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For most imams, their primary concern is to care for the congregants of an Islamic center, who, for the most part, share a common vision of Islam. However, the chaplain must be able to work with a diverse array of believers in a secular environment. This means a chaplain must be able to assist those whom they might otherwise disagree with in other matters, such as Islamic law, and theology. For example, it is not uncommon for Sunni chaplains to assist Shi’i Muslims within their institution; a chaplain must see beyond differences of faith and opinion and try their best to care for all members of their faith community. The institution within which a chaplain works may also require certain professional and procedural guidelines to be followed. These guidelines, which differ from institution to institution, may include: the obligation to help whoever asks (no matter what their faith is); keeping a record of all professional visits with patients, inmates, students, and personnel; having scheduled meetings with a supervisor who oversees your work; and, working with other chaplains of different faiths to better the institutions interfaith relations.
While a chaplain is officially tied to an institution, be it a hospital, military unit, prison, or university, his or her training and education can make them a unique resource for their institution’s surrounding community. University chaplains such as Yahya Hendi (Georgetown) and Abdullah Antepli (Duke) are often more visible than other chaplains, but a chaplain in any institution should be seen as an asset to the wider community. Although a Muslim chaplain may be trained in Islamic law, the purpose of their position is not to act simply as a jurist, nor does their pastoral training mean they are solely counselors. Rather, Muslim chaplains are religious leaders whose experience and training uniquely equips them to provide both religious and pastoral services. Chaplains should generally be open and available to address the social and mental health concerns of members outside of their faith as well, which is sometimes required by institutions, especially in the realm of hospital chaplaincy.
Encouraged by Dr. Ingrid Mattson, and my own interests in wanting to better understand the broader Islamic tradition, I decided to read and review a book on tafsir (Qur’anic commentary) composed by one of the Shi’a tradition’s most erudite scholars: ‘Allamah Sayyid M. H. Tabataba’i. Here is my, a Sunni Muslim’s, summary and reflection…
The Qur’an in Islam: It’s Impact & Influence on the Life of Muslims, by ‘Allamah Sayyid M. H. Tabataba’i, trans. by Assadullah ad-Dhaakir Yate (Texas: Zahra Publications, 1987), 118 pages.
Written in Persian with the intension of being translated for an English-speaking audience, The Qur’an in Islam attempts to “make Shi’ism better known in the Western world” (p. 9). It was written by, as Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr relates in the book’s Forward, “one of the great masters of the traditional sciences in Iran” (p. 10). The author, ‘Allamah Sayyid M. H. Tatataba’i, was born in 1903 (or 1892) into a “distinguished family of scholars” (p. 10) and spent most of his life as a student, and teacher, of Islamic sciences. Tabataba’i was a prolific author and despite the hindrance of eye-problems that plagued him until his death in 1981, he continued to write books and articles on the Islamic sciences; especially on the subject of Islamic Philosophy. Through his later life and parallel to his other works he continued to write what would later become a “monumental commentary” on the Noble Qur’an, his Tafsir al-Mizan; a massive twenty-seven volume work (in Arabic, but also translated to Persian) which he “completed in his mid-seventies” (p. 11). The Qur’an in Islam, is considered to be a “synopsis of [that] major commentary” (p. 11).
Only being 118 pages (including the Forward and Index), Tabataba’i does not attempt to convey every point from his voluminous commentary, rather he distills it down to five key elements (separated into chapters): 1) The Value of the Qur’an in the Eyes of the Muslims, 2) The Teachings of the Qur’an, 3) The Revelation of the Qur’an, 4) The Relationship of the Qur’an to the Sciences, and 5) The Order of the Qur’an’s Revelation and the Growth of the Qur’anic Sciences. Though much of the text does deal with the role of the Qur’an in the life of a Muslim, much more of it is focused upon hermeneutics; that is, the methodology through which a text is interpreted. Tabataba’i makes clear in the introduction that the “purpose of this work is to define the position of the Qur’an in such a way that the Holy Book explains itself, rather than giving our own opinions concerning it” (p. 15). This is of course a difficult, if not impossible, position to manifest for any person and, while well-intentioned, one which I do not believe he presents. However, The Qur’an in Islam is still an excellent introduction into the Shi’i approach to the Qur’an, providing for its reader a rational, albeit brief, analysis of some very intricate hermeneutical debates between Sunni and Shi’i Muslims.
The opening chapter, on value of the Qur’an in the eyes of Muslims, begins with an appeal to the reader stating that “[the human being] has no other aim in life but the pursuit of happiness and pleasure” (p. 17), and that this aim directs a human beings every action (whether they realize it or not). Through a masterful stringing together of this point with Qur’anic verses Tabataba’i illustrates that the Qur’an appeals to an innate nature (fitrah) within all of us that can only be nurtured, and thus truly happy, by following the program that it was created for (i.e. Islam). By use of analogy Tabataba’i compares the life of a human being to that of a plant “emerging from a single grain in the earth” and aware of its “future existence” (p. 19) as an ear of wheat, or a walnut tree. While growing, these seedlings do not imitate each other, but rather emerge from the soil in a fashion directed by their own “distinct inherent characteristics” (p. 19). If a human being follows the plan that has been laid out before them, nurturing their innate nature with the following of revelation, they will achieve the moral characteristics that are distinct and inherent within their own design. The author then concludes that the plan that is laid out for humanity is derived from the Qur’an, and immediately follows this with the appropriate verses of the Qur’an to confirm the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ as a messenger of God.
Chapter Two, the largest chapter of the book, is inaccurately titled “The Teachings of the Qur’an”; it may be more aptly titled “Shi’ite Approaches to Qur’anic Hermeneutics”. Within the thirty-five pages of this chapter Tabataba’i summarizes twenty theological points concerning the interpretation of the Qur’an, such as: its universal application, its perfection and eternal quality, its inner and outer meanings, the explicit (muhkam) and the implicit (mutashabih) verses, the history of Qur’anic commentary, and the use of Imams as authoritative sources of insight. I will only address two of these points. The first, and possibly the most interesting, is the inner and outer dimensions of the Qur’an. It is here where the author most digressed from his stated intention to convey the Qur’an by itself without “giving [his] own opinions concerning it”. He has, however, succeeded in explaining clearly his own positions.
Tabataba’i relates that “each man has a different capacity of understanding and since the expounding of subtle knowledge is not without danger of misinterpretation, the Qur’an directs its teachings primarily at the level of the common man” (p. 31). To support that beneath this meaning there are other more subtle, and deep, interpretations Tabataba’i cites the thirteenth surah al-R’ad (The Thunder) verse seventeen which says: He sends down water from the sky, so that valleys flow according to their measure. Within the context of this argument the verse offers a beautiful analogy implying that each person (i.e. valley) has varying levels of capacity to understand revelation (i.e. the water from the sky). However, his use of it is based itself upon an interpretation of its inner meaning, the very practice he is trying to deem permissible through citing this verse. Contemporary philosophy would call this “begging the question”. Nevertheless, the use of this verse as an analogy for one’s capacity to learn is a beautiful one.
The second, and most uniquely Shi’i approach, is his discussion of the commentary of the Imams (from the family of the Prophet) as authoritative. Unfortunately Tabataba’i does not provide his evidence for this practice until half-way through the book- though he has referred to it throughout the text. It would have made more sense to move this discussion earlier in the book. As one not familiar with this conception I was genuinely interested in the evidence he would provide, however the only proof he presented was the thirty-third surah al-Ahzab (The Confederates) verse 33 which says: God’s wish is but to remove uncleanliness from you, O people of the Household, and clean you a thorough cleaning. Though he does present other verses to assist the understanding of this verse, I do not find the interpretation convincing. I am still left wondering why the Prophet’s family (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him and his family) should have any greater authority–let alone absolute authority–as Qur’anic exegetes over any other pious and learned Muslim.
In his third chapter, “The Revelation of the Qur’an”, Tabataba’i responds to some orientalist assertions concerning the Qur’an and also some of their more skeptical views pertaining to certain critical points of Islamic theology. Here Tabataba’i conveys his understanding of the orientalist perspective and impressively presents a rationale for one’s submission to revelation over intellect. He states that “The intellect, which recognizes the existence of God, cannot refuse the law. It will always decide in favor of that which revelation demands of man” (p. 79). This is because the “believing man will recognize the importance of the revelation over any personal matter” (p. 80).
The fourth and fifth chapters deal directly with the history of the Qur’an, or more particularly the assembling of the mushaf (the written Qur’an) and its oral and written transmission. Many discussions are given here like the Asbab al-Nazul (occasions of revelation), chronological order of the surahs, the protection of the Qur’an from corruption (which may be surprising to many Sunnis), and the Qira’at (differing recitations of the Qur’an). Tabataba’i does offer some wonderful analyses between both Sunni and Shi’a considerations of what can be used from this historical tradition to help us better understand the Qur’an, like a more critical view of the Asbab al-Nazul narrations and the order of revelation.
Overall I enjoyed this opportunity to expand my knowledge of Shi’i thought through reading this text. I also came to understand better why this particular scholar is respected and greatly revered. I found his arguments intelligent, even while some points did appear lacking. That being said, ‘Allamah Sayyid M. H. Tabataba’i’s work The Qur’an in Islam does prove a good read for those interested in better understanding a Shi’i approach to the Qur’an.
The Graduate Certificate in Islamic Chaplaincy is designed to provide Muslim religious leaders and chaplains with basic skills in pastoral care, arts of ministry, theology and ethics, dialogue and interfaith relations needed to serve as chaplains in a variety of settings. The areas of knowledge and skill acquisition provided by the 24-credit graduate certificate are:
- the responsibilities of Muslim chaplains/religious leaders surrounding life events such as birth, death, marriage, and loss
- the rituals surroundings these same life events
- examination of Islamic law, which undergirds all Islamic rituals and includes ethics and morality
- the application of Islamic law to daily life
- exposure to and understanding of chaplaincy skills in multi-faith settings
- understanding of faith traditions other than one’s own
To Learn More Visit Islamic Chaplaincy Program
To the untrained eye, he might look like a student or adviser to the primarily international students. But the 28year-old master’s candidate at Hartford Seminary is the school’s first Muslim chaplain. For years, leaders from faiths including Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism have tended to the spiritual needs of students, but this marks the first year that Choate’s Muslim population— representing the Sunni and Shiite sects — has been larger than just a few students.
Framed descriptions of Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam hang from the walls inside a common room that bears trustee Bill Spears’ name and is used for moral and spiritual purposes, as Spears desired. After weekly informal dinner meetings, the newly formed Muslim Student Association, with a membership of 13, heads to the multi-purpose space to pray, discuss the Qur’an and what it means to be a Muslim in America, and plan interfaith events.
“It’s not my job to actually force anyone to go either way, but to actually respond,” said Long, a California native and convert to Islam, on promoting religious views.
The new association and chaplain are part of the school’s response to a changing international population. Several religious officials have called the move proactive and forward thinking, in line with universities such as Yale, Princeton and Duke, which have all recently hired Muslim chaplains, graduates of Hartford Seminary’s program.“We have more and more international students who do not come from Asia,” said Stephen Farrell, Choate’s dean of faculty. “Twenty-five to 30 years ago, almost all of them were Asian students. But we’ve really moved into the Middle East and Africa.” International students make up 14 percent of Choate’s 850 students.
Students from as far away as Saudi Arabia, Kenya and Malaysia reached out to the Rev. Marc Trister, the school’s Protestant chaplain and head of campus ministries, early in the school year. Trister led the group to Hartford, where it met with Mumina Kowalski, assistant director of the Islamic chaplaincy program.
After several interviews, Long, a first-year master’s degree candidate in Islamic studies and Muslim-Christian relations seemed to be the perfect fit. His youth and way of coming to the religion likely play a role in his ease with the diverse group. “Everybody agreed that this was an important step for the school to make,” Trister said.