Commentarial Ocean

By Mahmood Kooria

The postclassical commentarial literature of Islamic law, once ignored for being repetitive and inauthentic, now has been receiving considerable scholarly attention. Through the processes of canonization, codification, regionalization, synthesis and transregional connections; forms such as core texts, commentaries, supercommentaries, autocommentaries, glosses, translations and summaries; and contents such as substantive laws, contextual selections and deselections, the commentarial corpus demonstrates diverse arrays in which Islamic law evolved and survived across the second millennium CE. Such nuanced changes and continuities within the vast corpus of Shāfiʿī commentaries written after the first millennium form the fulcrum of my forthcoming book Islamic Law in Circulation. In the book, I foreground the postclassical developments with equal attention to the internal interpretative strategies of the texts as well as external historical ruptures that defined the spread and survival of the school.

The role of commentaries in defining and disseminating Islamic law is of great importance. Recent scholarship has explained how the corpus of commentaries advanced independent investigations until the twentieth century, and has rejected the earlier historiography that was primarily interested in the nuances around the early formations of the religion and its laws between the mid-eighth and the tenth centuries and discredited the commentaries as unoriginal, inauthentic, and repetitious.[1] This new line of enquiry, with inceptive buds in the 1980s and 1990s, foregrounded the importance of commentarial literature in understanding the longer histories of Islamic legal debates, practices, divergences, and convergences.[2] A 2013 issue of the journal Oriens specifically explored their centrality in the Islamic intellectual tradition in general, and in Islamic law in particular.[3]

Within this new scholarship, the Ḥanafī school has received some attention, thanks possibly to the Anglo-Muhammadan law’s dependence on this school’s texts such as Hidāya. The Shāfiʿī commentarial tradition did not receive that much attention, but a few scholars have now explained how the legacies of individual Shāfiʿī jurists became crucial to the course of the school over time and space in the eleventh, thirteenth, fifteenth and nineteenth centuries.[4] By doing so, they advance the history of the school, that had otherwise been studied only at its formative stage.[5] I contribute to this trend with my focus on the interconnected textual tradition of the school produced in the second millennium and argue that the actual codification and canonization of the school happened in the thirteenth century, and it was advanced through internal divisions and cohesions from the fourteenth to the twentieth centuries.

I do this by looking at one specific textual cord within the Shāfiʿī school that connects several centuries and continents. It is the textual descendants and ancestors of the Minhāj al-ṭālibīn of Yaḥyā al-Nawawī (1233-1277), a text that revolutionized the school by codifying what was written before, and forming a canon to the generations to follow. The text attracted at least 200 textual descendants in the form of commentaries, supercommentaries, marginalia, translations, glosses, versifications, summaries, etc. Among these I choose a commentary by Ibn Ḥajar al-Haytamī (1504-1567); its indirect summary by an Indian jurist Zayn al-Dīn al-Malaybārī (ca.1524-1583); and two supercommentaries on the latter, one by Nawawī al-Bantanī (1813-1898), an Indonesian scholar based in Mecca, and another by Sayyid Bakrī (1850-1893), a scholar of Egyptian origin born and raised in Mecca.

The last group of texts represents the expanded horizons of the Shāfiʿī cosmopolis where the followers from the Indian Ocean littoral asserted their voices to the very arguments of the school. That voice of ‘peripheral’ Muslims made the school popular from East Africa to Southeast Asia, as much as the concision and comprehensiveness of certain texts appealed to the teachers and students in the Middle East. The summary and its supercommentaries represent this multidirectional trail along with many other historical nuances in the commentarial tradition.

As evident here, the history of postclassical Shāfiʿīsm is greatly intertwined with its reception on the Indian Ocean rim, where it would find its largest following. Interlinking a commentarial tradition with the expansion of oceanic networks, I follow in the book the footsteps of a handful of African and Asian scholars who have explored the postclassical Shāfiʿī histories in their respective lands.[6] Although most of them focused on the modern period, I endeavor to look at its trajectories from the thirteenth century onwards with a focus on this specific textual cord from such a vast commentarial ocean.

This exercise is very important, because there is a deep-rooted misconception about the significance of Islam and its laws in the Indian Ocean region before the modern period. In the recent decades, scholars have demonstrated the centrality of Islamic law in the oceanic networks in the late eighteenth to twentieth centuries, but the time before that remains a terra incognita with potentials for blanket generalizations and disparaging remarks.

Let me elaborate on the depth and breadth of this issue with some evidence from early sources themselves. Ibn Khaldūn (d. 1406) is one of the best-known scholars of Islam for his contributions to the disciplines now broadly categorized as sociology, history, philosophy, etc., but rarely people have addressed the ways in which he disparaged particular races, lands, and communities for their believed lawlessness and bestiality. He assumed such characteristics of those people mainly because they happened to live in a particular region under a particular climate. The Indian Ocean littoral is one of the places he dehumanized. Not only him, but several others before and after him in Islamic and European intellectual traditions promulgated similar ideas. In Islamic tradition, such philosophers, geographers and historians as Muqaddasī, Idrīsī and Birūnī also upheld the idea of a reverberating repertoire of civilizations dependent upon the weather.[7] Many of their ideas of course emerged from the older Greco-Roman claims of climes that analyzed civilizations in terms of cultivable and habitable lands, and this geoclimatic-human interconnection is familiar to Western audiences mainly through the writings of Montesquieu.[8]

Long before Montesquieu, Muslim intellectuals made similar observations and for them, climate defined the way people looked, behaved, thought, ate, dressed, and so on. They divided the earth into seven zones on the basis of their temperature: the hottest stretched from West Africa to East Africa, to South Arabia, India, the Malay Archipelago, parts of China, Japan and Korea; zone seven, the coolest, covered most areas around the North Sea, England, Europe, Russia and Central Asia; the central one, zone four, is moderate in every respect, and it includes lands from Tangier to Iraq, Syria, Qazwin, Khurasan and Isfahan and also such places as parts of Spain and Anatolia, places which became hotbeds of Islamic civilization.

This geoclimatic division with historical and cultural determinations is problematic in several ways, and it is important to challenge the misconception that Islamic thought (including legal thought and history) evolved in the central lands as part of a self-perceived privileged province vis-à-vis several other “uncivilized” ones. In their conception, the Indian Ocean and most Mediterranean areas come under the first and second zones, which are the most disparaged in all sorts of derogatory terms: the people there lack scholarship, law, religion; they “are closer to dumb animals than to rational beings” and have “less civilization than the other zones,” according to Ibn Khaldūn.[9] He even goes on to say that “they frequently eat each other” and “they cannot be considered human beings.” From these calumnies southern Arabia (parts of Hijaz, Yemen, Hadramawt, Ahqaf and Yamama) is excluded, despite it being geographically located in the first and second zones, because it is “bounded by the sea from all three sides” and the humidity from the sea influences its air and makes it “to some degree temperate.”[10] The great irony of this argument is that other Asian and African regions in the oceanic littoral do not qualify for this exemption.

I challenge such prejudiced divisions and aim to demonstrate the contributions of Afrasian Muslims to the kernel of Islam through engagements with law, scripture, and wider discourses, precisely the activities of which they are accused of being incapable. We must bear in mind that Ibn Khaldūn’s observations on the early history of Islamic law have been very influential in legal historiography among Arabo-Persians (through the genre generally identified among them as tārīkh al-tashrīʿ/al-fiqh) and Euro-Americans (through “Islamic legal studies”), so it is no wonder that the intellectual contributions of Afrasian Muslims have been long neglected. Once we provincialize the geoclimatic provincializations and sequential universalization to which they were predisposed by drawing examples from the Indian Ocean region, then Islam and its thought and praxis emerge as contextualized pieces in the grids of a larger historical boardgame in which they move, capture, fall, rise, and check one another through perpetual circulations of ideas and texts with fluctuating roles across time.

In the following blogposts, I shall explain the nuances of these trajectories with more attention to each important text in the Shāfiʿī cosmopolis with specific elaboration on the commentarial corpora as well as the Indian Ocean littoral, or together, “the commentarial ocean.”


[1] For such early opinions, see C. Snouck Hurgronje, Mekka in the Latter Part of the 19th Century: Daily Life, Customs and Learning (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 205; H.A.R. Gibb, Mohammedanism: A Historical Survey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1949), 71; Joseph Schacht, Introduction to Islamic Law (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), 70-72. Some important recent interventions are Ahmed Fekry Ibrahim, “The Codification Episteme in Islamic Juristic Discourse between Inertia and Change,” Islamic Law and Society 22, no. 3 (2015): 157-220; Guy Burak, Second Formation of Islamic Law: The Hanafi School in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015); Megan H. Reid, Law and Piety in Medieval Islam (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Behman Sadeghi, The Logic of Law Making in Islam: Women and Prayer in the Legal Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Behman Sadeghi, The Structure of Reasoning in Post-Formative Islamic Jurisprudence (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006); Judith E. Tucker, In the House of the Law: Gender and Islamic Law in Ottoman Syria and Palestine (Berkely: University of California Press, 1998).

[2] Seminal early works in this trend are Rudolph Peters, “Idjtihad and Taqlid in 18th and 19th century Islam,” Die Welt des Islams 20 (1980): 131-45; Wael B. Hallaq, “Was the Gate of Ijtihad Closed?” International Journal of Middle East Studies 16 (1984): 3-41; Brannon M. Wheeler, Applying the Canon in Islam: The Authorization and Maintenance of Interpretive Reasoning in Ḥanafī Scholarship (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996); Mohammed Fadel, “The Social Logic of Taqlīd and the Rise of the Mukhtaṣar,” Islamic Law and Society 3, no. 2 (1996): 193-233; Sherman A. Jackson, “Taqlīd, Legal Scaffolding and the Scope of Legal Injunctions in Post-Formative Theory: Muṭlaq and ʿAmm in the Jurisprudence of Shihāb al-Dīn al-Qarāfī,” Islamic Law and Society 3, no. 2 (1996): 165-92.

[3] Asad Q. Ahmed and Margaret Larkin, “The Ḥāshiya and Islamic Intellectual History,” Oriens 41, no. 3-4 (2013): 213–16; Ahmed El Shamsy, “The Ḥāshiya in Islamic Law: A Sketch of the Shāfiʿī Literature,” Oriens 41, no. 3-4 (2013): 289–315. Nevertheless, their use and analysis of ḥāshiya is problematic as, for example, El Shamsy takes it as a monolithic literary corpus without demarcating the obvious differences between a sharḥ and a ḥāshiya. For him, for example, both Tuḥfa (a commentary on the Minhāj) and its commentary by Ḥakamī (a supercommentary on Minhāj) are simply ḥāshiyas on the Minhāj.

[4] Sohaira Z.M. Siddiqui, Law and Politics under the Abbasids: An Intellectual Portrait of al-Juwayni (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019); Rebecca Skreslet Hernandez, The Legal Thought of Jalāl Al-Din Al-Suyūṭī: Authority and Legacy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017); Fachrizal Halim, Legal Authority in Premodern Islam: Yaḥyā b. Sharaf al-Nawawī in the Shāfiʿī School of Law (New York: Routledge, 2015); Aaron Spevack, The Archetypal Sunnī Scholar: Law, Theology, and Mysticism in the Synthesis of al-Bājūrī (Albany: SUNY Press, 2014); Matthew B. Ingalls, “Subtle Innovation within Networks of Convention: The Life, Thought, and Intellectual Legacy of Zakariyā al-Anṣārī (d. 926/1520)” (PhD diss., Yale University, 2011); R. Kevin Jaques, Authority, Conflict, and the Transmission of Diversity in Medieval Islamic Law (Leiden: Brill, 2006); Alex Wijoyo, “Shaykh Nawawī of Banten: Texts, Authority, and the Gloss Tradition” (PhD diss. Columbia University, 1997). The work by Jaques on the genre of Shāfiʿī biographical dictionaries from the Mamlūk era is probably the earliest and most remarkable academic study on the later history of the school. He sheds light on how the followers perceived the school in the early fifteenth century by focusing on the Ṭabaqāt of Taqī al-Dīn Abū Bakr Ibn Qāḍī Shuhbah (1377-1448), a Shāfiʿī judge in Mamlūk Damascus.

[5] Four decades ago Heinz Halm analyzed the spread of the school, but Southeast Asia and Africa received only a marginal discussion. Recently Ahmed El Shamsy analyzed the formation of the school, but he stops at around the tenth century. Heinz Halm, Die Ausbreitung der safi’ítischen Rechtsschule von den Anfangen bis zum 8./14. Jahrhundert (Wiesbaden: Luwig Reichert, 1974); Ahmed El Shamsy, The Canonization of Islamic Law: A Social and Intellectual History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[6] Muftī Muḥammad Sirāj al-Dīn Qāsimī, ed. Fiqh Shāfiʿī: Tārīkh o taʿāruf (New Delhi: Ifa Publications, 2014); Muftī Muḥammad Ḥusayn Qamar al-Dīn Falāhī, Shāfiʿī Maslak: Tārīkh aur khidmāt ke ā’yīne mein (Kokan: Majlis-e Tahaffuz-e Sharī’a, 2013); K.M. Bahauddeen Hudawi, The Development and Impact of Shāfiʿī School of Jurisprudence in India (New Delhi: Readworthy Publications, 2013); Siradjuddin Abbas, Ulama Syafi’i dan Kitab-Kitabnya (Jakarta: Pustaka Tarbiyah Baru, 2012); Ḥusayn C.S., “Musāhamāt ʿulamāʾ Kayralā fī al-adab al-fiqh bi al-lughat al-ʿArabiyya” (PhD diss., University of Calicut, 2004); Shaykh Abdallah Salih Farsy, The Shaf’i Ulama of East Africa, ca. 1830-1970: A Hagiographic Account, trans. ed. and annotated by Randall L. Pouwels (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1989).

[7] Muḥammad bin Aḥmad al-Muqaddasī, Aḥsan al-taqāsīm fī maʿrifat al-aqālīm, ed. M.J. de Goeje (Leiden: Brill, 1906), 9, 58-62, passim; Muḥammad bin Aḥmad Abū al-Rayḥān al-Bīrūnī, al-Qānūn al-Masʿūdī (Hyderabad: Dāʾirat al-Maʿārif al-ʿUthmāniyya, 1954-6), 2: 549-79; Muḥammad al-Idrīsī, Nuzhat al-mushtāq fī ikhtirāq al-āfāq (Cairo: Maktabat al-Thaqāfat al-Dīniyya, 2002); Ibn Khaldūn, Muqaddima, 1: 133-200.

[8] On these specific connections, see Aytekin Demircioglu, “A Comparison of the Views of Ibn Khaldun and Montesquieu in Terms of the Effect of Climatic Conditions on Human Life,” The Anthropologist 17, no. 3 (2014): 725-33; Warren E. Gates, “The Spread of Ibn Khaldûn’s Ideas on Climate and Culture,” Journal of the History of Ideas 28, no. 3 (1967): 415-22.

[9] Ibn Khaldūn, Muqaddima, 1: 146, 154, 190. Quoted translations are from Rosenthal.

[10] Ibn Khaldūn, Muqaddima, 1: 190.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Mahmood Kooria, Commentarial Ocean, Islamic Law Blog (May 6, 2021),

(Suggested Chicago citation: Mahmood Kooria, “Commentarial Ocean,” Islamic Law Blog, May 6, 2021,

Leave a Reply