An Autocommentary

By Mahmood Kooria

By the sixteenth century the Muslim communities on the Indian Ocean littoral were participating intensively in Islamic intellectual networks, producing many jurists and composing many texts. They made lengthy journeys to religious educational centers such as Mecca, and this had a significant impact on the production of a huge corpus of literature by particular scholars. As a consequence, their followers began to imagine the centers of Islam in these distant lands in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries through a religious prism. Taking an Indian text and its author as examples, we can see how such a law-book added to the long pattern of Islamic thought in a traditional way and also advanced it from its peculiar perspective from the region and the Indian Ocean at large.

In the legal textual tradition of the Minhāj and the Tuḥfa, this particular subsequent text and its author mark a point from which to analyze further Shāfiʿī experiments: the Fatḥ al-muʿīn written by Aḥmad Zayn al-Dīn al-Malaybārī (ca.1524-1583), an autocommentary on his Qurrat al-ʿayn. Both the base text and the autocommentary form an independent family in the Shāfiʿī textual history with their own textual descendants, while they also can be considered as indirect progenies of the Tuḥfa, for they promoted the legacy of Ibn Ḥajar and his oeuvre on the Malabar Coast in southwest India and the wider Indian Ocean with extensive citations and critical engagements.

The author employed the commentarial praxis of writing interpretations on one’s own work, generally identified as autocommentary. This specific mode of writing under the broadly conceived commentarial culture gave authors an opportunity not only to explain themselves after the base text was publicized, but also to address new dimensions and discourses that were left unaddressed in the earlier work through different prisms of disciplines, language, grammar, literary criticism, and discourse analyses. The practice was not alien to the Islamic textual tradition, although it has not been studied there much compared to its South Asian or Indic counterparts in Buddhist, Jain, and to lesser extent Hindu traditions.

In our specific case, the base-text Qurra and its autocommentary were written with a framework that can be described as revivalist. The author believed that Islam on the Malabar Coast had been corrupted and that it needed to be rejuvenated through religious teachings. This idea was not new, but it was a common trope among the fuqahā and they made a space for themselves so in that rhetorical sphere by asserting their responsibility for religious revival.[1] The author felt a similar need especially in the context of being geographically remote from the central Islamic lands and being a demographic minority under a Hindu majority, politically ineffective, and economically threatened by the arrival of the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean.

In a treatise he wrote against the Portuguese, Malaybārī articulates this perspective by interlinking the Portuguese onslaughts on the Malabar Coast emerging from the weakening piety of Muslims. He writes, “[Muslims] began to exchange the blessings of God with ingratitude, they sinned and got divided by schisms. Therefore God brought down upon them the Portuguese of the Franks (may Almighty God confound them!), who began to attack the Muslims, to ruin and oppress them with all sorts of assaults and onslaughts.”[2] Resisting the attacks and defending the interests of the community were the main goals of this jihād-cum-history text, whereas he composed legal texts like the Qurra and Fatḥ to correct the behavior of the immoral community by teaching them “proper Islam”.

The style and language of the Qurra was a matter of concern in Shāfiʿī jurists ever since the time of its composition. Its extremely precise formulations lack any discursive engagement with the previous scholarship of the school and specialist readers find it too obvious to engage with. Trying to remedy this the author wrote the autocommentary dealing with the broad tradition of the school. This new work sought to provide a clear ruling without deep complications while being attentive to the contrastive viewpoints within the school. In the context of the benignant Islamic traditions and legal discourses in the region, such precise pronouncement of rulings without complexities would have been much in demand.

In his autocommentary Malaybārī takes the opportunity to combine advanced discussions in the field with his own personal opinions on the basis of supportive evidences from earlier generations of scholars as well as foundational scriptures, all along with philological explanations on specific phrases, idioms, and grammar. In the preface, he briefly explains his autocommentarial methods, “This is a beneficial commentary on my work entitled Qurrat al-ʿayn bi muhimmāt al-dīn. It elaborates on the subtext, expounds inferences, amplifies connotations and explicates benefits.”[3] He further says that he has entitled the text Fatḥ al-muʿīn bi sharḥ Qurrat al-ʿayn bi muhimmāt al-dīn. “I ask the generous and benevolent God to broaden its usefulness for colleagues, specialists and laypersons.” These words partly explain the author’s intention but also mark a growth of a fuqahā-estate on the Malabar Coast, by addressing an audience assumed to have some advanced knowledge of Islamic law who encouraged him to write a detailed work than a concise text.

The architectonic design of the Fatḥ demonstrates its most important aim: to achieve precision, simplicity, and comprehensiveness. These factors are related as much as they are relative. The Minhāj was also a short text, but it continued to be difficult for a non-specialist reader to comprehend without the help of commentaries or a trained specialist. Some Shāfiʿīs were inclined to identify it as a legal “theoretical” text rather than a “practical” one, as a Swahili jurist put it.[4] The Tuḥfa was linguistically complicated, and what is more, its length required much time and patience for the student to come to grips with its content and language. Hence, only deeply motivated specialists or aspirants of Shāfiʿī law could engage with it. By contrast the Fatḥ presented its arguments more concisely and simply while addressing almost all the issues that a general text of Shāfiʿīsm would address in a way that specialist texts do not.

In the long legalist discursive tradition of the school, the Fatḥ accommodates the latest views that had emerged among Shāfiʿī jurists when it was written. At the end of the text it says that the revision (tabyīḍ) of the manuscript was finished on Friday, Ramaḍān 24, 982 A.H., which corresponds to January 7, 1575. Popular narratives say the author was in Mecca until the early 1560s, from which we can assume that he wrote the Qurra immediately after his return, and the autocommentary after he had established himself in the fuqahā-estate as a recognized scholar. As such, he brings in the up-to-date opinions expressed by the Shāfiʿī jurists in Mecca and the Hijaz at large. He gives priority to the oeuvre of Ibn Ḥajar over other contemporary scholars, and to the teachers in the teacher-chains (isnāds) going back to Nawawī and Rāfiʿī.[5]

The Fatḥ selects the most dependable view among the debated issues (masāʾil khilāfiyya) of Shāfiʿīsm. The author normally avoids detailed discussion on minutiae but states a generally agreed view while signposting to the opposite viewpoints, some of which included his own disagreements with the rulings of his teacher Ibn Ḥajar and other previous jurists. He also includes larger subjects of debate among his teachers and earlier luminaries of the school, and occasionally refers to the opinions of other schools, mainly Ḥanafīsm and Mālikīsm. In such debates it is important to note the position he takes, for many of his arguments emerge from demands in the place where he was living. Islamic legal hermeneutics allow practitioners to follow opinions of other schools as secondary opinions within their own school, provided that there is no contradiction concerning the ritual or the circumstance. He uses such a general legalistic consensus to do some “forum-shopping” when necessary, and thus navigates a course through a contextual reading of earlier texts.

The text became a foundation for the major developments of Shāfiʿīsm in Malabar as well as in many parts of the Indian Ocean rim. It achieved this status essentially for two reasons: not only did it add to the long tradition of the pattern of Islamic legal thought in its own terms, but it also advanced it by addressing many legalistic concerns of oceanic Muslims such as Islamic life and law in a tropical region, cultural and juridical intermixture with Hindu community, and conundrums of maritime trade. It criticized many rulings and arguments made by its intellectual predecessors; on a number of issues, it expresses its own views which dissent from previous unanimity. It also generated an alternative discourse of Shāfiʿīsm with attentiveness to its particular contexts in the Indian Ocean. On both grounds we can see that the legal clarifications in the Fatḥ on a number of different issues oppose the viewpoints of previous scholars as it is evident in its recurrent use of the contrapuntal term “khilāfan” (“in opposite”) aimed at many jurists of the school and beyond.

The autocommentary thus reveals the attempts of a scholar from a distant territory to address issues of central importance in his place and time. It attempted to break the Arabian impress on the mind and character of Islamic law by integrating the social, cultural, and political experiences of a non-Arab oceanic region into the legal narratives. On the one hand, by incorporating the traditional genealogy it helped its reception in Shāfiʿī circles in Islamic heartlands. On the other, its regional qualities helped it to make its way for a wide welcome in large circles across the ocean and beyond.


[1] Such statements in the Ottoman contexts have been analyzed in D.A. Howard, “Ottoman Historiography and the Literature of ‘Decline’ of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” Journal of Asian History 22, no. 1 (1988): 52-77.

[2] BL, Ms. Islamic 2807e: Zayn al-Dīn al-Malaybārī, “Tuḥfat al-mujāhidīn fī Baʿḍi Akhbār al-Burtughāliyyīn,” fol. 112a; Royal Asiatic Society, Ms. Arabic 28, Zayn al-Dīn al-Malaybārī, Tuḥfat al-mujāhidīn fī baʻḍ akhbār al-Burtughālīyīn, 3.

[3] Ponnāni 145, fol. 2; Leiden Or. 2286, fol. 1b; Ponnāni 113, fol. [1b].

[4] Shaykh Abdallah Salih Farsy, The Shaf’i Ulama of East Africa, ca. 1830-1970: A Hagiographic Account, trans. ed. and annot. Randall L. Pouwels (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1989), 102.

[5] Ponnāni 145, fol. 5; Leiden Or. 2286, fol. 2b; Ponnāni 113, fol. [2b].

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Mahmood Kooria, An Autocommentary, Islamic Law Blog (May 27, 2021),

(Suggested Chicago citation: Mahmood Kooria, “An Autocommentary,” Islamic Law Blog, May 27, 2021,

Leave a Reply