Tafsir Of The Qur'an






Shaykh Abû Ammâr Yasir al-Qadhî



The topic of tafsir is the most important topic of 'ulum al-Qur'an, since in many ways it is the primary goal of'ulum al-Qur'an - to understand and implement the Qur'an properly. This has also been the first topic of 'uloom al-Qur'an to have been written on, and without a doubt the one in which most of the works in this field have been written about.

The Definition of Tafsir and Ta'wil

The word 'tafsir' comes from 'fassara', which means, 'to explain, to expound, to elucidate, to interpret.' The word tafsir is the verbal noun of 'fassara', and means 'the explanation or interpretation of something.'

According to another opinion,
the word tafsir is a transposition from s-f-r, which means, 'to expose, to uncover.' Thus, a woman who uncovers her face is called a 'saafirah', and the act of uncovering her face is called 'sufur.' Therefore, according to this definition, 'tafsir would mean uncovering the meanings and exposing the secrets of the Qur'an. However, the stronger opinion is the first one, even though both of these meanings are correct.

In Islamic sciences, tafsir is defined to be:

The science by which the Qur'an is understood, its meanings explained, and its rulings derived.

Another common word that is heard in this subject is the word 'ta'wil'. What, then, is the difference, if any, between tafsir and ta'wil?

The word 'ta'wil is from a-w-l, which means 'to return, to revert,' which implies going back to the original meaning of a word to see what its meanings and connotations are. The meanings of the word 'ta'wil' were given earlier, and are repeated here.

The word 'ta'wil has three meanings:

  1. To understand a word in light of one of its connotations, despite the fact that this connotation is not the primary intent of the word.
  2. To explain a word or phrase.
  3. The actuality of an event.

With these two definitions in mind, there are five main opinions as to the difference between tafsir and ta'wil,as follows:[3]

  1. They are equivalent in meaning. This was the opinion of at-Tabari (d. 310 A.H.), as his commentary of the Qur'aan uses these two terms interchangeably.
  2. Tafsir is used in explaining a word which carries only one meaning, whereas ta'wil is used in choosing one of the connotations of a word that possesses many connotations.
  3. According to al-Maturidi (d. 333 A.H.), when the interpretation is based on certain knowledge, this is called tafsir,whereas when it is based on personal reasoning (ijtihad), it is known as ta'wil.
  4. Abu Talib at-Tha'labi held the view that tafsir was the explanation of the literal meaning of the verse, whereas ta'wil was the actual intent behind the verse. For example, the tafsir of the verse,

Verily, your Lord is ever-Watchful [89:14]

is that Allaah is aware of all that man does, but the ta'wil is that the verse is a warning to man not to lapse into sins or to belittle the commandments of Allah.

  1. Tafsir is meant to give the meanings of the individual words in a verse, whereas ta'wil gives the meaning of the verse as a whole.

There is no one correct opinion amongst these five, since various authors use these two words in all of these meanings. However, the most common understanding in modern usage of the two words is the second one, namely that tafsir is used to explain the meaning or intent of a verse which has only one connotation, whereas tawil is used when one of the possible connotations of a verse or word is chosen over the others due to external factors.


1 az-Zarkashi, v. 2, p. 147.

2 as-Suyuti, v. 2, p. 223.

3 cf., as-Suyuti, v.2, pps. 221-2, ar-Rumi, pps. 8-9, Zarabozo, p. 14.


Source: http://www.islaam.net/main/display.php?id=631&category=4


The Necessity and Importance of Tafsîr


The question arises:

Why is there a need for tafsîr After all, does not Allâh say in the Qûr'an:
Verily this Qûr'an leads to the path that is most right [17:9]
and thus everybody can find the Straight Path through this Book? And is not the Qûr'an a complete source of guidance in and of itself as it says,


And We have sent down the Book to you as an explanation for everything, a guidance, a mercy and glad tidings for Muslims [16:89]


Indeed, it is true that anyone who approaches the Qûr'an with a pure heart, seeking the guidance of Allâh, will find it. As Allâh says,


This (Qûr'an) is a declaration for mankind, a guidance and an admonition for those who ward off evil [3:138]


But this in no way implies that a person who is unaware of the numerous hadîth of the Prophet (saws) in explaining the Qûr'an, and of the reasons behind the revelation of specific verses, and of the intricacies of Arabic grammar and principles of rhetoric, and of the various qirât,and of the knowledge of the abrogated rulings, and of all of the other topics of 'Ulûm al Qûr'an will benefit from the Qûr'an to the same degree that a person who does know these facts will. For example, an Arabic linguist or grammarian might be able to see a certain wisdom behind the phrasing of a verse that the average person may not. A person specialised in the topics of 'Ulûm al Qûr'an will be better able to grasp the intended meanings of a verse, and derive rulings from it, in contrast to the average layman, who is not qualified to derive rulings from the Qûr'an.

As-Suyûti also discusses the necessity of tafsîr in his al-Itqân.
He begins by stating that it is a known fact that Allaah communicates with man in a way that the will be able to understand. This is the reason that every messenger has been sent in the language of his people. However, there are three basic reasons why tafsîr is necessary despite these facts.

First of all, Allaah uses the most clear, eloquent and concise language, and in doing so the meaning is clear to those who are well-grounded in the Arabic language, but not so clear to those who are not.

Secondly, the Qûr'an itself does not always mention the events or references for which each particular verse was revealed, and these must be known in order for the verse to be fully and totally understood.

Lastly, some words may have multiple meanings, and it is the job of the person that does tafsîr to explain what is meant by the word. It can be said that the purpose of tafsîr is to elaborate the principles which the Qûr'an came to clarify:

1) The elaboration of a perfect set of beliefs with regards to the Creator, and the relationship of the created with the Creator.

2) The perfection of personal conduct and good morals.

3) The establishment of a set of laws and code of conduct to govern individual and familial relations.

4) The establishment of laws governing societal and political dealings between communities and nations.

5) The narrations of the history of the previous nations, so that the pious among them may be followed, and the impious to act as a warning.

6) To give the good news of Paradise and the blessings in store for the believers, and the evil tidings of the punishment of Hell in store for the disbelievers.

7) To prove the truthfulness of the Prophet (saws), and this is done by explaining the miraculous nature of the Qûr'an (i'jâz).

Therefore, the job of a mufâssir is to explain all of the above points to mankind. From the above discussion, the importance of tafsîr should become apparent. The science of tafsîr is meant to explain to mankind the Book that has been revealed to them from Allaah. The Qûr'an is like a treasure trapped in a glass receptacle; mankind can view and benefit from this treasure, but they are in need of tafsîr,for tafsîr acts like the key that unlocks the treasure, so that mankind can benefit from it to the greatest possible extent. Iyâs ibn Mu'âwiyah (d. 122 A.H.) said, "The example of a people who recite the Qûr'an and do not know its explanation is like a group of people who have a written message from their king that comes to them during the night, and they do not have a lamp. Therefore, they do not know what is in the message. The example of one who knows tafsîr is like a person who comes to them with a lamp and reads to them what is in the message." And the Successor Sa' îd ibn Jubayr (d. 95 A.H.) said, "Whoever recites the Qûr'an and does not explain it, is like an ignorant person."

As-Suyûti said, (The science of tafsîr) is the most honourable of all sciences for three reasons. The first reason is with respect to its topic. It deals with the Speech of Allaah, which contains every kind of wisdom and virtue. It contains pronouncements about what has passed, reports of what will happen and judgements concerning what happens between the people. Its wonders never cease. The second reason is with respect to its goal. Its goal is to lead mankind to the firm handhold of Allaah, and to the true happiness, one that does not end. The third reason is with respect to the great need for this science. Every aspect of this religion and this world, in the near or distant future, is in need of the sciences of the Sharî' ah and knowledge of the religion, and this knowledge can only be obtained through the understanding of the Book of Allâh.

Apart from these reasons, the Qûr'an itself commands its readers to ponder over it, and to reflect upon its meanings, for it says,



(This is) a Book which We have sent down to you, full of blessings, so that they may ponder over its verses, and that men of understanding may remember [38:29]


It is the science of tafsîr which is the fruit of 'pondering over its verses.'


1 As-Suyûti, v.2, p. 223.

2 cf. Ik, pps. 64-66.

3 Both quotes taken from Zarabozo, ibid., p. 12.

4 As-Suyûti, v. 2, p. 224; cf. Zarabozo, p. 12.


Source: http://www.islaam.net/main/display.php?id=634&category=4


The History of Tafsîr

A. The Time of The Prophet (SAWS)

It is no surprise to discover that the science of tafsîr started during the lifetime of the Prophet (saws) himself, In fact, one of the primary roles of the Prophet (saws), as shall be expounded on later, was to interpret the Qûr'an. Allâh says,



And We have sent down to you
(O Muhammad (saws)) the Remembrance, so that you may clearly explain to mankind what has been revealed to them, and so that they may give thought [16:44]


The science of tafsîr during the Prophet's (saws) life was a relatively easy matter. This was so for a number of factors. Firstly, the Companions were witnessing the revelation of the Qûr'an, and the circumstances during which it was revealed. They were aware of the reason behind the revelation of a verse (asbâb an-nuzûl), and as such did not need to search for this knowledge as later interpreters would have to.

Secondly, the Arabic of the Companions was the Arabic of the Qûr'an, as the Qûr'an was revealed in their dialect. Therefore the Arabic of the Qûr'an was, in general, understood by them without any difficulties.

Lastly, and most importantly, the Prophet (saws) was alive, and the Qûr'an was still being revealed, so even if there were any difficulties in understanding any verse, they could turn to the Prophet (saws) for an explanation. An example quoted earlier is with regards to the verse,

Those who believe and do not mix their belief with injustice...[6:82]

The Companions asked, "O Messenger of Allâh! Who amongst us does not do injustice (to his soul)?"The Prophet (saws) replied,
"Have you not read the statement of Luqman, «Verily, shirk is a great injustice?» [31:13] [1]

In other words, the Prophet (saws) informed them that the injustice referred to in this verse was shirk or the association of partners with Allâh.

The Companions were careful that they understood every single verse in the Qûr'an properly. Abû 'Abd ar-Rahmân as-Sulamî (d. 75 AH.) reported that whenever the people who taught them the Qûr'an, like'Uthmân ibn 'Affân, 'Abdullâh ibn Mas'ûd, and others, learnt ten verses of the Qûr'an, they would not proceed further until they had understood whatever ideas and regulations those verses contained. They used to say, "We learnt the Qûr'an, and studied its ideas and injunctions all together."

This narration shows that the Companions were eager to understand Qûr'an, so much so that they would not memorise any verses until they had already understood what they knew. The role of the Prophet (saws), and quantity of the Qûr'an that he interpreted, will be elaborated upon in the next section.

B. The Period of The Companions

After the death of the Prophet (saws), the science of tafsîr took on a more systematic approach. Thus it can be considered that the first true mufassirs were actually the Companions. The sources that the Companions used for tafîr were the Qûr'an, the statements of the Prophet (saws), the principles of Arabic grammar and rhetoric, their own personal reasoning(ijtihâd), and pagan and Judaeo-Christian customs that were prevalent at the time of the revelation of the Qûr'an. These sources will be discussed in greater detail in the following section.

There were many among the Companions who were well known for their knowledge of the interpretation of the Qûr'an. As-Suyûtî wrote, "There are ten who were famous for their knowledge of tafîr among the Companions: the four Khulafâ ar-Râshidûn
[3] 'Abdullâh ibn Mas'ûd, 'Abdullâh ibn 'Abbâs, Ubay ibn Ka'ab, Zayd ibn Thâbit, Aboo Mûsâ al-Ash'arî and'Abdullâh ibn Zubayr. As for the Khulafâ 'Alî ibn Abî Tâlib has the most narrations amongst them; as for the other three, there reports are very rare to find, since they died relatively earlier..."[4]

In other words, the tafsîr narrations of Abî Bakr, 'Umar and 'Uthmân are not as common due to the fact that they were not compiled because of their relatively early deaths. Also, during their time, there was no great need to interpret much of the Qur'ân, as the Companions were many and wide-spread. During later times, however, such as during the Caliphate of 'Alî, the need to interpret the Qur'ân was much greater than before.

There were others besides these ten Companions who were well known for their knowledge of tafsîr, such as Anas ibn Mâlik, Abû Hurayrah, Jâbir ibn 'Abdillâh and'Aa'ishah, except that they were not in the same category as the ten whom as-Suyûtî mentioned.

The most knowledgeable Companion with regards to the interpretation of the Qur'ân is considered to be Ibn 'Abbâs. 'Abdullâh ibn 'Umar said, "Ibn 'Abbâs is the most knowledgeable of this ummah concerning the revelation given to Muhammad (saws)."

This is due to the fact that the Prophet (saws) himself prayed for Ibn 'Abbâs, for he (saws) said,
"O Allâh! Give him the knowledge of the Book, and of Wisdom!"and in another narration, "O Allâh! Give him the knowledge of the religion, and interpretation."[6]

He used to accompany the Prophet (saws) during his youth, as he was his (saws) cousin. Also, his aunt Maymûnah was a wife of the Prophet (saws)

Ibn 'Abbâs was held in great esteem by the Companions, despite his age (he was only thirteen when the Prophet (saws) passed away). 'Umar used to let Ibn 'Abbâs enter into the meetings of the older Companions, so some of them complained, "Why is it that you let him enter, even though we have sons the same age as him (whom you do not allow to enter)?"

'Umar answered, "Since he is amongst the most knowledgeable of you!" So he called them one day, to prove to them this statement, and he asked them, "What do you think of the verse,
When the help of Allâh comes, and the Conquest [110:1] ?

Some of them did not reply, while others said, "We have been commanded to thank Allâh and ask for His forgiveness whenever we are helped and aided to victory."'Umar asked Ibn 'Abbâs, "And do you think the same also, O Ibn 'Abbâs?"He answered, "No!" 'Umar asked, "Then what do you say."

He replied, "This is an indication to the Prophet (saws) from Allâh that his life is about to end. The verse means, When the help of Allâh comes, and the Conquest then this is a sign of your approaching death, therefore,
Glorify the Praises of your Lord, and ask for Forgiveness, for verily He is ever accepting repentance! [110:3]

'Umar said, "I don't know any other meaning to this except what you have said!"[7]

The narrations of Ibn 'Abbâs, along with those of'Abdullâh ibn Mas'ûd, 'Alî ibn Abî Tâlib, and Ubay ibn Ka'ab, are the most numerous narrations from Companions that are to be found in tafsîr literature. Each one of them established centres of learning during their lifetimes, and left many students among the Successors after their deaths.

The Companions did not leave narrations concerning every single verse in the Qur'ân. This is because the people of their time understood much of what the Qur'ân discussed, and only where the possibility for misinterpretation or ignorance existed did the Companions give their own interpretation of the relevant verse. Such interpretation typically consisted of explaining a verse in clearer words, or explaining a particular phrase or word with pre-Islamic poetry. Another characteristic of this time is the relatively trivial differences in tafsîr as compared to later generations.

C. The Period of The Successors

After the generation of the Companions, the students of the Companions took over the responsibility of explaining the Qur'ân. The Successors used the same sources to interpret the Qur'ân that the Companions did, except that they added to the list of sources the interpretations of the Companions. They understood that an interpretation given by the Companions of the Prophet (saws) could not be compared to an interpretation of any person after them. Therefore, the sources for interpreting the Qur'ân during this generation were: the Qur'ân, the statements of the Prophet (saws) that the Companions had informed them of, the Companions' personal reasoning (ijtihâd) of the verse, the Arabic language, their own personal reasoning (ijtihâd), and Judaeo-Christian tradition.

After the death of the Prophet (saws), the Companions spread out to different Muslim cities in order to teach people the religion of Islâm. Each one taught many Successors, most of whom became scholars in their own right in due time.

Historically, three primary learning centres were established in the Muslim empire: Makkah, Madînah and Kûfah. Each of these areas became leading centres of knowledge during the period of the Successors, including the knowledge of tafsîr.

In Makkah, where Ibn 'Abbâs had taught, his primary students became the scholars of this area. In particular, Sa'îd ibn Jubayr (d. 95 A.H.), Mujâhid ibn Jabr (d. 104 A.H.), 'Ikrimah (d. 104 A.H.), Tâwûs (d. 106 A.H.), and 'Atâ ibn Rabâh (d. 114 A.H.) became leading authorities in this field, and their names are still to be found in many works of tafsîr.

In Madînah, the influence of 'Ubay ibn Ka'ab was the strongest in the arena of tafsîr, and his students Abû al-'Aaliyah (d. 90 A.H.), Muhammad ibn Ka'ab al-Quradî (d. 118 A.H.) and Zayd ibn Aslam (d. 136 A.H.) emerged as the scholars of tafsîr in Madînah during this period.

In Kûfah, 'Abdullaah ibn Mas'ûd left behind his great legacy to 'Alqamah ibn Qays (d. 61 A.H.), Masrûq (d. 63 A.H.), and al-Aswad ibn Yazîd (d. 74 A.H.). Other Successors from Kûfah who were famous for their knowledge of' tafsîr were: 'Aamir ash-Sha'bî (d. 109 A.H.), al-Hasan al-Basrî (d. 110 A.H.) and Qatâdah as-Sadûsî (d. 117A.H.)

During this period, greater emphasis was placed on Judaeo-Christian tradition (known as Isrâ îliyât), and because of this, many of these narrations entered into Islâmic literature. Most of the people who narrated these traditions were Jews and Christians who had embraced Islâm, such as 'Abdullâh ibn Salaam (he was a Companion, d. 43 A.H.), Ka'ab al-Ahbâr (he embraced Islâm after the death of the Prophet (saws) and did not see him; he died 32 A.H.), Wahb ibn Munnabih (d. 110 A.H.), and 'Abdul Mâlik ibn Jurayj (d. 150 A.H.). Much of the Judaeo-Christian traditions prevalent in tafsîr literature can be traced back to these scholars.

Also during this time, the differences in interpreting the Qur'ân were much greater than during the time of the Companions. Another characteristic of this period is the increase of forged narrations attributed to the Prophet (saws). This was due to the political and religious strife that was rampant throughout the Muslim territories at that time. Lastly, the quantity of verses for which narrations exist from the Successors is greater than that for the Companions, since more verses needed explanation than during the time of the Companions.


1 Reported by al-Bukhârî

2 Ibn Taymiyyah, p. 12.

3 A term that means 'The rightly-guided caliphs', used to denote the first four caliphs, Abû Bakr, 'Umar, 'Uthmân and 'Alî.

4 as-Suyûtî, v. 2, p. 239.

5 adh-Dhahabî, v. 1, p. 72 (the reference to adh-Dhahabî, whenever it appears in this chapter, refers to Dr. ad-Adh-Dhahabî's Tafsîr wa al-Mufasirûn, unless otherwise specified).

6 Reported by al-Bukhârî.

7 Reported by al-Bukhârî.


Source: http://www.islaam.net/main/display.php?id=640&category=4



The Compilation of Tafsîr


D. The Compilation of Tafsîr

After the period of the Successors, the stage of the actual compilation and writing of tafsîr began. The most important works were by scholars of hadîth, who, as part of their narrations and works of hadîth, also had sections on tafsîr. Therefore, during this stage, the narrations of tafsîr were considered a branch of hadîth literature. Some of the scholars of this period that were known for their tafsîr narrations include Yazîd ibn Hârûn as-Sulamî (d. 117 A.H.), Sufyân al-Thawri (d. 161 A.H.), Sufyân ibn 'Uyaynah (d. 198 A.H.), Wakî' ibn al-Jarâh (d. 197 A.H.), Shu'bah ibn al-Hajjâj (d. 160 A.H.), Aadam ibn Abî lyâs (d. 220 A.H.), and 'Abd ibn-Humayd (d. 249 A.H.). None of their works have survived intact until the present day.[1]

The next stage in the history of tafsîr saw the separation of tafsîr literature from hadîth, and the emergence of independent works solely on tafsîr. Another stride during this stage was that every verse was discussed, so that tafîr was not only limited to those verses for which narrations from the Prophet (saws) and Companions existed; rather, these tafsîrs encompassed all the verses in the Qur'ân.

In attempting to answer who the first person to write a comprehensive tafsîr of the Qur'ân was, the researcher is faced with a rather significant impediment: a lack of almost all manuscripts written during the first century of the hijrah. However, there are a number of references in later works to such manuscripts, and among the earliest works referenced is that of Sa'îd ibn Jubayr (d. 95 A.H.).
Most likely, this work was not a complete tafsîr of the Qur'ân, but rather composed of narrations from the previous generations. An interesting narration in the Fihrist of Ibn Nadîm (d. 438 A.H.) reads as follows:[3]



'Umar ibn Bukayr, one of the students of al-Farrâ, was with the governor Hasan ibn Sahl. He wrote to al-Farrâ: The governor sometimes questions me concerning (the tafsîr of) a verse in the Qur'ân, but I am unable to respond to him. Therefore, if you think it suitable to compile something with regards to the Qur'ân, or write a book concerning this, I can return to this book (whenever he asks me)'. al-Farrâ said to his students, 'Gather together so that I may dictate to you a book on the Qur'ân'...and he told the muadhin to recite Sûrah al-Fâtihah, so that he may interpret it, until the whole book (i.e., the Qur'ân) was finished. The narrator of the story, Abû al-'Abbâs, said, 'No one before him every did anything like it, and I don't think that anyone can add to what he wrote!'

Al-Farrâ died in the year 207 A.H., and thus we can say that this is definitely one of the earliest works of this nature.[4] Ibn Mâjah (d. 273), of Sunan fame, also wrote a tafsîr of the Qur'ân, but again this was limited to narrations from the previous generations.

One of the greatest classics available is without a doubt the monumental tafîr of the Qur'ân by Muhammad ibn Jarîr at-Tabarî (d. 310 A.H.). This tafsîr, although heavily based on narrations, also discusses the grammatical analysis of the verse, the various qira'ât and their significance on the meaning of the verse, and, on occasion, Ibn Jarîr's personal reasoning (ijtihâd) on various aspects of the verse. In many ways, this can be considered to be the first tafsîr to attempt to cover every aspect of a verse. Other tafsîrs followed quickly; in particular the tafîr of Abû Bakr ibn Mundhir an-Naisapûrî (d. 318 A.H.), Ibn Abî Hâtim (d. 327 AH.), Abû Shaykh ibn Hibbân (d. 369 A.H.), al-Hâkim (d. 405 A.H.) and Abû Bakr ibn Mardawayh (d. 410).

This era also saw the beginning of the specialisation in tafsîr, with tafsîrs being written, for example, with greater emphasis on the grammatical analysis and interpretation of the Qur'ân. Greater emphasis was also placed on personal reasoning ( ijtihâd), and tafsîrs written solely for the defence of sectarian views (such as the tafîrs of the Mutazilah), and even for the defence of ones fiqh madhhab, such as the tafsîrs of the Hanafîs, Shâfi'îs and Mâlikîs) appeared. Another aspect that started during this era was the deletion of the isnâd from tafsîr narrations, and this led to the increasement of weak and fabricated reports in tafsîr literature.

A Summary

To summarise, it is possible to divide the history of tafsîr into five periods.[6] The first period is considered to be the time of the Companions and Successors, and consisted mainly of narrations concerning those verses over which there was a difference of opinion or misunderstanding, in addition to the hadîth of the Prophet (saws) dealing with tafsîr. Personal reasoning ( ijtihâd) from the Companions and Successors was, in general, only resorted to when absolutely necessary.

The second period is the era of the late Successors, and the generation after them. During this time, hadîth literature had begun to be compiled, and tafsîr narrations therefore become a part of hadîth works. Also during this time, the various hadîth of the Prophet (saws) and narrations from different Companions began to be compiled, whereas in the first period, these narrations were typically limited to a specific area.

The third stage saw the rise of independent tafsîr works, based on the hadîth works of the previous generation, and thus tafsîrs became an independent science among the Islâmic sciences. This stage, which can be said to begin in the second half of the third century, also produced the first complete Qur'ânic tafsîr, whose commentary was not limited to only those verses concerning which narrations existed from previous generations. However, during this stage, the primary source of tafsîr still remained narrations from the previous generation.

It was only during the fourth stage where reliance on narrations decreased, and much greater emphasis was placed on personal reasoning, and tafsîrs were written based on sectarian bias. For example, as-Suyûtî narrates concerning the verse,

..Not the path of those whom You are angry with, nor those who are astray [1:7]

that there exist ten different opinions concerning who this verse refers to, despite the fact that the Prophet (saws) has clearly explained that it refers to the Jews and Christians![7] This period also witnessed the increasement of forged narrations in tafsîr literature, as the isnâd disappeared from tafsîr works.

The final period of the history of tafsîr, which has lasted from the fourth century of the hijrah until today, saw the culmination of the science of tafsîr, and the emergence of various categories of tafsîr, such as tafsîr based on narrations, on personal reasoning, topic-wise interpretation, polemical interpretation, and jurisprudential interpretation (these will be discussed in greater detail below). Other tafsîrs sought to combine all of these topics into one work, thus giving a broad, all-encompassing approach to interpretation.


1 adh-Dhahabî,v.l,p. 152.

2 ibid.,v.l,p. 155.

3 ibid., v.l, p. 154, from the Fihrist

4 This work, unlike many others from its era, is available in manuscript form, and part of it has been published by Dâr al-Kutub al-Misriyah, 1956.

5 adh-Dhahabî, p. 152.

6 c£ adh-Dhahabî, v. 1, pps. 151-56.

7 as-Suyûtî, v. 2, p. 190.




Source: http://www.islaam.net/main/display.php?id=648&category=4




The Principles of Tafsîr: The Qur'ânic Context


By the 'Principles of tafsîr is meant the proper methodology in interpreting the Qûr'an, which includes the conditions and characteristics of a mufassir (one who interprets the Qûr'an), and the basis and characteristics of a proper tafsîr.

The science of tafsîr is one which, similar to the other sciences of Islâm, is based on well-grounded, systematic principles. These principles are derived from the Qûr'an, the Sunnah and the statements of the Companions.

As-Suyûtî, in summarising the principles of tafsîr, said,



The scholars have said: Whoever wishes to interpret the Qûr'an, he should first turn to the Qûr'an itself. This is because what has been narrated succinctly in one place might be expounded upon in another place, and what is summarized in one place might be explained in another...
If he has done that, then he turns to the Sunnah, for it is the explainer of the Qûr'an, and a clarifier to it. Imâm as-Shâfi'î said, All that the Prophet (saws) said is based on his understanding of the Qûr'an.' And Allâh said,

Verily, We have revealed to you the Book, in truth, so that you may judge between mankind by that which Allâh has shown you [4:105]

And the Prophet (saws) said, Indeed, I have been given the Qûr'an, and something similar to it,
[2]meaning the Sunnah. If he does not find it (the tafsîr) in the Sunnah, he turns to the statements of the Companions, for they are the most knowledgeable of it, since they witnessed the circumstances and situations the Qûr'an was revealed in, and since they were blessed with complete understanding, and true knowledge, and pious actions...

These principles, and others, will now be discussed in greater detail.

Tafsîr of the Qûr'an by the Qûr'an

The most important source of understanding the Qûr'an is the Qûr'an itself after all, the Qûr'an is an entire Book that has been revealed by Allâh, and therefore in order to understand any one verse, the entire context of this verse must be looked at. The meanings of the Qûr'an can never contradict each other, as Allâh says,



Do they not ponder over the Qûr'an? For indeed, had it been from other than Allâh, they would surely have found many contradictions in it [4:82]


In this verse, the command is given to ponder over the whole Qûr'an, verse by verse, for had it been from any other than Allâh, its verses would have contradicted one another. Therefore, it is essential to turn to the Qûr'an itself in order to interpret any verse in the Qûr'an.

This principle is demonstrated in many verses in the Qûr'an. Sometimes, a question is asked, and then answered in the next verses. For example,


By the Heavens, and the târiq. And what will make you know what the târiq is? (It is) the star of piercing brightness [86:1-3]


In other cases, the reference to another verse is not obvious. For example, the reference to the path of those whom You have favoured [1:7] is explained in 4:69 as:

And whoever obeys Allâh and His Messenger, they will be in the company of those whom Allâh has shown favour, of the Prophets, and the truthful followers, and the martyrs, and the pious. And how excellent these companions are! Therefore, the second verse explains who
'those whom You have favoured'

In some places in the Qûr'an, a story is mentioned in brief and in another place it is elaborated. For example, in the story of the repentance of Aadam, verse 2:37 states,


Then Aadam received from his Lord words, and He relented towards him.


In this verse, the 'words' that Aadam received are not mentioned, and it is essential to turn to another verse to know what Aadam said:


They (Aadam and Eve) said, 'Our Lord! We have wronged ourselves. If you do not forgive us and have Mercy on us, we will be of the lost! [7:23]


Other verses direct the reader to another passage in the Qûr'an, or tell the reader that the subject has already been mentioned. For example, Allâh says,


And unto the Jews, We forbade them such (foods) that We have already mentioned to you before... [16:118]


In other words, these prohibitions have already been elaborated upon elsewhere in the Qûr'an (cf 6:146). In another verse, Allâh states,


Lawful to you (for food) are all the beasts of cattle, except that which will have been recited to you. [5:1]


After two verses, the beasts that are forbidden are 'recited':


Forbidden to you are all dead animals, and blood, and the flesh of pigs.... [5:3]


The Prophet (saws) also showed the principle of interpreting the Qûr'an by the Qûr'an when he was asked concerning the verse,


Those who believe and do not mix their belief with injustice...[6:82]


The Companions asked, "O Messenger of Allâh! Who amongst us does not do injustice (to his soul)?" The Prophet (saws) replied, "Have you not read the statement of Luqman, 'Verily, shirk is a great injustice?'" (31:13).[3] In other words, the Prophet (saws) quoted them another verse in the Qûr'an to explain to them what the 'injustice' referred to in the verse actually meant - an example of tafsîr of the Qûr'an by the Qûr'an.

Included in the interpretation of the Qûr'an with the Qûr'an is the knowledge of asbâb an-nuzûl, the knowledge of makkî and madanî verses, the nâsikh and mansûkh verses, the various qira'ât, and the knowledge of the different categories of verses (the muhkam and mutashâbih, the 'âm and the khâs, the mutlaq and the muqqayad, the mantûq and the mafhûm, the haqîqî and the majâzî, and other categories which were not discussed).

This is because a general ruling ('âm) in one verse might be specified ( khâs) in another verse, and so forth. In addition, all the different qira'ât of a verse must be considered to arrive at a proper understanding of a verse. All the relevant verses must be taken into account to form a complete picture, as all the verses of the Qûr'an complement one another.

To conclude, it is essential that every verse of the Qûr'an be looked at in light of its sister verses; no interpretation of any verse can contradict another verse.


1 as-Suyûtî, v. 2. p. 225.

2 Reported by Abû Dâwûd, at-Tirmidhî and an-Nasâ'î.

3 Reported by al-Bukhari



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Tafsîr through the Sunnah


After the tafsîr of the Qur'ân by the Qur'ân itself the second source of tafsîr is tafsîr by the Sunnah. It must be mentioned that even though the Sunnah is taken to be the 'second' source of tafsîr, it is in fact of equal importance to the Qur'ân. In other words, a person wishing to understand the Qur'ân must turn to the Sunnah in order to understand it correctly. The Qur'ân and Sunnah must be taken together to arrive at a proper understanding of a verse.

In fact, one of the primary roles of the Prophet (saws) was to explain the meanings of the Qur'ân to mankind. Allâh says,



And We have sent down to you (O Muhammad (saws) the Remembrance, so that you may clearly explain to mankind what has been revealed to them, and so that they may give thought [16:44]


Therefore, not only was the job of the Prophet (saws) to convey the literal text of the Qur'ân, he also had to convey its explanation as well.[1]

How Much of the Qurân was Explained?

The question arises, then, as to how much of the Qur'ân was actually explained by the Prophet (saws)? In other words, do there exist narrations from the Prophet (saws) concerning the interpretation of every single verse, and if not, then how is the previous quoted verse of the Qur'ân understood?

The scholars of Islâm were divided into two opinions with regards to this issue. Shaykh al-Islâm Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 728 A.H.) was of the view that the Prophet (saws) explained all of the Qur'ân, whereas Jalâl ad-Dîn as-Suyûtî (d. 911 AH.) claimed that the Prophet (saws) only explained a small portion of it.
[2] In fact, both of these opinions are correct once the intent of both sides is understood. Those who claimed that the Prophet (saws) only explained a small portion of the Qur'ân meant that there do not exist very many verbal narrations from the Prophet (saws) concerning the detailed explanation of every single verse in the Qur'ân. On the contrary, as-Suyûtî only managed to find a few hundred narrations from the Prophet (saws) (including weak and fabricated ones) in which he (saws) explicitly interpreted a verse.[3]

On the other hand, what Ibn Taymiyyah meant was that the Prophet (saws) left us all the necessary knowledge needed in order to properly understand the Qur'ân. As 'Aa'ishah reported, the Prophet's (saws) character embodied the Qur'ân.
Therefore, even though there might not exist many explicit statements from the Prophet (saws) concerning tafsîr, the Prophet (saws) did leave us with the information and methodology necessary for understanding the Qur'ân. Therefore, it is essential to understand the Qur'ân not only in light of the explicit narrations of the Prophet (saws) on the Qur'ân, but also in light of all of the hadîth of the Prophet (saws), whether they are concerning beliefs or laws, and in light of the actions of the Prophet (saws), since his sayings and actions can be considered to be embodying the laws of the Qur'ân.

This opinion is supported by numerous statements from the Companions. Abû 'Abd ar-Rahmân as-Sulamî (d. 75 A.H.), the famous Successor, narrated,


"Those who taught us the Qur'ân, such as 'Uthmân ibn 'Affân, 'Abdullâh ibn Mas'ûd, and others, told us that they would not memorise more than ten verses until they had understood what knowledge it contained, and implemented it. They used to say, 'So we learnt the Qur'ân, (its) knowledge and (its) implementation at the same time."[5]

It is apparent, then, that the Companions made sure that they understood the meaning of the Qur'ân, and then implemented it.

'Umar narrated,


"Amongst the last verses to be revealed were the verses pertaining to interest, and the Prophet (saws) passed away before explaining them to us."[6]

This narration explicitly shows that the Prophet (saws) used to make sure that the Companions understood the Qur'ân, since the only reason that the verses of interest were not explained in great detail was due to the sudden death of the Prophet (saws).

As was mentioned earlier, there are only a small percentage of verses for which explicit narrations exist from the Prophet (saws). The verse concerning the interpretation of
'wrongdoing' (6:82)
as shirk has already been given above. This example illustrates the necessity of the interpretation of the Prophet (saws), for even the Companions, despite their knowledge of Arabic, could not understand the correct interpretation of this verse until they had asked the Prophet (saws).

Another example is the hadîth of the Prophet (saws) in which he explained
'...those whom You are angry with,' and '...those who are astray,' (1:7)
as the Jews and Christians.[7]

He also explained the
'middle prayer' (2:238) as the Asr prayer,[8] the 'additional (reward)' (10:26) as the seeing of Allâh by the believers in Paradise,[9] and that al-Kawthar (108:1) was "...a river that my Lord has given me in Paradise."

In addition to such explicit examples of tafsîr, there exist numerous examples from the life and sayings of the Prophet (saws) which explain certain verses of Qur'ân, but are not recorded as explicit statements of tafsîr. For example, the Prophet (saws) stated,


"Hell will be brought forth on that Day (i.e., Day of Judgement). It will have seventy thousand ropes (attached to it), and on each rope, there will be seventy thousand angels dragging it."[11]

Although this hadîth does not mention any verse in the Qur'ân, it can be used to interpret verse 90:23, 'And Hell will be brought that Day." The hadîth describes how it will be brought. In another example, the penalty prescribed for theft is,


"As for the thief male or female, cut off his/her hand" (5:38).


The Sunnah of the Prophet (saws) explains that the thief's hand is only to be cut off if he steals above a certain monetary value, and that in such a case the right hand is to be cut off from the wrist joint.[12] These additional details needed for understanding this verse are not present in the Qur'ân itself In another verse, the Qur'ân proclaims,


Say, I do not find in that which has been revealed to me anything which is forbidden to eat by anyone who wishes to eat it except a dead animal, or blood poured forth, or the flesh of swine...' [6:145]


However, this verse is not exhaustive, as the Sunnah adds to this list all animals with fangs or claws, and excludes from the general ruling of dead animals seafood and locusts.[13]

From these and other examples, it is possible to say that the Prophet (saws) explained the Qur'ân in the following manners:

1) By his implementation of general or vague commands. For example, the Qur'ân orders the believers to pray and perform Hajj. The Prophet (saws), by his actions and statements, showed the believers the exact procedure and timings of prayer, and the specific rites of Hajj.

2) By explaining unclear concepts in verses. For example, the verse commanding the believers to begin their fasts,


...when the white thread becomes clear from the black thread [2:187]


was explained by the Prophet (saws) as being the streaks of light in the sky after dawn.

3) By specifying the exact connotation of a word or phrase. The example in which the Prophet (saws) specified that the
referred to in 6:82 was shirk falls in this category.

4) By constraining a general ruling or verse. The example' of the specification of 'thief'and 'hand' by the Prophet (saws) was given above.

5) By generalising a specific ruling or verse. An example of this is when some Companions came to the Prophet (saws) and asked him concerning the verse,


And if you travel through the land, there is no sin upon you if you shorten your prayers, if you fear that those who disbelieve may harm you [4:101]


The Companions could not understand why the Prophet (saws) and the Muslims were still shortening their prayers during travel, despite the fact that there was no longer any fear from enemy attacks. The Prophet (saws) responded,

"(The concession to shorten prayers even in a state of security) is a charity which Allâh has given you, therefore accept the charity."[15]

6) By explaining the intent of a verse. The example in which the Prophet (saws) explained


..those whom You are angry with, and those who are astray [1:7]


as the Jews and Christians falls under this category.

7) By adding extra commands or prohibitions to the verse. An example of this is the Prophet's (saws) prohibition of joining a woman with her maternal or paternal aunt in marriage (i.e., as co-wives), whereas the Qur'ân only prohibits combining a woman with her sister (4:23).

8) By emphasising the meaning of the verse. In other words, by practising and affirming the laws in the Qur'ân. For example, all hadîth stressing good treatment to wives merely affirm the verse,


And live with them on good terms (and kindness) [4:19]


9) By showing that the verse was abrogated. This category has already been discussed.[16]

These few examples should be sufficient to illustrate that the Sunnah is of equal importance to the Qur'ân in deriving laws and understanding the Qur'ân. The Qur'ân can never be understood properly without the Sunnah.Even the Companions, whose knowledge of the Arabic language was unparalleled, had difficulty understanding many verses until the Prophet (saws) cleared up the exact meaning for them.

These two sources of tafsîr, tafsîr of the Qur'ân by the Qur'ân, and tafsîr of the Qur'ân by the Sunnah,are the two ultimate sources for understanding the Qur'ân. Neither is allowed to contradict itself or the other, and both sources must be taken simultaneously in order to arrive at a correct understanding. These two sources are also the final authority on the interpretation of the Qur'ân - no interpretation is allowed to contradict or supersede the interpretation of the Qur'ân by the Qur'ân and the Sunnah.


1 al-Albânî, Muhammad Nâsir ad-Dîn, Manzilat as-Sunnah ft al-Islâm (Dar al-Hayah al-Islâmiyah, Egypt, n.d.), p.5.

2 adh-Dhahabî, v. 1, p. 54. Actually, as-Suyûtî clarifies his point of view later on in his Itqân, which agrees in principle with Ibn Taymiyyah's view. c£ Itqân, v. 2, p. 264.

3 cf. Itqân, v. 2, pps. 244-264.

4 Reported by al-Bukhârî.

5 Ibn Taymiyyah, p. 12.

6 Reported by Ahmad and Ibn Mâjah.

7 Reported by at-Tirmidhî.

8 Reported by at-Tirmidhî, and referred to in al-Bukhârî and Muslim.

9 Reported by Muslim.

10 Reported by al-Bukhârî and Muslim.

11 Reported by at-Tirmidhî.

12 c£ al-Albânî, Manzilat, p. 6.

13 ibid, p. 7.

14 Based on adh-Dhahabî, pps. 60-62, and others.

15 Reported by Muslim.

16 See, 'The Categories of Naskh,' in Chapter 13 - See Top of article for Purchase of Full Book



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Tafsir by the Statement of The Companions


After the Qur'ân and Sunnah, the next important source for understanding the Qur'ân is the understanding of the Companions. The statements of the Companions are taken as a fundamental source of tafsîr for the following reasons:

1) The primary reason is that the Companions are a generation that was chosen by Allâh to accompany the Prophet (saws), and to pass on the religion and teachings of Islâm to later generations. Their character and religious knowledge has been testified by Allâh and the Prophet (saws), for Allâh says in the Qur'ân,



Muhammad (saws) is the Messenger of Allâh. And those who are with him (i.e., the Companions) are severe against the disbelievers and merciful amongst themselves. You see them bowing and falling down in prostration, seeking the Bounty of Allâh and His Pleasure... [48:29]


In more than one verse of the Qur'ân, Allâh mentions the fact that


He is well pleased with them, and they with Him [99:8]


Thus clearly showing the superiority of the Companions over other generations. The Prophet (saws) said,


"The best of all mankind are my Companions, then those that will follow them, then those that will follow them."[1]

2) The Companions actually witnessed the revelation of the Qur'ân. Many of its verses were revealed to cater to problems that had risen amongst them. As such, they were familiar with the asbâb an-nuzûl,with the makî and madanî verses, and with the nâsikh and mansûkh,and did not need to go searching for this knowledge, as later generations would have to do.

3) The Qur'ân was revealed in the Arabic that the Companions spoke. Therefore, many words and phrases that later generations had difficulty understanding were clear to the Companions.

4) The Companions were the most knowledgeable of generations with regards to pre-Islâmic customs. Therefore, they understood the references in the Qur'ân to such customs.

There is a difference of opinion whether the interpretation of a Companion is of definitive authority. In other words, once a Companion has given an interpretation of a verse, must that interpretation be accepted, as is the case with the previous two sources of tafsîr?

Al-Hâkim an-Naisapûrî (d. 404 A.H.), the author of al-Mustadrak, considered any interpretation by a Companion to be equivalent to a hadîth of the Prophet (saws), for he believed that all such interpretations must have originated from the Prophet (saws). However, this opinion is not accepted in its generality, and the majority of scholars, such as an-Nawawî (d. 676 A.H.), As-Suyûtî (d. 911 A.H.), and Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 728 A.H.), held the view that the interpretation of a Companion is equivalent to a hadîth of the Prophet (saws) only when it concerns matters which are not based on personal reasoning ( ijtihâd), such as reports concerning sabab an-nuzûl, or the knowledge of the unseen.

This is because such knowledge could not have originated from the Companions' ijtihâd, and must have come from the Prophet (saws). A report from a Companion not concerning these topics cannot be taken as equivalent to a hadîth of the Prophet (saws); rather, it is given a status below that of a. hadîth.
[2] However, this does not diminish the status of the tafsîr from the Companions. The Companions were the most knowledgeable of this nation, and as such their personal reasoning ( ijtihâd) occupies a status above that of any later scholar.

Az-Zarkashî summarised this point when he said,



As for the interpretation of the Companions, it is investigated into: if this interpretation was based upon language, then they are the scholars of the language, and there is no doubt that they should be given credence to in this interpretation. If this interpretation relies upon what they saw of asbâb an-nuzûl, or other circumstances (i.e., of pre-Islâmic customs), then again there is no doubt concerning this type of interpretation.[3]

After the interpretation of the Qur'ân by itself and by the hadîth of the Prophet (saws), the Companions relied upon four primary sources to interpret the Qur'ân:[4]

1) Their knowledge of Arabic language, rhetoric, grammar and pre-Islâmic poetry.

2) Their knowledge of the pre-Islâmic customs of the Arabs.

3) Their knowledge of the habits of the Jews and Christians at the time of the revelation of the Qur'ân.

4) Their personal reasoning and their keen intellect (which, of course, was based upon knowledge).

Another integral aspect of the tafsîr of the Companions is the shâdh and mudraj qira'ât which were discussed earlier. It is necessary to take these qira'ât into account when interpreting a verse. As mentioned earlier, such qira'ât cannot be considered as the Qur'ân, but may be studied as tafsîr.

One of the interpretations of this type of qira'ât is that they were added, not as Qur'ân, but for the sake of interpretation by the Companions. For example, in the shâdh qirâ'a of Ibn Mas'ûd, the verse which told the believers to
"fast three days" (5:89) as an expiation of an unfulfilled oath was read by him as: "fast three consecutive days." Due to this shâdh qirâ'a, later scholars differed over whether it was necessary to fast three consecutive days, or whether it sufficed to fast any three days if one did not fulfil an oath.

To conclude, if the Companions agreed to an interpretation of a verse, that interpretation must be accepted, since it qualifies as ijmâ'. On the other hand, if there exist narrations from one Companion concerning the interpretation of a verse, and there does not exist any narrations to the contrary from other Companions, this interpretation is also accepted, but is not equivalent in strength to the interpretation given by the Prophet (saws). If there exist various narrations from different Companions which are not contradictory in nature, then all such interpretations are accepted. If there exist contrary narrations from different Companions concerning the same verse, in this case the researcher can choose between the different interpretations, depending on which interpretation seems to have the strongest evidence to support it.

Tafsîr by the Statement of the Successors

Before moving on to the next section, a brief note concerning the tafsîr narrations from the Successors would be useful. Some scholars took the tafsîr of the Successors to be the next source of tafsîr after the tafsîr of the Companions. As proof for this stance, they relied on the statements of certain prominent Successors concerning their knowledge of the Qur'ân. Qatâdah (d. 110 A.H.) said,


"There is not a single verse in the Qur'ân except that I have heard something concerning it."

Mujâhid (d. 103 A.H.) said,


"I recited the Qur'ân to Ibn 'Abbâs three times. In each recitation, I stopped at every verse, asking him concerning its interpretation."

This is why Sufyân ath-Thawree (d. 161 A.H.) said,


"When you hear an interpretation from Mujâhid, this should be sufficient for you!"[5]

Other scholars, however, rejected this view. They claimed that an interpretation of a Successor could not have originated from the Prophet (saws), as could the interpretation of a Companion, since they never saw the Prophet (saws). Also, they did not witness the revelation, as did the generation before them, and their trustworthiness is not guaranteed specifically for every one of their generation, unlike the Companions (in other words, the trustworthiness of every single Companions is guaranteed by the Qur'ân, whereas this is not the case for the Successors, for they have been praised as a. generation, and not individually).

Therefore, the correct view in this matter, as Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 728 A.H.) said, is that if the Successors give the same interpretation to a verse, then their interpretation must be accepted, but if they differed among themselves, then the opinion of one group will have no authority over the other group, nor over the generations after them. In such cases, one must resort to the Qur'ân, the Sunnah, the Companions, and the Arabic language in order to obtain the correct interpretation.



1 Reported by al-Bukhârî

2 c£ as-Suyûtî, Tadrîb ar-Râwî, pps. 156-8.

3 az-Zarkashî, v. 2, p. 172.

4 c£ adh-Dhahabî, v. 1, p. 63.



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