language (a’jamiyan) as well as in Arabic?’ Whereupon God sent down this verse: «They say: ‘Why are its signs not set forth in a foreign language and in Arabic?’ Say: ‘To the believers it is a guidance and a healing.’» (41: 44).

=>Abu Maisara:

There are ‘expressions in the Qur’an from every language. [6] And there are many Traditions similar to these which, if we were to quote them, would unnecessarily lengthen this book, and which indicate that there are Expressions in the Qur’an which are not from the Arabic language.

Reply:

What these Authorities have related does not contradict what we have just said, since they did not say that these expressions, or expressions similar to them, do not exist in the speech of the Arabs. Nor did they say that they were not part of the Arabs’ way of speaking before the Qur’an was sent down, or that they did not know them before the advent of the Qur’an.

For in that case there would indeed be a contradiction between what they relate and what we say. All that some of them said was that such-and-such an expression means such-and-such in Ethiopic, and that another expression means something else in Persian. We do not deny that there may be some utterances which agree in the speech of the peoples of all different tongues and which have one and the same meaning, let alone that rsuch might be the case between1 just two linguistic communities.

Indeed, we find such agreement common in different languages that we know; for example, dirham, dinar, dawat (= ink-pot), qalam (= pen), qirtas (= paper), and so on. where Persian and Arabic agree in word and meaning. Quite possibly it is the same in other languages which we do not know how to speak ….

objection:

Suppose someone were to say, concerning what we have just stated about the agreement in word and meaning in Persian and Arabic between the expressions we have just enumerated, and between similar expressions we have refrained from mentioning: of these are Persian and not Arabic’; or ‘All of these are Arabic and not Persian.’ Or suppose we were to say: ‘Some of these are Arabic and some Persian; or They were originally Arabic, and then spread and became current in Persian; or ‘They were originally Persian, and then spread to the Arabs and were Arabicized.’

Reply:

The only certain fact is that the expression is employed with the same wording and the same meaning by two linguistic groups. Since the matter is as we have described . . ., there can be no good grounds for one of these groups to claim that the origin lies with them rather than with the other group. He who claims this is claiming something whose soundness could only be established on the basis of a Tradition which led to sure knowledge and eliminated doubt, and whose genuineness cut short any uncertainty.

In our opinion

In our opinion the correct approach to this question is to call these expressions1 Arabo-Persian or Arabo-Ethiopic, since the two rlinguistic1 communities use them as they use the other words in their discourse and speech. It is the same with every part of speech and noun for which different communities have the same word with the same meaning, and which is found to be used in each Community1 in the same way as is the rest of their language

This then is the meaning Intended by those from whom we narrated opinions about ‘various expressions … at the beginning of this section—where one of them related an ‘expression to Ethiopic, another ”related one to Persian, etc—, for someone who relates any one of these ”expressions to whatever he relates it to does not ”thereby . . . deny that it is Arabic, nor does someone who says that one of them is Arabic deny that it is justifiably related to another language….

An affirmation indicates a negation in the case of meanings which cannot be combined with it because they are contradictory, as when someone says ‘So-and-so is standing’, which indicates that he is not sitting down, and so forth …. However, when a meaning is distinct from the meaning of the affirmation it can be combined with it; this is like when someone says ‘So-and-so is standing and talking to so-and-so’, for there is nothing in the affirmation of his standing which indicates that he cannot be talking to someone else, since it is permissible for these two meanings1 to be combined at the same time in a single individual. …

It is the same with what we said about the expressions we mentioned, and others like them,, that it was not impossible that some of them were both Arabic and Persian, or Ethiopic and Arabic, if they were used in both communities. So it is correct, and not false, to relate these Expressions… to either one of the communities or to both of them…

Tabaris view concerning language and community

Tabari raises a hypothetical objection that it is wrong to attribute a word or expression to more than one linguistic community in the same way as it is wrong to say that a human being has two genealogies. Genealogies, he says in refutation, quoting «Call them after their fathers; that is more equitable before God» {33: 5), are to be traced through only one genetic strand, but such is not the case with a linguistic expression where the criterion is merely whether a certain community uses it or not; with such a criterion, it is quite possible for more than one community to lay claim to it. Similarly, he says, if a region is between the coast and the mountains, it is equally correct to call the climate maritime, or montane, or both, since neither of these descriptions contradicts the other.

It is therefore quite incorrect for anyone with sound judgement, who recognizes the truth of the Book of God and recites it, and who is acquainted with God’s normative limits, to believe that one part of the Qur’an is Persian and not Arabic, another Nabatean and not Arabic …, and another Ethiopic and not Arabic, after what God has stated about it, that He made it an Arabic Qur’an.

objection:

But the expressions that ‘you mentioned at the beginning of this section, and those similar to them, are from the speech of nations other than the Arabs; they were adopted by the Arabs and Arabized.

Reply:

What is your incontrovertible proof for the truth of what you say? . . . What is the difference between you and those who oppose you on this matter and say that the origin of these expressions is Arabic?

Tabari pursues this dialectic further to show that without a definite proof neither of the two sides can win the argument.

THE ARABIC DIALECT IN WHICH THE QUR’AN WAS SENT DOWN

For those who have managed to understand it, we have given sufficient proof of the correctness of the opinion that God sent down the whole of the Qur an in the Arabic language, and not in any other of the languages of the nations of mankind, and of the incorrectness of the opinion of those who claim that some of it is not in Arabic or its dialects.

Now we say: If this is true, … in which of the dialects of the Arabs was the Quran sent down? In all of them, or in one of them? For although the Arabs are all called by the one name, they have different ways of expressing themselves, different manners of speaking.

This being the case, and since God has informed His servants that He has made the Qur’an Arabic, and that He has sent it down in a clear, Arabic tongue and since this extensively has both a particular sense, i.e., that it is a particular dialect and a general sense ri.e., that all the dialects are meant, the only way for us to know whether God meant the particular or the general sense is through an explanation by the person to whom the proper explanation of the Qur’an was accorded, and that is the Messenger of God, may God bless him and grant him peace.

The seven Harfs of the Quran

=>Abu Huraira:

The Messenger of God said: ‘The Qur’an was sent down in seven harfs. Disputation concerning the Qur’an is unbelief—he said this three times— ‘and you should put into practice what you know of it, and leave what you do not know of it to someone who does.’ [7]

=>Abu Huraira:

The Messenger of God said: ‘An All-knowing, Wise, Forgiving, Merciful sent down the Qur’an in seven harfs.’ [8 and 9]

=>’Abd Allah b. Mas’ud:

The Messenger of God said: ‘The Qur’an was sent down in seven harfs. Each of these harfs has an outward aspect (zahr) and an inward aspect (batn); each of the harfs has a border, and each border has a lookout.’22 [10 and 11]

=>’Abd Allah b. Mas’ud:

We disputed about a sura of the Qur’an,… about whether there were thirty-five or thirty-six verses. (…) So we hurried to the Messenger of God, and we found ’AH in intimate conversation with him. (…) We said: ‘We differ in recitation.’ The face of the Messenger of God reddened in anger and he said: ‘Those before you perished only because of their disagreements.’ (…) Then he whispered something to ‘AIT, who said to us: ‘The Messenger of God, may God bless him and grant him peace, commands you to recite as you were taught.’ [13]

=>’Umar b. al-Khattab:

I heard Hisham b. Hakim recite the sura of the Furqan during the lifetime of the Messenger of God, may God bless him and grant him peace. I listened to his recitation, and noticed that he was reciting according to many harfs in which the Messenger of God had never had me recite.

I was about to grab hold of him in the middle of his prayer, but I waited till he had recited the final salutations. When he had finished, I seized him by his robe and said: ‘Who taught you to recite the sura which I have just heard you recite?’ He said: ‘The Messenger of God taught me to recite it.’ I said: ‘You are lying. By God, the Messenger of God himself taught me to recite this sura which I have just heard you recite.’

So I hurriedly took him to the Messenger of God and said: ‘O Messenger of God, I have heard this man recite the sura of the Furqan in harfs in which you never taught me to recite it, and it was you yourself who taught me to recite the sura of the Furqan.’ (…) The Messenger of God said: ‘Let him go, ‘Umar; and you, Hisham, recite.’ So he recited for him the recitation I had heard him recite and the Messenger of God said: ‘It was sent down like that.’

Then the Messenger of God said: Now1 you recite, ‘Umar’, and I recited it as the Messenger of God had taught me. Then the Messenger of God said: ‘It was sent down like that.’ Then the Messenger of God said: ‘Indeed, this Qur’an was sent down in seven harfs. You should recite whichever comes easily to you.’

=>*Alqama al-Nakha’I:

When *Abd Allah b. Mas’ud left Kufa, his companions gathered round him. He took leave of them, and said: ‘Do not dispute about the Qur’an. It will not vary, nor will it dwindle or change

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