Frequently Asked Questions about Tafseer


Tafseer (Quranic Exegesis) Q&A
What does Tafseer mean?
What is the difference between tafseer and ta'weel?
What is the importance of the Arabic language to Tafseer?
Can all Arabs understand the Quran?
Does understanding the Qur'an require language only?
What besides Arabic needs to be understood in order to make Tafseer?
What was the understanding and the ability of the Sahaba to explain (tafseer)?
Who were the most famous Mufassirun from the Sahaba?
Who were the most famous Mufassirun from the Tabi'un?
What occurred to Tafseer after the era of the Tabi'un?
What was the approach of the Sahaba to making Tafseer?
What was the approach of Tabi'un to making Tafseer?
What was the approach after the Tabi'un to making Tafseer?
Are Tafseers free from the influence of opinions, thoughts and rules of the time?
How did Tafseer develop through the ages?
Did the Mufassirun approach Tafseer from different perspectives?


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What does Tafseer mean?
The word tafseer is the form taf'eel from the word al-fasr which means to explain (bayan). You say I explained the thing (without pronouncing the tashdeed) ;'afsuruhu fasran', and I explained it (with the tashdeed) ; 'ufassiruhu tafseeran' when I explained it.


What is the difference between tafseer and ta'weel?
The difference between tafseer and ta'weel is that tafseer is the explanation of what is intended by the wording and ta'weel is the explanation of what is intended by the meaning. The word tafseer applies to the explanation of the verses of the Qur'an.


What is the importance of the Arabic language to Tafseer?
The Qur'an has been revealed in the Arabic language. So, its expressions are Arabic, even the expressions which are of a foreign origin like istabraq (brocade). It is has been Arabized according to the principles of Arabic and it became part of the Arabic expressions. The style of the Qur'an is the style of the Arabs in their speech. He ( Subhana wa ta'ala) said:
'An Arabic Qur'an.'[39:28]
The Arabs used to recite it, comprehend the strength of its eloquence and understand its meanings.


Can all Arabs understand the Quran?
Not all of the Qur'an can be approached by all Arabs who would understand it generally and specifically just by merely listening to it. Since, by revealing the Qur'an in the language of the Arabs does not mean that all Arabs will understand its words and phrases. Since not every book written in a certain language can be understood by the people of that language.


Does understanding the Qur'an require language only?
Understanding the book does not require language only but also a level of intellect in understanding and comprehension which agrees with the level and elevation of the book. The reality of the Arabs when the Qur'an was being revealed was that not all of them were able to understand the Qur'an generally and specifically. Rather, they used to differ in their understanding according to their intellectual elevation. Because of that reason the Sahabah's ability to explain and understand the Qur'an was at variance due to the disparity of their understanding of the Arabic language and also due to the disparity in their intelligence and comprehension. Though, the Quranic expressions themselves, and their meanings were not all understood by all Arabs. Anas b. Malik narrated that a man asked 'Umar b. al-Khattab about His (Subhana wa ta'ala) saying :
'And fruits and abba (herbage, etc).'[80:31]
What is the abb? 'Umar replied: We have been forbidden from over-burdening ourselves and going excessively deeply into things. It has also been narrated about 'Umar that he was on the minbar and he read:
'Or that He may catch them with takhawwuf (gradual wasting of their health).'[16:47]
Then he inquired about the meaning of takhawwuf? A man from Huzayl said:takhawwuf for us is the gradual decrease (tanaqqus).

Furthermore, there are many verses in the Qur'an in which understanding knowledge of linguistic expressions and styles is not sufficient. Rather, they require information about certain expressions because these expressions point to specific meanings such as in His (Subhana wa ta'ala) saying:
' By (the winds) that scatter dust.' [51:1]

' By the (steeds) that run, with panting (breath).' [100:1]

' Verily! We have sent it (this Qur'an) down in the night of al-qadr (decree).' [97:1]

' By the dawn; by the ten nights (i.e. the first ten days of the month of Dhul-hijja).' [89:1-2]
And other such verses which point to well known meanings.


What besides Arabic needs to be understood in order to make Tafseer?
There are verses whose understanding requires knowledge of the causes of revelation. There are verses in the Qur'an which are muhkama (explicit) and clear in meaning. They are the verses, especially the Makkan verses, which pertain to the fundamentals of the deen in terms of the aqeeda, and the verses which pertain to the fundamentals of the rules which are the Madinan verses, especially those relating to transactions (mu'amalat), punishments ('uqubat) and testimonies (bayyinat). As well, there are mutashabihat (non-explicit/ambiguous) verses in the Qur'an which are ambiguous in meaning for many people, especially the verses that are open to a number of meanings or necessitates leaving the obvious/apparent meaning for another meaning because of the contradiction with the creed which should be free of anthropomorphic elements.


What was the understanding and the ability of the Sahaba to explain (tafseer)?
The Sahaba were the most competent in understanding the Qur'an because they were the most knowledgeable in the Arabic language and because they witnessed the circumstances and events around which the Qur'an was revealed. However, they differed in their understanding and they differed in their ability to explain (tafseer) the Qur'an due to the disparity in the level of their familiarity with the Arabic language, and due to the disparity in their closeness to the Messenger (Sallallahu alaihi wa sallam ).


Who were the most famous Mufassirun from the Sahaba?
The most famous Mufassirun from the Sahaba were 'Ali b. Abi Talib, 'Abd Allah b. 'Abbas, 'Abd Allah b. Mas'ud and Ubay b. Ka'b. They are the four who fed the most amount of exegetical material to the different Muslim cities. What enabled them to have such a deep knowledge of tafseer was their strong understanding of the Arabic language, their grasp of its rhetorical form and styles, their mixing with the Prophet (Sallallahu alaihi wa sallam) and being close to him which enabled them to know the events for which verses of the Qur'an were revealed, and their faculty of intellect and intelligence, a faculty which enabled them to link meanings together in the best manner and come out with correct results. That is why they did not refrain from making ijtihad in understanding the Qur'an according to what the mind demanded. Rather, they made ijtihad in tafseer and spoke about it within their own opinions (ijtihads) and they made decisions based what they had arrived at by their understanding and ijtihad. Therefore, the tafseers of those people are considered as one of the highest forms of tafseer. But, many have lied about them and sayings have been inserted/interpolated in their tafseer which they did not say. That is why you will find many fabrications in their tafseer. What has been authenticated by trustworthy narrators is one of the strongest of tafseers. As for everything else from the fabricated reports, it is not permitted to take them, since it has not been proven that they said them. However, the warning/caution of taking fabricated tafseers of those four does not mean it is a warning against reading their tafseers. Rather, it is a caution against taking them and practicing them given the consideration that these are fabrications. As for reading them and determining a correct understanding by the language, Shari'a and intellect with what has been mentioned in them. That is a useful thing. Because there are valuable explanations (tafseers) in these fabricated reports in terms of understanding even though their chains of transmission are weak in terms of their ascription to the Sahaba.


Who were the most famous Mufassirun from the Tabi'un?
After the Sahaba came the Tabi'un. Some of them became famous for transmitting from the Sahaba, from the four mentioned above and from others. The most famous from those Tabi'un are Mujahid, 'Ata b. Abi Rabah, 'Ikrama freedman of Ibn 'Abbas and Sa'id b. Jubayr. The 'Ulama have differed on the degree of trust put on those Mufassirun from the Tabi'un. So, Mujahid is the most reliable even though he had the fewest narrations and some imams and muhaddithun like Shafi'i and Bukhari rely on his tafseer. However, some of them observed that Mujahid used to ask the People of the Book. So from this perspective they would give his sayings thorough consideration before taking them though they are agreed on his honesty. Both 'Ata and Sa'id were trustworthy and honest and no one has questioned their honesty. As for 'Ikrama, most scholars trust him and believe him. And Bukhari transmits from him but others view him as taking risks in tafseer thinking that he knows everything about the Qur'an. And that was due to the huge amount of Quranic tafseer he has narrated from the Sahaba. From the four 'Ikrama was the one who transmitted mostly from Ibn 'Abbas. There are those who used to narrate from the rest of the Sahaba like Masruq b. al-Ajda' the student of 'Abd Allah b. Mas'ud, he used to narrate tafseer from him. From the Tabi'un, Qatada b. Da'ama [suddus akma] also became well known for tafseer. He had an extensive knowledge of the Arabic language and was well versed in Arabic poetry, the era of the Arabs and their genealogy.


What occurred to Tafseer after the era of the Tabi'un?
After the end of the era of the Tabi'un, the 'Ulama began to compile books of tafseer following a specific method, which is to mention the verse and then quote what has been reported from the tafseers of the Sahaba and the Tabi'un along with their chains. Some of them who were famous for this method were Sufyan b. 'Uyayna, Waki' b. al-Jarrah, 'Abd al-Razzaq and others. Though the tafseers of those people have not reached us in their entirety. Rather what have reached us are statements found in some of the books of tafseer like the tafseer of al-Tabari. Then after them came al-Farra' and then came al-Tabari. Then scholars of tafseer came one after another in every age until our time.


What was the approach of the Sahaba to making Tafseer?
The Sahaba made tafseer for the verses of the Noble Qur'an either as their own ijtihad in tafseer or from hearing it from the Messenger of Allah (Sallallahu alaihi wa sallam ). Many a time they would explain the cause of revelation for a verse or explain with respect to whom it had been revealed. In explaining a verse they would restrict themselves to elucidating the linguistic meaning which they understood from the verse with the most concise of words like their saying : ghayr mutajanif li ithm (not inclined to sin) i.e. not liable/predisposed to sin (ghayr muta'arrid li ma'siyya). Like their statement regarding His (Subhana wa ta'ala) saying :
'( Forbidden) also is to use arrows seeking luck or decision.'[5:3]
The people of jahiliyya when one of them wanted to go out (on a journey) he would take an arrow and say: This one orders me to go out. So if he goes out on his journey will meet good luck. And he will take another arrow and say: This one orders me to stay, so he will not be lucky in his journey. The unlucky arrow is one of the two arrows. So Allah forbade them from this practice. If they added anything to that it would be what has been narrated about the cause of revelation and with regards to whom the verse in question was revealed. An example would be what has been narrated about Ibn 'Abbas (r.a.) regarding His (Subhana wa ta'ala) saying:
' He will surely bring you back to the ma'ad (place of return).' [28:85]
He said : to Makkah. It has been narrated about Abu Hurayra (r.a.) regarding His (Subhana wa ta'ala) saying:
' Verily! You (O Muhammad guide not whom you like.' [28:56]
that he said the verse had been revealed concerning the Messenger of Allah (Sallallahu alaihi wa sallam) when he tried to win over his uncle Abu Talib to Islam.


What was the approach of the Tabi'un to making Tafseer?
The Tabi'un reported everything the Sahaba mentioned in this manner. From among the Tabi'un themselves there were those who explained the verses of the Noble Qur'an or stated the cause of revelation, either as their own ijtihad in tafseer or by hearing it from (other authorities).


What was the approach after the Tabi'un to making Tafseer?
After the Tabi'un the 'Ulama came and expanded the tafseer and quoted reports from the Jews and Christians. The mufassirun succeeded one after another in every age and generation, who explained the Qur'an and expanded the tafseer in each age on what had come before. The mufassirun began to give their attention to the verses to deduce rulings from them and explain their schools of thought in terms of freewill (ikhtiyar) and predestination (jabr). And they began to explain verses proving their opinions according to their inclinations in legislation, theology/scholasticism ('ilm al-Kalam), rhetorics/eloquence (balagha), declension (sarf) and grammar etc.


Are Tafseers free from the influence of opinions, thoughts and rules of the time?
What is apparent from an examination of the tafseers, through the different ages since the time of the Sahaba until now, is that the tafseer of the Qur'an in every age was influenced by the scholarly movement of the time. A picture which reflected the views, theories and schools of thought of the time. Seldom were there tafseers that were free from the influence of opinions, thoughts and rules of the time.


How did Tafseer develop through the ages?
Tafseers were not compiled in books from the first day mufassirun came to exist i.e. from the time of the Sahaba. Rather, they changed from situation to situation through the ages. In the beginning, the tafseer used to be a part of the hadith and one of its chapters. The hadith was the all-extensive topic which encompassed all the Islamic disciplines. So the transmitter of a hadith, just as he would narrate a hadith containing a legal ruling, he would also narrate a hadith which contained the tafseer of a Quranic verse. Then writers, in the beginning of the Abbasid era and towards the end of the Umayyad era i.e. in the beginning of the second century hijri, began to bring together all the similar and relevant ahadith under a topic and separate them from other topics. So the disciplines such as tafseer and fiqh which the hadith contains were separated from each other. What resulted from the sciences is what resulted in terms of hadith, seera, jurisprudence and tafseer. Thus, the science of tafseer came to exist and it became an independent science which was studied on its own. However, the tafseers did not take any organised form, in that verses of the Qur'an were not mentioned in an ordered manner like the arrangement found in the mushaf (Qur'an) and then followed by their tafseer. Rather, the tafseers narrated were scattered here and there. There were tafseer for miscellaneous verses as was the case with the hadith. This situation continued until the tafseer became separated from the hadith and began to stand up as a science in its own right. Tafseer was given for each ayah of the Qur'an or part of an ayah, arranging these verses according to the order in the mushaf. The first one to undertake the tafseer of the Qur'an quoting ayah after ayah and explaining them one after another was al-Farra' (d.207 A.H.). Ibn al-Nadim reports in his Fihrist that:' 'Umar b. Bakir wrote to al-Farra' that al-Hasan b. Sahl perhaps may ask me one thing after another from the Qur'an but I will not be able to recall all the answers. I think you should bring together the essential points and compile them in a book. So al-Farra' said to his students ; gather together so that I can dictate to you a book about the Qur'an. He gave them a day. When they came he went to them. In the mosque there was a man giving the azan and reciting the Qur'an with the people in prayer. Al-Farra' tuned to him and said : recite the opening chapter of the Qur'an (fatihatul kitab), we will explain it and then we will speak fully about the whole book. The man recited and al-Farra' made tafseer. Abu al-'Abbas said : no one did anything like him before and I don't think anyone can add to that.' Then, after him came Ibn Jarir al-Tabari (d.310 A.H.) who wrote his famous tafseer. A number of tafseers before the tafseer of Ibn Jarir became well known. Such as the tafseer of Ibn Jurayj. His situation was the situation of the first muhaddithin who compiled everything that reached them without differentiating between the correct (sahih) and incorrect reports. They said 'that Ibn Jurayj's aim was not authenticity, rather he reported everything that was reported about every ayah whether it was correct (sahih) or weak (saqim).' Also from these tafseers is the tafseer of al-Suddi (d.127 A.H.) and the tafseer of Muqatil (d.150 A.H.). 'Abd Allah b. al-Mubarak said about the tafseer of Muqatil : How excellent is his tafseer, if only he were reliable (thiqa).' Amongst them is also the tafseer of Muhammad b. Ishaq. He used to transmit from the Jews and Christians and he used to quote sayings of Wahb b. Munabbih, Ka'b al-Ahbar and others, who reported things from the Torah, Bible and their commentaries. These tafseers have not reached us. Although Ibn Jarir al-Tabari has collected most of it and included it in his book. Then came mufassirun one after another explaining the Qur'an in a complete and well-ordered manner in books that were complete and systematic.


Did the mufassirun approach Tafseer from different perspectives?
Anyone who inspects the tafseer will find that the mufassirun approached the tafseer from various perspectives/angles.

Some were interested in looking at the styles and meanings of the Book and whatever it included in terms of the forms of rhetorics (balagha) to know the highest and distinguished forms of speech as compared to other types of speech. So the rhetorical aspect prevailed in their tafseers. One of those people is Muhammad b. al-Zamakhshari in his tafseer entitled al-Kashaf.

There were those who looked into the foundations of belief, the fighting of zaifeen and debating with those who disagreed (with Islam) like Fakhr al-Din al-Razi in his famous tafseer : al-Tafseer al-Kabir.

And some of them studied the Shari'a rules and were interested in deducing them from the verses. So they channelled their interest towards the verses of ahkam like Abu Bakr al-Razi commonly known as al-Jassas in his well known tafseer Ahkam al-Qur'an.

There were those who went after stories and added to the Quranic stories from the books of history and israilyyat (Judaica) and began to collect everything they heard however meagre or abundant without revising the things that contradicted the Shari'a, did not agree with the mind and contradicted Qur'anic ayahs which are definite in meaning. One such person is 'Ala' al-Din 'Ali b. Muhammad al-Baghdadi the sufi otherwise known as al-Khazin who did this in his tafseer Bab al-ta'weel fi ma'ani al-tanzeel.

And there were those that concerned themselves with supporting their mazhab (school) and explaining the verses in accordance with whatever supports their faction like the tafseer al-Bayan of al-Shaykh al-Tibrisi and the tafseer al-Tibyan of al-Shaykh al-Tusi. Both of them supported the views of the Shi'a and their mazhab regarding belief ('aqaid) and ahkam.

And there were those that were only concerned with the tafseer in order to explain the verses and rulings of the Qur'an regardless of any perspective. They are the mufassirun whose tafseers are considered the essence of the books of tafseer. And they are considered the imams of tafseer and other topics. Like the tafseer of Ibn Jarir al-Tabari, the tafseer of Abu 'Abd Allah Muhammad al-Qurtubi, and the tafseer of al-Nasafi and others.

As for the tafseers written in this day and age and towards the end of the period of decline, like the tafseer of Muhammad 'Abduh, the tafseer of Tantawi Jawhari, and the tafseer of Ahmad Mustafa al-Muraghi and others. They are not considered part of the tafseer literature and nor is there any trust put on them. That is because there is a risk to the deen of Allah in the explanation of many verses like Muhammad 'Abduh's tafseer of the verse:
'And whosoever does not judge by what Allah has revealed, such are the Fasiqun (transgressors).'[5:44]
He permitted the Muslims of India to adopt English laws and submit to the rulings of English judges. Shaykh Muhammad 'Abduh mentioned in volume six from the Tafseer of the Wise Qur'an widely known as al-Manar in the tafseer of sura al-Maida when he explained His (Subhana wa ta'ala) saying:
'And whosoever does not judge by what Allah has revealed, such are the Fasiqun (transgressors).'[5:44]
When in pages 406-409 he was asked : Is it permitted for a Muslim to be employed by the English to rule by English laws some of which constitutes ruling by other than what Allah has revealed ? He gave a long reply:
"In short, the abode of war (dar al-harb) is not a place for the establishment of the rules of Islam, therefore it is obligatory to make hijra unless there is an excuse or benefit for the Muslims due to which he will be safe from the fitna (test) on his deen. It is incumbent on the one who resides (in India) to serve the Muslims according to the best of his abilities and to strengthen the rules of Islam as much as he can. And there is no means of strengthening the influence of Islam and protecting the interests of the Muslims like the assuming of government posts especially if the government is lenient and fairly just between all nations and religions like the English government. It is well known that the laws of this country is closer to the Islamic Shari'a more than others because it delegates most matters to the ijtihad of judges. So whoever is qualified to be a judge in Islam and takes up a post in the judiciary in India with the correct aim and good intention, it is possible for him to do a great service for the Muslims. It is obvious that the abandonment of the judiciary and other government posts, by the people of knowledge and insight due to being sinful for working according to their laws, will forfeit the interests of the Muslims in their deen and dunya."
Then he said :
"It is obvious from all of this that the Muslim's acceptance to work in the English government in India 'and any other similar work' and his ruling according to their laws is a dispensation (rukhsa) which comes under the principle of doing the lesser of two evils if there is no 'azeema by which support of Islam and protecting the interests of Muslims is intended"

Or like the tafseer of Tantawi Jawhari where he mentioned that there are modern sciences and disciplines in the Qur'an and he filled his tafseer with pictures of birds and animals to demonstrate that the Qur'an did explain such things. And like the tafseer of Mustafa Zayd who rejected the existence of angels and Shayateen which he interpreted (away). So he committed kufr by his tafseer and took himself outside of Islam. These tafseers and their likes are not considered books of tafseer by the Muslims and nor are their explanations given any consideration.

Adapted by Habib-ur-Rahman from the forthcoming English translation of
Shaksiyah Islamiyah (The Islamic Personality) Vol.1

By

Taqiuddin an-Nabhani

Hizb-ut-Tahrir

Source: Shaksiah Islamiyyah vol I