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Exegesis (tafsír)

by Todd Lawson

published in Encyclopaedia Iranica, Volume 9
New York: Columbia University, 1999
The importance of Koranic exegesis (tafsīr) and interpretation (taʾwīl)—a somewhat arbitrary distinction—for the Bābī and Bahai religions (considered here together) may be gathered from the fact that the inception of the former is dated to the commencement of a work of scriptural interpretation, namely the Bāb’s (Sayyed ʿAlī-Moḥammad Šīrāzī) Tafsīr sūrat Yūsof, and that, in many ways, the most important work in the Bahai canon is the Ketāb-e īqān by Bahāʾ-Allāh. The former is a highly unusual example of the genre and may rightly be thought to go beyond the traditional parameters, both with regard to style and content, although by its title it claims to either remain within the tradition or extend its possibilities. The second work, though certainly not a tafsīr work, is almost completely concerned with the interpretation of various Koranic verses and Islamic, particularly Shiʿite traditions, usually of an eschatological nature. The former work is in Arabic, and the latter is in Persian. Both the Bāb and Bahāʾ-Allāh composed several other works of scriptural interpretation, and, indeed, a large part of the task of the two religions was to convince a Twelver Shiʿite audience that the long period of waiting for the return of the twelfth Imam had ended. The Shiʿite community support their beliefs on the basis of a distinctive interpretation of the Koran, commonly referred to as taʾwīl, and the distinctly Shiʿite corpus of traditions. It is therefore not surprising that claimants to spiritual authority (welāya) within the Shiʿite community would support such claims by reference to and new interpretaion of this same corpus of religious literature. Much of the actual interpretation is figurative, typological, and allegorical. It will be noted that the Tafsīr sūrat Yūsof was completed in the year 1260/1844, or one thousand years after the disappearance of the Hidden Imam in 260/873-74.

Other works of exegesis include the whole range of works by the Bāb entitled Tafsīr or Šarḥ on various suras or verses of the Koran or on partial or whole Hadith ascribed to the Prophet or other personalities sacred to Shiʿism. The most important of these are: Tafsīr sūrat al-baqara, written before the author put forth any special claim to authority during the last months of 1259/1843; Tafsīr sūrat al-kawṯar; and Tafsīr sūra wa’l-ʿaṣr. All of the Bāb’s exegetical works, except for a very few brief excerpts, remain in manuscript (see MacEoin). Bahāʾ-Allāh also wrote other works of exegesis: Tafsīr-e āyat-e koll-e ṭaʿm and Tafsīr sūra wa’l-šams. Other important works of scriptural interpretation in the Bahāʾī case are: Šarh-e konto kanzan maḵfīan by ʿAbd-al-Bahāʾ, son of Bahāʾ-Allāh and appointed by him to lead the Bahai faith after his death, and the numerous apologetic works written by Bahai ʿolamāʾ, such as Mīrzā Abu’l-Fażl Golpāyagānī. Some of these works of interpretation have been the subject of recent scholarship that has attempted to elucidate the way in which heresy so-called is capable of generating an eventual orthodoxy (e.g. Smith; Buck). The Koran remains, of course, a sacred book for Bahais. It is likely, therefore, that future Bahai scholars will continue to write on the meaning of that book.

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