Interpreting The Text

From The Book cUlum al-Qur'ân (© Ahmad von Denffor, Taken From Ibrahîm Shafi' Islamworld)

© Islamic Awareness, All Rights Reserved.

The chapter is divided into following sub-headings. All the references are omitted. The readers are advised to see the original book cUlum al-Qur'ân for the references.

Tafsîr, Its Kinds & Principles

Tafsîr & Ta'wil

Why Is It Important?

A Warning

Basic Conditions

Grades Of Sources

Kinds Of Tafsîr

Tafsîr bi-l-riwâya

Tafsîr bi'l-ra'y

Tafsîr bi-l-ishâra

Differences In Tafsîr



The Tafsîr Literature

Contemporary Tafsîr Literature


Tafsîr, Its Kinds & Principles

Tafsîr (exegesis) of the Qur'ân is the most important science for Muslims. All matters concerning the Islamic way of life are connected to it in one sense or another since the right application of Islam is based on proper understanding of the guidance from Allah. Without tafsîr there would be no right understanding of various passages of the Qur'ân.

Tafsîr & Ta'wil

The word tafsîr is derived from the root 'fassara' - to explain, to expound. It means 'explanation' or 'interpretation'. In technical language the word tafsîr is used for explanation, interpretation and commentary on the Qur'ân, comprising all ways of obtaining knowledge, which contributes to the proper understanding of it, explains its meanings and clarifies its legal implications. The word mufassir (pl. mufassirûn) is the term used for the person doing the tafsîr, i.e. the 'exegete' or 'commentator'.

The word ta'wîl, which is also used in this connection, is derived from the root 'awwala' and also means 'explanation, interpretation' .

In technical language it similarly refers to explanation and interpretation of the Qur'ân.

Tafsîr in the language of the scholars means explanation and clarification. It aims at knowledge and understanding concerning the book of Allah, to explain its meanings, extract its legal rulings and grasp its underlying reasons. Tafsîr explains the 'outer' (zahir) meanings of the Qur'ân. Ta'wîl is considered by some to mean the explanation of the inner and concealed meanings of the Qur'ân, as far as a knowledgeable person can have access to them. Others are of the opinion that there is no difference between tafsîr and ta'wîl.

Why Is It Important?

There are a number of reasons why tafsîr is of great importance, but the basic reason is the following: Allah has sent the Qur'ân as a book of guidance to mankind. Man's purpose is to worship Allah, i.e. to seek His pleasure by living the way of life Allah has invited him to adopt. He can do so within the framework of the guidance that Allah has revealed concerning this, but he can do so only if he properly understands its meanings and implications.

A Warning

Some Muslim scholars have warned against tafsîr. Ahmad b. Hanbal, e.g. has said: 'Three matters have no basis: tafsîr, malâhim (tales of eschatological nature) and maghâzî (tales of the battles)'.

By this is meant that there is much exaggeration and unsound material in these fields, but it does not mean that neither of them ought to be considered. This is clear from another version of the same verdict, in which the word isnad is used for 'basis'.

Basic Conditions

Muslim scholars have laid down certain basic conditions for sound tafsîr. Any tafsîr, which disregards these principles must be viewed with great caution, if not rejected altogether. The most important among these conditions are the following:

The mufassir must:

Grades Of Sources

The best tafsîr is the explanation of the Qur'ân by the Qur'ân.

The next best is the explanation of the Qur'ân by the Prophet Muhammad, who, as Shâfi'î explained, acted according to what he understood from the Qur'ân.

If nothing can be found in the Qur'ân nor in the sunna of the Prophet, one turns to the reports from the sahâba.

If nothing can be found in the Qur'ân, the sunna and the reports from the sahâba, one turns to the reports from the tâbicûn.

However, nothing can match the explanation of the Qur'ân by the Qur'ân and the explanation of the Qur'ân by the Prophet.

Kinds Of Tafsîr

Tafsîr may be divided into three basic groups:

Tafsîr bi-l-riwâya

By this is meant all explanations of the Qur'ân which can be traced back through a chain of transmission to a sound source, i.e.:

Naturally, the explanation of the Qur'ân by the Qur'ân and the explanation of the Qur'ân by the Prophet are the two highest sources for tafsîr, which cannot be matched nor superseded by any other source. Next to these rank the explanations by the sahâba, since the sahâba were witnesses to the revelations, were educated and trained by the Prophet himself and were closest to the period of the first Muslim umma. Of course all reports of explanations by the Prophet or by a sahâbi must be sound according to the science of riwâya as in culum al-hadîth.

The Qur'ân explained by the Qur'ân: The interpretation of the Qur'ân by the Qur'ân is the highest source of tafsîr. Many of the questions which may arise out of a certain passage of the Qur'ân have their explanation in other parts of the very same book, and often there is no need to turn to any sources other than the word of Allah, which in itself contains tafsîr. To seek to explain an aya from the Qur'ân by referring to another ayâ from the Qur'ân is the first and foremost duty of the mufassir. Only if this does not suffice, he will refer to other sources of tafsîr.


A case in point is the detailed explanation of 5:2 by 5:4, concerning permissible and prohibited meat. Another example of explanation of one aya in the Qur'ân by another concerns a question which might arise from Sura 44: 3. It is explained in Sura 97: 1:

'We sent it down during a blessed night' (44: 3).

Which night is this blessed night, in which the Qur'ân was sent down?

'We have indeed revealed this in the lailatal-qadr' (97: 1).

A third example is the explanation of Sura 2:37 by Sura 7:23.

'Then learnt Adam from his Lord words of inspiration, and his Lord turned towards him, for He is Oft-Returning, Most Merciful' (2:37).

These 'words of inspiration' are explained by the Qur'ân as follows:

'Our Lord! We have wronged our own souls. If Thou forgive us not, and bestow not upon us Thy mercy, we shall certainly be lost' (7: 23).

The Qur'ân explained by the Prophet: There are numerous examples of explanation of the Qur'ân by the Prophet, who either himself asked the Angel Gabriel for explanation of matters not clear to him, or who was asked by the Companions about the Qur'ân. Suyûtî has given a long list of explanations of the Qur'ân by the Prophet sura by sura.

Here one example may suffice:

'And eat and drink until the white thread of dawn appears to you distinct from its black thread. . .' (2: 187).

Narrated 'Adi b. Hâtim: I said: 'O Allah's Apostle! What is the meaning of the white thread distinct from the black thread? Are these two threads?' He said: 'You are not intelligent, if you watch the two threads'. He then added, 'No, it is the darkness of the night and the whiteness of the day'.

Tafsîr by Sahâba

Next, after explanation of the Qur'ân by the Qur'ân and of the Qur'ân by the Prophet himself, ranks the explanation of the Qur'ân by the sahâba. Among them, the following were best known for their knowledge of and contribution to the field of tafsîr: Abû Bakr, cUmar, cUthmân, cAlî (not much has been reported from them), Ibn Mas'ûd, Ibn cAbbâs, 'Ubay b. Ka'b, Zaid b. Thâbit, Abû Mûsâ al-Ash'arî, cAbdullâh b. Zubair.

Ibn cAbbâs: Abdullah b. cAbbâs (d. 68/687) is considered to be the most knowledgeable of the Companions in tafsîr. He has been called 'tarjumân al-Qur'ân', the interpreter of the Qur'ân. Since he was related to the Prophet, being his cousin, and his maternal aunt Maimuna being one of the Prophet's wives, he was very close to the Prophet Muhammad and learnt much about the revelation. It is said that he saw the Angel Gabriel twice. Apart from his detailed knowledge of everything concerning tafsîr, he is also given the credit for having emphasised one of the basic principles of cilm al-tafsîr which has remained important to this day, namely, that the meaning of words, especially of unusual words in the Qur'ân ought to be traced back to their usage in the language of pre-Islamic poetry. There is a long list of such explanations quoted by Suyûtî.


The following is an example of tafsîr from a sahaba, namely Ibn cAbbâs, confirmed by cUmar:

'So celebrate the praises of your Lord, and ask for His forgiveness. Verily! He is the one who accepts the repentance and forgives' (110: 3).

Narrated Ibn cAbbâs: cUmar used to make me sit with the elderly men who had fought in the battle of Badr. Some of them felt it (did not like that) and said to cUmar: 'Why do you bring in this boy to sit with us, while we have sons like him?'

cUmar replied 'Because of what you know of his position' (i.e., his religious knowledge).

One day cUmar called me and made me sit in the gathering of those people, and I think that he called me just to show them (my religious knowledge). cUmar then asked them in my presence: 'What do you say about the interpretation of the statement of Allah'.

'When comes help of Allah, and the conquest . . .' (110: 1).

Some of them said: 'We are ordered to praise Allah and ask for His forgiveness, when Allah's help and the conquest (of Makka) comes to us'. Some others kept quiet and did not say anything. On that cUmar asked me: 'Do you say the same, O Ibn cAbbâs?' I replied: 'No'. He said: 'What do you say then?' I replied: 'That is the sign of the death of Allah's apostle which Allah informed him of Allah said:

'(O Muhammad) when comes the help of Allah (to you against your enemies) and the conquest (of Makka) (which is the sign of your death) - you should celebrate the praises of your Lord and ask for His forgiveness, and He is the One who accepts the repentance and forgives' (110:1-3). On that cUmar said: 'I do not know anything about it other than what you have said'.

Another short example is:

Narrated 'Atâ': When Ibn cAbbâs heard:

'Have you not seen those who have changed the favour of Allah into disbelief?' (14: 28).

He said: 'Those were the disbelieving pagans of Makka.'

Tafsîr by Tabicûn

There are many more persons from among the tabicûn known for their preoccupation with tafsîr, because many more people had embraced Islam and the need for knowledge about the Qur'ân had increased manifold. Also, the Prophet himself and many of his Companions were no longer available to give this guidance, and therefore greater efforts had to be made to satisfy this need for proper understanding of the book of Allah.

Of the mufassirûn from among the tabicûn one distinguishes three groups, according to their origin and area of activity:

The Makkan Group: According to many scholars, this group of mufassirun from among the tabicûn are the most knowledgeable in tafsîr, because they learnt about it from cAbdullâh b. cAbbâs. They are many in number, and among the best known out of many others are Mujâhid (d.104/722), cAtâ' (d.114/732) and cIkrima (d.107H).

Mujâhid, the best known among them, is reported to have gone through the Qur'ân thrice with Ibn cAbbâs and to have asked him about the 'when' and 'how' of each verse that had been revealed.

A complete book of tafsîr by Mujâhid has been published. It is based on a manuscript from the 6th Hijra century and is edited by Surtî.


Humaid b. Qais Makki reported: I was with Mujâhid and we were circumambulating the house (Ka'ba). A man came and asked whether the fasts of penalty of an oath should be observed continuously or severally. Humaid replied that if he liked he could observe them severally too! But Mujâhid said: Not severally, for the reading of cUbayy b. Kacb is thalâthi ayyâmin mutatâbi'ât, i.e. to fast three days continuously'.

The Madinan Group: The mufassirûn among the tabicûn from Madina had many Companions as their teachers, among the best known being cUbay b. Kacb. The following are some of the well-known Qur'ân exegetes among them: Muhammad b. Kacb al-Qarzî (d.117/735), Abu-l 'Allîya al-Riyahî (d.90/ 708) and Zaid b. Aslam (d.130/747).

The Iraq Group: There were also many mufassirûn among the tabicûn in Iraq. Their principal teacher was Ibn Mas'ûd. Their main centres were Basra and Kufa. The best known among them are: Al-Hasan al-Basri (d.121/738), Masrûq b. al-'Ajda' (d.63/682) and Ibrâhîm al-Nakha'î (d.95/713).


Nothing can excel the tafsîr of the Qur'ân by the Qur'ân. This is followed by sound reports about the Prophet's explanation of the revelation.

Whatever is sound and genuine in the explanation of the Qur'ân by the sahâba and the tabicûn may not be rejected, but the following principles are to be observed:

Tafsîr bi'l-ra'y

The second kind of tafsîr, after tafsîr bi'l-riwâya, is the so-called tafsîr bi'l-ra'y. It is not based directly on transmission of knowledge by the predecessors, but on the use of reason and ijtihâd.

Tafsîr bil-ra'y does not mean 'interpretation by mere opinion', but deriving an opinion through ijtihâd based on sound sources. While the former has been condemned already in the hadith, the latter is recommendable, when used in its proper place as sound ijtihâd, and was also approved by the Prophet, e.g. when he sent Mu'âdh bin Jabal to Yemen.

Tafsîr bi'l-ra'y on the other hand has been declared harâm on the basis of the following hadîth:

'From Ibn cAbbâs: Allah's messenger said: "He who says (something) concerning the Qur'ân without knowledge, he has taken his seat of fire"'.

However this hadîth has been explained in two ways:

The obvious meaning of the hadîth is that one should not say something about the Qur'ân without having the proper knowledge, the sources of which have already been explained.

Two Kinds of tafsîr bi'l-ra'y: In view of this, it is obvious that tafsîr bi'l-ra'y should not be rejected in toto, but is acceptable if based on sound ijtihad. Scholars have therefore grouped tafsîr bi'l-ra'y into two kinds:

Sahâba or tabicûn shun mere opinion: While the tafsîr bi'l-ra'y based on sound sources was accepted, it is reported that from the outset the sahâba had refused to involve themselves in giving explanations based on mere opinion:

It is reported that a man asked Ibn cAbbâs about the day (mentioned in the Qur'ân) which measures 50 years, and Ibn cAbbâs replied: 'They are 2 days which Allah has mentioned in His book, and Allah knows best about them', and he disliked that he should say concerning the book of Allah, what he did not know.

The same attitude is also found among the tabicûn:

'We used to ask Sacîd b. al-Musayyib about halâl and harâm, and he was the most learned man, but when we asked him about tafsîr of a verse of the Qur'ân, he kept silent, as though he did not hear.'


Some scholars have said that tafsîr bi'l-ra'y is not allowed. since it cannot be traced back to the Prophet or his Companions directly. Others, who form the majority, say that it is permissible under the conditions described briefly above, because it is done by ijtihâd, based on sound sources, which is a permissible means of obtaining knowledge.

Tafsîr bi-l-ishâra

By this is meant the interpretation of the Qur'ân beyond its outer meanings, and the people practising it concern themselves with meanings attached to verses of the Qur'ân, which are not visible to anyone, but only to him whose heart Allah has opened. This kind of tafsîr is often found with mystically-inclined authors. While it must not be denied that Allah guides to the understanding of the Qur'ân whom He pleases and as He wills, it has to be said that tafsîr bi-l-ishâra is not a matter of science and scientific principles, which may be acquired and then used, as are the other branches of culum al-Qur'ân and of tafsîr. Some scholars have therefore rejected it from the viewpoint of general acceptability and said it is based on mere opinion. However Ibn al-Qayyim is reported to have said that results achieved by tafsîr bi-l-ishâra are permissible and constitute good findings, if the following four principles are jointly applied:

Differences In Tafsîr

In some cases the mufassirûn do not agree on the interpretation of a given verse from the Qur'ân. There are a number of reasons for this, the most important ones are the following:

Genuine mistake in comprehension.

Interpretation based on unconscious preconceived notion.

Multiplicity of meanings in the revelation from Allah.

The main cause however is, in the view of Ibn Taimîya, that the people introduced false innovation (bid'a) and 'twisted the speech (of God) from its actual position, and interpreted the speech of Allah and His apostle(s) other than it is meant, and explained it other than it should be explained'.


This word, meaning 'of Jewish origin' refers to explanations derived from non-Muslim sources and especially from the Jewish tradition, but also including other ahl al-kitâb in general. Such material was used very little by the sahâba, but more by the tabicûn and even more by later generations. There are many aspects of the Qur'ân which can be explained by referring to such sources, when there is common ground between the Qur'ân and the other traditions. However, the information taken from such sources must be used with great caution and cannot be considered sound according to the standards of 'ilm al-hadîth, unless traced back to the Prophet himself and his Companions. The Prophet has already cautioned Muslims against this source of knowledge:

Narrated Abû Huraira: The people of the scripture (Jews) used to recite the Torah in Hebrew and they used to explain it in Arabic to the Muslims. On that Allah's apostle said: 'Do not believe the people of the scripture or disbelieve them, but say: "We believe in Allah and what is revealed to us"' (2: 136).

Similarly Ibn Mas'ûd, the well-known Companion, is reported to have said: 'Do not ask the ahl al-kitab about anything (in tafsîr), for they cannot guide you and are themselves in error....'

Hence one distinguishes three kinds of the so-called isrâ'îlîyât:


A concise but useful summary of the vast field of tafsîr can be found in the following words said to be from Ibn cAbbâs:

'Tafsîr has four aspects:

the aspect the Arabs knew because of its language,

tafsîr, for ignorance of which no one will be excused,

tafsîr, which the scholars know,

tafsîr, which no one knows except Allah'.

The Tafsîr Literature

Some important Books of Tafsîr

Numerous books have been written by Muslim scholars on the subject of tafsîr. The oldest text available is attributed to Ibn cAbbâs (d.68/687) although some doubt its authenticity. Other old books of tafsîr, still available to us, include the works of Zaid bin cAlî (d.122/740) and Mujâhid, the famous tâbcî (d.104/722).

However it is generally accepted that the magnum opus among the early books of tafsîr, which have come down to us is the tafsîr al-Tabarî.

Tafsîr al-Tabarî: This book was written by Ibn Jarîr al-Tabarî (d-310/922) under the title Jami' al-Bayân fî Tafsîr al-Qur'ân. It belongs to the most famous books in tafsîr and is perhaps the most voluminous work we have on the subject. It belongs to the class of tafsîr bi'l-riwâya and is based on the reports from the Prophet, the sahâba and the tabicûn, giving the various chains of transmission and evaluating them. However, it also contains reports that are not sound, without clearly indicating this, including so-called isrâ'îlîyât. Tabarî also says in some places that one cannot know about certain things and that not to know about them does not do any harm. In spite of all this the book is nevertheless one of the most important works in tafsîr referred to by almost every subsequent scholar. It has been printed twice in Egypt (in 1903 and 1911) in 30 volumes, while a third edition begun in 1954 has reached volume 15.

Other Well-Known Books of Tafsîr

Some important books from the class of tafsîr bi'l-ra'y are as follows:

None of these important books have ever been translated into any European language.

To conclude here is an example from the Tafsîr al-Jalâlain:

About the Hypocrites:

Among men are those who say, we believe in God and in the Last Day - (that is the Day of Resurrection, because it is the last of days): but they are not believers. They endeavour to deceive God and those who have believed, by making a show of the reverse of the infidelity that they conceal; but they deceive not any except themselves; for the punishment of their deceit shall come upon them, and they shall be disgraced in this world, in consequence of God's acquainting His Prophet with that which they conceal, and shall be punished in the world to come; and they know not that they deceive themselves. In their hearts is a disease. Doubts and hypocrisy in this order them; and God has increased their disease by what he has revealed in the Kur'an, because they disbelieve it; and for them (is ordained) a painful punishment because they have charged with falsehood the Prophet of God and when it is said to them: corrupt not in the earth by infidelity and hindering others from embracing the faith - they reply, we are all only rectifiers - assuredly they are the corrupters; but they are not sensible thereof and when it is said unto them, believe ye as other men, the Companions of the Prophet, have believed- they say, shall we believe as the fools have believed? - assuredly they are the fools; but they know it not. And when they meet those who have believed they say, we believe; - but when they retire privately to their devils (that is, their chiefs), they say, we agree with you in religion; we only mock at them by making a show of their faith - God will mock at them. He will requite them for their mockery and continue them in their exceeding wickedness, wandering about in perplexity. These are they who have purchased error in exchange for right direction, and their traffic has not been profitable; on the contrary, they have incurred loss; for their transit is to the external fire; and they have not been rightly directed in that which they have done' (2: 7-15).

Contemporary Tafsîr Literature

Among numerous books on tafsîr that have been written in the twentieth century, three are outstanding. They have greatly influenced the thinking of Muslims all over the world, and are briefly introduced here. They are:

Tafsîr al-Manâr: The actual title of this book is Tafsîr al-Qur'ân al-Hakim. It was compiled by Muhammad Rashîd Rida (d.1354/1935), the well-known disciple of Muhammad cAbduh (d.1323/1905), and published in Egypt. It is called tafsîr al-Manâr since some of its parts had been serialised in the periodical al-Manâr. The tafsîr covers the first 12 juz' of the Qur'ân. The influence of the 'Manâr School of Thought' on Muslims all over the world since the turn of the century has been tremendous, although today, after several decades, some of the attempts to harmonise contemporary scientific as well as social development with the teachings of the Qur'ân seem rather inappropriate. For example, the commentary on Sura 1: 276, where Jinns are explained as microbes causing diseases, or on 4:3 where polygamy is 'prohibited' according to the tafsîr al-Manâr, because justice cannot be done between two or more wives. However the basic notion of the 'Manâr School of Thought' was that Islam is different and has to be seen as different from all Western philosophies and must regain its original position. This view, underlying the tafsîr al-Manâr continues to be voiced by many later Muslim scholars and leaders alike.

zilâl al-Qur'ân: This book, covering the complete Qur'ânic text in 4 volumes, with the title In the Shade of the Qur'ân has greatly influenced numerous Muslims especially the younger generations, and particularly in the Middle East. It was written by the well-known author Sayyid Qutb (d.1386/1966), mostly during his imprisonment (1954-64), and completed before he was executed by the Egyptian government because of his association with the ikhwân al-Muslimûn.

Qutb's aim, with this commentary on the Qur'ân was to explain the true nature of Islam to contemporary Muslims, so as to invite them to join the struggle for the establishment of Islam both on the individual as well as the social level. He emphasised in particular the differences that exist between Islam and the non-Islamic systems, as well as the need for Muslims to strive for the establishment of a movement for Islam.

Tafhîm al-Qur'ân: Written in Urdu, and first published in article form, from 1943, in the journal
Tarjumân al-Qur'ân, this tafsîr, covering the complete Qur'ânic text was completed in 1973. It is of great importance for contemporary Muslim thinking, particularly in the Indian subcontinent (Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Ceylon), but has also, by means of translation, reached a much wider audience. This tafsîr, entitled Understanding of the Qur'ân was written by the well-known founder of the Jamâ'at-i-Islâmî in Pakistan, Abul A'lâ Mawdûdî (d.1400/1979). Addressed primarily to a non-Arabic speaking audience this tafsîr places great emphasis on the thorough explanation of basic Qur'ânic concepts, such as ilâh, rabb, ibâda and dîn, and the Qur'ân as a 'book of guidance', not least containing guidance for a movement of Islamic re-construction and the Islamic way of life. Numerous notes add to the usefulness of this aid to understanding the Qur'ân. It is particularly suitable for the young educated Muslim with no direct access to the Arabic original.


There is a common factor in these three contemporary books. Tafsîr al-Manâr for the first time in modern history attempted to relate, to some extent, the Qur'ânic message to the actual situation of the Muslim umma in the contemporary world, and here, for the first time for centuries, tafsîr is no longer restricted to purely academic exercise and intellectual stimulus, but regains social and political significance. This is upheld and further elaborated in the two other books referred to.

Apart from these three main books of tafsîr, numerous other attempts have been made to interpret the Qur'ân for the contemporary age. All efforts of tafsîr are however, apart from their varying degrees of utility and reliability, only human efforts to present the Qur'ânic message in accordance with the needs and requirements of the age, and therefore in the final analysis can be only faint reflections of the Qur'ân as the word of God, against which all human efforts are inadequate, incomplete and of only limited validity. This basic principle, which all mufassirûn make the starting point of their work, should also be well remembered by the readers of the books of tafsîr, so as to remain aware of the actual book from Allah, the Qur'ân, upon which all exegesis and explanation rests.

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