InsightJanuary- March 2016Slider Post

Conventional Pattern of Qur’anic Interpretation: A Critique

Prof. Israr Ahmad


The more the distance between the time of Qur’anic revelation and any period later on, the stronger the need for the interpretation of its message! During the last fifteen centuries a number of interpretations of the Qur’an, in almost all the major languages of the world, have emerged. These works are mere reproduction and repetition of some early tafsirbooks in Arabic, including Jami‘ al-Bayan by Muhammad ibnJarir al-Tabari (d. 310 A.H.),Ahkamal-Qur’an by Abu Bakr al-Jassas (d. 370 A.H.),Al-Kashshaf ‘an Haqa’iq al-Tanzilby Mahmud ibn ‘Umar al-Zamakhshari (d. 538 A.H.), and Mafatih al-Ghaybby Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 606 A.H.). The four tafsirworks representfour trends respectively, traditional, jurisprudential, rational cum doctrinal, and rational cum philosophical. It appears that the mufassirunhave unanimity over the fundamental principles of tafsir: (1) the Qur’an interprets the Qur’an, (2) the Prophetic traditions elaborate the Qur’an, (3) views of the Companions (sahabah) and the Successors (tabi‘un) unfold the Qur’an, and (4) Judeo-Christian traditions help understand the historical narratives in the Qur’an. Yet, they have miserably failed to be common in their interpretation of the Qur’an. It is quite logical to investigate to find out what went wrong in the widely-applied principles of Qur’anic interpretation that despite similarity of applied principles the result is dissimilar.

Original Tafsir Trend Setters: An Overview

Muhammad ibnJarir al-Tabari (d. 310 A.H.) may well be described as the pioneer in the field of Islamic history and Qur’anic interpretation. His tafsirwork “Jami‘ al-Bayan fi ta’wil al-Qur’an” is the oldest extant work in the field. It is quite voluminously encyclopaedic work. Its methodological pattern is composed of two elements, al-Tabari’s own view on the verse concerned, and views of Muslim scholars, generally from three generations—Companions (sahabah), Successors (tabi‘un), and Followers (atba‘ al-tabi‘in). As for the mufassirhimself, he gives his understanding of the verses concerned in full. But the views of scholars focus on the imports of particular words in the verses. For example: Surah al-Baqarah: 30 reads: “Behold, your Lord said to the angels: “I will create a vicegerent on earth”. They said: “will you place therein one who will make mischief therein and shed blood, while we ever exalt You with all praise and hallow You? He said: Indeed I know what you do not know”. Al-Tabari here begins the interpretation of the verse with his critical analysis of the views on the import of the words occurred in the first part thereof “waidhqalarabbuka li al-mala’ikah” (behold your Lord said to the angels), focusing particularly on “waidh” (when/behold/lo) and “al-mala’ikah” (angels). And thereafter he quotes detailed views of various scholars on the meaning of later parts of the verse. In this respect, he comes up with various views on the angels’ opinion—“a taj‘alufiha main yufsidufihawayasfiku al-dima’”—attributed to scholars, including ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Abbas, QatadahibnDi‘amah, and al-Hasan al-Basri. It is interesting to note that al-Tabari refers to two different views attributed to ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Abbas and tries to effect a compromise between them.[1] This victimization of Ibn ‘Abbas—attribution of two contradictory views to him—is one of the special features of al-Tabari’stafsir. One may rightly put up a question as to why al-Tabari brought two conflicting views of Ibn ‘Abbas without subjecting them to investigation. Dr. Muhammad Husain al-Dhahbi claims that al-Tabari does not confine himself only to quoting the views of scholars but also counters them, making his own preference of the views.[2] It is true that he prefers one view to the other but in case of conflict between two views attributed to Ibn ‘Abbas he does not play the role of muhaddith who subjects the report concerned to the criteria of al-jarhwa al-Ta‘dil.

Abu Bakr al-Jassas (d. 370 A.H.) is well-known as a mufassirof Hanafischool of jurisprudence. He authored his famous work “Ahkam al-Qur’an” in a bid to support, strengthen, and promote the views of Hanafischolars. As recognized in the circle of tafsir, the jurisprudential interpretation of the Qur’an does not cover the Qur’an in its entirety; it rather selects only those verses of the Qur’an that have legislative significance. Al-Jassas’ work represents that category of tafsir. His methodological pattern is based on generally three elements: (1) identifying in the verses of the Qur’an supposedly strong grounds for Hanafidecrees on the issues whatsoever, (2) referring to Hadith and views of Sahabahso as to further strengthen Hanafiviews, and (3) criticizing virulently other scholars’ views, including those from the Maliki and Shafi‘i schools of Islamic law. It is noteworthy that he does not bring verses to interpret them; he rather prefers to coin a rubric and concentrate the discussion on the issue concerned by employing the Qur’an, Hadith, and views of fuqaha’. An example may suffice to bring the idea home. Surah al-Nisa’: 22 reads: “And marry not women whom your fathers married before. Excepted from this proscription is what has already taken place in the past. It was shameful and odious and abominable custom indeed”. Al-Jassas develops from here a theme and makes it the theme of his discussion—bab ma yuharrimu min al-nisa’ (section on what is prohibited concerning women). Under this heading he makes a very lengthy discussion spreading over 19 pages. The entire effort is based on so called logic so as to, at any cost, prove the validity of Hanafiview on the matter. In the process of the debate he brings the stand of al-Shafi‘i (d. 204 A.H.) and condemns him  in the name of criticism: “what al-shafi‘i said and what the questioner submitted to is all non-sense (kalamfarigh)”.[3] Is it a criticism? This style of rebutting others’ views has been imitated by many others, including Al-Kayya al-Harasi (d. 504 A.H.) and Abu Bakribn al-‘Arabi (d. 543 A.H) in their tafsirworks.

Mahmud ibn ‘Umar al-Zamakhshari(d. 538 A.H.) is counted a very strong mufassirwith rational approach. His tafsiris entitled “Al-Kashshaf ‘anHaqa’iq al-Tanzil”. As it is evident from this work, the mufassirhas tried to validate mu‘tazilithoughts and dogmas particularly the five basic principles, al-tawhid(unity of God), al-‘adl(the Justice), sidq al-wa‘d al-wa‘id(validity of the Promise and the warning), al-manzilatubayn al-manzilatayn(the status between two ranks), al-amr bi al-ma‘rufwa al-nahy ‘an al-munkar (promoting the good and prohibiting the evil).Dr Muhammad Husain al-Dhahbi places this tafsirunder the category “al-Tafsir bi al-Ra’ye al-Madhmum” (Condemnable Tafsir based on Independent Reasoning).[4] This categorization may not withstand logical scrutiny. Al-Zamakhshari always refers to strong reasons in the Qur’an for what he considers true. The main allegation against him is that he manipulates the Qur’anic verses in favour of his views. It is equally true for other mufassirun. Why is, then, only al-zamakhshari condemned? Almost all the mufassirunadmire one dimension of his tafsir i.e. rhetoric (balaaghah). An example of how he begins and ends in the interpretation of a verse is given here.

Surah al-Nisa’: 1 reads: “O people, be conscious of your Lord, who created you from a single soul, and from it created its mate, and from them both scattered countless men and women. So fear Allah, in whose name you ask consideration of one another, and therefore be dutiful to kindred. For indeed Allah is ever vigilant over you”. He begins and continues his interpretation of this verse by focusing on the words and phrases occurred therein from literal and technical angles. He alongside with that explains all the major and minor grammatical aspects of the words. And ends the interpretation with two traditions on the authority of Ibn ‘Abbasand Sufyanibn ‘Uyaynah respectively, linking them with “wa al-taqu Allah al-ladhitasa’alunabihi al-araham”, with an emphasis on the message that man has to be mindful to his legitimate origin and should not fall victim to his low desires.[5]

A major problem with work is that in the end of each surah the mufassir quotes report/s attributed to the Last Prophet (s.a.w.) over the significance of the surah. Experts are unanimous that almost all these traditions concerning significance of surahsare either too weak or fabricated. About the significance of Surah al-Nisa’ he quotes a tradition attributed to the Last Prophet (s.a.w.): “Who reads Surah al-Nisa’ is like the one who bequeathed will to distribute his property among all believing men and women. His reward will be equal to the one who bought a slave to free him. He will be free from shirk; and will be enlisted, as per the will of Allah, in the list of those who are forgiven by Him”.[6]This is a fabricated tradition reported on the authority of UbayyibnKa‘ab.[7]

Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 606 A.H.) is a highly acclaimed Muslim philosopher. His voluminous tafsirtitle is “Mafatih al-Ghayb”. If it is said that al-Razi has created a labyrinth in the name of tafsir, it might not be easily contested. It is this reason that some scholars have described it as an effort of non-tafsir. The chief component of this work is al-Razi’s own imaginary issues and discussion thereupon. Rebuttal of others’ views on any matters whatsoever constitutes another focal point therein.

Surah al-Baqarah: 2 reads: “dhalika al-kitab la raybafihihuda li al-muttaqin” (That Book undoubtedly serves as guidance for those who are conscious of Allah). Al-Razi’s interpretation of this verse spread over eleven pages of large size in which he comes up with 32 main issues and under each of them he discusses so many other sub-issues. These discussions are replete with Qur’anic verses and traditions.[8]

Objectives of Qur’anic Interpretation

Mufassirunvary in their purpose of interpreting the Qur’an. Al-Tabari intended to accumulate the views of well-known scholars on words, phrases, and statements in the Qur’an so as to establish their original meaning. Al-jassas, Ibn al-‘Arabi, and Al-Kayya al-Harasi embarked upon this task to find out support for their respective schools of fiqh, Hanafi, Maliki, and Shafi‘i. It may not be, then, considered appropriate attitude towards the Qur’an. If it is said that the three scholars from Hanafi, Maliki, and Shafi‘iwere not interested in the interpretation of the Qur’an but rather in the manipulation of the Qur’an, it will not be exaggeration. It is to be born in mind that treatment of the Qur’an with a view to understanding its message is one thing, and deriving from the Qur’an far-fetched messages that could be supportive of preconceived ideas is another. These two approaches are in contrast with each other. Al-Zamakhshari authored his tafsirmasterpiece in a bid to explain the Qur’anic rhetoric so as to validate mu‘tazilischool of thought. Al-Razi wanted to demonstrate his in-depth knowledge of logic, philosophy, Arabic philology, jurisprudence, and qira’ah. Other mufassirun like al-Samarqandi (d. 373 A.H.), Ibn ‘Atiyyah (d. 541 A.H.), Ibn al-Jawzi (d. 597 A.H.), al-Qurtubi (d. 671 A.H.), al-Baydawi (d. 685A.H.), Abu Hayyan (d. 745 A.H.), IbnKathir (d. 774 A.H.), al-Alusi (d. 1270 A.H.), and Ibn ‘Ashur (d. 1393 A.H.) seem to have followed the suit of their predecessors in terms of the objective of the Qur’anic interpretation. Two mufassirunin the modern times—Syed Qutb (1960 CE) and Syed Mawdudi (1979 CE)—appear to have, to a great extent, opted for the objectives the Qur’an itself describes.

The Qur’an speaks volumes of its objectives through its attributive names. It is Kitab(sacred, obligation, law, constitution) [i.e. 3:3]. It, then, proceeds from here that the Qur’an is to be interpreted in a way that the reader gets in a natural way attracted towards its rules. But generally, the scholars have made it so controversial through their diverse interpretations that the people prefer to keep away from what was meant for them. It is Zikr(manual for life) [i.e. 15:9]. Interpretation of the Qur’an should, then, focus on what the Qur’an states about who the man is, what his needs are, what problems he faces in his individual and social walks of life, and what solutions could be the most appropriate for his problems. It is Furqan(criterion) [i.e. 25:1]. Mufassirunshould explain what is what in the Qur’an, emphasizing that none but the Revelation serves as criterion for right and wrong, good and bad, desirable and undesirable, legitimate and illegitimate, halal and haram. It is Shifa(cure) [i.e. 10:57]. Tafsirof the Qur’an is to unfold and stress how to cure the moral problems of man. This attribute of the Qur’an does not signify that it is cure for physical diseases. It is Hakim (wise) [i.e. 36:2]. This attribute of the Qur’an warrants that the chief objective of the tafsirtask is to trace wisdom behind each and every single word, each and every statement, and the particular order of the words and statements therein. Qur’anic commentators do try to understand the meaning of words and statements but they ignore the wisdom behind them. The wisdom in the Qur’an may be likened to the very spirit in the Qur’an.

An example may suffice to prove the significance of this objective of Qur’anic interpretation (i.e. tracing wisdom). Surah al-Baqarah: 221-241 generally deal with ten issues,marriage proposal, marriage, menstruation period, ila’, divorce, halalah, rida‘ah, waiting period, payment of dower, alimony. But the apparent surprise one feels over the verses 238-239 is that in the midst of all the above issues comes the command to be regular in five times a day prayer. One may be wondering as to what could be the wisdom behind this command along with the prescription of rules for some social and familial matters. It was the duty of the mufassirunto unfold this wisdom but except one or two in the modern times, including Syed Mawdudi none could do that because they could not find therein anything beyond jurisprudential provisions. Ibn ‘Ashur hesitates to acknowledge the existence of any wisdom behind the mention of social rules and regularity in prayertogether. He plainly says that there is no link between the two issues but he suggests for those who insist on knowing the wisdom behind the concurrent reference of solahwith social regulations that after a long discussion dominated by worldly elements entailed the advice related to the life hereafter.[9]Al-Baydawi says that the command concerning prayer was made in the midst of rules related to family matters to ensure that the people do not get absorbed in these regulations to the extent of distraction from prayer.[10] According to Syed Mawdudi, the wisdom behind the command of prayer in the midst of socio-cultural rules is that it is prayer which generates in man piety, purity, and stimulus to act upon Allah’s commands; and that in the absence of these attributes man can never remain steadfast in his practise of divine rules.[11]

This wisdom as suggested by Syed Mawdudi could further be elaborated. While prescribing socio-cultural regulations the Qur’an mentions five attributes of addressees, tawwabin(regular in repentance), mutatahhirin(maintainers of cleanliness), mu’minin(sincere believers), muhsinin(doers of the best), and muttaqin(pious), conveying a message that only those equipped with these qualities can easily accept and practice the regulations. And the mention of prayer occurred there with reference to another quality of the addressees, i. e. qanitin(totally devoted to Allah) to inculcate another message that in order to maintain the above-mentioned five qualities the quality of qanitinis a prerequisite for which prayer is the source.

The Principle “the Qur’an interprets the Qur’an”

Muslim scholars irrespective of their association with different doctrinal camps and schools of thoughts are, without any exception, unanimous over the first principle of Qur’anic interpretation—“the Qur’an interprets the Qur’an”. But surprisingly, its definition and practical pattern do not exist. Even the authors of books on ‘Ulum al-Qur’an(Sciences of the Qur’an/Qur’anic Studies) such as Badr al-Din al-Zarkashi (d. 794 A.H.) and Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (d. 911 A.H.) in their respective works, “Al-Burhan fi ‘Ulum al-Qur’an” and “Al-Itqan fi ‘Ulum al-Qur’an” preferred reticence over how to execute this particular principle in the Qur’anic interpretation.‘Ulum al-Qur’an constitutes a key to almost all the issues pertaining to tafsir. Absence of the detail on the implementation of this principle speaks volumes of the absence of such detail. It simply means that the experts of the Qur’an were hardly ever serious on this issue. Consequently, mufassiruntreated this principle in the way they wished, ignoring the fact that different modes would ultimately lead to different interpretations of the revealed words of Allah.

Before making investigation into how mufassirunhave applied this principle, it seems quite pertinent to define it. The conventional execution of this principle is to bring together one or two verses  from different places in the Qur’an so as to support the idea mufassirwants to derive from a particular certain verse. This treatment of the principle may be considered a definition from conventional perspective. The lacunae in this definition is that it does not allow the mufassirto take into consideration the Qur’an in its entirety for understanding even one single verse or statement. This principle, as is widely practiced, appears to be “Qur’nic verses interpret one another” (al-ayaat al-qur’aniyyahtufassiruba‘zuhaba‘zan). This is in no way corresponding to the principle “al-qur’anyufassiru al-qur’an”. In the wording of the original principle the only word emphasized is al-Qur’an, which connotes the whole Qur’an, and not merely any part thereof.Thus the practical definition of this original principle should be: “Interpretation of any part of the Qur’an should reflect central theme of the Qur’an i.e. tawhid, on the one hand, and other major and minor themes of the Qur’an i.e. nubuwwah, akhirah, al-‘amal al-salih, and ibtila’ etc., on the other hand, ensuring that no part thereof is in conflict with another one” (tafsirayyjuz’amin al-qur’anyastalzimu bi annahuyu’ayyidu, min janibin, al-ghard al-ra’isi li al-qur’anwahuwa al-tawhidwa, min janibinakhar, yuqawwiyu al-aghrad al-ukhra li al-qur’anbimafiha al-nubuwwah, al-akhirah, al-ibtila’, wa al-‘amal al-salih, ma’ al-tarkiz ‘alaanna al-qur’an la yujadfihiayyikhtilaf).[12]

Critical analysis of the conventional pattern of Qur’anic interpretation needs to be in the light of this new definition of the principle “al-qur’anyufassiru al-qur’an”. According to the Qur’an, its central theme is tawhid. One may not identify any interpretation of the Qur’an, which opposes tawhidand promotes what contrasts it. Likewise, all the tafsirworks try to subscribe to the idea of nubuwwah, akhirah, and al-‘amal al-salih in one way or the other, but concerning ibtila’ (test/examination) and non-existence of ikhtilafin the Qur’an tafsircompendia are replete with confusions and contradictions.

The Qur’an unequivocally declares that it is free from all kinds of contradictions: “Do they not ponder over the Qur’an? Had it been from any other than Allah,they would surely have found therein contradictions a lot” (4:82). But almost all the mufassirundeny it in their interpretations of the Qur’an. They subscribe to the idea of abrogation (al-naskh) in the Qur’an.[13] The concept of abrogation controverts the principle “al-qur’anyufassiru al-qur’an”. One of the conditions of occurrence of abrogation in the Qur’an, as propounded by experts, is existence of conflict between two or more verses on similar issue. The Qur’an and mufassirun, then, contradict each other. In this situation the stand of mufassirundeserves to be forthrightly rejected as erroneous. Muslim scholars, mufassirun, fuqaha’ and others identify a number of verses as practically invalid (mansukh). Surprisingly, scholars are not unanimous over the number of mansukhverses. Their suggestion ranges between 500-5 verses.[14]Al-Suyuti insists that only twenty one (21) verses in the Qur’an are mansukh.[15]

When mufassirunread the verse 106 in Surah al-Baqarah: “We do not abrogate any verse or cause it to be forgotten but bring anther verse either better than that or similar to that. Do you not know that Allah has the power to will anything”, they find therein apparently strong evidence for the occurrence of abrogation in the Qur’an,[16] overlooking totally the contextual flow of the verse and the fact that abrogation theory negates the Qur’anic statement in Surah al-Nisa’: 82. It is to be born in mind that contextual flow constitutes a part of the principle “the Qur’an interprets the Qur’an”. In this respect one may see so daring attitude of mufassirun in favour of abrogation theory that they do not care if it goes even against their own principle of the Qur’anic interpretation. If the context of the verse (2:106) is taken into consideration, it will become obvious that the verse does talk about the abrogation but not in the Qur’an; it is rather a confirmation by Allah that He has the prerogative to abrogate any verse in the previous Scripture, including Torah. This verse is the part of those verses (2:40-146) which deal with Jews who, among other things, always raised objections to the Qur’anicverses which were different from those in Torah. In response to this comment of Jews the above verse (2:106) came down.[17] The phrase in the verse—“or similar to that” itself testifies that the Qur’an can in no way be the object of abrogation. If abrogated verse (mansukh) and the abrogating verse (nasikh) in the Qur’an are similar, whatcould be the wisdom behind replacing similar with similar? Even the other phrase—“better than that” shows that the mansukhverse cannot be in the Qur’an itself. If both mansukhand nasikhare in the Qur’an, it will mean that the mansukhcommand was inferior to the nasikh.

Surah al-Baqarah: 180 (“It is ordained for you, when death approaches any of you and he is leaving behind much wealth, to make bequests in favour of his parents and near of kin in accordance with what is fair. This is binding on all who are pious”) is subjected by mufassirun to several manipulations: (1) making bequest is not obligatory although the word suggests that, (2) bequest may be made only in favour of near of kin but not in favour of parents, (3) it is practically invalid (mansukh) due to the law of inheritance prescribed in Surah al-Nisa’: 11-12, (4) it is applicable to those who leave behind huge property, and (5) bequest could be made only to the extent of two third of the property.[18] Is it the application of the principle “the Qur’an interprets the Qur’an” in the tafsirtask? The word “kutiba” (it has been made obligatory) has occurred for three commands one after another, death penalty as retribution (2:178), making bequest (2:180), and fasting in the month of Ramadan (2:183). It is but manipulation that for the death penalty and fasting the word “kutiba” is interpreted as “it was made compulsory”, but for the bequest it is interpreted as “not so compulsory”.

Surah al-Mujadalah: 11 (“O you who have attained to faith! Whenever you consult the Prophet, offer up something in charity on the occasion of your consultation: this will be for your own good, and more conducive to your purity. Yet, if you are unable to do so, Allah is much forgiving, dispenser of grace”) is declared by mufassirunas mansukhby the following verse (58:13). It is claimed that the verse (58:13) came down few hours after the revelation of the verse (58:12).[19] First of all there is no strong historical evidence to validate this claim. The last portion of the verse (58:12) itself relaxes the provision of charity before consultation. The next verse (58:13) must have come down together with the previous one (58:12) only to further reconfirm the relaxation.

This principle extends to the point of determining meaning of Qur’anic words. It is born in mind that the lexicons and dictionaries were authored long after the revelation of the Qur’an. That is why these linguistic sources may not form the most reliable bases to understand the Qur’anic words. It is a unanimously agreed fact that the Qur’an uses the linguistic style Arabs of the jahiliperiod used in their poems and orations. Any word or phrase in the Qur’an is, therefore, to be checked against the Arabic of jahiliArabs as to their meaning. And on the other hand, words invariably stand linked to the context in which they occur. So, the context is another chief factor to derive the import of the words concerned in the Qur’an. In the verse 4 of Surah al-Rahman (55:4), the word bayanis translated and interpreted as nutq(speech) by almost all the mufassirun. It may not be deemed correct because here the mufassirun did not apply at all either the principle “the Qur’an interprets the Qur’an” or the context of the verse. If the principle taken care of, one has to go to Surah al-Qiyamah: 19 where the word bayanhas occurred and the mufassirunhave unanimously translated and interpreted it as “interpretation”. Why should not, then, the word bayanin 55:4 be translated and interpreted as “interpretation” (tasrih)? As for the context, it is the same at the two places, 75:19 and 55:4. In 75:19 the word bayanis related to the Qur’an and in 55:4 it is connected with the Qur’an. Thus the meaning of the statement in 55:4 (wa ‘allamahu al-bayan) should be “and He taught him the interpretation (of the Qur’an)”. It is actually linked with the second statement in the Surah (55:2), which reads: ‘allama al-qur’an(He taught the Qur’an). If it is said that “He taught the Qur’an and taught man how to speak”, it does not make much sense and also it does not cohere with each other.

In Surah al-Rahman(55) a phrase—“fa bi ayyaalaa’irabbikumatukadhdhibaan”—has occurred thirty one (31) times. The word “aalaa’” has been translated and interpreted generally as “ni‘am” (blessings). Arabs of the jahiliperiod did not use this word in the sense of blessing/s. They used it in the sense of “power/s”. The meaning “blessings” does not fit everywhere in the Surah. At several places in the Surah (viz. 55:13-16; 26-28; 31-32; 33-34; 35-36; 37-38; 39-40; 41-42; 43-45) the reference has been given to something (including warning and punishment in the hell fire). Do these things constitute blessings? But the meaning of aalaa’ as powers easily and meaningfully adjusts everywhere. Syed Mawdudi has translated the word as “blessings” as well as “powers” in accordance with the context. It may be appreciated but if he used only one meaning “powers”, it would have been excellent. Al-Tabri has recorded in his tafsirof Surah al-Rahmanview of IbnYunus in favour of “powers”. Al-Farahi suggests this view is in concurrence with the Arab’s usage of the word.

The Principle “Hadith Elaborates the Qur’an”

This principle of Qur’anic interpretation also seems to be devoid of proper rules. Many classical and modern tafsirworks are full of reports in the name of Hadith for the purpose of interpreting the Qur’an. But these reports fall under all the three categories, authentic (sahih), weak (da‘if), and fabricated (mawdu‘). Why did mufassirunuse weak and fabricated reports? They must have checked the position of the reports they wanted to use in the interpretation of the Qur’an. It is to be noted in this respect that majority of mufassirunsimply quoted the reports concerned from other sources, including Jami‘ al-Bayan fi Ta’wil al-Qur’an by al-Tabari and al-Durr al-Manthurby al-Suyuti who did not care much about the authenticity of the reports. Undoubtedly, mufassirunlike IbnKathir did make some effort to identify the weak and unreliable reports, but they did it only on the basis of sanad/isnad(chain of narrators); they hardly paid attention to the sensibility of the reports wording (matn). Interpretation of the Qur’an must be only on the basis of highly authentic reports from both sanadand matnangles.

Muslim scholars consider some sources of Prophetic traditions such as Sahihby al-Bukhari and Sahihby Muslim as the most reliable merely because the sanadapplied in them have been found highly reliable. They have developed a criterion that if the sanadof a report is reliable, the matnshould be considered reliable. This is logical fallacy. Authenticity of a report entails authenticity of both chain and text. While interpreting the first verse in Surah al-Tahrim(66:1)—“O Prophet, why do you, out of desire to please your wives, make unlawful what Allah has made lawful for you?”—mufassirunquote a report from Sahihby al-Bukhari and also Sahihby Muslim, which shows umm al-mu’mininSyedah ‘A’ishah (the Prophet’s wife) in a highly objectionable situation. She made up her mind, according to the report, to play a trick on the Prophet (s.a.w.) so as to teach him a lesson.[20] No mufassirever thought that the report was injurious to the character of the Prophet’s wife. This report is actually a spectacular example of character assassination of the mother of believers. Could it ever be imaginable that she decided to hurt the Prophet (s.a.w.) psychologically and for that matter persuaded other wives of the Prophet (s.a.w.) to speak lie to the Prophet? Mufassirunconsider this report authentic merely because it has been recorded in the so called authentic sources. To them, sanctity of muhaddithunis more important than that of umm al-mu’minin. It is more appropriate to comment that one or the other reporter in the chain spoke lie than to believe that the Syedah ‘A’ishah wanted to hurt the Prophet (s.a.w.) by making an untrue statement and forcing other wives to follow her suit.[21]

The Qur’an describes Prophet Ibrahim (peace be upon him) as the most impeccable person: “And call to mind through this divine writ Ibrahim. He was indeed the most truthful Prophet” (19:41). Mufassirun bring here a report from Sahihby al-Bukhari that Ibrahim, God forbid, spoke three lies. Look here, mufassiruncontroverts the statement of the Qur’an concerning Ibrahim’s spotless character. They do not bother to think that the Qur’an is the criterion for making a judgment, and not a report. To them, reporters are more important than a Prophet (pbuh). According to al-Razi, it is easy for him to consider one or the reporter in the chain of the report concerned as liar than to attribute lie to Prophet Ibrahim (pubh).[22]Mufassirunare so obstinate in this regard that they do not hesitate to manipulate the word lie as occurred in the report so as to maintain at any cost the sanctity of the report. It seems the Qur’an is not as important as the reports in the relevant sources.

Surah al-Hajj: 52 reads: “And whenever We sent forth any apostle or prophetbefore you, and he was hoping, Satan would cast an aspersion on his wish. But Allah renders null and void whatever aspersion Satan may cast; and Allah makes His messages perfect, and Allah is all-knowing, wise”. Here mufassiruntake help of a report to explain the statement “alqa al-shaitanu fi umniyyatihi”, which narrates a story of how Satan managed to interfere into the process of revelation of Surah al-Najm(53) and inserted into the revelation some of his own verses.[23] They not for even a single moment thought that Satanic interference into the process of wahywas impossible. The Qur’an itself announces that safety of the Qur’an was ensured at all the three stages, before the revelation, during the revelation, and after the revelation (15:9). IbnHajar ‘Asqalani, a great commentator of al-Bukhari’sSahih, insists that the report concerning the Satanic interference into revelation must be reliable.[24] It may here be observed that IbnHajarhimself, and not the Qur’an fell victim to the Satanic whispering (ighwa’ shaitani).

The Qur’an says that Satan caused both Adam and Eve to forget the command of Allah concerning the TREE (2:36). But Mufassirunon the basis of a report in some sources such as al-Hakim and al-Bayhaqui claim that it was Eve who persuaded Adam to commit the sin.[25] The Qur’anic statement is very clear on the matter. It says that Satan was the cause of Adam’s deviation but mufassirunput the entire blame on Eve. Mufassirunneed to free themselves from the shackle of too much obsession with reports. The indictment of Eve as reported in the report should be declared false as the Qur’an goes against it.

The Principle “Companions’ and Successors’ Views Unfold the Qur’anic Statements

It is quite logical to think that Companions of the Prophet (s.a.w.) and their disciples are the reliable sources of information concerning the Islamic history and sayings and doings of the Last Prophet (s.a.w.). Views of Companions and Successors should constitute significant sources in the interpretation of the Qur’an. But it should not be free for all. Authenticity of the statements attributed to them must be checked not only through checking the sanadbut also through matn. The views of Companions and Successors on tafsir have extensively been recorded by al-Tabari and al-Suyuti in their respective works. Mufassirungenerally quote the views of Companions and Successors from these two main sources, without subjecting them to scrutiny. This is a painful situation. Several chains of narrators (sanad) in the work of al-Tabari and most of the chains in that of al-Suyuti are unreliable. How could, then, unreliable information be the source of Qur’anic interpretation? If the reports on views of Companions and Successors are proven beyond doubt reliable, there should not be any problem to interpret the Qur’an on that basis of those views.

Around 25-35 per cent reports quoted by al-Tabari contain sanadin which narrators Asbat from al-Suddi, and Juwaybir from al-Dhahak occur. These chains are beyond any doubt unreliable because Asbat and Juwaybir have been declared by experts as unreliable.[26] Al-Suyuti claims in his tafsir“al-Durr al-Manthur” that it is based on the Prophetic traditions and views of the Companions.[27] His sources of these traditions are many such as Ahmad ibnHanbal, al-Bukhari, Muslim, al-Nasa’i, IbnMajah, Abu Da’ud, al-Tirmadhi, al-Darmi, al-Tabrani, al-Hakim, IbnAbiHatim, al-Bayhaqui, IbnAbiShaybah, al-Tabari etc. What is very painful that he did not check the authenticity of reports from books other than al-Bukhari’sand Muslim’s. Dr Mhuhammad Husain al-Dhahbi says that the traditions quoted in al-Suyuti’s work are of different nature; there are reliable as well as unreliable ones.[28]

The Place of Judeo-Christian Traditions in Tafsir

The Qur’an has recounted many a story of the past. Mufassirun do not feel satisfied with the abstract nature of Qur’anic description of the stories. They borrow detailed information from Judeo-Christian sources. Is it necessary to consider Judeo-Christian traditions useful for tafsir? The main objective of these historical accounts in the Qur’an is to send lessons to the people so that they might mend their ways. And for that matter the size of the stories the Qur’an has shared in is more than sufficient. These Qur’anic stories were not mentioned for the sake of historical description. In order to trace the detail of the Qur’anic stories with the help of previous Scriptures is not commendable. Judeo-Christian sources are all totally unreliable as they have been subjected to too many changes. It is then unwise to use the unreliable sources to explain the Qur’an.

An example may suffice to consider the information from Judeo-Christian sources ridiculous. In Surah Saad: 21-25 a very brief reference has been made to some events involving Prophet David (pbuh). Mufassirunfeels trigger happy to bring the story of David’s love for a very beautiful woman who was already married to someone and how he by trick sent her husband to a battlefront and got him killed so that he could marry her. Al-Tabari and other early commentators have given the detail of this story.[29] They forgot that this story serves as slander against a Prophet. Yet, until today many commentators narrate this story with a sense of sexual enjoyment. Syedna ‘Ali ibnAbiTalib during his reign declared that anyone narrating this story would be severely punished.[30]

In Surah al-Naml: 15-44 the Qur’an describes in a very brief manner some events related to Prophet Sulayman (pbuh). Mufassirunfeel elated to share in the detail of these stories to the extent that one may no longer be interested to listen to it. Sources, in this regard, describe the size, colour, and nature of the gifts Queen Sheba sent for the Prophet-King Sulaiman(pbuh).[31] What is the use of these details? Does the Qur’an want the readers of the Qur’an to learn the information in further detail? This is mere waste of time.

Methodology of Approaching the Qur’an

How should mufassirunapproach the Qur’an? This is a very pertinent question in the field of tafsir. The Qur’an itself guides man on how to interact with it. One may find therein various terms advising how to deal with the revealed words. Six of them may be considered major terms in this context, tadabbur, tafakkur, ta‘aqqul, tafaqquh, tadhakkur, and tahassun.

The term tadabburoccurs at two places in the Qur’an: “Do they not make tadabbur over the Qur’an? Had it been from any other than Allah, they would surely have found therein contradictions a lot” (4:82); and “Do they not make tadabbur over the Qur’an? Have they locked their hearts out?” (47:24). Tadabburmay be defined as reflection over something available in black and white so as to find out the nature of the message enshrined in the words. This intellectual act calls for sincerity and neutrality. If the Qur’an is deliberated over by someone who is already prejudiced with other ideas, he/she may not reach the target expected through tadabbur. Most of the mufassirundo not seem to have made tadabburover the Qur’an. This is not an allegation. They have one or the other particular objective, as mentioned above, to achieve through the tafsiritask. Their mode of interaction with the Qur’an, therefore, may not be considered tadabbur.

The term tafakkurhas been used in the Qur’an around seventeen times. For example: “Who remember Allah when they stand, when they sit, and when they lie down to sleep, and reflect (yatafakkaruna) on the creation of heavens and the earth…” (3:191).Tafakkurmay be defined as reflection on something which is available in form i.e. nature. Wherever the invitation to make tafakkurhas been given in the Qur’an, it is either over natural phenomena or human phenomena. Generally, tafakkurand tadabburare considered synonymous, but there is a fine difference between the two. Allah invites man for tafakkurin His creations as described in the Qur’an. This invitation is also for historical events narrated by the Qur’an. This is related to both natural and human phenomena. Mufassirunhave to make tafakkurover the natural and human facts so as to sense the wisdom of Allah, the very basic feature of the Qur’an.

Man is an intellectual being. It is this faculty which makes man essentially different from other creatures, including animals. It simply signifies that human intellect is the focal point in life. Use of intellect sustains humanity and its non-use throws man into animal circle. Around forty nine times the term ta‘aqqulin its various derivatives has occurred in the Qur’an. For example: “We have indeed revealed to you Book in which there is your mention. Do you not then make ta‘aqqul(afalatata‘qilun)?” (21:10). Here the invitation is to use reason to understand the Qur’an. Ta‘aqqulmay be defined as an intellectual act to understand what is what in a message. The fine difference between tafakkurand ta‘aqqulis that the latter is an act performed by everyone, whereas the former is connected with those endowed with highly powerful faculty of discernment. Application of ta‘aqqulby mufassirunwill facilitate the task of both tadabburand tafakkur.This act will protect them from falling victim to the biased ideas or any kind of prejudice.

Tafaqquhhas occurred in the Qur’an only once: “From within every group in their midst, some shall refrain from going to war, and shall devote themselves to make taffaquh in al-Din…” (9:122). Main objective of tafaqquhis to derive practical significance and pattern from the commands given in the Qur’an. Tafaqquhmay be defined as applied version of tadabbur, tafakkur, and ta‘aqqul. It may be born in mid that fiqhiprejudice is consequent upon non-tafaqquh. Mufassirunhave to re-enact the process of tafaqquhso as to reach the right decision in their effort to derive practical application of Qur’anic commands. The process of tafaqquhin the original sense of the word will certainly reject the idea of abrogation in the Qur’an.

Tadhakkurhas occurred in the Qur’an around fifty one times in its various derivatives. For example: “All this has He enjoined upon you so that you might remain conscious” (6:152). It may be defined as an act of consciousness due to which one may not fall victim to evil-forces. The link between the previous four intellectual acts and tadhakkuris that whatever is achieved by the four above-mentioned acts is maintained by tadhakkur. It is tadhakkurwhich prevents man from forgetting the truth. Mufassirunhave to maintain tadhakkurfor steadfastness on the right track in their intellectual activities.

The word tahassunhas not occurred in the Qur’an in this form but it can be derived from around seventy two verses where the term ihsanhas been used in its various derivatives. Ihsanmeans doing excellent. That is why the general connotation of this word as expressed in English is generosity because generosity is an excellent act. For example: “Indeed Allah commands ‘adl and ihsan…” (16:90). Here what man has been enjoined upon is doing excellence in every act. Tahassun (excellence) in tafsirtask is to perform the best job as much as possible.


Tafsiris a sacred task. It needs highly careful and deeply conscious approach on the part of mufassirun. The four principles of Qur’anic interpretation, as discussed above, remain so far undefined and unspecified as to their scope and modes. Hence those principles have been defined afresh from both theoretical as well as practical angles. The tafsirworks have thus far created schism among Muslim ummah. In order to bring back unity among Muslims, the Qur’an is to be interpreted appropriately in the light of the Qur’an, the most reliable traditions and intellectual acts, tadabbur, tafakkur, ta‘aqqul, tafaqquh, tadhakkur, and tahassun. The author does not claim perfection in his critical analysis and deliberation on the matter. But this much is true that he has done this sincerely with the hope and prayer that new generation of mufassirunmight benefit from his reflection. Universities and colleges in the Muslim world need to introduce a new subject“critical analysis of tafsirmethodology” (DirasahNaqdiyyah li Manahij al-Mufassirin) or include critical dimension in the already available subject “Manahij al-Mufassirin”. Muslim ummahis in critical urgency of intellectual growth for which educational institutions can play a role by making both teachers and students revisit and redesign the Religious studies, including TafsirStudies.

[1]Al-Tabari, Muhammad ibnJarir, Jami‘ al-Bayan fi Ta’wil al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1997), Vol. 1, PP. 232-251.

[2]Al-Dhahbi, Dr. Muhammad Husain, Al-Tafsirwa al-Mufassirun(place and date of publication and publisher are not available), Vol. 1, P. 210.

[3] Al-Jassas, Abu Bakr, Ahkam al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar Ihya’ al-Turath al-‘Arabi, 1985), Vol. 3, P. 58.

[4] Al-Dhahbi, Dr Muhammad Husain, Op. Cit., List of Contents, P. 490.

[5] Al-Zamakhshari, Mahmud ibn ‘Umar, Al-Kashshaf ‘anHaqa’iqGhawamid al-Tanzil(Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1995), Vol. 1, PP. 451-453.

[6] Al-Zamakhshari, OP. Cit., Vol. 1, P. 587.

[7] Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salam Shahin, editor of Al-Kashshafhas annotated it in the footnotes. See al-Zamakhshari, OP. Cit., Vol. 1, pp. 450; 587.

[8] Al-Razi, Fakhr al-Din, Mafatih al-Ghayb(Beirut: Dar Ihya’ al-Turath al-‘Arabi, 1997), Vol. 1, PP. 258-269.

[9]Ibn ‘Ashur, Muhammad ibnTahir, Al-Tahrirwa al-Tanwir(Beirut: Mu’assisah al-Tarikh al-‘Arabi, 2000), Vol. 2, P. 444.

[10]Al-Baydawi, al-Qazi ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Umar, Anwar al-TanzilwaAsrar al-Ta’wil(Beirut: Dar Ihya’ al-Turath al-‘Arabi, 1418 A.H.), Vol. 1, P. 147.

[11]Syed Mawdudi, Abu al-A‘la, Tafhim al-Qur’an (Delhi: MarkaziMaktabahIslami, 1983), Vol. 1, P. 182.

[12]This is author’s own coinage. It may not be found elsewhere.

[13]IbnKathir, Isma‘il, Tafsir al-Qur’an al-‘Azim(Beirut: Dar Ihya’ al-Turath al-‘Arabi, 2000), Vol. 1, P. 166.

[14]Khan, Israr Ahmad, Qur’anicStuides: An Introduction (Kuala Lumpur: Zaman Islam Media, 2000), PP. 206-207.

[15]Al-Suyuti, Jalal al-Din, Al-Itqan fi ‘Ulum al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2000), Vol. 2, P. 45.

[16]Al-Qurtubi, Muhammad ibn Ahmad, Al-Jami‘ liAhkam al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2000), Vol. 1, Part 2, PP. 42-47.

[17]Syed Mawdudi, OP. Cit., Vol. 1, PP. 101-102.

[18] Al-Tabari, OP. Cit., Vol. 2, PP. 121-127.

[19] Al-Alusi, Syed Mahmud, Ruh al-Ma ‘ani(Beirut: Dar Ihya’ al-Turath al-‘Arabi, 2000), Vol. 14, Part 28, PP. 314-315.

[20]IbnKathir, OP. Cit., Vol. 5, P. 379.

[21]Author does respect muhaddithunand their contributions but to him sanctity of the Prophet’s (s.a.w.) wives is more important than that of muhaddithun.

[22]Al-Razi, OP. Cit., Vol. 8, P. 156.

[23] Al-Tabari, OP. Cit., Vol. 9, PP. 174-178.

[24] Syed Mawdudi, OP. Cit., Vol. 3, P. 241.

[25] Al-Suyuti, OP. Cit., Vol. 1, P. 109.

[26]IbnHajr, Ahmad ibn ‘Ali al-‘Asqalani, Tahdhib al-Tahdhib(Beirut: Dar al-Ma’rifah, 1996), Vol. 1, P. 197 (Asbatibn Nasr); PP. 456-457 (JuwaybiribnSa‘id).

[27]Al-Suyuti, Jalal al—Din, Al-Durr al-Manthur  fi al-Tafsir al-Ma’thur(Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1990), Vol. 1, Khutbat al-Kitab, P. 17.

[28]Al-Dhahbi, Dr Muhammad Husain, OP. Cit., Vol. 1, P. 254.

[29] Al-Tabari, OP. Cit., Vol. 10, PP. 570-574.

[30]Al-Zamakhshari, OP. Cit., Vol. 4, P. 78.

[31]Al-Biqa‘I, Burhan al-Din, Nazm al-Durar fi Tanasub al-Ayatwa al-Suwar(Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1995), Vol. 5, P. 425.

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