Friday, May 21, 2010

GUEST POST: Classical Tafasir (Qur'anic Commentary) & Sayyid Qutb

Introductory Note: The guest post below is the fourth in an occasional series of guest editorials by friends and colleagues whose opinions I value, and which are based on a solid foundation of knowledge, both "academic"/scholastic and experiential. As is the norm with all editorial pages, here is the requisite disclaimer that, "the opinions expressed in the editorials are solely those of the author, and they do not necessarily represent the views of the blog administrator or other guest contributors to Views from the Occident." I encourage readers to engage with the guest editorialists, and with me, in the "Comments," as opposed to responding via the e-mail listserv. The purpose of these editorials is to expand the points of view published on Occident, and to encourage the exchange of views.

The fourth guest post, in the form of a graduate research paper, examines the popular and widely distributed commentary on the Qur'an (tafsir ; plural: tafasir) by the late Egyptian Islamist intellectual and prolific writer Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), a member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan) who was executed by the government of Egyptian president Gamal 'Abd al-Nasir (Nasser) on August 29, 1966. Qutb, once a leading intellectual of the Egyptian Ikhwan, has since been the subject of an intense debate among its leaders and activists (see pgs. 69-71 in The Global Mufti, edited by Bettina Gräf and Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen, and Nathan Brown's recent essay at the web site of Foreign Policy magazine's Middle East Channel). Today, Qutb is more frequently cited by transnational jihadis than leaders of the Egyptian Ikhwan. Selections from his writings have been cited by groups such as Al-Qa'ida Central (AQC) and the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), for example in the latter's 2009 video, "Strong Motivation is of Great Importance" الهمة مهمة .

One of Qutb's most famous works is his massive 30-volume Qur'anic tafsir entitled Fi Zilal al-Qur'an (In the Qur'an's Shadow, In the Shade of the Qur'an), much of which was penned between 1954 and 1964 during his lengthy stint in an Egyptian government prison. It has been translated in full from the original Arabic into a number of other languages, including English. It is this commentary, and specifically the section on the first chapter (surah) of the Qur'an, Al-Fatiha (The Opening), that is the focus of guest poster Aaron Y. Zelin's research paper (embedded below).

Zelin has just completed his M.A. in Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at Brandeis University, where he wrote his graduate thesis on the intellectual origins of Al-Qa'ida's ideology. In his thesis, Zelin attempted to provide a more interdisciplinary approach to understanding the phenomenon of Al-Qa'ida in the broad sweep of Islamic history. His research was built upon extensive use of primary source materials. This summer, he will be living in Fez, Morocco where he will be studying Modern Standard Arabic and taking a course taught in Arabic on the history of the Qur'an and the development of the Qur'anic exegetical tradition. Readers may contact him via e-mail: aaron.zelin [at] gmail [dot] com or follow him on Twitter (which I highly recommend). He also maintains a blog, al-Maktabah – المكتبة .

His research paper below was originally written for a graduate seminar. It is a work in progress and is not meant to be an exhaustive detailing of each exegete (mufassir) and their work. Rather, its main contribution is a comparative examination of how Qutb's influential tafsir compares to those written by four other exegetes representing both and Twelver Shi'i Islam: Prof. Mahmoud M. Ayoub, Abu 'Abdullah al-Qurtubi, Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari, and Ayatullah al-Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabataba'i.

The paper is copyrighted by Aaron Y. Zelin and may not be reproduced or cited without prior permission from the author.

Paper Introduction:

Within and since the century that the Qur’ān was revealed, individuals steeped and qualified in Islamic education have written commentaries (tafāsīr pl. of tafsīr) on the message of the Qur’ān. These commentators or mufassir used different tools in the sciences of the Qur’ān, such as ḥadīth (Prophetic tradition), asbāb al-nuzūl (occasions of revelation), ‘ilm al-lughah (linguistics), ‘ilm al-qūwā’id (grammar), as well as others to better understand and establish an interpretation of what a specific word, verse (’āyah) or chapter (sūrah) of the Qur’ān meant. Some in the modern era, though, specifically radical Sunni Islamists or Jihadists, do not have training in Islamic studies yet still believe it is valid to write a tafsīr. One of these individuals was Sayyid Qutb, who is now well known for his influence on Jihadists.

As such, this paper will briefly explore Qutb’s tafsīr, Fī Ẓilāl al-Qur’ān (In the Shade of the Qur’ān), in light of classically written tafāsīr to determine how similar or different Qutb’s methodology and understanding of the Qur’ān is in the broad sweep of Islamic history. To do this, the paper will enumerate three ways to expound on the above question: (1) the qualifications classically trained mufassir explain one should possess prior to writing a tafsīr; (2) comparison of the methodological tools used by classically trained mufassir and Qutb; and (3) an examination of classically trained mufassir and Qutb’s interpretation of Sūrat al-Fātiḥah (chapter of the opening/beginning). By exploring these three areas, this paper will hopefully shed some light on the similarities and differences between aspects of Qutb’s tafsīr with the tafāsīr of the following mufassir: Mahmoud M. Ayoub, Abū ‘Abdullah al-Qurṭubī, Muḥammad Ibn Jarīr al-Ṭabarī and Muḥammad Ḥusayn Ṭabāṭabā’ī.

Classical Tafāsīr and Sayyid Qutb

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