The Miracle of the Samaritan: al-Tabari’s Reception and Manipulation of Tradition in his Tafsir

The compendious works of al-Tabari (d. 310/923), particularly his History and Tafsir, represent our most valuable repositories of historical and exegetical traditions passed down from the early Islamic period. However, as scholars have long recognized, Tabari’s History is not a neutral or passive collection of unmediated historical tradition; rather, the author deliberately gives us a very selective representation of material in order to manipulate the reader’s understanding of problematic and contentious events in the history of the early umma. It has less often been recognized that similar processes of selection and manipulation are at work in Tabari’s Tafsir. This paper will argue that a careful examination of a controversial issue in classical exegetical discourse shows that Tabari’s supposedly “ecumenical” approach to Quran interpretation and the opinions that circulated among the salaf masks a deliberate attempt to promote certain exegetical options and marginalize others. In this particular case, the interpretation in question – the animation of the Golden Calf by the Samaritan, portrayed as a kind of false prophet in an early tradition widely attributed to the Successor Qatada (d. c. 735) – recurs in many later commentaries. The conspicuous failure of Tabari’s attempt to marginalize and exclude this theologically problematic exegesis demonstrates the necessity of reading his Tafsir in tandem with both earlier and later commentaries in order to ascertain an accurate picture of the contours of early exegetical tradition in Islam.