[3/45] Ma’ani al-Akhbar: My father from Sa’d from Ibn Abi al-Khattab from Ibn Mahbub from Hammad b. Uthman from Abi Ja’far عليه السلام in regards the words of Allāh Mighty and Majestic: “and the poets – only the astray follow them” (26:224) he said: have you seen anyone following the poet? rather it (“poets” in the verse) refers to a group who gain understanding (seek knowledge) for other than the religion so they themselves become misguided and also misguide others.
(1) The group referred to are the scholars who seek knowledge for the world (or in street lingo: “scholars for dollars”). They base their religious rulings on their own whims and flights of fancy and in turn create an unrecognizable religion misguiding their followers. They are referred to as the poets because like the poets they base their judgments and opinions on faulty imagination.
There has been a long-standing academic “feud” with a lot of pointed words exchanged between Professors Irfan Shahid (recently deceased) and Michael Zwettler over the word “ghawun” in this verse. One of the arguments Shahid makes for his interpretation of the verse is that Zwettler’s alternate interpretation “does not correspond with the facts of pre-Islamic Arab literary and social life, in which there was no place for poets with followers.” Zwettler concedes this point. The narration in question has the Imam himself supporting this point and could have been the strongest argument in favour of Shahid (especially considering how early an authority is making it) but he was ignorant of this narration as far as I am aware and did not make use of it. Furthermore, the narration adds a new dimension which was overlooked by both Shahid and Zwettler in their understanding of the verse with the Imam giving a Ta’wili inner-layer interpretation of the word “poet” as a person who exerts effort to become learned for materialistic reasons. This example again reminds us that even a relatively straight-forward word in the Qur’an might not be fully understood using rational and linguistic techniques but requires guidance from the Aimma.
The Bibliography where you can follow the boring/fascinating (depending on your point of view) to and fro between Shahid and Zwettler arranged in chronological order.
(1) I. Shahid, “A Contribution to Koranic Exegesis,” in Arabic and Islamic Studies in Honor of Hamilton A.R. Gibb, ed. by G. Makdisi (Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press: 1965), pp. 563-80.
(2) M. Zwettler, The Oral Tradition of Classical Arabic Poetry: Its Character and Implications (Columbus, Ohio State University Press: 1978).
(3) I. Shahid, “Another Contribution to Koranic Exegesis: The Sura of the Poets ( xxvi )” JAL 14 (1983): 1-21.
(4) M. Zwettler, “A Mantic Manifesto: The Sura of ‘The Poets’ and the Qur’anic Foundations of Prophetic Authority,” in Poetry and Prophecy: The Beginnings of a Literary Tradition, ed. by James L. Kugel (Ithaca, Cornell University Press: 1990), pp. 75-119, 205-31 (notes).
(5) I. Shahid, “The Sura of the Poets, Qur’an xxvi : Final Conclusions,” JAL 35 (2004): 175-220.
(6) M. Zwettler, “The Sura of the Poets: […]