The House of David

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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Shia Chat

Late in 2011, I bought Which Koran? and its last essay was Bar-Asher, "Variant Readings and Additions of the Imami Shia". That essay's addendum - literally the last word of the book - brought to my addition Etan Kohlberg and Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, Revelation and Falsification (Brill, 2009) - the bulk of which was an edition with commentary of al-Sayyari's book of reading / reciting the Qur'an.

I read most of the introduction to this, back then; and last November at the Library of Congress I printed much of its main text. Over the last few nights I have read its take on suras 6, 7, 10, 11, 13, 14, 17, and 19-46 plus Musabbihat. (There are some gaps. I admit.)

Today I browsed some reactions. Here's one in French. Further enlightening are some comments at ShiaChat; people over there do care about the topic, and aren't nearly as dogmatic as I'd feared (although, we're to get to that). In particular the commenter "Ya Bab-ul-Hawaij" posted a seminar on the Shîite tahrîf topic itself, for those who don't own the book and for alladhîna ûtû nasîban mina'l-kitâbi as it were.

The general theme is that Kohlberg and Moezzi are "provable but not sound" because Sayyari relied on / is of weak sources... as defined by the Shi`a today. The commenter "imami" directs the Party instead to Madelung at the seminar and, also, to Poonawala's review of Modarressi (use that instead of the dead link given in-thread). As I said: they're hardly going to give up on modern Shiite dogma, and they've abandoned many early Shi`ites; but they're at least giving a listen to the non-Shi`a.

So now we get to the review by Mohammad Saeed B Ahmanpour, Journal of Shi‘a Islamic Studies 3.2 (Spring 2010), 231f.. Ahmanpour is, according to the Shiachatters, the best word about Sayyari from within the scholarly malakut ("ivory tower" as Westerners put it). Although he is, I think, a Shi`ite himself.

Ahmanpour notes the editors' erudition but faults them for bias. The editors assume on the part of "the modern scholar" that the Qur'an was corrupt as of Sayyari's time. The Ahmanpour begs to differ (232): "Given Al-Sayyari’s admitted notoriety, the contention that al-Sayyari is representative of early Shi‘a thought on the Qur’an requires somewhat more support."

Ahmanpour also argues that Sayyari wasn't as guilty of tahrîf as his editors think. Our reviewer points out here that the book is called, elsewhere, "the book of tafsir" (232). I perceive contradiction between Ahmanpour's two arguments. To evaluate his critiques requires an understanding of what Sayyari was trying to do himself, and then of what his successors made of his work.

First, inasmuch as the Qirâ'ât is not (only) a collection of Shiite readings, Ahmanpour is right. There *is* tafsir in the text: that is, ahadith where Sayyari does not dispute the text, but simply explains it. Especially the Qirâ'ât employs naskh to resolve contradictions, which would be redundant if Sayyari knew textual readings that lacked the contradictions.

So where we see the text introducing Shiite pluses, we are most likely reading exegetical inline glosses never intended to be written into a mushaf. I saw the same in the Tafsir Muqatil. No Muslims at the time cared what Muqatil did, because they understood that Muqatil was giving a sense of what the Qur'an meant and not what it literally said. With Sayyari, it's more subtle; because he argued for an "oral torah" such that the Prophet privately told his family and the Shi`a what God had intended.

The Qirâ'ât reminds me of a "virtual machine" in operating-system design. This is an interpretive layer overlaying immediately the text itself. Even the Shiite mullahs weren't supposed to read the Qirâ'ât. The book is for other Shiite mufassarun, who would be producing the (real) commentaries from which the mullahs would teach. Ayyashi was probably the most important student of the Qirâ'ât; we might also consider Kulayni's al-Usul min al-Kafi.

I do not get the impression from Sayyari that he intended a single controversy against his fellow Shi`ites. I do find trenchant comments, by contrast, against `Umar "the Roarer" and other opponents of the a'immat. Sayyari, then, thought himself orthodox.

Elsewhere within the Shi`a, Sayyari's variants belong to that early milieu in which many doctrinally-charged variants roamed the early `Abbasid-era Hadith. Many of these variants were Shi`ite in focus, although ending up in non-Shiite tafâsir like Tabari's: as seen in the late Daud Rahbar, "Relation of Shi`a Theology to the Qur'an". As far as I know no-one has suggested that Sayyari was so desperate in his Shiism that, for his pro-Shi`a variants, he had delved into polemic anti-Shi`ite works (like this one). Sayyari simply recorded what he had learnt from his own teachers.

Ahmanpour is overall correct, then, in his second argument; if we find Sayyari to be controversial, that is a problem mainly with how we are reading his book. One of Sayyari's editors, Amir-Moezzi, has followed this up with The Spirituality of Shi`i Islam (2011); in p. 220 he goes further and says an opponent of Sayyari would be having a problem with early Shi`ism itself. At any rate, there is no problem in Sayyari. It is now time to return to the review's first argument.

Clearly Sayyari retained his orthodoxy at first in some learned circles, starting with Ayyashi and Kulayni. Amir-Moezzi, 233f here repeats several variants shared between Sayyari and (often) Kulayni. Shi`a today consider Kulayni's own work, in turn, to be the most reliable hadith-collection available (although not infallible).

Perhaps this is why Ahmanpour prefers to discuss the more respected (today) Shiite Bab[a]wayh (232-3). Our reviewer raises the question that, had Babwayh been diverting Shiite orthodoxy from Sayyari (and Ayyashi): then why has he not heard of mediaeval debate on the topic. I find this argumentum ex silentio less compelling than does Ahmanpour - for the simple reason of kitman (Kulayni devoted whole chapters to kitman and to its close relative taqiyya - also see Amir-Moezzi, 219-20). Babwayh was able to discuss the Qur'an IN PUBLIC: with the Sunnis and, depending on location, Khawarij. In PRIVATE, Ayyashi and Kulayni continued to circulate. If anything Sayyari outlived Ayyashi: we have four MSS for the former with (almost) the full text, where the latter has come to us only incompletely. We have already met Kulayni.

(Ahmanpour also associates these scholars' work with the Fasl al-Khitab of Mirza Husayn Nuri. Not that Mirza Husayn Nuri; this is the Tabrisi, d. 1902. I haven't read it so I can't judge on the strength of its argument. I just assume it's dated.)

It is, it seems, very difficult for Shiite scholars to be, simply, scholars where the topic of Shi`ism comes up. Sayyari should be read as Muqatil is read: not as OMG THIS IS THE REAL KORAN!! but as purveyor of early Imami interpretations of said text. Ahmanpour, (some of) the Shiachatters and arguably even Kohlberg and Moezzi really should take deep breaths and calm down.

posted by Zimri on 17:59 | link | 0 comments

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