An Introduction to the Theory of Qur'anic Interpretation

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The following is taken from “An Introduction to the Theory of Qur’anic Interpretation” by Shaykh ‘Ali Juma’ah.

The Noble Qur’an is a Divine book and a sacred text that Allah (s.w.t.) Revealed so as to encompass matters of belief, legal practice, morality, ideals and lessons.  Allah (s.w.t.) Fashioned the Qur’an to be inimitable and He Guarded it from error unlike the other Divine books.  It is thus truly an inimitable book and that there is no limit to the ways in which it is inimitable.  Throughout Islamic history, the scholars have pondered the depth of the Qur’an’s miraculous nature and they have found that the many aspects of its inimitability have continued to increase.

The number of written works about the Qur’an and its inimitability has continued to grow to the extent that the great scholar and poet, Shaykh Muswthafa Swadiq ar-Rafi’i (r.a.) said, “Since human history was first recorded, no book can be found that has had as many commentaries, interpretations, books, and words written on it to the extent of that written on the Qur’an, not in a similar manner or even close to it.”  A multitude of works have been published regarding its interpretation, which expound on its inimitability in every area, including its grammar, rhetoric, the clear and unclear verses, its written form and transmission, as well other areas of study.

There are innumerable commentaries and exegeses on the Qur’an, which is a proof of its inimitability since the scholars have taken so many centuries and they still continue to explore its depths to this day, and they will continue to do so until the Day of Judgement.  Numerous commentaries have been written on the Qur’an, which, for example, treat legal matters like Imam al-Qurthubi’s (r.a.) work, or grammar like Imam Abu Hayyan’s (r.a.), or hadits like Imam ibn Jarir’s (r.a.), Hafizh ibn Katsir’s (r.a.) and Imam as-Suyuthi’s (q.s.), or stories and history like Imam Tsa’alabi’s (r.a.), or rhetoric like Imam Zamakhshari’s (r.a.), and so on.

On the science of exegesis, its inception and development itself, exegesis or interpretation, tafsir, refers in the Arabic language to “explanation” and “uncovering”.  The word tafsir is derived from the Arabic root “f-s-r” which means “uncovering a mask or lid or making manifest a meaning that is to be understood”.  Tafsir is technically understood as the elucidation or clarification of Allah’s (s.w.t.) Speech or as the explanation of the words and meanings of the Qur’an.  As reported by Imam as-Suyuthi (q.s.) in his book, al-Itqan, some scholars have defined tafsir as the science of the Revelation of verses, the occasions or context of their Revelation, the reasons for their Revelation, as well as knowledge of verses that are Makkan, versus those that are Madinan, the clear versus the unclear verses, the abrogated versus the abrogating verses, the specific versus the general verses, the absolute versus the limited verses, the prohibiting and the permitting verses, and those verses that warn, command, and recount lessons and parables.  Imam az-Zarqani (r.a.) defined tafsir thus: “It is the science in which one investigates, within human capacity, the various aspects of the Qur’an insofar as they indicate Allah’s (s.w.t.) Intentions.”

On the subject matter of exegesis, tafsir, the scholars of tafsir agree that the subject matter of exegesis is Allah’s (s.w.t.) Speech in the Qur’an.  The benefit of tafsir is to provide lessons and reminders and it is the means to know the Guidance of Allah (s.w.t.) in matters of belief, worship, transactions, morals, so that individuals and communities may obtain the immediate and distant good.

Regarding the status of the science of exegesis, Imam al-Asfahani (r.a.) stated, “The noblest craft in which a person partakes is the exegesis of the Qur’an.  This is because the nobility of a science is due to the nobility of its subject-matter, its aim, or the need for it, and tafsir possesses nobility in all three respects: its subject matter is Allah’s (s.w.t.) Speech, its aim is to obtain true and eternal happiness, and as for the need for it, every religious or worldly perfection, immediate or distant, requires religious science and knowledge which is dependent on knowledge of Allah’s Book.”

Regarding the nobility of this science, Imam ath-Thabari (r.a.) stated, “Servants of Allah, know that what is most deserving of care and thoroughness in study is what Allah is Pleased with in terms of our knowledge of it and that by means of which the knower gains guidance to the right path and the most comprehensive of all that is Allah’s Book, in which there is no doubt.”

The scholars maintain that the science of exegesis, in relation to other sciences, is like the relation of the eye to the human and the human to the eye.  The Prophet (s.a.w.) was the first interpreter or the Book of Allah (s.w.t.), elucidating to people what was Revealed to him as per Allah’s (s.w.t.) Commandment to him the Holy Qur’an:

(We Sent them) with clear signs and scriptures and We have Sent Down unto thee (also) the Message; that thou mayest explain clearly to men what is Sent for them, and that they may give thought. (Surah an-Nahl:44)

The name of this science in Arabic is the science of tafsir, which, as mentioned, is due to it involving the revealing or clarification of meanings.  Only this science was assigned the name ‘tafsir,’ even if the other sciences reveal or clarify meanings, because of the greatness of its status, and its aim to elucidate Allah’s (s.w.t.) Intentions, making this science as though it was in fact the only exegesis or tafsirTafsir finds its source-material in the science of language, grammar, morphology, rhetoric, legal source interpretation, the science of recitation.  It also requires knowledge of the reasons of Revelation and knowledge of those verses that abrogate and those that abrogated.  There is a consensus amongst the scholars that learning it is a collective obligation and is the most noble of the three religious sciences.

The origin of tafsir is located in the era of the Prophet (s.a.w.).  If the companions were puzzled by a certain verse, they would ask the Prophet (s.a.w.) and he would clarify to them anything that they did not understand or anything that was obscure.  ibn Mas’ud (r.a.) said, “When the verse:

“It is those who believe and mix not their beliefs with wrong ...” (Surah al-An’am:82)

was Revealed, the companions of the Prophet (s.a.w.) were distressed by it and said, ‘Who of us does not wrong himself!’

So the Prophet (s.a.w.) said, ‘It is not what you think, but it is only as Luqman said to his son:

… “O my son!  Join not in worship (others) with Allah: for false worship is indeed the highest wrong-doing.” (Surah Luqman:13)”

The companions were keen on learning the Qur’an from the Prophet (s.a.w.) and were keen on its interpretation and its memorisation. Abu ‘Abd ar-Rahman as-Sulami (r.a.) stated that those who would recite the Qur’an, like Utsman ibn ‘Affan (r.a.), Abdullah ibn Mas’ud (r.a.) and others, would tell them that if they had been taught ten verses by the Prophet (s.a.w.), they would not exceed that amount until they had learnt what they contained in terms of knowledge and practice.  They said, “So we learned the Qur’an, knowledge, and practice at once and for this reason they used to spend some time in memorising one particular surah.”

Tafsir, or the interpretation, of the Qur’an was not recorded in the time of the Prophet (s.a.w.) as an independent field of study, but statements of the Prophet (s.a.w.) which bore on the interpretation of the verses of the Qur’an were transmitted from him, just as ahadits were transmitted from him.  The era of the companions continued like this, without tafsir being recorded independently.  Then came the time of the successors who took their knowledge of the Qur’an and sunnah from the companions.  Each group of successors received knowledge directly from the companions.  So they collected everything that was transmitted by the companions from the Prophet (s.a.w.) as ahadits, and they heard from the companions what concerned the interpretation of the verses of the Qur’an.  So the scholars of each region collected what their predecessors knew, as the people of Makkah did with regard to the tafsir of ibn 'Abbas (r.a.), and as the people of Kufa did with regard to ibn Mas’ud’s (r.a.) traditions on tafsir.  Subsequent to this, the science of tafsir was recorded as an independent science and has continued to be recorded to this day.

Tafsir in the time of the companions and the successors was narrated and memorised, and after their time, ahadits were recorded which contained tafsir.  Imam Sufyan ibn ‘Uyaynah (r.a.) and Imam Waqi’ ibn Jarrah (r.a.) were some authorities that recorded ahadits.  Then, towards the end of the Umayyad dynasty, and at the beginning of the Abbasid dynasty, tafsir was provided for each verse of the Qur’an according to the order of the muswhaf, the Qur’an in its complete ordered form.  This was done by a number of scholars, including Imam ibn Majah (r.a.), Imam ibn Jarir ath-Thabari (r.a.), and others.  In the Abbasid period, tafsir with interpretation was recorded along with tafsir that consisted only of transmitted reports and sayings.

The companions used to base their independent opinions in tafsir on the following things.  The first was knowledge of the nature of the Arabic language.  Their knowledge of the Arabic language assisted them in understanding the verses of the Qur’an which was expressed in on the Arabic language.  The second was knowledge of the reasons of Revelation.  The companions were contemporaneous with Revelation and they witnessed it, so they knew the context and reasons for the Revelations of certain verses.  Shaykh ibn Taymiyyah (r.a.) stated, “Knowledge of the reason of Revelation assists in comprehending the verse because knowledge of the cause engenders knowledge of that which is caused.”

Thirdly, there was knowledge of the condition of Jews and Christians in the Arabian Peninsula during Revelation.  This assisted in understanding verses in which their actions are mentioned and commented on.  Fourthly, knowledge of the customs of the Arabs.  In the Qur’an, there are many verses that are related to Arab customs.  And finally, the ability to comprehend and understand.  This is a virtue that Allah (s.w.t.) Gives to whomever He Wills.  The meanings of many verses of the Qur’an are subtle or obscure and cannot be understood except by one who is given a sufficient measure of intelligence and insight.  ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Abbas (r.a.) was Given the greatest share of that which was due to the prayer that the Prophet (s.a.w.) made for him.

We cannot specify with any precision the first exegete who provided the tafsir of the Qur’an verse by verse or the first to record it as a continuous text according to the order of the muswhaf, but there was the following group of scholars: Imam ibn Jarir ath-Thabari (r.a.), Imam ibn Majah (r.a.), Imam ibn Hayyan (r.a.), and Imam al-Hakim (r.a.).  Of these, we do not know who the first to record a work of tafsir was.

The companions were concerned with teaching the Qur’an and learning its meanings from the Prophet (s.a.w.).  ibn Mas’ud (r.a.) said, “If one of us was taught ten verses, he would not exceed that until he understood their meaning and put them into practice.”  Many of them were known for interpreting the Qur’an, for example, the Righteous Caliphs, Abu Bakr (r.a.) ‘Umar (r.a.), ‘Utsman (r.a.), and ‘Ali (k.w.).

‘Abdullah ibn ‘Abbas (r.a.) was also known for his knowledge of tafsir and was named “the interpreter of the Qur’an” for his understanding and accurate knowledge of the meaning of the text of the Qur’an.  The Prophet (s.a.w.) used to pray for him by saying, “Allah Make him learned in the religion and Teach him ta’wil.”  Ta’wil, interpretation, here refers to tafsir.

‘Abdullah ibn Mas’ud (r.a.) was also well known for tafsir.  He used to say, “Not a verse was Revealed of Allah’s book except that I would know about whom it was Revealed to and where it was Revealed.  If I knew anyone who was more knowledgeable than I, and to whom there is transportation, I would go to him.”  The many successors acquired knowledge of tafsir from the companions, including, Shaykh Hasan al-Baswri (q.s.), Shaykh Sa’id ibn Jubayr (r.a.), Shaykh ‘Ikrimah (r.a.), the servant of ibn ‘Abbas (r.a.) and others.  They then transmitted what they learned to those who came after them.  The scholars and authorities in tafsir learned from them and recorded tafsir in books and wrote lengthy works by which tafsir was transmitted to us.

There are many famous books of tafsir.  Examples include the Tafsir of Imam ath-Thabari (r.a.).  Its full title is “The Collected Exposition of the Interpretation of the Verses of the Qur’an,” which belongs to the master of the interpreters of the Qur’an, and amongst the first to record tafsir, Imam Muhammad ibn Jarir ath-Thabari (r.a.).  He collected in it the statements of the companions, the successors, the successors of the successors.  This book is considered the first complete source in tafsir.  Everyone who came after him considered this work a source for the tafsir of the Qur’an.

Then, there is the Tafsir of Imam al-Qurthubi (r.a.), entitled “The Collection of the Rules of the Qur’an,” authored by Imam Abu ‘Abdullah Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Answari al-Qurthubi (r.a.).  His method in tafsir was to cite verses and then list transmitted traditions as well as interpretations.  He also discussed legal rulings and the juristic positions and schools where he treated verses that have legal significance and implications and the various recitations and aspects of grammar.  It is one of the lengthiest and expansive works of tafsir.

There is the “Tafsir of the Noble Qur’an”.  The work was written by the hadits authority and expert, the historian, Hafizh Isma’il ibn Katsir (r.a.), also known as the Tafsir ibn Katsir.  This book is the most famous book written on tafsir by means of transmitted reports and is considered only second to Tafsir ath-Thabari.  In it, Hafizh ibn Katsir (r.a.) relied on interpreting the Qur’an by means of the Qur’an, then interpreting the Qur’an by means of hadits, then by what was transmitted by the companions, and then by the words of the righteous successors.  It is an indispensable source for the student of knowledge.

Tafsir of the Encompassing Ocean”, al-Bahr al-Muhith, was authored by the grammarian and exegete, Imam Muhammad ibn Yusuf ibn ‘Ali ibn Hayyan (r.a.), the Andalusian.  The book is considered the foremost source on the grammatical interpretation of phrases in the Qur’an, and on grammatical problems, as well as the various recitations and the reasons of Revelation.

“The Opening from the All-Powerful,” Fath al-Qadir, was by the master hadits specialist and jurist, Imam Muhammad ibn ‘Ali ash-Shawkani (r.a.).  The work is considered one of the sources of tafsir, which drew on the works of the predecessors and added to them.  His method in tafsir was to cite a verse and clarify its meaning, then list the various recitations and reciters, provide grammatical interpretations for many of the phrases, and finally provide juristic positions on legal verses.  There are also many concise works of tafsir which focus on explaining the meanings of words and providing short commentaries on verses.

In undertaking any field of study, one must know its general foundations and specific characteristics so that the student is aware of what he aims to study.  One obtains success in a field of study to the extent that one acquires the tools relevant to that field of study, so that one, having given the keys to it, enters it through the proper gates.  And if the Qur’an was Revealed in clear Arabic speech.

We have Sent it down as an Arabic Qur’an in order that ye may learn wisdom. (Surah Yusuf:2)

The principles and rules that the exegete needs for comprehending the Qur’an focus on understanding Arabic rules of grammar and their foundations, as well as the style and subtleties of the language.  The scholars have stipulated that the exegete who intends to interpret the Qur’an with his independent judgement needs to know a variety of sciences by means of which he will be able to properly interpret the Qur’an.  These sciences will prevent him from falling into error and protect him from asserting things about Allah (s.w.t.) without knowledge.

The sciences that the exegete needs are many, including the following.  The foundation is lexicology or semantics.  By means of this science, one can explain the established meanings of words, since it might be the case that a word is a homonym and the exegete might know one meaning but not another and the latter meaning might be what is intended by the text.  Then there is grammar.  Meanings differ according to changes in grammatical interpretation and for this reason one must be acquainted with grammar and its rules.  This is followed by morphology.  By means of morphology, the exegete comes to know the structure and forms of words.  Etymology is required because a word may be derived from two different root meanings which determine the meaning of the word.  For example, “Messiah,” “masih,” can derive from “travel,” “siyaha” or “rubbing”, or from “wiping,” “mash”.  All these sciences pertain to the structure of the language itself.

Then there are the rhetorical sciences, the science of meaning, which concerns the order and structure of speech insofar as they affect meaning; the science of clarity, which concerns the order and structure of speech insofar as they affect clarity and obscurity; and the science of eloquence, and by this science, one learns how to make speech more eloquent.  The science of recitation is where one learns how to pronounce and recite the text of the Qur’an.  By knowledge of recitation, the exegete can compare various readings and differentiate between readings that are widely transmitted and those that are rare or rejected.

And then there is the principles of belief, theology.  The science is named ‘ilm al-kalam and by means of it, the exegete knows what is necessary, possible and impossible with regard to Allah (s.w.t.).  He can also assess verses that are related to prophecy.  Without this science, the exegete can fall into error.  Related to this is the science of legal interpretation, where the exegete knows the manner in which rules are derived and proven.  Then, there is the science of reasons of Revelation.  By means of this science, the exegete understands the intent behind the Revelation of a verse.  For example, the following verse suggests that a Muslim can pray in any direction, though this is not the Intent of the verse.

To Allah Belongs the East and the West; whithersoever ye turn, there is Allah's countenance.  For Allah is All-Embracing, All-Knowing. (Surah al-Baqarah:115)

Then there is history; knowledge of historical narrations in detail assists one in clarifying what is Mentioned in a general manner in Qur’an.  Also, by means of it, the exegete can distinguish between those stories that are interpolations to tafsir and those that are valid.  And there is knowledge of abrogation.  By this, one knows what is established legally and what is not.  If one does not know what is abrogated, one might dispense a legal ruling that is abrogated and thus fall into error.  This requires also, knowledge of ahadits that elucidate verses which are indeterminate or unclear.  Ahadits can clarify verses that are not clear.  One must differentiate between strong and weak or fabricated ahadits.

Finally, an exegete requires insight.  It is knowledge that Allah (s.w.t.) Gives to whoever practices what he knows, which is indicated in the hadits, “Be Mindful of Allah and He will Teach you.”  This is because one who investigates the Qur’an will not come to understand its meaning or its secrets while he has in his heart pride, heresy, self-indulgence, and material desire or is insistent on sinning, which is indicated in the verse:

Those who behave arrogantly on the earth in defiance of right them ― will I turn away from My Signs ... (Surah al-A’araf:146)

Imam ibn ‘Uyaynah (r.a.) stated, “They are divested of any understanding of the Qur’an.”

These are the sciences and fields of knowledge that the scholars consider are tools for understanding the Book of Allah (s.w.t.), though some scholars may not mention all of them.  Indeed, some scholars subsume some sciences under others.  Moreover, this list of sciences does not comprise all the sciences on which the exegete depends.  For this reason, we will summarise what was stated in Shaykh Muhammad Rashid Ridha’s (r.a.) introduction to his tafsir to complete the point: “Tafsir has levels, the lowest of which is to clarify in a general manner what fills the heart with the Greatness of Allah (s.w.t.) and His Transcendence and what turns the self away from wrongdoing and towards the good.”

The highest of it is not attained without the following.  The first is knowledge of the reality of the individual words that are contained in the Qur’an so that the exegete verifies it by means of their original usage by the people of the language.  This is because many words were used in the time of revelation with particular meanings that changed in later times.  The second is style.  One must know about rhetorical style and technique in the language so that one understands the elevated style of the Qur’an.  This knowledge is acquired by engaging in the practice of eloquent speech.  The third is knowledge of human nature.  Allah (s.w.t.) Speaks of the conditions of people and their natures and Divine Precedents that were Decreed for people.  Allah (s.w.t.) Related that stories of those nations whose fates were in accordance with His Precedents.  The fourth is knowledge of the guidance of all people by means of the Qur’an and to know what the Prophets’ (s.a.w.) contemporaries were like.  The Qur’an States that they were in strife and error and that the prophets were Sent for their guidance and happiness.  And the last is knowledge of the Prophet’s (s.a.w.) biography and the biographies of the companions.

The Qur’an was Revealed to a people whose primary commodity was the Arabic language and they excelled in it to an extraordinary degree, knowing all its details.  So they had two immediate benefits from the revelation of the Qur’an.  They understood the greatness of its mode of discourse and its inimitability, and that it is Divine and that it is beyond the ability of man to reproduce it.  They understood that it was from Allah (s.w.t.) and that it is the truth along with what it comprises in terms of principles, rules and arguments; they understood its meaning and purpose.  They also understood its style and composition.  So the Arabs undertook from then on the project of examining its form, composition and style so that they developed a complete plethora of sciences related to the Qur’an and its study.

The Qur’an was the initial inspiration and the engine that drove the intellectual movement which developed these sciences.  Due to this, the scholars devoted themselves to gaining and deriving from this Sacred Book meanings, lessons, and benefits through tafsir and through studying its verses.  They founded new sciences and methods to study and engage with the Qur’an.  Shaykh ‘Ali Juma’ah, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, viewed that, with regard to the sciences that were founded for the interpretation of the Qur’an, we need to return to the practice of generating new sciences.  He has a book on the question of founding new sciences, entitled ‘Founding New Sciences is an Obligation on Muslims.’  This is because the Qur’an arrived endorsing certain sciences explicitly and others implicitly, while others it prohibited since they contradict the Qur’an’s principles.  As such, a detailed and nuanced view is required to know the relation of the sciences to the Qur’an, since the various sciences bear varying relations to it.  Some sciences related to the Qur’an directly, while others are only related to it indirectly.

Shaykh Thahir ibn ‘Ashur (r.a.) stated in his book, al-Tahrir wa at-Tanwir, or ‘The Exposition & Enlightening’, that the relation of the sciences to the Qur’an has four levels: sciences that are contained in the Qur’an, like the history of the prophets and nations, morals, law, belief, theology, the Arabic language, and rhetoric; sciences that add to the knowledge of the exegete, like philosophy, astronomy, and knowledge about Creation; sciences that are indicated in the Qur’an or are reinforced by the Qur’an, like geography, medicine, and logic; and sciences that have no relation to the Qur’an, either due to its being baseless, like mythology, or because it does not help in interpreting the Qur’an, like prosody.  This division of the sciences is especially important for exegete to understand in interpreting the Qur’an.

The theory of guidance expounded by the Qur’an is based on an overarching framework under which there are various branches that divide into commands and prohibitions, maxims and parables, stories and reminders, ideals and morals, and so on.

Guidance in the Qur’an is divided into two parts.  There is Guidance that engenders motives that incline one to belief and obey Allah (s.w.t.), which is also part of Allah’s (s.w.t.) Grace in following His law and His prophets.  This level is purely a Divine act that any Created being cannot attain.  And there is Guidance that is an exposition or elucidation.  It is a call, debate, argument, a setting forth of proofs and dispelling of doubts.  But the one who endeavours to do so does not have any real effect on people’s hearts, such that he brings them to believe or persuades them.  This is the kind of guidance that Allah (s.w.t.) Commanded his prophets and messengers to propagate.  He Attributes this to them, like where He States regarding the Prophet (s.a.w.):

… and verily thou dost guide (men) to the Straight Way ― (Surah ash-Shura:52)

The second kind of guidance, which is a guidance of indication, subdivides into two: General Guidance which applies to all people, as He states, “The month of Ramadhan in which the Qur’an was Revealed as a guidance to people and with proofs of guidance and discernment;” and Specific Guidance, which is all the legal rulings and Divine Injunctions which Allah (s.w.t.) Directs to those who believe in Him and His messenger and follow His Book and affirm His Law and His Authority.  Allah (s.w.t.) Says:

This is the Book; in it is Guidance sure, without doubt, to those who fear Allah. (Surah al-Baqarah:2)

The first thing that an exegete must carefully do is bring together all the verses that are unclear in meaning and to compare them, since some meanings that the Qur’an Mentions in an unclear manner in one place might be clarified in another place.  The Qur’an Treats one word or meaning in more than one place.  For wise reasons, in each place the word is specified to the extent appropriate for where it is mentioned, so if the exegete brings all the instances together, the general sense will become clear that Allah (s.w.t.) Intended to apply in that particular case.

The Prophet (s.a.w.) taught the companions this method in understanding the Qur’an on a number of occasions.  For example, ibn Mas’ud (r.a.) stated, “When the verse:

“It is those who believe and mix not their beliefs with wrong ...” (Surah al-An’am:82)

was Revealed, the companions of the Prophet (s.a.w.) were distressed by it and said, ‘Who of us does not wrong himself!’

So the Prophet (s.a.w.) said, ‘It is not what you think, but it is only as Luqman said to his son:

… “O my son!  Join not in worship (others) with Allah: for false worship is indeed the highest wrong-doing.” (Surah Luqman:13)”

Rather, the matter concerns polytheism.    Here the word ‘zhulm’ was used and the usual meanings of it were applied, whereas it was interpreted in another place as polytheism.  For this reason, Imam Fakhr ad-Din ar-Razi (r.a.) (r.a.) stated, “The entire Qur’an is like one surah, one part of it affirms or clarified another.  Do you not see that the verses that treat punishment are general and after they are connected to verses regarding repentance and Forgiveness.”

The Prophetic model or sunnah is the first elucidation of the Qur’an, which an elucidation that is distinguished by being immune to error.  It is thus the first precise clarifying statement that is safeguarded and correct, which explains the meanings of the Qur’an.  Because it safeguarded from error and is an authoritative source, it completes the Qur’anic guidance, such that it constitutes the noble law in every problem or issue.  Imam as-Suyuthi (q.s.) stated, “Imam Shafi’i stated, ‘Everything that the Muslim community states is a commentary on the sunnah, and the entire sunnah is a commentary on the Qur’an.’”  He also stated, “Everything that the Prophet (s.a.w.) pronounces as a ruling is what he understood from the Qur’an.”

This is supported by the statement of the Prophet (s.a.w.), “I only permit what Allah Permits in His Book and I only prohibit what Allah Prohibits in His Book.”

Because of the great status of the sunnah and its importance, the scholars developed sciences that preserve it, protect it, and serve to elucidate it.  Thus, the sciences of hadits and its narrators were developed.  It is necessary for an exegete to be acquainted with all ahadits and narrations so that he can understand and interpret the Qur’an.  There is another benefit of being acquainted with transmitted material which relates to questions more generally, that is, each individual speaker or exegete does not need to rely on his own mental abilities alone.  The exegete can draw on the results of earlier minds, so that thoughts and views become clear and accessible to him, which would perhaps not be available if he relied solely on his own views.

The science of Islamic legal theory contains rules for understanding and assessing texts and so the exegete must be attentive to it.  One of the main goals of the exegete is to master the tools and instruments with which he can analyze a complex text and fully understand it.  To understand a text by analysis and in all its parts and aspects, and to understand its aims and meanings, and to determine its style and approach is a goal that both the exegete of the Qur’an and the master of the science of Islamic legal theory strive towards.

Since the exegete needs to analyse the words of a text and comprehend its meanings in doing tafsir, his task ultimately comes to the question of the signification of meanings by words, which is one of the deepest and most subtle aspects of the science of Islamic legal theory.  For this reason, the exegete must, before embarking on tafsir, be fully acquainted with the science of Islamic legal theory, since it provides the principles for investigation.

The great scholar, Shaykh Thahir ibn ‘Ashur (r.a.) stated, “As for the science of uswul al-fiqh, they did not used to consider it a source for the science of tafsir but they used to discuss commands, prohibitions, general statements, which are all part of the science of Islamic legal theory.  So ultimately some of it is a source for tafsir, which is in two respects: first, the science of legal theory contains many things regarding the ways in which the language of the Arabs was employed and its sources which was not dealt with by the scholars of language, such as questions concerning scope and semantic implications.  Imam al-Ghazali considered the science of legal theory one of the sciences that are connected to the Qur’an, so it is no doubt a source for tafsir.  Second, the science of Islamic legal theory determines the rules of deriving norms and clarifies them, so it is a tool for the exegete in deriving the legal senses of a certain verses.”

The stories of the prophets are Mentioned to challenge the ways in which humans thought throughout time.  These stories are related for various divine ends, which people are required to consider and reflect upon so that great benefits and lessons can be derived from them.  One can also learn how to put the Qur’an into practice.  When we contemplate the stories of the Qur’an, we find that they are not simply recounted as anecdotes or stories; rather, each one is narrated to challenge a certain misguided view or other, or to assess and analyse a certain philosophy, or to examine some aspect of people’s worldview.  For example, the story of Shu’ayb (r.a.) treats the problem of secularism, which separates religion from every aspect of life, a problem that is not new.  The Qur’an states:

They said, “Oh Shu'ayb!  Does thy (religion of) prayer command thee that we leave off the worship which our fathers practised or that we leave off doing what we like with our property? ...” (Surah Hud:87)

The Qur’an thus Raised the problem of secularism and elucidated the points by which it can be resolved, and it clarifies the wrong and harm in it.  It provides a Divine Proof and Guidance.

The exegete must examine this story, and every place it is Mentioned in the Qur’an, and contemplate how it is treated.  In this way, the stories of the prophets provide more insights and benefits in their lessons.  One’s view should be expanded and new approaches to the study of the Qur’an should be inaugurated in the methods that the Qur’an Takes in addressing the views and approaches of modern philosophies.  It should be made clear that every story in the Qur’an addresses a philosophy or worldview that recurs throughout human history.

Each chapter of the Qur’an has a central theme upon which the chapter is based and on which it centers.  The chapter elaborates the central theme by various detailed examples and illustrations.  To this end, the chapter marshals various stories and incidents, at times, in great length and at other times with concision.  Such stories encompass legal commands and moral paradigms and address various viewpoints and modes of thought, all of which, though treating particular points, come together to support the central theme.

As such, each chapter contains a central theme that it centres on and consisting of a central concern.  For example, in the chapter ‘The Opening’, we find the verse:

Thee do we worship, and Thine Aid we seek. (Surah al-Fatihah:5)

The chapter focuses on the relation between the Creation and the Creator, since worship comes from the Created and Assistance or Help only comes from the Creator.

In the chapter entitled ‘The Cow’, the verse states:

Behold!  His Lord said to him, “Submit (thy will to Me).”  He said, “I bow (my will) to the Lord and Cherisher of the universe.” (Surah al-Baqarah:131)

The chapter centers on the question of submitting to Allah (s.w.t.) and how it shows the way to better understand the question of being a servant and worshipper and the question of assistance discussed in The Opening, since it is matter of absolute submission to Allah (s.w.t.).

As such, it is the duty of an exegete to grasp the central theme of a chapter and how to apply the verses of the chapter and its sections within the context of the central theme, so that new subtle meanings will become apparent to him and so that he comprehends the important lessons. In this way, the exegete will come to know things that the scholars that preceded him did know about a certain matter.

Knowledge of the aims of the Qur’an is considered one of the major tools of the exegete, which is exemplified in questions such as divinity, revelation, prophecy, guidance, the inimitability of the Qur’an, legal rulings, norms, paradigms, morals and social principles and rules.  There is a distinction between knowledge of Qur’anic aims and legal aims and the relation between them is that there is a certain overlap.  That is, every aim of the law is also a Qur’anic aim.  Specialists of Islamic legal theory throughout Islamic history have studied the science of legal aims and authored books on it.  However, developing a science that studies Qur’anic aims should have been a greater priority.  Such science would set the Qur’anic aims on varying levels, relating to various aspects of life and thought, so that those aims that are central and those that are subsidiary become clear.  But the scholars before us considered Divine Revelation as simply treating the following three things: Unity of Allah (s.w.t.), legal norms, and stories.  The exegete should investigate as independent topics questions that are connected to the Qur’anic aims such as prophecy, guidance, inimitability, legal rulings, norms, ideals, morals and so on.  He should invoke these aims to show how such examples and stories are provided to illustrate those aims.

Derivation or etymology is one of the central sciences of language studies and it has the strongest effect on understanding the meaning of a text.  It is a science that investigates the riches of the language and expanse of its oceans.  It is based on grasping meanings and discerning the application of a meaning in every linguistic form that signifies that meaning, where one form is derived from another.  Similar terms are brought together in a certain way so that one can find the meaning that is common to all the forms.  Etymology is a broad field with subtleties and of various kinds.  For example, one kind is ‘the great derivation’ which is to derive a word from another word by means of a change in the order of some of its root letters, where a similarity in meaning is preserved and the original letters are identical.

The exegete should thus master the analysis of Qur’anic terms and know the senses that each term carries.  If we examine the words of the Qur’an in this way by examining its derivation, expansive horizons will open up for us so that we fully apprehend what the Qur’an intends for us to know and comprehend.  The great scholar, Shaykh ‘Abdallah al-Amin (r.a.) stated, “If one properly benefits from this kind of derivation, it will supply one’s knowledge of language with rich resources.”  This is because the terms will then spill its hidden secrets and show the meaning of each term from various angles.  No doubt, this is of utmost importance in understanding the Noble Qur’an, which is clear Arabic.


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