A Commentary

By Mahmood Kooria

The most renowned commentary of the Minhāj is Tuḥfat al-muḥtāj written by Ibn Ḥajar al-Haytamī (1504-1567), an Egyptian scholar who built up a successful career in Mecca. This commentary, too, represents the internal dynamics of the discursive traditions within the Shāfiʿī school as well as its historical trajectories expanding to unprecedented lands.

Its position in the school stands with two more equally important commentaries, and taken together all three sister-texts born in the same century in turn are indebted to two other texts from the Minhāj family: a commentary by Jalāl al-Dīn al-Maḥallī (d. 1459), and a summary by Zakariyā al-Anṣārī (d. 1520). Both Maḥallī and Anṣārī had studied or worked at al-Azhar, attracted numerous students, colleagues and followers and deeply engaged with the Minhāj. Anṣārī’s summary attracted eight commentaries, including one by himself. Both their works on the Minhāj, and the Minhāj itself, provided a crucial point of discussion for the Shāfiʿī legal aspirants in Cairo and elsewhere to explore the Islamic legal tradition in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Trained under such textual authorities as Anṣārī, the Minhāj had an immense influence on Ibn Ḥajar’s academic career. He wrote many separate works on it, including a commentary, supercommentary, a partial commentary on its Introduction and another one on its Conclusion. All these are in addition to his frequent dependence on the text in his many other legal texts.[1] Most of these works in his Minhāj corpus were specialized, short or incomplete, whereas the Tuḥfa was complete and self-contained. Its juridical uniqueness can be understood only in comparison to and in connection with his other texts.

Ibn Ḥajar’s other main law-books are four interconnected works, all of which are commentaries on earlier texts of the school with lineages going back to Nawawī’s era through many intercessor-texts. In contrast, the Tuḥfa is directly attached to Nawawī without intermediaries. This strong ancestry would not be the only reason why it attracted greater attention of Shāfiʿī jurists. It was also written belatedly, and the internal logic of Shāfiʿīsm considers later works and later opinions more trustworthy when two opinions of the same author contradict.

Why did Ibn Ḥajar decide to write a commentary on the Minhāj when there already existed plenty of others? He himself speaks of his personal motivation: “For a long time, I have been contemplating to get blessings by serving any of the legal works of […] the editor of the school with no doubt Abū Zakariyā Yaḥyā al-Nawawī (May God sanctify his soul and brighten his grave), until I decided on the twelfth Muḥarram, 958 to serve his Minhāj, whose exterior is manifest and treasures and stockpiles are abundant.”[2]

His emphasis in this passage on the word serve, which he uses twice, is noticeable. He wanted to serve any works of Nawawī to get blessings and he decided to serve the Minhāj by writing a commentary. Notions of service and servitude and getting blessings are expressed in many Islamic commentaries, as several authors believed that engaging with a noted text is not merely an intellectual activity but also bestows a religious accolade with divine blessings. The notion of serving the school is an oxymoronic assertion by which Ibn Ḥajar asserts authority for himself and for the Tuḥfa by relating to a past jurist and his text that are already authoritative in the Shāfiʿī tradition. Claims to serve the powerful often come from the powerful.[3]

The massive volume of commentaries that came out three centuries following the Minhāj was a major concern for Ibn Ḥajar, for they contained a vibrant discursive complex with plethora of internal debates, disagreements, divisions and contradictions. in the Tuḥfa he ventured to classify the internal authority and hierarchize the tradition engaging with many commentators, the author and the school at large. All of these added contextual and semantic pressures and complexities to his work, yet the precision in analytical design and intention leads it towards erudition. These dimensions resemble the predicaments Nawawī faced in his time. If Nawawī had to encounter all the works of the school since its inception, Ibn Ḥajar had to face all the works written after Nawawī. In the opening pages of the Tuḥfa, Ibn Ḥajar explains what exactly he intends to contribute by writing such a commentary. He says that he aims to summarize core arguments of the widely circulated commentaries of the base-text; to avoid any beating around the bush by giving exact ruling and evidence; to reconcile whatever disputes and provide appropriate justifications; to trace back monographs and studies to the authors and clarify their contextual meanings instead of reading them out of context; to refer to the debates by utilizing the qiyās (deductive analogy) or ʿilla (ratio legis).

If we compare the contents of the Tuḥfa with those of the rest of his works we understand how idiosyncratic it is in terms of logical formulation, philological articulation and the amalgamation of diverse commentaries and possible disagreements in the narrative. For a non-specialist it can be hard to comprehend the judgements of Ibn Ḥajar on each issue. Even among specialist scholars heated debates have erupted over possible meanings of particular phrases or sentences that he uses. Throughout the text the philological constructions are those of a committed jurist. For the common reader, even one fluent in Arabic and in the technical terms of Islamic law, it is very challenging to understand the wordings and sentence structures. It might appear that Ibn Ḥajar is very bad at phrasing a sentence or conveying his message, but Shāfiʿī experts of the text say that if we read it with extreme care, we understand how Ibn Ḥajar has carefully framed a sentence with exact wordings at exact places. This applies also to the verbosity often identified in the text.

To see the complexity of the language and content in the Tuḥfa a quick look at its commentary on the “paraphernalia of disputes” in the Minhāj which we discussed earlier would be sufficient. Its concerns diverge from terminological and grammatical to biographical, historical, jurisprudential, and social discourses layered over one another. Following an elaborate discussion on syntaxes, it enters into a detailed account of al-Shāfiʿī in the continuation of this passage. When the Minhāj says, “Wherever I say the naṣṣ it refers to a text of al-Shāfiʿī and signifies the existence of a weak wajh, or a derived qawl”, it explains al-Shāfiʿī’s birth, death, full name, genealogy and some hagiographical accounts. It provides a textual and intellectual reference to other works commenting on the Minhāj, as seen from the statement, “Wherever I refer to the new view, the old view is its opposite; and if I refer to the old view, then the new view is its opposite.” The complexity of philological enunciations in the Tuḥfa comes from an attempt to achieve sophistication in legalist insinuations by elaborating on the grammar and structure of the Minhāj. This was a famous element in the Shāfiʿī tradition, and it certainly leads to an elaboration of content, qualitatively and quantitatively. The quantitative aspect, habitually inherent in a commentary, resulted in the production of a four-volume text while the base text was a single volume. The qualitative facets are entwined with authorial intentions, compulsions of new contexts, and the like.

The Tuḥfa is distinctive in its logical formulation, philological articulation and the amalgamation of diverse commentaries and possible disagreements in the narrative. It would determine future engagements of numerous Shāfiʿī scholars from the fuqahā-estates of South Arabia, the Hijaz, South and Southeast and Central Asia, and East Africa. These new oceanic scholars referred to the Tuḥfa and other works of Ibn Ḥajar along with the texts of his contemporaries and teachers like Anṣārī and furthered the legacy of the Minhāj through its commentaries. That process can be better understood once we look at a sixteenth-century Malabari text, an indirect progeny of the Tuḥfa, to which we shall turn in the next blogpost.


[1] For a partial description of Ibn Ḥajar’s works along with the details of the manuscripts, see Muḥammad al-Ḥabīb al-Hīla, al-Tārīkh wa al-muʾarrikhūn bi Makka min al-qarn al-thālith al-Hijrī ilā al-qarn al-thālith ʿashar: jamʿ wa ʿarḍ wa taʿrīf (Mecca: Muʾassasat al-Furqān li al-Turāth al-Islāmiyya, 1994), 216-28. We note that among forty-two works listed, Hīla has not mentioned many legal texts of Ibn Ḥajar since his major focus was on Ibn Ḥajar’s role as a historian who lived in Mecca.

[2] Mecca FS 83 fol. 1b; Riyadh KSU 7850.1, fol. 4b; BL London Arabic 280 fol. 2a.

[3] A rather convincing parallel would be the title Khādim al-Ḥaramayn al-Sharīfayn (Custodian of the Two Holy Cities) “given” to the Ayyūbid, Mamlūk, and Ottoman sultans and its usage well into present times by Saudi kings. This term khādim (servant or custodian) denotes the autocratic king and his assumed obligation of service to the religiously powerful cities.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Mahmood Kooria, A Commentary, Islamic Law Blog (May 20, 2021), https://islamiclaw.blog/2021/05/20/a-commentary/)

(Suggested Chicago citation: Mahmood Kooria, “A Commentary,” Islamic Law Blog, May 20, 2021, https://islamiclaw.blog/2021/05/20/a-commentary/)

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