The Last of the Nishapuri School of Tafsir: Al-Wahidi (D. 468/1076) and His Significance in the History of Qur'anic Exegesis

By Saleh, Walid A. | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, April-June 2006 | Go to article overview

The Last of the Nishapuri School of Tafsir: Al-Wahidi (D. 468/1076) and His Significance in the History of Qur'anic Exegesis


Saleh, Walid A., The Journal of the American Oriental Society


When asked why he would not write a Qur'an commentary, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 505/1111) is said to have replied, "What our teacher al-Wahidi wrote suffices." This story was first reported by al-Yafi'i (d. 768/1367), who did not divulge the identity of his source. (1) Yet there is no reason not to accept this statement as historical. We have supporting evidence from al-Ghazali's works which clearly shows that he admired the works of al-Wahidi. (2) Medieval biographers were certain that al-Ghazali borrowed the titles for three of his fiqh works from those of al-Wahidi's three Qur'an commentaries. (3) But a historian is nevertheless bound to ask if such praise was warranted and not occasioned by mere decorum: the writers were contemporary, both Shafi'ites from the same region, and both patronized by the same regime, the Saljuqs (and specifically by the vizier Nizam al-Mulk and his brother). (4) Even so, al-Wahidi's is a surprising name for al-Ghazali to choose, at least in light of what we know of the history of Qur'anic exegesis. Al-Wahidi does not come to mind when one conjures up names of illustrious medieval Qur'an commentators; his Asbab nuzul al-Qur'an (The Occasions of Revelations), the work that secured his reputation in the modern era, is not a book the author himself was proud of, nor could one entertain the notion that it was at the root of al-Ghazali's admiration. It is, however, reasonable to consider al-Ghazali's statement as his own judgment on the field of Qur'anic studies. Such an assessment by a figure like al-Ghazali forces us to look more carefully at al-Wahidi, to try to find what al-Ghazali found impressive. But can we assess al-Wahidi's legacy? This article will offer an intellectual biography of al-Wahidi, a survey of his surviving works, and an initial analysis of his hermeneutical method. It will also show that he was a towering intellectual figure of his time: both an exegete of pervasive influence and surprising originality, and a critic whose commentary on al-Mutanabbi's poetry is still a standard work.

I. INTRODUCTION

A major problem facing any scholar studying the history of tafsir is that many commentaries are still unedited. In the absence of any systematic attempt at publishing what survives of this massive literature, one has to rely on a close inspection of what is available in various manuscript collections as well as in printed texts. (5) It is best to concentrate on a certain historical period and attempt a full description and analysis of the works produced therein. Scholars working on the early history of tafsir (the pre-Tabari phase) have recognized the significance of unpublished material for the history of this period. (6) Here we will call attention to other periods in the history of this genre. (7)

'Ali b. Ahmad al-Wahidi al-Naysaburi (d. 486/1076) was an important author of tafsir who has been neglected by western scholars and, to a lesser extent, in the Muslim world. My interest in al-Wahidi grew out of my work on his teacher al-Tha'labi (d. 427/1035) and my investigation of the reasons behind Ibn Taymiyah's (d. 728/1328) attacks on both writers. (He faulted both al-Tha'labi and, less so, al-Wahidi, for transmitting "weak" traditions.) (8) Having read extensive parts of al-Wahidi's as yet unpublished major work, al-Basit (The Large Commentary), I am convinced that it is one of the masterpieces of medieval Qur'an commentaries. Not only was it of crucial significance for the history of the genre, being widely influential--for example, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 606/1210) used al-Basit as a major source for his Mafatih al-ghayb--but it promises to advance our knowledge of the language of the Qur'an itself, since it is one of the earliest exhaustive philological Qur'an commentaries to survive. (9)

But al-Wahidi's achievements do not end here. He produced two other commentaries, al-Wasit (The Middle Commentary) and al-Wajiz (The Short Commentary). …

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