Jumuah lecture on Friday 20 November 2020 (3 Rabial-Thaani 1442)
Mowlana Syed Aftab Haider
Ahlul Bait (a.s) Masjid, Ottery, Cape Town
Almighty Allah (SWT) addresses the people of faith with the following words in verse 24 of Surah Anfaal (chapter 8 of the Holy Quran):
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا اسْتَجِيبُوا لِلَّهِ وَلِلرَّسُولِ إِذَا دَعَاكُمْ لِمَا يُحْيِيكُمْ ۖ وَاعْلَمُوا أَنَّ اللَّهَ يَحُولُ بَيْنَ الْمَرْءِ وَقَلْبِهِ وَأَنَّهُ إِلَيْهِ تُحْشَرُونَ
“O you who believe! Answer (the call of) Allah and His Messenger when he calls you to that which gives you life; and know that Allah intervenes between man and his heart, and that to Him you shall be gathered.”
This beautiful verse of the Holy Quran has a very clear message, saying that people of faith should respond to the call of Allah (SWT) and His Prophet (SAWA), namely religion, because responding to His call is the revival of your life.
WHAT MAKES US BE ALIVE?
Indeed, life has different meanings. There is botanical life and an animalistic life. Neither of them requires responding to the call of Almighty Allah (SWT) and His Prophet (SAWA), as they do not have a religion to adhere to. Yet, they remain alive this way. The same can be said of human beings who are like animals – they are also alive in a similar way!
However, the life which Almighty Allah (SWT) is promising in this verse, through responding to His call and that of His Prophet (SAWA), is the life of our mind. This human life is in reference to our power of comprehension.
When we speak about human life, we say that human beings are alive when they are capable of thinking and comprehension, finding a direction in life. This is understanding and realizing the purpose of life. We refer to such a person as alive. Otherwise they are dead when they lose this capacity!
I wanted to discuss this verse as a prelude to my discussion today. The message of the Quran and Islam and our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA) is to bring life in all our human aspects. The Holy Quran elaborates on this life in various places. An example is verse 97 of Surah Nahl (chapter 16):
مَنْ عَمِلَ صَالِحًا مِنْ ذَكَرٍ أَوْ أُنْثَىٰ وَهُوَ مُؤْمِنٌ فَلَنُحْيِيَنَّهُ حَيَاةً طَيِّبَةً ۖ وَلَنَجْزِيَنَّهُمْ أَجْرَهُمْ بِأَحْسَنِ مَا كَانُوا يَعْمَلُونَ
“Whoever does good whether male or female and he is a believer, We will most certainly make him live a happy life, and We will most certainly give them their reward for the best of what they did.”
ISLAM IS MEANT TO REVIVE THE HUMAN SPIRIT
So, the message of Islam is to revive the human being, because they are dead without this divine message. In fact, the Holy Quran directly uses this terminology, that people without any ideology, vision, purpose and world view are basically dead! There is simply no difference with animals then, as real human life described here is not present. This is explained in verse 122 of Surah An’aam (chapter 6):
أَوَمَنْ كَانَ مَيْتًا فَأَحْيَيْنَاهُ وَجَعَلْنَا لَهُ نُورًا يَمْشِي بِهِ فِي النَّاسِ كَمَنْ مَثَلُهُ فِي الظُّلُمَاتِ لَيْسَ بِخَارِجٍ مِنْهَا ۚ كَذَٰلِكَ زُيِّنَ لِلْكَافِرِينَ مَا كَانُوا يَعْمَلُونَ
“Can he who was dead, to whom We gave life, and a light whereby he can walk amongst men, be like him who is in the depths of darkness, from which he can never come out? Thus, to those without faith their own deeds seem pleasing.”
I want to take this one step further. This Quranic and Islamic message, which revives and invigorates the human being and humanity at large, is unfortunately frozen. Religion came to revive, but the message of religion, which is the source of revival, unfortunately got lost away from real life and society.
ALLAMA TABATABA’I (R.A): AUTHOR OF A MOST ENLIGHTENING QURANIC COMMENTARY
The Holy Quran, which is of course the embodiment of that divine message, has unfortunately become more of a sacred ornament than anything else! This is where I would like to draw your attention to an intellectual giant, philosopher and the great commentator of the Holy Quran in the 20th century. He is none other than Allama Tabataba’i (r.a).
If the Holy Quran is the revival of humanity, then people like Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) is without any doubt amongst very few in our contemporary era who revived the Quranic message, thought, ideals and values. These are the days commemorating the 39th anniversary of his demise.
Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) was the author of the well-known, detailed and insightful commentary of the Holy Quran, titled Tafsir al-Mizan. Many of us would be familiar with this sublime work, as it is often referenced in our discussions.
It is really important for us to understand these great personalities and their role in contributing to Islamic development in our time.
Taqwa is the compulsory part of the Jumuah Khutbah (sermon). I have absolutely no doubt that the life history of personalities like Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) is the great inspiration for piety, God-consciousness and ultimate love of Almighty Allah (SWT).
I would like to share a few salient points from his long list of achievements, in how he revived the message of the Holy Quran.
ALLAMA TABATABA’I (R.A) ESTABLISHED HIMSELF AS AN ACADEMIC INSTITUTION
Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) presented the Holy Quran to the world based upon his very deep intellectual, philosophical approach. At the same time, he could manage to create a contrast of rationality with very deep spirituality.
The manner in which Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) presented the message of the Holy Quran to the world is the fusion of rationality and the philosophical approach with the very deep mystical understanding. Nowhere in the history of Tafsir (Quranic commentary) do we see this beautiful amalgamation. It further shows how balanced this man’s intellectual background was.
He was a student of the great philosophers of his time. He was not only someone who studied philosophy, but rather, he developed his own philosophical identity through his studies. He studied the philosophy of intellectual giants of the golden age of Islam, like ibn Sina (Avicenna).
At the same time, he was also heavily devoted to the transcendent philosophy of arguably the most significant Islamic philosopher after Avicenna, namely Mulla Sadra. These are two of the most notable influences on his intellectual thought, but he also held his own opinion within the broader academic establishments of philosophy.
Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) wrote the two foundational books on philosophy, namely Bidayat al-Hikmah and Nihayat al-Hikmah, which continue to be used to this day as the key textbooks for students in Hawza in Qom and Najaf Islamic seminaries. Of course, he authored many books, but these two books deeply entrenched his philosophical background and understanding.
ALLAMA TABATABA’I (R.A) PRESENTS AN OUTSTANDING FUSION OF RATIONALITY AND SPIRITUALITY
Further to his academic credentials, Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) was a deep mystic, and a student of really great mystics. He well and truly built himself through self-awareness and self-purification.
Allama Amini (r.a) was a great scholar of our time who recently passed away. He was a student of Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) and explains that Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) was a great mystic, but never spoke in mystical style. Allama Amini (r.a) would say that Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) would never express himself as this grand mystic, despite having extremely deep spiritual status through having travelled towards those elevated spiritual junctures.
In fact, Allama Amini (r.a) said that this was a form of Taqiyyah (concealing your true belief) which Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) practiced! Clearly, Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) was not one to try and impress and fool people with fancy jargon.
To illustrate the depth of this great intellectual giant, Allam Amini (r.a) says that doctors diagnosed Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) with dementia towards the end of his life. Allam Amini (r.a) categorically denounced this as a misdiagnosis, because he went into a different spiritual world in the last phase of his life!
Allama Amini (r.a) supports his basis with a proof, saying that Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) hardly spoke during the period of so-called dementia, when his eyes use to be closed most of the time. Allama Amini (r.a) said that he sat next to the bed of Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) and asked him one day what the definition of a martyr is in the Holy Quran.
We commonly refer to the term “Shaheed” as meaning “martyr”. However, the literal meaning in Arabic is WITNESS. So, Allama Amini (r.a) asked whether the Quranic reference then is that a “Shaheed” is a witness to the battlefield and the death which occurs there? Amazingly, at this point, Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) opened his eyes saying that a “Shaheed” is the WITNESS to the deeds and actions of the people!
It is indeed a very detailed discussion to understand this term “Shaheed” properly, with this explanation from Allama Tabataba’i (r.a). In summary, it means that the “Shaheed” travels through those elevated spiritual stations which the Prophets (a.s), Imams of Ahlul Bait (a.s) and Awliya travel, until they reach the point where they gain access to witness a completely different world! This is where truth and reality become crystal clear, instead of being concealed in this world.
This is one of the examples which Allama Amini (r.a) cited to show the depth of responses from Allama Tabataba’i (r.a), and thereby disprove any claim that he actually had dementia.
TAFSIR AL-MIZAN: A COMPREHENSIVE 17 YEAR MASTERPIECE ON QURANIC COMMENTARY
This gives us a glimpse into the spiritual depth of this great mystic in Allama Tabataba’i (r.a). So, what we see from the approach of Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) is how he successfully combined these two areas of his excellence in understanding and presenting the Quran ie. through the fusion of his exceptional intellect with his extremely deep spirituality.
He clearly did not present the Holy Quran in a purely mystical way, which becomes completely irrelevant to the world, as they don’t confront the realities of life. In his Tafsir al-Mizan, you will find the deepest of mystical points, but at no point is he aloof from the society, and the rational understanding. This is an amazing standout feature in the work which Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) produced.
Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) was greatly inspired by three areas which integrated in the great Tafsir work he produced:
1. Inspiration through the rational, intellectual approach;
2. Inspiration through the deep mystical understanding;
3. Inspiration from traditions of the Ahlul Bait (a.s)
In the history of Tafsir, you find people who will only do commentary according to Hadith narrations ie. verses of the Holy Quran with the corresponding Hadith explaining the verse. And then there are people who will even go as far as to ignore that! However, Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) is inspired in a most unique way by the Hadith narrated from the Ahlul Bait (a.s), whereby he is able to combine this with rationality and spirituality. This is why his commentary titled Tafsir al-Mizan is so rich!
Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) credits this approach to the interpretation of the Holy Quran from the Ahlul Bait (a.s) and from his teacher, the great mystic Allama Ali Qazi Tabatabai. This is where he learnt this very unique method to Tafsir, as he explained later that the best way to understand the Holy Quran, besides the intellect, is to understand the Quran with the help of the Quran!
This is the principle trademark of Allama Tabataba’i (r.a), which we see as a common theme throughout Tafsir al-Mizan. He always tries to understand one verse of the Holy Quran with the help of another verse. This style has been highly appraised by leading religious scholars in Egypt’s Islamic seminaries too.
SOCIO-POLITICAL INSIGHT OF TAFSIR AL-MIZAN EXPLAINS HOW LIFE IS DEPENDENT ON WILAYAH
The great works of Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) has a comprehensive message for this world and the hereafter, thereby presenting a complete toolkit for success in both worlds.
Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) was not directly involved in politics per se. That being said, any objective review would conclude that his Tafsir al-Mizan is one of the best commentaries of the Holy Quran, from a socio-political perspective. Let us take verse 200 of Surah aal-Imraan (chapter 3 of the Holy Quran) as an example:
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا اصْبِرُوا وَصَابِرُوا وَرَابِطُوا وَاتَّقُوا اللَّهَ لَعَلَّكُمْ تُفْلِحُونَ
“O you who believe! Be patient and excel in patience and remain steadfast, and be careful of (your duty to) Allah, that you may be successful.”
Through this one verse of the Holy Quran, we read in Tafsir al-Mizan how this great Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) explains 10 principles for the Islamic system of governance! This socio-political aspect emerges as a consistent trend throughout his commentary of the Holy Quran. That is why I am saying that Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) brought the Holy Quran back to life with his comprehensive approach.
To build on this point, I would like to refer back to verse 24 of Surah Anfaal (chapter 8 of the Holy Quran), which I opened up this discussion with. Through this verse, Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) explains Wilayat (guardianship) with deep insight, stating that life of humanity, as individuals and as society, depends on Wilayat. He goes further to explain that the inner core of Islam is Wilayat!
There are so many examples to reference in explaining his truly remarkable insight into the Holy Quran. The same can be seen in how he explains the verses relating to death and the transition of the soul from this world to the hereafter. Another excellent area is how he explains miracles through a rational, philosophical background, concluding that miracles are not an exception to the laws of cause and effect!
ALLAMA TABATABA’I (R.A) PRODUCED THE MOST OUTSTANDING LEADERS OF OUR TIME
The understanding and interpretation of the Holy Quran by Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) is rational and relevant, while at the same time being very, very deep in its spiritual insight.
The list of examples of his expertise on the commentary of the Holy Quran is endless, whereby we can only be in awe of his rich legacy, in the form of his thoughts and books on the one side, and his students on the other side.
If you look at today’s grand spiritual authorities (Maraji’) based in Qom, almost all of them are students of Allama Tabataba’i (r.a). Ayatollah Nasir Makarem Shirazi is a Marja who has himself written a Tafsir (commentary) of the Holy Quran too, over 20 – 30 volumes. He is a student of Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) as well.
Another grand scholar is Ayatollah Jafar Sobhani who has also written a commentary of the Holy Quran, and he is also a student of Allama Tabataba’i (r.a).
Then there is the outstanding philosopher and great mystic of our time, Ayatollah Jawadi Amuli, who is also a student of Allama Tabataba’i (r.a).
And then of course, our beloved leader, Ayatollah Khamenei is also a student of Allama Tabataba’i (r.a).
Having mentioned all these notable students of Allama Tabataba’i (r.a), let me mention that the great intellectual giant of the 20th century, Ayatollah Murtaza Mutahhari (r.a), was also his student. If Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) did not produce any other student, then this great thinker, Ayatollah Mutahhari would surely be sufficient!
ALLAMA TABATABA’I (R.A): REMEMBER ALLAH (SWT) AND HE WILL REMEMBER YOU
Let me end off on a personal note by expressing how extremely proud I am to have personally met Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) during the last couple of months of his life. I truly believe this was one of the great privileges which Almighty Allah (SWT) has blessed me with.
I cannot forget how frail he was during that last period of his life. Despite that, he opened the door himself upon hearing us knock. We sat there and requested some advice from this great man. Since he was quite sickly at that stage, it was very difficult for us to hear what he was saying as his voice was very low. So, we had to strain our ears to make out what he is saying.
Allama Tabataba’i (r.a), this great intellectual giant of the 20th century, replied to us saying that he needs advice more than anybody else! Can you believe this humility?
We insisted that he please share with us some advice, and then he just repeated this excerpt from verse 152 of Surah Baqarah (chapter 2 of the Holy Quran), where Almighty Allah (SWT) says:
“Therefore, remember Me, I will remember you…”
On this point, I would like to remind myself and everyone towards Taqwa of Almighty Allah (SWT), inspired by personalities like Allama Tabataba’i (r.a). Indeed, he was the embodiment of devotion and surrender to Almighty Allah (SWT).
ALLAMA TABATABA’I (R.A) WORKED NON-STOP, EXCEPT FOR ONE DAY IN A YEAR
There are so many aspects of this grand personality which we can discuss for a very long time. However, I would like to conclude by provoking a thought, by reflecting on how he humbles himself, surrendering before the Ahlul Bait (a.s) with his outstanding academic excellence.
His wife and daughter narrate that Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) did not take any time off for vacation, during the 17 years he devoted to complete Tafsir al-Mizan.
In fact, Allama Amini (r.a) also narrates that he visited Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) on the night of Qadr, and there he was busy working on his Tafsir al-Mizan. Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) explained to Allama Amini (r.a) that this being the night of Qadr is the best time to write the commentary of the Holy Quran. He says that many things which he was stuck on and could not resolve during the year, all became crystal clear on this sacred night of Qadr!
There was, however, one day in every year when Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) would put all his work aside, and this was the Day of Ashura, as this is the day to remember and shed tears for Imam Hussain (a.s). This is the secret of success in this world (dunya) and hereafter (akhirah).
Indeed, great lessons we can learn from these magnanimous personalities, who left behind an outstanding legacy for generations to treasure!
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