The Methods of Tafseer (Interpretation of the
By :Dr. Bilal Philips
The Qur'an, Allah's final Book of revelation to man, represents the
primary source of the principles which constitute the way of life
known as Islam.
The passages in the Qur'an contain advice and guidance in the form of
laws, parables, stories and arguments for those who choose to believe
in Allah and the Judgement. Hence a believer's success and happiness
in this life and the next largely depends on his understanding,
internalisation and application of the concepts contained in the
However, the depth of comprehension of the Qur'an's meanings will
vary from individual to individual due to natural differences in
intelligence. This variation existed even among the Sahaabah (the
Prophet's Companions - radhiallahu anhum) in spite of the Qur'an's
clarity of expression and its revelation in seven different dialects.
Moreover, Allah, the Most Wise, chose to place in the Qur'an
generalities some of which He later explained in its verses while
other He explained only to the Prophet (sallallahu alayhe wa sallam).
The Prophet (SAWS) knew and understood the Qur'an completely because
Allah had chosen him as its vehicle and explained it all to him.
Hence Allah said in one verse: "Verily, collecting the Qur'an and
reciting it (to you) is Our responsibility, so if We read it to you,
listen to it. Then We will explain it." [Al-Qiyaamah 75:17-1-9]
It was, therefore the Prophet's job to explain the Qur'an to his
followers by his actions as well as his statements. This Allah stated
in the Qur'an:
"Verily, We have revealed the Reminder (Qur'an to you O Muhammad) so
that you may explain to people what has been revealed to them." [An-
Consequently, the Sahabah (RA) all turned to the Prophet (SAWS)
during his lifetime for the Tafseer (explanation, understanding,
interpretation) of the Qur'an.For example Ibn Masood (RA) related
that when the verse, "those who believe and do not cover their faith
with transgression (Al-An'aam 7:82)" was revealed some of the
companions became distressed because transgression meant any kind of
wrong, major or minor, and none of them were free from error.
However, when they approached the Prophet (SAWS) about it, he
replied, "It is not as you all think. Do you not recall that Luqman
said to his son, "Verily, Shirk (associating partners with God) is
the greatest form of transgression." (31:13) It is Shirk."
Reliance of the Prophet (SAWS) as the foundation of understanding and
interpretation of the Qur'an was thus divinely established for all
generations of Muslims until the Day of Resurrection. After the
Prophet's death, the Sahabah (RA) turned to those among themselves
who were more gifted in understanding the Qur'an and who had been
able to spend more time with the Prophet (SAWS).
Among the Sahaabah who became the most noted for their ability to
make tafseer of the Qur'an are the following. The four Rightly Guided
Caliphs, the Prophet's wife Aisha Bint Abi Bakr, Ibn Masood, Ibn
Abbas, Ubay ibn Kaab, Zayd Ibn Thaabit, Abu Moosa al-Asharee,
Abdullah Ibn Az-Zubayr, Anas Ibn Malik, Abdullah Ibn Umar, Jaabir Ibn
Abdillah and Abdullah Ibn Amr Ibn Al 'Aas.
Within the space of twenty-five years after the Prophet's death, the
Sahabah carried Islam to all corners of the known world, toppling
down in the process the great empires of Persia and Byzantine.
Wherever the Muslim armies stopped their advance, some of the
Sahaabah (RA) would settle and begin teaching those who came into
Islam the recitation and interpretation of the Qur'an. Among the
people who gathered around the Sahaabah (RA) were some outstanding
individual who remained their students and absorbed their knowledge.
These students became known and Taabeoon (followers). Each Sahaabah
carried with him a portion knowledge, some of which overlapped with
that of others and some of which did not. For this reason, the
knowledge of Tafseer spread throughout the Muslim realm and centers
of Qur'anic Learning arose everywhere.
Consequently, some students traveled to other Islamic centers to
study under other Sahabah while others stayed with their teachers
until their death. Methods of Tafseer: The Qur'an is the last book of
Allah Who has promised to protect it from any distortion or loss.
Allah said in the Qur'an, "Verily, We have revealed the Reminder (Al-
Qur'an) and surely, We will guard it (from corruption)." (15:9)
Its written and recited forms have been preserved without even the
slightest change for over fourteen hundred years. This can to be said
about the Gospel (Injeel) of Prophet Jesus (alayhe salaam) not the
books of the Old Testament attributed to earlier prophets.
However, Allah's protection of the Qur'an did not stop there; He also
safeguarded the original meaning. If the protection of the Qur'an's
meaning had not taken place, deviants would have turned the Book of
Allah into a jumble of symbols, riddles and codes open to a
multiplicity of interpretations and its original meaning would have
been lost. Allah preserved the meaning of the Qur'an by explaining
some of its generalities within the Qur'an itself and by entrusting
the Tafseer of the remainder to His final Messenger, Muhammad (SAWS).
The Sahaabah (RA), were taught to seek their understanding of the
Qur'an first from the Qur'an itself then from the explanations of the
Prophet (SAWS) and from their own intimate understanding of the
language of the Qur'an. After the Prophet's death, those who entered
Islam as new converts depended first on the Qur'an to explain itself
then they depended on the Sahaabah to explain the Qur'an to them. The
Sahaabah (RA) would inform their students among the Taabeoon of the
circumstances in which the verses were revealed, the interpretation
given by the Prophet's statements and his actions.
Finally they would explain the meanings of some words which may not
have been familiar or which may have had a different meaning to Arabs
outside of the Arabian Peninsula. With the passing of era of the
Sahaabah (RA), the scholars among the Taabeoon shouldered the grave
responsibility of conveying the original meanings of the Al-Qur'an to
the next generation of Muslims exactly as they had received it. And,
it was this next generation, which began the process of gathering and
recording the various narration of Tafseer from the Taabeoon.
From the above mentioned methodology of the Prophet (SAWS) and his
Companions and of the early generations of Muslim scholars which
followed them, the following points have been deduced by scholars as
being the correct steps for making correct Tafseer of the Qur'an.
1. Tafseer of Al-Qur'an by Al-Qur'an:
There are many places in the Qur'an where questions are asked and
subsequently answered in order to catch the mind of the reader and to
increase the impact of the concept in question. In other places,
general statements are made and then later explained in order to vary
the modes of presentation and encourage readers and listeners to
reflect more. This self-explanatory process is referred to as Tafseer
of the Qur'an by the Qur'an.
Allah chose to clarify what He intended by revealing other
explanatory verses. For example Allah asks, "By at-Taariq (the
Knocker or night approacher). And what will make you understand what
at-Taariq is?" (Al-Qu4r'an 86: 1-2)
He then answers His question in the next verse, "It is the piercing
star (Venus)." (Al-Qur'an 86:3)
Allah also states in the Qur'an, "Beasts which are herded have been
made Halal (allowable) for you except those which will be read to
you." (Al-Qur'an 5:1)
Shortly afterwards, He explains, "The dead animal, blood, pork,
animals sacrificed for other than Allah, animals strangled to death,
killed by a blow or by falling from a height, killed by goring or
partially eaten by wild animals are forbidden to you." (Al-Qur'an 5:
Another example can be seen in the verse in which Allah describes
Himself saying, "No vision can grasp Him." (Al-Qur'an 6:103).
This verse implies that Allah will not be seen in either this world
or the next. However, Allah later describes the believers in the next
life as, "Gazing at their Lord." (Al-Qur'an 75:23) and disbelievers
as, "Verily, they will be veiled from their Lord on that day." (Al-
Hence, before any explanation or interpretation may be sought, the
Qur'an must be relied upon to explain itself, for Allah knows best
what He intended.
2. Tafseer of Al-Qur'an by As-Sunnah:
On many occasions, the Prophet (SAWS) added further clarification to
various verses of the Qur'an. Allah had entrusted the job of
explaining the Qur'an to the Prophet (SAWS). This trust was expressed
in the Qur'an in no uncertain terms, "Verily, We have revealed the
Reminder (Al-Qur'an) to you (O Muhammad) so you may explain to the
people what has been revealed to them." (Al-Qur'an 16:44)
And "We have only revealed the book to you (O Muhammad) in order that
you clarify for them the things about which they differ." (Al-Qur'an
The Sahaabah (RA) understood this clearly and always turned to the
Prophet (SAWS) for clarification whenever they were in doubt about
the meaning of any of the Qur'anic passages. In fact, most of the
fine details of Salaah, Zakaah, Sawm, Hajj and inheritance laws etc
were explained either by the Prophet's (SAWS) statements or practical
demonstration and applications (the Sunnah). Thus, the Prophet's
explanations of the Qur'anic passages are referred to as the Tafseer
of the Qur'an by the Prophet (SAWS).
For example, in Soorah Al-Faatihah, the Prophet (SAWS) explained
those on whom is Allah's anger are the Jews and those who went astray
are the Christians.
On one occasion, he recited the verse, "Prepare for the whatever
forces you are able to." (Al-Qur'an 8: 60) and he then said, "Verily
force is spear throwing." (Reported by Muslim)
In another narration, he explained the verse, "Verily, We have given
you al Kawthar." referred to a river in paradise which Allah has
given him. (reported by Al Bukhari)
Because the Sunnah was based on guidance from Allah, it represents
the second part of Allah's promise to explain the Al-Qur'an, "Verily,
We will explain it." (Al-Qur'an 75:19)
Consequently no other human interpretation can be given precedence
over of the Prophet (SAWS).
3. Tafseer of Al-Qur'an by Aathaar (The sayings of the Sahaabah):
Whenever the Sahaabah could not find the Tafseer of a passage in the
Al-Qur'an itself or in Sunnah, they would use their own reasoning
based on their knowledge of the contexts of the verses and the
intricacies of the Arabic language in which the Al-Qur'an was
Consequently, one of the greatest commentators of the Al-Qur'an, Ibn
Katheer, wrote in the preface of his Tafseer, 'If we are unable to
find a suitable Tafseer in the Al-Qur'an or in the Sunnah, we go to
the opinions of the Sahaabah. For verily, they knew the Al-Qur'an
better than anyone else due to their knowledge of the circumstances
of its revelation, their complete and accurate understanding of it
and their righteous deeds.' These explanations of the Sahaabah are
known as the Tafseer by Aathaar.
For example, when Ibn Abbas was questioned about the verse, "and tell
the believing women to lower their gaze and guard their chastity and
only reveal from their adornment which (normally) appears." [Al-
Qur'an 24: 31] he replied, 'It refers to the face and hands.' On
another occasion after reciting the verse, "And whoever does not
judge by what Allah has revealed, is a Kaafir (disbeliever)." [Al-
Qur'an 5: 44] Ibn Abbas said 'It is a form of Kufr (disbelief) less
than real Kufr.'
The Sahaabah also provided information about the circumstances under
which the verses were revealed which further clarified their
meanings. However, the Tafseer transmitted from the Prophet (SAWS)
and the Sahaabah did not cover all of the verses of the Al-Qur'an.
The Prophet (SAWS) explained only what was unclear to the Sahaabah.
But with each succeeding generation, more areas became unclear due to
the evolution of the language. Hence, the Taabeoon had to make
further explanations after the passing of the Sahaabahs era.
These explanations are considered a part of Tafseer by Aathaar and
should be given precedence over personal opinions. If they differed,
none of their opinions need be given preference over the others
unless it is supported by the language.
During the era of the Taabeoon many Christians and Jews became
Muslims. As a result, some of the Taabeeoon narrated tales from
Jewish and Christian sources in their explanations of the Al-Qur'an.
Such narration became known as Israeeleeyaat (Tales of the Children
In later generations the books of Tafseer became filled with such
narrations many of which could not be traced to any reliable source.
4. Tafseer of Al-Qur'an by Language:
With the passage of time, words took on new meanings and old meanings
became lost, foreign words entered into the language and vast
sections of vocabulary fell into disuse. This natural process
necessitated the explanation of some of the Al-Qur'anic verses
according to their literal and logical meanings.
Consequently, this period witnessed the appearance of dictionaries
like Mukhtaar as-Sihaah written specifically to deal with Al-Qur'anic
Arabic vocabulary and philology.
In cases where words had more than one meaning, this step created
differences of opinion, which could only be solved by finding some
support in the Sunnah.
For example the word, "Lams" literally means to touch but
figuratively it means sexual intercourse, thus Muslim scholars were
of two basic opinions concerning the following verse, "...or you
touch (laamastum) women and can not find water, then make tayammum
(ritual purification with dust)" [Al-Qur'an 4:43]
Imams Ash-Sahfee and Malik held it meant the touch of the hand,
though each Imam added certain stipulation to it. On the other hand,
Imam Abu Hanifah ruled that it meant sexual intercourse. However, the
Prophet's wives (RA) reported that on some occasions he kissed them
before performing Salaah, which indicates that touching was not
intended by this verse.
These four methods come under the general title of "Tafseer based on
narration" (Tafseer bir-Riwaayah or Tafseer bil-Mathoor) and as such
leave little room for argument. Although the fourth step is often
based on narration from earlier generations, at other times it can be
highly opinionated and controversial.
For example, Yusuf Ali openly translates the Burooj used in the 85th
Surah as the Zodiacal signs, while Pickthall translates it as
Mansions of Stars, but says in his introduction to the Soorah, 'It is
applied to the signs of the zodiac.'
Thus, according to them, Allah is making an oath by the zodiacal
signs. Some English-speaking Muslims have taken this to be an
indirect support of astrology. However, Burooj originally only meant
star configuration and it was not until later times it was used to
refer to the imaginary figure of zodiac which pagan Babylonians and
Greeks superimposed on them.
In fact, astrology has been forbidden by the Prophet (SAWS) in no
uncertain terms as it falls under the general prohibition on visiting
fortune-tellers about which the Prophet (SAWS) said, 'Whoever visits
a fortune-teller and believes in what he says has disbelieved in what
I have brought (meaning Islam).' [Reported by Abu Dawood]
5. Tafseer of Qur'an by Opinion:
Opinion based on a careful study of the first four steps can be
considered valid as long as they do not contradict any of the steps.
Likewise, the application of obvious meanings of the Qur'an to
existing situations and the formation of conclusions based on their
similarities is also allowed as long as such interpretations do not
clash with authentic classical explanations.
However, free interpretation based on philosophical, scientific or
sectarian ideas is totally forbidden. The Prophet (SAWS) was reported
to have said thrice, 'Opinion-based arguments about the Qur'an is
Kufr (disbelief).' Then he said, 'What you know of it, act on; and
what you are ignorant of, refer it to one who knows.' [Reported Abu
Hurairah and collected by Ahmed]
We can see from the above mentioned hadeeth that the Prophet (SAWS)
sternly warned his Companions and later generations of Muslims
concerning the interpretations of Qur'an based on speculation and
unsubstantiated opinions. This was done because the Qur'an is the
foundation of Islam and as such it had to remain pure and un-tampered
with. If free rein were given to any and everyone to interpret the
Qur'an as they wished, its value would be totally destroyed and Islam
itself would be undermined from its base.
Thus, the only accepted Tafseer is that which follows the following
sequence. Tafseer of the Qur'an by the Qur'an, Tafseer by the Sunnah,
then by the sayings of the Sahaabah, then by language and finally by
opinion, as long as it is based on the preceding four methods and
does not contradict any of them.
In order to clarify the potential danger and corruption inherent in
Tafseer by unsubstantiated opinion, the following examples of deviant
Tafseer (pl.) have been collected from various movements, sects and
philosophical schools from distant past to the present.
From the tenth century CE, some Sufis, (mystics), have
interpreted "Pharaoh" in Allah's command to Prophet Moosa ('alayhe
salaam): "Go to Pharaoh for verily he transgresses," [Al-Qur'an
79:17] as the heart, as it is the heart which oppresses every man
causing him to transgress!
Other interpreted Allah's command to Prophet Moosa ('alayhe
salaam), "Throw down your stick" [Al-Qur'an 27: 10] as a command to
throw aside the material world and only depend Allah. These
spiritualistic Tafseer are indicative of the Sufi movement's over-
emphasis of the spiritual over the material.
In the Mu'tazilite (Rationalist) Tafseer of the Abbasid Era,
revelation was interpreted according to human logic. Hence, the
word "heart" in the following verse: "And when Ibrahim said, 'My Lord
show me how You give life to the dead'. He, (Allah) replied, 'Do you
not believe?' Ibrahim said, 'Yes but (I am asking You) in order that
my heart may be at rest." [Al-Qur'an 2: 260] was given a new meaning.
It was claimed that Ibrahim ('alayhe salaam) had a friend whom he
referred to as "heart" and thus the true meaning of the verse
was "Yes, but I am asking You in order that my friend may be at
This interpretation was considered necessary to explain away the
doubt, which Ibrahim ('alayhe salaam) felt in his heart, as it seemed
inconsistent with the Prophethood according to the Rationalists!
The Shiite Tafseer of the late Abbasid era, under the influence of
their inordinate obsession with the Prophet's descendants,
interpreted the verse, "He has set forth the two seas and they meet,"
[Al-Qur'an 55:19-22] as reference to Ali, the Prophet's son-in-law,
and Fatima, the daughter (RA)! And in the following verse, "And out
of them come the pearls and coral," they found a reference to the
Prophet's grandsons, Al-Hassan and Al-Hussain (RA).
The Qadiyani sect which appeared in more recent times in India during
the latter part of the nineteenth century, claim that in the
verse, "Muhammad is not the father of any of you but he is Allah's
Messenger and the seal (Khaatam) of the Prophets" [Al-Qur'an 33: 40],
Khaatam does not mean last as most understand it but superior! The
meaning of the verse, therefore, becomes 'The most superior of the
Prophets (but not the last)'. They also assert that the Khaatam
means "Seal". That is He (Allah) sets a seal on people and with His
seal one becomes a Prophet.
These interpretations were made to validate the claim to prophethood
made by their founder, Ghulam Ahmad. They also distorted the
following verse in reference to Prophet Jesus ('alayhe salaam). "They
did not crucify him nor did they kill him but it was made to seem as
if they did. But Allah raised him up to Himself." [Al-Qur'an 4:157]
They claimed that "raised up" meant the figurative raising as used in
the verse "And We raised your esteem for you." [Al-Qur'an 94:44].
This interpretation was necessary to support their doctrine that
after escaping crucifixion, Prophet Jesus ('alayhe salaam) died a
natural death on earth and was buried in Kashmir, and that Ghulam
Ahmad was the promised messiah whose return was prophesied!
Even more recently in the USA, Elijah Muhammad (1975) founder of the
Elijah sect and claimant to prophethood interpreted the verse, "On
the day when the trumpet is blown We will assemble the criminals blue-
eyed," [Al-Qur'an 20-102] as proof that the inhabitants of the fire
will be all white people! This interpretation was used to support the
Elijah doctrine that Allah the God was a black man, that all black
people were gods and that all white people were devils!
Although the word Zarq literally means blue, it was used to refer to
the clouding of the cornea due to certain eye diseases, which gives
the eye a bluish-gray tinge. Hence, a more accurate translation would
have been 'bleary-eyed'. According to Elijah, since the white man
resembles the black man, he was referred to, as "mankind" in the
Qur'an that is a kind of man! Consequently, the verse, "O mankind,
verily We have created you from a male and female." [Al-Qur'an 49:15]
was interpreted by Elijah to refer to the black man's creation of the
white man (mankind).
These few examples of Tafaseer based solely on sectarian opinions
clearly show the incoherence and deception that results from the
disregard for the correct method of Tafseer, the Qur'an becomes a
voice for each sect's deviant and heretical claims.
There are no logical boundaries or coherent rules by which the
founders of these sects abide; hence, the same verse may have a
multiplicity of meanings for them. Whatever interpretation promotes
their ideas becomes correct. For them, the Qur'an is no longer a book
of guidance, but a book containing the hidden secrets of their sect
which only their leaders and the specially initiated can unlock!
By :Dr. Bilal Philips [Source: Tafseer Soorat Al-Hujurat]
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