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The Qur'an Commentary of Sayyid 'Alí Muhammad, the Báb:
Doctoral dissertation

by Todd Lawson

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Chapter 4

Concluding Remarks

In order to account for the triggering of the interpretive process, we must assume at the outset that the production and reception of discourse ... obey a very general rule of pertinence, according to which if a discourse exists there must be a reason for it. So that when at first glance a given discourse does not obey this rule, the receiver's spontaneous reaction is to determine whether the discourse might not reveal its pertinence through some particular manipulation. "Interpretation" ... is what we call this manipulation. - Todorov

The Tafsír súrat Yúsuf has been examined enough to allow us to make a few very general observations. It is clear that the work is most unusual vis á vis the tafsír tradition, or for that matter any other genre of Arabic literature. It would appear that by categorizing the work as tafsír the author wished it to be read and judged in this context. This of course raises the question of what in fact distinguishes tafsír, from other types of literature. It should not be assumed that because the Bab was not a typical religious scholar that he was therefore unaware of the standard works of tafsír. But neither should it be assumed that he thought this work should be received as a continuation of that tradition. In view of the earlier Tafsír súrat al-baqara, the contrary would seem to be the case. However different from the main sources of Shí`í Qur'an commentary, the earlier tafsír exhibits many of the usual approaches and methods found in those works. In composing this later commentary, the Bab was attempting a break with a tradition which he perceived as moribund. This was especially so in the context of the advent of a new order for which he himself claimed to be the herald.

In spite of Browne's statement that the Tafsír súrat Yúsuf is inappropriately titled, it is abundantly clear that not only does it offer interpretive statements on the súra of Joseph, but comments on a large portion of the rest of the Qur'an in the process, albeit usually by means of paraphrase. There is no doubt that the work is unusual; but to say that it is not interpretive, or that it does not "make clear" what the Qur'an meant (at least to the Bab) is either not to have read it, or to have imposed upon it too rigid a notion about what constitutes tafsír, which is after all "explanation".

The work itself is the result of a re-ordering of the basic elements of the scripture of Islam which have been internalized and transformed by the apparently opposite processes of imitation and inspiration to become finally an original "act" of literature. The tools for this transformation were allegorical and typological exegesis through the "heresy of paraphrase". Taken as a whole, this commentary by the twenty-five year old merchant from Shiraz, represents a text within a text which strives to interpret itself. It may be thought to offer an example of an attempt to transform what became known much later as the hermeneutic circle[1134] into what might be called a hermeneutic spiral.

By comparing these two works, written by the same author within a few months of each other, we see how differently the act of interpretation is capable of expressing itself. The first work may be thought to continue an earlier tradition of transforming history into tafsír. With the second work not only do we have a new example for the history of tafsír, but as a call to action, it presents the phenomenon of tafsír directly producing history, in a sense, becoming history.



BSB Bahá'í Studies Bulletin.

BSOAS Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies.

EI1 Encyclopedia of Islam, 1st edition.

EI2 Encyclopedia of Islam, 2nd edition.

ER Encyclopedia of Religion, Edited by M. Eliade. New York: MacMillan & Free Press, 1987.

Eranos Eranos-Jahrb¸cher.

IJMES International Journal of Middle East Studies

JAOS Journal of the American Oriental Society.

JRAS Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society.

MW The Muslim World.

SEI The Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam.

SI Studia Islamica.


Risála fí sharh wa tafsír ism alláh al-a`zam (Sayyid Kázim Rashtí)

School of Oriental and African Studies Library, Ar. 92308 (ff.271a-74a).

Risála fí al-sulúk (The Bab)

Tehran Bahá'í Archives, 6006.C (pp.73-4).

Tafsír súrat al-baqara (The Bab)

Tehran Bahá'i Archives, 6014.C. (Baq.)

Cambridge University Library, Browne Or. Ms. F8. (C)

Leiden University Library, Or.4971 (Ar.2414). Item No. 8. (L)

Iran National Bahá'í Archives (private publication): Majmú`ah-ye áthár hadrat-i A`lá, pp.156-410. (I)

Tafsír súrat Yúsuf (The Bab)

Haifa, Bahá'í World Centre (uncatalogued). (QA)

Cambridge University Library, Browne Or. Ms. F11.

Tafsír súrat al-kawthar (The Bab)

Cambridge University Library, Browne Or. Ms. F10.

Tafsír súrat wa'l-`asr (The Bab)

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