It is no surprise to discover that the science of tafseer started during the lifetime of the Prophet (salallahu alayhi wa sallam) himself Infact, one of the primary roles of the Prophet (salallahu alayhi wa sallam), as shall be expounded on later, was to interpret the Quraan. Allaah says, "And We have sent down to you (O Muhammad) the Remembrance, so that you may clearly explain to mankind what has been revealed to them, and so that they may give thought." (Q 16[Nahl] :44) The science of tafteer during the Prophets (salallahu alayhi wa sallam) life was a relatively easy matter.
This was so for a number of factors. Firstly, the Companions were witnessing the revelation of the Quraan, and the circumstances during which it was revealed. They were aware of the reason behind the revelation of a verse (asbaab an-nuzool), and as such did not need to search for this knowledge as later interpreters would have to. Secondly, the Arabic of the Companions was the Arabic of the Quraan, as the Quraan was revealed in their dialect.
Therefore the Arabic of the Quraan was, in general, understood by them without any difficulties. Lastly, and most importantly, the Prophet (salallahu alayhi wa sallam) was alive, and the Quraan was still being revealed, so even if there were any difficulties in understanding any verse, they could turn to the Prophet (salallahu alayhi wa sallam) for an explanation.
An example quoted earlier is with regards to the verse "Those who believe and do not mix their belief with injustice ..." [6:82]. The Companions asked, "O Messenger of Allaah! Who amongst us does not do injustice (to his soul)?" The Prophet (salallahu alayhi wa sallam) replied, "Have you not read the statement of Luqmaan, "Verily, shirk is a great injustice?"(Q31 [Luqman]: 13) In other words, the Prophet (salallahu alayhi wa sallam) informed them that the injustice referred to in this verse was shirk, or the association of partners with Allaah.
The Companions were careful that they understood every single verse in the Quraan properly. Aboo Abd ar-Rahmaan as-Sulamee reported that whenever the people who taught them the Quraan, like Uthmaan ibnMfaan, Abdullaah ibn Masood, and others, learnt ten verses of the Quraan, they would not proceed further until they had understood whatever ideas and regulations those verses contained. They used to say, "We learnt the Quraan, and studied its ideas and injunctions alltogether." This narration shows that the Companions were eager to understand Quraan, so much so that they would not memorise any verses until they had already understood what they knew. The role of the Prophet (salallahu alayhi wa sallam), and quantity of the Quraan that he interpreted, will be elaborated upon in the next section. After the death of the Prophet (salallahu alayhi wa sallam), the science of tafseer took on a more systematic approach.
Thus it can be considered that the first true mufassirs were actually the Companions. The sources that the Companions used for tafseer were the Quraan, the statements of the Prophet (salallahu alayhi wa sallam), the principles of Arabic grammar and rhetoric, their own personal reasoning (Ijtihaad), and pagan and Judaeo-Christian customs that were prevalent at the time of the revelation of the Quraan.
This article was culled from the publications of Deen Communication Limited