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Commentary and Commentary Tradition

The Basic Terms for Understanding Islamic Intellectual History
L.W.C. (Eric) Van Lit
p. 3-26

Résumés

Le terme « commentaire » est généralement compris comme exégèse ou comme plaidoyer. Toutefois, bien souvent, cela ne semble pas rendre justice aux commentaires existants du Moyen Âge islamique. En m’appuyant sur l'interprétation de Shahab Ahmed de l’islam, je mets en place un cadre théorique pour rendre compte de la compréhension des commentaires. Ce cadre nous oblige à prendre en considération la forme graphique du texte comme unité de base. À partir de là, je propose des définitions analytiques des « commentaires » et des termes connexes. Celles-ci sont basées sur des relations textuelles en arrêtant différents types d’accord verbal entre les deux textes. Je soutiens que les accords verbaux sont une partie importante de l’écriture d’un texte islamique, qui permet de rattacher sa propre pensée à celle d’un discours plus étendu. Un commentaire est, comme je le conclus, un texte avec une «correspondance textuelle structurale ». Les ensembles de textes, et plus particulièrement une « tradition de commentaire restreinte », sont ainsi définis et ils constituent des outils pour définir le bon contexte dans lequel étudier ces commentaires.

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Introduction1

  • 1 The research for this article was supported by the European Research Council Starting Grant ‘The He (...)

1We use the terms ‘Commentary’ and ‘Commentary Tradition’ regularly in our studies of Islamic intellectual history, especially of the post-classical period, that period which roughly starts in the 11th century and ends with the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920’s. But what do we mean by these terms? The definition of these terms receives remarkably little discussion in the literature of Islamic Studies, yet with the commentary being such an often used genre in post-classical Islamic intellectual discourse it is of primary importance to come to an agreed upon understanding. In this article, I propose analytical definitions of these terms, based on relations capturing different kinds of textual agreements between two texts. Textual agreements are a crucial part of Islamic text-writing, to connect one’s own thought with that of the wider discourse, as I argue in the second part of this article. In the third part, I argue that when we use such textual agreements as our basis for defining some key terms, we can conclude that a commentary is a text with ‘structural textual correspondence’, a definition that allows more texts as commentaries than only those to which the Arabic term šar can be applied. This formal definition allows for a strict measure to decide which texts are commentaries and which are not, and from here we can build sets of texts to arrive at contexts in which these commentaries are most meaningfully studied. This approach is a more neutral, middle-of-the-road approach to commentaries, in between the two dominant views in our field, namely to see commentary as exegesis or as advocacy, which I shall discuss in the first part of this article.

  • 2 Messick, The Calligraphic State, p. 30.
  • 3 Schoeler, The Oral and the Written in Early Islam, p. 46ff., 57, 179 fn 142; Schoeler, “Text und Ko (...)
  • 4 Wisnovsky, “The Nature and Scope of Arabic Philosophical Commentary in Post-Classical (ca.1100-1900 (...)
  • 5 Smyth, “Controversy in a Tradition of Commentary”, p. 590. For this point being made for Medieval E (...)
  • 6 Prominent examples are: De Boer, Geschichte der Philosophie im Islam, p. 13; Brockelmann, Geschicht (...)

2Let us first briefly discuss the currently established views on what a commentary is. The first is to see commentary as exegesis. We can find an exemplary explication of this in Brinkley Messick’s The Calligraphic State, in which he understands the terms šar and matn as ‘commentary’ and ‘original text’, He writes that “The šar served the subordinate role of informing a student’s comprehension of the principal focus of instruction, which was the matn”.2 Messick suggests that commentaries have a pedagogical function, and can therefore only be understood in the context of an original text and a teacher-student relationship in a seminary (madrasa). A similar point is argued for by Gregor Schoeler, who sees in the production of commentaries a similar process as in Antiquity for philosophy; foundational texts are read and explained, this oral explanation was written down by students in the margins of their text books, to be copied by later copyists, and finally moved from margin to the body of the text, interwoven with the original work.3 It is such an interpretation that leads scholars such as Robert Wisnovsky to refer to commentaries consistently as “exegetical” and to their authors as “interpreters”.4 I would concur that ‘commentary’ finds its roots in exegesis, in particular that of revelation, but as a literary genre it has moved beyond that.5 Holding on to such a definition would disqualify a lot of texts as commentaries, which we would actually like to call as such. Moreover, such a definition refuses, strictly speaking, any objective beyond explaining the original text, with the commentary only as an aid. This restricts the kind of questions we can ask which in turn lends credence to the old paradigm that commentaries in post-classical Islamic thought are inherently unoriginal,6 an idea which is untested and likely unwarranted. Lastly, I think that even though some commentaries were much used and produced in the madrasa system, not all commentaries were produced for pedagogical purposes, nor did they all come about in a classroom setting. For example, Ḫojazāda’s and ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn Ṭūsī’s commentaries upon Ġazālī’s Tahāfut al-falāsifa were commissioned by Sultan Mehmed II and ignore almost entirely the original text. They use it only to settle on the topics for the chapters and even then they do so only loosely. Another example is Ġiyāt al-Dīn Daštakī’s Išrāq Hayākil al-nūr, a commentary on Suhrawardī’s Hayākil al-nūr, which seems to have been written primarily to refute Dawānī’s Šawākil al-ūr, which is also a commentary on Hayākil al-nūr. Many commentaries, then, do little in terms of explaining the original work.

  • 7 Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, Volume 2, p. 439.
  • 8 Corbin, History of Islamic Philosophy, p. 219.
  • 9 Corbin, History of Islamic Philosophy, p. 218.
  • 10 Corbin, En Islam iranien, vol. 2, p. 353.

3The other interpretation of ‘commentary’ is to see it as advocacy. Marshall Hodgson, in The Venture of Islam, writes that “it became common to write even quite original treatises in the form of commentaries on authoritative earlier treatises. Sometimes the treatises were not simply explanations or amplifications, but more like modern book review articles—even taking the tenor of refutations and counter-refutations”.7 In other words, intellectuals wrote commentaries to get their own point across and advocate for a certain position. We therefore need not look at commentaries solely from the angle of the text they comment upon but instead we may value them as something that has in some sense an independent existence. Henry Corbin thinks that commentators are advocates for the line of thinking of the original text and hence a commentary is the best way to express this appreciation. Whenever Henry Corbin encounters a commentary, he praises it as evidence for the “extraordinary outburst of activity”,8 and he hails the commentator as a “descendant”.9 In his view, all commentators together form a school of thought, and he says that commentaries usually contain materials we would nowadays publish in journals.10 In short, his is a positive approach, assuming that commentaries are written to further explore the thought that an original text first proposed.

  • 11 Saliba, Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance, p. 241.
  • 12 Saliba, Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance, p. 242.
  • 13 For a concrete example, see Van Lit, “Ghiyāth al-Dīn Dashtakī on the World of Image (ʿālam al-mithā (...)

4George Saliba thinks commentators are advocates for a certain new idea, which is best explained in the context from which it was born. He proposes that “those commentaries acted in a manner quite similar to our modern periodical literature”.11 In the absence of journals, copies of important texts provided a similar platform. Saliba actually thinks the genre of commentary is a great literary device to get a point across. He suggest that in a commentary “the new idea would in fact be properly contextualized and thus would gain a much greater significance than a lonely article in a journal that would need a lot of supplementary contextu­alizing information”.12 Notice here the shift between Hodgson and Corbin, from suggesting these commentaries are like book reviews to suggesting they are like journal articles, and then between Corbin and Saliba, from advocating for a certain philosopher to advocating for a certain new idea. It is easy to see that Hodgson and Corbin are respectively too pessimistic and too optimistic. Indeed, sometimes a commentary is meant to refute the original text, like Ibn Rušd’s Tahāfut al-tahāfut, a commentary against Ġazālī’s Tahāfut al-falāsifa, but it would do little justice to call this a ‘book review’. Sometimes a commentary is nothing more than a reworking of another commentary, like Quṭb al-Dīn Šīrāzī’s Šar ikmat al-išrāq, which is by and large a mere reworking of Šahrazūrī’s Šar ikmat al-išrāq. This seems to go against Corbin’s idea of a commentary as an outburst of activity and casts doubt about whether a commentary automatically translates into adherence.13

  • 14 Ahmed, “Post-Classical Philosophical Commentaries/Glosses”, p. 341. In a more rudimentary form, thi (...)
  • 15 Ahmed, “Post-Classical Philosophical Commentaries/Glosses”, p. 320.

5Asad Ahmed takes this interpretation of commentary as advocacy further. He argues that a commentator picks and chooses which parts of a text he connects his own thought with, and this selection is not based on the internal logic of the original text. Rather, “living debates determined both the selection and nature of textual commentary and gloss”.14 Ahmed suggests that all the commentaries and super-commentaries on a certain text should be seen as constituting one discussion. This draws our attention to the possibility that commentators may be responding to each other. The collection of commentaries (a commentary tradition) is therefore a written report of the discussion going on among intellectuals. Ahmed can only picture such a discussion in a seminary setting, which I think is unnecessary. Lastly, he asserts about base texts, which are commented upon, that “the author of a lemma deliberately presents his argument in a truncated and allusive form, so that it may serve as a prompt for perpetuating a living philosophical dialectic”.15 At best this is an interesting possibility that could be tested, but so far it has remained an unfounded notion.

6At least for the post-classical period, if not Islamic intellectual history in general, the two main interpretations are not helpful. They only allow us to approach such texts with a certain positive or negative value judgment already in mind, and only promote the original text as the right context to understand a commentary. I have given some examples which show that this is not justified and becomes more of an impediment than a help in studying and understanding commentaries. Part of the problem, as I see it, is that terms such as ‘commentary’ and ‘commentary tradition’ are very casually used and phenomena observed in one case are too easily generalized. To guard against this, I wish to introduce a conceptual framework in which commentaries come to exist. Understanding the function of commentaries, on a conceptual level, will help us then to arrive at formal definitions. The main benefit of such formality is that it leaves no room for casual use and helps us to strictly decide whether a text is a commentary or not.

Theory

  • 16 Ahmed, What Is Islam?, p. 323.
  • 17 Ahmed, What Is Islam?, p. 328.
  • 18 Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking, p. 2.
  • 19 Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking, p. 110. Cf. Ahmed, What Is Islam?, p. 344.
  • 20 Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking, p. 7‒16.

7To build the conceptual framework to give the term ‘commentary’ a most meaningful definition, it is helpful to start with Shahab Ahmed’s definition of ‘Islam’ and ‘Islamic’. He interprets Islam as a “shared language by and in which people express themselves so as to communicate meaningfully in all their variety”, by which Islam “becomes, ‘in a sense’, the reality of the experience itself”.16 Islam is then not only the means that people use, but also the meaning that people get. In a hermeneutical circle, individuals use ‘Islam’ to make meaning and then the meaning just made is informing ‘Islam’ again. Islam, then, is constituted through “the identifying relation between Self and Islam”.17 As such, Islam makes consequential meaning for individuals; their actions are formed by it. This strikes me as a way of world-making in Nelson Goodman’s sense; it is not about declaring one version of Islam real but instead making one actual.18 As such, multiple versions can be actual and ostensibly conflicting without this depreciating the world view of Islam.19 Goodman identifies a couple of rudimentary operations which can make a world; composition and decomposition, weighting, ordering, deletion and supplementation, and deformation.20 All of these need to be performed upon an already existing world view, exactly as Ahmed described the hermeneutic circle between an individual and Islam. If it is correct to apply Goodman’s theory to Ahmed’s interpretation of Islam, then it follows that ‘being Islamic’ is an attitude of continuous remaking of the world view of Islam.

  • 21 Medieval Europe might be quite similar in this regard. John Dagenais writes that “I began to see th (...)
  • 22 Ahmed, What Is Islam?, p. 357.
  • 23 Talal Asad’s notion of Islam as a discursive tradition coheres largely with the theory laid forth h (...)
  • 24 Ahmed, What Is Islam?, p. 363.
  • 25 He writes it as ‘Con-Text’ to distinguish it from ‘context’. He reserves the latter for that part o (...)
  • 26 Ahmed, What Is Islam?, p. 357.
  • 27 Rosenthal, The Technique and Approach of Muslim Scholarship, p. 6. Cf. Hirschler, The Written Word (...)
  • 28 Bloom, Paper Before Print, p. 42ff.

8To remake that world view, in order to keep it alive and relevant, one must perform operations on the elements of the world view which are already out there.21 As Ahmed describes it, one has to draw from the “lexicon of means and meanings of Islam […] for the meaning of an act or utterance to be recognizable in terms of Islam”.22 This may seem a tautological statement, but serves to undermine the notion that Islam is ‘whatever Muslims say’, because in Ahmed’s description Islam takes precedence over being Muslim. A Muslim can only be so in a context, namely that of Islam. We can call this context ‘tradition’, but this is not helpful as it pushes our inquiry only further to the question ‘what is tradition?’.23 Instead, Ahmed speaks of a lexicon, and the raw matter from which this lexicon is erected is defined by Ahmed as “Pre-Text, Text, and Con-Text”.24 These terms are all capitalized to show they refer to abstract entities, rather than specific things or concepts. Pre-Text is a nebulous entity, but is suggested by Ahmed as a pre-requisite to Text, as a source to and fundament for it. Text is revelation, of which the most obvious concrete case is the Koran. Con-Text is everything else that came to exist through world-making processes.25 Although Ahmed notes that Con-Text “does not only take the form of textual discourse, but includes the various individual and collective practices”,26 it is clear that Ahmed prefers text as the most fundamental raw material out of which the world view of Islam is shaped. As Franz Rosenthal puts it, “in spite of all the real and affected reverence paid to memorized knowledge, Muslim civilization, as much as any higher civilization, was a civilization of the written word”.27 This became visibly true after the introduction of paper, in the 8th century,28 but the potential for it was built in from the start, with the Koran referring to itself and other revelations as a book and the episode of Uthman establishing the correct version of Muhammad’s revelation relying on this correct version to be encoded in writing.

  • 29 Anderson, Imagined Communities, p. 6.

9I notice in Benedict Anderson’s view of Islam as an imagined community a powerful argument for this primacy of text. An imagined community is called so because its members are too many to know each other personally, “yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion”.29 In other words, an imagined community is a community that shares in nearly identical world making processes. He makes a brief, yet crucial, remark on Islam as an imagined community:

  • 30 A people from the Philippines.
  • 31 Anderson, Imagined Communities, p. 13.

[I]f Maguindanao30 met Berbers in Mecca, knowing nothing of each other’s languages, incapable of communicating orally, they nonetheless understood each other’s ideographs, because the sacred texts they shared existed only in classical Arabic. In this sense, written Arabic functioned like Chinese characters to create a community out of signs, not sounds.31

10It is, then, not ‘text’ as merely an abstract concept that functions as the raw material with Islamic world-making potential. Instead, more specifically, the smallest common denominator is the graphical form of text which it leaves on its writing surface, its rasm.

  • 32 Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”, p. 132.
  • 33 Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”, p. 166.
  • 34 Meyer, “Introduction”, p. 5.

11We established that for the imagined community to remain what it is, its world view needs to be remade at every moment in time. In simpler terms: a religion needs to be practiced in order for it to be real, or else its members will soon be disenchanted and its doctrines something of the past rather than the present. An analogy with ideology may be elucidating. Louis Althusser argues that “the reproduction of labour-power requires not only a reproduction of its skills, but also, at the same time, a reproduction of its submission to the rules of the established order, i.e. a reproduction of submission to the ruling ideology”.32 This is necessary as the ideology is what convinces the individual to do the labor the system requires them to do in order for the system to stay intact. Ideology actually exists in its practice, argues Althusser, and here we see again the hermeneutical circle of individual and Islam confirmed. This time, what we may add following Althusser, is the materiality of this process; only that which tangibly exists can be consequential enough to maintain its required submission,33 and “be felt in the bones”.34 Seeing that such processes are to a large extent rooted in the graphical form of text, the material practices to remake the world view of Islam in order to keep it alive are textual practices.

12Goodman’s operations are all defined through an already existing aspect of a world view. In terms of textual practices, this means that much of Islamic world making consists of altering texts that were previously written. To use Ahmed’s terms, if it were any different, an author would not be using the lexicon of Islam and the produced text would not be recognized as Islamic. A simple example of this practice is the basmala with which every text starts. It does not matter whether a text is on Hadith or on astronomy; by opening with this invocation the author is deliberately making their text part of the Islamic world view and so in this sense we can speak of Islamic astronomy without this meaning that the astronomy is somehow informed by Islamic dogma. Since every individual is different, every relation between the individual and Islam has the potential for different texts. Thus, the textual practice does not consist of simply copying out the Koran over and over again. Alterations and permutations stack onto each other, guided by the need to make sense of the world around us. As the Islamic world literally expanded, so did the challenges and opportunities for Islamic world making expand. Knowledge in Islam, according to this line of thinking, has the characteristic of evolution, rather than revolution.

  • 35 “It is generally estimated that there may have been several millions of manuscripts produced in the (...)
  • 36 Barthes, “The Death of the Author”, p. 146.

13Since the materiality of the text, its graphical form, is of such importance in Islam, and since we have ample surviving evidence of this, stored in manuscripts around the world,35 we are in an excellent position to study a great many aspects of Islam. For the history of its production and transmission of knowledge, what we particularly need to focus on is the letter of the text, especially as it moves about from author to author. Given that preservation and appropriation are important techniques in the arsenal of Islamic authors, and given that their function could be to revitalize the world view of Islam, we cannot conclude that if an author writes something, this automatically qualifies as the author’s personal opinion. Only by triangulating the author’s writing throughout their corpus can we give an estimate about the personal opinion. As for the idea itself, it is less tied to the author than it is to the text. To study an idea is therefore to study a range of authors, each instantiating a version of the idea. In other words, instead of looking at all texts of one author, it is often better to look at all authors of one text. In this way production and transmission of knowledge can be excavated. Ahmed argues that Islamic texts come forth out of the dynamic between the individual and Islam, but this we need not confuse with a despotic emphasis on individual originality. Roland Barthes could well have been speaking specifically about Islam when he inaugurated the death of the author, saying that “we know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash”.36 If we instead of looking at the variety of writings within one text look at the variety of texts that contain the same writing, we get a much better idea of the content and impact of an idea. This also means that our point of departure is the repetition of text and from there, unique aspects of one of the authors quickly stand out.

  • 37 On a more technical-philosophical note, I see the mere act of copying not as mimicry in which the s (...)

14The use of the genre of commentary is quite natural, in this framework. It both copies the earlier text and then adds additional text which may be original to the author or it may be deriving its existence, its lexicon as Ahmed would have it, from other texts, but none of it is redundant, as all of it ensures the continued remaking of the world view of Islam.37 What exactly it copies from the text is unclear. Copying the earlier text fully seems to qualify best as an act of commentary, but if there is no additional text we can hardly speak of a commentary, but rather much more of a copy. Equally, copying only part of an earlier text does not disqualify a text from being identified as a commentary. What then, is the minimum for a text to be called commentary? For this, we shall now discuss a set of definitions.

Definitions

  • 38 For an analysis of actors’ categories, see Gutas, “Aspects of Literary Form and Genre in Arabic Log (...)
  • 39 Peters, Aristotle and the Arabs.

15‘Commentary’ and ‘commentary tradition’ are best defined on formal and logical grounds. They can therefore be different in meaning from actors’ categories, even though these indigenous terms (such as šar and āšiya) did provide the first impetus to come up with them.38 Further, because they are logically constructed, I created them with Islamic intellectual discourse in mind, especially that of post-classical philosophy and theology. These concepts are not exclusively applicable to this period as some scholars trace the practical consequences of the terms as far back as the period of Greco-Roman philosophy.39 However, my definitions may need altering to fit other contexts.

  • 40 McKenzie, Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts, p. 13.

16A “text” is any written statement: from a simple scribble in a margin to a story spanning hundreds of pages; all texts. Text is made up of text, with the graphical form, the rasm, of a letter being the smallest unit. A letter, a word, a sentence, they are all text in itself as well as part of a larger text. With this definition we may already notice a definition that works well for Islamic intellectual discourse but not necessarily for others. For example, Don McKenzie, professor of Bibliography and Textual Criticism, says that “I define ‘texts’ to include verbal, visual, oral, and numeric data, in the form of maps, prints, and music, of archives of recorded sound, of films, videos, and any computer-stored information, everything in fact from epigraphy to the latest forms of discography. There is no evading the challenge which those new forms have created”.40 As I argued above, in the case of Islamic culture, there is a chance of evading this challenge and we ought to. For our purposes, a written statement requires a surface and a pattern of graphical forms that deliberately represents words.

17A “treatise” is a text with a title, circulated independently, meaningfully composed, properly introduced and concluded. This is not a strict set of characteristics and so one or more may be missing. Corollary: an author may have written a text that only turned into a treatise by the hands of later redactors.

  • 41 I borrow these terms from Gérard Genette without fully committing to his usage. He says: “By hypert (...)

18We can speak of a pair of texts as a “hypotext” and “hypertext” if there exists some relation between the two texts, where the hypotext is historically prior to the hypertext.41 An “intermediary text” is both a hypotext and a hypertext. The hypotext of an intermediary text and a hypertext of an intermediary text also form a pair of texts as hypotext and hypertext.

  • 42 A classic discussion is in his al-Šifāʾ, Ibn Sīnā, The Metaphysics of The Healing. For Fārābī see e (...)
  • 43 Ǧihāmī, Mawsūʿat muṣṭalaāt al-falsafa ʿinda al-ʿArab, p. 964‒965.

19“Intentional textual correspondence” is a relationship between two texts on the level of words and sentences. It means that a hypertext utilizes in at least one place either a technical term or an argument (a logical connection between words) from a hypotext. Further, it must be most likely that this hypotext is the text from which the author of the hypertext derived the technical term, either directly or through an intermediary text. This likeliness can usually be argued by showing that the technical term or the argument is original to the hypotext, or that it is meant in the hypertext in the same original way as the hypotext. I purposely use the admittedly vague term ‘intentional’, as to create a flexible definition that can be tailored to specific needs. In general, though, intentionality is always proven through textual agreement before and after the textual correspondence, and agreement in the usage of the idea conveyed by the text. Example: the ubiquitous term ǧib al-wuǧūd clearly stems from the writings of Ibn Sīnā,42 even though it was already coined by Fārābī.43 Ibn Sīnā may have gotten the term from Fārābī, but this does not matter for our purposes. By taking the context of the term into account, we can say that after Ibn Sīnā, many texts in philosophy and theology show intentional textual correspondence with Ibn Sīnā’s corpus under the term of ǧib al-wuǧūd.

  • 44 A simple comparison of the chapter headings reveals this, cf. Bayḍāwī, Iṣfahānī, Nature, Man and Go (...)

20A hypertext “evidently relies in structure on” a hypotext if the way the hypertext is constructed—at the level of the composition as a whole and the level of chapters—is the same as a part or the whole of the hypotext, either directly or through an intermediary text, and if it shows intentional textual correspondence. Without intentional textual correspondence, it does not rely in structure but is simply similar in structure. Example: Īǧī’s al-Mawāqif evidently relies in structure on Bayḍāwī’s awāliʿ al-anwār min maāliʿ al-anār.44

  • 45 My double use of commentary, in the general sense and in the more specific, true sense of the word, (...)
  • 46 Cf. Gacek, Arabic Manuscripts, p. 78‒80. For the last one see Rosenthal, “‘Blurbs’ (taqrī)̣ from 1 (...)

21We speak of “structural textual correspondence” if a hypertext not only evidently relies in structure on a hypotext (sing. matn), but shows intentional textual correspondence exactly in those places of the hypotext that define the structure and composition of the text. In this case we call the hypertext, loosely speaking, a “commentary” on the hypotext. These ‘commentaries’ can be of different nature; commentaries (in the true sense of the word, sing. šar),45 glosses (sing. āšiya/taʿlīqa), comparisons (sing. muākama), summaries (sing. mutaar/mulaḫḫa), versifications (sing. nam), even translations (sing. tarǧama) and blurbs (sing. taqrī) all have this relationship with a hypotext.46 As a rule, we will use the word ‘commentary’ in the sense of ‘any structural textual correspondence’ only in combination with ‘tradition’ to make ‘commentary tradition’, Normally, with commentary (in the true sense of the word) we mean a specific type of structural textual correspondence.

22A hypertext is a commentary in the true sense of the word when it shows structural textual correspondence and contains the complete hypotext. There are different types of commentaries. The two most common ones are the paraphrasing commentary and the running commentary.

23The first usually cites the hypotext passage by passage, then after each passage it goes over the passage again in almost identical language, here and there changing, adding, or dropping something. Occasionally a larger expansion (or digression) is included. Its main purpose is to faithfully represent the hypotext, elucidating ambiguities. For example, it helps the reader of the hypotext to decide where a paragraph stops and the next one begins. This is useful since an Arabic manuscript does not include punctuation and ambiguity may occur. Also, when a hypotext uses an ambivalent word the commentary may push the reader towards one of the possibilities by providing a corresponding synonym in the paraphrase. Examples are Šahrazūrī’s Šar ikmat al-išrāq and Isfahānī’s Maāliʿ al-anār, a commentary on Bayḍāwī’s awāliʿ al-anwār.

  • 47 I have seen cases in which the commentator deliberately obfuscates the distinction between author/c (...)

24The running commentary can also divide the hypotext into paragraphs, but less clearly. It does a better job at the sentence level, structuring the hypotext word by word. As a rule, a running commentary will not leave out one word of the hypotext, nor alter it. When it wishes to expand a personal pronoun into a proper noun (e.g. to explain what the -hu in minhu means) it would not change it into min Zayd but rather write minhu ayy Zayd. As a consequence of the fact that hypotext and hypertext run through each other to form one running text, it can be hard to distinguish hypotext from hypertext.47 In manuscripts this is usually solved by using two colors of ink, with the hypotext either in non-black ink or underlined by non-black ink, red being the most common color.

  • 48 Such as our modern footnote system, as illustrated with this footnote.

25A “gloss” is a sequence of marginal notes by one author on one hypotext. A marginal note may best be visualized as a note in the margin of a manuscript of the hypotext, close to the passage that it discusses. It therefore always ‘hangs’ on the margin of a part of the hypotext. This is indicated by its structure; it cites a sentence or passage from the hypotext and then continues to make a remark about this. Typically, a marginal note introduces the citation with qawluhu (“his statement”), sometimes ended with intahā (“end [of citation]”). It may not need to cite the full sentence or passage, merely citing the first few words and then ilā āirihi or, less common, intahā (“until the end”). This in turn may be abbreviated to a-l- (or a-), similar to the English “etc.”. The use of signs to connect notes in the margin to a place in the hypotext48 seems to be a late practice. Note: a gloss can attain the status of a treatise, at which point the reader is either required to know the hypotext to the point of memorization, or is required to have the hypotext at hand.

  • 49 Rāzī, al-Ilāhiyyāt min al-Muākamāt bayna šaray al-Išārāt.
  • 50 Van Lit, “An Ottoman Commentary Tradition on Ghazālī’s Tahāfut al-falāsifa. Preliminary Observation (...)

26A “comparison” does not necessarily have to be between two texts but can be a comparison between two positions. An example of a comparison between two texts is Quṭb al-Dīn Rāzī’s (d. 1364) Muākamāt bayna šaray al-Išārāt in which Quṭb al-Dīn Rāzī compares Faḫr al-Dīn Rāzī’s commentary and Naṣīr al-Dīn Ṭūsī’s (d. 1273) counter-commentary on Ibn Sīnā’s al-Išārāt wa-l-tanbīhāt.49 An example which does not involve two books are the Muākamāt of Ḫojazāda (d. 1488) and ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn Ṭūsī (d. 1482) between Ġazālī and the philosophers, which comes down to an evaluation of one book, namely Ġazālī’s Tahāfut al-falāsifa.50

27The prefix ‘super-’ can be used to give an immediate sense of the degrees of being removed from the base text. A “super-commentary” is a commentary in the true sense of the word on any kind of commentary. Thus, it has structural textual correspondence with the first commentary and contains the text of it in full. Similarly, a “super-super-gloss” is a gloss on any kind of commentary that is a commentary on any kind of commentary. In theory, one can keep adding the prefix ‘super-’ to indicate a higher level commentary.

28A “corpus” is the set of all texts written by one author.

29A “textual tradition” is a set of different hypertexts and at least one hypotext, with the hypotexts (minus intermediary texts) all written by one author, under at least one specific intentional textual correspondence for all hypertexts with at least one of the hypotexts. We can speak of a textual tradition of a certain author, e.g. Ibn Sīnā. Since we speak of a specific intentional textual correspondence, we do not have to retrace our steps beyond this hypotext author. Indeed, otherwise the notion of a textual tradition would be meaningless and would always be the same under the adage that “all philosophy is but a footnote to Plato” (as Alfred Whitehead would have it). Alternatively, we can speak of a textual tradition of a certain intentional textual correspondence, e.g. ǧib al-wuǧūd. In such a case, it need not even be clear which text is the ultimate source. Leading a set by a hypotext author or an intentional textual correspondence can create very different sets of texts. It therefore depends on the particular question we want to answer in choosing which one is better.

  • 51 Such paratexts can still be profitably used in research, but a different approach is needed. See e. (...)
  • 52 Smyth, “The Making of a Textbook”, p. 100. Smyth points out that Faḫr al-Dīn Rāzī’s text in turn re (...)

30A “commentary tradition” is a set of different hypertexts and at least one hypotext, with the hypotexts (minus intermediary texts) all written by one author, and each hypertext has structural textual correspondence with one of the hypotexts. In short, all texts from a commentary tradition take their hypotext and perform certain actions on it. Note: hypotexts themselves are also part of this set, since the ‘action’ they perform can be described as the function of identity. Corollary: even a single marginal note in a manuscript of a hypotext or intermediary text is part of this set, as long as the note somehow operates on the hypotext. This is because its composition as a whole is instructed by the hypotext, thus having structural textual correspondence. Marginal notes that are no more connected to the main text than being on the same sheet of paper, however, can be excluded, as there can be no argument made for intentional textual correspondence. Examples are doodles, random notes, or traces of popular culture such as magic squares; they can usually be left out of the commentary tradition.51 Similarly, just because texts are of the same genre and therefore show a high rate of overlap in wording and structure, does not mean they form a commentary tradition. Only where intentional textual correspondence can be argued for in those places that inform the structure of a hypertext do we speak of a commentary. If we find texts of which the author does not explicitly say it is a commentary on an earlier work but the requirements for structural textual correspondence checks out, we should conclude the text is a commentary and the hypotext and hypertext are together part of a commentary tradition. For example, of Qazwīnī’s (d. 1325) Talī al-Miftā it is clear that it is a commentary on Sakkākī’s (d. 1229) Miftā al-ʿulūm. However, it has been pointed that Sakkākī’s text seems to be rooted in Faḫr al-Dīn Rāzī’s (d. 1209) Nihāyat al-īǧāz fī dirāyat al-iʿǧāz, without Sakkākī making mention of this.52 Both Qazwīnī’s and Sakkākī’s texts were popular and inspired a great number of commentaries. The commentary tradition of these texts should also include Faḫr al-Dīn Rāzī’s text. For some analytical purposes, it can be left out, as not every study requires all texts of a commentary tradition to be involved, but strictly speaking it should be noted as part of this set.

31The “restricted commentary tradition” is the subset containing all treatises (as opposed to texts) of the commentary tradition. I have come to understand this concept as an ideal tool to assemble a subset of the most pertinent texts from a commentary tradition, to get a sense of the overall structure of the commentary tradition. Thus, the restricted commentary tradition does not contain single marginal notes, though it can contain glosses or even higher order commentaries. For example, Siyālkūtī’s (d. 1656) glosses on Ḫayālī’s (d. 1465) glosses on Taftāzānī’s (d. 1390) commentary on Nasafī’s (d. 1142) ʿaqīda is a treatise and enjoyed an independent distribution, just as Ḫayālī’s glosses did. All four texts are part of the restricted commentary tradition on Nasafī’s al-ʿAqāʾid al-nasafiyya.

32A commentary is “creative” when it offers new ideas or insights, significantly different from its hypotext. A creative hypertext does not need to be dissonant with its hypotext, it can also continue the train of thought of the hypotext or propose complementary theories.

33A commentary is “influential” when it enjoys a wide distribution. A simple measure for this is to see how many manuscript copies survived and how much the text was cited by later authors.

34Corollary: the restricted commentary tradition forms the backbone of the commentary tradition; they are the most widely circulated and read texts of this set, and thus the most influential. This does not imply they are the most creative texts of the commentary tradition.

35Lastly there is the “wider discourse”. This is the set of all texts available at a certain time, in a certain place. This is a notion that most scholars are already using, if only intuitively.

36The following graphic brings in relation some of the notions introduced here, showing how we are able to draw ever larger circles around the corpus of an author or a text. This is not to imply that each layer can only interact with the immediately neighboring layers, because they do and we can measure that. But we can only measure that by first drawing a suitable set of hypertexts around an author or hypotext.

Conclusion

  • 53 Ahmed, “Post-Classical Philosophical Commentaries/Glosses”, p. 344‒345.
  • 54 Ahmed, “Post-Classical Philosophical Commentaries/Glosses”, p. 345.

37Taking the materiality of text, the graphical form it leaves on writing surfaces, as the fundamental notion in Islamic intellectual discourse, I developed ‘structural textual correspondence’ as the definition of ‘commentary’. It means that a commentary is any text that derives its construction from an earlier text, by using specific terms from that earlier text in structurally significant places. To be called a commentary in this sense, a text does not need to include the entire earlier text. This definition allows for a flexible inclusion of texts under the header of commentary, yet at the same time enforces a strict test on it. A text can be studied to find out whether it meets the criteria or not and a decision can therefore always be made. This moves beyond the vague use of the term commentary which has been prevalent so far, and thereby also sidesteps the inherent dangers of assuming a commentary must be either a kind of exegesis or a kind of advocacy. As Asad Ahmed noted: “To step into a gloss […] is akin to wandering mid-semester into a graduate seminar; […] though the arguments of the seminar develop diachronically and in multiple directions, at each meeting, they are cumulatively and synchronically available.”53 In such a case, the tested-and-tried method of approaching texts according to authorial intent, using close reading of an author’s corpus, has little merit. Instead, such a text needs to be understood in the context of a ‘commentary tradition’ and my grouping together of commentaries in different ways allows for a modular approach to do that. This is what Asad Ahmed calls the “complex relationship of intertextuality” that Ahmed perceives among the, somewhat awkwardly defined, “horizontal layers […] just like the genealogically-linked vertical layers”.54 Earlier interpretations of ‘commentary’ have either claimed it to be exegesis and thus subordinate, or advocacy and thus creative and supportive. My theoretical foundation and my formal definitions are somewhere in the middle, perhaps with a preference for the second interpretation. Nonetheless, it was my intention to provide a pragmatic approach to commentaries: when faced with the large number of texts that are commentaries in Islamic intellectual history, how do we approach them? It is the graphical form of the text which leads us the way, and this allows itself best organized in relation to other texts, cutting through different authors, places, and centuries.

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Notes

1 The research for this article was supported by the European Research Council Starting Grant ‘The Here and the Hereafter in Islamic Traditions’ (no. 263308) and by the MacMillan Center at Yale University. I thank Olly Akkerman, David Larsen, and Nir Shafir for commenting on an earlier version of this article. Lastly, I wish to express my gratitude for the work of the Dominican Order towards the study of the Islamic world, such as organizing the conference out of which this article came.

2 Messick, The Calligraphic State, p. 30.

3 Schoeler, The Oral and the Written in Early Islam, p. 46ff., 57, 179 fn 142; Schoeler, “Text und Kommentar in der klassisch-islamischen Tradition”, p. 279–292.

4 Wisnovsky, “The Nature and Scope of Arabic Philosophical Commentary in Post-Classical (ca.1100-1900 ad) Islamic Intellectual History”, p. 149–191; Wisnovsky, “Avicenna’s Islamic Reception”, p. 190–213; Wisnovsky, “Avicennism and Exegetical Practice in the Early Commentaries on the Ishārāt”, p. 349–378; Wisnovsky, “Towards a Genealogy of Avicennism”, p. 323–363.

5 Smyth, “Controversy in a Tradition of Commentary”, p. 590. For this point being made for Medieval Europe, see Del Punta, “The Genre of Commentaries in the Middle Ages and its Relation to the Nature and Originality of Medieval Thought”, p. 144.

6 Prominent examples are: De Boer, Geschichte der Philosophie im Islam, p. 13; Brockelmann, Geschichte der arabischen Litteratur, vol. 2, p. 7‒8; Rescher, The Development of Arabic Logic, p. 8; Van Ess, Die Erkenntnislehre des ʿAudaddīn al-Īcī, p. 33; Watt, Islamic Philosophy and Theology, p. 134; Fakhry, A History of Islamic Philosophy, p. 333. This was not only the opinion of scholars in the West, see Dayf, al-Balāġa, p. 272, cf. Smyth, “The Making of a Textbook”, p. 99, fn. 2; see also Madkour, “Conclusion”, p. 215.

7 Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, Volume 2, p. 439.

8 Corbin, History of Islamic Philosophy, p. 219.

9 Corbin, History of Islamic Philosophy, p. 218.

10 Corbin, En Islam iranien, vol. 2, p. 353.

11 Saliba, Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance, p. 241.

12 Saliba, Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance, p. 242.

13 For a concrete example, see Van Lit, “Ghiyāth al-Dīn Dashtakī on the World of Image (ʿālam al-mithāl)”.

14 Ahmed, “Post-Classical Philosophical Commentaries/Glosses”, p. 341. In a more rudimentary form, this interpretation was already provided by William Smyth in Smyth, “Controversy in a Tradition of Commentary”, p. 593, 597.

15 Ahmed, “Post-Classical Philosophical Commentaries/Glosses”, p. 320.

16 Ahmed, What Is Islam?, p. 323.

17 Ahmed, What Is Islam?, p. 328.

18 Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking, p. 2.

19 Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking, p. 110. Cf. Ahmed, What Is Islam?, p. 344.

20 Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking, p. 7‒16.

21 Medieval Europe might be quite similar in this regard. John Dagenais writes that “I began to see that it is at the edges of manuscripts and in the various activities by which medieval people transformed one manuscript into another—commentary, translation, adaptation, reworking, and the “mechanical” act of copying—that the most important part of ‘medieval literature’ happens”, Dagenais, The Ethics of Reading in Manuscript Culture, p. xvi.

22 Ahmed, What Is Islam?, p. 357.

23 Talal Asad’s notion of Islam as a discursive tradition coheres largely with the theory laid forth here, but has the disadvantage of relying on this unexplained term. Cf. Asad, The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam.

24 Ahmed, What Is Islam?, p. 363.

25 He writes it as ‘Con-Text’ to distinguish it from ‘context’. He reserves the latter for that part of Con-Text which is only available at a certain time in a certain place, whereas Con-Text is the sum total.

26 Ahmed, What Is Islam?, p. 357.

27 Rosenthal, The Technique and Approach of Muslim Scholarship, p. 6. Cf. Hirschler, The Written Word in the Medieval Arabic Lands, p. 1.

28 Bloom, Paper Before Print, p. 42ff.

29 Anderson, Imagined Communities, p. 6.

30 A people from the Philippines.

31 Anderson, Imagined Communities, p. 13.

32 Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”, p. 132.

33 Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”, p. 166.

34 Meyer, “Introduction”, p. 5.

35 “It is generally estimated that there may have been several millions of manuscripts produced in the Muslim world until the beginning of the 14th/20th century, of which hundreds of thousands, if not more, have survived, with the majority yet to be properly described/catalogued, edited or re-edited.” Gacek, Arabic Manuscripts, p. 154. Compare with p. x where Gacek writes the number of surviving manuscripts might be “several millions”.

36 Barthes, “The Death of the Author”, p. 146.

37 On a more technical-philosophical note, I see the mere act of copying not as mimicry in which the split between subject and object becomes manifest and the practice revealed as myth. Rather, copying here is a practice of mimesis; it is not concerned with other ends than itself, and by becoming one with the world at large, truth becomes manifest to the practitioner. See Horkheimer, Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightment, p. 5, 7, 10, 20, and 256 fn. 20.

38 For an analysis of actors’ categories, see Gutas, “Aspects of Literary Form and Genre in Arabic Logical Works”.

39 Peters, Aristotle and the Arabs.

40 McKenzie, Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts, p. 13.

41 I borrow these terms from Gérard Genette without fully committing to his usage. He says: “By hypertextuality I mean any relationship uniting a text B (which I shall call the hypertext) to an earlier text A (I shall, of course, call it the hypotext), upon which it is grafted in a manner that is not that of commentary.” I do not see why the last clause is necessary and therefore ignore it for our purposes. His further analysis of the terms is applicable to European literature and does not necessarily translate to our case of Islamic intellectual history. Genette, Palimpsests, p. 5.

42 A classic discussion is in his al-Šifāʾ, Ibn Sīnā, The Metaphysics of The Healing. For Fārābī see e.g. Fārābī, Kitāb al-milla wa-nuū u, p. 89.

43 Ǧihāmī, Mawsūʿat muṣṭalaāt al-falsafa ʿinda al-ʿArab, p. 964‒965.

44 A simple comparison of the chapter headings reveals this, cf. Bayḍāwī, Iṣfahānī, Nature, Man and God in Medieval Islam, p. xl.

45 My double use of commentary, in the general sense and in the more specific, true sense of the word, finds agreement with actors’ categories. As Gutas proposes, when historical sources speak of tafsīr, they mean a commentary in the general sense of the word, which could be a commentary, but also a translation, summary, and so forth. Šar, on the other hand, is the word used for a commentary in the true sense of the word. Cf. Gutas, “Aspects of Literary Form…”, p. 32.

46 Cf. Gacek, Arabic Manuscripts, p. 78‒80. For the last one see Rosenthal, “‘Blurbs’ (taqrī)̣ from 14th-Century Egypt”.

47 I have seen cases in which the commentator deliberately obfuscates the distinction between author/commentator in order to bend the meaning of the hypotext towards the commentator’s opinion. For example, Šahrazūrī in his Šar al-Talwīāt uses this strategy to attenuate Suhrawardī’s harsh tone on those destined for punishment after death. Cf. Van Lit, The World of Image in Islamic Philosophy (p. 109-110).

48 Such as our modern footnote system, as illustrated with this footnote.

49 Rāzī, al-Ilāhiyyāt min al-Muākamāt bayna šaray al-Išārāt.

50 Van Lit, “An Ottoman Commentary Tradition on Ghazālī’s Tahāfut al-falāsifa. Preliminary Observations”; Van Lit, “The Chapters on God’s Knowledge in Khojazāda’s and ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn’s Studies on al-Ghazālī’s Tahāfut al-Falāsifa.”

51 Such paratexts can still be profitably used in research, but a different approach is needed. See e.g. Görke and Hirschler (eds.), Manuscript Notes as Documentary Sources.

52 Smyth, “The Making of a Textbook”, p. 100. Smyth points out that Faḫr al-Dīn Rāzī’s text in turn relies on ʿAbd al-Qāhir Ǧurǧānī’s (d. 1078) two texts Dalāʾil al-iʿǧāz and Asrār al-balāġa.

53 Ahmed, “Post-Classical Philosophical Commentaries/Glosses”, p. 344‒345.

54 Ahmed, “Post-Classical Philosophical Commentaries/Glosses”, p. 345.

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L.W.C. (Eric) Van Lit

YALE UNIVERSITY

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Institut Dominicain d'Études Orientales

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