The Correct Methodology of Tafseer

The Qur’aan is the last book of divine revelation sent to man, and Allaah has promised to protect it from any distortion or loss. He said in the Qur’aan:

“Verily, I have revealed the Reminder (Qur’aan) and verily I will preserve it.” {15:9}

Its written and recited forms have been preserved without even the slightest change for over fourteen hundred years.However, Allaah’s protection of the Qur’aan did not stop there; He also safeguarded the original meaning. If the protection of the Qur’aan’s meaning had not taken place, deviants would have turned the Book of Allaah into a jumble of symbols, riddles and codes open to a multiplicity of interpretations, and its original meaning would have been lost. The following steps have been deduced by orthodox scholars as being the necessary conditions for making correct tafseer of the Qur’aan:

1. Tafseer of Qur’aan by Qur’aan:

Before seeking an explanation or interpretation elsewhere, the Qur’aan must be relied upon to explain itself, for Allaah knows best what He intended.

For example, Ibn Mas‘ood related that when the following verse was revealed:

“Those who believe and do not obscure their faith with transgression (thulm), for them there is security, and they are rightly guided,”

some of the companions became distressed, because the general linguistic meaning of thulm covers any kind of wrong, major or minor, and none of them were free from error. However, when they approached the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) about it, he replied,

“ It is not as you all think. It is no more than what Luqmaan said to his son, ‘Verily, shirk (associating partners with God) is the greatest form of thulm.’

Thus the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) clarified for them that the broader meaning of thulm was not intended in the first verse; rather it was used to refer to shirk. In this incident, the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) explained the Qur’aan by the Qur’aan, demonstrating the first step in the divinely ordained method of understanding and interpretation of the Qur’aan that was established for all generations of Muslims until the Day of Resurrection.

2. Tafseer of Qur’aan by the Sunnah:

On many occasions, the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) added further clarification to various verses of the Qur’aan. Allaah had entrusted the job of explaining the Qur’aan to the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him). This trust was expressed in the Qur’aan in no uncertain terms,

“I have revealed the Reminder (Qur’aan) to you (O Muhammad) so that you may explain to the people what has been revealed to them.”

The sahaabah understood this clearly and always turned to the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) for clarification whenever they were in doubt about the meaning of any of the Qur’aanic passages. In fact, most of the fine details of salaah, zakaah, sawm, hajj, inheritance laws, etc. were explained either by the Prophet’s statements or practical demonstrations and applications (the Sunnah). Thus, the Prophet’s explanations of Qur’aanic passages are referred to as the tafseer of the Qur’aan by the Sunnah. For example, in Soorah al-Faatihah, the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) explained that “al-maghdoobi ‘alayhim” (those on whom is Allaah’s anger) are the Jews, and “ad-daalleen” (those astray) are the Christians.

Tafseer of Qur’aan by Aathaar:

Whenever the sahaabah could not find the tafseer of a passage in the Qur’aan itself or in the 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 Qur’aan was revealed. For example, when Ibn ‘Abbaas was questioned about the verse:

“And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and guard their chastity and to only reveal from their adornment that which (normally) appears,”

he replied, “It refers to the face and hands.” On another occasion, after reciting the verse,

Tafseer of Qur’aan 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 Qur’aanic words according to their literal and grammatical meanings. For example, Yusuf Ali translates the word “burooj” used in the 85th soorah as “the Zodiacal signs,” while Pickthall translates it as “Mansions of the Stars,” but says in his introduction to the soorah that it “is applied to the signs of the zodiac.” Thus, according to them, Allaah is making an oath by the zodiacal signs. Some English-speaking Muslims have taken this to be indirect support for astrology. However, “burooj” originally only meant “star con-figuration,” and it was not until later times that it was used to refer to the imaginary figures of the zodiac that pagan Babylonians and Greeks superimposed on them. Astrology has been forbidden by the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) in no uncertain terms, as it falls under the general prohibition on visiting fortunetellers. The Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) said,

“Whoever…visits a fortuneteller [and believes in what he says] 87 has disbelieved in what was revealed to Muhammad.”

Tafseer of Qur’aan by Opinion:

Opinions based on a careful study of the first four steps can be considered valid as long as they do not contradict any of those steps. Likewise, the application of obvious meanings of the Qur’aan to existing situations and the formation of conclusions based on their similarities are also allowed, as long as such interpretations do not clash with authentic classical explanations. But,  free interpretation based on philosophical, scientific, or sectarian ideas is totally forbidden. The Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) was reported to have said,

“Opinion-based argument about the Qur’aan is kufr.” He repeated it three times, then said, “What you know of it, act upon; and what you are ignorant of, refer it to one who knows.”

We can see from the above-mentioned hadeeth that the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) sternly warned his companions and later generations of Muslims about interpretations of the Qur’aan based on speculation and unsubstantiated opinions. The reason is that the Qur’aan is the foundation of Islaam and, as such, it had to remain pure and untampered with. If free rein was given to any and everyone to interpret the Qur’aan as they wished, its value would be totally destroyed, and Islaam itself.would be undermined from its base.

Thus, the only acceptable tafseer is that which adheres to the following sequence: tafseer of Qur’aan by the Qur’aan, then 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.

(Taken from the  Usool At Tafseer course offered by IOU.)

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