Tafsir: how to interpret the Qur’an

It is not coincidental that Muslims all over the world devote more time and energy in the study of the book of Allah during the month of Ramadan. Ramadan is the month in which the Quran was revealed. The primary goal of studying and reciting the Quran in this month is to understand and implement the Qur’an properly. Proper understanding and implementation of the Qur’an is impossible without a corresponding proper interpretation. For this reason, an upsurge in tafsir sessions is a characteristic of this blessed month. But how is the Qur’an to be interpreted? Who qualifies as an interpreter of the Qur’an? This and other issues form the basis of this intro-Ramadan edition.

What is Tafsir?

The word ‘tafseer’ comes from ‘fassara’ which means ‘to explain’, ‘to expound’, ‘to elucidate’, ‘to interpret’. The word ‘tafseer is the verbal noun of ‘fassara’ and means ‘the explaining of interpretation of something’.

According to another opinion, the word tafsir is a transposition from s-f-r, which means ‘to expose’, ‘to uncover’. Thus a woman who uncovers her face is called ‘a saafirah’, and the act of uncovering her face is called ‘sufur’. Therefore, according to this definition, tafsir would mean uncovering the meanings and exposing the secrets of the Qur’an. However, the stronger of the the two opinions is the first one, even though both of these meanings are correct.

In Islamic sciences, tafsir: is defined to be the science by which the Qur’an is understood, its meanings explained and its rulings derived. Another common word that is often used to signify exposition of the Qur’an is the word 'ta'weel'. The word 'ta'weel' is from a-w-l, which means 'to return, to revert,' which implies going back to the original meaning of a word to see what its meanings and connotations are.

The Necessity and Importance of Tafsir

The question arises: why is there a need for tafsir. After all, does not Allaah say in the Qur'an: " 

Verily this Qur'an leads to the path that is most right" (QI7[lsraai]:9)  

and thus everybody can find the straight path through this Book? source of guidance in and of itself, as it says:

 "And We have sent down the book to you as an explanation for everything, a guidance, a mercy and glad tidings for Muslims." (QI6[Nahl]:89)?

Indeed, it is true that anyone who approaches the Qur'an with a pure heart, seeking the guidance of Allaah, will find it. As Allaah says:

 "This (Qur'an) is a declaration for mankind, a guidance and an admonition for those who ward off evil." (Q3 [Aal-Imraan]: 138)

As-Suyootee discusses the necessity of tafsir in his al-Itqaan. He begins by stating that it is a known fact that Allaah communicates with man in a way that they will be able to understand. This is the reason that every messenger has been sent in the language of his people.

However, there are three basic reasons why tafsir is necessary despite these facts:

First of all, Allaah uses the most clear, eloquent and concise language, and in doing so the meaning is clear to those who are well-grounded in the Arabic language, but not so clear to those who are not.

Secondly, the Qur'aan itself does not always mention the events or references for which each particular verse was revealed, and these must be known in order for the verse to be fully and totally understood.

Lastly, some words may have multiple meanings, and it is the job of the person that does tafseer to explain what is meant by the word. It can be said that the purpose of tafseer is to elaborate the principles which the Qur'aan came to clarify:

1) The elaboration of a perfect set of beliefs with regards to the Creator, and the relationship of the created with the Creator.

2) The perfection of personal conduct and good morals.

3) The establishment of a set of laws and code of conduct to govern individual and familial relations.

4) The establishment of laws governing societal and political dealings between communities and nations.

5) The narrations of the history of the previous nations, so that the pious among them may be followed, and the impious will act as a warning.

6)  To give the good news of Paradise and the blessings in store for the believers, and the evil tidings of the punishment of Hell in store for the disbelievers.

7)  To prove the truthfulness of the Prophet (sallallahu alayhi wa sallam), and this is done by explaining he miraculous nature of the Qur'aan (Ijaaz)

Therefore, the job of a mufassir is to explain all of the above points to mankind.

 The science of tafsir is meant to explain to mankind the Book that has been revealed to them from Allaah. The Qur'aan is like a treasure trapped in a glass receptacle; mankind can view and benefit from this ·treasure, but they are in need of tafsir, for tafsir acts like the key that unlocks the treasure, so that mankind can benefit from it the greatest possible extent.

As-Suy.ootee said: (The science of tafseer) is the most honourable of all sciences for three reasons. The first reason is with respect to its topic. It deals with the Speech of Allaah, which contains every kind of wisdom and virtue. It contains pronouncements about what has passed, reports of what will happen and judgments concerning what appears between the people. Its wonders never cease.

The second reason is with respect to its goal. Its goal is to lead mankind to the firm handhold of Allaah, and to the true happiness, one that does not end.

 The third reason is with respect to the great need for this science. Every aspect of this religion and this world, in the near or distant future, is in need of the sciences of the sharee'ah and knowledge of the religion and this knowledge can only be obtained through the understanding of the Book of Allaah.

Apart from these reasons, the Qur'an itself commands its readers to ponder over it, and to reflect upon its meanings, for it says:

 "This is a Book which we have sent down to you, full of blessings, so that they may ponder over its verses, and that men of understanding may remember." (Q38 [Sa'd]:29)

It is the science of the tafseer which is the fruit of 'pondering over its verses.'



It is no surprise to discover that the science of tafsir started during the life time of the prophet (sallallaahu alayhi wa sallam) himself. In fact, one of the primary roles of the prophet (sallallaahu alayhi wa sallam), as shall be expounded on later, was to interprete the Qur’an:

 “And We have sent down to you (O Muhammed) the remembrance, so that you may clearly explain to mankind what has been revealed to them. So that they may give thought” (Q16[Nahl:]44)

The science of tafsir during the prophet’s  (sallallaahu 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 Qur’an, and the circumstances in which it was revealed. They were aware of the reason behind a revelation of a verse (asbaab an-nuzool), and as such did not need to search for this knowledge as later interpreters would have to.

Second, the Arabic of the companions was the Arabic of the Qur’an, as the Qur’an was revealed in their dialect. Therefore the Arabic of the Qur’an was in general, understood by them without any difficulty.

Lastly and most importantly, the prophet (sallallaahu alayhi wa sallam) was alive, and the Qur’an was still being revealed, so even if there were any difficulties in understanding any verse, they could turn to the prophet (sallallaahu alayhi wa sallam) for an explanation. An example is with regards to the verse, “Those who believe and do not mix their belief with injustice” (Q6[An-am]: 82)

The companions asked, O Messenger of Allah! “Who amongst us does not do injustice ( to his soul)?” The prophet (sallallaahu alayhi wa sallam) replied: “Have you not read the statement to Luqman, “verily, shirk is a great injustice” (Q31[Luqman]:13)

In other words, the prophet (sallallaahu alayhi wa sallam) informed them that the injustice being referred to in this verse was shirk or association of partner with Allah.

The companions were careful that they understood every single verse of the Qur’an properly. Abu Abd Ar Rahman As- Sulamee reported that whenever the people that taught them the Qur’an like Uthman bn Affan, Abdullah bn Mas’ood and others learnt 10 verses the Qur’an, they would not proceed further until they understood whatever ideas and regulations those verses contained.

They used to say “we learnt the Qur’an and studied its ideas and injunctions altogether.” This narration shows that the companions were eager to understand the Qur’an so much so that they would not memorize any verses until they had already understood what they knew.

The period of the companions

After the death of the prophet, (sallallaahu alayhi wa sallam) the science of tafsir took on a more systematic approach. Thus it can be considered that the first real mufasirs were the companions. The sources that the companions used for tafsir were the Qur’aan, the statements of the prophet (sallallaahu alayhi wa sallam), the principles of Arabic grammar and rhetoric, their own personal reasoning (ijtihad), and pagan and Judaeo- Christian customs that were prevalent during the time of the revelation of the Qur,aan.

There were many among the Companions who were well known for their knowledge of the interpretation of the Qur’aan. As-Suyootee wrote, “there were ten who were famous for their knowledge of tafsir among the conpanions: the four khulafaa ar rashiduun, Abdullah ibn Mas’ud, Abdullaah ibn Abbass, Ubay ibn Ka’ab, Zayd ibn Thaabit, Abu Musa Al-Ash’aree and Abdullaah ibn Zubayr.

As for the khulafaa, Ali ibn Abu Taalib has the most narrations amongst them, as for the other three, their reports are very rare to find, since they died relatively earlier. In other words, the tafsir narrations of Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman are not as common due to the fact that they were not compiled because of their relatively early deaths.

Also during their time there was no need to interpret much of the Qur’aan as the Companions were many and widespread. During the times, however, such as during the caliphate of Ali, the need to interpret the Qur’aan was much greater than before.

There were others besides these ten who were well known for their knowledge of tafsir such as Anas Ibn Malik, Abu Hurayrah, Jabir ibn Abdillaah and Aa’ishah except that they were not in the same category as the Ten who As-Suyootee mentioned.

The most knowledgeable companion as regards the interpretation of the Qur’aan is considered to be Ibn Abbass. Abdullah Ibn Umar said “Ibn Abbass is the most knowledgeable of this Ummah concerning revelation given to Muhammed (sallallaahu alayhi wa sallam).” This is due to the fact that the prophet (sallallaahu alayhi wa sallam) himself prayed for Ibn Abbass,  for he said:

“O Allaah!, give him the knowledge of the Book and of Wisdom!” And in another narration, “O Allaah! give him the knowledge of Religion and Interpretation”. (Bukhari)

He used to accompany the Prophet (sallallaahu alayhi wa sallam) during his youth and he was his cousin. Also his aunt Maymoonah (RA) was a wife of the prophet (sallallaahu alayhi wa sallam).

Ibn Abbass (RA) was held in great esteem by the companions, despite his age (he was only thirteen when the Prophet (sallallaahu alayhi wa sallam) passed away. Umar (RA) used to let Ibn Abbass enter the meetings of the older Companions, so some of them complained, “why is it that you let him enter, even though we have sons same age as him (whom you do not allow to enter)? Umar (RA) answered,  “ since he is amongst the most knowledgeable of you!”

So he called them one day to prove to them this statement, and he asked them, “What do you think of this verse:

 “when the help of Allah comes and the conquest (Q110[Nasr]:1)?

Some of them did not reply, while others said, “We have been commanded to thank Allaah and seek His forgiveness whenever we are helped and aided to victory”.

Umar asked Ibn Abbass, “And do you think the same also, O Ibn Abbass?” He answered “No!” Umar asked, “Then what do you say? He replied “This is an indication to the Prophet (sallallaahu alayhi wa sallam) from Allaah that his life is about to end.” The verse means, ‘when the help of Allaah comes, and the conquered’ then this is a sign of your approaching death, therefore Glorify the Praise of your Lord and ask for Forgiveness for verily, He is ever accepting of repentance (Q110:3) Umar said, “I don’t know any other meaning to the verse except what you have just said!” (Bukhari)

The narrations of Ibn Abbass along with those of Abdullah Ibn Mas’ood, Alee Ibn Abee Talib, Ubay Ibn Ka’ab, are the most numerous narrations from Companions that are found in tafsir literature. Each one of them established centers of learning during their lifetimes, and left many students as Successors after their deaths.

The Companions did not leave narrations concerning every single verse in the Qur’aan. This is because the people of their time understood much of what the Qur’an discussed, and only when the possibility for misinterpretation or ignorance existed did the Companions give their own interpretation of the relevant verse. Such interpretation typically consisted of explaining a verse in clearer words, or explaining a particular phrase or word with pre-Islamic poetry. Another characteristic of this time is the relatively trivial differences in tafsir, as compared to later generations.

The Period of the successors

After the generation of the companions, their students took over the responsibility of explaining the Qur’aan. The successors (Tabi’een) used the same sources to interpret the Qur’aan that the Companions did, except that they added to the list of sources the interpretations of the Companions. They understood that an interpretation given by the Companion of the Prophet (sallallaahu alayhi wa sallam) could not be compared to an interpretation of any person after them.

Therefore the sources for interpreting the Qur’an during this generation were: the Qur’an, the statements of the Prophet(sallallaahu alayhi wa sallam) that the Companions had informed them of, and the Companions’ personal reasoning (ijihaad), of the verse, the Arabic language, their own personal reasoning (ijtihaad), and Judaeo- Christian tradition.

After the death of the Prophet (sallallaahu alayhi wa sallam), the Companions spread out to different Muslim cities in order to teach the religion of Islaam. Each one taught many Successors, most of whom became scholars in their own right in due time.

Historically, three learning centres were established in the Muslim Empire: Makkah, Medeenah and Koofah. Each of these areas became leading centres of knowledge during the time of the Successors, including the knowledge of tafsir.

During this period, greater emphasis was placed on judaeo- Christian tradition (known as Israa’eeliyat), and because of this, many of these narrations entered into Islamic literature. Most of the people who narrated these narrations are jews and Christians who had embraced Islaam, such as Abdullah Ibn Salaam (a Companion), Ka’ab Al-Ahbar (he embraced Islaam after the death of the Prophet (sallallaahu alayhi wa sallam) and did not see him), Wahb Ibn Munnabih, and Abdul Malik Ibn Jurayj.

Much of the judaeo- Christian traditions prevalent in tafsir literature can be traced back to these scholars. Also during this time, the differences in interpreting the Qur’aan were much greater than during the time of the Companions.

Unfortunately, another characteristic is this period is the increase of forged narrations attributed to the Prophet (sallallaahu alayhi wa sallam). This was due to the political and religious strife that was rampant throughout the Muslim territories at that time. Lastly the quantity of verses for which narrations exist from the Successors is greater than that from the Companions, since more verses needed explanation than during the time of the Companions.

The compilation of Tafsir

After the period of Successors, the stage of the Actual compilation and writing of tafsir began. The most important works were by scholars of hadeeth, who, as part of their narrations and works of hadeeth, also had sections on tafsir. Therefore, during this stage, the narrations of tafsir, were considered a branch of hadeeth literature.

The next stage in the history of tafsir saw the separation of tafsir literature from hadeeth and the emergence of independent works solely on tafsir. Another stride during this stage was that every verse was discussed, so that tafsir was not only limited to those verses for which narrations from the Prophet (sallallaahu alayhi wa sallam) and Companions existed; rather, these tafsir encompassed all the verses in the Qur’an. This era also saw the beginning of specialization in tafsir, with tafsir being written, for example, with greater emphasis on the grammatical analysis and interpretation of the Qur’an

How to Interpret the Qur’an

Allaah, Blessed and Exalted, sent the Qur'aan down to the heart of His Messenger Muhammad in order to bring mankind from out of the darkness of disbelief and ignorance to the light of Islaam. Allaah says:

"Alif-Laam-Raa. This is a Book which We have revealed unto you (O  Muhammad) in order that you may lead mankind from out of the darkness (of disbelief) into the light (of Islaam), by the permission of their Lord, to the path of the All-Mighty, the Most (Q 14[lbraaheem]: I)

And He placed His Messenger (sallallaahu alayhi wa sallam) to clarify, interpret and explain what is in the Qur'an. Allaah says:

"And We revealed to you (O Muhammad), the Reminder (i.e. the Sunnah), in order for you to explain to mankind what was (already) revealed to them, and so that they may reflect." (Q I6[An- Nahl]:44)

So the Sunnah came in order to explain and clarify what is found in the Noble Qur'an, and it is (also) a revelation sent by Allaah.

Furthermore, the Prophet (sallallaahu 'alayhi wa sallam) said:

"I was indeed given the Qur'an and something similar to it along with it. It is imminent that there will come a time where a man who has eaten to his full will recline on his couch and say: 'Stick to the Qur'aan. Whatever you find in it that is Halaal (lawful),then declare it lawful. And whatever you find in it that is Haraam (unlawful), then declare it unlawful!' Whereas, whatever Allaah's Messenger made unlawful is just like what AIlaah made unlawful. "

The Sources Of Interpretation

So the first source that must be used to interpret the Noble Qur'an is the Qur'an (itself) along with the Sunnah, which consists of the Prophet's statements, actions and silent approvals. Then after that, it must be interpreted using the interpretations (tafsir) of the people of knowledge, at the head of whom are the Companions of the Prophet (sallallaahu 'alayhi wa sallam).

Any Companion whose interpretation (tafsir) of an ayah can be authentically confirmed - and there exists no difference of opinion amongst the Companions regarding it, we accept this interpretation (tafsir) from him with full contentment, submission and reliance.

And if no such tafsir can be found (from the Companions) regarding a particular ayah, then we take its tafsir from the Taabi'een, particularly those who specialized in studying tafsir under the

Companions of Allaah's Messenger (sallalallahu 'alayhi wa sallam), such as Sa'eed bin Jubair, Taawoos and others who are well known for their studying of tafsir under some of the Companions, particularly Ibn 'Abbaas (RA), as we mentioned previously

Not According To A Madh-hab

Unfortunately, there are some ayaat that are interpreted according to a certain opinion or madh-hab (school of Jurisprudence), and for which no direct explanation from the Prophet (sallallaahu 'alayhi wa sallam) can be found. So because of this, some latter-day individuals relied solely on applying such ayahs according to their madh-hab in order to interpret them. And this is an extremely dangerous matter - where ayaat are interpreted in order to support one's madh-hab and (personal) views - whereas the scholars of tafsir have interpreted these verses in a different way than the adherents of these madhaahib have interpreted them.

Perhaps, we should mention an example of this, which is Allaah's statement:

"So recite what is easy from the Qur'aan." (Q73 [al- Muzammil ]:20)

Some of the adherents of certain madhaahib have interpreted this ayah to refer to just the recitation itself, meaning: What is obligatory to recite from the Qur'an in all of the prayers is just one long ayah or three short ayaat. They said this in spite of there being reported the authentic hadeeth from the Prophet (sallallaahu 'alayhi wasallam):

"There is no prayer for the one who doesn't recite the opening (Qur'aan)."

Pray What Is Easy For You

The basis of proof indicated in these two hadeeths is rejected by the afore-mentioned interpretation of the above ayah, which is that the ayah refers to the recitation of the Qur'aan in general. And according to them, it is not permissible to interpret th Qur'aan except with the Sunnah that came in mutawaatir [widely reported] form - meaning it is not permitted to interpret the mutawaatir except with the mutawaatir.

In spite of this, all of the scholars of tafsir, past and present, have explained that the meaning of the noble ayah "So recite what is easy from the Qur'aan" is:

"So pray what is easy for you from the Night Prayer (Tahajjud)."

This is since Allaah mentioned this part of the ayah in connection to His saying (i.e. the complete ayah):

"Verily,your Lord knows that you stand (to pray at night) a little less than two thirds of the night, or half the night, or a third of the night, and also a party of those with you. And Allaah measures the night and the day. He knows that you are unable to pray the entire night, so He has turned to you (in mercy). So recite what is easy from the Qur'aan." (Q73[Muzammil]: 20)

The last part means: "So pray what is easy for you from the Night Prayer (Tahajjud)."

Therefore, the ayah is not in reference to what a person is obligated to recite specifically during the night prayer. Rather, (in this ayah), Allaah facilitates for the Muslims to pray what they are able to perform from the Night Prayer. This means that they are not obligated to pray what the Messenger of Allaah (sallallaahu 'alayhi wa sallam) used to pray, which was eleven rak'aat, as you are aware of.

So this is the meaning of the ayah. It is phrased in an Arabic style of "applying a portion, by which the whole is intended." Thus, Allaah's statement: "So recite" means "So pray." The prayer is the whole, while the recitation (in prayer) is the portion. The purpose of this phrasing is to clarify the importance of this portion with respect to that whole.

Another Example

Another example of this is Allaah's statement:

"Perform the prayer from midday until the darkness of the night (Dhuhr, 'Asr, Maghrib, 'Ishaa), and (also) the (recitation of the) Qur'aan of Fajr (dawn)." (Q17[AI-lsraa]: 78)

The meaning of "the Qur'aan of Fajr" is "the Fajr Prayer." So in this situation also, the portion is applied but the whole is intended.

This is a style in the Arabic Language that is well known. So therefore, after showing the interpretation of this ayah from the scholars of tafsir, without there being any difference of opinion amongst the past and present from them, it is not permissible to reject the first and second hadeeths (mentioned previously), claiming that they are ahad, and that it is not permissible to interpret the Qur'aan with ahaad hadeeth [hadeeth reported via a solo source]!

This is since the afore-mentioned ayah was interpreted by the statements of the scholars who are knowledgeable of the language of the Qur'aan. This is first, and secondly, it is because the hadeeth of the Prophet (sallallaahu 'alayhi wa sallam) does not contradict the Qur'aan, but rather, it explains and clarifies it, as we explained in the beginning of this discussion.

Feel Secure

So if this reality becomes clear to us, we must therefore feel secure with the ahaadeeth that come to us from the Prophet, which are reported in the books of Sunnah, firstly, and with their authentic chains of narration, secondly. And we must have no doubts or uncertainties about them due to some philosophical approach to the ahaadeeth, which we hear about in current times.

This brief discussion is sufficient with regard to this topic that I wanted to clarify, which is related to: How are we obligated to interpret the Noble Qur'aan? May Allaah send His Peace and Blessings on our Prophet, Muhammad, his family, Companions and those who follow them in goodness until the Day of Recompense, and all praise is for Allaah, Lord of all that exists.

Answered by Imaam Muhammad Naasir-ud-Deen AI-Albaanee in "Kayfa yajibu 'alaynaa an Nufassir al-Qur'aan" (pg.35-40) 







This article was culled from the publications of Deen Communication Limited

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