• Date: 2014 May 22

Thematic Exegesis According to Martyr Sadr


Thematic Exegesis According to Martyr Sadr


Muslims recite the Holy Qur'an and understand the meaning of its verses as per its specific arrangement {tartib) to which they have always attached special importance. According to confirmed sources the Holy Qur'an was arranged in its present form in the time of Prophet Muhammad )S) himself.1The exegetes of the Holy Qur'an, right from the period of its compilation, have not only memorised its contents as per this arrangement but have interpreted its verses and written commentaries according to the same order. This is why in the history of the exegesis of the Holy Qur'an we find all traditional commentaries written in the order of its arrangement {tafsir tartibi(.

However, parallel to this traditional norm there have been other modes, such as exegesis on the basis of the order of revelation of the verses of the Holy Qur'an {tafsir 'ala tartib al-Nuzul)2 as well as thematic exegesis {tafsir mawzu'i). Without doubt these developments or adaptation of particular modes saw the emergence of some great scholars. History is witness to the blossoming of different methods of writing exegesis to the extent that a branch of knowledge called research exegesis has taken shape. As a result valuable works have been written for critical evaluation and introduction of a particular exegesis.3

Among the scholars who focused on thematic exegesis4 of the Holy Qur'an by classifying the contents into different topics, was Ayatullah Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr who was known for his dynamic views on all topics in which he has written books including philosophy, economics, logic, kalam, usal and fiqh. He was a prodigy whose scholarly views manifest his full awareness of the times. Since his views on thematic exegesis have not been fully reflected by critics, we will attempt a review of his thoughts in this particular field bearing in mind the importance of thematic or topical interpretation of the verses of the Holy Qur'an on the basis of other verses. First let us briefly explain what is meant by thematic exegesis.

What is Thematic Exegesis?

Thematic exegesis is the method to recognize, interpret and make clear a subject mentioned in the Holy Qur'an by taking note of verses which bear commonality and share a purport or have a phraseology which helps determine the topic. The method which the exegete follows in this regard is to classify various verses which speak on the same topic and by analysing them attempts to expound the viewpoint of the Holy Qur'an. Generally, thematic exegesis seeks to provide answers to questions in different fields such as doctrinal, social, political, historical, jurisprudential and even conceptual. The exegete attempts to derive his viewpoint on the basis after a viewpoint.

In contrast to traditional exegesis which follows the order of arrangement of the verses of the Holy Qur'an and where the sole aim of the exegete is to make clear the meaning and concept of each and every verse and its expression without bothering to derive any particular viewpoint, thematic exegesis has broader objectives than the simple understanding of the verse or the expression used in it. The exegete here by focusing on the meaning and purport of each and every ayah, attempts to determine the Qur'anic perspective on a particular topic from among several topics. He attempts to find from a set of ayahs the perspective of the Qur'an which the Holy Book itself has mentioned, and moreover the exegete by analysing and evaluating the different opinions expressed or criteria mentioned for a particular topic, extracts the view which is compatible with the Qur'an.

Element of Theme in Thematic Interpretation

The question here arises on which theme in the Holy Qur'an should we focus attention for research? Which points are worth consideration in the thematic interpretation? Different interpreters have different approaches. Some focus on the phrases and terminology in the Holy Book itself by selecting root words, as for instance sabr (patience) or insan (man). Others take the apparent meaning of the words to build upon a theme, which might be related to human beings and social issues. Yet there are some who think that thematic interpretation covers concepts as well, whose elaboration would provide answers to the ambiguities man is facing. For example, it is interesting to find out the different meaning and application of the word kufr as mentioned in the Holy Qur'an. There are various other similar Qur'3,nic words such as nifaq,fisq, taghut, etc. which have more than one meaning, and this necessitates a thematic interpretation to classify the terms and unveil the hidden realities of their contents.

Can one extend the sphere of the thematic interpretation to cover all concepts and meanings of the Holy Qur'an, or does theme simply means the external and outward interpretation of topics related to human life? Principally, those who regard thematic interpretation confined to the first and second categories, claim that research on the roots of the words falls within the domain of etymology, while extraction of the viewpoint of the Holy Qur'an is aimed at addressing conceptual controversies on the basis of human experiences. Therefore, to take up such a task, an interpreter should be aware of different views in order to find the core of the theme under investigation. He should, however, know that as long as no question is raised and as long as no dispute arises it would be impossible to have a specific viewpoint. But if the aim in determining the theme is to try to discover what actually is the Qur'an's point of view, then such research undeniably falls in the category of the key and compound concepts found in the Holy Book itself. The task here is not merely to discover the meaning of a single word or classify ayahs which contain such words, but the goal is to render an analysis on the viewpoint of the Qur'an in repeatedly using such words and phrases.

Thus, any attempt to discover and unveil the core meaning of a word or theme in the Qur'an needs to be seen in the light of the Qur'an itself. For instance, when defining muhkam and mutashabih in the Holy Qur'an, the interpreter should take into consideration the apparent meaning as well as evidences pointing to the subject concerned. He needs to clarify what is muhkam or what is mutashabih, and what solid proofs does the Qur'an provides in this regard? Is the Qur'an all muhkam or is it all mutashabih? Is it partially muhkam and partially mutashabih?5 Naturally, such kind of interpretation requires a thematic approach, and thematic interpretation means to concentrate on a disputed subject rather than trying to find a specific word and phrase in the Holy Book. The theme under scrutiny for which the interpreter is trying to find an answer might be in or outside the Qur'an. Thematic interpretation may also be confined to a special subject or view concerning life.

In view of these facts, 'theme' could be broadly based on the following three categories:

1. The concept of naskh, bada', tashabuh, shirk, kufr, nifaq and scores of similar words whose meaning are vital for an understanding of the Holy Qur'an, since they serve as a basis for proper recognition of other Qur'anic terms such as Allah, Rahman, Rahim, Kitab, Tibyan, 'Arsh, Kursi and Qalam. In these cases an etymological approach is not enough but what is required is an overall analysis of the Holy Book rather than sticking to the context of a single verse.

2. Topics which are not mere conceptual debates and are beyond the framework of routine issues in man's life but have been questions gripping the human mind for ages. One can point in this regard to themes such as 'alam al-ghayb, mala'ikah, jinn, and dozens of similar phrases with ideological bearings, which deal with the way man and universe have come into existence. A thematic interpretation attempts to extract the viewpoint of the Qur'an in this regard by studying and classifying ayahs that refer to any of these themes and provide a rational answer .

3. Abstract topics such as freedom, government, power, rights, violation, production, distribution, consumption, education and similar issues regarding which man wants to know the attitude and guidelines of religion. Here the interpreter first tries to discover whether the Qur'an has referred to any of these themes, and if so, he derives the guidelines and viewpoints of the Holy Book on these subjects.

Objective of Thematic Interpretation

Objective plays a vital role in clarification of a theme and the direction the exegete has chosen. If the goal and objective is clear, one will better understand the realm of thematic exegesis, which in reality is an attempt to identify the viewpoints of the Holy Qur'an on various issues. This may include the views on problems facing communities and their beliefs or the intricacies associated with language. For instance, what is meant by the word 'Allah '? Is 'Allah' a new concept mentioned by the Holy Qur'an, or was the word in use during the pre-Islamic period as well? The exegete here attempts to shed light on the lexical and semantic meanings of God and man as mentioned in the Qur'an. Japanese Islamic scholar Tushihiko Izutsu has conducted research on relations between God and man from the Qur'anic worldview. He has named his research Qur'anic Semantics because the objective was to concord the semantic method with grammatical analysis of the words of the Holy Qur'an. Scholars who attempt such researches normally classify the divine verses and group them thematically so as to find out God's intention in the Qur'an. Undoubtedly, such a research goes beyond mere morphology and is a sort of exploration and discovery. Therefore, the objective of thematic exegesis is to identify the viewpoints of the Qur'an on various issues including the ideological bases such as tawhid (monotheism), 'adl (justice), nubuwwah (prophethood), imamah (imamate), ma 'ad (resurrection) and the like. In this case, verses having a common theme are separated and classified, so as to help understand the actual purport and viewpoint of the Holy Qur'an in this regard.

Thematic exegesis helps unravel issues related to man's life, since certain issues are time-bound and undergo changes in pace with the evolutionary process of social development. Man wants to know what solution the Qur'an presents in this regard. For instance, which kind of government is approved by Islam and how should such a government be run? Man wants to know which kind of society the Qur'an considers as upright and religious and in line with the goals of the Divine Messengers? Which principles and values should govern the society? How to deal with proponents and opponents, as well as the hostile and those waging war? What principles and laws pertain to economy and other spheres of life? These are some of the questions that normally arise. Man has presented solutions to these issues from his experiences in life and history , but the way of approach differs, and thematic exegesis is a I novel attempt to identify the topics and define the viewpoints of the Qur'an. However, one cannot claim that since muhkam and mutashlibih are purely Qur'anic semantics or since the debate on 'Allah' and 'Rahman' is the concern of morphological studies, therefore, these topics cannot be included in the framework of thematic exegesis.

Difference between Thematic Exegesis and Interpretation of Qur'an by Qur'an

Some mistakenly believe that thematic exegesis is the same as interpretation of ayahs of the holy Qur'an on the basis of other ayahs. It is true that basically thematic exegesis requires a brief explanation of ayahs through recourse to other ayahs for the purpose of grouping ayahs sharing similar purport and meaning but the important point is that instead of explaining a single ayah by referring to other ayahs, the thematic exegete discusses all other ayahs having a common theme in order to give a better and comprehensive understanding of the viewpoint of the Holy Qur'an. The reason for application of such a method is fully clear because the most natural way for understanding the Holy Book is by referring to the other words of the Speaker Himself, Who is Almighty God. 'Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabataba'I says in his monumental exegesis Tafsir al-Mizan that the best method is to refer to the Qur'an itself and seek help from other ayahs in order to fully understand the meaning of the ayah under discussion.

The aim of the thematic exegete, as said before, is extraction of views of the Qur'an rather than emphasis on a specific ayah as is done in the case of Qur'an by Qur'an interpretation. Perhaps an ayah might be referred to frequently and used as a criterion for another ayah but the purpose is not to derive a single meaning nor to find out the intention of each ayah, rather it is to clarify the theme of the various ayahs. In other words, in thematic exegesis, ayahs sharing similar and related meaning, are grouped together according to the specific approach of the exegete in order to provide the answer to a particular question and help one understand the viewpoint of the Qur'an on that subject. According to Martyr Sadr, this method is actually an analytical interpretation for better understanding of the different themes in the Holy Qur'an and unravelling the secrets of the ayahs by recourse to other ayahs in order to discover the topic under discussion. By thematic exegesis, he means efforts to discover a subject from among different subjects related to man's ideological and social life as well as knowledge of existence. This method helps narrow down the theme under study and helps extract the viewpoints of the Qur'an. Thus, as it should be clear if the interpreter intends to explain the meaning of a word or a phrase in a particular liyah on the basis of another ayah, it is called exegesis of the Qur'an through the Qur'an. But if the aim is to discover a message in the Qur'an and unravel its viewpoint on a particular subject, it is called thematic exegesis.

Importance of Thematic Exegesis

The Holy Qur'an, as accepted by all believers, is the "guidancefor mankind" (2:185), "manifest light" (4:174), and the "Book explaining everything" ( 16:89). But if one wants to find the Qur'an's views on the different issues and human needs, or if a non-Muslim is interested to know the various themes in the Holy Scripture of the Muslims, any exegesis in the traditional order of arrangement will not be of much help in providing clue to the Qur'anic viewpoint on a particular subject. The Qur'an was revealed to Prophet Muhammad (S) over a period of twenty-three years and sheds light on the various needs, conditions and incidents, and at the same time says that it is a constitution for all generations to come, but how could contemporary Muslims find answers to their growing needs in its contents? For instance, during the Meccan period, the ayahs of the Qur'an revolved around the sin of idol-worship, shirk (polytheism), ignorance and the exhortation to tawhid. Later when Islam had founded a state in Medina, divine revelation focused on jihad, confronting the internal and external enemies, machinations of the hypocrites, rules on ideology and administration, and the like. Apparently, since the revelation addresses the specific situation and covers just one dimension of the issue under discussion, any exegesis of the Qur'an according to its order of arrangement will not cater to the complex issues of the modern man, unless the ayahs are classified as per their themes such as economy, politics, education, science, awareness, freedom, corruption, disbelief, administration, etc. Qur'anic ayahs are like a string of pearls, each with its own dazzling glow, sometimes matching another string and sometimes indicating a slightly or totally different radiance, that carries its own meaning and purport. Thus, it is for the thematic exegete to meticulously sort and match the different ayahs and discover the answers to the changing needs of man ands society.

Moreover, exegesis in order of the traditional arrangement cannot meet the present needs of the society since it deals with each and every ayah in a separate and disintegrated form and simply presents a large number of unrelated guidelines, injunctions and concepts without analysing the viewpoints of Qur'an on a particular issue. However, this method is indispensable, due to the fact that thematic interpretation is not possible unless the exegete in his attempt to group ayahs on the basis of a subject goes through the exegesis in order of traditional arrangement. One cannot go directly to any theme unless the meaning of Qur'anic words and phrases are clear enough to be matched and classified together.

Martyr Sadr, underlining the importance of thematic interpretation, has said that the exegete here attempts to discover the Qur'an's view on a subject and draws inspiration from the Qur'an so as to discover the views of the Holy Book on the ideas that come under discussion. In view of this, it could be said thematic exegesis is inextricably linked with man's experience and progress. One can conclude that thematic exegesis is a kind of dialogue with the Qur'an and asking questions from it. It is not merely a desperate attempt to find any weak response but is a dynamic way of discovering the amazing realities of life as God has enclosed in His final revelation to mankind.

 As the Commander of the Faithful, Imam ' Ali ('a), after reciting the ayah "We have not neglected in the Book (Qur'an) anything" (6:38), says:

"Certainly the outside of the Qur'an is wonderful and its inside is deep (in meaning). It wonders will never disappear, its amazement will never pass away and its intricacies cannot be cleared except through itself." (Nahj al-Balaghah, Sermon 18)

Methods of Thematic Exegesis

Thematic exegetes have used different methods to extract the viewpoints of the Holy Qur'an. Similar to the different approaches among exegetes following the order of traditional arrangement thematic exegetes have followed the same pattern, and according to modern research have been divided chronologically with respect to the intellectual and social developments and their distinctive leanings to determine a subject. True, thematic exegesis is something new but methodological differences are observed in this field. For instance, some believe that Qur'anic themes are shaped in tune with man's ideas and experiences and an exegete should not extract an unconvincing answer from the Qur'an so as to meet inferences on the topic under scrutiny. Rather, the exegete after looking at a particular problem in life and in reality, an determining the existing viewpoints and theories, should make recourse to the Holy Book to find out what it says in this regard.7. It is often seen that themes are taken out of the context and beyond the intellectual and social needs, while at times they are strictly confined to the realm of jurisprudence. The questions which arise are: Do jurisprudents, irrespective of their religious and philosophical attitudes, act similarly as far as their inferential method is concerned? Are the styles adopted by Usulis and Akhbaris identical? Is there a similarity between the methods of past and contemporary jurisprudents? A look at the jurisprudential works would reveal the stylistic differences.8 The method some use is mainly documentary. Others follow an analytical and descriptive style of thematic interpretation. Yet there are some who have devised a comparative approach by evaluating man's experiences according to the guidelines of the Qur'an. Still others have resorted to what they call a scientific method of thematic interpretation by using scientific theories and comparing them with the ayahs of the Holy Qur'an, so as to justify their intentions.

To sum up, thematic exegesis can be broadly classified into the following three categories:

1. Exegesis based on religious and social beliefs, attitudes and disciplines.

2. Exegesis based on outward and inward approaches of methodological differences.

3. Exegesis based on order of arrangement and in accordance with the theme of the ayahs under discussion.

Therefore, if the one trying to render a thematic interpretation compares human beings' attitudes, besides using tradition so as the understand the book, or follows historical and experimental methods to understand the purpose of the issue under discussion, he has in fact followed a special method that is different from methods of other interpreters who do not accept the fundamentals and principally do not give any value to the experimental and historical methods.

What the one presenting a thematic interpretation lays as foundation of his interpretation, in fact requires a different method that affects the way the interpreter infers. The interpreter, who believes there is no contrast between religion and science, is in fact making a kind of inference. The one who thinks religion does not supervise issues related to existence and man ' s creation and believes that what have come in religious texts are merely reflection of the contemporary culture, is in fact making a distinction between the methods used by the interpreter for inference.

In view of this classification, the one attempting a thematic interpretation by taking human attitudes into account on the basis of hadith in order to understand the purport of the Qur'an, or following historical and experimental methods to understand the issue under discussion, has in fact adopted a special method that is different from others who do not accept the fundamentals. On the other hand, the exegete who believes there is no contradiction between religion and science is in fact making a kind of inference. Similarly the one who thinks religion does not supervise issues related to existence and man's needs and believes that religious texts are a mere reflection of the culture and necessities of the times, has in fact gone wide off the track in his methods as an interpreter.

Examples of Thematic Exegesis

As we said, thematic interpretation follows a specific style. In contrast to the method of tartibi exegesis which might have a variety of approaches depending on the school of ijtihad of the exegete or his philosophical, gnostic, mystical, scientific, historical and various other leanings, thematic exegesis is free of such shades. However, a look at thematic exegesis nonetheless reveals the diversity of approach and the methods used by the exegetes because of their tendencies, degree of knowledge, sensitivities and eventually backgrounds. It will not be out of context to cast a cursory glance at come well-known thematic exegetes and their works to understand the difference in style.

l. Martyr Mutahhari

Ayatullah Murtaza Mutahhari attempted both the thematic interpretation of the Holy Qur'an as well as the tartibi one. He surveyed a large volume of religious issues from the Qur'anic point of view. Among the sa!ient features of his research on different topics, one can refer to his discussion on Recognition of the Qur'an, The Qur'an and Problems of Life, Primordial Nature from the Qur'an's Viewpoint, Society and History, Man in the Qur'an, Women's Rights, Fundamental Liberties and various other issues. An important point raised by Martyr Mutahhari in his extraction of themes from the Qur'an is their instructional aspects in addition to their analytical and descriptive features. Throughout his works he has sought to prove to the reader that the viewpoint of the Holy Qur'an is superior to all other theories and viewpoints which have varying degrees of weaknesses. We will attempt a brief analysis of his book The Qur'an and Problems of Life in order to have a better understanding of the method and purport of thematic interpretation.

This work, as indicated by its title, includes a collection of philosophical discussions in the light of the Holy Qur'an with reference to the quality of the soul, its relationship with the body, the basic differences between the animate beings and the inanimate objects, and the comparatively differing approaches of materialists and theologians to the issue of life and evolution. Mutahhari even shows the difference between the logic employed by the theologians and the logic of the Qur'an, and by explaining the seemingly ambiguous reference to the soul in the Qur' an, provides justification on the basis of modern science. The language used by him in his thematic interpretation is descriptive and analytical. His method is highly comprehensive and convincing as well. To prove his points, he makes references not only to cognizant creatures but also to animals and plants. He refers to traces of intellect in creatures with ability to see and hear, get guided and offer guidance, and be inspired and follow instincts.9 The author raises the most interesting topic on difference between approaches of the theologians and the actual logic of the Holy Qur'an. He explains that theologians refer to living creatures in their attempts to prove existence and related phenomenon, and since they do not find any other way to justify manifestation of life, they say that the creature: have come into being as God wished. Moreover, he says, theologians often speak about God from a negative angle by viewing Him out of ignorance and pursuing illusions with the result that the more their knowledge increases, the weaker becomes their faith in Almighty Creator. The Qur'an, as Mutahhari notes, does not follow such methods and never resorts to cases of disorder to prove monotheism. The Holy Book, in fact, refers to factors whose prelude and natural reasons are known to human beings, and invites them to ponder and bear testimony. On existence, the Qur'an says it is merely a high degree of mercy which originates from a point far superior to the tangible object.10

Martyr Mutahhari's other works also have similar themes. He does not specifically emphasize on words in his thematic interpretation but uses the words wherever he thinks they would help clarify the point under discussion.He also takes into account the criticisms raised by the opponents and exposes the weakness of their attitude. His discussion is exhaustive because the words are carefully studied in depth and are supported by logical explanations. He classifies different theoretical or practical solutions while logically raising related problems and gives preference to the viewpoint that is compatible with them. His method is thus rationalistic and this rationalism is evident in all his discussions on the various aspects of the Holy Qur'an.

2. Abbas Mahmud 'Aqqad

The Egyptian writer Dr. 'Abbas Mahmud 'Aqqad has left several books on Qur'anic themes such as Man in the Qur'an, Woman in the Qur'an, and Qur'anic Philosophy. His work Man in the Qur 'an deals with Qur'an's philosophical approach towards man. He presents a critical evaluation of Qur'anic viewpoints by comparing them with Western philosophical schools. The first part of the book deals with the description of man in the Holy Qur'an, while the second part touches on the views of Western scholars and new approaches in contemporary philosophy. He critically recounts their attitudes. The book Qur'anic Philosophy deals with a collection of scientific discussions on creation, ethics, government, social strata, heritage, multiplicity of wives, international relations, soul, designity and various other themes. The method the author uses is comparative and at times critical. To understand issues better, the author uses a descriptive and analytical method. He then deals with themes in the Holy Qur'an that are both similar and distinctive. Here, he quotes prominent scholars and philosophers and points to their problems with respect to the views the Qur'an put forwards. He then defends the Qur'anic viewpoint in a rational and convincing way and provides answers to doubts entertained on the injunctions of the Qur'an.11

At the end of his book' Aqqad stresses that his aim in focusing on Qur'anic themes is to judge philosophical disciplines, since many ancient philosophers had vouched the rationality of the Qur'anic viewpoints. His other book, Woman in the Qur'an is one of the best works dealing with women's psychology, their ethical features and their role in society .It puts forward the reasons for the Qur'an's special emphasis on social behaviour, law, punishment, heritage and other related issues. 'Aqqad's method is mainly comparative and follows a defensive approach since he attempts to demonstrate to the reader that the injunctions of the Holy Qur'an are superior to what the human mind can devise. He uses a descriptive and analytical style rather than mere accumulation of facts and compares God's revealed word with the fallacies of the human schools of thought. He begins with theories and discussions concerning what some regard as ambiguities in Qur'anic injunctions, and then explores the various dimensions of the problems. For example, in Woman in the Qur'an, when dealing with issues related to women, he explains the misunderstanding that is often raised concerning equality of women's rights, and then answers the questions by focusing on the Qur'an's view of equality and how logically the issue of women's rights is resolved.12

3. Muhammad Taqi Misbah

Ayatullah Muhammad Taqi Misbah is among the contemporary Iranian scholars with valuable contributions in the field of thematic exegesis of the Holy Qur'an. As part of his research, he has focused on the Qur'anic outlook on universe and humanity. In the field of Qur'an's ethics, he deals with society and history from the Qur'an's point of view. In the field of theology he cites rational proofs based on the Qur'an and surveys the principle of monotheism in the Holy Book from various angles. His researches probe the universe, earth, heavens, their diversity and the essence of creation including 'arsh, kursi, day, night and natural phenomena from the point of view of the Qur'an in order to make man aware of God's blessings. He says the Qur'an is not a book of physics, botany, geology or any other specific subject, but includes all these and many other themes. 13 In discussions concerning man, he deals with natural and philosophical aspects. His book Ethics in the Qur'an compares the ethical concepts in the Holy Book with the theories coined by man in this field. The most important point, he notes in his thematic interpretation, is the difference between the ethical system of Islam and other systems. He also defines the educational points raised by the Qur'an. Misbah's Society and History from the Viewpoint of the Qur'an deals with differences in social life, civil societies, and social changes.

Ayatullah Misbah's aim in his thematic research is to enable other scholars to focus on Islamic injunctions in order to study the peripheral problems of society and find solutions for them in the light of the timeless wisdom of the Holy Qur'an. As for classification of ayahs, he provides an elaborate discussion in his book, Qur 'anic Sciences, and proposes classification of the various themes in the Qur'an on the basis of ideology, ethics, rules, humanity and monotheism. Misbah' s approach to thematic interpretation is primarily supported by ideological rules and philosophical knowledge. Sometimes his works go beyond the mere raising of issues and adopts a comparative attitude and then he proceeds to find evidence in the Qur'an to prove his points.14 He believes that pondering and contemplating on the words and phrases of the Qur'an, helps in discovering the inner meanings of the ayahs and is actually a transition from interpretation according to order of traditional arrangement to thematic interpretation.

However, Ayatullah Misbah relies less on the views of philosophers, especially the Westerners, and because of this ignores their criticism in various fields, especially in matters concerning God.

Thus as should be clear, different scholars use different methods of thematic interpretation, and this will help us to understand the approach of Martyr Sadr to the thematic exegesis of the Holy Qur'an.

Martyr Sadr and Thematic Exegesis

The views of Ayatullah Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr on thematic interpretation of the Holy Qur'an could be assessed from his books, Muqaddamat fi Tafsir al-Mawzu'i al-Madrasah al- Qur'aniyyah, as well as the twelve lessons he gave at the Najaf Seminary on the historical aspects in his work and which were later published along with the book.

His views on this topic could be surnmarised as follows.

1. Thematic exegesis actually completes the task of tartibi exegesis, and is complementary to it since in the absence of tartibi interpretation there cannot be any thematic interpretation of the Holy Qur'fin.15

2. Tartibi exegesis is not capable of pronouncing the last word on the viewpoint of the Holy Qur'an on any topic in contrast to thematic interpretation which delves into the boundless ocean of the ayahs to determine and define a topic.16

3. Thematic exegesis is the only way to enable understand the Qur'an's views on the vast variett of issues in life.17

4. Thematic exegesis is not merely applied for specific topic and concepts but covers all the subjects that fall within the framework of religion and man's life and the problems that one faces.l8

5. The main difference between thematic exegesis and tartibi exegesis is the recognition of a goal or objective. The thematic pursues specific aspects of life or ideological and social issues,

Elaboration of His Views

However, from Ayatullah Sadr's viewpoint, collection and juxtaposition of verses around a specific subject cannot be termed as thematic exegesis. After outlining his views, we will attempt a broader discussion of his approach to thematic interpretation. Martyr Sadr says that the thematic method is inextricably related to the tartibi method. He emphasizes that mankind has always been following the road to progress, and the more increase in knowledge and information, the more mature a human being would be regarded. The questions that race across the human mind are rapidly growing everyday. Since scientific progress affects man's life and changes his behaviour and attitude, religion should find answers to all questions that flash in his mind. The only way that one can find satisfactory answers is to refer to the Holy Qur'an which is the revealed word of God Almighty for the benefit of human society .This task cannot be undertaken by tartibi exegesis whose sole intention is to unravel the meaning, purport and significance of a word or ayahs in order of the traditional arrangement. It is here that thematic exegesis comes to the rescue to satisfy the thirst of the human intellect.20

Some might point out that the different themes have also been raised by tartibi exegetes such as Rashid Riza in al-Manar and 'Allamah Tabataba'i in al-Mizan. But one should bear in mind that Martyr Sadr did not negate tartibi exegesis. Rather, he said that thematic interpretation completes the traditional exegesis, and by classifying the ayahs, determines the widely expanding topics and unravels solution to the myriad of problems. He firmly believed that thematic exegesis is actually a developed version of tartibi exegesis. The realm of this method is wide and extensive and covers almost everything from family issues to political problems and scientific progress. Sadr stressed on a unique form of thematic interpretation by taking into consideration human experiences and knowledge, in contrast to the tendency of traditional interpreters. Thematic interpretation, in addition, is a firm proof of the miracle of the Holy Qur'an and practically demonstrates the dynamism of Islam when faced with new and ever-expanding issues.21

Another point that Martyr Sadr took note was that thematic exegesis is vital for jurisprudence which in itself is a thematic interpretation of the science of hadith. He said the science of jurisprudence would not have reached the present high stage if commentaries on hadith narration such as al-Wafi, Mirat al-'Uqul and scores of other books, had not been written. Principally, jurisprudence focuses on life and its realities, and it responds to the questions concerning the rituals of worship or trade and social issues, and at the same time covers the penal fields. Consequently jurisprudents sorted and classified hadith and gathered them according to specific topics so as to facilitate the determination of the Islamic point of view in keeping with the facts of life. Sadr thus maintained that thematic exegesis is actually this very method for determining the Qur'anic viewpoints on various issues and the changing needs, after proper probe into socio-political and scientific fields. He said, unlike tarflbl exegesis which strictly adheres to syntax, lexical aspects and the intricacies of the Arabic language, thematic exegesis has an amazing flexibility that keeps pace with scientific developments and addresses the new issues in life. This is not something strange. If the Holy Qur'an says that it covers everything of the past, present and future and is the constitution of the human race till the Day of Resurrection; thematic interpretation of the Holy Book, in the words of Martyr Sadr, is the most appropriate way of proving its timeless wisdom.

On the benefits of thematic exegesis compared to tartibi exegesis, Martyr Sadr was of the opinion that the latter method of interpretation has led to many religious conflicts and controversies because it is enough for an interpreter to take an ayah of the Qur'an and bend it according to his sectarian tendencies in an attempt to justify his own religious views, thereby fanning the flames of dispute. There have been many such cases with philosophical terms such as jabr (compulsion) and tafwiz (delegation of power), which were twisted to satisfy sectarian whims and led to fanning of clashes which could have been avoided.

Critics might point out that thematic exegesis is also not without its shortcomings, since some exegetes might attribute a specific topic to the Qur'8,n in an attempt to interpret divine words according to their own personal thinking, rather than try to find a solution for the problems of man and society for which God has revealed the Holy Book. Such a possibility does exist, but attention to the remarks of Martyr Sadr might remove many conceptions, especially when one takes into account such terms as muhkamat, muqayyadat, mukhassasat and so on, which practically diminish the possibility of a self-centered approach. He says: "Let's ignore the case of contradictions that occur in tartibi interpretation which can be avoided in thematic exegesis."22 For instance, when one wants to know the view of the Qur'an on democracy and the position of people in a government, he will first probe the views of political philosophers on this subject and in the light of human experiences will study the reasons for emergence of such regulations in societies. Then he will refer to the Holy Qur'an to discover its attitude whether or not there is any specific ayah or group of ayahs in this regard.

In view of this, Martyr Sadr has called thematic interpretation as dynamic and says that subjects emanate from external events. Since such issues are new and have their roots in the various social, political, and scientific developments, thematic exegesis is more capable of dealing with them. However, he does not consider pre- judged notions as thematic interpretation of the Qur'an and holds the view that such a research will not help solve the daily problems of life. Moreover he is critical of those who attempt a thematic interpretation without taking into account the human experience and comparing them with the Qur'an. He calls such an approach incomplete and flawed, and says, firstly the interpreter should be sure that the particular topic falls in the category of issues concerning man's life and the practical or theoretical problems of society. Secondly, he should be aware of the existing solutions and experiences in this regard, and then compare them with the viewpoints of the Holy Qur'an. This point is worth pondering because man comes across many problems on a daily basis and the experiences he has gained are not exclusive to a special environment or geographical region.

Thus, the questions and answers are in fact a form of dialogue between Qur'an and thematic interpreter. Among other points that Martyr Sadr raises is the historical background of thematic exegesis and factors which necessitated such an interpretation. After taking note that the science of exegesis evolved because of the eagerness of the people to properly understand the Qur'an by asking the Prophet, the Infallible Imams, and prominent companions, to expound the meanings of certain of its ayahs, he says thematic interpretation of the text emerged because of social exigencies. As man's knowledge and expectations grew, he became more eager to have a scientific explanation of religious and spiritual needs through reference to the On the whole, from Ayatullah Sadr's point of view, the science of thematic interpretation is based on three pillars:

1. Ambiguous points should be separated and the approach of the exegete to any specific topic should be clear and unambiguous.

2. Human experience in any field should first be taken into consideration with all its positive and negative points, and then only should the Holy Qur'an be consulted in order to find the solution to the topic.

3. Approach should be deductive and in the form of a question and answer dialogue to the effect that the Qur'an's view is clarified and unravelled for the benefit of human society .

Sadr holds the view that in trying to discover a theme in the Qur'an, the interpreter should first understand the topic in question very well so as to properly present it to the Qur'an. Subjects such as 'Patience in the Qur'an', 'Covenant in the Qur'an', 'Guidance in the Qur' an' , and so on might not be a difficult job but if there are attempts to take a look at some social issues, the complexity of understanding the particular theme as well as its experiences, would make the task complicated. For example, one of the problems with man has been freedom. In the course of history, man has been suffering various forms of restrictions since he believes that wars, poverty, social discrimination and injustice are the fruits of dictatorship. He has come to the conclusion that in the absence of freedom, there will be no justice, and as long as there is no freedom, power would be abused by certain people. He thus believes that only freedom of expression will help prevent corruption of power at the higher levels. However, this is man's view and not necessarily that of the Holy Qur'an which looks at such issues from a different perspective. Therefore, we have got to study the Qur'an in order to understand what God the Almighty Creator actually says regarding freedom of the individual and society, and what sort of regulations there should be to ensure prosperity and salvation for the human being.

Martyr Sadr in debates on historical philosophy surveys the issue from this outlook. At the beginning he points to regulations, laws and traditions and asks whether the regulations have been referred to in the Qur'an.23 He refers to his book Iqtisaduna (Our Economics) which deals with philosophical issues of economy, and explains different economic views, especially the two well-known theories of Marxism and Capitalism, and offers broad explanations on the themes, related issues and problems. He then refers to the Islamic view and outlines the broadlines of Islamic economy. To determine and define economic principles of Islam, Sadr in his book, quotes ayahs of the Holy Qur'an.

The principles he refers to are respect for ownership, economic freedom, and social justice, with relevant justification from the Qur'an, as outlines for governing the Islamic economy. He also refers to the element of ethics, spiritual training and the humanitarian teachings of Islam to support his views on a number of economic issues. Therefore, as should be clear, thematic exegesis, especially the views of Ayatullah Sadr in this regard, is a purely religious science with respect to human experiences and conventional knowledge.24



1. There is enough evidence to suggest that the present order of arrangement of the Holy Qur'an should not be tampered with, in view of the narrations, which attribute to the Prophet the arranging of some of the surahs and ayahs. The author has referred in detail to these fact and has also cited the viewpoints of eminent in his treatise entitled Nigahi dar bareh-ye Mas' aleh-ye Jam '-awari Qur'an.

2. Two of these works are: Muhammad 'Izzah Duruzah, Tafsir al- Hadith and Mulla Huwaysh, Tafsir Ma 'ani al-Qur 'an.

3. Initially researchers wrote works titled Tabaqat al-Mufassirin to list the names of exegetes. Later scholars expanded this field to include analysis, and among books written in this regard, refer to al-Dhahabi, al-Tafsir wa al-MufJassirun.

4. Thematic exegesis have been written by several scholars, refer to the author's article, Tafasir-i Mawzu'i Qur'an, Kayhan Andisheh, No.28.

5. Refer to the author's article A Step Towards Identification of Muhkam and Mutashabih', Payam-e Howzeh Magazine, No.16, p. 74.

6. Ibn Taymiyyah, Introduction to Principles of Interpretation, p.15; Ibn Kathir, Tafsir al-Qur 'an al- 'Azim, vol. 1. p. 6; Badr al-Din Zarkishi, al-Burhan fi 'Ulum al-Qur'an, vol. 2, p. 291; Shaykh al-Ta'ifah Tusi, al-Tibyan, vol. I, p. 4; Tabataba'i, al-MIzan, vol. 1, pp. 11-12.

7. Sadr strongly stressed on the issue, see Muqaddamat fi Tafsir al- Mawzu'i, p. 19, Kuwait, Dar al- Tawhid al-Islami.

8. Zullami, Muhammad Mustafa, Asbab Ikhtilaf al-Fuqaha', Sa'ud bin 'Abdullah al-Finisan, Ikhtalafi al-Mufassirin, pp. 147-223.

9. Mutahhari, Murtaza, Philosophical Articles, p. 37, Tehran, Intisharat-e Hikmat.

10. Ibid, p. 51.

11. Aqqad, , Abbas Mahmud, al-Falsafah al-Islamiyyah, p. 209, Beirut, Dar al-Kitab al-' Arabi, second print, 1969.

12. Ibid, p. 51.

13. Misbah Yazdi, Muhammad Taqi, Qur'anic Sciences, vols. 1-3, pp. 9-10, Qum, Intisharat-e Dar Rah-e Haq, 1994.

14. For example, in the discussion on recognition of God and knowledge by presence, the author after a rational debate and reasoning, refers to Qur'anic ayahs for justification, pp. 31-33.

15. Al-Madrasah al-Qur'aniyyah, p. 18.

16. Ibid, pp. 37-38.

17. Ibid, p. 33.

18. Ibid, p. 20.

19. Ibid, p. 17

20. Ibid, p. 33.

21. Ibid, pp. 20-21.

22. Ibid., p. 12.

23. Ibid., p. 44.

24. Iqtuaduna, pp. 255-356, Dar al-Fikr, Beirut, 1393 AH.

By: Sayyid Mulammad 'Ali Awizi.

Refer: quran.org

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