EXEGESIS vi. In Aḵbārī and Post-Safavid Esoteric Shiʿism



vi. In Aḵbārī and Post-Safavid Esoteric Shiʿism

Aḵbārī exegesis of the Koran, the style and content of which are much older than the Safavid period, became during that time a common method of interpreting Islamic scripture. Pre-Safavid or classical works of Aḵbārī exegesis were not explicitly esoteric in nature in that they preserved both the exoteric and esoteric teachings of the Prophet and the Imams. The renewed emphasis on Aḵbārī exegesis during the Safavid period, however, happened at a time when esoteric, theosophical (ḥekmat-e elāhī), speculation on the nature and function of the Prophet Moḥammad, Fāṭema, and the twelve Imams, i.e., the Čahārdah Maʿṣūm (q.v., “Fourteen Infallible Ones”), had reached something of a peak as a result of the long and rich Islamic intellectual venture that is seen to begin its written life in the Koran and to be cultivated in successive stages in intimate contact with Greek and Neoplatonic thought, Sufism, and poetry through the works of the masters of this tradition (e.g., Ḥosayn b. Manṣūr Ḥallāj, Avicenna, Šehāb-al-Dīn Sohravardī, Ebn ʿArabī, Rūmī, Ḥaydar Āmolī, Mīr-e Dāmād, and Mollā Ṣadrā; qq.v.). This coincidence contributed to the emergence later of a theoretical “esotericisation” of all the teachings of the Čahārdah Maʿṣūm in the works of the leaders of the Šayḵī (q.v.) school.

What may be regarded as Aḵbārī exegesis developed out of a traditionist tendency within Shiʿism that is explicitly attested in sources as early as the 6th/12th century (Madelung, p. 21). This was probably a characteristic of all pre-Buyid Imami Shiʿite tafsīr works and represents the Shiʿite version of tafsīr be’l-maʾṯūr (explanation of the Koran on the basis of Hadith representing the understanding of early generations of the Muslims), of which the most famous example in Sunni Islam is Jāmeʿ al-bayān ʿan taʾwīl āy al-Qorʾān by Moḥammad b. Jarīr Ṭabarī (d. 310/923). Unlike that massive compendium, the exegetical traditions (ḵabar, pl. aḵbār) in the Shiʿite works of this period contain almost exclusively the words of the Čahārdah Maʿṣūm, as distinct from information from the Companions (ṣaḥāba) or the Followers (tābeʿūn) of the Prophet. The best known extant examples of such pre-Buyid Shiʿite tafsīrs are those by Abū Naṣr ʿAyyā@šī (d. 320/932, q.v.), Forāt b. Ebrāhīm Kūfī (d. 300/912, q.v.), and ʿAlī b. Ebrāhīm Qomī (d. ca. 307/919-20). This utter reliance on the reports quoted from the bearers of absolute religious authority (welāya) in works of Imami Shiʿite exegesis came to a definitive halt during the Buyid period in the so-called “classical” works of Shiʿite exegesis beginning with the Muʿtazilite-influenced Tafsīr al-tebyān of Abū Jaʿfar Moḥammad Ṭūsī (d. 460/1067), although even earlier Shiʿite exegetical works, like that of the Zaydī Ḥosayn b. Ḥakam Ḥebarī (d. 286/899), offer an interesting example and contrast. In the Buyid and post-Buyid works of exegesis there is a sustained attempt to neutralize one of the more troublesome aspects of early Aḵbārī exegesis, namely the agreement that the recension of the Koran under the caliph ʿOṯmān is not identical to the Koran that existed at the time of Moḥammad’s death (Kohlberg 1972; Bar-Asher, pp. 291-92; Lawson 91-92). What might thus be called the proto-Aḵbārī enterprise culminated, not in a work of exegesis, but in the first grand Shiʿite compendium of traditions, namely the Ketāb al-kāfī of Abū Jaʿfar Moḥammad Kolaynī (d. 328/939 or 329/940). The fact that this coincided with the time of the greater occultation (see ḠAYBA) symbolically draws attention to another important issue in what would become the Aḵbārī approach, namely the problem of maintaining contact with an otherwise hidden and inaccessible source of religious authority. In the absence of the Imam, his words (aḵbār) and the words of the Čahārdah Maʿṣūm would provide the best possible substitute for direct contact.

The later Aḵbārī movement of the Safavid period (see AḴBĀRĪYA), the great rival of the Oṣūlī school, may be said to have begun with a book by Mollā Moḥammad-Amīn Astarābādī (q.v.), who was attempting to remove what he considered Sunni contaminants in Shiʿite feqh (but cf. Newman). The term Aḵbārī thus refers primarily to an attitude on matters of jurisprudence, and it is because a work of tafsīr is by an author recognized as a proponent of this school that it would be classed as Aḵbārī exegesis. Nonetheless, in terms of the basic style and contents of such works, the distinguishing characteristic of such works is the degree to which the aḵbār (quotations) of the Čahārdah Maʿṣūm is relied upon for the understanding of Koranic material, unsupplemented by attendant grammatical, theological, philosophical, or mystical digressions on the part of the author or compiler. Thus none of the numerous tafsīr works of Mollā Ṣadrā, for example, should be called Aḵbārī. His star pupil and son-in-law, Mollā Moḥsen-Moḥammad Fayż Kāšānī (d. 1091/1680; q.v.), could be described as a moderate Aḵbārī since he was appreciative of the work of Astarābādī but also criticized him and sought to correct or adjust his views (Kohlberg, 1987, pp. 136-37). In his exegesis, his use of traditions exceeds his own words to a considerable extent even though he frequently coaxes out further readings of the words of the Imams. The earliest example of clearly Aḵbārī exegesis was completed around 1065/1665 in Shiraz by ʿAbd-al-ʿAlī Ḥowayzī (Ketāb tafsīr nūr al-ṯaqalayn, ed. H. Rasūlī Maḥallatī, Qom, n.d.; see al-Ḏarīʿa XXIV, no. 1967, pp. 365-66; Brockelman, GAL S II, p. 582). A somewhat later and better-known work is Ketāb al-borḥān fī tafsīr al-Qorʾān by Hāšem Baḥrānī (d. 1107/1695 or 1109/1697; q.v.), finished in 1097/1686 and dedicated to the Safavid Shah Solaymān. Another work, Merʾāt al-anwār wa meškāt al-asrār fī tafsīr al-Qorʾān (Tehran, 1375/1955), is by Abu’l-Ḥasan Šarīf ʿĀmelī Eṣfahānī (d. 1138/1726; q.v.), who was not an Aḵbārī but whose work nonetheless reflects faithfully, and in some ways to an unprecedented degree, the Aḵbārī attitude towards scripture. In reality, the published work is only an introduction to what would appear to have been a much larger project than any of the previous titles, the extant part of which goes only as far as the beginning of the fourth sūra and remains in manuscript (al-Ḏarīʿa XX, no. 2893, pp. 264-65). The first volume is a particularly useful dictionary of Koranic terms. The works of Fayż Kāšānī, Ḥowayzī, and Šarīf ʿĀmelī all contain lengthy prolegomena which set out succinctly the concerns and methods of their respective commentaries (Lawson, 1993). It should be mentioned that Henry Corbin was the first European scholar to appreciate the importance of this style of commentary for an understanding of Shiʿite thought (Corbin, 1971-72, passim, esp. I, pp. 135-218 and notes).

In the hybrid Šayḵī school contemplation of the words of the Imams produced an oeuvre of theosophical speculation in which alchemy, arithmomancy (jafr), and other forms of esotercism were to achieve a spiritual perspective, the main purpose of which was to provide absolute certainty (yaqīn) for the believer, a central question in the Aḵbārī-Oṣūlī dispute. Even though the Šayḵīs were not “official” Aḵbārīs, the school represented an attempt at resolving the reason versus revelation debate that was certainly one of the major themes of the Aḵbārī-Oṣūlī controversy. The Šayḵīs produced no complete tafsīr, although fragmentary or partial commentaries on Koranic material do exist (Kermānī), and they appear to have gone a step beyond regarding the Koran as the primary religious text by focusing hermeneutic attention on such works as al-Zīāra al-jāmeʿa, a visitation prayer of spiritual pilgrimage to all twelve Imams in 114 verses, ascribed to the Tenth Imam. In his very lengthy commentary on each of the verses of this prayer, the Šarḥ al-zīāra, Shaikh Aḥmad Aḥsāʾī (d. 1241/1826, q.v.) seems to have alluded to the possibility and desirability of a post-Koranic scriptural and revelatory event (cf. Corbin, 1993, pp. 107-8). This tendency would reach an apogee in the Tafsīr sūrat Yūsof, also known as Qayyūm al-asmāʾ), a c ommentary written in the form of the Koran, complete with basmala, sūras, and āyās, of Sayyed ʿAlī-Moḥammad Šīrāzī, the Bāb (d. 1267/1850; q.v.), where contemplation of the Holy Family reached such an intensity as to vanquish the interval between text and commentary altogether.



Abu’l-Naṣr Moḥammad b. Masʿūd b. ʿAyyāš Solamī Samarqandī, Tafsīr, ed. H. Rasūlī Maḥallātī, 2 vols., Qom, 1380-81/1960-61.

Abu’l-Qāsem Kermānī (Sarkār Āqā), Fehrest-e kotob-e ajall-e awḥad marḥūm-e Šayḵ Aḥmad wa sāʾer-e mašāyeḵ-e ʿeẓām wa ḵolāṣa-ye šarḥ-e aḥwāl-e īšān, Kermān, n.d.; adapted tr. by M. Momen, The Works of Shaykh Aḥmad al-Aḥsāʾī: A Bibliography, Newcastle, 1991.

Shaikh Aḥmad Aḥsāʾī, Šarḥ al-zīāra al-jāmeʿa al-kabīra, Kerman, 1398/1978.

ʿAlī b. Ebrāhīm Qomī, Tafsīr al-Qommī, ed. T. M. Jazāʾerī, Najaf, 1386/1966.

M. Bar-Asher, “Deux Traditions heterodoxes dans les anciens Commentaires imamites du Coran,” Arabica 37, 1990, pp. 291-314.

H. Corbin, En Islam iranien, Paris, 1971-72.

Idem, Itinéraire d’un enseignement, Louvain, 1993.

Forāt b. Ebrāhīm b. Forāt Kūfī, Tafsīr Forāt al-Kūfī, Najaf, 1353/1934.

Ḥosayn b. Ḥakam Ḥebarī, Tafsīr, ed. M. Ḥosaynī, Beirut, 1987.

E. Kohlberg, “Some Notes on the Imamite Attitude to the Qurʾan,” in S. M. Stern, A. Hourani, and V. Brown, eds., Islamic Philosophy and the Classical Tradition: Essays Presented to Richard Walzer, Oxford, 1972, pp. 209-24.

Idem, “Aspects of Akhbari Thought in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” in N. Levtzion and J. Voll, eds., Eighteenth-Century Renewal and Reform in Islam, Syracuse, 1987, pp. 133-60.

T. Lawson, “Interpretation as Revelation: The Qur’án Commentary of Sayyid ʿAlī Muḥammad Shirazi, the Bab,” in A. Rippin, ed., Approaches to the History of the Interpretation of the Qurʾán, Oxford, 1988, pp. 223-53.

Idem, “A Note for the Study of a ‘Shīʿite Qurʾan,’” Journal of Semitic Studies 36, 1991, pp. 279-95.

Idem, “Akhbārī Tafsīr,” in The Qurʾan: 14 Centuries, London, 1993, pp. 173-210.

W. Madelung, “Imāmism and Muʿtazilite Theology,” in T. Fahd, ed., Le Shiʿisme Imamite (Colloque de Strasbourg, 1968), Paris, 1970, pp. 13-30.

A. Newman, “The Nature of the Akhbārī/Uṣūlī Dispute in Late Ṣafavid Iran, Part 1: ʿAbdallāh al-Samāhijī’s ’Munyat al-Mumārisīn,’” BSO(A)S 55, 1992, pp. 22-51.

(Todd Lawson)

Originally Published: December 15, 1999

Last Updated: January 20, 2012

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Vol. IX, Fasc. 2, pp. 123-125