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Religion Library: Shia Islam

Sacred Texts

Written by: Anna Akasoy

Toward the end of the Shiite intermezzo, in the 11th and 12th centuries, new compromises marked the relationship between Sunnis and Shiites, which included the general Sunni acceptance of the four caliphs as the "rightly guided" ones. On the Shiite side, the initial accusations of tahrif were largely abandoned, although they were and still are occasionally revived. Beyond the story about Ali's original version of the Quran, there is virtually no evidence that Shiites ever used what they thought to be this version. Shiites seem to have accepted the Uthmanic codex just as they, for the most part, accepted what they perceived to be the unjust rule of the Sunnis. And just as they had to wait for the Mahdi to restore justice, they had to wait for him to restore the original version of the Quran.

The exegetical tradition of Shiism is often characterized by an esoteric approach (tawil), a trend it shares with Sufi interpretations of the Quran. The text in itself offers only the outer meaning and principles. It is the task of the Imams as the 'speaking book of God' to reveal the inner meaning and the details. In Shiite commentaries on the Quran, the hidden meaning of the text is seen in its references to Shiite salvation history and the Imams. Negative statements, even to the devil, are sometimes interpreted as references to historical figures such as the first three caliphs, Aisha, or the Umayyads. Furthermore, different layers of hidden meanings are distinguished that correspond to different levels in the hierarchy of humans. The enigmatic nature of the text is often reflected in exegesis. The more hidden the truth is in the Quran, the more it needs to be disguised in the commentary. Both Sufi and Shiite exegeses have been attracted by the imagery of light in the Quran. On the one hand it could be understood as a manifestation of the divine, on the other hand its illuminating capacity could be seen as guidance for the believers. The blessed olive tree in the Light Verse (Quran 24:35), for example, is interpreted as a symbol for the Imams.

In addition to the Quran, Shiites hold—like Sunnis—the traditions of Muhammad in high regard and as another aspect of the divine revelation. While there is no substantial difference in the body of hadith accepted by Sunnis and Shiites, they disagree about the transmitters. Instead of the companions of the Prophet, who are dismissed by Shiite scholars, the Imams and their companions guarantee the authenticity of a prophetic tradition.

Apart from the Quran and the hadith, Shiites value a number of other texts attributed to the imams and important scholars. The most prominent among them include hadith collections and the Nahj al-balagha, a collection of speeches and sermons attributed to Ali.

Study Questions:
1.     How is the Shiite method of interpretation when studying the Quran different form that of Sunnis?
2.     What is the Nahj al-balagha and why is it important?
3.     What is tawil and how does it impact the Shiite perspective of the Quran?


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