The Discursive Tradition of Commentaries (shurūḥ) – Lessons from Matn Abī Shujāʿ

By Felicitas Opwis

The study of commentaries (shurūḥ) and glosses (ḥawāshī) has rightly received attention and appreciation in recent years. The scholarship of Asad, El Shamsy, Saleh, Wisnovsky as well as El-Rouayheb, Bauer, and Messick[1] are correcting the previously invoked image of intellectual stagnation and decline of the so-called post-classical period as advocated most forcefully by Hurgronje.[2] Instead of looking for originality and innovation, it is much more useful to see these genres as part of what Talal Asad calls the discursive tradition, which relates to a past and future through a present,[3] as well as William Graham’s notion of ittiṣāliyya, a connectedness with the past.[4] Yet, the vastness of the tradition is challenging, not only for contemporary scholars who, like myself, often feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of available evidence of “the Islamic tradition” but also for fuqahāʾ of the past, who similarly had at their disposal centuries of legal thought and practice. How does one make sense of the past for the present and future? As Buzov argues “[t]he continuous production of commentaries (sharh in Arabic) and supercommentaries (sg. hashiya) is, among other things, a reflection of perceived necessity, not merely to situate oneself in a particular moment in time but also to know one’s work and one’s self within an entire lineage,”[5] a lineage that goes back centuries in time and spreads over continents.

A small part of this lineage is what I want to look at in this series of four posts to the Islamic Law Blog. I am taking a look at some aspects of the commentary tradition arising out of a legal text in the Shāfiʿī school of law, the Matn Abī Shujāʿ (aka Ghāyat al-ikhtiṣār, Mukhtaṣar Abī Shujāʿ, al-Taqrīb, and combinations of these titles).[6] Not much is known about the author, Abū Shujāʿ Aḥmad b. al-Ḥusayn b. Aḥmad al-Iṣfahānī al-ʿAbbādī, apart from that he was a Shāfiʿī jurist, born in Baṣra in 433/1041, where he served as judge and taught fiqh. His death date is unknown, and references to the year 593/1197 obviously have to be dismissed,[7] but apparently he was still alive in the year 500/1106.[8] The obscurity of the author stands in contrast to the lasting influence of his work on Shāfiʿī school doctrine. Written in the genre of mukhtaṣar, the Matn Abī Shujāʿ is a compendium of law, summarizing in under 50 pages the main legal rulings held in the Shāfiʿī school concerning ritual worship, contract law, personal status, criminal justice, court procedure, manumission, food, and a number of other topics. The work aims, in the author’s own words, at utmost brevity and succinctness in order to facilitate the study and memorization of law for the aspiring jurist.[9] The author mostly states the rule on a legal instance, rarely hinting at disagreement and if so, he limits his comments to “… according to one of two views”,[10] not mentioning the alternative. That he deemed or rather sought to portray his account of the school’s doctrines as authoritative goes without saying.

Abū Shujāʿ’s work can be seen as an example of consolidating the Shāfiʿī school’s doctrine toward the end of the classical period. His efforts are similar to those seen in the work of his older contemporaries al-Māwardī’s al-Iqnāʿ and al-Juwaynī’s Nihāyat al-maṭlab. These works come at a point in the history of the school when one way to manage the plurality of the existing legal views was to select and summarize them into “creative synopses” – as Messick[11] calls them – and pass on this selected knowledge to the next generation of jurists, narrowing the scope of acceptable legal solutions. The tendency toward consolidating doctrine is not limited to the 5th/11th century, of course, but is an ongoing phenomenon, as evident from the continued popularity of the genre of mukhtaṣar.

The success of Abū Shujāʿ’s compendium in influencing later Shāfiʿī legal doctrine lies in its brevity. Intended as a teaching tool, the specific type of instruction at the madrasa, with its teaching circles, oral transmission of knowledge and emphasis on memorization, provides the environment in which Matn Abī Shujāʿ flourished. While the text presents the school’s main positions, in order to fully understand the legal dimensions and implications stated therein, students need explanations and elaborations. The result was a vibrant commentary and gloss tradition, which started no later than the late 7th/13th century and, with ebbs and flows, has continued, one may argue, up to the contemporary period with Muṣṭafá Dīb al-Bughā’s al-Tahdhīb fī adilla matn al-Ghāya wa-l-taqrīb.[12] The most prominent commentaries on Matn Abī Shujāʿ, and the ones referred to in the following, are those of Ibn Daqīq al-ʿĪd (d. 702/1302), Abū Bakr al-Ḥiṣnī (d. 829/1426), Ibn Qāsim al-Ghazzī (d. 918/1512), al-Khaṭīb al-Shirbīnī (d. 977/1570).

The flourishing of commentaries and glosses counterbalances the efforts at consolidating and streamlining the legal views of the school. They provide not only explanation of the rules but elaborate on them, expand into unaddressed topics, and provide a springboard for debates and ideas not found in the Matn (as will be illustrated in the following posts). In this way, the commentaries reflect changes in the school doctrine and the authority structures within the madhhab. One may say that taken together the genre of mukhtaṣar and sharḥ/ḥāshiya complement one another in ensuring the continuation of the school’s tradition. Where the mukhtaṣar is a way to summarize the past tradition in a manageable fashion, or select from the past a transmissible body of knowledge that represents the identity of the school, the sharḥ is a medium that allows to re-absorb parts of the past that fell by the wayside and explore unprecedented positions for present and future use.

Yet, the commentary tradition is not one of endless growth. As has been noted by Ahmed, for example, commentaries and glosses display a non-linear development with diachronic and synchronic growth and reduction.[13] Hence, commentaries and glosses need to be studied as incorporating the whole discursive tradition – a living tradition of centuries of commentaries and super-commentaries that interact in complex ways.


[1] Asad Q. Ahmed, “Post-Classical Philosophical Commentaries/Glosses: Innovation in the Margins,” Oriens 41 (2013): 317-48; Ahmed El Shamsy, “The Ḥāshiya in Islamic Law: A Sketch of the Shāfiʿī Literature,” Oriens 41 (2013): 289-315; Walid A. Saleh, “The Gloss as Intellectual History: The Ḥāshiyahs on al-Kashshāf,” Oriens 41 (2013): 217-59; Robert Wisnovsky, “Avicennism and Exegetical Practice in the Early Commentaries on the Ishārāt,” Oriens 41 (2013): 349-78; Thomas Bauer, Die Kultur der Ambiguität: Eine andere Geschichte des Islams (Verlag der Weltreligionen: Berlin, 2011), on law see pp. 157-91; idem, “In Search of ‘Post-Classical Literature’: A Review Article,” Mamluk Studies Review 11, no. 2 (2007): 137-167, for critique of the term ‘post-classical’, see pp. 141-42; Brinkley Messick, The Calligraphic State: Textual Domination and History in a Muslim Society (University of California Press: Berkeley, 1993); Khaled El-Rouayheb, “Sunnī Muslim Scholars on the Status of Logic, 1500-1800,” Islamic Law and Society 11, no. 2 (2004), pp. 213-32; idem, “Opening the Gate of Verification: The Forgotten Arab-Islamic Florescence of the 17th Century,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 38 (2006): 263-81.

[2] Christiaan 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 (Brill: Leiden, 2007), for example, pp. 171-72 and 203-204.

[3] See Talal Asad, The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam (Washington, D.C.: Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown University, 1986).

[4] William A. Graham, “Traditionalism in Islam: An Essay in Interpretation,” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 23, no. 3 (1993): 495-522.

[5] Snjezana Buzov, “History,” in Key Themes for the Study of Islam, ed. Jamal J. Elias (One World: Oxford, 2010), 182-99, 185.

[6] Abū Shujāʿ Aḥmad b. al-Ḥusayn b. Aḥmad al-Iṣfahānī al-ʿAbbādī, Matn Abī Shujāʿ (Maktabat al-Jumhūriyya al-ʿArabiyya: Egypt, n.d.).

[7] Al-Jābī, the editor of Ibn Qāsim’s commentary on Abū Shujāʿ’s work, has no qualms giving Abū Shujāʿ’s birth date as 434/1041 and the year of his death as 593/1197, even remarking that Abū Shujāʿ lived 160 years (Abū ʿAbdallāh Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad Ibn Qāsim al-Ghazzī, Fatḥ al-qarīb al-mujīb fī Sharḥ Alfāẓ al-Taqrīb aw al-qawl al-mukhtār fī Sharḥ Ghāyat al-ikhtiṣār, ed. Bassām ʿAbd al-Wahhāb al-Jābī (Dār Ibn Ḥazm: Limassol, Cyprus, 1425/2005), 6.

[8] For Abū Shujāʿ’s biography see Abū ʿAbdallāh Yāqūt, Muʿjam al-buldān (Dār al-Ṣādir: Beirut, 1397/1977), vol. IV, 76; Muṣṭafá b. ʿAbdallāh Ḥājjī Khalīfa, Kashf al-ẓunūn ʿan asāmī al-kutub wa al-funūn, ed. Muḥammad Sharaf al-Dīn (Dār Iḥyāʾ al-Turāth al-ʿArabī: Beirut, 1941), 1189; Ismāʿīl Bāshā al-Baghdādī, Hadiyat al-ʿārifīn: Asmāʾ al-muʾallifīn wa āthār al-muṣannifīn (Dār Iḥyāʾ al-Turāth al-ʿArabī: Beirut, 1951), vol. I, 81.

[9] Cf. Abū Shujāʿ, Matn Abī Shujāʿ, 2.

[10] Ibid., 48.

[11] Messick, The Calligraphic State, 18.

[12] Muṣṭafá Dīb al-Bughā, al-Tahdhīb fi adilla matn Ghāya wa-l-taqrīb (Dār Ibn Kathīr: Damascus, 1409/1989). For lists of commentaries and glosses on Matn Abī Shujāʿ see El Shamsy, “The Ḥāshiya in Islamic Law,” 305-12 (Appendix); Carl Brockelmann, Geschichte der arabischen Litteratur, zweite, den Supplementbänden angepasste Auflage (Brill: Leiden, 1943-49, Supplementbände, 1937-42), GAL I, pp. 492-93, S I, 676-77; Ibn Qāsim, Fatḥ al-qarīb, 10-17; the latter two also list versifications of the text.

[13] Ahmed, “Post-Classical Philosophical Commentaries/Glosses,” 344.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Felicitas Opwis, The Discursive Tradition of Commentaries (shurūḥ) – Lessons from Matn Abī Shujāʿ, Islamic Law Blog (Sept. 8, 2022),

(Suggested Chicago citation: Felicitas Opwis, “The Discursive Tradition of Commentaries (shurūḥ) – Lessons from Matn Abī Shujāʿ,” Islamic Law Blog, September 8, 2022,

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