Introduction to Classics

This article was published in Oasis 23. Read the table of contents

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This article is the introduction to A Guide to Reading the Qur’an.

“O you whose intellects keep their sanity, / Do you mark well the doctrine shrouded o’er / By the strange verses with their mystery.” Dante’s warning (Hell IX, 61-63) is an appropriate point of departure for introducing a text that is far removed from contemporary sensibility, but perfectly encapsulates the traditional approach to the Qur’an.

The text in question is The Perfect Guide to the Sciences of the Qur’an, an encyclopaedic work by the Egyptian scholar Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūtī (1445-1505). Al-Suyūtī, who lived at the end of the Mamluk era, is probably the most prolific author in Arabic literature, having composed more than 500 works, ranging from Hadīth criticism to exegesis and Qur’anic recitation, without forgetting law, grammar, linguistics, history and literature. His copious output reflects his concern to preserve the rich cultural patrimony inherited from previous centuries from a decadence that was already palpable by his time. And yet al-Suyūtī, who somewhat immodestly considered himself a genius, scandalized his fellow ulema by adding his own personal glosses to the thoughts of his illustrious predecessors and proclaiming himself a mujtahid (“independent interpreter”) and a renovator. With his synthetic mind, al-Suyūtī is able to sum up centuries of discussion in a few pages before adding his own speculations. This attitude explains the confusing stream of names that punctuate his text. The best way to read it is probably to lose oneself in the polyphony of these different voices working like a counterpoint to the Qur’anic text and generating multiple interpretations.

The first passage is consecrated to the so-called circumstances of revelation. These are traditions that connect the “descent” of a verse to a historical event. Al-Suyūtī defends the value of this Qur’anic science, arguing that – and he surprisingly cites the “Salafi” Ibn Taymiyya –  “explaining the cause of revelation helps understand the verse, because knowledge of the cause leads to knowledge of the caused.” Although current scholarship considers most of these traditions unreliable, seeing them as later attempts to explain obscure passages, the emphasis on context remains valid, even if the way in which this has been translated into practice needs to be reconsidered.

The second passage considers the different levels of meaning in the Qur’an. The author deals with two strictly connected questions: First, whether the Book contains allegorical verses and, secondly, whether human beings can ever know their significance. While the first question is easily answered with a yes on the basis of 3:7, the second issue revolves around the way this verse is read. In fact, and depending on where one stops in recitation, the understanding of the allegories either remains the prerogative of God or else is also extended to “those firmly rooted in knowledge.” Shi‘ite thinkers will be attracted by this perspective, which fully legitimizes the search for a symbolic dimension in the text, whereas many Sunnis will reject this idea, replying that where the verses are unclear, the believer should refer the whole matter to God, without attempting to interpret them. Even so, the fascination of allegorical readings took hold in Sunni circles too, as may be seen from the discordant opinions mentioned in the text from such important figures as Ibn ‘Abbās, Muhammad’s cousin, to whom Islamic tradition has bestowed the honorific title of “interpreter of the Qur’an.”

Abrogating and abrogated verses (passage 3) form the classic theme of Islamic legal thinking, which teaches that, in case of conflicting rules, the most recent verse shall replace the oldest. In fact, al-Suyūtī specifies the different types of abrogation, largely following his predecessors. The case of a verse abrogating another verse – such as the interdiction of wine (5:90), which revokes the authorization originally granted to Muslims to consume it (16:67) – is one of only three possible situations, and occurs in just 21 incidences. Al-Suyūtī adopts here a bold stance, which is implicitly contrasted with the view of the jurist Ibn al-‘Arabī for whom the Verse of the Sword alone would abrogate 124 more tolerant verses.

The other two modes of abrogation open up potential pits of sense. To begin with, the Qur’an is said to have contained verses that were abrogated both in the letter and the rule. But of even greater import is the case of verses that are considered to be abrogated in the letter, but not in the rule they lay down. The best known example is the punishment for adultery. A reading of the Qur’an reveals that the penalty for unlawful sexual intercourse is either prison (4:15) or flogging (24:2), but Muslim law prescribes stoning, which is justified with reference to a verse that would have been abrogated in the letter, nevertheless retaining the force of law. In short, the argument is based on an invisible verse. Al-Suyūtī cuts cleanly by likening these “implicit abrogations” to the sacrifice of Abraham. Just as the patriarch was willing to offer up his son on the basis of a vague night vision, so the exegete is called in these instances to sacrifice his reason in the name of a tradition that is only likely to be true.

But how does one write a good commentary? Al-Suyūtī explains this in the last passage. The principle the rabbis first expressed, “There is no before or after in the Torah,” is also crucial to al-Suyūtī and to Muslim scholars in general, for whom one verse can illustrate the meaning of another, irrespective of their location in the Book. Where the text remains obscure, however, the first authorized interpreter is the Prophet, and then his Companions. This principle is at the heart of Sunnism: it is the cornerstone of its method of interpretation and the driving force of its spirituality.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

To cite this article

Printed version:
Martino Diez, “At the Heart of Sunnism: The first Interpreter is the Prophet, Then His Companions”, Oasis, year XII, n. 23, July 2016, pp.96-97.

Online version:
Martino Diez, “At the Heart of Sunnism: The first Interpreter is the Prophet, Then His Companions”, Oasis [online], published on 29th July 2016, URL: