How Tafseer Is Performed?

From The Book An Introduction To The Principles Of Tafseer (Shaykh ul-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah © 1993 al-Hidaayah)

© Islamic Awareness, All Rights Reserved.

Last Modified: 31th July 1999

If you ask what is the best method of tafsîr, the answer is that the best way is to explain the Qur'ân through the Qur'ân. For, what the Qur'ân alludes to at one place is explained at the other, and what it says in brief on one occasion is elaborated upon at the other. But if this does not help you, you should turn to the sunnah, because the sunnah explains and elucidates the Qur'ân. Imâm Abû cAbd Allâh Muhammad Ibn Idrîs al-Shâficî has said: "All that the Prophet, peace be upon him, has said is what he has derived from the Qur'ân." Allâh has said:

We have sent down to you the book in truth that you may judge between men, as Allaah guides you; so don't be an advocate for those who betray their trust. [al-Qur'ân 4:105]

We have sent down to you the message that you may explain clearly to people what has been sent to them, and that they think over it. [al-Qur'ân 16:44]

We sent down the Book to you for the express purpose that you should make clear to them those things in which they differ, and that it should be a guide and a mercy to those who believe. [al-Qur'ân 16:64]

This is why the Prophet (sallallâhu calayhi wa sallam) said:

Know that I have been given the Qur'ân and something like it. [Ahmad, Musnad, Vol. IV 131; Abû Dâwûd, Sunan, Sunnah, 5]

namely the Sunnah. In fact, the Sunnah, too has been given to him through wahy as the Qur'ân, except that it has not been recited to him as the Qur'ân. Imâm al-Shâficî and other scholars have advanced a number of arguments in support of this point; but this is not the place to quote them. [For discussion see al-Shâficî, al-Risâlah]

In order to understand the Qur'ân, you should first look to the Qur'ân itself. If that does not help, then turn to the Sunnah.

The Prophet (sallallâhu calayhi wa sallam) sent Mucâdh (radiyallaahu canhu) to Yemen and asked him: "How will you judge the cases (that come to you)?" He replied: "I will judge according to the Book of Allaah". "But if you do not get anything there, what will you do?", the Prophet (sallallâhu calayhi wa sallam) asked. He said: "I will refer to the sunnah of the Prophet (sallallâhu calayhi wa sallam)". "But if you do not get it even there, what will you do?", the Prophet (sallallâhu calayhi wa sallam) asked again. He replied: "I will exercise my judgment." Hearing this the Prophet (sallallâhu calayhi wa sallam) patted Mucâdh (radiyallâhu canhu) on the shoulder and said: "Praise be to Allâh who has guided the Messenger of His Messenger to what pleases His Messenger."

This hadîth has been reported in the Musnad and Sunan collections of hadîth with a good isnâd. [Ahmad, Musnad V:230, 236, 242; al-Dârimî, Sunan, Muqaddimah, 30; al-Tirmidhee, Sunan, Ahkâm, 3; Abû Dâwûd, Sunan, Adhiyah, 11.]

When you do not get any help from the Qur'ân or the Sunnah, turn to the words of the companions. For they know the Qur'ân better: they have witnessed its revelation, and passed through the situations in which it was revealed: and know it and understand it fully. This is particularly true of the scholars and leaders such as the four righteous caliphs and cAbdullâh ibn Mas'ûd. Imâm Abû Jacfar Muhammad ibn Jarîr at-Tabarî reports: Abû Kurayb narrated to us, saying: Jâbir ibn Nûh informed us that: al-Acmash informed us from Abû Duhâ: from Masrûq that cAbdullâh ibn Mas'ûd said: "By the one besides whom there none having the right to be worshipped, there is no verse in the Qur'ân about which I do not know in whose case and at what place was it revealed. If I were aware that anyone knew the Qur'ân more than me, and I could reach him, I would certainly have gone to see him." [Ibn al-Athîr, Jâmic al-Usûl fî Ahâdîth ar-Rasûl, 1392/1972, Vol. IX p. 48.] Al-Acmash has also reported through Abû Wâ`il that Ibn Mas'ûd said: "When anyone of us learned ten verses of the Qur'ân, he did not proceed further unless he had known what they meant and what action they demanded."

Another great scholar is cAbdullâh ibn cAbbâs (radiyallâhu canhumâ), the nephew of the Prophet (sallallâhu calayhi wa sallam) and the commentator of the Qur'ân. He attained that stature in virtue of the Prophet's prayer: "O Allâh! Give him knowledge of Islâm and teach him the meaning of the Qur'ân." [Ahmad, Musnad, Vol. 1: 266, 314, 328, 335]. Muhammad ibn Bashshâr narrated to us, that Wakîc informed us, that Sufyân informed us from al-Acmash: from Musim (ibn Sabeeh Abee Duhâ) from Masrûq: that cAbdullâh ibn Mascûd (radiyallâhu canhumâ) said: "What a good interpreter of the Qur'ân Ibn cAbbâs is!" Ibn Jarîr has also reported this hadîth through Yahyâ ibn Dâwûd, from Ishâq al-Azraq, from Sufyân, from al-Acmash, from Muslim ibn Sabeeh Abî Duhâ, from al-Masrûq with slightly different words: "What a good interpreter Ibn cAbbâs is of the Qur'ân!" He has also reported the same words through Bundar, from Jacfar ibn `Awn from al-A`mash. These words are, therefore, the actual words of Ibn Mascûd (radiyallâhu canhumâ) which he said about Ibn cAbbâs (radiyallâhu canhumâ). Ibn Mascûd (radiyallâhu canhumâ) died, most probably, in 33 A.H. Ibn cAbbâs (radiyallâhu canhumâ) lived for thirty six years after him, and added a lot to the treasury of Islâmic knowledge.

cmash quotes from Abû Wâcil that Ibn cAbbâs (radiyallâhu canhumâ) was appointed leader of the Hajj by cAlî (radiyallâhu canhu); he delivered a sermon and read from Sûrah al-Baqarah, or Sûrah al-Nûr according to another report, and explained it in such a way that had the Romans, Turks and the Dalamites heard it, they would have embraced Islâm. This is the reason why most of what Ismâcîl ibn cAbd al-Rahmân Suddî has written in tafsîr consists of the explanations of these two scholars: Ibn Mas'ûd and Ibn cAbbâs (radiyallâhu canhum).

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