SUBHANALLAH! Mashallah, what a gr8 idea.
I thought this article might be of use before we start.
In the Name of Allah, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful
An Introduction to the Science of Tafseer
by Mufti Shafi Uthmani.
The literal meaning of tafseer in the Arabic language is to open or to explain, interpret or comment. Technically, the science of tafseer is a branch of knowledge in which the meanings of the Quran are explained and its injunctions and wisdoms are described openly and clearly. (al-Burham) Addressing the Holy Prophet, the Glorious Qur'an says:
We revealed the Qur'an to you so that you explain to the people what has been sent down to them (16:44).
The Holy Qur'an also 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 did not only teach the words of the Quran, 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, insha-Allah, appear later on.
Until such time that the Holy Prophet graced the 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 tafseer of Qu'ran be preserved as a permanent branch of knowledge so that, along with the words of the noble Qur'an, its correct meaning as well strands were protected and conserved for the Muslim Ummah, and heretics and deviationists could find no room for distortion of its meanings.
So, with the grace and tawfeeq of Allah Almighty, this Ummah accomplished this wonderful mission with such efficiency that today we can say without any doubt or fear of rejection that not only are the words of this last Book of Allah protected but also stands protected that correct tafseer and explanation which has reached us through the Holy Prophet and his Companions who were ever-prepared to sacrifice their lives for him.
In what ways did the Muslim Ummah protect and preserve the 'ilm? What extreme hardships they faced in this pursuit? How many stages did this struggle have to go through? All this has a long and fascinating history which cannot be taken up in the present context. The intention here is to state briefly as to what are the sources of Qur'anic exegesis and how these sources have been utilized in explaining the noble Qur'an by all those countless books on 'Ilm al-Tafseer available in every language. These sources are six in number:
1. The Glorious Qur'an:
The first source of the knowledge of tafseer 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, being 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 tafseer 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 Hadeeth:
The words and the deeds of the Holy Prophet called Hadeeth, and as it has been stated earlier, Allah Almighty had sent him with the Qur'an solely for the purpose of explaining 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 tafseer of Qur'an. It is for this reason that respected commentators, in order to understand the Qur'an, have laid the greatest emphasis on Hadeeth as the second source, and it is in the light of ahadeeth that they have determined the meanings of the Book of Allah.
However, because all sorts of narrations - sound, weak, and fabricated - are included in Hadeeth, research-oriented commentators do not accept a narration as trustworthy until it withstands the principles used in the scrutiny of Hadeeth narrations. Hence, finding a hadeeth report somewhere, looking at it, and then employing it to determine a certain tafseer 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 this field of knowledge.
3. The Reports from the Sahabah:
The noble Sahabah (RA) (Companions), may Allah be pleased with them all, had received their education directly from the Holy Prophet . 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 Hadeeth, statements recorded from the noble Companions (RA) 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 (RA) differ in the interpretation (tafseer) 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-Hadeeth and Usul al-Tafseer a detailed discussion of which is not appropriate here.
4. The Reports from the Tabi'in or Successors:
After Companions (RA) (Sahabah) come the Successors (Tabi'in). The later are those who have learnt the tafseer of Qur'an from the Companions (RA). Therefore, their statements too have great importance in the science of tafseer, although there exists a difference among scholars whether or not the statements of the tabi'in are decisive in tafseer (al-ltqan, 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 tafseer or explanation, the sayings of the Holy Prophet , or the statements of the sahabah and tabi'in 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 the basis of language alone that they are elucidated. Besides that, should there be some difference in the tafseer 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 tafseer 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 (Ijm-a'), 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 (RH) had started describing such mysteries and subtleties in tafseer, but investigative scholars of the ummah did not consider these trustworthy because the personal opinion of any person against the basic principles of the Qur'an, Sunnah and Shariah has obviously no weight. (al-ltqan, 2/184)
The rules relating to israelite reports:
Judaica or Isra'iliyya-t are narratives which have reached us through Jews and Christians. It may be noted that early commentators used to write down all sorts of narration's which reached them from an identified source. Many of these narration's 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 tafseer under the name of 'Isra'iliyyat'. Hafiz ibn Kathir, who is one of the authentic research scholars, has written that there are three kinds of 'Isra-liyya-t':
1. Narrations, the truth of which is proved from other evidences of 'the Qur'an and Sunnah, for instance, the drowning of Pharoah and the ascent of Sayyidna Musa (AS) 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 narration's that Sayyidna Sulayman (AS) 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 narration's that (God forbid) Sayyidna Dawud (AS) (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 blatant lie, and taking such narration's to be false is imperative.
3. Narration's regarding which the Qur'an, the Sunnah and the Shariah are silent, such as the injunctions of Torah etc., are subjects about which silence is to be observed as taught by the Holy Prophet 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 Tafseer ibn Kathir)
Misconceptions about Tafseer
Hopefully, details given above have made it clear that the tafseer (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 tafseer (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 criticizing 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 any where 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 Hadeeth? 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 God 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 . 'Allamah al-Suyuti has reported from Im-am Abu 'Abd al-Rahman Sulami that the Companions, who formally learned the Qur'an from the Holy Prophet , such as Sayyidna 'Uthman ibn 'Affan (RA) and 'Abdullah ibn Mas'ud (RA) and others, have told us that, after having learnt ten verses of the Qur'an from the Holy Prophet , 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-ltqan 2/176)
Consequently, as reported in Mu'atta of Imam Malik, Sayyidna 'Abdullah ibn Umar (RA) spent full eight years memorizing Surah al-Baqarah alone and, as in the Musnad of Ahmad, Sayyidna Anas' (RA), 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 qasidah 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 .
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 has said:
Whoever says anything about the Qur'an without knowledge, then he should make his abode in Hell. (Abu Dawud, as in al-ltqan, 2/179)
The Holy Prophet 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'ariful 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.
Tafseer ibn Jarir: The real name of this tafseer is Jami' al-Bayan and it was compiled by Allamah Aba Ja'far Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari (died 310 Hijrah). Allamah Tabari is a highly rated commentator, Muhaddith (hadeeth expert) and historian. It is said that he kept writing for forty years continuously and used to write forty pages every day (al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah, 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 tafseer 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 proof. It must, however, be admitted that narration's 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 narration's 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 narration's are true or false.
Tafseer 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 narration's. A special feature is his criticism as hadeeth expert on different narration's, and from this point of view, this book holds a distinct place among all books of tafseer.
Tafseer Al-Qurtubi: 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 tafseer, and quite ably so. This book is in twelve volumes and has been published repeatedly.
Al-Tafseer al-Kabir: 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 Tafseer Kabir'. Imam Razi is an imam of the theology of Islam, therefore, great emphasis has been laid in his tafseer on rational and scholastic debates and on the refutation of false sects'. But, the truth is that this tafseer 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 tafseer as far as Surah al-Fath. Onwards from there, he could not complete. So, the remaining part of the tafseer, from Surah al-Fatiha to the end, was completed by Qadi Shihab al-Din ibn Khalil al-Khawli 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 tafseer: 'There is everything in this (book) except the tafseer.' But this comment is a terrible injustice to Tafseer Kabir. That which is the truth has already been stated above, namely, that this tafseer 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.
Tafseer al-Bahr al-Muhit: 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 tafseer 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-Quran by al-Jassas: This was written by Imam Abu 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.
Tafseer al-Durr al-Manthur: This was written by 'Allamah Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (died 910 Hijrah). Its full name is 'al-Durr al-Manth-ur fi al-Tafseer bi I'Ma'thur.' Here 'Allamah al-Suyuti has tried to collect all narration's about the tafseer of Qur'an he was able to find. Several hadeeth 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 narration's presented by all of them in this book. But, rather than refer to complete chain of authorities along with narration's, 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 narration's, as a result of which, all sorts of narration's, 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 hadeeth critique, it is still difficult to fully rely on that too.
Al-Tafseer al-Mazhari: This was written by Qadi Thanaullah Panipati (died 1225 Hijrah). He has named this tafseer as 'Al-Tafseer al-Mazhari, after the name of his spiritual master, Mirza Mazhar Jan-e-Janan Dehlavi. This tafseer of his is very 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 narration's in ample details, and in doing so, he has made an effort to accept narration's after much more scrutiny as compared with other commentaries.
Ruh al-Ma'ani: The full name of this tafseer is 'Ruh al-Ma'ani fi Tafseer al-Quran 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 tafseer 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 hadeeth narratives as well, the author of this work has been more cautious as compared to other commentators.