Prerequisites needed in order to make Tafseer – a few thoughts

By Hafiz Mahmut, Edited and modified by the Team[1]

بِسْمِ اللَّـهِ الرَّحْمَـٰنِ الرَّحِيم

We begin in the name of Allah the Exalted. May Allah bless and grant peace to the leader of the Creation Muhammad , and on his Family and Companions until the Day of Judgment. We ask Allah to keep us away from knowledge that is not beneficial, and may increase us in (useful) knowledge that will be an adornment for us in this world and the next.

The subject of this article surrounds the question of who can make Tafseer of the Qur’an, or more specifically what are the prerequisites for those who engage in Tafseer of the Qur’an[2].

o    To begin with, the aim of Usool at-Tafseer (the principles of the science of Qur’anic exegesis) is to facilitate the understanding of the Glorious Qur’an. It lays down the general principles and rules needed in order for the exegetes to make healthy commentaries on the Qur’an.

o    There are a number of texts that can be used in order to study the principles of Usool at-Tafseer and make use of such principles. Examples of such works are ‘Aql Wa Fahmul Qur’an’ by Haarith al-Muhaasibi, Funuun al-Afnaan by Ibn al-Jawzi, al-Burhaan fi Uloom al-Qur’an by Az-Zarkashi, al-Kafeeji’s At-Tayseer fi Qawaa’id ‘Ilm at-Tafseer, and Al-Itqaan fi Uloom al-Qur’an by as-Suyuuti. This is in addition to the primary sources taken as Muqaddimaat (introductions) in exegesis such as at-Tabari’s Jaami’ul Bayaan ‘an Ta’wil al-Qur’aan, Ar-Raaghib al-Isfahaani’s Muqaddima at-Tafseer, Al-Jami li Ahkaam al-Qur’aan by al-Qurtubi, Gharaaibul Qur’aan wa Raghaaibul Furqaan by An-Naysaaburi, Bahrul Muheet by Abu Hayaaan, Anwaar al-Haqaaiq ar-Rabaaniyya by Abu ath-Thanaa al-Isfahaani, Tafseer al-Qur’aan al-Adheem by Ibn Katheer, and Ruhul Ma’aani by al-Aluusi (Rahimahumullah).

o    Muslims have been trying to understand the Qur’aan and make commentaries on the Qur’aan from the beginning of Islam. But these have in many cases been falling off the mark, since every Mufassir (exegete) is somehow biased, due to his limited knowledge, his experience, and the temporal and environmental factors he has been living in.

o    We have to consider that people find new discoveries in all the sciences, and these, due to the changing lifestyles and environments may be used to interpret the Qur’an in a new (some would say different) way. It is possible that through this, some of the Mutashaabihaat Verses (the ambiguous Verses) may become clearer. Also, new methods and projects have to come up in order to meet the needs of people. We also need to study the reason why some Verses were revealed connected to certain specific people and events, while others were revealed as main governing principles of the religion.

o    These relationships are all a lesson for us to make use of the Qur’an in the best manner possible, so that we may benefit from it. However, for this, we need rightly-guided, knowledgeable, and bright scholars. And in this day and age, this should be more of a group effort rather than an individual struggle, especially as we are all extremely biased in one way or the other. This is due to two factors: The complexity of the age we are living in, in addition to the scarcity of true scholars – we may even say there are almost no true scholars left, if we compare ourselves to the previous classical generations, which produced encyclopedic scholars, not only in their theoretical knowledge but also in their practical implementation of such knowledge. [An example of an encyclopedic scholar would be Imam Muhammad bin Ahmad bin Abi Sahl Abu Bakr al-Sarakhsi (Rahimahullah): When he was confined in a well as part of his prison sentence, his students still took lessons from him and wrote a 32 volume Fiqh book known as Kitab al-Mabsut]

o    Anyway, if we follow this attitude, it would also put the pursuit of fame and the following of one’s desires at a minimum, and we would get the blessings of being with the Jamaa’ah (the community of Muslims).

o    Now, there should be in our endeavors for Qur’anic interpretation an effort to establish a connection between the following five: (1) Allah the Exalted, who is the sender of the Message (2) The Prophet , the Infallible Messenger who first receives the message (3) The Human; that is, the general masses who are to take benefit from the Message (4) Siyaaq-Sibaaq (the relationship between the words, the verses and the context of the Message) and (5) Tafseer (the understanding of this Message).

The role of the sense, ‘Aql, and Logic

o    Understanding the information happens through the use of healthy sensory perceptions, which are in turn processed by the ‘Aql [the mind] to come to a conclusion. So we need to ask questions such as: “How healthy and unbiased are our perceptions?”, and “Does our emotion overcome our ‘Aql?”.

o    Sometimes, the perceptions might be sound but the outcome reached by the ‘Aql may not be correct. (Formal) logic is very helpful in determining whether the ruling reached by the ‘Aql is correct or not. Eventually, our litmus test must be through logic. We also need to ask certain key questions to make sure that the logic used was correct. In the case of Qur’anic exegesis, these are questions such as: “What does the text mean, and what is it saying?”, “Why is the text saying this?”, “Who is this being addressed to?”, and “Where and when is this being said?”

o    So these questions are important in order for us to understand the context. When we ask the question “What is the text telling us?”, the answer will give us the context behind the text, and whether we have understood the text and the overall meaning without any bias, or whether some bias has entered our understanding.

o    The second set of questions is about the intention behind the text, questions such as: “What is intended by this text?”, “Why is this text mentioned to us within this specific context?”, and “What is the aim of the speaker?”

o    The third set of questions is connected to the primary target audience, and who this primary audience is. And then we have one final question, “When and where is this text being ‘spoken’?” With these questions, we will take the (first) steps towards understanding the Qur’anic message in the best possible manner.

o    The above shows that there is a difference between what the text says and what the intended meaning is. The people from the Mu’tazila group called this ‘Muwadda’ and ‘Qasdul Mutakallim’, while the Sunni scholar ash-Shaatibi (Rahimahullah) called it the ‘Dhaahir-Baatin’ reading styles. This second element focuses on the question of what the targeted meaning in the background is supposed to be. We see then, that what we are talking about in here are the differences between the apparent [Lafdhi] meaning and the inward meaning.

Lafdhi meaning

o    We need to know some “surface sciences” (that is, elementary sciences) in order to understand the apparent meaning of the Qur’an. And these are sciences such as Lughatul Qur’aan [analysis of the words], I’raabul Qur’an [related to the study of the position of words in a sentence], Qiraa’aat [the distinct modes of Qur’anic recitation], the ‘Uloom of Ma’aani-Bayaan-Badee’ [different branches of Arabic Balaaghah or rhetoric] and the topic of I’jaazul Qur’aan [the miraculous nature of the Qur’aan], etc.

o    However, this type of understanding is superficial, and does not explain the (deeper) intended meaning of the Verse, but simply tells us what the Verse says. The most famous example of this type of exegesis is Tafseer al-Jalaalayn by as-Suyuuti [d.911/1505] and al-Mahalli [d.864/1459], as well as the work of Sufyaan ath-Thawri (d.161/778), Yahya bin Sallam (d.200/815), Yahya ibn Ziyaad al-Farra (207/822), and Abu ‘Ubaydah Ma’mar bin al-Muthanna (d. 209/824) (Rahimahumullah).

o    It should be pointed out that by no means is this type of Lafdhi Tafseer unimportant. We should note that without understanding the literal meaning it is not possible to know the inward significations behind the Verses. There should be a dialectical relationship between the general and the specific [the Juz and the Kull] so that we may understand the intended meaning through an analysis of each and every word, as a type of bottom-up logical process. Of course, this process usually occurs naturally, since we first understand the text literally, and this is an ontological fact. All this effort that we put into the apparent meanings is in order to understand the intended (deeper) meaning of the Qur’an.

o    This final aim of ours, of bringing out the inner meaning of the Qur’aan, is something like taking the pearl out of its shell. However, one cannot reach this at all without knowing the literal meaning, which furthermore means the understanding of these aforementioned elementary sciences. Thus, the literal reading is a vehicle that will take us to the true intended meaning. But we can never get to the target without a vehicle. The analogy is that the Qur’an is an ocean and we are in a boat, and we will need to dive deep in order to bring out the pearls. Our goal is not to stay on the surface. Of course, by just reading the Qur’an, and understanding the literal meaning, we do reach a certain position, but this is just like going around the beach and collecting pebbles, rather than diving into the ocean and taking out the pearls. Unfortunately, many of us have become so superficial that our ultimate goal has become these pebbles and this surface.

Gaayi Reading

o    This type of ‘reading’ is the ultimate aim, the answer to the questions: “What is the crux of this text?”, and “What are the wisdoms behind these Verses that open the hearts of many, and affect the people’s souls deep inside?”

o    Thus, this type of reading firstly goes from specific to general and then from general to specific, in order to understand the intended inward meaning. It aims at either the Haqeeqi (literal) or Majaazi (metaphorical) significations as per the intended meaning permeating the text, and is not limited to the Mawdhu’i [topical meaning], but rather extends out and looks at the Verses from an Ijmaali [overall] viewpoint as well, that is, from a wider perspective.

o    We can see this with an example. If we consider Surah al-Baqarah: 189 literally, we see that it was revealed due to a question about the new moon. Now, the moon is a time scale, a clock for people when it goes through its different phases, which gives rise to the Qamari calendar. Another topic covered in this Verse concerns the habit of Arabs in Ihraam to enter their houses from the back, and this practice was erased in this Verse.

o    Through this literal reading we come to understand the elementary, literal meaning. But the inward meaning encompasses the necessity to be aware of one’s responsibilities and to have Taqwa of Allah, and not to enter the ‘house’ through different doors (paying too much attention to the outward) – but rather to look inward and to correct one’s self. Asking about the moon is like paying more attention to the apparent outward qualities rather than the underlying message intended in the answer of Allah the Exalted. The literal meaning is obviously correct, but without understanding the inward significations we will only be superficial in our understanding of this Verse.

o    So having said this, we will proceed to focus on the inward reading, as this is the preferred method for the commentary of the Qur’an. We will move beyond the literal understanding, in order to go deep into the Qur’an. So let us talk about four very important principles needed in order to grasp this inward understanding.

o    First of all, one’s language, his tongue, is not separated from one’s thinking. Rather, they are very much related. One’s thinking becomes materialized through the tongue, which culminates in one’s language. The tongue and thinking are interconnected just like the flesh and the bones, the letter and the envelope. Moreover, language is also related to culture, customs, and civilization. Language grows through the experiences of a civilization and hides a history of the culture within itself – a brief history of the people can be seen in their language.

o    For example, by reading the poetry of the early Arab poets such as Imru’ Al-qays (d. 565), Taraafi (d. 569), ‘Antarah (d. 608), Zuhayr bin Abi Sulma (609), and Labeed (d.41/661), this can tell us something about the culture of the early Arabs. For example, we see the names of idols in their poems [and this shows their centrality to life in the pre-Islamic period].

o    Thus, in order to understand the evolution of language one needs to consider the formation and evolution of that over a certain period of time. When it comes to understanding the Qur’an this is even more important, since we must be very careful not to fall into misunderstandings.

o    Now, Arabic has certain core linguistic traits, and these are classified under Sarf, Nahw, and Balagha [morphology, grammar, and rhetoric, respectively] and one cannot understand the language properly without knowing these branches of Arabic language and literature. Needless to say that without Arabic, one cannot understand the Holy Qur’an.

o    Sarf is the change in the formation and morphology of words with respect to the required meaning. Ishtiqaaq is a subset of Sarf, and this science studies the relationship between two related words in terms of meaning and how they are derived from a common form (for example, Ism Fa’il and Ism Maf’ul). Nahw studies the words and the grouping of words, how the sentences are set up, and changes at the end of words. Knowing these elements is crucial since one cannot know the literal meaning without knowing these branches.

o    If someone is not well read in these sciences then it would be easy for one to get confused between subject, object and verbs of the sentences, and this would lead to big misunderstandings (such as what one might experience with an ignorant reading of Surah at-Tawba, Verse 3)[3].

o    Balaaghah analyses Qur’an more in the sense of eloquence and is necessary in order to understand the unorthodox and unique nature of the Qur’an (in the sense of it not being any type of speech or composition previously known to the Arabs in spite of their wide experience in this field). The books specifically written on Balaaghah are Maa’ani al-Qur’aan, Majaaz al-Qur’an, ‘Iraab al-Qur’an, and Mushkil al-Qur’an by al-Farra (d. 207/822), Abu Ubayda Ma’mar bin al-Muthanna (d. 209/824), az-Zajjaj (d. 311/923), and Ibn Qutayba (d.276/889) respectively (Rahimahumullah).

o    The Qur’an uses language in differing ways with respect to different topics. It uses a simple language with regards to social life issues, whereas it employs metaphors when talking about the unseen realm, history, and moral etiquettes. Thus, one needs to follow the evolution of the use of language and the chronological order of revelation when considering the Qur’an.

o    Qur’an also uses Mutashaabih (allegorical, symbolic) words such as throne (‘Arsh), Sama’, Yad and we cannot take the literal meanings of these words since they limit the creator and they are contradicting with other verses. Terms such as the she-camel of God, the House of Allah, the Wrath of Allah, His Love, His Reckoning on the Day of Judgement are all anthropomorphic terms; these terms are natural to employ due to the fact that Qur’an is talking to humans and therefore uses the language of humans.

o    There are a number of other important considerations that we will enumerate below, and then proceed to explain them in more detail: (1) History (2) Socio-cultural link which includes (a) Being Arab and (b) Being Ummi


o    Arabs used to worship idols as a routine act. There were also other religious groups in the Arabian Peninsula such as Christians, Jews and Sabiis (Sabeans).

o    The Qur’an also talks about the hypocrites in Madeenah. What this shows is that Muslims were in close relationship with all these groups. From the start to the end of the revelation the tone of the verses changes based on the evolution and change of the relationship between these groups and the Muslims. Qur’an did not follow a static historical principle but rather a very dynamic active line. Qur’an has a very complex historical dialogue process. One needs to have good knowledge of this historical Makki-Madani order and the events pointed by them. During the Makkan period around 86 chapters were revealed focusing on Imaan and Akhlaaq (ethics, morals) issues, setting up a very good foundation. This is in addition to the Awaamir (commands) and Nawaahy (prohibitions) slowly being revealed in this period.

o    The Makkan period is a foundation for the Madinan period, as in Madinah it was where the Ibaadaat (matters of worship) and the social order were explained. So for a commentator it is important to understand the chronological order and the reasons behind the revelation of these verses. This will remove any sort of confusion in understanding the Qur’an and protect the integrity of the whole picture. So it is crucial to know the when, where and whom (the audience) surrounding the Qur’an, so that we can replicate the event in today’s world for the right audience. We need to know who (socially, culturally) this audience is and then look for a similar audience in this day and age in order to correctly apply the teaching/message of different Verses.

Socio-cultural link

o    Culture is the total product of material and spiritual things which have been transferred from generation to generation within social human structures. The socio-cultural link is referring to the Arab cultural society as expressed in the Arabic idiom. This socio-cultural link refers to a growth period within that society. One can easily see the culture and the social effects which are related to the context of the Qur’an. This society had 2 main characteristics: being an Arab society and being an Ummi (unlettered) society.

Being Arab

o    The Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet in Arabic. The first audience of the Qur’an was the Arab society, and the things that they were familiar with included the Maaddi (materialistic matters such as their physical surroundings, humans, mountains, desert, sun, clouds, camel, stars, sky, and Ma’nawi (issues connected with the inward and with spirituality, such as the history of people, the order of family and tribal life, beliefs, and the arts). For example, the ‘oath’ was something very important in Arab society. They would swear on their life, their honor, forefathers, and even their spears (these would refer to the Power or Qudrah they saw behind all of these oaths).

o    There was a type an oath called ‘Qasama’ which was for a group of people (50 people from a tribe would use it to show that they are right). The Qur’an did not neglect a custom like ‘Qasama’, but rather took it seriously and used it.

o    Qur’an also used Kinayah (metonomy) such as that related to Kathrah (plurality) in numbers. For example, in Verse 2:261, 7 and 700 are used, and in Verse 9:80 used the phrase ‘70 times’ is used. These numbers (7, 70, and 700) are not used as exact numbers but as a Kinaayah referring to plurality.

o    Also in the descriptions of Paradise, the content of the descriptions are similar to the feasts and banquets familiar to the Arabs at the time of the revelation of Qur’an, and an analogous case can be made for the description of the Hellfire.

o    The descriptions of Paradise were so amazing for the Arabs, because they were one of the poorest societies at the time. They lived in the desert, in dry lands without water, while engaging in battles with flowing blood, and were in constant struggles and routinely suffered famines. They were longing for green gardens with water flowing beneath them, and similar peaceful lifestyles. They would appreciate this sort of description as compared to those societies that were already enjoying the beauties of rich fruits, rivers, and palaces.

o    The Arab society was closed within itself; they had certain enjoyments and loved drinking and women – and as a result, the Qur’an talked to them in their language. We should compare it to what we have in today’s world and take heed from that description. We need to remove the shackles of a literal, fixed mindset and instead broaden our horizons. This sort of description is suitable for that society and can also be broadened for the whole globe by means of similitudes.

o    The description of Hellfire is also analogously similar to that of Paradise, since the Qur’an is mainly talking about heat, clothes from fire, boiled water, iron whips, tarred shirts, dry thorns as food, and so forth.

o    In Surah Taha, Verse 102 we see the use of the word ‘Zurqaa’ (sky eyed, bluish scary) and this is a description of the enemies of Arabs, and this word was also used for a bad omen. For them, the color of the sky is the worst and most unlucky of signs. ‘Zurqaa’, then, is the best description for an enemy trait.

o    Similarly in the case of women, when we consider issues such as hitting women, women being witnesses, a share of the inheritance being given to them, we note that they would see women as something bad, to the point of burying them alive, and on the whole they were very harsh to women. During the period of the first revelations, women did not have any rights of inheritance, nor were they considered as witnesses. Islam gave rights to women, such as allowing them to get a share of the inheritance and allowing them to be witnesses.

o    Another example is that after the revelation of Surah al-Ahzab, Verse 59, where there was a command for wearing scarves irrespective of time and place, the ’Jilbab’ was shown as an example for the Arab society. But more broadly, a ‘Jilbab’ could be any kind of clothing as long as it covers the prescribed regions of women.

o    In Surah Al-Ghaashiya, Verse 17, in the mention of the camel and the hint to consider how it is created is an example of an animal familiar to the Arabs. Had the Qur’an been revealed in the North Pole then the example would be a polar bear for Eskimos. But given the actual context of the revelation, the Arabs were so familiar with camels that this was a perfect example for them.

o    Thus, all of these examples are due to the revelation being primarily for an Arab society, and this is very important point to understand, in order to take the overarching lesson and apply it to our present-day societies.

Being Ummi

o    Linguistically speaking, ‘Umm’ refers to the main, the ’Asl’ or source. This is why Makkah is called Umm al-Qura (the mother of cities).

o    The first Mukhaataab (the direct contact, second person) of the Qur’an was the Prophet . The Qur’an was revealed to him and he was held responsible to disseminate its content. The Prophet was ‘Ummi’ (unlettered) according to the Qur’an itself (as mentioned in Surah al-‘Ankabut: 48, Surah al-A’raaf: 157-158). We know for certain that when the Qur’an was first revealed he was Ummi (some Hadeeth narrations state that he knew how to read at a later stage, but this is not the topic for discussion at present).

o    The Qur’an was also sent to an ‘Ummi’ society (as mentioned in Surah Jumu’a: 2, and pointed to in Surah Aal ‘Imran: Verses 20 and 75), and we also see in a Hadeeth found in the collections of al-Bukhaari, Muslim and the Musnad of Imam Ahmad that the Prophet said (what approximately translates to): ‘I was sent to an Ummi society, we are an Ummi society who don’t know reading, writing and calculation’.

o    Ibn Khaldun (d. 808/1405) said that Arabs had been living like nomads and Bedouins with a primitive and simple lifestyle. Apart from knowing some poems by memory (Shifaahi way – that is, orally), they did not have a culture of books and written works to read or study. They had a simple tribal lifestyle where they were constantly struggling for life. So the Qur’an is simple and is for all people as it was revealed in the language of an Ummi society.

o    The Qur’an took the education level of the Ummi Arab society in order to establish certain rules and regulations. The principles of the Qur’an are understood easily in general and people do not need to go through special education in order to understand the general commands of the Qur’an. One does not need to study life sciences, mathematics or philosophy to understand the Qur’an. Allah talked to them in a way that they would understand the verses in a simple way (this is the best way to understand the Tanazzulaat Ilaahiyya – divine revelations). Imaam ash-Shaatibi (RA) in his book ‘al-Muwaafaqaat’ says that the first audience of the Qur’an was Ummi, hence the Sharia is also Ummi, and this is the best way to convey the message to everyone.

o    Had there been a requirement for certain types of knowledge to be gained before reading the Qur’an, then this would entail ‘Taklif ma la Yutaaq’ (responsibility given to people for that which they cannot bear). In that case the people would have had a valid reason for not understanding the message. For example, the Qur’an does not ask from people – as a legalistic obligation- to calculate the times with respect to astronomical observations, but rather commands them to simply look at the movement of the sun and the moon, which is something easy for everyone.

o    Some concrete examples of this can be seen from Surah al-Baqarah, Verse 189, which talks about the moon and its movement for the establishment of the Hijri calendar. And we likewise see that the fasting day starts when the white and black threads are differentiated (a Majaaz (metaphorical term) for the time of Imsaak – the start of the fasting period), and these are all very simple observations.

o    Also, the Qur’an gives very clear examples, easy to understand by everyone like Firaashan [couch, mattress, or a bed; thus, one can think of it as a place in where one can relax and have ease of mind] and Binaa’an [referring to a building, and pointing to the erecting and raising of a building]. It describes the function of Ardh (the Earth) like a bed, in which you can easily sit, lie down, and move. With this sort of description they know what this earth is for, the function of the Earth. Firaashan also means happiness, relaxation, consistency, and this perfectly describes the surface of earth. People understand the things that they don’t know best with an analogy to things they do know, like Binaa’an (used to describe the sky through an analogous mention of a building and its construction through the process of raising it up, etc.).

o    We must also consider that the word ‘Firaashan’ comes from the root farasha (to furnish, spread out, make it smooth etc..) So just like words such as ‘madda’, ‘basata’, and ‘daha’ mentioned in other verses, this shows the consistency of the Qur’an when describing the surface of Earth and why it is created that way for humans to accommodate themselves at ease.

o    If Qur’an were to describe things in a bit more sophisticated way, or in a way that people needed to first study the core life sciences, then this would create big problems and many people would not understand the Qur’an at all, and the Qur’an would lose its universal meaning and message. Nowadays people are racing to marginalize the Qur’an without understanding these simple issues and as a result people are either moving away from Islam or they are completely disinterested in it. It is right to ask the people who interpret the Qur’an in this manner: “Who gave you the right to limit the universal message of Qur’an to only a certain type of people?”

Siyaaq-Sibaaq relationship: The Importance of Context

o    The relationship of a word or a sentence with other words which come before and after is called the Siyaaq-Sibaaq relationship. This linkage shows the relationship between words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters. A verse might be related to a group of verses in various ways. A verse in the Qur’an may be related to the verses before and after as well as Verses found in other chapters. The order of the Verses in the Qur’an is Tawqifi (based on revelation from Allah to the Prophet and not on Ijtihad – juridical deduction). If we take a verse solo without looking what comes before or after, then this may lead to wrong conclusions about that particular verse. This can also lead to conflicts with other verses. The Qur’an is unique in the sense that a verse could be related to hundreds of other verses located in different chapters. Sometimes a verse can talk about 5-6 different issues which might be covered in different chapters in detail – hence we need to take these other verses with respect to their chronological order and context in order to understand the topic as a whole rather than as a separate entity.

o    For example, Surah ash-Shu’araa:19 talks about a dialogue between Pharaoh and Moses (Alayhi Salaam). Pharaoh told Moses ‘Wa anta Minal Kaafireen’ meaning you are ungrateful. Pharaoh had been saying in the previous verses to Moses that he looked after him, raised him up, etc. And although ‘kaafir’ means a disbeliever (opposite of Mu’min), here it means ‘ungrateful’ (opposite of Shaakir). If we do not read the verses before this one, it would not be possible to know the meaning properly.

o    The same problem arises with respect to Surah al-Baqarah: 78, ‘Ummiyyun’ has been understood to mean Majusis (Zoroastrians) without a book (as mentioned in as-Suyuti’s work Mufhamaatul Aqraan fi Mubhamaat al-Qur’aan, and ash-Shawkani in Fathul Qadeer[4]). However, when we look at the verses before and after this Verse, we see that this group of verses is talking about the Jews and has nothing to do with Zoroastrians.

Maqaasid (Ash-sharia, Hikmat at-Tashri’ al-Ilm)

o    We come now to what we term ‘Maqaasid’, which refers to the purposes, or goals in reading/writing or in a planned work. There are reasons for the activities that humans perform and also purposes and goals to be reached. People sometimes talk in order to persuade, to guide, to counsel, or simply to discharge feelings. Reasons are means through which the purposes are unearthed. So reason is sequentially before purpose. Revelations are sent down with certain purposes based on some particular reasons whether these are clear or disguised. These purposes affect the audience of the Qur’an. Those Awaamir and Nawaahy (commandments and prohibitions) which make up the formal ‘Ibaadaat carry certain Hikmah (wisdom), Maslahah (benefit) and Maqsad (purpose). For example, the purpose of Salaah is to keep humans away from bad and nasty things, the purpose of Zakaah is to balance socio-economic structure in society. The prohibitions tied to interest, theft, alcohol, gambling, fornication, and backbiting are all for the purpose of bringing peace to the families and to the society as a whole.

o    Some of the verses of the Qur’an are clear in their purpose and some are not. When the purpose is hidden, this causes people to interpret these verses differently. So we also need to understand Qasdul Mutakallim [lit. the goals of the speaker] along with the language, history, and context. It is important to find out the ‘Illah (sabab-reason) or purpose of Allah Ta’ala revealing these Verses.

o    As one example we can provide, ash-Shaatibi (d. 790/1388) states for Verse 98 in Surah an-Nisa (translated as): ‘What is happening to those that they are not even trying to understand the purpose behind the words?’ that this means: How come they do not understand while this is in their language? They understand the meaning but not the purpose and are not even trying to understand the wisdom behind these verses (ash-Shaatibi in al-Muwaafaqaat III).

o    In Surah an-Nisaa’, Verse 82, what is meant is that: Don’t they contemplate over the Qur’an? If they would do this then they would find no conflict in it. These people are Arabs and they do understand the literal meaning but what does Allah Ta’ala refer to here? Contemplating happens through following the literal text towards the purposes. Unfortunately, what they did was to immediately turn away from Qur’an without even thinking, but had they thought they would not have turned away. So Allah wants them to understand the inward meaning and this happens through first knowing the Dhaahiri (literal, outward) meaning. But they turned away after they had understood it literally. People can understand the meaning of a verse in its literal meaning, but the purpose lies in its inward meaning. The meaning is not only in the literal sense per se but in the inward, when we understand the purpose of the Mutakallim (the speaker).

o    Also, in order to reach a correct conclusion, one needs to know the linguistic tools to know the literal meaning as a first step, and then, through contemplation, the deeper inward meaning will be known, and this will open the doors for realizing the purpose of revelation.

o    As a synopsis then, in order to understand the Qur’an well one needs to know its language, the history of the Makkan and Madeenan periods, the context of the verses at the time of revelation, the purpose of these verses (Qasdul Mutakallim). The prior condition to understand the Qur’an is through the analysis of etymology and semantics, Balaaghah (for example, concepts such as Kinaayah and Majaaz), Sarf and Nahw. Secondly the history, context, and the purpose should be known to reach a correct conclusion. To know the purpose, scholars of Kalaam [discursive theology] contemplate upon ‘Dalil’ (evidence), Fuqaaha [jurists] upon ‘Illah’ (reason), and linguists upon ‘Qareenah’ (connection and context), and in this manner going from known (ash-Shaahid) to unknown (al-Ghayb).

Commentary of the Qur’an

o    In order to make comments on the Qur’an one needs to understand it properly and know the Nass (in here signifying explicit proofs, the clear and certain meanings). A typical commentator must have certain skills and aptitudes such as a sound mind, intelligence, sufficient capacity, correct belief, knowledge, experience, etc.

o    He also needs to have a certain methodology for people to understand the Qur’an clearly, its fundamental principles, so that the crux/kernel of the Qur’an may be understood clearly. Hence, mastering the Arabic language and literature through detailed analysis of poetry and Balaaghah, as well as referring back to historical events in the light of Qur’an, taking the Qur’an as a whole rather than trying to understand the verse independently, Siyaaq-Sibaaq relationship of these verses in their context, Ahaadeeth, Usuul ad-Deen (i.e. principles of Aqeedah and Kalaam) are the main prerequisites.


o    There are two main terms in classical Islamic literature with regards to interpretation: Tafseer (to explain/open something closed, to uncover the intended meaning of Verses through linguistic analysis) and Ta’weel – to bring about the true meaning in the totality of Qur’an, this term coming from the root Awwala which in this case is connected to the Tafseer/Sabab [outcome or interpretation] of dreams.

o    Az-Zarkashi and as-Suyuuti explain Ta’weel as transferring or returning the apparent meaning of a verse due to valid (Shari’a authenticated) reasons and based upon a solid proof, to an internal meaning which is in line with the understanding of the Qur’an and the Sunnah.

o    A few points to keep in mind: Scholars do not allow for Ta’weel to be made on the Nass [the text of the Qur’an] for the purpose of deriving rulings not mentioned in the text itself. Hence it is compulsory (Waajib) to act upon the apparent meanings of the Nass and without any solid proof one cannot go into Ta’weel (La yajuzu – it is not allowed).

o    Also, a Nass with a general meaning will be intended as general (‘Aam) unless there is a Nass specifying it (‘Aam-Khass relationship). A Nass with a Mutlaq (indubitable) meaning will be intended for Mutlaq (unconditional) purposes unless there is a Nass with Taq-yyid (i.e. unless there is another Nass particularizing it).

o    Moreover, the commands (imperatives) are intended for Wujuub unless otherwise stated. However, some of the Verses which may seem to conflict (mushkil) or those which have ambiguous or hidden meanings (Mutashaabihaat) must be explained through Ta’weel if the apparent meaning is against the whole of the Qur’an and Sunnah. There are certain conditions under these circumstances for Ta’wil, such as:

o    The meaning which is the basis for Ta’weel should be one of the meanings of that specific lafdh (word or phrase) even if it is through Majaaz (metaphor).

o    Ta’wil must not be in conflict with any other clear Nass (text, either of the Qur’an or the Sunnah).

o    There should be a Daleel Shar’i (legitimate religious-based proof) in order for Ta’weel to be made resulting in other than the apparent meaning of the Qur’anic Verse. (Refer to ‘Ilm Usuul al-Fiqh by Abdul-Wahhab Khallaf, and Muhammad Abu Zahra’s Usool al-Fiqh).

o    These conditions will test whether the Ta’weel is authentic or not. In the methodology of Usool experts, the veracity of Ta’weel is being tested with a criterion of high degree and deep linguistic analysis.

Can Ta’weel be thought of as Hermeneutics?

o    In hermeneutics, one puts himself in the shoes of the author in order to fully comprehend the text, be it poetry, prose, etc. Ta’weel upon the intended Lafdh is concerned with the meaning through linguistics and puts conditions for the integrity of the commentary; these conditions are linked to the Matn (text) in terms of lafdh and Ma’na (this last factor being the intended meaning and its connectivity to different factors that will be mentioned shortly). Hence Ta’weel is not only linked to the matn through linguistics but it is also linked individually just as a society is linked to each other with its accumulated knowledge, history, culture, and customs.

o    A healthy commentary is feasible only through internal integrity of the ‘matn’ as well as taking all the background elements into consideration. So Ta’weel should not be thought as something akin to hermeneutics, where one places himself in the shoes of the author. Ta’weel is performed through necessity, specifically to give a correct understanding of the Qur’an for a general audience. One should not get confused or see a link between Ta’weel and hermeneutics other than in the very general sense of both trying to unearth the true meaning of Mujmal (texts with a general concept) or Mutashaabih texts. Hermeneutics offers the chance for the commentator to put himself in the shoes of the author and this may even help the commentator to understand the matn even better than the author did. But this is not a valid approach for Qur’an and this sort of understanding cannot be accepted for the Qur’an at all.

o    Hermeneutics can be accepted as a methodology for Bible studies in order to remove the incompatibility these texts have with science and reason (‘Aql), since the books of the Bible were written by humans. This method of historical approach or multi-layered thinking cannot be thought of about the Qur’an. Qur’an is neither incompatible with science[5] nor with reason. Hence one cannot interpret it with respect to different periods in the history of mankind, and if one were to do so, this would lead to an absolute disaster.

Traits of a commentator

o    Now, let us consider some points and thoughts with respect to the traits of the commentators of the Qur’an, in addition to different facets of the Qur’an open to exegesis:

o    The commentator should know the language and the morphology of Arabic linguistics (Sarf-Ishtiqaaq), Nahw (syntax, the position of words in a sentence and their states), Balaagha (eloquence, majaaz, kinaaya, badi’, bayaan), so it is not only a matter of looking up the words in a dictionary or lexicon and then making comments about the Qur’an. Comprehending the methods of Usool, the reasons behind religious rulings, and the theoretical pillars of this religion are also crucial.

o    Also, what is required is not only knowledge through Naql (simple transmission) but also understanding the events, the historical context, time-place, culture, sociology, social psychology, and so forth. Moreover, the ‘Aql of the commentator must be fed from the original Islamic and Qur’anic resources, thinking, and methodology, and not the Biblical or Western points of view.

o    He should also have the capacity and the knowledge of the past and link it to the future events, as well as knowing how these affect all sorts of people now and in the future.

o    The ‘matn’ must be seen as a divine message and not as a puzzle book or a mystery homicide case waiting to be resolved. The commentaries should not made for the purpose of gaining fame, or for saying: ‘I am the one who came up with this methodology!’. In here, we should seriously think about the verses which warn about people who take their whims and minds as their gods.

o    Other prerequisites such as knowing the Ahadeeth, Usool, Kalaam, etc. are also mentioned in the primary Usool at-Tafseer books. (Of course, we are not talking here about the prerequisites of people who read the Qur’an, since the aforementioned prerequisites are for those who provide commentary on the Qur’an.)

o    The Qur’an is a book about interactions at various levels: human-nature, human-human, human-Creator, and all of these involve myriad disciplines such as economics, sociology, psychology, history, moral etiquettes, warfare, in addition to knowledge about the Creator and His attributes. It is not easy to be an expert in all of these disciplines and this is why there were only 7 main Fuqaaha out of more than one hundred thousand Companions. Consider that even not every Muhaddith [Hadeeth expert] is considered a Faqeeh. A’mash who knew over 300,000 Ahadith would not give fatwa in front of Imaam Abu Haneefa (Rahimahumulla). When explained by the true scholars, it is easy to understand the Qur’an. The message of the Qur’an is easy to understand without any further explanation, but of course one needs further explanation by the Prophet and the Ulil-Amr (scholars) in order to understand the ancillary issues of the religion.

o    Another point is that the Qur’an contains Muhkam [basic/fundamental] and Mutashaabih Verses. There is no problem in understanding the Muhkam Verses. But, there are difficulties in understanding Mutashaabih verses. Thus, one needs another Nass in order to make commentary on the Mutashaabihaaat. But even then, one cannot claim that these commentaries are the (absolute) meaning intended by Allah Ta’ala. Mutashaabihaat give rise to various perceptions and ways of seeing things in different people’s minds. Finally, some Mutashaabihaat verses can contain symbolic or anthropomorphic words[6], and these have to be dealt with in a systematic manner.

o    The Qur’an also talks about the topics of the unseen (topics of the Ghayb), such as death, the Hereafter, Resurrection, Jannah (Paradise), Jahannam (Hellfire), and the end of the Universe. The Qur’an does not get into the ‘naturalistic details’ of these events in its Verses but rather has its own style in mentioning these facts. People cannot experience the mentioned events in these Verses, and as a result they tend to make comments with regards to these verses, many of them not being really connected to the purport of the Verses.

o    The Qur’an also responds to the needs of the Arab society at the time individually as well as collectively in terms of commands, encouragements, and recommendations. But, the commentator may see these events differently. It is important to live through the events the companions did in order to understand the reasons behind the revelation of these verses. Since this is not possible, it leads some people to comment on these verses with different understandings and perceptions, without taking this very crucial point into full consideration.


o    Although the Qur’an took Arabs as the direct audience, its main audience is the whole of mankind. The Qur’an simultaneously addresses the people of normal understanding and different cultural backgrounds and the people of higher understanding, thinkers, philosophers and scientists. Those who are interested in the Qur’an from different backgrounds with different levels of understanding will find something relevant to them with respect to their own reality. This shows that Qur’an embraces everyone irrespective of their spatio-temporal setting. But this gives rise to one problem, which is that people make their own understanding public or share their experiences and comments about the Qur’an; opening it to self-interpretations without any regulating authority. Hence everyone seems to live (so as to say) their own religion with respect to their understanding.

o    The aforementioned characteristics are due to the unique internal style of Qur’an. The different backgrounds, capacity and methods of people will affect whether they will make comments with prejudice or not.

o    Even the formal commentators (Mufassirun) are at different levels in terms of capacity, intelligence, and knowledge and surely this is very natural. Each individual by birth has a different capacity and intelligence. It is important for a commentator to have deep knowledge about the creation and especially about the people. This is crucial in order to be objective and to see the full picture of all the creation rather than being stuck in a fixed school of thought or place.

o    One needs to take everything into consideration, the whole planet, climate, cultures, countries, philosophy, sociology, and technology. So it is not good enough to consider certain people who may understand so called scientific verses, since not everyone is capable of thinking scientifically. After all, most Muslims have historically lived outside the West and have had simple understandings.

o    There are two types of commentary from the earliest times, Naqli-based [taking into account the primary texts of Islam] and ‘Aqli-based [rational-based] commentaries. Every Mufassir needs to be equipped with Naql provided that the Naql is not fabricated. No one opposed this type of commentary whereas at times scholars criticized commentary through ‘Aql. Thus, the majority of scholars preferred the Naqli commentary and approach.

o    Mufassirun have different amounts of knowledge, distinct approaches towards the Nass, new Tafseer methods and also different schools in Qiraa’at, Fiqh etc.

o    The truth is that people live amongst things they see and are affected by their surroundings and experiences, and subconsciously they become subjective and biased. It is hard for one to move away from his biased state and make objective commentaries. If this biased lifestyle is surrounded by a specific belief system and its own related experiences, it is even more difficult to be unbiased. So people will only see their own perspectives as true and will start commenting on the Verses in order to promote their own ideology or school. They will try to prove that their way is the right way and use verses and Ahadeeth to prove their point. So every group that has arisen in history and even today always refers to the Qur’an in order to get a confirmation and to show people that they are right, be it through the apparent meanings or through Ta’weel.

o    These sort of approaches resulted in biased self-commentaries. However we need to read, understand and make commentaries of Qur’an without any bias.

o    A commentator should not have a fixed mentality because of his past experiences or for any other reason. This will affect his commentary in a negative way.

Mawdhi’i and Mawdhu’i methods

o    Some scholars tried to prove the superiority of Qur’an by showing its unique linguistic style in terms of Balaagha, meaning, I’raab (grammatical analysis), or by commenting on Verses connected to Ahkaam [legalistic rulings]. Some took the Verses related to belief in the Qur’an to show the system of ‘Aqeedah [beliefs]. At the end, they wanted to discover the will of Allah through each Verse. Two main methods came about from this approach: Mawdhi’i (part by part, from the start to the end) and Mawdhu’i (topic by topic).

o    The Mawdhi’i method seems simple compared to the Mawdhu’i method. It does not have any major advantages other than being a good resource for the Mawdhu’i method. This latter method takes a topic like belief, the cosmos, society, etc. and makes a commentary on the topic, starting from each Verse with respect to the first revelations and the Sabab an-Nuzuul (reason behind the revelation). This combines the human experience/interaction with the inward meaning of the Verses. This is a better method in terms of understanding the Qur’an, and gives a more holistic approach in comprehending certain topics. Ash-Shaatibi suggested the method of induction in understanding the Qur’an, from Juz to Kull and he developed this method further (al-Muwaafaqaat, I:39). In our opinion, for today’s world, where the fields are being more and more specialized, it is better to use Mawdhu’i method to comment on the Qur’an.

o    Thus, in conclusion we can say that a commentator must have knowledge of the following sciences: 1. ’Ilm al-lughah 2. Nahw 3. Sarf 4. Ishtiqaaq 5. Ilm al-Ma’ani 6. Ilm al-Bayaan 7. Ilm al-Badi’ 8. Qiraa’at 9. ‘Aqaaid 10. Usul al-fiqh 11. Asbaab an-Nuzul 12. Naasikh and Mansuukh [science of abrogating and abrogated Verses of the Qur’an] 13. Fiqh 14. Ahadith and 15. Wahbi ‘Ilm [Inborn knowledge gifted by Allah to the Mufassir]. If someone does not have knowledge of one of these sciences, he is considered to have interpreted the Qur’an according to his own view.

o    This is only a small set of points that were mentioned with respect to the exegesis of the Qur’an, and there is scope for elongating this explanation as necessary. May Allah forgive us for any mistakes we may have made and any shortcomings in this work. And may Allah bless and grant peace to the Prophet Muhammad , his Family and Companions.

[1] We will provide any observations we think are relevant to the topic in footnotes.

[2] Here, we will adopt the same method that we have adopted in the notes present on this site, that of presenting the thoughts and comments in bulleted astyle.

[3] Because part of this the Verse translates to: ‘And [it is] an announcement from Allah and His Messenger to the people on the day of the greater pilgrimage that Allah is disassociated from the disbelievers, and [so is] His Messenger. But if someone does not know the rules of grammar, is unsure about them, or wishes to cause confusion, the Verse could be mistranslated to erroneously mean that Allah is disassociated from the disbelievers and also from His Messenger, while this is an impossible proposition.

[4] That is, these are mentioned as possibilities by certain people quoted in the works of these exegetes.

[5] In the sense of knowledge reached with certainty through the senses, not in the sense of ‘modern science’.

[6] That is, when they are referring to Allah the Exalted.


5 thoughts on “Prerequisites needed in order to make Tafseer – a few thoughts

  1. Pingback: An Analysis of Hamza Tzortzis’ paper on the Qur’an and so-called Scientific Miracles | Muslim Answers

  2. Pingback: Muslim Scientists (And Scholars) Not Impressed With IERA’S ‘New’ Approach To Quran & Science | Asharis: Assemble

  3. Pingback: Muslim Scientists (And Scholars) Not Impressed With IERA’S ‘New’ Approach To Quran & Science | Exploring Life, The Universe and Everything

    • Salam Alaykum,

      What I understand of the original author’s article (I am more of the editor, the original author for the time being is unavailable) is that he was laying down a number of general principles for the work of exegesis, not in the sense of urging people to go ahead and do Tafseer of the Quran, but rather saying that in this complex age it is best for people to have an encyclopedic knowledge of both the traditional Islamic sciences as well as an acquaintance with the world as it stands now before even thinking of going ahead and giving a ‘formal interpretation’ of Quranic Verses – something that would disqualify all lay Muslims who might be thinking along those lines. He also mentioned that perhaps a committee of scholars rather than individuals would perhaps be the proper route for an Islamic exegesis of the Quran to be made. Of course, the aptitude in the different Islamic sciences needed as prerequisites would have to be attested by the teachers of the scholars in question and the peers of such Ulamaa as the case may be appropriate.

      What I understand also in this article is an attempt to try to block what we see today of lay Muslims, even some non-Muslims, claiming that they are ‘Mufassirun’ simply because they know Arabic or they have a secular degree in Middle Eastern history, etc., because this is one of the matters that really hurts the normal Muslim in his search into understanding Islam properly (since claims are being made about the reality of formal Islam while there is no authority behind such claims).

      All in all then, this is more of an abstract piece rather than trying to identify anyone who is to be seen as an overall Mufassir of the Quran.

      Wa Salaam.


Comments are closed.