Twelver Shi'i Tafsir

Tehseen Thaver

in Islamic Studies

ISBN: 9780195390155
Published online June 2012 | | DOI:
Twelver Shi'i Tafsir

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The doctrine of walaya (guardianship of the Imams) is a central and distinguishing principle of the Twelver (Imami) Shiʿi school, according to which it is believed that after the death of the Prophet, the community is guided by the twelve chosen Imams, beginning with ʿAli ibn Abi Talib (d. 661 ce). A critical aspect of the doctrine of walaya and the authority of the Imams is their inextricable link to the Qurʾan. The teaching of the Imams as the hermeneutical key to interpreting the Qurʾan is invoked by scholars and community members alike. There are many ways in which this link between the Imams and the Qurʾan is upheld. In the tradition of Qurʾan interpretation, Hadith literature (which preserves the teachings of the Imams) is a fundamental source of authority for exegetes in their effort to “explain” the verses. In addition, sayings and stories of the Imams are integral to the narratives that animate and authorize the thriving tradition of sermons (in Muharram and otherwise). Moreover, at the level of individuals, the Qurʾanic encounter is mediated by the Imams through believers’ recourse to Hadith literature as well as through the cultivation of a personal relationship with the Imams, whom they regard as their teachers and living exemplars of the Qurʾan. What is evident in each of these interactions is the governing role of the Imams’ teachings as a critical hermeneutical device for accessing the Qurʾan in the Twelver tradition. Yet, within the formal genre of textual tafsir, the interpretive approaches of exegetes have also significantly differed on the basis of how strictly they employ the sayings of the Imams as the sole source of authority in their commentaries. It is very common to find exegetes that draw from extraneous sources and liberally incorporate independent authorial comments into their works. Furthermore, the corpus of Twelver tafsir includes writings in multiple languages from the Persian, Arab, and Indic regions, which vary in their interpretive frameworks (legal, mystical, philosophical, grammatical, liturgical, and other). Thus, “Twelver tafsir” as a tradition includes a diverse collection of commentaries of varying styles. This questions the usefulness of placing them all under a single heading, as is done here. However, a more nuanced classification of Twelver tafsir literature demands and is in wait of a better understanding of the widely differing epistemological assumptions, target audiences, motivations, aesthetic styles and rhetorical strategies adopted by authors writing under very different conditions. Also crucial to consider are the numerous genres in which exegetical discussions can be found, apart from the formal genre of tafsir itself. This includes Hadith compendiums, poetical works, and Muharram sermons, to name a few. While these diverse modes of engagement have remained largely unexamined in Euro-American scholarship, the formal genre of textual tafsir has received some attention in the last three or four decades. A selection from this scholarship is discussed below.

Article.  5481 words. 

Subjects: Islam

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