The Radiances of Revelation and the Mysteries of Exegesis


Kitāb Anwār al-Tanzīl wa Asrār al-Ta’wīl (The radiances of revelation and the mysteries of exegesis) is the best-known work of the 13th century savant, ʻAbdallāh ibn ʻUmar al-Bayḍāwī (died circa 1286). As the title indicates, the subject of the work is Qurʼanic exegesis. After an introduction in which al-Bayḍāwī praises the science of al-tafsīr (exegesis) as the principal religious science and the basis for sharia (Islamic law), the text of the Qurʼan follows, with each ayah (verse) appearing in red ink accompanied by an explanatory passage in black ink. In the present illuminated copy, the main text opens with a richly colored panel of arabesque scrolls, cartouches, and a medallion containing the basmala (the invocation of God’s name), the opening words of the Qurʼan. The design of this panel, as well as that of an illuminated band containing the name of the first sura (chapter) on the same page, reflect the Islamic tradition of sumptuously illuminated Qurʼanic manuscripts. Subsequent chapters also are set off by their titles, each appearing in a band containing the name of the sura, the place in which it was revealed (generally Mecca or Medina), as well as the number of verses contained within it. The subsequent chapter headings are also striking, but generally simpler than the first, and consist of gold letters on an unpainted background. In at least one place the interpretive text spills over into the area reserved for the subsequent chapter title. Also noteworthy is how the names of the suras occasionally differ from the titles usually given to them, offering an interesting glimpse of the canonical variation present in these titles. The title for sura 45, al-Jāthīyah (The kneeling), for example, appears under a variant title, al-Sharīʻa (The clear path). The text, generally of 33 lines to a page, appears within blue and gold borders on the pages, some of which have sustained heavy insect damage. The manuscript was completed on Jumādā al-’ūlā 18, 970 A.H. (January 13, 1563). It is signed by Aḥmad ibn ʻAlī ibn ʻAbdallāh al-Bānūbī al-Azharī, indicating Banub in the Nile delta as the nisba (provenance) of the scribe. al-Bayḍāwī was a native of Bayḍā, Fars (present-day Iran) who wrote on many topics, including fiqh (jurisprudence), history, grammar, and theology. Although most of his vast scholarly output was composed in Arabic, he wrote his historical work Niẓām al-Tavārīkh (The order of history) in his native Persian. Numerous commentaries have been written on the Kitāb Anwār al-Tanzīl wa Asrār al-Ta’wīl. The work was for many centuries part of the standard curriculum in religious schools and was one of the first such tafsir works to be translated into English.

Last updated: April 6, 2015