Early and Later Exegesis of the Koran: A Supplement to Or 35

Dies diem docet, the day teaches the day, and that over many a long year. There is Tabari's explanation of XXVII.91 ("I am commanded only to serve the Lord of this city, Who has made it sacred, and His are all things, and I am commanded to be of those who submit.") and then the explanation of Qatada,l which he quotes under the usual gala ahl at-ta'wil-an explanation which is designated, with the usual binahwi lladi qulna, gala ahlu t-ta' wil, as on the whole concordant with his own. Whoever reads and ponders these will not overlook the differences that make clear to us of the present day the change that has occurred when, at different times, the question was put: From whom did Muhammad distance himself with this verse, or who are the people whom both call mushrikun? For Tabari they are clearly, such as were quite generally until recently called, "heathen idolaters." Information about their gods in Arabian prehistory has been preserved for posterity by Ibn alKalb!. With Qatada it is different. His mushrikun, let it be said straightaway, are the Christians of Mecca,2 who in the hajj of pre-Islam had their wuquf (statio)3 in the Wadi Muhassir4 and in Muhammad's time chose the hajj festive cry:, labbayka la sharika laka ilia sharikun5 huwa laka tamlikuhu wa-ma malaka, "Thou, 0 God, hast no one who shares [in your power, or, as the case may be, in your divine being] except one, over whom and whose orbit thou art Lord"; this clearly following 1 Cor. 15:26.

Simple reading of Tabari's text suffices to prove what has been said. He states, explaining the Koran's words (XXVII.91): "I was given no instruction except to worship the Lord of this place, which he has placed under a prohibition. To him everything belongs, and I was ordered to be one of the Muslims." Thereby God says to his Prophet: Muhammad say: I was given no other instruction but to worship the Lord of this place, namely Mecca, the Lord who has, in consideration of it, strictly forbidden his creatures to shed blood illicitly in it, to wrong some one in it, to hunt game in his name, or to soil it (aw yukhtala khalaha), except the idols which you mushrikun worship.

The exegetes of earlier days are, on the whole, in agreement with what we have said. So, for instance, Bishr, according to Yazid, according to Said, according to Qatada:

The words of the Koran: "I was given no other instruction than that I worship the Lord of this place, which he has placed under prohibition (or declared holy and inviolable)," means Mecca. And the words "to him everything belongs" means: "All things belong to the Lord of this place as property (mulkan). I have been instructed to worship him, not one who possesses nothing (la man la yamliku shay'an).

Qatada continues:

He whose praise is sublime, the Lord of this place which he has made holy (harramaha) which he has [here] especially chosen in distinction from all other lands, although he is Lord of all lands, [did that] because in his grace and condescension he thereby wished to teach the mushrikun about the nation of God's messengers, who are Meccan. Whoever finds it appropriate to worship him (that is the shank of the rejected talbiya) is denied their land, and the people are kept [by his supporters] at a distance. These devour each other in all countries and kill each other. [To be worshipped] [is] not someone who has obtained no grace for them and who can neither help nor harm them.

The words of the Koran: "and I was ordered to be one of the muslimun" means: [God] has ordered me to make myself over to him as a man of proper devotion to God (hanifan) and to be one of those devoted to God (muslimun) who follow the religion of Ibrahim, the friend of God, your ancestor, ye mushrikun, not one who is in conflict with the religion of his proper ancestor and who follows the religion of the Devil, God's enemy.

A few words are needed to make the reading of the Qatada text precise. The catchword mulk, absent in the Koran and in Tabari, together with the pointed expression la man la yamliku shay'an, lead directly to the shahadat az-zur, except that from the latter the consequence is derived that this shank of the Christians has neither possessions nor power. If he is worshiped, he can neither harm nor profit those who honor him, and so likewise falls under the verdict of XX.89. Grace for his devotees is not given him. And that these are divided among themselves-it follows that the Christians are meant-is pilloried with the sharpest of language.

The catchword mulk, missing from XXVII.91 can, however, be found in XXV. 1-4 and correspondingly in Tabari. Here is said: "Praise be to him ... who has the lordship of heaven and earth, who gave himself no son (or no child), who has no one sharing ("no associate" = lahu sharik) the dominion (mulk). . . ." Among those who are turned away with these words Tabari includes those of his numerous mushriqi al-'arab, who use the talbiya of the Christians. It is quoted word for word.

At this point, namely in the face of Qatada's rejection of worship of a man la yamliku shay'an, the two verses 'Adi b. Zayd of Hira wrote, c. 600 C.E., to his jailer Nulman b. Mundhir, gain especial significance. They read: "The enemies have exerted themselves not to leave undone any evil against you, by the lord of Mecca and the Cross. They wish you to take time over 'Adi so that he remains imprisoned or goes into the pit."6 According to this, Christ (Messiah), the crucified God, would have been, for Arabic Christians, the lord of Mecca.

As for the term sharik, it was already said earlier, and endorsed (e.g., by G. Luling) that, since it means "sharer" (in power or, as the case may be, in divine being), it is hardly imaginable in the sphere of polytheism, and is very unlikely to be found as the designation of a deity. Rather does it derive from the sphere of Christological discussions. Those who wish to regard it as an attempt to find an Arabic equivalent for ouoovaios, Aramaic shove' gyama, could perhaps point to the not inconsiderable number of Christian expressions in good Arabic of pre-Islamic times, for example sibgha = "baptism," with which sibghat Allah is contrasted in 11.138, shiqaq = axtaµa (11.137), and others in addition. In this way we would come to sharing (in power or in the being of God) as the basic meaning of shirk; mushrik would be someone who believes in the sharik. For Muhammad this latter would be an additional God, shirk is therefore polytheism and a mushrik is a polytheist. The same is true for the whole of Islam, more so as time passed. Only scholars knew of the rejected talbiya, but without clarity as to what it meant.

The original sense of mushrik seems to me to be still discernible also in the V.82 (Tabari, Tafsir, 7:2) which exegetes link with the migration, dated in year 5 of the call, of the two oppressed believers to Ethiopia and their friendly reception there. (The Negus is said to have been rewarded for this with the privilege of becoming a Muslim, either on the occasion of a personal meeting with Muhammad in Medina; or perhaps he began the journey but died on the way.) What I have in mind is the contrasting pair alladhina ashraku and alladhina gala: innand nasa ra. These, the Ethiopians, have shown themselves, by their behavior in receiving the oppressed ones, to be true Christians, and justly call themselves this; while those other ones, the Meccan mushrikun and oppressors, are Christians merely in name.

Concering the jahilun of XXXIX.64, the exegetes have thought of the people of the 'ibadat al-awtan and of the jahiliya (agnoia), who are fools-this is not about mushrikun. There may well still have been those who honored the din al-aba'. But this interpretation is not compelling.

Finally, as a summary of what I have said: An early stage of Koranic exegesis is visible: XXII.30 in the hadith of Aiman b. Khuraim b. Fatik concerning the Prophet, in Qatada on XXVII.91, and even in Tabari on XXV.2. This early stage was later no longer relevant and disappeared, whereas there was agreement on how Islamic fundamentals were to be understood.


1. Qatada was a mugri` in Basra in 170 A.H.

2. Cf. G. Luling, Kritisch-exegetische Untersuchung des Qur'antextes (Warna Diss., 1970): xii and n. 21.

3. The liturgical expression statio (goal of the pilgrim procession and fes tival celebration on a specific day of the year) is found for instance in "statio ad sanctam crucem in Jerusalem." The celebration took place in the statio-church Santa Croce in Gerusalemme at Rome on the fourth Sunday in Lent. The mystery of the cross was celebrated in their own territory at a place they called Jerusalem. Thereby the relevant place would be regarded as the location of the mystery itself.

4. GdK2 (Leipzig, 1909), p. 147, 3

5. Text variant: sharikan in Tabari, Tafsir, 18: 123 Koran XXV.3.

6. L. Cheikho, Kitab ash-shu'ara' an-nasraniya (Beirut, 1890): pp. 451, 13 f.; Kitab al-Aghani 2 (Cairo, 1346/1928), p. 111, 5. Other oath formulas from Hira c. 600 C.E. are: wallahi (`Adi b. Zayd) Kitab al-Aghani 2, p. 113, 5; was- salibi wa-l-ma'mudiya (`Adi b. Marina) 2: 107, 3 f.; wa-yamini l-'ilahi (Ubai b. Zayd) 2: 113, 5; la `amri (ibid.) 2:120, 3; wal-lati wal-`uzza (the Lakhmid Mundhir b. Mundhir died 580).

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