Source: Usool at-Tafseer by Bilal Philips
This post summarizes the key methods of Quranic Tafsir and lists some of the scholars who contributed to this discipline over the past few centuries since the death of the prophet (s) and his companions.
Before getting into the methods of tafsir, it is important to review some of the key terminologies about learning of the Quran.
Tafsir refers to the accurate interpretation of the Quranic texts, such as Arabic grammar and syntax, Arabic literature and Quranic sciences (Uloom al-Quran). A commentator’s familiarity with modern fields of learning, like the pure sciences and social sciences can aid in making the Quranic explanations relevant to modern human society.
Usool at-Tafseer literally means “The Fundamental Principles of Qurnic Interpretation”. It refers to those branches of knowledge which are necessary to provide the proper Quranic interpretation (tafseer). This branch of knowledge provides the step-by-step methodology of interpreting the Quran to ensure that interpretations are not merely the result of human whims and fancies.
Uloom al-Quran, refers to all the fields of knowledge which aid in elucidating the Quran. These include the following:
- Knowledge of tafseer (exegesis),
- Qiraa’aat (recitations),
- Ar-rasmul-‘Uthmaanee (the ‘Uthmaanic script),
- I‘jaaz al-Quran (miraculous aspects of the Quran),
- Asbaab an-nuzool (reasons for revelation),
- An-naasikh wal-mansookh (abrogating and abrogated verses),
- I‘raab al-Quran (Quranic grammar),
- Ghareeb al-Quran (unusual Quranic terms),
- Religious rulings, and
- Arabic language and literature.
Source: Manaahil al-‘Irfaan fee ‘Uloom al-Quran, p. 16.
The Method of Tafseer (Quran Interpretation)
The sahaabah (companions) were taught to seek their understanding of the Quran first from the Quran itself, then from the explanations and applications of the Prophet (r) and from their own intimate understanding of the language of the Quran. After the Prophet’s death, those who entered Islam as new converts depended first upon the Quran to explain itself, then they depended on the sahaabah to explain the Quran to them. The sahaabah would inform their students among the taabi‘oon of the circumstances in which the verses were revealed, the interpretation given by the Prophet’s statements and his actions, and finally they would explain the meanings of some words which may not have been familiar or which may have had a different meaning to Arabs outside of the Arabian Peninsula. With the passing of the era of the sahaabah, the scholars among the taabi‘oon shouldered the grave responsibility of conveying the original meanings of the Quran to the next generation of Muslims exactly as they had received them. It was the third generation after the Prophet (s) which began the process of gathering and recording the various narrations of tafseer from the taabi‘oon. From the above-mentioned methodology of the Prophet (s) and his companions and that of the early generations of Muslim scholars which followed them, the following steps have been deduced by orthodox scholars as being the necessary conditions for making correct tafseer of the Quran:
Tafseer of Quran by Quran
This refers to the Quranic verses providing an additional explanation of what is already mentioned in the Quran. The Quran, therefore, provides an additional explanation of its own verses.
For example, if we were to ask the question whether Allah can be seen or not, the following Quranic verse provides the answer:
“No vision can grasp Him, but His Grasp is over all vision.” (Quran, Surah Al-Anaam:103)
However, Allah provides a further explanation of this in two other verses, where He tells us that during the Day of Judgment, people on the straight path will be able to see Allah while the others won’t be able to. Here are those Quranic verses:
“Looking at their Lord (Allah)” (Quran, Surah Al-Qiyamah:23)
“Nay! Surely, they (evil-doers) will be veiled from seeing their Lord that Day. (Quran, Surah Al-Al-Mutaffifin:23)”
Therefore, before seeking an explanation or interpretation elsewhere, the Quran must be relied upon to explain itself, for Allaah knows best what He intended.
Tafseer of Quran by the Sunnah
In some cases, the interpretation of the Quranic verse was provided by the prophet (s). For example, for the following verse, the prophet (s) provided the explanation:
“Verily, We have granted you (O Muhammad (Peace be upon him)) Al-Kauthar” (Quran, Surah Al-Kawthar:1)”
In a hadith by the prophet (s), he referred to Kawthar as a river in Paradise. [Reported by Anas and collected by Muslim (Sahih Muslim, vol. 1, p. 220, no. 790) and Ahmad.]
Tafseer of Quran by Aathaar
Whenever the sahaabah could not find the tafseer of a passage in the Quran itself or in the Sunnah, they would use their own reasoning based on their knowledge of the contexts of the verses and the intricacies of the Arabic language in which the Quran was revealed. Consequently, one of the greatest commentators of the Quran, Ibn Katheer, wrote in the preface of his tafseer, “If we are unable to find a suitable tafseer in the Quran or in the Sunnah, we go to the opinions of the sahaabah. For verily, they knew the Quran better than anyone else due to their knowledge of the circumstances of its revelation, their complete and accurate understanding of it, and their righteous deeds.” These explanations of the sahaabah are known as tafseer by aathaar (the sayings of the sahaabah).
Tafseer of Quran by Language
As time passed after the death of the prophet (s) and after the era of sahaba and tabieen, the Arabic language started to get diluted with foreign words and a lot of vocabulary started to lose its meaning. This necessitated compilation of dictionaries to explain the literal and grammatical meanings of Quran. This natural change in language also created some difference of opinions. We see on such example in the following verse:
“…or you have been in contact with women and you find no water, perform Tayammum with clean earth and rub therewith your faces and hands (Tayammum). Truly, Allah is Ever Oft Pardoning, Oft Forgiving. (Quran, Surah An-Nisa:43”
The word “lams” literally means to “touch”.
Imaams ash-Shaafi‘ee and Maalik held that it meant the touch of the hand, though each imaam added certain stipulations to it. On the other hand, Imaam Abu Haneefah ruled that it referred to sexual relations. However, the Prophet’s wives reported that he at times kissed them before performing salaah, which indicated that touching was not intended by this verse.
Tafseer of Quran by Opinion
Opinions based on a careful study of the first four steps can be considered valid as long as they do not contradict any of those steps. Likewise, the application of obvious meanings of the Quran to existing situations and the formation of conclusions based on their similarities are also allowed, as long as such interpretations do not clash with authentic classical explanations. But, free interpretation based on philosophical, scientific, or sectarian ideas is totally forbidden. The Prophet (r) was reported to have said,
“Opinion-based argument about the Quran is kufr.” He repeated it three times, then said, “What you know of it, act upon; and what you are ignorant of, refer it to one who knows.” (Reported by Aboo Hurayrah and collected by Ahmad, Ibn Jareer in his Tafseer and Aboo Ya‘laa. Authenticated by al-Albaanee in Silsilah al Ahaadeeth as-Saheehah, vol. 4. pp. 26-8.)
We can see from the above-mentioned hadeeth that the Prophet (s) sternly warned his companions and later generations of Muslims about interpretations of the Quran based on speculation and unsubstantiated opinions. The reason is that the Quran is the foundation of Islam and, as such, it had to remain pure and untampered. If free rein was given to any and everyone to interpret the Quran as they wished, its value would be totally destroyed, and Islam itself would be undermined from its base.
Thus, the only acceptable tafseer is that which adheres to the following sequence: tafseer of Quran by the Quran, then by the Sunnah, then by the sayings of the sahaabah, then by language, and finally by opinion, as long as it is based on the preceding four methods and does not contradict any of them.
The above was a summary of the various tafsir methods that are used in interpreting Quran. We should note that many deviant tafseer books have also emerged that have changed the meaning of the Quran. Care, therefore, should be taken in selecting the right tafseer book. The most popular tafseer is that of Ibn Kathir.
Although hundreds of scholars have contributed to the knowledge and content of Quranic Tafseer (starting with the prophet’s companions, his wives, and so on), most of the work was not compiled until after a few years of their death. The systematic compilation of tafseer started toward the end of the Ummayyad dynasty. However, even at that time no complete tafseer had been fully put together. The actual compilation didn’t start until the end of the 9th century.
The following are some of the major works of tafseer and related works by scholars of various times.
Tafsir / Other works name
Timeframe when this work was done (CE)
|Abdul-Hameed al-Faraahee||At-takmeel fee usool at-ta’weel|
|Shu‘bah ibn al-Hajjaaj||Tafsir was a collection of the opinions of prophet’s companions and sahabah||8th century|
|Sufyaan ibn Uyaynah||Tafsir was a collection of the opinions of prophet’s companions and sahabah||8th century|
|Wakee‘ ibn al-Jarraah||Tafsir was a collection of the opinions of prophet’s companions and sahabah||8th century|
|Ibn Jareer at-Tabaree||Wrote the greatest tafsir with strongest opinions of companions and sahabah||9/10th century|
|Alee ibn al-Madeenee (Imaam al-Bukhaaree’s teacher),||Wrote on asbaab an-nuzool,||9th century|
|Aboo Ubayd al-Qaasim ibn Salaam||Wrote on abrogation||9th century|
|Aboo Bakr as-Sijistaanee,||Write on the unusual construction of the Quran||10th century|
|Alee ibn Sa‘eed al-Hoofee,||Wrote a book about Quran’s grammatical construction||11th century|
|Abul-Qaasim ‘Abdur-Rahmaan as Sabeelee||Wrote on mubhamaat al-Quran (Quranic ambiguities)||12th century|
|Ibn Taymeeyah||Usool at-tafseer is a treatise called muqaddimah fee usool at-tafseer||13th century|
|Ibn ‘Abdis-Salaam||Wrote on Quranic metaphor (majaaz al-Quran)||13 th century|
|Alamud-Deen as-Sakhaawee||Wrote on the recitations||13 th century|
|Aboo Bakr Muhammad ibn Khalaf||Al-haadee fee Uloom al- Quran||10th century|
|Alee ibn Ibraaheem ibn Sa‘eed||Al-burhaan fee tafseer al- Quran||10th century|
|Al-Jassaas||Tafseer concentrated on the deduction of fiqh (Islamic law) from the Quranic passages according to their respective madhabs (schools of fiqh).||10th century|
|Ibn al-Jawzee||Funoon al-afnaan fee UyoonUloom al-Quran||12th century|
|Ibn al-Jawzee||Al-mujtabaa fee Uloom tata‘allaq bil-Quran||12th century|
|Alamud-Deen as-Sakhaawee||Jamaal al-qurraa’|
|Aboo Shaamah ‘Abdur-Rahmaan ibn Ismaa‘eel al-Maqdasee||Al-murshid al-wajeez fee maa yata‘allaq bil-Quran al-‘azeez||13th century|
|Al-Qurtubee||Tafseer concentrated on the deduction of fiqh (Islamic law) from the Quranic passages according to their respective madhabs (schools of fiqh).||13th century|
|Badrud-Deen az-Zarkashee||Al-burhaan fee Uloom al-Quran,||14th century|
|al-Haafith ibn Katheer||Tafseer al-Quran al-‘Atheem||14th century|
|Muhammad ibn Sulaymaan al-Kaafeejee||Mawaaqi‘ al-Uloom min mawaaqi‘ an-nujoom||15th century|
|Jalaalud-Deen al-Balqeenee||Mawaaqi‘ al-Uloom min mawaaqi‘ an-nujoom||15th century|
|Jalaalud-Deen as-Suyootee||At-tahbeer fee Uloom at-tafseer.||15th century|
|Jalaalud-Deen as-Suyootee||Kitaab al-itqaan fee Uloom al-Quran||15th century|
|Shaykh Taahir al-Jazaa’iree||At-tibyaan fee Uloom al-quraan||20th century|
|Shaykh Muhammad ‘Alee Salaamah||Minhaaj al-furqaan fee Uloom al-Quran||mid 20th century|
|Shaykh Muhammad ‘Abdul-‘Atheem az-Zarqaanee||Manaahil al-‘irfaan fee Uloom al-Quran||mid 20th century|
|Subhee as-Saalih||Mabaahith fee Uloom al-Quran||late 20th century|
|Mannaa‘ al-Qattaan||Mabaahith fee Uloom al Quran||late 20th century|
|Muhammad ‘Abdullaah Daraaz||Madkhal ilaa al-Quran al-kareem||late 20th century|
|Muhammad Aboo Shahbah||Al-madkhal li diraasah al-Quran||late 20th century|
|Muhammad ibn Lutfee as-Sabbaagh||Lamahaat fee Uloom al-Quran||late 20th century|