Islamic Studies Twelver Shi'i Tafsir
Tehseen Thaver
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 July 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0144


The doctrine of walaya (guardianship of the Imams) is a central and distinguishing principle of the Twelver (Imami) Shiʿi school, according to which it is believed that after the death of the Prophet, the community is guided by the twelve chosen Imams, beginning with ʿAli ibn Abi Talib (d. 661 CE). A critical aspect of the doctrine of walaya and the authority of the Imams is their inextricable link to the Qurʾan. The teaching of the Imams as the hermeneutical key to interpreting the Qurʾan is invoked by scholars and community members alike. There are many ways in which this link between the Imams and the Qurʾan is upheld. In the tradition of Qurʾan interpretation, Hadith literature (which preserves the teachings of the Imams) is a fundamental source of authority for exegetes in their effort to “explain” the verses. In addition, sayings and stories of the Imams are integral to the narratives that animate and authorize the thriving tradition of sermons (in Muharram and otherwise). Moreover, at the level of individuals, the Qurʾanic encounter is mediated by the Imams through believers’ recourse to Hadith literature as well as through the cultivation of a personal relationship with the Imams, whom they regard as their teachers and living exemplars of the Qurʾan. What is evident in each of these interactions is the governing role of the Imams’ teachings as a critical hermeneutical device for accessing the Qurʾan in the Twelver tradition. Yet, within the formal genre of textual tafsir, the interpretive approaches of exegetes have also significantly differed on the basis of how strictly they employ the sayings of the Imams as the sole source of authority in their commentaries. It is very common to find exegetes that draw from extraneous sources and liberally incorporate independent authorial comments into their works. Furthermore, the corpus of Twelver tafsir includes writings in multiple languages from the Persian, Arab, and Indic regions, which vary in their interpretive frameworks (legal, mystical, philosophical, grammatical, liturgical, and other). Thus, “Twelver tafsir” as a tradition includes a diverse collection of commentaries of varying styles. This questions the usefulness of placing them all under a single heading, as is done here. However, a more nuanced classification of Twelver tafsir literature demands and is in wait of a better understanding of the widely differing epistemological assumptions, target audiences, motivations, aesthetic styles and rhetorical strategies adopted by authors writing under very different conditions. Also crucial to consider are the numerous genres in which exegetical discussions can be found, apart from the formal genre of tafsir itself. This includes Hadith compendiums, poetical works, and Muharram sermons, to name a few. While these diverse modes of engagement have remained largely unexamined in Euro-American scholarship, the formal genre of textual tafsir has received some attention in the last three or four decades. A selection from this scholarship is discussed below.


An important resource for information on individual exegetes as well as the general topic of Twelver Shiʿi tafsir is Encyclopedia Iranica. Within this encyclopedia, Bar-Asher 1999, Lawson 2003, Lawson 1999, and Keeler 1999 are particularly relevant. Bar-Asher 1999 includes a helpful bibliography of major exegetical works of the Twelver tradition and a general discussion of concerns and issues that Bar-Asher argues are unique to Shiʿi exegetes. Lawson 1999 lays out the methodological principles of interpretation and highlights the various trends and schools within the Twelver tradition. Keeler’s account of Persian exegesis includes mention of Twelver Shiʿi authors. A more introductory discussion on the main principles of Shiʿi exegesis is in Steigerwald 2006, a chapter in the Blackwell Companion to the Qurʾan.

  • Bar-Asher, Meir M. “Exegesis II: In Shiʿism.” In Encyclopaedia Iranica. Edited by Ehsan Yarshater. 1999.

    The structure of this piece is to identify key principles of Imami (Twelver) Shiʿi exegesis and to list the major exegetes that constitute the tradition. First highlights the main characteristics of Shiʿi exegesis as a whole, and then identifies features like “radical anti-Sunni bias” and “interpolation” as unique to Akhbari Shi’i works, and thus not representative of the general Imami Shiʿi tradition.

  • Keeler, Annabel. “Exegesis III: In Persian.” In Encyclopaedia Iranica. Edited by Ehsan Yarshater. 1999.

    This overview presents a chronological list of exegetical works composed in Persian from all schools, including Twelver Shiʿi authors. Keeler notes that the writing of commentaries in Persian began in the second half of the 10th century, and that the first Persian work by a Twelver Shiʿi author was Rawz al-jenan by Abu’l-Futuh Razi in the 12th century.

  • Lawson, Todd. “Exegesis IV: In Aḵbārī and Post-Safavid Esoteric Shiʿism.” In Encyclopaedia Iranica. Edited by Ehsan Yarshater. 1999.

    The importance of this short entry lies in the distinctions Lawson draws between Shiʿi exegetical works composed in the pre-Buyid, Buyid, and post-Safavid periods, based on the shifting adherence of scholars to the Akhbari and Usuli legal schools, and the corresponding hermeneutical styles their affiliations gave rise to.

  • Lawson, Todd. “Hermeneutics of Pre-Modern Islamic and Shiʿite Exegesis.” In Encyclopaedia Iranica. Edited by Ehsan Yarshater. 2003.

    This article presents an overview of the tradition of Twelver Shiʿi tafsir, from the early period (pre-Buwayhid or pre-945 CE) until the Safavid period (17th century), and highlights the main turning points. Mentions the main contributors in each period, and discusses the general context in which their writings were situated.

  • Steigerwald, Diana. “Twelver Shiʿi Taʾwil.” In The Blackwell Companion to the Qurʾan. Edited by Andrew Rippin, 373–385. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1111/b.9781405117524.2006.00027.x

    This short essay can be useful for undergraduate audiences looking for a simple discussion of Twelver tafsir. It does not assume any previous knowledge of the topic, and includes explanatory sections on the difference between Sunni/Shiʿi sects and their fundamental sources of authority.

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