The Science of Qur'anic Commentary and the Different Groups of Commentators
After the death of the Prophet a group of his companions, including Ubayy ibn Ka'b, 'Abd Allah ibn Mas'ud, Jabir ibn 'Abd Allah al-Ansarl, Abu Sa'ld al-Khudrl, 'Abd Allah ibn al-Zubayr, 'Abd Allah ibn 'Umar, Anas, Abu Hurayrah, Abu Musa, and, above all, the famous 'Abd Allah ibn 'Abbas, were occupied with the Science of Commentary. Just as they had heard the Prophet explaining the meanings of the verses, they would transmit it orally to other trustworthy persons.
The traditions specifically concerned with the subject of Qur'anic verses number over two hundred and forty; many were transmitted through weak chains of transmission and the texts of some have been rejected as incorrect or forged. Sometimes the transmission would include commentaries based on personal judgments rather than on a narration of the actual sayings, hadiths, from the Prophet. The later Sunni commentators considered this kind of commentary as part of the body of Sayings of The Prophet, since the companions were learned in the science of Qur'anic commentary. They argued that these companions had aquired their knowledge of this science from the Prophet himself and that it was unlikely they would say anything which they themselves had invented.
There is, however, no absolute proof for their reasoning. A large proportion of these sayings, or traditions, about the reasons and historical circumstances of the revelation of verses do not possess an acceptable chain of narration. It should be noted that many of the narrators like Ka'b al-Akhbar, were learned companions who had belonged to the Jewish faith before accepting Islam. Moreover, it should not be overlooked that Ibn 'Abbas usually expressed the meanings of verses in poetry. In one of his narrations over two hundred questions of Nafi' ibn al-Azraq are replied to in the form of poetry; al-Suyutl in his book, al-Itqan, related one hundred and ninety of these questions. It is evident, therefore, that many of the narrations made by the commentators amongst the companions cannot be counted as actual narrations from the Prophet himself; therefore, such additional material related by the companions must be rejected.
The second group of commentators were the companions of the followers (tabi'un), who were the students of the companions. Amongst them we find Mujahid, Sa'ld ibn Jubayr, 'Ikrimah and Dahhak. Also from this group were Hasan al-Basri, 'Ata' ibn Abi Rabah,, 'Ata' ibn Abi Muslim, Abu al-'Aliyah, Muhammad ibn Ka'b al-Qurazl, Qatadah, 'Atiyah, Zayd ibn Aslam, Ta'us al-Yamam." The third group were comprised of the students of the second group, namely, Rabi' ibn Anas, 'Abd al-Rahman ibn Zayd ibn Aslam, Abu Salih al-Kalbi and others.
The Tabi'un sometimes narrated the commentary on a verse as a tradition of the Prophet or of the companions and, sometimes, they explained its meaning without attributing a narrator to the source, this they did especially when there was any doubt as to the identity of the narrator. The later commentators treat these narrations as traditions of the Prophet, but count them as mawquf in their science of the levels of hadiths (that is as a tradition whose chain of narration does not reach back to the Prophet) .
The fourth group comprised the first compilers of commentaries, like Sufyan ibn 'Uyaynah, Wah' ibn al-Jarrah, Shu'ban al-Hajjaj and 'Abd ibn Humayd; others from this group include Ibn Jarir al-Tabarl, the author of the famous Qur'anic Commentary. This group recorded the sayings of the companions and the followers of the companions with a chain of narrators in their works of commentary; they avoided expressing personal opinions except, perhaps, Ibn Jarir al-Tabarl who sometimes expressed his views by indicating his preference when discus- sing two similar traditions. The basis of the work of later groups may be traced to this group. The fifth group omitted the chain of narrators in their writings and contented themselves with a simple relation of the text of the traditions. Some scholars regard these commentators as the source of varying views in the commentaries by connecting many traditions to a companion or a follower without verifying their validity or mentioning their chain of narration.
Consequently, confusion has arisen allowing many false traditions to enter the body of traditions, thus undermining the reputation of this section of hadith literature. Careful examination of the chains of transmission of the traditions leaves one in doubt as to the extent of the deceitful additions and false testimonies. Many conflicting traditions can be traced to one companion or follower and many traditions, which are complete fabrications, may be found amongst this body of narrations. Thus reasons for the revelation of a particular verse, including the abrogating and abrogated verses, do not seem to ac- cord with the actual order of the verses.
No more than one or two of the traditions are found to be acceptable when submitted to such an examination. It is for this reason that Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, who himself was born before this generation of narrators, said, "Three things have no sound base: military virtues, bloody battles and the traditions pertaining to Qur'anic commentary." Imam al-Shafi' relates that only about one hundred traditions from Ibn 'Abbas have been confirmed as valid. The sixth group consists of those commentators who appeared after the growth and development of the various Islamic Sciences and each undertook the study of Qur'anic commentary according to his specialization: al-Zajjaj studied the subject from the grammatical point of view; al-Wahidi and Abu Hayyan' investigated the verses by studying the inflection of the verbs, the vowels and the diacritical points.
There is also commentary on the rhetoric and eloquence of the verses by al-Zamakhsharii in his work entitled al-Kashshaf. There is a theological discussion in the "Grand Commentary" of Fakhr al-Dm al-Razi. The gnosis of Ibn al-'Arabi and 'Abd al-Razzaq al-Kashanl treated in their commentaries. Other narrators, like al-Tha'lab, record the history of transmission of the traditions. Some commentators, among them al-Qurtubl, concentrate on aspects of fiqh (jurisprudence).
There also exists a number-of commentaries composed of many of these sciences, such as Ruh al-Bayan by Shaykh Isma'il Haqql, Ruh. al-ma'ani by Shihab al Din Mahmud al-Alusl al-Baghdadl Chara'ib al-Qur'an by Nizam al-Din al-Nisaburi. This group rendered a great service to the Science of Qur'anic commentary in that it brought the Science out of a state of stagnation (characteristic of the fifth group before it), and developed it into a Science of precise investigation and theory.
However, if one were to examine closely the precision of this group's research, one would see. that much of its Qur'anic commentary imposes its theories onto the Qur'an rather than allowing the content of the verses to speak for themselves.
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The Methods Used by the Shi'ite Cmmentators and their Different Groupings
All the groups mentioned above are Sunni commentators. Their method, used in the earliest commentaries of this period, was based on ijtihad, that is, the reports of the companions and the followers of the companions were examined according to certain rules in order to reach an acceptable understanding of the text. This resulted in varying opinions amongst those making ijtihad and caused disorder, contradiction and, even, fabrication to enter into the body of the traditions. The method employed by the Shi'ite commentators, however, was different, with the result that the patterning of the groups was also different.
The Shi'ite commentators in their study of a verse of the Qur'an, viewed the explanation given by the Prophet as proof of the meaning of the verse, they did not accept the saying of the companions, or the followers, as indisputable proof that the tradition was from the Prophet. The Shiite commentators only recognized as valid an unbroken chain of narration from the Prophet and through members of his family. Accordingly, in using and transmitting the verses concerning Qur'anic commentary, they restricted themselves to the use of traditions transmitted by the Prophet and by the Imams of the Prophet's family. This has given rise to the following groups:
The first group comprises those who have learned these traditions from the Prophet and from the Imams of the Prophet's family, studying and recording them according to their own method but not in any particular order. Among them we may mention such scholars as Zararah, Muhammad ibn Muslim, Ma'ruf and Jarir who were companions of the fifth and sixth Imams.
The second group comprises the first compilers of the commentaries, like Furat ibn Ibrahim al-Kufi, Abu Hamzah al-Thumali, Muhammad al-'Ayyashi, 'Ali ibn Ibrahim al-Qummi and al-Nu'mani who lived between the second and fourth centuries after HiUrah. The method of this group was similar to that of the fourth Sunni group of Commentators. Thus, they avoided any kind of ijtihad or passing of judgment. We should remember that the Imams of the Prophet's family were living amongst Muslims and available for questioning (on matters of commentary, for example) for a period of almost three hundred years. Thus the first groups were not divided chronologically but rather according to their relationship with the Imams. There are very few who recorded the tradition without a chain of transmission.
As an example, we should mention one of the students of al-'Ayyashi who omitted to record the chains of transmission. It was his work, instead of the original of al-'Ayyashi which came into common use. The third group comprises masters of various sciences, like al-Sharif al-Radl who provided a commentary concerned with Qur'anic language and Shaykh al-Tusl who wrote a commentary and analysis on metaphysical matters. Included, too, is Sadr al-DIn al-Shirazl's philosophic work, al-Maybudi al-Kunabadl's gnostic commentary and 'Abd 'Ah al-Huwayzl's commentary Nur al-thaqalayn.
Hashim al-Bahrani composed the commentary al-Burhan' and al-Fayd al-Kashani compiled the work known as al-Safi. There were others who brought together many different themes to their commentaries, like Shaykh al-Tabarsi who in his Majma' al-bayan researches different fields of language, grammar, Qur'an recitation, gnosis of death, after-life and paradise, and knowledge of the traditions.