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The Tafseer al-Jalalayn

About This Project

The Azzagra Foundation is firmly committed to the translation project of the Tafsîr alJalalayn. The translation, in which our editorial staff is working currently, will be completed by the end of 2016, in shâ’a Allâh.
The fifteenth-century Qur’anic commentary or Tafsîr of «the two Jalâls» (al-Jalâlayn) —the Egyptian Shafi‘i-madhhab scholar Jalâl al-Dîn Muhammad b. Ahmad al-Mahallî (d. 864 AH / 1459 CE), and his (also Egyptian) student, the famous ‘âlim and polymath, Jalâl al-Dîn ‘Abd al-Rahmân b. Abî Bakr al-Suyûtî (d. 911 AH / 1505 CE)— is one of the most popular Tafsīrs in the Islamic world, perhaps even the most popular Tafsīr. Copies of it are available in almost every bookshop and library in the Arab and Islamic world, in dozens of different editions, and it sits, well-loved and respected, in countless homes, schools and mosques all over the world. Moreover, of the great Sunni Orthodox Classical Tafsîrs —what might be called the «unofficial Sunni Canon of Tafsîr— namely, the Tafsîrs of al-Tabarî, al-Râzî, al-Qurtubî, al-Baydâwî, Ibn Kathîr and Jalâlayn, it is by far the shortest and easiest to read and understand. Consequently, it is invariably read as an introduction to classical Tafsīrs by millions of students and adults who never go further into the subject, and it is the only Tafsīr they ever come to know extensively. Finally, because it is so accessible and ubiquitous, and because in Arabic it is always printed in a single volume, in the margins of the Qur’an itself (where it fits quite easily and legibly), it is habitually used as an instant reference work for words in the Qur’an whose meaning is not immediately clear to the modern reader, and this arguably is its real forte. It is thus an immensely successful and influential work not just as the classic introduction to Tafsîr, but also as the standard reference work for the language of the Qur’an. The Tafsîr al-Jalâlayn is usually categorized as a tafsīr bi-l-ma’thûr —that is, a «commentary based upon transmitted knowledge» (from the Hadîth, the first Tafsîrs and the early Islamic history books, usually)— this being the primary category of perhaps
six or seven traditional categories of Tafsîr.

This, however, is deceptive. In fact, in addition to the material handed down from the time of the Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h.), the Tafsîr al-Jalâlayn uses a number of different approaches to explaining the Qur’anic text, not all of which can be attributed only to transmitted Tradition or tafsîr bi-l-ma’thūr. These include precisely «linguistic commentary», «legal or Shari‘ah commentary» and tafsîr bi-l-tafsîr. They also include, however, a few other elements, perhaps no less important. Thus, in addition to: (1) giving transmitted explanations and quoting hadîths about Qur’anic verses, (2) providing Arabic synonyms for difficult Qur’anic words, (3) elaborating on legal explanations of verses, and (4) putting into context, perspective and mutual definition verses from the Qur’an using other verses about related matters (i.e. practicing tafsîr bi-l-tafsîr), the Tafsîr al-Jalâlayn uses the following commentary strategies: (5) It gives the asbâb al-nuzûl (the «occasions for Revelation», that is, what was happening to and around the Prophet (p.b.u.h.) when a verse or verses were Revealed (ostensibly in answer to these circumstances) for selected verses when they are known (this of course is a purely ma’thûr element of commentary). (6) It indicates which verses are abrogated (mansûkh) and which verses abrogate (nâsikh). (7) It notes the seven (or ten) different «readings» (qirâ’ât) of the Holy Qur’an and briefly discusses their divergent emphases.
(8) It discusses the grammar of the Qur’an according to that of the Arabic language, and explains the arcane grammatical forms occasionally to be found in the Qur’an.
(9) It clarifies many Arabic and Qur’anic linguistic tropes by filling in deliberate omissions and ellipses strategically employed in the Qur’an, and by suggesting meanings for synecdoche, metonymy, metaphor and allusion used in Arabic.
(10) Finally, it fills in, based largely on the Bible and its Rabbinical and Patristic Commentaries gleaned mostly from early Christian and Jewish converts to Islam (and therefore containing some polemical and apocryphal material), the historical order, details and context of many of the stories in the Qur’an concerning the Biblical Prophets and Jesus (p.b.u.h.) and his family and disciples. This element is known in Arabic as Isrâ’îliyyât («Tales of the Children of Israel»), and it is extremely useful for understanding the background —and therefore also the meaning (symbolic or otherwise)— of many of the tales of the Qur’an, such that few if any Classical Commentaries have ever able been able to ignore it.
Reading the Tafsīr al-Jalālayn, one immediately understands that, despite the number of elements and strategies that its authors employ (as just listed), its primary and overriding goal is only to clarify the immediate sense of the Qur’anic text, thereby facilitating the reading of the Qur’an. There are no digressions, no distractions, no embellishments, nothing superfluous, and nothing whose sole purpose is not to elucidate an ambiguity in the text of the Qur’an or to explain something that is not self evident.

Moreover, the commentary itself is made to fit in between the verses or phrases or words of the Qur’an without interrupting its sense as read, thereby generally forming one continuous, uninterrupted flow of holy text and commentary. It is thus as if the two Jalâls wanted to remove any obstacles to understanding any word or sense in the holy text so that even the simplest reader might recite the Qur’an and immediately
understand at least its literal meaning. In this sense the Tafsîr al-Jalâlayn is what the word «Tafsîr» literally means —an «explanation»— and not what the word has come to mean by extension (namely: «commentary» or «interpretation»). This is doubtless what makes the Tafsîr al-Jalâlayn invaluable as an introductory classical tafsîr, and is the secret of its timeless popularity.
In order to better understand and situate the Tafsîr al-Jalâlayn, mention must be now made of all the Commentary strategies and methods the Tafsîr al-Jalâlayn does not use. These are: (1) There is no tafsîr bi-l-ra’y or «individual interpretation»: the two authors never give their personal opinions, never speculate, never give their thoughts and reactions, never cite poetry, adages or popular sayings to illustrate a point, and always stick to what they understand of transmitted tradition.
(2) There are no mystical inspirations or spiritual insights about passages in the Qur’an of the kind also just mentioned.
(3) There are no theological discussions of God’s Names, Qualities, Attributes, Words or Sunan and in fact there is no Theology as such at all to be found in the Tafsîr alJalâlayn.
(4) There are no philosophical discussions based on the laws of logic, on syllogisms, induction, deduction, and dialectic; equally there are no didactic and rhetorical questions and answers sessions of the kind some tafsîrs use.
(5) There are no discussions of symbolism in the Qur’an of the kind described above: neither microcosmic, nor anagogical nor even allegorical or moral. In fact, the very issue of symbolism is not even broached.
(6) There are no semantic investigations of Arabic words, and no citations of Jâhiliyya poetry as semantic references and guarantees of the connotations, implications and nuances of the words in the Qur’an.
(7) There is no etymological study of the roots of Arabic words and letters and their basic meanings: every Arabic word can be traced to a tri-letteral or quadri-letteral root, and these roots have a basic meaning which is usually connected to some natural phenomenon; from these «root words» dozens of forms and hundreds of derivatives are produced, such that once the root word is known the form and the meaning of any derivative word can be deduced. Thus etymology in Arabic, more than in modern languages, is extremely useful in understanding the exact meaning and behaviour of any indigenous word. The Tafsîr al-Jalâlayn, however, does not delve into this.
(8) Anterior to even the meaning of root words in Arabic is the archetypal meaning of the 28 Arabic letters themselves which make up every word in the Arabic language (and ultimately their root meanings), and each one of which has a form, a sound, a behaviour, and even a corresponding number that exactly reflects its archetypal meaning. These archetypal meanings in turn translate into universal principles and thus into lunar house
(there are 28 or 29 traditional lunar houses), so that all existent things can ultimately be associated with one of them. This idea —the idea that there is a perfect symbolism and exact meaning to every aspect of the Arabic letters— is evidently a difficult and esoteric idea, but it is precisely the foundation of a number of arcane but sacred sciences in Islam. Moreover, more importantly for Tafsīr, 29 of the Qur’an’s 114 Sûras or Chapters start with Arabic letters enunciated on their own without forming words (e.g. Alif, Lâm, Mîm; Nûn; Qâf; Sâd, and so on). The Tafsîr al-Jalâlayn, however, completely ignores this issue, and when it comes to these letters at the beginning of Sûras merely remarks: «God knows better what is meant by this». (9) The Tafsîr al-Jalâlayn does not explore the traditional gharâ’ib al-Qur’ân («the wondrous-strange features of the Qur’an», and does not address or explain the more complex linguistic tropes to be found in it: it does not explain possible meanings clothed by rhetoric, hyperbole and tautology; and does not resolve apparent antinomies and dialectics. (10) More unusually for a tafsîr bi-l-ma’thûr, the Tafsīr al-Jalālayn gives no isnâds (chains of transmission) for any of the hadiths it quotes, and mentions earlier Tafsîrs to which it is heavily indebted only rarely. This is, evidently, in order to keep the Tafsîr as simple as possible. (11) With occasional exceptions, the Tafsîr al-Jalâlayn —and this is unusual for a tafsîr bi-l-ma’thûr— does not relate the Fadâ’il al-Qur’ān: in many of the traditional collections of hadith there are specific sections devoted to what the Prophet (p.b.u.h.) related about the merits of certain verses of the Qur’an and about effects of reciting them at certain times. These are known as «Fadâ’il al-Qur’ân» —literally, «the bounties or excellences of the Qur’an»—, and constitute the basis of Islamic supererogatory prayer litanies.
(12) There is, in the Tafsîr al-Jalâlayn, no calling attention to the «inner architecture» of the Qur’an, showing exactly why certain words and near-synonyms are used in given contexts and not others,
(13) There are obviously no modern political musings on Qur’anic verses, nor are there any modern scientific interpretations of Qur’anic verses about cosmological, biological or even historical principles or facts .
(14) Finally, the Tafsîr al-Jalâlayn usually only gives one meaning for the Qur’anic text (and at most, three alternate meanings). This it does despite the existence of different hadiths and reports from the Companions confirming more than one meaning of many verses, and despite verses of the Qur’an enjoining meditation upon the Qur’an, and hadiths indicating many possible meanings of at least the Qur’an’s «allegorical» verses. This is the Tafsîr al-Jalâlayn greatest «weakness», but perhaps also its greatest strength for it is precisely what makes the work so accessible.
In summary then, it can be said that despite the great erudition and wide range of Commentary strategies employed in the Tafsîr al-Jalâlayn, there are even more strategies which the Tafsîr has in general deliberately not employed. Living as they did,
more or less after the end of the classical tradition of commentary, its two authors had the advantage of having easy access to the great works of classical tafsîrs and to their methods, but they deliberately summarized, streamlined or simplified these, in order to stay focused on their one overriding aim: to make the literal meaning of the Holy Qur’an completely intelligible in the simplest possible way.

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