Interpreting the Text

An Introduction to the Sciences of the Qur’an
Ahmad Von Denffer

CHAPTER 6 : Interpreting the Text


Tafsir (exegesis) of the Qur’an is the most important science for Muslims. All matters concerning the Islamic way of life are connected to it in one sense or another since the right application of Islam is based on proper understanding of the guidance from Allah. Without tafsir there would be no right understanding of various passages of the Qur’an.

Tafsir and Ta’wil

The word tafsir is derived from the root ‘fassara’ – to explain, to expound. It means ‘explanation’ or ‘interpretation’. In technical language the word tafsir is used for explanation, interpretation and commentary on the Qur’an, comprising all ways of obtaining knowledge, which contributes to the proper understanding of it, explains its meanings and clarifies its legal implications. [See Zarkashi, op.cit., 1, p. 13.] The word mufassir (pl. mufassirun) is the term used for the person doing the tafsir, i.e. the ‘exegete’ or ‘commentator’.

The word ta’wil, which is also used in this connection, is derived from the root ‘awwala’ and also means ‘explanation, interpretation’ .

In technical language it similarly refers to explanation and interpretation of the Qur’an.

Tafsir in the language of the scholars means explanation and clarification. It aims at knowledge and understanding concerning the book of Allah, to explain its meanings, extract its legal rulings and grasp its underlying reasons. Tafsir explains the ‘outer’ (zahir) meanings of the Qur’an. Ta’wil is considered by some to mean the explanation of the inner and concealed meanings of the Qur’an, as far as a knowledgeable person can have access to them. Others are of the opinion that there is no difference between Tafsir and ta’wil.

Why is it Important?

There are a number of reasons why Tafsir is of great importance, but the basic reason is the following: Allah has sent the Qur’an as a book of guidance to mankind. Man’s purpose is to worship Allah, i.e. to seek His pleasure by living the way of life Allah has invited him to adopt. He can do so within the framework of the guidance that Allah has revealed concerning this, but he can do so only if he properly understands its meanings and implications.

A Warning

Some Muslim scholars have warned against Tafsir. Ahmad b. Hanbal, e.g. has said: ‘Three matters have no basis: Tafsir, malahim (tales of eschatological nature) and maghazi (tales of the battles)’. [Ibn Taimiya, muqaddima fi usul al-tafsir, Kuwait, 1971, p.59.]

By this is meant that there is much exaggeration and unsound material in these fields, but it does not mean that neither of them ought to be considered. This is clear from another version of the same verdict, in which the word isnad is used for ‘basis’.

Basic Conditions

Muslim scholars have laid down certain basic conditions for sound Tafsir. Any Tafsir, which disregards these principles must be viewed with great caution, if not rejected altogether. The most important among these conditions are the following:

The mufassir must:

  • Be sound in belief (‘aqida).
  • Well-grounded in the knowledge of Arabic and its rules as a language.
  • Well-grounded in other sciences that are connected with the study of the Qur’an (e.g. ‘ilm al-riwaya).
  • Have the ability for precise comprehension.
  • Abstain from the use of mere opinion.
  • Begin the Tafsir of the Qur’an with the Qur’an.
  • Seek guidance from the words and explanations of the Prophet.
  • Refer to the reports from the sahaba.
  • Consider the reports from the tabi’un.
  • Consult the opinions of other eminent scholars.

Grades of Sources [See Ibn Taimiya, op.cit., p.93.]

The best Tafsir is the explanation of the Qur’an by the Qur’an.

The next best is the explanation of the Qur’an by the Prophet Muhammad, who, as Shafi’i explained, acted according to what he understood from the Qur’an.

If nothing can be found in the Qur’an nor in the sunna of the Prophet, one turns to the reports from the sahaba. [See Ibn Taimiya, op.cit., p.95.]

If nothing can be found in the Qur’an, the sunna and the reports from the sahaba, one turns to the reports from the tabi’un. [See Ibn Taimiya, op.cit., p. 102.]

However, nothing can match the explanation of the Qur’an by the Qur’an and the explanation of the Qur’an by the Prophet.

Kinds of Tafsir

  • Tafsir may be divided into three basic groups: [This classification has been borrowed from Sabuni, tibyan, p.63. See also Qattan, op.cit. section 25.]
  • Tafsir bi-l-riwaya (by transmission), also known as Tafsir bi-l-ma’thur.
  • Tafsir bi’l-ra’y (by sound opinion; also known as tafsir bi-l-diraya, by knowledge).
  • Tafsir bi-l-ishara (by indication, from signs).

Tafsir bi-l-riwaya

By this is meant all explanations of the Qur’an which can be traced back through a chain of transmission to a sound source, i.e.:

  • The Qur’an itself.
  • The explanation of the Prophet.
  • The explanation by Companions of the Prophet (to some extent).

Naturally, the explanation of the Qur’an by the Qur’an and the explanation of the Qur’an by the Prophet are the two highest sources for tafsir, which cannot be matched nor superseded by any other source. Next to these rank the explanations by the sahaba, since the sahaba were witnesses to the revelations, were educated and trained by the Prophet himself and were closest to the period of the first Muslim umma. Of course all reports of explanations by the Prophet or by a sahabi must be sound according to the science of riwaya as in ‘ulum al-hadith.

The Qur’an explained by the Qur’an

The interpretation of the Qur’an by the Qur’an is the highest source of tafsir. Many of the questions which may arise out of a certain passage of the Qur’an have their explanation in other parts of the very same book, and often there is no need to turn to any sources other than the word of Allah, which in itself contains tafsir. To seek to explain an aya from the Qur’an by referring to another aya from the Qur’an is the first and foremost duty of the mufassir. Only if this does not suffice, he will refer to other sources of tafsir. [Itqan, 11, pp.181-2.]


A case in point is the detailed explanation of 5:2 by 5:4, concerning permissible and prohibited meat. Another example of explanation of one aya in the Qur’an by another concerns a question which might arise from Surah 44: 3. It is explained in Surah 97: 1:

‘We sent it down during a blessed night’ (44: 3).

Which night is this blessed night, in which the Qur’an was sent down?

‘We have indeed revealed this in the lailat al-qadr’ (97: 1).

A third example is the explanation of Surah 2:37 by Surah 7:23:

‘Then learnt Adam from his Lord words of inspiration, and his Lord turned towards him, for He is Oft-Returning, Most Merciful’ (2: 37).

These ‘words of inspiration’ are explained by the Qur’an as follows:

‘Our Lord! We have wronged our own souls. If Thou forgive us not, and bestow not upon us Thy mercy, we shall certainly be lost’ (7: 23).

The Qur’an explained by the Prophet

There are numerous examples of explanation of the Qur’an by the Prophet, who either himself asked the Angel Gabriel for explanation of matters not clear to him, or who was asked by the Companions about the Qur’an. Suyuti has given a long list of explanations of the Qur’an by the Prophet sura by sura. [Itqan, 11, pp. 191-205.]

Here one example may suffice:

‘And eat and drink until the white thread of dawn appears to you distinct from its black thread. . .’ (2: 187).

Narrated ‘Adi b. Hatim: I said: ‘O Allah’s Apostle! What is the meaning of the white thread distinct from the black thread? Are these two threads?’ He said: ‘You are not intelligent, if you watch the two threads’. He then added, ‘No, it is the darkness of the night and the whiteness of the day’. [Itqan 11. pp. 191-205.]

Tafsir by sahaba

Tafsir by sahaba [For a brief summary on early Tafsir see al-Sawwaf, 'Early Tafsir', in Ahmad, K. and Z. 1. Ansari. Islamic Perspectives. Leicester, 1979, pp.l35-45.]

Next, after explanation of the Qur’an by the Qur’an and of the Qur’an by the Prophet himself, ranks the explanation of the Qur’an by the sahaba. Among them, the following were best known for their knowledge of and contribution to the field of tafsir: Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthman, ‘All (not much has been reported from them), Ibn Mas’ud, Ibn ‘Abbas, ‘Ubay b. Ka’b, Zaid b. Thabit, Abu Musa al-Ash’arl, ‘Abdullah b. Zubair.

Ibn ‘Abbas

Abdullah b. ‘Abbas (d. 68/687) is considered to be the most knowledgeable of the Companions in tafsir. [A book entitled tanwir al-miqbas min Tafsir Ibn Abbas (Beirut, n.d.) is a complete tafsir of the Qur'an. all explanations of which are said to go back to Ibn 'Abbas. On the question of authenticity, see al-Sawwaf, op.cit. p. 140.] He has been called ‘tarjuman al-qur’an’, the interpreter of the Qur’an. Since he was related to the Prophet, being his cousin, and his maternal aunt Maimuna being one of the Prophet’s wives, he was very close to the Prophet Muhammad and learnt much about the revelation. It is said that he saw the Angel Gabriel twice. Apart from his detailed knowledge of everything concerning tafsir, he is also given the credit for having emphasised one of the basic principles of ‘ilm al-tafsir which has remained important to this day, namely, that the meaning of words, especially of unusual words in the Qur’an ought to be traced back to their usage in the language of pre-Islamic poetry. There is a long list of such explanations quoted by Suyutl. [Itqan 1 pp.120-33.]


The following is an example of tafsir from a sahabl, namely Ibn ‘Abbas, confirmed by ‘Umar:

‘So celebrate the praises of your Lord, and ask for His forgiveness. Verily! He is the one who accepts the repentance and forgives’ (110: 3).

Narrated Ibn ‘Abbas: ‘Umar used to make me sit with the elderly men who had fought in the battle of Badr. Some of them felt it (did not like that3 and said to ‘Umar: ‘Why do you bring in this boy to sit with us, while we have sons like him?’

‘Umar replied ‘Because of what you know of his position’ (i.e. his religious knowledge).

One day ‘Umar called me and made me sit in the gathering of those people, and I think that he called me just to show them (my religious knowledge). ‘Umar then asked them in my presence: ‘What do you say about the interpretation of the statement of Allah’.

‘When comes help of Allah, and the conquest . . .’ (110: 1).

Some of them said: ‘We are ordered to praise Allah and ask for His forgiveness, when Allah’s help and the conquest (of Makka) comes to us’. Some others kept quiet and did not say anything. On that ‘Umar asked me: ‘Do you say the same, O Ibn ‘Abbas?’ I replied: ‘No’. He said: ‘What do you say then?’ I replied: ‘That is the sign of the death of Allah’s apostle which Allah informed him of. Allah said:

‘(O Muhammad) when comes the help of Allah (to you against your enemies) and the conquest (of Makka) (which is the sign of your death) – you should celebrate the praises of your Lord and ask for His forgiveness, and He is the One who accepts the repentance and forgives’ (110:1-3). On that ‘Umar said: ‘I do not know anything about it other than what you have said’. [Bukhari, Vl, No. 494.]

Another short example is:

Narrated ‘Ata’: When Ibn ‘Abbas heard:

‘Have you not seen those who have changed the favour of Allah into disbelief?’ (14: 28).

He said: ‘Those were the disbelieving pagans of Makka. * [Bukhari Vl No. 222.]

Tafsir by Tabi’un

There are many more persons from among the tabi’un known for their preoccupation with tafsir, because many more people had embraced Islam and the need for knowledge about the Qur’an had increased manifold. Also, the Prophet himself and many of his Companions were no longer available to give this guidance, and therefore greater efforts had to be made to satisfy this need for proper understanding of the book of Allah.

Of the mufassirun from among the tabi’un one distinguishes three groups, according to their origin and area of activity:

  • Those from Makka.
  • Those from Madina.
  • Those from Iraq.
  • The Makkan Group
  • According to many scholars, this group of mufassirun from among the tabi’un are the most knowledgeable in tafsir, because they learnt about it from ‘Abdullah b. ‘Abbas. They are many in number, and among the best known out of many others are Mujahid (d.104/722), ‘Ata’ (d.114/732) and ‘Ikrima (d.107H).
  • Mujahid, the best known among them, is reported to have gone through the Qur’an thrice with Ibn ‘Abbas and to have asked him about the ‘when’ and ‘how’ of each verse that had been revealed. [Taimiya p. ;102.]
  • A complete book of tafsir by Mujahid has been published. It is based on a manuscript from the 6th Hijra century and is edited by Surti. [Surti, A.: Tafsir Mujdhid, 2 vols., Beirut, n.d.]
  • Example:
  • Humaid b. Qais Makki reported: I was with Mujahid and we were circumambulating the house (Ka’ba). A man came and asked whether the fasts of penalty of an oath should be observed continuously or severally. Humaid replied that if he liked he could observe them severally too! But Mujahid said: Not severally, for the reading of ‘Ubayy b. Ka’b is thalathi ayyamin mutatabi’at, i.e. to fast three days continuously’. [Muwatta Malik, No. 617.]

The Madinan Group

The mufassirun among the tabi’un from Madina had many Companions as their teachers, among the best known being ‘Ubay b. Ka’b. The following are some of the well-known Qur’an exegetes among them: Muh. Ammad b. Ka’b al-Qarzi (d.117/735), Abu-l ‘Alliya al-Riyahl (d.90/708) and Zaid b. Aslam (d.130/747).

The Iraq Group

There were also many mufassirun among the tabi’un in Iraq. Their principal teacher was Ibn Mas’ud. Their main centres were Basra and Kufa. The best known among them are: Al-Hasan al-Basri (d.121/738), Masruq b. al-’Ajda’ (d.63/682) and Ibrahlm al-Nakha’i. (d.95/713).


Nothing can excel the tafsir of the Qur’an by the Qur’an. This is followed by sound reports about the Prophet’s explanation of the revelation.

Whatever is sound and genuine in the explanation of the Qur’an by the sahaba and the tabi’un may not be rejected, but the following principles are to be observed:

  • Sound reports must be distinguished from unsound ones, for many views have been falsely attributed to some sahaba and tabi’un (especially to Ibn ‘Abbas and Mujahid, the most renowned ones among them), which cannot be traced back to them when the isnad is investigated. Those reports must of course be rejected.
  • Material from the ahl-al-kitab, in particular the Jewish traditions (isra’iliyat) [For details, see below, p. 133.] must be sorted out and evaluated.
  • Material which crept in due to theological, philosophical, political and other considerations, must be sorted out and evaluated (such as e.g. some Shi’a attributions to ‘Ali, or ‘Abbasid attributions to Ibn ‘Abbas, etc.).
  • False material purposely introduced by the enemies of Islam must be distinguished from sound material.

Tafsir bi’l-ra’y

The second kind of tafsir, after tafsir bi’l-riwaya, is the so-called tafsir bi’l-ra’y. It is not based directly on transmission of knowledge by the predecessors, but on the use of reason and ijtihad.

Tafsir bi’l-ra’y does not mean ‘interpretation by mere opinion’, but deriving an opinion through ijtihad based on sound sources. While the former has been condemned already in the hadith, the latter is recommendable, when used in its proper place as sound ijtihad, and was also approved by the Prophet, e.g. when he sent Mu’adh bin Jabal to Yemen. [Mishkat al-masabih, op.cit., II, p.794: (Arabic), Vol. 2, No. 3737.]

Tafsir bi’l-ra’y on the other hand has been declared haram on the basis of the following hadith:

‘From Ibn ‘Abbas: Allah’s messenger said: “He who says (something) concerning the Qur’an without knowledge, he has taken his seat of fire” ‘. [Ibn Taimiya, p.105, from Tirmidhi, who says it is hasan sahlh.]

However this hadith has been explained in two ways:

  • That no one should say of the Qur’an what is not from the sahaba or tabi’un.
  • That no one should say of the Qur’an what he knows to be otherwise. [Sabuni.tibyan,p.174.]

The obvious meaning of the hadith is that one should not say something about the Qur’an without having the proper knowledge, the sources of which have already been explained. [The Qur'an explained by the Qur'an, by the Prophet, by the Companions. By the tabi'un. by sound ijtihad.]


1.The question of how evil came into the world has preoccupied many sincere seekers after the truth. The answer which the Qur’an gives is simple yet convincing if seen against all the evidence of historical and contemporary human civilisation. At the root of all evil in this world is disobedience to God, resulting from the belief that one is superior to another. From this belief stems oppression of man by man discrimination, crime and all other evils that rule the day. The test lies in obedience to God, for seen against God, the ‘wholly other’, all creation is indeed on the other side and equal. In Sura al-a’raf (7) it is related that God asked all angels to bow before Adam, the first man. The angels obeyed, and observed God’s will, except Iblis. When asked why he opposed God’s will, he replied: ‘ana khairun minhu’ I (Iblis) am better than him (Adam), you created me from fire and created him from clay’ (Al-Qur’an 7:12) . This then is the beginning of all evil, for it is Iblis who after this makes it his mission to incite men also to act against God’s will.

2. I shall use the following two English translations of the Holy Qur’an: A. Yusuf Ali, (Ali, Abdullah Yusuf: The Glorious Qur’an: Text, Translation and Commentary. Leicester, 1978) and M. Pickthall (Pickthall, Mohammad Marmaduke: The Meaning of the Glorious Koran, New York, 1963).

3. Some say that the whole of Sura 87 is a reference to this first book of revelation, but others hold that only the few verses quoted here are actually meant. See mukhtasar tafsir Ibn Kathir, Beirut, 1402/1981, Vol. 3, p. 631. Another reference to the suhuf of Musa and Ibrahim is in Sura 53:36 ff.

4. Surah 17: 93.

5. Surah 75:18:17: 46.

6. Surah 17: 82.

7. For details on hadith see: A’zami, Muhammad Mustafa: Studies in Hadith Methodology and Literature, Indianapolis, 1977.

8. e.g. Sura 12:101.

9. For details see kitab al-risala, by Imam al-Shafi’i, Cairo, n.d., especially pp. 28-9. In English: Khadduri Majid, Islamic Jurisprudence. Shafi’i’s Risala, Baltimore, 1961, chapter 5, especially pp. 121-2.

10. Sabuni, tibyan, p.52 .

11. For an introduction to the subject and select sample texts, see e.g. Ibrahim Izzuddin and Denis Johnson-Davies: Forty Hadith Qudsi, Beirut, Damascus, 1980.

12. ibid., No. 30.

13. The word here used for guidance is hudan.

14. al Itqan fi ulum al quran, Beirut, 1973, Vol. I pp. 39-40

15. English translations of ahadith are, unless otherwise indicated, from Khan, Muhammad Muhsin: The Translation of the Meanings of Sahih al-Bukhari, 9 vols., Istanbul, 1978 (abbr. as Bukhari) and Siddiqui, Abdul Hamid: Sahih Muslim, 4 vols., Lahore, 1978 (abbr. as Muslim).

16. Bukhari, I, No. 3; VI, No. 478; Muslim I, No. 301.

17. Bukhari, I, No. 2.

18. See Suyuti, Itqan, I, pp.23-4.

19. Bukhari, I, end of No. 3.

20. Suyuti, Itqan, I, p.24.

21. ibid.

22. Kamal, Ahmad ‘Adil: ‘ulum al-Qur’an, Cairo, 1974, p.18.

23. Sabuni, tibyan pp. 18-9

About The Author

Ulum al Quran – An Introduction to the Sciences of the Qur’an, By Ahmad Von Denffer

Ahmad Von Denffer was born in Germany in 1949. He studied Islamic and Social Anthropology at the University of Mainz, where he also attended additional courses in the Department of Missiology. His special interests include Christian-Muslim relations. He has made a number of contributions to scholarly journals and has several publications to his credit.


About these ads

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s