TUB: Commentaries and Future work

By Robert Gleave

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.

Maʿālim al-dīn wa-malādh al-mujtahidīn by al-Ḥasan b. Zayn al-Dīn al-ʿĀmilī (d. 1011/1602) is, perhaps, the most important postclassical work of Twelver Shīʿī legal theory. Written originally as a theoretical introduction to a larger work of jurisprudence, the Maʿālim summarized the state of Twelver Shīʿī legal theory in Ḥasan’s time with skilled abbreviation, encapsulating and establishing the “mainstream” opinion of Twelver Uṣūlīs following six centuries of development. As such it became the main uṣūl textbook in the Twelver Shīʿī seminaries (i.e., the madrasa establishment later to be called the Ḥawza ʿIlmiyya, “The Learned Precinct”). It became part of the standard scholarly curriculum and thus also came to be known as Maʿālim al-uṣūl (“The Way-markers of Legal Theory”).

As the principal study text in seminaries and study circles, the Maʿālim inevitably has multiple manuscript copies (TUB records nearly 900, but there are undoubtedly many more). It also attracts enormous major activity: to date, TUB records 82 commentaries (variously categorised or titled as sharḥ, ḥāshiya and taʿlīqa) in Arabic, Persian and Urdu – more than any other work of uṣūl in the TUB database. The earliest recorded commentary is a ḥāshiya by the author’s own son (Muḥammad b. al-Ḥasan, d. 1030/1620). And the work continues to attract commentaries in the ḥawza today. TUB allows us to track the commentarial activity on the Maʿālim and to make a robust, statistically supported, assessments of its importance.  For the period 1010/1601 to 1320/1902, the extant commentaries on the Maʿālim for which we have accurate composition dates can be charted over time as follows:

Notwithstanding a couple of caveats on this data,[1] the results in Table 1 are thought provoking.  Commentaries on the Maʿālim (and hence its popularity as the principal focus of scholarly commentarial activity) appears to come in two “waves.” The first being 50 years after the Maʿālim’s composition and lasting around 90 years (i.e., 1060-1150); then after a hiatus, a second wave, stronger than the first for around 80 years (i.e., 1210-1290).

What might explain this two-wave distribution? It cannot be explained purely by accidents of manuscript preservation. The level of commentarial activity can, perhaps, be explained by (and even be an indicator of) the health of the scholarly Shīʿī establishment – the simple equation might be that the more uṣūl scholars there are, the more commentaries will be composed and preserved.  In this case, the hiatus coincides with the end of the Safavid dynasty in Iran and the rise of Qajars. During this period, Twelver Shīʿī scholars lost a major source of patronage and lived through a tumultuous time of political turmoil in Iran and southern Iraq. Furthermore, the hiatus coincides with the rise and dominance of Akhbārī figures in the Iraqi seminaries – prime amongst whom was Shaykh Yūsuf al-Baḥrānī (d. 1186/1772). The Akhbārīs were famously critical of the uṣūl al-fiqh discipline, and certainty did not venerate the Maʿālim as their opponents, the Uṣūlīs, may have done. Naturally, this would have led to a drop in commentarial activity on an uṣūl classic like the Maʿālim. Finally, initial research indicates that this phenomenon of a “double peak” in commentarial activity occurs in other genres where commentary is a major form of scholarly activity (e.g. fiqh, manṭiq, falsafa, etc.) and in other (non-Twelver) traditions.[2] A conjectural outline of the development could be as follows: an author writes their abbreviated, condensed work in a discipline; it takes 30 to 40 years for it to establish itself as the principal text of study and as a base text, receiving significant commentarial activity; this initial burst is followed by a period where these early commentaries are studied and perhaps considered to explicate sufficiently the text’s meaning; after a generation or two, a certain ennui sets in, and at this point the base text is either replaced by a new work, or a new generation of scholars are inspired to write a second wave of commentaries on the base text; by doing this, they reaffirm the continuity of the tradition by choosing an established work but subjecting it to renewed commentary activity. These explanations remain, of course, conjectural, but the data produced by TUB has promoted some interesting, and previously unexplored topics of research.

Also of potential interest is the relative popularity of commentarial genres (sharḥ, ḥāshiya, taʿlīqa and even tarjuma – in that a translation is a commentary of sorts).  Here (Table 2), we see the early, first wave popularity of hāshiya works being tempered by an increase in sharḥ style commentaries, reaching rough parity in the second wave. However, biobibliographical descriptions of works as sharḥ, ḥāshiya or taʿlīqa are not hard and fast – for some commentators, a particular work is a ḥāshiya; for others, the same work may be titled ḥāshiya, but it is actually a sharḥ. Fluidity in the usage of the titles has become increasingly clear as our work on TUB progressed.

From TUB, one can estimate the popularity of particular commentary by the number of surviving manuscripts. This is a quick and dirty method, it has to be admitted, but it is an indication nonetheless. The most copied commentary of the Maʿālim listed in TUB is the gloss by Sulṭān al-ʿUlamāʾ Ḥusayn b. Rafīʿ al-Dīn al-Āmulī (d. 1064/1653) unoriginally titled Ḥāshiyat Maʿālim al-uṣūl (often referred to as Ḥāshiyat Sulṭān in subsequent Twelver uṣūl literature). TUB refers to 317 manuscripts of this work in various libraries; it is also one of the few premodern commentaries on the Maʿālim to have been edited and published. Drawing on biobibliographical sources, TUB also records Sulṭān al-ʿUlamāʾ as composing a full-blown commentary (sharḥ) and a set of remarks or marginal notes (taʿlīqa) on the Maʿālim. Sometimes his sharḥ and his taʿlīqa are each called Ḥāshiyat Sulṭān. Some have speculated that all these commentaries are, in fact, the same work, but looking at the available copies (in print and in manuscript), they appear distinct (though linked) works. All this would require further research to straighten out, but it illustrates how these “genre” categories are not used in entirely consistent ways (even by a single author). Gathering this data together, though, also reveals that the vast majority of the commentaries on the Maʿālim (of whatever supposed literary form), survive in a single manuscript often by an otherwise unknown author – many are very likely to be the result of manuscript marginal annotation, within or without a teaching context. This in itself points towards the text’s influence in the study of Twelver Shīʿī legal theory.

Further research would be needed to confirm any of these conjectures – however, one thing is clear. For those of us who study the development of Twelver Shīʿī uṣūl al-fiqh as an intellectual tradition, the place of the Maʿālim can be reassessed in light of the TUB evidence.  First, commentary on the Maʿālim took some time to take off within the Shīʿī scholarly establishment (perhaps due to the distribution of scholarly centres across the Levant, Iraq, Iran and beyond). Second, it was not quite as immediately dominant as some of the secondary literature (including my own) might indicate. For comparison, the Zubdat al-uṣūl of al-Shaykh al-Bahāʾī (d. 1030/1620 or 1031/1621), has slightly fewer commentaries (67 commentaries listed in TUB), but becomes a base text for commentary more quickly. In the 60 years after its composition, the Maʿālim had received just 2 commentaries; the Zubda received 9 commentaries in the same period. In fact, the popularity of Zubdat al-uṣūl as a base text, and hence its influence on the development of Twelver Shīʿī uṣūl, is one of the new findings of TUB-based research – we believe this will make us rethink the principal texts and ideas in the last classical period of Twelver Shīʿī uṣūl.

Future directions

The Twelver Uṣūl Bibliography is not yet a complete database – indeed, it could be argued, it may never be a complete database.  Twelver scholars continue to write works of legal theory – there are new monographs, treatises, translations and commentaries each year.  As many readers will be aware, studying uṣūl al-fiqh remains a critical element of the seminary (ḥawza) training, occupying a role at the more advanced level of study.  The on-going study of uṣūl will naturally produce new teaching materials and research reflections.  A major element of any future TUB work is to bring the database up to date and to include works from Ākhund al-Khurasānī’s (d. 1329/1911) Kifāyat al-uṣūl onwards.

Possible future tranches of the work could involve other traditions of uṣūl composition.  Definable traditions of legal theory exist for each of the Sunnī schools – they also do for the Zaydī Shīʿī and Ibāḍī schools. There are also works of uṣūl in the more truncated traditions: the Ẓāhiriyya and Ismāʿiliyya. A larger database which holds information on available and/or known uṣūl works – be they monographs, treatises, commentaries or whatever – would not only be a bibliographic resource for university-based academics, but also a useful tool for researchers within the Shīʿī scholarly community.  As we hope this series of essays have shown, TUB itself gives rise to critical, but yet unanswered (and even unformulated) research questions.  Providing at least indicatory answers will, we believe, secure a more nuanced and detailed understanding of these critical Muslim intellectual achievements.


[1] These caveats are: (1) the time division is calculated at 30 years – i.e., the usual length of a “generation” of scholars; (2) the date of a composition of a work is not always known, so for consistency, this Table uses the date of author’s death (when known); (3) the author’s death date is not always known beyond a hijrī century – for consistency, works where only the century of composition is known have been excluded from inclusion in the Table. Were they to be included, the second wave of commentary would be even more powerful, with at least 6 (and potentially more) works dated by bibliographers to the period “13th century” (i.e., 1200-1299).

[2] I mention this in relation to Zaydī fiqh works and their commentaries at the Islamicate Digital Humanities Network Conference (January 26, 2023) available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h6UjhqJIsVE (at the 26:52 mark).

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Robert Gleave, TUB: Commentaries and Future work, Islamic Law Blog (June 29, 2023), https://islamiclaw.blog/2023/06/29/tub-commentaries-and-future-work/)

(Suggested Chicago citation: Robert Gleave, “TUB: Commentaries and Future work,” Islamic Law Blog, June 29, 2023, https://islamiclaw.blog/2023/06/29/tub-commentaries-and-future-work/)

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