Two Supercommentaries

By Mahmood Kooria

The QurraFatḥ was received well among the Shāfiʿī Muslims, especially in the nineteenth century—a period of multiple syntheses for Shāfiʿīsm in terms of its geographical, intellectual, and cultural realms. To highlight the ruptures in the long commentarial traditions of the school, in this last blogpost I focus on two works, both of which were written as supercommentaries to the QurraFatḥ: the Nihāyat al-zayn by Nawawī al-Bantanī (1813-1898), a Javanese scholar based in Mecca, and Iʿānat al-ṭālibīn of Sayyid Bakrī (1850-1893), a jurist of Egyptian origin also based in Mecca. Both texts reflect different geo-cultural and political contexts, as much as they reflect common trends of their time in mending many divisions in the school.

In the Nihāya, Nawawī al-Bantanī does not say what motivated him to write the text. All he says in the introductory part is that with this commentary he aims to help the colleagues “who are underprivileged like me.”[1] The statement indicates the author’s humility and modesty, which distinguished him among his contemporary scholars in Mecca as a Dutch orientalist who had met him in the city had noted down in the 1880s.[2]

What is most interesting in the Nihāya are, first, its attempt to incorporate itself into the textual longue durée of Shāfiʿīsm, and second, its engagement with the Qurra despite its having a well-known autocommentary. To take the second dimension first, the fact that Qurra’s own author has explained the text in detail through self-conscious and self-interpretative modes in the Fatḥ did not restrain Nawawī al-Bantanī from revisiting the base text and providing his own commentary. In this regard, he does not seem to have believed that a text, a juridical text for that matter, can only have a single authoritative interpretation given by the authors themselves. Instead, this author’s reading of his own text is only another reading that should coexist with the possibilities of multiple interpretations.

Regarding the first dimension, we read in the Nihāya, “Whatever is written in this book is none of my own. It is all taken from the phrases of [previous] authors.”[3] He elaborates further that his main source of reference is Nihāyat al-amal of one Abū Khuḍayr al-Dimyāṭī (d. 1886), an unconventional text in the school, for it brings theology and mysticism into legal discussions.[4] The amalgamation of theology, mysticism, and law has been a foundational characteristic of “archetypal scholars” in the Sunnī tradition, as Aaron Spevack has argued.[5] Those scholars combined these three disciplines in their career and wrote separate texts in each field, but we rarely see anyone combining all three in a single text. The Nihāyat al-amal is such a text, and can thus be identified as an “archetypal text.” A closer reading of it shows that Nawawī al-Bantanī took many of his articulations in the Nihāya from the Nihāyat al-amal.

Yet al-Bantanī differs from Abū Khuḍayr’s approach by not amalgamating too much theology and mysticism with law. Nihāya’s main focus is on law, and so it stands close to the approach of the Fatḥ. These legal discussions are again taken from a set of other texts familiar in the school such as the Nihāya of Ramlī, and the Tuḥfa and Fatḥ al-jawād of Ibn Ḥajar.[6] From this we see that his statement, “whatever is written in this book is none of my own. It is all taken from the phrases of [previous] authors” sounds like a statutory confession for not writing “anything new.” What is more, the statement itself is taken from the Nihāyat al-amal.[7]

Writing a commentary in this way on an earlier text is not unprecedented in the textual tradition of the school even though most commentators were articulating their ideas in their own words. The Nihāya was part of a commentarial method developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Southeast Asia as well as in the Middle East. Many followers of this method rarely revealed their name or identity in the works they produced. It was an act of compiling different sources into a single coherent narrative in order to lead the reader to a variety of possible options and meanings. The compilers selected a particular theme and took portions from renowned texts of the school on the issue, and left it to the reader’s choice and ability to prioritize, to hierarchize which of the given opinions to follow. A good command of the legal maxims and textual history of the school was required for a right use of such texts. A beginner could use them with a high possibility of deviance.

Nawawī al-Bantanī followed this method in his oeuvre with his own additions. He followed the format of the Qurra, and compiled the passages as its commentary, clearly differing from the style and arguments of the Fatḥ. The end product, the Nihāya, builds up a discursive narrative through thematic interconnections between different issues. Occasionally it provides additional glosses to help the reader with problematic phrases or wordings.

The Nihāya also decontextualizes its source texts as a valid method to generate new legal opinions. It admits what has been done by stating, “Whatever accuracies this text has, it should be ascribed to these people.”  The organizing of multiple passages from authoritative texts and assigning them as possible interpretations for another text indicate that a systematic selection of meanings is consistent with an author’s politics and preferences. It also demonstrates the urge of a scholar to show his close intellectual continuity to the larger textual tradition of the school. By taking a different route from his many contemporary scholars who all wrote a commentary on the Fatḥ in choosing to write a commentary like the Qurra, he also demonstrates his aim of synthesizing different intellectual streams of Shāfiʿīsm.

The Iʿāna of Bakrī differs from the Nihāya in all these respects. It adopts a more conventional method of writing a supercommentary. In it he explains each word and ruling of the base text in his own words and does not endeavor to cite earlier works as laboriously as the Nihāya does. He finished writing it in 1883 and five years later, in 1888, a student from East Africa attended his lectures on this work and recounted his experience.[8] Bakrī was one of the few scholars to read their own work as lectures, the Dutch orientalist in the city noted.[9]

The Iʿāna is noted for its simplicity of language, as well as for its simplifying of Fatḥ’s occasional complications. A significant contribution of the Iʿāna is the way it adds to our own understanding of Fatḥ’s position in the longue durée of Shāfiʿī legal formulations, which otherwise are overlooked. We become more aware of the regionality displayed in the Fatḥ through the commentary of the Iʿāna, as it connects a number of rulings with the earlier works of the school.

An example is how it deals with the Fatḥ’s position about the legality of the Hindu “sultanate” of Zamorins of Calicut appointing and dismissing qāḍīs. On this point, the Qurra says only, “If a powerholder appoints an ineligible [as qāḍī], it is annulled.” The Fatḥ comments, “If a sultan even if he is an unbeliever, or powerholder”, thus adding the word “unbeliever” on which Iʿāna comments: “This maxim (ghāya) is not mentioned in the Tuḥfa, Nihāya [of Ramlī], or other texts. It is problematic, because it is conditional for [the legitimacy of] a sultan that he is a Muslim. Therefore, the sultanate of an unbeliever is not valid and his leadership (imāma) is not legitimate.”[10] This position of the Fatḥ emerges from a detailed discussion the author had through the fatwās he sought from contemporary Meccan and Yemeni jurists on the specific context of Malabar, and the Iʿāna’s author may not have had access to these materials.[11]

On the one hand these three layers of the text illustrate the textual longue durée of the school as evident within a brief statement. On the other hand the Iʿāna tells us how the Fatḥ’s articulations differ from its Middle Eastern predecessors, such as the Tuḥfa and Ramlī’s Nihāya. This passage also shows how the Iʿāna adds its own voice by clearly stating that its addition of “unbeliever” contradicts the viewpoint of the school on a legitimate sultan. Iʿāna’s dissent is understandable in its political context, which is not very different from the contexts of the Tuḥfa and Ramlī’s Nihāya in terms of religious affiliation of rulers: at both times the Ottomans were in control of the region.

The Iʿāna also introduces new fatwās of contemporary scholars to its commentary. It incorporates recent developments in grammatical and literary cultures of the Arab world of the time. It also brings in elaborate discussions on a number of varying issues, not limiting itself to legal discourses alone. Hence it amalgamates stories from Islamic history, Sufi teachings, and poems and quotations with legal implications. The prime focus of course is on Shāfiʿī law and that too with an emphasis on the works of Ibn Ḥajar and al-Ramlī. It tries to synthesize their disagreements in particular issues, as Nawawī al-Bantanī did in his Nihāya.

By juxtaposing our reading of the supercommentaries Iʿāna and the Nihāya we come to appreciate a number of different phenomena in the textual longue durée of Shāfiʿīsm. Both texts in relation to the Qurra and Fatḥ primarily demonstrate that the circulation of Shāfiʿī legal ideas, or Islamic ideas for that matter, were not always unidirectional from a “center” to a “periphery.” Rather it was multidirectional, in which many components of the period, region, and tradition played crucial roles. We see that a Shāfiʿī text and its autocommentary originally written in sixteenth-century Malabar are taken up by jurists of Indonesian and Egyptian backgrounds living in Mecca to advance the long legal tradition of the school. This process challenges the general assumptions of Islam’s intellectual and legal peregrinations as unidirectional and diffusionist from the heartlands to the peripheries, and people in these regions lacking religion, law and scholarship.

Both supercommentaries also illuminate the multi-layered processes of synthesis that the school went through in the nineteenth century. In the wake of increasing attacks on Islamic legal tradition from “Muslim modernists” and political “legal codifiers,” the traditional block united as a single body, thereby healing many divisions that had existed in their long tradition and committing to resistance against a particular set of forces. A major synthesis was in the intellectual realm, among the Cairene-Meccan commentators of the Minhāj that had existed was resolved by repeated efforts. These syntheses were a product of many criticisms that the “traditionalist bloc” of Islam had to encounter at the hands of Muslim reformists and rulers.


[1] Nawawī al-Bantanī, Nihāyat al-zayn fī irshād al-mubtadiʾīn bi sharḥ Qurrat al-ʿayn bi muhimmāt al-dīn

(Cairo: Maṭbaʿat al-ʿĀmirat al-Sharafiyya 1881), 2.

[2] Hurgronje, Mekka, 290.

[3] Nawawī al-Bantanī, Nihāya, 2.

[4] Muḥammad bin Ibrāhīm Abū Khuḍayr al-Dimyāṭī, Nihāyat al-amal li man raghib fī ṣiḥḥat al-ʿaqīdat wa al-ʿamal (Cairo: Maṭbaʿat al-Maymaniyya, 1895).

[5] Aaron Spevack, The Archetypal Sunnī Scholar: Law, Theology, and Mysticism in the Synthesis of al-Bājūrī (Albany: SUNY Press, 2014).

[6] Nawawī al-Bantanī, Nihāya, 2.

[7] Abū Khuḍayr al-Dimyāṭī, Nihāyat al-amal, 4.

[8] 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), 84.

[9] C. Snouck Hurgronje, Mekka in the Latter Part of the 19th Century: Daily Life, Customs and Learning: the Moslims of the East-Indian Archipelago, trans. J H Monahan (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 1: 204.

[10] Sayyid Bakrī, Iʿāna, 4: 253.

[11] Malaybārī, Ajwibat al-ʿajība ʿan al-asʾilat al-gharība, Ponnani MS. 1203 [also numbered 2598], fols. 56a-59a.

Suggested Bluebook citation: Mahmood Kooria, Two Supercommentaries, Islamic Law Blog (June 1, 2021),

(Suggested Chicago citation: Mahmood Kooria, “Two Supercommentaries” Islamic Law Blog, June 1, 2021,

Leave a Reply