Examining Twelver Uṣūl Manuscript Tradition through TUB

By Kumail Rajani

In this series of four blog essays, Rob Gleave and Kumail Rajani of the University of Exeter, UK, introduce the digital database of Twelver Shīʿī legal theory writings – the Twelver Uṣūl Bibliography or TUB.

Let me begin this essay by presenting some statistics of the “manuscript-only titles”[1] extracted from the TUB database. Out of a total of 1765 surviving titles of the Twelver uṣūl works, only 131 titles – to the best of our knowledge – have been edited (critically or otherwise) which accounts for a mere 7.4% of the existing Twelver uṣūl corpus. The remaining bulk (1634 titles) remains in manuscript form; this calls for scholarly attention. I do not want to exaggerate its importance by claiming that the examination of these works will revolutionize the field, but, at the same time, I argue that we cannot underestimate its role in telling a narrative of Twelver uṣūl that we were not hitherto exposed to.

What do 867 known manuscripts of the Maʿālim al-dīn wa-malādh al-mujtahidīn by al-Ḥasan b. Zayn al-Dīn al-ʿĀmilī (d. 1011/1602) or 730 manuscripts of al-Qawānīn al-muḥkama fī l-uṣūl by al-Mīrzā Abū l-Qāsim b. Muḥammad al-Ḥasan al-Shaftī al-Qummī (d. 1231/1816) or 484 manuscripts of Zubdat al-uṣūl by Muḥammad b. Ḥusayn al-ʿĀmilī (al-Shaykh al-Bahāʾī, d. 1030/1620 or 1031/1621) tell us about the Twelver uṣūl manuscript tradition?[2] A lazy explanation would be that these works served as textbooks in the seminaries and students transcribed (or purchased) them for the purpose of study: this would account for the given overwhelmingly large number of manuscripts. There should be more than this to the story. The TUB database can shed light on this and similar other questions such as: Which are the earliest surviving manuscripts of a given title? What does the production of a large number of manuscripts of a certain title tell us about its popularity? Which titles survive in multiple MSs closer to the author’s time and how do they inform our understanding of their importance in the Twelver uṣūl tradition? Why were the works of certain scholars copied in multiple MSs during a given time period, whereas works of other scholars barely survived in one or two manuscripts? What does the geographic distribution of these manuscripts tell us about their migration across different times and regions? The TUB database enables us to interrogate and shape our understanding concerning these critical questions. The investigation of the “manuscript-only titles” will, I argue, contribute to our understanding of the trajectory of not only the Twelver uṣūl tradition, but also its manuscript tradition.

Let us now glance over the breakdown of different genres[3] of “manuscript-only titles” to gain an impression of how much work is left for future studies.

The figures in this Table illustrate a large number of works that are yet to receive scholarly attention. Lubb al-farāʾid and its auto-commentary al-Wasīla al-raḍawiyya by Mullā Murād al-Tafrīshī (d. 1051/1641-42), for instance, remain in manuscript forms only. Lubb al-farāʾid is an uṣūl compendium composed in 1024/1615 – the same time in which the Akhbārī scholar Mullā Amīn al-Astarābādī (d. 1033/1623 or 1036/1626) was writing. Reading Lubb al-farāʾid along with al-Astarābādī’s al-Fawāʾid al-madaniyya (composed in 1031/1622) will help us understand the early tension between Akhbārīs and Uṣūlis of the early 11th/17th century. Another example of some seminal works that remain in manuscript-only form are the treatises of the famous Uṣūlī scholar Ṣāḥib al-Riyāḍ (al-Sayyid ʿAlī al-Ṭabāṭabāʾī, d. 1231/1816). The TUB database helps us identify and prioritize the data that calls for scholarly attention.

Perhaps the most striking figures in the above Table are those of the treatises. They get more interesting when further broken down into each century.

The graph depicts an increase in writing treatises between the 11th/17th and 13th/19th centuries – the height of Uṣūlī-Akhbārī tensions. A treatise is composed, one would argue, to address, clarify, or respond to a specific issue raised by an inquisitive student or a formidable opponent. The titles and topics of these treatises ­– for example, Risāla fī l-ijtihād wa’l-taqlīd, al-uṣūl al-ʿamaliyya, ḥujjiyyat al-ijmāʿ etc. – confirm my hypothesis that there is a connection between the production of these large numbers of treatises and Uṣūlī-Akhbārī controversy. It is for this reason, the TUB database reveals, that the trend of writing treatises fall out of fashion as these intra-Shīʿī disputes are subdued. One could ask the question: Why do these treatises remain unstudied? Among several practical and logistical reasons, one could also advance that the extremely narrow focus of these treatises – think of al-Ṣaḥīḥ wa’l-aʿamm, Intifāʾ al-murakkab bi-intifāʾ ajzāʾih, Ḍābiṭ al-shubha al-maḥṣūra wa-ghayrihā et al. – did not appeal to editors and researchers. I, on the contrary, would like to think that there was no TUB or similar kind of database that could have offered statistics and statistical analysis of what is done and what is left for future research. We earnestly hope that the situation will gradually change once TUB goes online.

Let me conclude this essay by illustrating how data from the TUB database can also explain the production of several manuscripts during a given time period. Al-ʿUdda fī uṣūl al-fiqh (also known as ʿUddat al-uṣūl) by Muḥammad b. Ḥasan al-Ṭūsī (d. 460/1067) is believed to have been composed in the first half of the 5th/11th century. The oldest surviving manuscript of this work, which is housed at Āstān-i Quds-i Raḍawī (in Mashhad), claims to have been copied in 518/1124. The second known manuscript appears after five centuries in 1023/1614, followed by another 60+ copies around the same period.[4] This huge gap begs scrutiny and explanation. We can speculate some preliminary answers by analyzing its commentaries and glosses listed in TUB. Here is an attempt to form some understanding of the given question. A gloss of ʿUddat al-uṣūl entitled Ḥāshiyat ʿUddat al-uṣūl was composed in 1053/1643-44 by Mullā Khalīl al-Qazwīnī (d. 1089/1678). This gloss, I suggest, would have contributed to the production of ʿUddat al-uṣūl’s manuscripts in the 11th/17th century. This is further corroborated by the fact that Mullā Khalīl al-Qazwīnī, in his introduction, laments the popularity of the Sunnī uṣūl text Sharḥ Mukhtaṣar by Ibn al-Ḥājib (d. 646/1249) within Shīʿī circles and hence, he took the task of writing this gloss to thus revive the Shīʿī uṣūl text ʿUddat al-uṣūl. It is interesting to note that the Ḥāshiyat ʿUddat al-uṣūl itself survives in 93 MSs, which is a dozen more than the base text itself.[5] There are other interesting facts about this Ḥāshiya: the author wrote two glosses (one in his early life and second, presumably after revising his opinions, in later years of his life); his brother (who was also his student) contributed towards completing the second gloss; and one of his students wrote a gloss on his own gloss. The TUB database has potential to offer tons of similar hints and insights that, we hope, will enrich our understanding of the Twelver uṣūl tradition as a whole.


[1] For the working definition of “manuscript-only titles,” see the previous essay.

[2] For the detailed list of the manuscript of the Maʿālim, see Dirāyatī, Muṣtafā. Fihristegān-e nuskhehāye khaṭṭi-ye Irān (Tehran: Sāzmān-e Asnād wa Ketābkhāneh-ye Milli-ye Jumhūri-ye Islāmi-ye Irān, 1390Sh/2012, henceforth Fankha), 30:195-239 (753 MSs) and Dirāyatī, Muṣtafā. Muʿjam al-makhṭūṭāt al-irāqiyya (Tehran: Sāzmān-e Asnād wa Ketābkhāneh-ye Milli-ye Jumhūri-ye Islāmi-ye Irān, 1396Sh/2016, henceforth MMI),14:854-865 (114 MSs). For al-Qawānīn, see Fankha 25:544-582 (620 MSs) and MMI 12:818-829 (110 MSs). For the Zubdat al-uṣūl see Fankha 17:551-575 (412 MSs) and MMI 8:553-560 (72 MSs).

[3] For the meaning and details of these genres, see the previous essay.

[4] See Fankha 22:463-467 (54 MSs) and MMI 11:44-45 (11 MSs).

[5] See Fankha 12:122-130 (80 MSs) and MMI 6:227-228 (13 MSs).

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Kumail Rajani, Examining Twelver Uṣūl Manuscript Tradition through TUB, Islamic Law Blog (June 22, 2023), https://islamiclaw.blog/2023/06/22/examining-twelver-u%e1%b9%a3ul-manuscript-tradition-through-tub/)

(Suggested Chicago citation: Kumail Rajani, “Examining Twelver Uṣūl Manuscript Tradition through TUB,” Islamic Law Blog, June 22, 2023, https://islamiclaw.blog/2023/06/22/examining-twelver-u%e1%b9%a3ul-manuscript-tradition-through-tub/)

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