Zamakhsharī, Al-

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ZAMAKHSHARĪ, AL- (ah 467538/10751144 ce), fully Abū al-Qāsim Mamūd ibn ʿUmar al-Zamakhsharī; Muslim philologist and Qurʾān commentator. Born in Khorezm in northern Persia, al-Zamakhsharī traveled little outside his native province except for several years spent studying and writing in the holy city of Mecca. He was a native Persian speaker, but he believed strongly in the superiority of the Arabic language and excelled in Arabic philology. According to various historical records, he wrote some fifty works; thirty of these are known to exist today, a majority of which have been published in the original Arabic. Most of these works deal with the Qurʾān or the Arabic language in general.

Al-Zamakhsharī's major work, and the one for which he is most famous, is his book of Qurʾān interpretation (tafsīr), Al-kashshāf ʿan aqāʾiq ghawāmi al-tanzīl (The unveiler of the realities of the secrets of the revelation), a work completed during a two-year stay in Mecca around 1134. The work is a phrase-by-phrase philosophical and philological commentary on the entire text of the Qurʾān, written in a concise, careful, and somewhat difficult style. Notable is its lack of tradition-oriented material; virtually no reports are attributed to the early authorities on interpretation; rather, all comments are directly stated with no concern for their authority in the past. Generally, al-Zamakhsharī presents first what he considers to be the obvious meaning of a verse and then notes other possible interpretations on the basis of grammar and textual variant readings, while always paying full attention to the notion of the rhetorical beauty (iʽjāz) of the Qurʿān.

The distinctiveness of al-Zamakhsharī's Qurʾān commentary lies in his Muʿtazilī theological leanings. Beginning in the tenth century, the Muʿtazilah were apparently a powerful theological force in al-Zamakhsharīs birthplace. He states explicitly that Al-kashshāf was written in order to provide the needed comprehensive Muʽtazilī commentary to the Qurʾān. The most obvious result of this theological position in the commentary is the way in which he resolves apparent conflict between various verses of the Qurʾān. The Muʿtazilī doctrines of the unity and justice of God and the consequent ideas of the human free will and the need to deanthropomorphize the Qurʾān become the prime themes of the distinctive passages of interpretation. A typical example is found in his treatment of surah 6:125:

Whomever God desires to guide: those upon whom God bestows his benevolence, which only happens with those who are worthy. He expands his breast to Islam: bestowing his benevolence on them so that they long for Islam, and their souls feel at home there, and they desire to be Muslims. Whomever he desires to lead astray: those whom God leaves alone and wishes to abandon to their own deeds. What is meant is one who is not worthy of his benevolence. He makes his breast narrow, tight: He keeps his benevolence from them, so that their hearts harden, and they refuse and resist truth, and thus faith finds no path into them.

Here the emphasis is always upon the prior moral condition of the individual, to which God responds by enhancing the condition that the individual has already chosen.

Likewise the doctrine of the created Qurʾān (as opposed to the orthodox dogma of the preexistent, uncreated Qurʾān) is present throughout al-Zamakhsharī's work; apparently Al-kashshāf originally began, "Praise be to God who created the Qurʾān," but this was changed to "God who gave" or "God who sent down" in order to temper the tone somewhat.

Despite its theological argumentation, al-Zamakh-sharī's Qurʾān commentary has been widely read and copied, especially in the eastern parts of the Islamic world. The work has consistently been subject to both explication and attack by later authors, who have provided many supercommentaries and derivative commentaries. The work by al-Bayāwī (d. sometime between 1286 and 1316), Anwār al-tanzīl wa-asrār al-taʾwīl (The lights of the revelation and the secrets of the interpretation), is the most famous attempt to distill the essence of al-Zamakhsharī's work while attempting to omit those views which were reprehensible to orthodoxy. For the Muʽtazilah, on the other hand, Al-kashshāf represents the peak of intellectual achievement in Qurʾān commentary.


Al-kashshāfʽan haqāʾiq ghawāmi al-tanzīl has been edited and published a number of times, but no particular edition has emerged as the standard one. No extensive portions have ever been translated, and the usefulness of such translations would be quite limited because of the precise and technical nature of much of the original. Short passages of the work are available in English throughout Helmut Gätje's The Qurʾān and Its Exegesis: Selected Texts with Classical and Modern Muslim Interpretations, translated and edited by Alford T. Welch (Berkeley, 1976), and in Kenneth Cragg's The Mind of the Qurʾān: Chapters in Reflection (London, 1973), pp. 6469, where the commentary on Qurʾān surah 90 is translated. The most significant and extended treatment of al-Zamakhsharī's work on the Qurʾān is to be found in Ignácz Goldziher's Die richtungen der islamischen Koranauslegung (Leiden, 1920), pp. 117177. Jane I. Smith's An Historical and Semantic Study of the Term "Islām" as Seen in a Sequence of Qurʾān Commentaries (Missoula, Mont., 1975), pp. 89101, gives a useful summary of al-Zamakhsharī's work, provides examples of his method of interpretation, and locates it within the general historical framework of tafsīr. A number of articles by Lutpi Ibrahim have appeared on al-Zamakhsharī and his theological relationship to al-Bayāwī: "Al-Bayāwī's Life and Works," Islamic Studies (Karachi) 18 (1979): 311321; "The Concept of Divine Justice according to al-Zamakhsharī and al-Bayāwī," Hamdard Islamicus 3 (1980): 317; "The Relation of Reason and Revelation in the Theology of al-Zamakhsharī and al-Baiāwī," Islamic Culture 54 (1980): 6374; "The Concept of Ibā and Takfīr according to al-Zamakhsharī and al-Bayāwī," Die Welt des Orient 11 (1980): 117121; and "The Questions of the Superiority of Angels and Prophets between al-Zamakhsharī and al-Bayāwī," Arabica 28 (1981): 6575.

Andrew Rippin (1987)