A Few Comments on Tafsir of the Qur’an

Habib Siddiqui, Ph.D.

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A Few Comments on Tafsir of the Qur’an
Habib Siddiqui, Ph.D.
(Philadelphia Lecture, 1994)

The science of Tafsir is primarily concerned with the interpretation and elucidation of the text of the Qur’an.  Early tafsir began as an oral tradition of Hadith transmission from the Prophet Muhammad (S) and subsequently the views and interpretations of his Companions (ashab), their Successors or Followers (taabi’in), and the Successors’ disciples (taabi taabi’in) .  Some of the Companions (RA) wrote down the interpretations that they heard from our Prophet (S).  They later passed this on both orally and in written form to their Successors (R), who, in turn, passed this knowledge to those who came later.  Written commentaries thus began with the Companions and Successors, who were in closest contact with the Revelation.  However, Tafsir as an independent and systematic subject, running verse for verse through the Qur’an, owes its existence to Said b. Jubayr b. Hisham al-Kufi (R), a disciple of Ibn Abbas (RA), who is regarded as the first to have composed, in compliance with the order of the Umayyad Caliph Abdul Malik b. Marwan (d. 86/705), a complete Tafsir of all the verses of the Qur’an.

Amongst the Companions, the famous ten commentators of the Qur’an included the first four Caliphs - Abu Bakr, Umar ibn al-Khattab, Uthman b. Affan, Ali b. Abi Talib (RA), and Abdullah ibn Mas’oud, Abdullah ibn Abbas, Ubaiy ibn Ka’b, Zaid b. Thabit (d. 45/666), Abu Musa al-Ash’ari (d. 42/662), and Abd Allah b. al-Zubair (d. 75/694) (RA).  Besides these famous ten Companions, the following Companions dealt in Tafsir, though comparatively less: A’isha (d. 68), Anas b. Malik (d. 93/711) , Abu Hurayra al-Dawsi (d. 58-9/678-679), Abd Allah b. Umar (d. 73/693), Jabir b. Abdullah (d. 74/693), and Abdullah b. ‘Amr ibn al-‘As (d. 63/682) (RA).  There were also others like Ka’b b. Al-Ahbar (d. 32-34/652-4) and Wahb b. Munabbih (d. 110-4/728-732) (RA), who converted to Islam from ahle-Kitab, and were famous for their scriptural explanations on Jewish and Christian matters.

Centering round these Companions, there arose several schools of Tafsir (Madaris al-Tafsir) in the different parts of the then Muslim world.  However, by far the most important figure from the point of view of Traditional exegesis was the Companion Abdullah ibn Abbas (RA) (d. 68/687-88), whose school was based in Makkah.  He was born three or five years before the hijra (BH).  Due to his close blood relationship with the Prophet (S) he grew up in close proximity to Muhammad (S).  Several Traditions record the Prophet (S) praying that Ibn Abbas (RA) should be given wisdom and the ability to interpret the Qur’an.  After the death of Muhammad (S), Ibn Abbas (RA) gathered much information from older Companions, notably Abdullah ibn Mas’oud b. Ghafil b. Habib, Ubaiy b. Ka’b, ‘Ali b. Abi Talib (RA), and became a great teacher, jurist, biographer, poet and historian.  His exegetic utterances were collected into volumes with isnad going back to various of his students and companions.  His famous students were ‘Ikrima Abu Abd Allah al-Barbari (d. 104/722), Abul Hajjaj Mujahid b. Jabr al-Makki (21/642-104/722) , Abu Abdullah Said b. Jubayr b. Hisham al-Asadi al-Kufi (95/714), Abu Abdur Rahman Tawus b. Kaisan al-Yamani al-Hiwiari al-Jandi (d. 106/724) and Abu Muhammad ‘Ata’ b. Abi Ribah al-Makki al-Qarashi (27/647-114-5/732-3) (R).

Another Companion important for Traditional exegesis was Ibn Mas’oud (RA) (d. 33/653).  His school was based in Kufa.  His famous students included Alqama b. Qais b. Abd Allah b. Malik al-Nakha’i (d. 62/681) and Abu Said al-Hasan b. Abi’l Hasan Yasar al-Basri (12/633 or 21/642-110/728).  Among the other famous men of this center were Abu al-Khattab Qatada b. Di’ama al-Sadusi (61/680-117/735), Abu A’sha Masruq b. al-Ajda’ al-Hamdani al-Kufi (d. 63/682), Shuraih b. al-Harith al-Kindi (d. 78/697), Abu Abdur Rahman al-Aswad b. Yazid b. Qais al-Nakha’i (d. 75/694), Ibrahim b. Yazid al-Nakha’i (d. 95/713), ‘Ubaida al-Salmani, al-Harith b. al-Qais, and Abu ‘Amr ‘Amir b. Shurahil al-Sha’bi al-Himayri al-Kufi (20/641-109/729) .

While Ibn Abbas and Ibn Mas’oud (RA) are traditionally thought as the founders of Makkan and Kufan schools, respectively, Ubaiy b. Ka’b b. Qais b. Ubaid (RA) (d. 32/652) is credited with the foundation of the Madinan school.  He, also known as Abul Mundhir, was a Jewish Rabbi before embracing Islam, and was one of the scribes of the Qur’anic wahy .  Some of the famous Medinite Followers included Abul ‘Aliya Rufai’ b. Mihran al-Riyahi (d. 90/709 or 96/714), al-Rabi b. Anas al-Bakri al-Basri al-Khurasani (d. 139/756), Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Ka’b b. Salim b. Asad al-Qurazi (d. 118/736), and Zaid b. Aslam al-‘Adawi al-Madani (d. 136/753) (R).

The third group of commentators were the pupils of the tabi’un (Successors) and comprised of the genealogists, grammarians, and commentators of the second century (AH), including Abd al-Rahman b. Zaid b. Aslam and Abu Salih al-Kalbi (R).

It must be mentioned here that the method of the Successors and their pupils (i.e., the second and third group of Muslims, respectively) in their commentaries was to interpret the verses sometimes in the form of the Prophet’s (S) or his Companions’ (RA) narrations, and sometimes they explained the meaning without reference to anyone.  If they gave an opinion [which does not trace back to Muhammad (S) or any of the Companions (RA)], the commentators treated the latter in the same way they had treated prophetic narrations, calling them “discontinued” (muqufah).

The fourth group of commentators included compilers like Sufyan b. ‘Uyyinah Makki (d. 198/813), Waki’ b. Jarrah Kufi (d. 197/812), Shu’bah b. Hajjaj al-Basri (d. 160/776), and Abd b. Humaid (249/863) (R).  Following the method of their more famous predecessors, this group, too, quoted the views of the Companions, Successors and their pupils without explanations or expression of independent views.

It is worth mentioning here that in the early days of the collection and compilation of the Prophetic Traditions,  Tafsir became a part of the science of Hadith and the large musannaf-collections regularly contained a chapter entitled “Kitab al-Tafsir.”  However, the muhaddithun, who compiled such collections, incorporated into their Books of Hadith only those Traditions which met their criteria, for example, in terms of being sahih in matn and isnad tracing back to the Prophet (S).  Among the Hadith collections which included chapters on Tafsir are the works of Yazid b. Harun al-Sulami (d. 117/735), Shu’ba b. al-Hajjaj (d. 160/776), Abu Sufyan Waki’ b. al-Jarrah (d. 197/812), Sufyan b. ‘Uyyinah (d. 198/813), Rauh b. Ubada al-Qaisi (d. 205/820), Abd al-Razzaq b. Hammam al-San’ani (d. 211/826), Adam b. Abi Iyas al-Asqalani (d. 220/835), Ishaq b. Rahawayh al-Marwazi al-Nakha’i al-Nisaburi (d. 238/852) and Abd b. Humaid (d. 249/863) (R).  As can be seen, this list of muhaddithun also includes the names of the commentators belonging to the fourth group.

A clear and distinct difference can be ascertained in the mood and method of writing Tafsir during and after this phase.  One group of Mufassirun, following the method of Muhaddithun, based their Tafsir on the Isnad, paying greater attention to the authenticity and genuineness of the Isnad than to the matn itself.  Another group of scholars paid greater attention to the matn itself than to the isnad, and in pursuance of the clear injunction of the Qur’an concerning the exercise of reason, applied their intellect and adapted the principles of ta’wil in interpreting the Qur’an.

The Tafsir of Imam Muhammad b. Jarir al-Tabari (222/838?-310/923) (R), Jami’ al-Bayan ‘an Tawil Ay al-Qur’an (The Comprehensive Exposition of the Interpretation of the Verses of the Qur’an), is the first major voluminous work in the development of traditional Qur’anic sciences.  Imam Tabari (R) quotes from all four of the Khulafaye Rashidun, as well as from A’isha (RA).  These above figures among the Companions (RA) and Followers (R),  several of whom have books of Tafsir linked with their names, are the principal sources in the Traditional exegesis of which Tabari’s (R) commentary provides the most complete compilation.  Another important source for Tabari (R) was the work of Abu Abd Allah Muhammad b. Ishaq (R), more commonly known as Ibn Ishaq (d. 150-2/767-9).  Ibn Ishaq (R), before the time of Tabari (R), was foremost among those collecting historical traditions and arranging them in the form of a biography (sira) of the Prophet (S).  His work survives in a recension by Ibn Hisham (R) (d. 218/834).  Tabari (R) quotes Ibn Ishaq (R) frequently both in his Tafsir and Ta’rikh al-Rusul wal Ambiya’ wal Muluk wal Khulafa’ (which records the history of the world from the first human, Adam (AS), up to his own time). [It is worth mentioning here that Ibn Ishaq was not a very reliable reporter. He often did not check the veracity of many of his reports. In his accounts, there are stories that are based on hearsay with phrases like za’ama or zaamu, (“he or they alleged”) or “fi ma dhukira li” (“as to what has been reported to me”)  and “fi ma balaghani” (“as to what has reached me”), etc. Imam Malik (R), a contemporary, did not trust him.]  The reason behind including Ibn Ishaq’s citations in Imam Tabari’s work is because the latter’s style includeed citing all the pros and cons of any event.  He never shied away from citing any story or narration that was known to him despite its being weak or bizarre in isnad (chain of narration) and/or matn (text).  But a discerning reader of Tabari’s Jami al-Bayan fi Tafsir al-Qur’an could easily decipher between a narrative story that was strong in its isnad compared to others that were weak.

Tabari (R) also quoted copiously from the Mashaf of Abu Muhammad Isma’il b. Abdur Rahman al-Kufi, more commonly known as al-Suddi (d. 127/744), and Abu Muhammad Abd al-Malik b. Juraij al-Makki as-Asadi (d. 150/767) (R).  Tabari’s (R) sources include, among others, Abu Ubaida Ma’mar b. al-Mutahanna (110/728-209/824-5) and Al-Farra’  , whose actual name was Abu Zakariya’ Yahya b. Ziyad al-Kufi (c. 144/761-207/822), both famous grammarians and philologists from Basrah and Kufa, respectively. 
Tabari’s (R) commentary is a valuable landmark in the history of this discipline.  All those who came after him have relied heavily on his work and acknowledged their debt to him.  The great value of his work is reflected in the comment by the jurist Abu Hamid al-Isfara’ini that ‘If a person has to go to China to obtain a copy of Muhammad b. Jarir’s Tafsir, it will not have been too much [effort].’  Ibn Khuzayma himself had read al-Tabari’s Tafsir in seven months, after which he said: “I known not, on the face of the earth, anyone more knowledgeable than Abu Ja`far [al-Tabari].”

While Tabari (R) represents the field of Traditional exegesis (based on Isnad), Imam Abu Mansur al-Maturidi’s   (R) (d. 333/944) Ta’wilat Ahl al-Sunna is a bold departure from the Isnad-based traditions and is also free from the Israiliat (narrations from Jews).  His was the first such matn-based work which discarded the traditional notion of considering the isnad to be the only criterion.  His system was much ahead of time and as such, could not get its due place in those days, except in Transoxiana and Khurasan.  But as time went on his system became the order of the day.

Al-Maturidi (R) generally quotes the relevant part of a tradition or gives the gist of it, without citing isnad.  When Traditions are mentioned, he quotes mainly the narrations of Abdullah b. Mas’oud, Ali ibn Abi Talib, Anas b. Malik, Ibn Abbas, Ubaiy b. Ka’b, Mu’adh b. Jabal, A’isha, Abu Hurayra, Abu Bakr, Umar, and Urwah b. al-Zubair (RA).  The opinions of Hasan al-Basri and al-Imam Abu Hanifah (R) are often quoted, but he does not always support the view of the former, while he faithfully upholds those of the latter.  Imam al-Maturidi (R) also cites narrations from al-Suddi and Abu Muhammad Abd al-Malik b. Juraij al-Makki as-Asadi (R), whom Tabari (R) has used more frequently.  His Ta’wilat is both rational and critical.  As a great dialectician with deep insight, broad outlook and profound knowledge of the philosophical systems and scholastic criticisms of his time, Al-Maturidi (R) made a thorough endeavor to find out a rational solution for the conflicting ideas and the disturbing problems of Muslim theology by both complying with reason and conforming to revelation.  He exhibited a subtle attitude - consistent and exhaustive - to establish the liberal orthodox speculative theology, in vindicating the views of Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jama’a (especially those of Imam Abu Hanifah (R)) and in refuting the views and ideas of other groups and sects, and to provide for it a sound basis.  By introducing ta’wil for interpreting the Qur’an scholastically, he showed that there is no conflict between revelation and reason.  Muhiuddin al-Qarashi (d. 775/1372) and Taqi al-Din al-Tamimi (d. 1005/1596) commenting on his work held: “It is a unique book, with which no book of the earlier authors on this subject can have any comparison.” 

Among the early Mufassirun, the scholar Abul Qasim Jar Allah Mahmud b. Umar al-Zamakhshari (467/1075-538/1144), a man of great learning in both the religious and linguistic sciences, represents a more rationalistic approach.  Despite his Mu’tazili leaning, his Tafsir: Al-Kashshaf an Haqa’iq al-Tanzil wa ‘Uyun al-Aqawil fi Wujuh al-Ta’wil, which combines Traditions with theological discussion, grammatical and lexicographical exegesis, is regarded by Sunni ‘ulama as one of the most important works of Tafsir.

Some other famous Arabic commentaries of the Qur’an are: Tafsir Tha’labi by Ahmad b. Muhammad b. Ibrahim Tha’labi (d. 427/1036), Ashab Nuzul al-Qur’an by Abu al-Hasan Ali ibn Ahmad al-Wahidi (d. 468/1076), Mafatih al-Ghaib (more commonly known as Al-Tafsir al-Kabir) by Imam Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 606/1209), Tafsir al-Qur’an al-Karim by Shaykh Muhyi al-Din ibn Arabi (d. 638/1240), Al-Jami’ li-Ahkam al-Qur’an by Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Andalusi al-Qurtubi (d. 671/1273), Anwar al-Tanzil wa-Asrar al-Tawil by Abd Allah b. Umar al-Baidawi (d. 716/1316), Ghara’ib al-Qur’an wa Ragha’ib al-Furqan by Nizam al-Din al-Hasan ibn Muhammad ibn al-Husayn al-Qummi al-Nisaburi (d. 728/1327), Tafsir Al-Bahr al-Muheet by Abu Hayyan Andalusi (d. 745/1344), Tafsir al-Qur’an al-Azim by Ismail ‘Imad al-Din Abu al-Fida’ ibn Kathir (d. 774/1373), Tafsir al-Jalalain by Abul Fadl Abd al-Rahman Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (d. 911/1505) and his teacher - Jalal al-Din Mahalli (d. 874/1469), Ruh al-Bayan by Shaykh Isma’il Haqqi Islambuli (d. 1137 AH), and Ruh al-Ma’ani by Shihab al-Din Mahmud al-Alusi al-Baghdadi (1270/1855).

From the brief discussion above, it is clear that the Ta’wilat of Imam Al-Maturidi (R) and Jami al-Bayan of Imam Al-Tabari (R), being the two earliest, major extant works, by authors who were contemporaries, are two representative commentaries of the Qur’an.  Both the works are held as “the Tafsir par excellence”, “unique”, “original”, and so on.  For a comparative study, the reader is directed to Dr. Rahman’s book, mentioned herein.

In this century, a number of Arabic commentaries have been written, most of which seem to break away from the classical mould, both in Isnad and Matn.  Most of these ‘modern’ commentaries reflect the needs of the present time and some are highly apologetic or show neo-Mu’tazili trends.  In this regard, Tantawi Jauhari’s (d. 1358/1940) Tafsir al-Jawahir and Muhammad Abduh’s (d. 1323/1905) Tafsir al-Manar may be cited.  In my opinion, Abduh’s Tafsir should be totally rejected owing to his Freemasonic root .  For a brief introduction into some of the major works in the Arabic language, I recommend Professor Ayoub’s The Qur’an and its Interpreters.

A good many Tafsir works, written by Muslims , are also available in other major languages, including English, Bengali and Urdu.  These may be broadly classified into four groups: (1) apologetic and/or mildly ‘modernistic’ with rationalistic trends,  (2) highly ‘modernistic’, which rejects miracles or anything supernatural mentioned in the Qur’an, thereby rejects the bulk of sahih Hadith on those matters , (3) good ones which are, however, not free from personal opinions,  and (4) those following the more traditional or classical line.  I am sure that the above categorization will disturb some of my readers.  My preference for classical Tafsirs is solely due to the fact that the Qur’an is not a book that someone can interpret comprehensively and exhaustively, for its sciences are unique and ultimately beyond our understanding .  Allah says in the Qur’an, “And We sent not (as Our Messengers) before thee other than men whom We inspired - Ask the followers of Remembrance if ye know not! - With clear proofs and writings; and We have revealed unto thee the Remembrance that thou mayst explain to mankind that which hath been revealed for them, and that haply they may reflect.” (16:43-44)  He also said, “And We have revealed the Scripture unto thee only that thou mayst explain unto them that wherein they differ, and (as) a guidance and a mercy for a people who believe.” (16:64)  Commenting on these verses, Tabari (R) states, “[From this, three things] ... become clear.  [First,] knowledge of the interpretation of some of the Qur’an ... can be attained only through the explanation given by the Messenger…. [Secondly,] the interpretation of [some other aspects] is known only to God, the One, the Omnipotent.  This is whatever contains information about future dates and times, such as the time when the Hour of Resurrection will begin, when the last trumpet will be sounded, when Jesus, the son of Mary, will come down, and so on.  No one knows the fixed dates for these events, nor does anyone know how to interpret them except through the information [God gives] of their portents….. [Thirdly,] everyone who knows the language in which the Qur’an was sent down knows the interpretation of [some of its aspects].... [Such a person, however, does not know] which rulings in it are obligatory, or their attributes and the conditions for them, [all of] which God has given knowledge of only to His Prophet, and which can only be understood through his explanation; nor [does he know] what only God, and none of His creatures, knows.”  To elucidate further, Tabari (R) states: “This being the case, then the commentator most successful in reaching the truth, in the interpretation of [that aspect] of the Qur’an [[in]] which there is a way for all servants to know, is [,firstly,] the one with the clearest proof for [all] that he interprets and commentates, the one whose interpretation goes back to the Messenger of God alone to the exclusion of the rest of his community, through Traditions reliably attributable to him, either through an extensive transmission, ... or otherwise through a transmission by righteous, reliable persons, .... or because of an indication establishing their truth; and [,secondly,] the one with the most correct demonstration for [all] that he interprets and explains, knowledge of which he can attain from the language. ... Finally, his interpretation and commentary should not depart from what the pious predecessors among the Companions and the leaders, and the successors among the Followers, and the men of knowledge in the Community, have said.” 

Recently, people have appeared who, without the slightest qualification for interpreting the Qur’an, try to impose their own objectives and ideas upon both the Qur’an and the Sunnah.  They reject or ignore the bulk of the classical Tafsir saying that those pious predecessors did not quite understand the Qur’an, but now that they are living in this highly technologically advanced era they are in a better situation to interpret the Qur’an.  Their real objective is not the Qur’an or its interpretation, but to confuse the masses under the pretext that they are Islamic.  One of the things that is forbidden in Islam is interpreting the Qur’an according to personal opinion, or attempting to make the Qur’an conform to one’s opinions.  Ibn Abbas (R) narrated from Rasulullah (S) who said: “Whoever speaks concerning the Qur’an according to his personal opinion” - [or, in another report “without knowledge”]- let him take his seat in the Fire.”  Tabari (R) also quotes Jundub (RA) who narrated from Rasulullah (S): “Whoever speaks according to his own personal opinion concerning the Qur’an, and is right, is [nevertheless] at fault.”  Tabari (R) explains the above Hadith in this way: “He means that he is at fault in what he does when he gives his own personal opinion about [the Qur’an], even if what he says is in exact agreement with what is correct before God, for ... he does not speak as a person who knows that what he says about it is true and correct.  He speaks falsely about God what he does not know, committing thereby a sin which he was commanded not to.”

May Allah guard us from all falsehood.  Let the Ahadith and the explanation provided above deter us from making sweeping personal remarks about the Qur’an.