The Forms of Commentaries

By Felicitas Opwis

As my previous posts illustrated, commentaries take different forms in length and scope. The commentator selects which topics and points found in the underlying matn he wants to elaborate, explain, and dispute. There is no linear or chronological development of constant growth and enlargement, but a seemingly random variation in breadth and depth of the commentary at hand. What Abū Shujāʿ covers in his chapter on judgeship is barely three pages long. Keeping in mind that a page of Arabic text may vary widely according to script and layout used, Ibn Daqīq al-ʿĪd’s chapter on judging is roughly 20 pages; al-Ḥiṣnī devotes 52 pages; for Ibn Qāsim 17 well-spaced pages are enough to comment on this chapter; whereas Shirbīnī writes 50 densely-packed pages on the topic. When looking at some of the later glosses on the commentaries of Matn Abī Shujāʿ, we get a similar picture. In Ibrāhīm al-Bājūrī’s (d. 1277/1860) Ḥāshiya, the chapter on judgeship amounts to 44 tightly-written pages, and it adds up to 25 pages in Muḥammad Nawawī b. ʿUmar al-Jāwī’s (1326/1898) gloss.[1] The ebb and flow of the length of the commentaries and glosses seem not only to be determined by the desire of elucidating the original matn but are also the result of an individual author’s approach to the genre and the purpose it serves in the teaching process.

Of the four commentaries on Abū Shujāʿ, those of al-Ḥiṣnī and al-Shirbīnī are similar in their style of extensive commenting as well as which Qurʾānic and Sunnaic supportive evidence they adduce. One may say, they belong to one approach to teaching, which I am calling, for lack of a better term, student-centered. By contrast, a different approach to commenting and teaching is displayed in Ibn Daqīq al-ʿĪd’s Tuḥfat al-labīb, and even more clearly apparent in Ibn Qāsim’s Fatḥ al-qarīb. While Ibn Qāsim elaborates and explains Abū Shujāʿ’s text, he rarely adduces textual justification when discussing the qualities needed by a judge. His treatment of the subject matter does not lend itself to being understood in detail by a novice student. It is, like the original matn, best taught with another layer of explanation – provided by a teacher, who controls which additional information is conveyed, how it is presented, and at which point in a student’s course of learning. It is, one may say, a teacher-centered commentary. The commentary by Ibn Daqīq al-ʿĪd presents an intermediate position, though he, like Ibn al-Qāsim, provides much less additional information and elaboration on the matn than the two other commentators. Alternatively, one can see these two types of commentaries as serving different student bodies – Ibn Qāsim’s text, as well as the commentary by Ibn Daqīq al-ʿĪd, aimed at novice students who attend the professor’s teaching circle, and al-Ḥiṣnī’s and al-Shirbīnī’s intended as stand-alone texts for the advanced student who retains a copy for future reference. Without detailed information (which I am lacking at this moment) on the actual use of these commentaries in the madrasa, one can only speculate.

Yet, there is another dimension to these different styles of commentaries. A more expansive commentary, such as al-Shirbīnī’s al-Iqnāʿ, also leaves less room for future debate. By explaining the matn and providing answers to the questions arising from it and the points it left ambiguous, the student-centered commentary tends to foreclose further inquiries. Students are told about the underlying evidence and nuances of the legal doctrines of the school. The less expansive commentary of Ibn Daqīq al-ʿĪd, in contrast, remained open to further exploration. Hence, a later author like al-Ḥiṣnī not only comments on the Matn Abī Shujāʿ but also on Ibn Daqīq al-ʿĪd’s Tuḥfat al-labīb, using the wording and comments of the latter as springboard for his own commentary. The appeal of a limited commentary serving as platform for one’s own musings was not lost on later glossators. The 19th century scholars al-Bājūrī and al-Jāwī both take Ibn Qāsim’s teacher-centered commentary as basis for their glosses. At least that is what they claim in their introductory remarks, where they state that they gloss Ibn Qāsim’s commentary Fatḥ al-qarīb on Matn Abī Shujāʿ.[2] A closer look at the content of their glosses, however, reveals that they, in fact, are incorporating large parts of al-Khaṭīb al-Shirbīnī’s commentary, often reproducing long passages verbatim from al-Iqnāʿ. Al-Bājūrī occasionally refers to al-Shirbīnī, saying “as al-Shaykh al-Khaṭīb said …”[3], but his indebtedness to the latter is largely suppressed. In al-Jāwī’s gloss any references to authority figures besides Ibn Qāsim (usually referred to as al-muṣannaf) are largely absent. Integrating different commentaries and styles of commenting into one ḥāshiya demonstrates the complex interplay between the commentaries and also their glosses. We are faced with a multi-piece puzzle.

The tendency to re-use sentences, proof texts, statements, and arrangement of materials from a previous commentator, acknowledged or not, leads to an intricate intertextuality. The similarity in wording and structure among commentaries and glosses, with one taking the words of an earlier commentator, expanding on it, re-arranging the order, and thereby adding to the explanatory power of the commentary, also means that where the authorship and originality of one ends and that of a later commentator or glossator starts is a blurry line. The intertextuality of the commentaries makes them a living tradition as opposed to single-authored stand-alone texts.

For the contemporary scholar working on these commentaries it proves quite difficult to disentangle who “contributed” what without having the whole commentary tradition and its accompanying literary output at one’s fingertips. Our contemporary sensibilities about originality and individual authorship obviously do not match the realities of writing commentaries and glosses in the Islamic legal tradition. Instead, they often display a communal character of a collective enterprise, in line with what Graham calls the isnād paradigm,[4] in which one scholar sees himself as part of a larger whole, linking himself through ittiṣāl into the tradition through the medium of commentary and gloss, weaving the past into the present in order to shape a future. It highlights the need for studying legal commentaries and glosses not only as a single work or single genealogy of works but as incorporating a whole legal tradition – a discursive tradition of centuries of commentaries and super-commentaries that interact in multiple ways. Yet, at the same time, the individual author is not just part of an amorphous sea of communal identity, but is still visible and an active participant in the tradition.

The duality of communality and individuality exhibited in commentaries makes their study an exciting, yet difficult task. For a scholar, the breadth and depth of the discursive tradition of the Islamic legal literature, coupled with their intertextuality, more often than not proves to be an unsurmountable challenge to successfully answer questions about the development of legal thought and doctrine, contributions and originality of individual authors, and shifts in authority structures. There is always a missing piece in the puzzle. The vastness of the field of law and its influences from other intellectual disciplines and real-life experiences only ever allow for piecemeal scholarly contributions that give incomplete pictures as opposed to the desired all-encompassing answers. But, that is life as a scholar and should not deter us from seeking at least some limited answers to our scholarly inquiries.


[1] See Ibrāhīm al-Bayjūrī, Ḥāshiyat al-Bayjūrī ʿalá Sharḥ Ibn Qāsim ʿalá Matn Abī Shujāʿ, 2 vols. (Dār al-Ṭabāʿa al-ʿĀmira, Būlāq, 1285/1868), vol. II, 418-62 (I am using the more common rendering of his name, al-Bājūrī); Muḥammad Nawawī b. ʿUmar al-Jāwī, Qūt al-ḥabīb al-gharīb Tawshīḥ ʿalá Fatḥ al-qarīb al-mujīb Sharḥ Ghāyat al-taqrīb, ed. Muḥammad ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz al-Khālidī (Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya: Beirut, 1418/1998), 440-65.

[2] Al-Bayjūrī, Ḥāshiyat al-Bayjūrī, vol. I, p. 2; Al-Jāwī, Qūt al-ḥabīb, 7.

[3] For example, al-Bayjūrī uses the formulation “kamā qāla al-Shaykh al-Khaṭīb” and “kamā ṣanaʿa al-Shaykh al-Khaṭīb” (Ḥāshiyat al-Bayjūrī, vol. II, 418).

[4] William A. Graham, “Traditionalism in Islam: An Essay in Interpretation,” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 23, no. 3 (1993): 501ff.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Felicitas Opwis, The Forms of Commentaries, Islamic Law Blog (Sept. 29, 2022),

(Suggested Chicago citation: Felicitas Opwis, “The Forms of Commentaries,” Islamic Law Blog, September 29, 2022,

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