The Formation of the Classical Tafsir Tradition The Qur’an Commentary of al-Tha`labi (d. 427/1035) by Walid Saleh (Leiden: Brill, 2004. 267 pages.)

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Sajjad H. Rizvi

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Abstract

While one may question the title of the book under review, there is little
doubt that Walid Saleh’s revised Yale doctoral dissertation is a major development
in Qur’anic studies and, in particular, of the exegetical traditions in
Islam. Al-Tha`labi was important, but remains neglected in the field. A Sunni
author widely cited by Shi`i exegetes and polemicists, a traditionist who drew upon Sufi commentaries, and a Muslim thinker interested in pre-Islamic
religious lore, he had a major influence on the development of the Islamic
East’s exegetical traditions. This is signalled by citations from his famous
exegesis Al-Kashf wa al-Bayan, a monumental work that still awaits a critical
edition, and by the disputes during the medieval period over his probity
and reliability.
After a useful introduction to the problematic of exegesis, the book
comprises seven chapters. The introduction is not, however, free from contention.
Saleh would like to argue that al-Tha`labi represents the “intellectual
victory” of Sunnism during a period when it was “weak but most culturally
open”; Sufi exegesis was co-opted some time before al-Ghazzali,
Shi`ism through the incorporation of philo-`Alid material, and rationalism
“dethroned by proclaiming the salvific power of belonging to the Muslim
community.” I am not so sure. While Al-Kashf was influential, al-Tha`labi
was widely derided in the medieval Sunni tradition, not least by every
Islamicist’s favourite bête noire Ibn Taymiyya. His supposed “inclusive”
Sunnism was clearly not favored in a time when Sunni political power dominated
and was institutionally perpetuated in the madrasah. The gradual
development of the nature of Sunni consensus and hegemony probably
explains the process of al-Tha`labi’s work and its reception ...

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