[By Mufti Muhammad Shafi’i Uthmani (rahimahullah)]
The literal meaning of ‘tafsir‘ in the Arabic language is ‘to open’ or to explain, interpret or comment. Technically, the science of tafsir is a branch of knowledge in which the meanings of the Qur’an are explained and its injunctions and wisdoms are described openly and clearly (al-Burhan). Addressing the Holy Prophet (sallallaahu alaihi wasallam), the Glorious Qur’an says:
We revealed the Qur’an to you so that you explain to the peo- ple what has been sent down to them (16:44).
Once again, the Qur’an says:
Surely, Allah did a great favour to Muslims when He sent a Messenger to them from among them who would recite His verses before them and purify them and teach them the Book and the Wisdom (3:164).
Keeping this in view, it should be noted that the Holy Prophet (sallallaahu alaihi wasallam) did not only teach the words of the Qur’an, but he also explained these in details. This is why, on some occasions, the revered Companions had to devote years together in learning a single Surah; details will, in sha allah, appear later on.
Until such time that the Holy Prophet (sallallaahu alaihi wasallam) graced this mortal world with his presence, seeking the explanation of any verse was not much of a problem. When the Companions faced any difficulty, they would turn to him and get a satisfying answer. But, later on after him, it became necessary that the tafsir of Qur’an be preserved as a permanent branch of knowledge so that, along with the words of the noble Qur’an, its correct meaning as well stands protected and conserved for the Muslim ummah, and heretics and deviationists find no room there for distortion of its meanings.
So, with the grace and tawfiq of Allah Almighty, this ummah accomplished this wonderful mission with such effeciency that today we can say without any fear of doubt or rejection that not only are the words of this last Book of Allah protected but also stands protected even that correct tafsir and explanation which has reached us through the Holy Prophet (sallallaahu alaihi wasallam) and his Companions who were ever-prepared to sacrifice their lives for him.
In what ways the Muslim ummah protected and preserved the ‘ilm (science) of tafsir? What exrteme hardships they faced in this pursuit? How many stages did this struggle had to go through? All this has a long and fascinating history which cannot be taken up in the present
The Sources of Tafsir
1. The Glorious Qur’an
The first source of the knowledge of tafsir is the Holy Qur’an itself. Accordingly, it happens very often that a certain point which is brief and requires explanation is invariably clarified by some other verse of the Qur’an itself. For instance, there appears that sentence of prayer in the Surah al-Fatihah: ‘Guide us in the straight path – the path of those on whom You have bestowed Your Grace …’ Now it is not clear here as to who are those whom Allah Almighty has blessed. But, in another verse, they have been identified very clearly where it is said: So, these are the people whom Allah Almighty has blessed, be- ing the prophets, their true followers, the martyrs (in the way of Allah) and the righteous. (4:69) Therefore, when respected commentators explain some verse, they first check to see if a tafsir of this verse is already there elsewhere in the noble Qur’an itself. If it is there, they elect to go by it as their first choice.
2. The hadith
The words and the deeds of the Holy Prophet (sallallaahu alaihi wasallam) are called hadith, and as it has been stated earlier, Allah Almighty had sent him with the Qur’an solely for the purpose that he should explain to people, openly and explicitly, the correct meanings of the noble Qur’an. Consequently, he discharged this duty with grace and excellence both by his words and deeds. In fact his whole blessed life is. after all, a practical tafsir of Qur’an. It is for this reason that respected commentators, in order to understand the Qur’an, have laid the greatest emphasis on hadith as the second source, and it is in the light of ahadith that they have determined the meanings of the Book of Allah. However, because all sorts of narrations – sound, weak, and fabricated – are included in Hadith, therefore research-oriented commentators do not accept a narration as trustworthy until it is the principles used in the scrutiny of hadith narrations. Hence, finding a hadith report somewhere, looking at it, and then employing it to determine a certain tafsir is not correct, because that report could be weak, even contrary to other stronger reports. This is really a very delicate matter, and venturing therein is the exclusive prerogative of those who have spent their years in mastering these fields of knowledge.
3. The Reports from the Sahabah
The noble Sahabah (Companions), may Allah be pleased with them all, had received their education directly from the Holy Prophet (sallallaahu alaihi wasallam). In addition to that, they were personally present on the scene when Wahy came, and they had themselves witnessed all circumstances and backgrounds of the revelation of the Qur’an. Therefore, naturally, the recorded statements of these blessed souls are far more authentic and trustworthy in explaining the noble Qur’an; the later people cannot take that place. Hence, in the case of verses the explanation of which is not found in the Qur’an or hadith, statements recorded from the noble Companions are given the highest priority. Consequently, if there is a consensus of Companions on the explanation of a certain verse, the commentators follow just that, and explaining it in any way, other than that, is not permissible. By the way, if the statements of Companions differ in the interpretation, tafsir of a certain verse, then the commentators who come later examine them in the light of arguments and determine as to which interpretation or explanation can be given preference. In order to handle this situation, there is an important corpus of rules and regulations already codified under the sciences of Usul al-hadith, Usul al-Fiqh and Usul al-tafsir a detailed discussion of which is not appropriate here.
4. The Reports from the Taabi’een or Successors
After Companions (sahabah) come the Successors (Tab’ieen). The later are those who have learnt the tafsir of Qur’an from the Companions. Therefore, their statements too have great importance in the science of tafsir, although there exists a difference among scholars whether or not the statements of the tabi’een are decisive evidences in tafsir (al-ltsan, 2/179) but their importance is something which cannot be denied.
5. The Arabic Language
Since the noble Qur’an was revealed in the Arabic language, therefore, in order to explain the Qur’an, it is necessary to have a complete mastery over the language. There are several verses of the noble Qur’an in the background of which there happen to be just no attending circumstances of revelations, or any juristic or scholastic question, therefore, in their tafsir or explanation, the sayings of the Holy Prophet (sallallaahu alaihi wasallam) or the statements of the sahaabah and tabi’een are not reported. For that reason, the only means through which these can be explained is that of the Arabic language, and it is on this basis of language alone that they are elucidated. Besides that, should there be some difference in the tafir of a certain verse, then: in that case too, the science of linguistics is used to run a test of veracity between varying opinions.
6. Deliberation and Deduction
The last source of tafsir consists of deliberation and deduction. The subtleties and mysteries of the noble Qur’an are an ocean with no shore, no end. Therefore, the more a person, who has been blessed with insight into the Islamic sciences by Allah Almighty, deliberates in it, the more he discovers ever-new mysteries and subtleties. As a result of this, commentators do present the outcomes of their respective deliberations as well, but mysteries and subtleties so described are found acceptable only when they do not go against the five sources mentioned above. So, should a person, while explaining the Qur’an, come out with a subtle point or independent judgment which is contrary to the Qur’an and Sunnah, Consensus (Ijma’), Language, or the statements of Companions and Successors, or stands in conflict with another principle of Shari’ah, that will then have no credence. Some mystics (rahmimahumullah) had started describing such mysteries and subtleties in tafsir, but investigative scholars of the ummah did not consider these trustworthy because the personal opinion of any introduction person against the basic principles of the Qur’an, Sunnah and Shari’ah has obviously no weight. (al-Itqan, 2/184)
The rules relating to Israelite reports
Judaica or isra’eeliyat are narratives which hare reached us through Jews and Christians. It may be noted that early commentators used to write down all sorts of narrations which reached them from an identified source. Many of these narrations were straight Judaica. Therefore, it is equally necessary to know what they really are. The reality is that some noble Companions and their Successors first belonged to the religion of the people of the Book, later on when they became Muslims and learnt the Qur’an, they came across several events relating to past communities in the Qur’an and which they had also read in the books of their previous religion. Therefore, while referring to the events mentioned in the Qur’an they would describe other details before Muslims which they had seen in the books of their old religion. These very details have entered into the books of tafsir under the name of ‘lsra’eeliyat. Hafiz ibn Kathir (rahmatullah alayh), who is one of the authentic research scholars, has written that there are three kinds of Isra’eeliyat:
1. Narrations the truth of which is proved from other evidences of the Qur’an and Sunnah, for instance, the drowning of Pharoah and and the ascent of Sayyidina Musa (alaihissalaam) onto Mount Tur (Sinai)
2. Narrations the falsity of which is proved from other evidences of the Qur’an and Sunnah, for instance, it appears in Judaic narrations that Sayyidna Sulayman (alaihissalaam) had become (God forbid) an apostate in his later years. Its refutation is proved from the Qur’an. It is said there: ‘It was not Sulayman who became an infidel, but the devils did become infidels’ (2:102). To cite yet another example, it finds mention in Judaic narrations that (God forbid) Sayyidna Dawud (alaihissalaam) (David) committed adultery with the wife of his general (Uriah), or, having him killed through all sorts of contrivances, ended up marrying his wife. This too is a balatant lie, and taking such narrations to be false is imperative.
3. Narrations regarding which the Qur’an, the Sunnah and the Shari’ah are silent, such as the injunctions of Torah etc., are subjects about which silence is to be observed as taught by the Holy Prophet (sallallaahu alaihi wasallam): ‘Neither confirm, nor falsify’. There is, however, a difference of opinion among scholars whether or not reporting such narrations is permissible. Hafiz ibn Kathir has given the decisive word by saying that reporting these is permissible all right but doing so is useless because they cannot be taken as authentic. (Muqaddamah Tafsir ibn Kathir)
A misconception about the tafsir of Qur’an
Hopefully, details given above have made it clear that the tafsir (exegesis or interpretation) of the noble Qur’an is an extremely delicate and difficult undertaking for which getting to know the Arabic language alone is not enough. In fact, it is necessary to have expertise in all related branches of knowledge. Therefore, scholars say that a mufassir or commentator of the Qur’an must have vast and deep knowledge of the syntax, etymology, rhetoric, and literature of the Arabic language, as well as, that of prophetic Traditions, principles governing jurisprudence and exegesis, doctrinal articles of belief and scholastics. The reason is that one cannot arrive at correct conclusions while explaining the Qur’an unless there be that adequacy in these fields of knowledge.
It is regrettable that a dangerous epidemic has overtaken Muslims lately whereby many people have started taking the sole reading ability of Arabic sufficient for the tafsir (interpretation) of the Qur’an. As a result, anyone who gets to read ordinary Arabic starts passing out opinions in the domain of Qur’anic exegesis. Rather, it has been noticed on occasions that people having just passable familiarity with the Arabic language, and who have yet to master their Arabic to perfection, take it upon themselves to engage in explaining the Qur’an following their whims, even going to the limit of finding faults with classical commentators. Bad come to worse, there are some subtle tyrants who would, by simply reading the translation, imagine that they have become scholars of the Qur’an, not even feeling shy of criticising commentators of great stature.
It should be understood very clearly that this is a highly dangerous pattern of behaviour which, in matters of religion, leads to fatal straying. As regards secular arts and sciences, everyone can claim to understand that should a person simply learn the English language and go on to study books of medical science, he would not be
acknowledged as a physician by any reasonable person anywhere in the world, and certainly not trustworthy enough to take care of somebody’s life unless he has been educated and trained in a medical college. Therefore, having learnt English is not all one needs to become a doctor.
Similarly, should anyone knowing English hope to become an engineer just by reading through engineering books, it is clear that no sane person in this world would accept him as an engineer. The reason is that this technical expertise cannot be acquired simply by learning the English language. It would, rather, need a formal training in the discipline under the supervision and guidance of expert teachers. When these stringent requirements are inevitable in order to become a doctor or engineer, how can the learning of Arabic language alone become sufficient in matters relating to the Qur’an and hadith?? In every department of life, everyone knows and acts upon the principle that every art or science has its own particular method of learning and its own peculiar conditions. Unless these are fulfilled, the learner’s opinion in given arts and sciences will not be considered trustworthy. If that is so, how can the Qur’an and the Sunnah become so unclaimed a field of inquiry that there be no need to acquire any art or science in order to explain them, and anyone who so wishes starts passing out opinions in this matter??
Some people say that the Qur’an has itself stated that: ‘And surely We have made the Qur’an easy for the sake of good counsel.’ And since the noble Qur’an is a simple book, its explanation hardly needs much of a support from any art or science. But this argument is terribly fallacious, which is, in itself, based on lack of intellect and plenty of superficiality. The fact is that the verses of the Qur’an are of two kinds.
Firstly, there are the verses that offer general good counsel, relate lesson-oriented events and introduce subjects dealing with taking of warning and acting on sound advice. Examples of this are the mortality of the world, the accounts of Paradise and Hell, the discourses likely to create the fear of Allah and the concern for the Hereafter, and other very simple realities of life. Verses of this kind are undoubtedly easy and anyone who knows the Arabic language can benefit from their good counsel by understanding them.
It is in relation to teachings of this kind that, in the verse cited above, it was said that ‘We have made them easy’. Hence, the word (for the sake of good counsel) in the verse itself is pointing out towards this meaning.
Contrary to this, the other kind consists of verses which include injunctions, laws, articles of faith and intellectual subjects. Understanding verses of this kind as they should be rightfully understood and deducing and formulating injunctions and rulings from them cannot be done by just any person unless one has the insight and permeating reach into the Islamic areas of knowledge. This is why the noble Companions, whose mother-tongue was Arabic and they did not have to go anywhere to get trained into understanding Arabic, used to spend long periods of time in learning the Qur’an from the Holy Prophet (sallallaahu alaihi wasallam) . ‘Allamah al-suyuti (rahimahullah) has reported from Imam ‘Abd al-Rahman Sulami that the Companions, who formally learned the Qur’an from the Holy Prophet (sallallaahu alaihi wasallam) such as Sayyidna ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan and ‘Abdullah ibn Mas’ud and others (radhiyallahu ta’ala anhum ajma’een), have told us that, after having learnt ten verses of the Qur’an from the Holy Prophet (sallallaahu alaihi wasallam) , they would not proceed on to the next verses until such time that they had covered all that was intellectually and practically involved in the light of these verses. They used to say: We have learnt the Qur’an, knowledge and action all in one. (al-Itqan 2/176)
Consequently, as reported in Mu’atta’ of Imam Malik, Sayyidna ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Umar (radhiyallahu anhu) spent full eight years memorizing Surah al-Baqarah alone and, as in the Musnad of Ahmad, Sayyidina Anas (radhiyallahu anhu) says that ‘one of us who would learn Surah al-Baqarah and Surah ‘al-‘Imran had his status enormously raised among us.’ (Ibid)
Worth noticing is the fact that these noble Companions whose mother-tongue was Arabic, who had the highest degree of expertise in poetry and letters and who would have no difficulty in having very long qaseeda poems perfectly committed to their memories with the least of effort, why would they need, just to memorize the Qur’an and understand its meanings, as long a time as eight years, and that too, for mastering one Surah?? The only reason for this was that proficiency in the Arabic language was not enough to have a learning of the noble Qur’an and areas of knowledge bearing on it. In order to do that, it was also necessary to seek the benefit of the teaching and the company of the Holy Prophet (sallallaahu alaihi wasallam). Now this is so obvious that the noble Companions inspite of having an expertise in the Arabic language and notwithstanding their being direct witnesses to the revelation, still needed the process of going through formal education at the feet of the blessed master in order to become the ‘alims of the Qur’an, how then, after all these hundreds of years following the revelation of the Qur’an, just by cultivating an elementary familiarity with Arabic, or by simply looking at translations, can anyone claim to having become a commentator of the Qur’an? What a monsterous audacity and what a tragic joke with knowledge and religion! People who opt for such audacity should remember well that the Holy Prophet (sallallaahu alaihi wasallam) has said:
Whoever says anything about the Qur’an without knowledge, then he should make his abode in Hell. (Abu Daw’ud, as in al-Itqan, 21179)
And he has also said:
‘ Whoever talks about the Qur’an on the basis of his opinion, and even if says something true in it, still he made a mistake. (Abu Daw’ud, Nasa’i)
Famous Commentaries of the Qur’an
Countless commentaries of the Glorious Qur’an have been written since the blessed period of the Prophethood. In fact, no other book of the world has been served as much as the noble Qur’an. Introducing all these commentaries is not possible even in some detailed book, much less in a brief introduction such as this. But, what we wish to do here is to introduce very briefly the major commentaries that have served as particular sources of Ma’riful Qur’an and which have been cited there time and again. Although, during the period the above commentary was being written, many commentaries and hundreds of books were constantly referred to, but here, the purpose is to limit the introduction to commentaries the references to which will appear repeatedly.
Tafsir ibn jarir
The real name of this Tafsir is Jami’ al-Bayan and it was compiled by ‘Allamah Abu Ja’far Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari (died 310 Hijrah). ‘Allamah Tabari is a highly rated commentator, Muhaddhidith (hadith expert) and historian. It is said that he kept writing for forty years continuously and used to write forty pages every day (al-Bldayah wa al- hayah ah, v 11, p 145). There are charges of being Shi’ah against him, but researchers have refuted this charge and the truth of the matter is that he is a highly regarded scholar of the followers of the Sunnah,’ rather one of the Shi’ite scholars.
Being in thirty volumes, his tafsir enjoys the status of a basic source for later commentaries. In his explanation of the verses, he quotes different scholars and then goes on to prove the position which, according to him, is weightier, of course, with arguments and proofs. It must, however, be admitted that narrations of all sorts, sound and weak, have found a place in his commentary. Because of this, not every narration presented by him can be relied upon. In reality, he was aiming through his commentary to collect and compile all narrations that could become available to him, so that this collected material could be put to use later on. Conceded is the fact that he has given the chain of reporters along with each narration so that whoever wishes to investigate into the chain of narrators could do so and decide for himself if the narrations are true or false.
Tafsir ibn Kathir
Hafiz ‘Imad al-din Abu al-Fida’ Isma’il ibn Kathir al-Dimashqi al-Shafi’i (died 774 Hijrah), a distinguished research scholar of the eighth century, is the author of this commentary. It has been published in four volumes. Here emphasis has been laid on explanatory narrations. A special feature is his criticism as hadith expert on different narrations, and from this point of view, this book holds a distinct place among all books of Tafsir.
Its full name is Al-Jami’ li-Ahkam al-Qur’an. It was written by the famous learned writer and research scholar of Andalusia (Spain), Abu ‘Abdullah Muhammad ibn Ahmad Abi Bakr ibn Farah al-Qurtubi (died 671 Hijrah). He was a follower of the Maliki school of fiqh and was known all over for his ‘ibadah and piety. The fact is that the basic objective of this book was to deduce juristic injunctions and rulings from the Qur’an yet, while doing so, he has also provided the explanation of verses, research into difficult words, discussion of diacritical marks and elegance of style and composition, and related Traditions and Reports in his Tafsir, and quite ably so. This book is in twelve volumes and has been published repeatedly.
This is the work of Imam Fakhr al-din al-Razi (died 606 Hijrah). Its real name is Mafatih al-Ghayb, but is popularly known as ‘Tafsir Kabir’. Imam Razi is an imam of the theology of Islam, therefore, great emphasis has been laid in his tafsir on rational and scholastic debates and on the refutation of false sects. But, the truth is that this tafsir is, in its own way, a unique key to the Qur’an as well. Furthermore, the pleasing way in which the meanings of the Qur’an have been clarified and the mutual link of the Qur’anic verses established, is all too praise-worthy. Most likely, Imam Razi himself wrote down his Tafsir as far as Surah al-Fath. Onwards from there, he could not complete. So, the remaining part of the Tafsir, from Surah al-Fath to the end, was completed by Qadi Shihab al-Din ibn Khalil al-Shawli al-dimashqi (died 639 – Hijrah) or Shaykh Najm al-din Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Qamuli (died 777 Hijrah). (Kashaf al-zunun v 2, p 477)
Imam Razi has particularly emphasised scholastic debates and the refutation of false sects in accordance with the dictates of his time, and while doing so, his discussions have become too lengthy at several places, therefore, some people have made the following comment on his Tafsir: ‘There is everything in this (book) except the Tafsir.’ But this comment is a terrible injustice to tafsir Kabir. That which is the truth has already been stated above, namely, that this Tafsir enjoys a high rating as far as the resolution of the meanings of the Qur’an is concerned. But, there are places where he has explained verses of the Qur’an while moving away from the consensus of the ummah, however, such places are very thinly spread out in this book that goes on to eight volumes.
Tafsir al-Bahr al- Muheet
This was written by ‘Allamah Abu Hayyan al-Gharnati al-andalusi (died 754 Hijrah) who was a master of syntax and rhetoric in addition to other Islamic fields of learning. As a result of this, his own Tafsir is soaked in syntax and rhetoric. He places special stress on investigating into the words of every verse, the difference in structures and on points of eloquence.
Ahkam al-Qur’an by al-Jassas
This was written by Imam Abii Bakr al-Jassas al-Razi (died 370 Hijrah) who occupies a distinguished place among Hanafi jurists. The deduction of juristic injunctions and rulings from the noble Qur’an is the subject of this book. Instead of explaining verses in serial continuity, he has taken up the juristic details as called for by verses which consist of juristic injunctions. Several other books have also been written on this subject, but this book enjoys a prominent place among those.
Tafsir al-Durr al-Manthur
This was written by ‘Allamah Jalal al- din al-Suyuti (died 910 Hijrah). Its full name is ‘al-Durr al-Manthur fi al-tafsir bi I’Ma’thur.’ Here ‘Allamah al-Suyuti has tried to collect all narrations about the tafsir of Qur’an he was able to find. Several hadith scholars such as Hafiz ibn jarir, Imam Baghawi, Ibn Marduwayh, Ibn Hibban and Ibn Majah and others had already worked in this area on their own. ‘Allamah al-Suyuti has assembled narrations presented by all of them in this book. But, rather than refer to complete chain of authorities along with narrations, he has found it sufficient to simply name the particular author who has presented that narration under his authority so that, if needed, one could go back to the work and investigate into the ultimate authority. Since his purpose was to put together a mass of narrations, as a result of which, all sorts of narrations, sound and weak, have found their way into his book. Hence, every narration allowed entry by him cannot be considered reliable without investigation into its authority. There are occasions when ‘Allamah al-Suyuti does indicate with each narration the degree of its authority as well. But, as he is known to be fairly easy-going in respect of hadith critique, it is still difficult to fully rely on that too.
This was written by Qadi Thanhullah Panipatti (died 1225 Hijrah). as He has named this Tafsir as Al-tafsir al-mazhari after the name – of his spritual master, Mirza Mazhar Jan-e-Janan dehlavi. This Tafsir of his is simple and clear, and extremely useful to locate brief explanations of Qur’anic verses. Along with the elucidation of Qur’anic words, he has also taken up related narrations in ample details, and in doing so, he has made an effort to accept narrations after much more scrutiny as compared with other commentaries.
The full name of this Tafsir is ‘Ruh al-Ma’ani fi Tafsir al-Qur’an al-‘Azim wa al-Sab’ al-Mathani’ and it was written by ‘Allamah Mahmud al-Alusi (died 1270 Hijrah), the famous scholar of the last period of Baghdad, and comprises of thirty volumes. He has made his best possible effort to make this Tafsir comprehensive. There are exhaustive discussions on language, syntax, letters, style, and on jurisprudence, articles of faith, scholastics, philosophy, astronomy, mysticism and related narratives of Traditions. He has made an attempt to leave no intellectual aspect pertaining to a verse unexplained. In the case of hadith narratives as well, the author of this work has been more cautious as compared to other commentators. From this angle, this is a very comprehensive commentary, and no future venture in connection with the Tafsir of the Qur’an can now afford to ignore its help.