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Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Tafseer of the Qur'an

The word tafseer means to explain and is a commentary (exegesis) to the Qur’an, written by a mufassir. Sometimes the word ta’weel is also used to mean an explanation of the Qur’an. Early commentators, such as Tabari, used the terms tafsir and ta’weel interchangeably. With the passage of time and the development of schools of thought, the two terms came to mark two different branches of the science (ilm) of Qur’an.
The difference between tafseer and ta'weel came to mean that tafseer is the explanation of what is intended by the wording and ta'weel is the explanation of what is intended by the meaning.
Tafseer means uncovering or unveiling and illuminates the various meanings of a verse and includes the background of the occasion or reason for the revelation of the verse, its place in the sura to which it belongs and its story or historical reference. Ta'weel on the other hand came to mean the final end of a matter, the final purpose, meaning or end of a thing.[i] Tafseer was needed because the Qur’an said about itself: “[3.7] He it is Who has revealed the Book to you; some of its verses are decisive, they are the basis of the Book, and others are allegorical; then as for those in whose hearts there is perversity they follow the part of it which is allegorical, seeking to mislead and seeking to give it (their own) interpretation. but none knows its interpretation except Allah, and those who are firmly rooted in knowledge say: We believe in it, it is all from our Lord; and none do mind except those having understanding.”

How did Tafseer develop through the ages?

The first person to comment on the Qur’an was the Prophet himself, as the Qur’an assigned this role to him.
[ii] So in the early days the revelation he received needed clarification by him. [iii] Early tafseer began as an oral tradition of hadith transmission from the prophet and afterwards the analysis and interpretations of his companions, their successors followed by the successors’ disciples. According to a critical modern orthodox sunni view, the material which was transmitted from the Prophet on tafseer, as was that which was transmitted from the companions, was rather little.[iv] The companions of the Prophet passed on his explanations and, because of their understanding of the language, their knowledge of the circumstances of revelation and their insight into the religion, they supplemented them with their own explanations.[v] The companions and other mufassirun did not begin with their tafseers until after Mohamed’s death.[vi] Subhi al Salih bluntly says: “They would not dare explain the Qur’an while he (the Prophet) was among them”.[vii]
Written commentaries on the Qur’an began to appear during the period of the successors and especially during that of their students and disciples. These early commentaries were, for the most part, straight forward hadith transmission. With the passage of time disagreement started to occur as people became interested in details and in asking many questions that could not be answered with certainty. Legacy and traditions introduced by Jewish converts into tafseer, known as Judaica (Israiliyyat,) played a major role. One advantage of this interest in details was that it contributed greatly to the growth of tafseer into a vast literary body.
As Islam spread with the expansion of the Muslims into all parts of the Near East, distinct schools of tafseer arose in several centres of learning. Most important among those were Mecca, Medina and Kufa. Each of these schools traced its origin to one of the companions of the prophet or one of their immediate successors.[viii] Another factor that contributed to difference and variety in tafseer was the growth of different schools of thought, sects and legal schools in the Muslim community, so commentaries began to reflect the different training, education, religious affiliation and interest of their writers, such as grammarians, jurists, mystics, philosophers and theologians, who wrote commentaries representing their points of view.[ix]

Tafseer Types:

There are basically two types of commentaries:
Tradition based (Tafseer bel ma’thur)
This type of tafseer is based on preserved traditions from Muslim scholars, as well as scholars from among the people of the book, i.e. traditions from Christian and Jewish scholars. These tafseers included stories and information from all sorts of sources without a solid basis to examine their authenticity and truthfulness.

There are four traditional sources for this type of commentary of the Qur'an:
a) The Qur'an. This is regarded as the highest form of tafseer, as the first and most important source for the interpretation of the Qur’an is the Qur’an itself. Thus whenever a verse, phrase or word of the Qur’an needed to be explained, another phrase or word from the Qur’an was used and no other source was required.
[x] This was believed because:
- the Qu'ran is the word of Allah
- the Qur’an is authoritative when it explains itself.
- the Qur’an is free of contradiction, and that apparent inconsistencies in its message are inevitably resolved through closer study of the Qur'anic text.
Furthermore “[18.54] And certainly We have explained in this Qur’an every kind of example, and man is most of all given to contention.”

Ibn Taymiyah was quoted to say: “If you ask what the best method of tafseer is, the answer is that the best way is to explain the Qur'an through the Qur'an. For, what the Qur'an alludes to at one place is explained at another, and what it says in brief on one occasion is elaborated upon at another. But if this does not help you, you should turn to the sunna, because the sunna explains and elucidates the Qur'an.

b) The Hadith. As the Prophet was sent, among other reasons, to explain and clarify the Qur'an to people, as per “[16.44] With clear arguments and scriptures; and We have revealed to you the Reminder that you may make clear to men what has been revealed to them, and that haply they may reflect”, his teachings recorded in the hadith collections thus contain some commentaries on the Qur'an.

The function of Hadith in Exegesis has been said to include
· disclosure of the reasons of revelation (asbab al nuzul)
· explanation of the meanings of obscure words
· demonstration of the application of qur’anic verses to situations from the life of either prophet or his companions
· reflections by the Prophet or his companions on verses, as all hadith containing the Prophet’s clarification of the Qur’an are told on the authority of his companions.
· explanation of verses in response to questions
· details of ritual practice and social behaviour as the Sunna details that which is general in the Qur’an (examples are five times of prayer, number of prayer units (raqaa), amounts due of zakat and its beneficiaries, rules for pilgrimage, etc)
· elements of Qur’an science (different recitations, names of suras etc)
· some restrictions of that which is absolute in the Qur’an (such as cutting off the hand of a thief only if the value of the stolen items exceeds a certain amount)

c) The reports of the Companions (Sahaba). The companions also interpreted and taught the Qur'an, especially after the Prophet’s death. If Qur'anic clarification was absent, and there was no Hadith, then a consensus (ijma) of the companions was used to interpret a certain verse.

d) The reports of those who learned from the companions (tabi’un). These people grew up in an environment with other people who had known the Prophet, so their insight is the next in line of the sources of tafseer.

Reason based (Tafseer bel ra’y)

This type of tafseer is based on reasoning and it includes all groups of tafseer such as the mystics, the Mu’tazalites the philosophers, Shi’as, the esoteric approach, the spiritual approach, the Sufi approach, etc. The Mu’tazali form of tafseer is rather literal and places a big importance on deciding for one’s self on the basis that humans are very much capable to decide for themselves, which is the ethical basis for rewards and punishments in the world as well as in the hereafter. All leaders of political Islam follow this reason based method and so do all reformers. Schools seeking a certain support for their ways or attitudes or ideologies from the Qur’an use that as well. The draw back of that would be that they more or less formulated their ideas first and then interpreted the Qur’an accordingly. They were affected by different factors such as for example Greek philosophy, Judaica (Israiliyyat) or traditional stories and myths . Sometimes they would even borrow from the tradition based (tafseer bel ma’thur). This form of tafseer is rather subjective. It was claimed that such procedure could result only in unlikely or sectarian exegesis.[xiv]
Some Drawbacks or weaknesses:
Interpreters using reason based tafseer (tafseer bel ra’y) were thought to risk grave error because:
· they ignored the background knowledge of linguistic facts, legal principles, the facts of abrogation of certain qur’anic passages and the accounts of the circumstances and reasons of revelation
· they ignored the context of the verses
· they considered only part of the evidence furnished by the context and overlooked the rest
· they interpreted the Qur’an to support a particular doctrine, school of thought, political party or ideology
· they took into account only the lexicographical sense of obscure words, ignoring the explanations of their meaning given by the authorities who lived closer to the time of revelations
· they isolated one meaning of several possible interpretations in order to give it undue emphasis either knowingly or ignorantly
· they misapplied verses, even when they knew better, simply because they desired qur’anic justification for a warning or a teaching they wished to emphasise

Practically speaking even that great monument to tradition based interpretation, namely the commentary of Al Tabari, includes much that can be termed as tafseer bil ra’y.
[xvi] Not only was reason based tafseer restricted, but in the eyes of many Muslim scholars any endeavour to interpret the Qur’an in this way bordered on Blasphemy.[xvii] Nevertheless the existence of it shows that academic and intellectual freedom was encouraged and recognised.

Ibn Taymiyah critiques ideologically oriented tafseers sharply and says that this approach is used by people who believe in certain meanings and wanted to identify them with those themes found in the Qur’an. [xviii] This explanation is to some extent true of the Mu’tazali school as well as Sufi and early Shia tafseer. On the other hand philosophical tafseer is in some ways guilty of the opposite tendency, as it often reads more into the Qur’an than the literal sense can sustain.

As we can see there are various and very different methods producing different results. The problem is not with the text itself, but rather in the various interpretations, exegesis of it, as it includes the mufassir’s own understanding of the text, a reflection of the political climate of his time, evidence of the thoughts and trends prevailing during his time and other outer influences.
Hence there should be an agreed upon criteria and certain standards which interpretations should follow:
· Qur’an is a text and therefore linguistic rules should apply to it as well as all known language formula used
· the metholdology of the Qur’an itself , i.e. certain moods of presentation of certain concepts, need to be taken into consideration
· the influence by the mufassir should be very limited
· global literary advances in should be considered in the interpretation
· external factors and dubious sources like Israiliyyat (Judaica) should be filtered out as the would render the tafseer subjective
· general concepts should be kept general, while details should be kept detailed
· knowing that every language has its limitations and like with any other text the author is on one side and the reader (recipient) on the other side, still the own opinions of the mufassir should never be enforced on the text
· the objective of text is to be kept in mind throughout (focal points – emphasis)
· the starting point of the interpretation should always be only the text itself

The agreed upon necessary qualifications of a muffassir:
1. belief
2. ability
3. knowledge of the language
4. knowledge of the history
5. knowledge of the tools

According to Ibn Taymiya knowledge of the religious sciences is the first necessary qualification of a good mufassir. Sincere piety and depth of intuition are requisite qualities if the mufassir is to be able to discover the many levels of inner meaning of the Qur’an.
[xix] Al Suyuti gives three other essential qualifications for a muffasir. According to him the mufassir must have first sound faith and must strictly observe the teachings and tenants of Islam. He must avoid invalid views and unauthentic traditions and must take the book of Allah in his trust very seriously. Secondly he must have a good reason, namely that his aim should only be to serve Allah and not to acquire wealth or status. A mufassir must therefore be totally detached from the world. Thirdly, a mufassir must be an authority on the sciences of the Arabic language.[xx]

Qussas (Storytellers)
As most of the confusions and problems with tafseer started with the storytellers (Qussas) we shall devote a paragraph about them. The Qussas were a group of people resembling preachers, attempting to influence their audience. They had no limitations and no methodology of any kind. All they wanted (next to fame and fortune) was to make people accept what they were saying. Being mostly pious people, they believed that they were doing this for the listeners’ own salvation and they believed they had good intentions.

Oral traditions were transmitted by means of stories and talks in social gatherings. The problems came about from some interpretations of the Qur’an and the sunna being fabricated. For example, they interpreted verse “[17.16] And when We wish to destroy a town, We send Our commandment to the people of it who lead easy lives, but they transgress therein; thus the word proves true against it, so We destroy it with utter destruction”, as referring to conquering Constantinople. The conquests were a very important political concern for the Ummayids and the storytellers took that sura as a prediction, which is a very imaginative and non-founded interpretation with no justification at all, but it pleased the audience to no end.

If the storytellers could shift the meaning in this way, then they could say anything at all. They were not considered scholars. Some were even appointed by the state, as they shared the culture of the people and the society at large. They started inserting hadith and tradition and tafseer to make or validate their points, even if they had to make them up. There is a hadith saying “fadael al A’mal yatasahal fiha” and that is why the scholars accepted what these Qussas were doing. The hadith means be lenient with those good deeds, hence the examination of their authenticity was neglected as they meant no harm and lead to none. If traditions told were related to a moral issue (improvement of society) or to the promotion of good and fighting evil, then it was accepted as an incentive for the people to lead to a favourable conduct. But this is what opened the doors to all sorts of confusions. The result was obscuring what was genuine from that which was fake and once the sight was lost it was never regained and one was never able to retrace it again.

The Qussas had a huge influence on the fabrication of the sunna. Starting from the times of Ali Ibn Abi Taleb, the Qussas endeavoured to influence the people using all tools available to them to sway public opinion, either in favour or against Ali. The Qussas tended to reduce the abstract norms in the Qur’an to physical images. They also included popular stories related to their objectives, as they were mainly propaganda machines for religion, and this confused a lot of material used by respected commentators. Al Ghazali accused the Qussas of starting bida’s. Al Suyuti was very much against the Qussas, so that he wrote a book entitled “Tahzeer al Khawas min Akazeeb al Qussas”. Another book was written by El Hafiz Zaynaddin Al Iraqi entitled “ Al Ba’ith ala el Khalas min Hawadeth al Qussas”. The existence of two such books show how the Qussas were perceived and that their danger was recognised.


From the above, we can safely conclude that all interpretations, in both forms, are mainly ijtihad. Reconstructions of the early history of tafseer are all based on a preliminary assumption that the authors of the late second and third century AH were merely passing on the material of older authorities.
[xxi] But the tradition based tafseer are rather time limited, as this method can only be adopted accurately and with absolute certainty and trust in the real authenticity only for a limited time after the death of the prophet and his companions. As we have seen, the longer the time period which elapsed between the prophet’s time and that of his companions, the greater the risk became of including unsubstantiated and fabricated explanations.

Mulla Muhsin Hayd al Kashani, an eminent Shi’a scholar who authored Tafsir al Safi, suggested that the first transmitters of the tradition from the Imams were restrained by taqiya (concealement of one’s principles in the face of persecution), which meant that much of the tradition may consequently have been lost.
[xxii] This of course leaves great possibilities for new ideas to be included in tafseer in the name of recovering that lost tradition, as well as making any excuses for the omission of any explanations expected to have been included.

So we can conclude that tafseers were never free from the influence of opinions, thoughts and attitudes of the time or of the commentators writing them. What becomes apparent from the examination of the tafseers, through the different ages since the time of the Sahaba until now, is that the tafseer of the Qur'an in every age was influenced by the scholarly movement of that time. Seldom were there tafseers that were free from the influence of opinions, thoughts and rules of the time.

We have seen modern tafseers which border on the bizarre. I am thinking of Zaghloul El-Naggar's lectures, books and articles about the scientific importance of the Holy Qur’an.
[xxiii] I am also thinking of Rashad Khalifa’s computerised research of the Qur’an that led him to believe that the i’jaz of the Qur’an lies in a consistent mathematical code system based on the number 19, which, he argues, is the proof of the miracle of the Qur’an unveiled by him in printouts that he industriously produces as visual presentation of a long hidden secret.[xxiv] I am also thinking of Harun Yahya, which is a pen name used by Mr. Adnan Oktar, who believes in miraculous characteristics of the Qur'an which he terms as ‘mathematical miracles’, such as the number of repetitions of certain words in the Qur'an, such as the word yawm (day) occuring 365 times and the plural of it occurring thirty times, drawing the conclusion that this represents the number of the days in a month. I tend to agree with Issa Boullata[xxv] that scientific principles and discoveries are forcefully read into the qura’anic text and imposed on it, so as to say that all modern science is being deduced from it, just to claim that the Qur’an foretells modern science and to ascribe yet another needless miracle to the Qur’an, besides its linguistic beauty and perfection.

Knowledge grows very fast, especially in this day and age with all the available technologies, which make information available at one’s finger tips in a moment. Constant renewal is the very nature of knowledge. Another reason for the acceptance of individual interpretation is the need to make the Qur’an relevant to every time and situation
[xxvi] and for every believer.

If one adopts the logic of the people criticising reason based tafseers and takes it to its logical end, then the sole document which is left as an unchanged authority is the Qur’an itself. But then the same criticism can be use against tradition based tafseer. Needless to say, given the increasing amount of knowledge and understanding of linguistics, history, sociology, and other fields which have developed, any tafseer which increases the understanding of the holy Qur’an should be welcomed. After all, every tafseer is just another view by a believer on the Qur’an and can be seen as his or her way of making the Qur’an ever relevant and alive.

We can say that all the honourable scholars and learned commentators had the right interpretation for their time, but in my opinion there is no single right interpretation and all interpretations can be considered parts of a whole. The Qur’an with all its general principles is allowing a great deal of flexibility to allow our own sensibilities, preferences, characteristics and imagination to fill in the blanks or to provide comfort. After all belief is a very personal matter between the creator and his creations. Anybody who tries to impose rigid and strict rules on the perception and understanding of the Qur’an is limiting its interaction. I close with a quote by Helmut Gätje: “When someone maintains that the Qur’an has no other meaning than that expressed by the outer aspect of exegesis, then by doing so he manifests his own limitations.”

[i] Dr. Mahmoud Ayoub, The Quran and its Interpreters, p. 20
[ii] R. Maston Speight, The Function of Hadith as Commentary on the Quran, as seen in Six Authoritative collections, p. 64 of the book Approaches to the History of the Interpretation of the Quran, Edited by Andrew Rippin
[iii] Fred Leemhuis, Origins & Early Development of the tafsir tradition, p. 13 of the book Approaches to the History of the Interpretation of the Quran, Edited by Andrew Rippin
[iv] ibid, p. 14
[v] ibid, p. 14
[vi] Jane Dammen McAuliffe, Quranic Christians: An Analysis of Classical and Modern Exegesis, p.17
[vii] Subhi al Salih, Mabahith fi ulum al Quran, p.289.
[viii] Dr. Mahmoud Ayoub, The Quran and its Interpreters, p. 27
[ix] ibid, p.32
[x] ibid, p.22
[xi] Ibn Taymiyyah, An Introduction To The Principles Of Tafseer, Chap 1
[xii] R. Maston Speight, The Function of Hadith as Commentary on the Quran, as seen in Six Authoritative collections, p. 68 of the book Approaches to the History of the Interpretation of the Quran, Edited by Andrew Rippin
[xiii] ibid, page 64
[xiv] R. Maston Speight, The Function of Hadith as Commentary on the Quran, as seen in Six Authoritative collections, p. 67 of the book Approaches to the History of the Interpretation of the Quran, Edited by Andrew Rippin
[xv] ibid, p.68
[xvi] ibid, p. 67
[xvii] Jane Dammen McAuliffe, Quranic Christians: An Analysis of Classical and Modern Exegesis, p.20
[xviii] Dr. Mahmoud Ayoub, The Quran and its Interpreters, p. 33
[xix] Dr. Mahmoud Ayoub, The Quran and its Interpreters, p. 24
[xx] Dr. Mahmoud Ayoub, The Quran and its Interpreters, p. 33
[xxi] Fred Leemhuis, Origins & Early Development of the tafsir tradition, p. 14 of the book Approaches to the History of the Interpretation of the Quran, Edited by Andrew Rippin
[xxii] Mahmoud Ayoub, The SpeakingQur’ran and the Silent Qur’a: A Study of the Principles and Development of Imami Shia Tafsir, p. 186 of the book Approaches to the History of the Interpretation of the Quran, Edited by Andrew Rippin
[xxiii] Gamal Nkrumah, Zaghloul El-Naggar: Scientific being, Al Ahram Weekly, Issue No. 769, 17 - 23 November 2005
[xxiv] Issa Boullata, The Rhetorical Approach of the Qur’an: Ijaz and Related Topics, p. 149 of the book Approaches to the History of the Interpretation of the Quran, Edited by Andrew Rippin
[xxv] Issa Boullata, The Rhetorical Approach of the Qur’an: Ijaz and Related Topics, p. 149 of the book Approaches to the History of the Interpretation of the Quran, Edited by Andrew Rippin
[xxvi] Dr. Mahmoud Ayoub, The Quran and its Interpreters, p. 24
[xxvii] Helmut Gätje, The Quran and its Exegesis, p. 228


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Sister Yasmin:

Mashallah. I browsed the article and I agree with your conclusion. We all ultimately understand the Quran, or any symbolic statement, accourding to our own mind and experience.

Here, I would like to remind you that ironically (which I believe it is a deliberate irony), verse 3:7 itself is a multi-meaning verse. The translation you posted is one way of understanding it:

"but none knows its interpretation except Allah, and those who are firmly rooted in knowledge say: "

However, I personally prefer the second understanding, for several reasons:

"but none knows its interpretation except Allah and those who are firmly rooted in knowledge; they say:"

Please note that how a pause or no-pause after the word Allah changes its meaning dramatically.

For my reasons, why I prefer the second translation/understanding please visity my personal website at

There you will find the draft of the introduction for our upcoming book, Quran: A Reformsit Translation. If you would like to recieve a revised/edited version of the introduction please contact me via


5:25 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Salamun alaykum,

I would like to warn you of Edip Yuksel, the above writer. Once he was a prominent follower of Rashad Khalifa, then he rebelled and changed his message after he departed. I am willing to debate or answer your questions about Rashad Khalifa, feel free to send me your questions on this email, Ahmad

9:18 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

excelent work i must apreciate bt mind the kind of scholar u quote because some wud not like to read your work i wish you well. ma sallam

4:51 pm  

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