The Method of Tafseer

The Qur’aan is the last book of divine revelation sent to man, and Allaah has promised to protect it from any distortion or loss. He said in the Qur’aan:

“Verily, I have revealed the Reminder (Qur’aan) and verily I will preserve it.” (Qur’an 15:9)

Its written and recited forms have been preserved without even the slightest change for over fourteen hundred years. This cannot be said about the Gospel of Prophet Jesus, nor the books of the Old Testament attributed to earlier prophets, nor any other scripture revealed by Allaah. However, Allaah’s protection of the Qur’aan did not stop there; He also safeguarded the original meaning. If the protection of the Qur’aan’s meaning had not taken place, deviants would have turned the Book of Allaah into a jumble of symbols, riddles and codes open to a multiplicity of interpretations, and its original meaning would have been lost. Allaah preserved the meaning of the Qur’aan by explaining some of its generalities within the Qur’aan itself and by entrusting the tafseer(explanation) of the remainder to His Messenger, Muhammad ibn Abdillaah (sallallahu alayhi wa sallam).

The sahaabah (companions) were taught to seek their understanding of the Qur’aan first from the Qur’aan itself, then from the explanations and applications of the Prophet and from their own intimate understanding of the language of the Qur’aan. After the Prophet’s death, those who entered Islaam as new converts depended first upon the Qur’aan to explain itself, then they depended on the sahaabah to explain the Qur’aan to them. The sahaabah would inform their students(taabi‘oon) of the circumstances in which the verses were revealed, the interpretation given by the Prophet’s statements and his actions, and finally they would explain the meanings of some words which may not have been familiar or which may have had a different meaning to Arabs outside of the Arabian Peninsula. With the passing of the era of the sahaabah, the scholars among the taabi‘oon shouldered the grave responsibility of conveying the original meanings of the Qur’aan to the next generation of Muslims exactly as they had received them. It was the third generation after the Prophet which began the process of gathering and recording the various narrations of tafseer from the taabi‘oon.

From the above-mentioned methodology of the Prophet  and his companions and that of the early generations of Muslim scholars which followed them, the following steps have been deduced by orthodox scholars as being the necessary conditions for making correct tafseer of the Qur’aan:

1. Tafseer of Qur’aan by Qur’aan

There are many places in the Qur’aan where questions are asked in order to catch the mind of the reader and subsequently answered to increase the impact of the concept in question. In other places, general statements are made and then later explained in order to vary the modes of presentation and encourage readers and listeners to reflect more. This self-explanatory process is referred to as tafseer of the Qur’aan by Qur’aan. Allaah chose to clarify what He intended by revealing other explanatory verses. For example, Allaah asks,

“By the heaven, and by at-Taariq and what will make you understand what at-Taariq is?” (Qur’an 86:1-2)

He then answers His question in the next verse:

“It is the piercing star.” (Qur’an 86:3

Therefore, before seeking an explanation or interpretation elsewhere, the Qur’aan must be relied upon to explain itself, for Allaah knows best what He intended.

2. Tafseer of Qur’aan by the Sunnah

On many occasions, the Prophet (sallallahu alayhi wa sallam) added further clarification to various verses of the Qur’aan. Allaah had entrusted the job of explaining the Qur’aan to the Prophet. This trust was expressed in the Qur’aan in no uncertain terms,

“We have revealed the Reminder (Qur’aan) to you (O Muhammad) so that you may explain to the people what has been revealed to them.” (Qur’an 16:44)

“We have only revealed the Book to you (O Muhammad) in order that you clarify for them the things about which they differ.” (Qur’an 16:64)

The sahaabah understood this clearly and always turned to the Prophet  for clarification whenever they were in doubt about the meaning of any of the Qur’aanic passages. In fact, most of the fine details of salaah, zakaah, sawm,hajj, inheritance laws, etc. were explained either by the Prophet’s statements or practical demonstrations and applications (the Sunnah). Thus, the Prophet’s explanations of Qur’aanic passages are referred to as the tafseer of the Qur’aan by the Sunnah, because the Sunnah was based on guidance from Allaah, it represents the second part of God’s promise to explain the Qur’aan, consequently no other human interpretation can be given precedence over that of the Prophet (r).

3. Tafseer of Qur’aan by Aathaar

Whenever the sahaabah could not find the tafseer of a passage in the Qur’aan itself or in the Sunnah, they would use their own reasoning based on their knowledge of the contexts of the verses and the intricacies of the Arabic language in which the Qur’aan was revealed. Consequently, one of the greatest commentators of the Qur’aan, Ibn Katheer, wrote in the preface of his tafseer, “If we are unable to find a suitable tafseer in the Qur’aan or in the Sunnah, we go to the opinions of the sahaabah. For verily, they knew the Qur’aan better than anyone else due to their knowledge of the circumstances of its revelation, their complete and accurate understanding of it, and their righteous deeds.” These explanations of the sahaabah are known as tafseer by aathaar (the sayings of the sahaabah).

However, the tafseer transmitted from the Prophet  and the sahaabah did not cover all of the verses of the Qur’aan. The Prophet explained only what was unclear to the sahaabah, and they, in turn, only explained what was unclear to the taabi‘oon. But with each succeeding generation, more areas became unclear due to the evolution of the language. Hence, the taabi‘oon had to make further explanations after the passing of the sahaabah’s era. These explanations are considered a part of tafseer by aathaar and should be given precedence over personal opinions where there is unanimity among them. Where they differed, none of their opinions are given preference over the others unless it is supported by the language.

4. Tafseer of Qur’aan by Language

With the passage of time, words took on new meanings and old meanings became lost, foreign words entered into the language, and vast sections of vocabulary fell into disuse. This natural process necessitated the explanation of some of the Qur’aanic words according to their literal and grammatical meanings. Consequently, this period witnessed the appearance of dictionaries written specifically to deal with Qur’aanic Arabic vocabulary and philology. In cases where words had more than one meaning, this step created differences of opinion which could only be solved by finding some support in the Sunnah. For example, “lams” literally means to touch, but figuratively it means sexual intercourse. Thus, the later scholars were of two basic opinions concerning the following verse,

 “…or you have been in contact with (laamastum) women and cannot find water, then make tayammum (ritual purification with dust).” (Qur’an 4:43)

Imaams ash-Shaafi‘ee and Maalik held that it meant the touch of the hand, though each imaam added certain stipulations to it. On the other hand, Imaam Aboo Haneefah ruled that it meant sexual intercourse. However, the Prophet’s wives reported that he kissed them before performing salaah, which indicated that touching was not intended by this verse.

The four above-mentioned methods come under the general title of tafseer bir-riwaayah or tafseer bil-ma’thoor (tafseer based on narration) and, as such, leave little room for argument. Although the fourth step is often times based on narrations from earlier generations, at other times it can be highly opinionated and controversial. For example, Yusuf Ali translates the word “burooj” used in the 85th soorah as “the Zodiacal signs,” while Pickthall translates it as “Mansions of the Stars,” but says in his introduction to the soorah that it “is applied to the signs of the zodiac.” Thus, according to them, Allaah is making an oath by the zodiacal signs.

Some English-speaking Muslims have taken this to be an indirect support for astrology. However, “burooj” originally only meant “star configuration,” and it was not until later times that it was used to refer to the imaginary figures of the zodiac that pagan Babylonians and Greeks superimposed on them. Astrology has been forbidden by the Prophet in no uncertain terms, as it falls under the general prohibition of visiting fortune-tellers. The Prophet said:  “Whoever…visits a fortune-teller [and believes in what he says] has disbelieved in what was revealed to Muhammad.”

5. Tafseer of Qur’aan by Opinion

Opinions based on a careful study of the first four steps can be considered valid as long as they do not contradict any of those steps. Likewise, the application of obvious meanings of the Qur’aan to existing situations and the formation of conclusions based on their similarities are also allowed, as long as such interpretations do not clash with authentic classical explanations. But, free interpretation based on philosophical, scientific, or sectarian ideas is totally forbidden. The Prophet was reported to have said:

Opinion-based argument about the Qur’aan is kufr.” He repeated it three times, then said, “What you know of it, act upon; and what you are ignorant of, refer it to one who knows.”

We can see from the above-mentioned hadeeth that the Prophet sternly warned his companions and later generations of Muslims about interpretations of the Qur’aan based on speculation and unsubstantiated opinions. The reason is that the Qur’aan is the foundation of Islaam and, as such, it had to remain pure and un-tampered with. If free rein was given to any and everyone to interpret the Qur’aan as they wished, its value would be totally destroyed, and Islaam would be undermined from its base. Thus, the only acceptable tafseer is that which adheres to the following sequence: tafseer of Qur’aan by the Qur’aan, then by the Sunnah, then by the sayings of the sahaabah, then by language, and finally by opinion, as long as it is based on the preceding four methods and does not contradict any of them.

From the book Usool at-Tafseer of Abu Ameenah Bilal Phillips

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