The Tafsīr al-Ğalālayn (15th century)
Composed in the 15th century by two Egyptian scholars, Ğalāl al-Dīn al-Maḥallī and Ğalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī, the Tafsīr al-Ğalālayn or “The Commentary of the Two Ğalāls”, is arguably the most popular Qur’ānic commentary in the Sunni Muslim world. It is also, along with Tafsīr of al-Bayḍāwī, the most widely used exegetical source by European translators of the Qur’ān in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, which is the reason why it is featured on our website.
Biographical information about the authors
Abū ‘Alī Ğalāl al-Dīn Muḥammad b. Aḥmad al-Anṣārī al-Maḥallī is an Egyptian Šāfi’ī jurisconsult, born in Cairo around 1389 and died circa 1459. His patronymic comes from his hometown, al-Maḥalla al-Kubrā, located in the Nile Delta. He is less known than his student al-Suyūṭī, probably due to his refusal of any qadi position: his moral rectitude reportedly led him to distance himself from the circles of power and to work in trade as a living. His work includes treatises on scholastic theology, Arabic grammar and logic. Some of al-Maḥallī’s manuscripts have come down to us, including his al-Badr al-Ṭāli‘ fī ḥal Ğāmi‘ al-ğawāhir, a commentary on a book on the foundations of Islamic jurisprudence composed by al-Ṣubkī (1284-1355) and entitled Ğāmi‘ al-ğawāmi‘. A copy of this commentary is preserved at the French National Library (“Bibliothèque nationale de France”) under the reference number ms. arabe 5343. Al-Maḥallī mainly composed a tafsīr that he did not have time to complete: this is the text we are interested in. One of his students, al-Suyūṭī, took on the task of completing it a few years after his death.
Abū al-Faḍl Ğalāl al-Dīn ‘Abd al-Raḥmān b. Abī Bakr al-Ḫuḍayrī al-Suyūṭī is an Egyptian Šāfi’ī scholar of Persian origin through his father. He was born in Cairo in 1445 and died in October 1505. The patronymic al-Suyūṭī comes from the city of Asyūṭ in Upper Egypt where his family moved from Baghdad to take up religious and administrative positions during the reign of the Mamlūks. A traditionalist and polemical qadi, considered arrogant by some of his peers, al-Suyūṭī calls himself “muğaddid”, meaning that he would be the renewer of the [Sunni] faith in 9th century AH. Nicknamed ibn al-Kutub, “son of books”, because of his birth in the family library, al-Suyūṭī is considered one of the most prolific authors of Islamic literature. A 1983 study attributes to him nine hundred and eighty-one works, including treatises on the sciences of ḥadīṯ, cosmology, history, geography, Sufism, and even erotology. In addition, he wrote about twenty books on the Qur’ān and its interpretation: his completion of al-Maḥallī’s commentary is among them and constitutes one of his most famous works. However, this is not al-Suyūṭī’s main contribution in the field of tafsīr since he also authored his own commentary entitled al-Durr al-Manṯūr fī al-tafsīr bi-l-ma’ṯūr.
The Tafsīr al-Ǧalālayn is named after the two 15th-century scholars I have just introduced. The commentary of the first one, al-Maḥallī, goes from sūrah 18 to sūrah 114, including sūrah 1 and some verses from sūrah 2. The commentary of the second scholar, al-Suyūṭī, deals with sūrahs 2 to 17. A short preface allows the latter to present his method: This book is intended for those who wished to see a completion of the Qur’ān commentary undertaken by the imam and scholar Ǧalāl al-Dīn al-Maḥallī. I have indeed completed it from the beginning of sūrah al-Baqara  to the last verse of sūrah al-’Isrā’ . I have endeavored to perpetuate the style of al-Maḥallī, which consists in mentioning only what is understandable in the Word of God, based on the most probable interpretations. I have also carried out a grammatical analysis of a few verses, when the need arose. I also alerted the reader to the various [canonical] readings that a word in the Qur’ān might have. I did all this in a gentle style and short expression; therefore, I refrained from long developments, unsatisfactory quotations, and grammatical explanations, which are more appropriate for language books.
Regarding its structure, the Tafsīr al-Ǧalālayn follows the form of Qur’ānic commentaries called musalsal, i.e. “in chain”: it offers a continuous and concise explanation of the Qur’ānic text, verse by verse. Of the different genres of Qur’ānic exegesis (analytical, linguistic, mystical, etc.), the one favored here by the two authors is undoubtedly the so-called genre of tafsīr bi-l-maʾṯūr, which is based on Prophet Muḥammad’s narrations, or on the accounts of his Companions and their followers. It is true, however, that the two authors do not give the isnād-s, i.e. the chains of transmission, as did the precursor of the genre in question, al-Ṭabarī; and that they can adopt other approaches, especially linguistic and legal ones.
Al-Maḥallī and al-Suyūṭī often merely provide the primary meaning of a word, while giving Arabic synonyms to difficult Qur’ānic terms. In addition, they purvey legal explanations from the Šāfi’ī school, to which both are affiliated. Similarly, they also put different verses into perspective and link their interpretation by practicing the tafsīr al-Qur’ān bi-l-Qur’ān: this kind of tafsīr aims to interpret the Qur’ānic text by relying solely on explanatory narratives from other sūrahs and verses. The ’asbāb al-nuzūl, i.e. the occasion of the revelation, are presented briefly. The authors also point out the passages subjected to nasḫ, i.e. abrogation. They indicate reading variants, al-qirā’āt. Finally, they examine the grammatical subtleties of certain passages and clarify linguistic tropes while filling in omissions and ellipses.
Some features frequently found in works of Qur’ānic exegesis are absent here: al-Maḥallī and al-Suyūṭī avoid giving their personal opinions, sharing mystical inspiration, engaging in philosophical discussions, or addressing questions related to the most speculative theology, on divine attributes for instance. Nor do they look at the fawātiḥ or muqaṭṭa‘āt, i.e. the so-called “mysterious or disjointed” letters by which some sūrahs begin. They simply gloss these letters in the following way: “God knows best their meaning”.
The Tafsīr al-Ǧalālayn is heir to a long tradition of Qur’ānic exegesis that marked Islam’s early centuries. It is therefore not surprising that it is inspired by other tafsīr-s. Al-Suyūṭī states in his biographical encyclopedia, Buġyat al-wu‘āt fī ṭabaqāt al-luġawiyyīn wal-nuḥāt, that to compose his section, his teacher al-Maḥallī relied on Tafsīr-s al-Kabīr and al-Ṣaġīr, i.e the Great and Small Commentaries of the Iraqi exegete Aḥmad b. Yūsuf al-Kuwāšī (d. 1194). For his own part, al-Suyūṭī admits to having drawn not only on the two works of al-Kuwāšī, but also on the Tafsīr-s of al-Bayḍāwī, of ibn Kaṯīr and on one of the three commentaries composed by the Persian exegete ‘Alī b. Aḥmad al-Wāḥidī (d. 1076), namely al-Wağīz, “the Summary”. An example can be taken from the latter to show how al-Ǧalālayn is inspired by it:
Al-Wāḥidī comments verse 12 of sūrah 36 as follows (the text in Roman characters corresponds to our translation of the Qur’ānic verses; the fragments in italics indicate our translation of the commentaries of al-Wāḥidī and al-Ǧalālayn): Indeed, it is We who bring the dead back to life for resurrection and record what they have produced in deeds, and their traces, the good conduct they have left for posterity. In another interpretation: their steps towards the mosques. And we have enumerated all things, recorded and explained in an explicit register, namely the Preserved Tablet. The same verse is thus rendered in Tafsīr al-Ǧalālayn: Indeed, it is We Who bring the dead back to life, for resurrection , and record on the Preserved Tablet what they have produced in their lifetime in good or evil, so that they may be rewarded, and their traces, the good conduct they left for posterity. And we have enumerated all things (“kulla šayʾin” is in accusative because of the verb that governs it), recorded accurately, in an explicit register, an explicit Book, namely the Preserved Tablet. Except for the grammatical analysis, which al-Ǧalālayn develops, the reader will notice a certain resemblance between the two texts. However, this does not mean that both commentaries, written four centuries apart, follow each other in every respect. For instance, on the disjointed letters, one can see a clear divergence of approach between al-Wağīz and al-Galâlayn: al-Wâḥidi elaborates on their meaning, while the two Egyptian authors choose to elude them.
The first known reception of the section composed by al-Suyūṭī is rather critical. The brother of al-Maḥallī is said to have seen in a dream the deceased criticizing the work of his student: Sheikh Šams al-Dīn Muḥammad b. Abī Bakr al-Ḫaṭīb al-Ṭūḫī said: “My friend the learned sheikh Kamāl al-Dīn al-Maḥallī, brother of Ğalāl al-Dīn al-Maḥallī - may God have mercy on their souls - said that he saw his brother in a dream; before him stood our friend the learned sheikh Ğalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī, author of the supplement [to his commentary]. [al-Maḥallī] had this complement in his hand and, as he went through it, he said to al-Suyūṭī: “Which one is better, my composition or yours?” [ al-Suyūṭī] replied, “Mine”. [al-Maḥallī] then said, “But look at this ...” and he showed him parts of it, politely expressing his objections. Every time al-Maḥallī raised something, the compiler of this supplement [al-Suyūṭī] would reply, while the sheikh [al-Maḥallī] smiled and laughed. A criticism to which al-Suyūṭī replies: What I believe, and what I am absolutely certain of, is that the part composed by Sheikh Ğalāl al-Dīn al-Maḥallī - may God have mercy on his soul - is indeed much better than mine. How [could it be otherwise], when most of what I have written here is based on his work and builds on it? I have no doubt about that. Al-Suyūṭī then goes on to address a few points of divergence, which he describes as minor, that might cause his teacher’s reluctance if he were still alive. Among them is the interpretation of the term al-ṣābiʾūn, “the Sabians”, which al-Maḥallī in verse 17 of sūrah 22 identifies as “a Jewish sect”. An interpretation that al-Suyūṭī does not reject but to which he adds: “or a Christian sect” in his commentary on verse 62 of sūrah 2, in accordance with what he justifies as the most commonly held view within the Šāfi’ī school.
In the 17th century, Tafsīr al-Ǧalālayn was unanimously accepted in a Sunni Muslim world dominated at the time by the Ottomans. The Turkish polymath Kātip Çelebi (1609-1657), also known as Ḥāǧǧī Ḫalīfa, praises it in his universal encyclopedia Kaşf al-Ẓunūn ‘an asāmī al-kutub wal-funūn (“The Removal of Doubts on the Names of Books and Arts”): “[al-Ǧalālayn] is small in size but great in meaning, for it is at the core of Qur’ānic commentaries”. It was not until the 20th century that the Iraqi mufti Qāsim al-Qaysī (1878-1955), in his Tāriḫ al-tafāsīr (“The History of Qur’ānic Commentaries”), downplayed its hermeneutic importance: he found it “very brief” and considered that it “cannot be used independently to understand the book of God [the Qur’ān]”. This criticism coincides with the arrival on the market of other more extensive commentaries that enjoyed massive dissemination in the Muslim world, such as Tafsīr-s of al-Ṭabarī and Ibn Kaṯīr, which eventually replaced al-Ǧalālayn in the esteem of many in the Sunni world. However, the Tafsīr al-Ǧalālayn remains a classic, thanks in particular to “its handy size which apparently did not affect its quality”, as the German orientalist Hartmut Bobzin put it. It is now translated into several languages, including French, English, Persian, Urdu and Malay.
The Tafsīr al-Ğalālayn in the first European translations of the Qur’ān
From the beginning of the 17th century, European orientalists began to acquire this popular tafsīr in the Ottoman Empire. The Scottish orientalist George Strachan (1592-1634) who, on behalf of the Catholic Church, travelled for several decades in the Levant and Persia, collected several oriental manuscripts, among which this tafsīr. He then bequeathed it to the Order of the Discalced Carmelites in Rome. It was on this manuscript that the Italian priest Ludovico Marracci (1612-1700) relied for his Qur’ān translation published in 1698, which is the last one composed in Latin and probably the most faithful to the Arabic text ever given in that language. In addition to relying on Tafsīr al-Ǧalālayn, both in his notes and in his refutations of the Qur’ānic text, Marracci mentions several other classics of the exegetical tradition: in this regard, please consult our introductory note on the English translation of the Qur’ān by George Sale (1734).
Most of the marginal notes in André Du Ryer’s 1647 French translation also refer to the commentary of al-Maḥallī and al-Suyūṭī, which he called “Gelaldin”. The manuscript of Tafsīr al-Ğalālayn, which Du Ryer probably used to compose his translation, is preserved at the French National Library under the reference number ms. Arabe 652:
This manuscript comes from the Séguier Library, which houses most of Du Ryer’s oriental manuscripts. The volume in question consists of two parts, representing a total of one hundred and eighty-three folios, ranging from sūrah 2 to sūrah 114. The first part is al-Suyūṭī’s, from sūrah 2 to sūrah 17, folios 1 to 85: it appears to have been transcribed between 1501 and 1590. The second part, al-Maḥallī’s, ranges from sūrah 18 to sūrah 114, folios 86 to 183: it is older and appears to have been copied between 1459 and 1525. Only sūrah 1 is missing from this manuscript: one hypothesis to consider is that the absence of this sūrah would explain the rather approximate translation of verse 7 by André Du Ryer.
In his undertaking to translate the Qur’ān into French, it would have been injudicious for Du Ryer to deprive himself of such a valuable commentary: the clarity and conciseness of al-Ğalālayn coincided with the classical aesthetics then in vogue in literary circles in France. It is not surprising that this tafsīr is the most cited by the French translator in his marginal notes, even though not all the borrowings are mentioned.
Two brief examples of how Tafsīr al-Ǧalālayn is used by the French orientalist will be presented here. For instance, verse 176 of sūrah 26 is translated by Du Ryer as follows: “Those who dwell in the forest have received the Prophets sent to them”. A note in the margin reads: “This is a forest near Madian. See Gelaldin”. André Du Ryer seeks here to justify his translation of the Arabic term ’aṣḥāb al-’ayka (أصحاب الأيكة). To do this, he invokes al-Maḥallī which gives this precision: “هي غيضة شجر قرب مدي” (it is a grove of trees near Madian): it would be hard to find closer paraphrase of the Egyptian exegete’s words than Du Ryer’s. However, the multiple references to Tafsīr al-Ğalālayn are not free of errors that may be due to linguistic misunderstanding or inadvertence, as is the case in the following example : Du Ryer translates verse 9 of sūrah 41 as follows : “Tell them, how ungodly will you be towards him who created the earth in two days? how can you say that he has a companion equal to him? he is the only Lord of the Universe”. Du Ryer then goes on to gloss the fragment “in two days” by stating: “Monday & Tuesday. See Gelaldin”. Al-Maḥallī actually indicates that the earth was created on Sunday and Monday, as we can see both in the edition presented on our website and in the manuscript consulted by the French translator:
As to Ludovico Marracci, he uses Tafsīr al-Ğalālayn even more explicitly than his French predecessor. He quotes directly from the Arabic source and translates it into Latin, before discussing it in a polemical manner. In the following illustration, Marracci integrates into his text the gloss of al-Ğalālayn presenting the context in which verse 85 of sūrah 2 was revealed. As one can observe, the Italian priest seems to be consulting a text identical to the version of al-Ğalālayn that we present on our website:
In the 18th century, George Sale composed a translation of the Qur’ān into English that would become authoritative in Europe until the first half of the 20th century. Like Marracci, he drew heavily on tafsīr-s, including those of al-Bayḍāwī and al-Ğalālayn. However, it has not been proven that he possessed the commentary of the two Ğalāls, although it is known that he borrowed a copy of Tafsīr of al-Bayḍāwī from the Austin Friars Dutch church in London. Sale acknowledges his debt to the work of Marracci, but never admits that he accessed Tafsīr al-Ğalālayn through the latter. Indeed, whenever the English translator quotes al-Ğalālayn, his Italian predecessor did the same. To cite just one example, in a note added to verse 85 of sūrah 2, as illustrated above, Sale gives the impression that he himself consulted Tafsīr al-Ğalālayn; he omits to specify that Marracci has already translated the passage in question:
Examples like this are numerous in Sale’s translation.
Claude-Étienne Savary also cites the commentary of the two Ğalāls in his notes of a new French translation of the Qur’ān that was published in 1783. However, his compatriot Albert Kazimirski, who was later charged with revising this translation, suspects that Savary had in fact translated Marracci’s Latin version, decidedly very useful. This observation led Kazimirski to abandon the revision process and compose his own version, which was released in 1840. In fact, in the 19th century, the use of Tafsīr al-Ğalālayn by European translators began to decline. It was gradually supplanted by the Tafsīr of al-Bayḍāwī.
For about three centuries, Tafsīr al-Ğalālayn has played a leading role in the understanding of the Qur’ān by its European translators. Thanks to it, they had access to a commentary that has two essential qualities: on the one hand, it is authoritative in many parts of the Muslim world, at least during the period in question; on the other hand, it is clear and concise, and therefore easy to grasp.
Finally, it should be noted that the recourse to tafsīr-s has a history as long as that of Qur’ān translations in Europe. Du Ryer appears as a precursor when he indicates in notes his references. But Latin translators, from the very first of them, Robert of Ketton, in the middle of the 12th century, also had access to Qur’ānic exegesis, directly or not, either through books or via Muslim scholars. The only real difference is that they hardly mention the titles of the works consulted, nor the names of the commentators to whom they referred.
For more information
The XML source of the edition presented to you originates from the website www.tanzil.net. This text was chosen for its proximity to the version consulted by Du Ryer. It was emended by Mouhamadoul Khaly Wélé, who also encoded it in XML-TEI. The titles and preliminaries of the sūrahs have been added, as they appear in Du Ryer’s manuscript. The punctuation marks that appear in the modern edition have also been retained. The only remarkable difference is sūrah 1 which, as mentioned above, is missing in the manuscript. For initial bibliographical guidelines, please see:
Al-Maḥallī (Ǧalāl al-Dīn) et al-Suyūṭī (Ǧalāl al-Dīn), Tafsīr al-Ǧalālayn, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, ms. arabe 652.
Al-Mahāllī (Ǧalāl al-Dīn) et al-Suyūṭī (Ǧalāl al-Dīn), Tafsīr Al-Jalālayn, English trans. byHamza Feras, Louisville (Kentucky), Fons Vitae, 2008 [see the general editor’s foreword as well as the translator’s introduction for more details on the characteristics of this tafsīr].
Al-Suyūṭī (Ǧalāl al-Dīn), Buġyat al-wu’āt fī ṭabaqāt al-luġawiyyīn wal-nuḥāt, ed. by Muḥammad Abū Faḍl Ibrahīm, Sidon, al-Maktaba al-‘aṣriyya, 2 vol. [al-Suyūṭī’s words on Tafsīr al-Ǧalālayn’s sources of inspiration can be found in the vol. 1, p. 401].
Bevilacqua (Alexander), The Republic of Arabic Letters: Islam and the European Enlightenment, Cambridge Belknap Press, 2018.
Bevilacqua (Alexander), “The Qurʾan translations of Marracci and Sale”, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 76, 2013, pp. 93-130.
Bobzin (Hartmut), “Notes on the importance of variant readings and grammar in the Tafsīr al-Ğalalayn”, Zeitschrift für Arabische Linguistik, n° 15, 1985, pp. 33-44.
Burman (Thomas), Reading the Qur’ān in Latin Christendom, 1140-1560, Philadelphie, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009.
Elmarsafy (Ziad), The Enlightenment Qur’ān: the politics of translation and the construction of Islam, Londres, Oneworld Publications, 2009.
Hamilton (Alastair) et Richard (Francis), André Du Ryer and Oriental Studies in Seventeenth-Century France, London, The Arcadian Library, 2004 [see pp. 97-100 for Du Ryer's recourse to Tafsīr al-Ǧalālayn].
Geoffroy (Éric), “al-Suyūṭī”, in Encyclopedia of Islam, Leiden, Brill, 2010. Accessed online on November 11, 2020 [ http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/9789004206106_eifo_COM_1130 ].
Pellat (Charles), “al-Maḥallī”, in Encyclopedia of Islam, Leiden, Brill, 2010. Accessed online on November 11, 2020 [ http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/9789004206106_eifo_SIM_4776 ].
Saleh (Walid A.), “The Last of the Nishapuri School of Tafsīr : Al-Wāḥidī (d. 468/1076) and His Significance in the History of Qur’ānic Exegesis”, Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 126, n° 2, 2006, pp. 223-243.
The original version of this introductory note is written in French. The English translation was done by its author, Mouhamadoul Khaly Wélé.