The History of Tafseer

The History of Tafseer

by Abû Ammâr Yasir al-Qadhî


It is no surprise to discover that the science of tafseer started during the lifetime of the Prophet (SAW) himself In fact, one of the primary roles of the Prophet (SAW|), as shall be expounded on later, was to interpret the Qur’aan. Allaah says,

“And We have sent down to you (O Muhammad (SAW) the Remembrance, so that you may clearly explain to mankind what has been revealed to them, and so that they may give thought” [16:44]

The science of tafseer during the Prophet’s (SAW) life was a relatively easy matter. This was so for a number of factors. Firstly, the Companions were witnessing the revelation of the Qur’aan, and the circumstances during which it was revealed. They were aware of the reason behind the revelation of a verse (asbaab an-nuzool), and as such did not need to search for this knowledge as later interpreters would have to. Secondly, the Arabic of the Companions was the Arabic of the Qur’aan, as the Qur’aan was revealed in their dialect. Therefore the Arabic of the Qur’aan was, in general, understood by them without any difficulties. Lastly, and most importantly, the Prophet (SAW) was alive, and the Qur’aan was still being revealed, so even if there were any difficulties in understanding any verse, they could turn to the Prophet (SAW) for an explanation. An example quoted earlier is with regards to the verse,

“Those who believe and do not mix their belief with injustice. ..”[6:82]

The Companions asked, “O Messenger of Allaah! Who amongst us does not do injustice (to his soul)?” The Prophet (SAW) replied, “Have you not read the statement of Luqmaan,

“Verily, shirk is a great injustice?” [31:13].[1]

In other words, the Prophet (SAW) informed them that the injustice referred to in this verse was shirks, or the association of partners with Allaah.

The Companions were careful that they understood every single verse in the Qur’aan properly. Aboo ‘Abd ar-Rahmaan as-Sulamee (d. 75 A.H.) reported that whenever the people who taught them the Qur’aan, like ‘Uthmaan ibn ‘Affaan, ‘Abdullaah ibn Mas’ood, and others, learnt ten verses of the Qur’aan, they would not proceed further until they had understood whatever ideas and regulations those verses contained. They used to say, “We learnt the Qur’aan, and studied its ideas and injunctions all together.”[2] This narration shows that the Companions were eager to understand Qur’aan, so much so that they would not memorise any verses until they had already understood what they knew.

The role of the Prophet (SAW), and quantity of the Qur’aan that he interpreted, will be elaborated upon in the next section.


After the death of the Prophet (SAW), the science of tafseer took on a more systematic approach. Thus it can be considered that the first true mufassirs were actually the Companions. The sources that the Companions used for tafseer were the Qur’aan, the statements of the Prophet (SAW), the principles of Arabic grammar and rhetoric, their own personal reasoning {ijtihaad), and pagan and Judaeo-Christian customs that were prevalent at the time of the revelation of the Qur’aan. These sources will be discussed in greater detail in the following section.

There were many among the Companions who were well known for their knowledge of the interpretation of the Qur’aan. As-Suyootee wrote, “There are ten who were famous for their knowledge of ‘tafseer among the Companions: the four Khulafaa ar-Raashidoon,[3] ‘Abdullaah ibn Mas’ood, ‘Abdullaah ibn ‘Abbaas, Ubay ibn Ka’ab, Zayd ibn Thaabit, Aboo Moosaa al-Ash’aree and ‘Abdullaah ibn Zubayr. As for the Khulafaa, ‘Alee ibn Abee Taalib has the most narrations amongst them; as for the other three, there reports are very rare to find, since they died relatively earlier…”[4] In other words, the tafseer narrations of Aboo Bakr, ‘Umar and ‘Uthmaan 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 great need to interpret much of the Qur’aan, as the Companions were many and wide-spread. During later times, however, such as during the Caliphate of ‘Alee, the need to interpret the Qur’aan was much greater than before.

There were others besides these ten Companions who were well known for their knowledge of tafseer, such as Anas ibn Maalik, Aboo Hurayrah, Jaabir ibn ‘Abdillaah and ‘Aa’ishah, except that they were not in the same category as the ten whom as-Suyootee mentioned.

The most knowledgeable Companion with regards to the interpretation of the Qur’aan is considered to be Ibn ‘Abbaas. ‘Abdullaah ibn ‘Umar said, “Ibn ‘Abbaas is the most knowledgeable of this ummah concerning the revelation given to Muhammad (SAW).”[5] This is due to the fact that the Prophet (SAW) himself prayed for Ibn ‘Abbaas, for he (SAW) said, “O Allaah! Give him the knowledge of the Book, and of Wisdom!” and in another narration, “O Allaah! Give him the knowledge of the religion, and interpretation.”[6] He used to accompany the Prophet (SAW) during his youth, as he was his (SAW) cousin. Also, his aunt Maymoonah was a wife of the Prophet (SAW).

Ibn ‘Abbaas was held in great esteem by the Companions, despite his age (he was only thirteen when the Prophet (SAW) passed away). ‘Umar used to let Ibn ‘Abbaas enter into the meetings of the older Companions, so some of them complained, “Why is it that you let him enter, even though we have sons the same age as him (whom you do not allow to enter) ?” ‘Umar 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 the verse,

“When the help of Allaah comes, and the Conquest) [110:1] ?

Some of them did not reply, while others said, “We have been commanded to thank Allaah and ask for His forgiveness whenever we are helped and aided to victory.” ‘Umar asked Ibn ‘Abbaas, “And do you think the same also, O Ibn ‘Abbaas?” He answered, “No!” ‘Umar asked, “Then what do you say.” He replied, “This is an indication to the Prophet (SAW) from Allaah that his life is about to end. The verse means, “When the help of Allaah comes, and the Conquest’ then this is a sign of your approaching death, therefore,

“Glorify the Praises of your Lord, and ask for Forgiveness, for verily He is ever-accepting repentance!) [110:3]

‘Umar said, “I don’t know any other meaning to this except what you have said!”[7]

The narrations of Ibn ‘Abbaas, along with those of’Abdullaah ibn Mas’ood, ‘Alee ibn Abee Taalib, and Ubay ibn Ka’ab, are the most numerous narrations from Companions that are to be found in tafseer literature. Each one of them established centres of learning during their lifetimes, and left many students among the 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’aan discussed, and only where 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-Islaamic poetry. Another characteristic of this time is the relatively trivial differences in tafseer, as compared to later generations.


After the generation of the Companions, the students of the Companions took over the responsibility of explaining the Qur’aan. The Successors 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 Companions of the Prophet (SAW) could not be compared to an interpretation of any person after them. Therefore, the sources for interpreting the Qur’aan during this generation were: the Qur’aan, the statements of the Prophet (SAW) that the Companions had informed them of, the Companions’ personal reasoning {ijtihaad) of the verse, the Arabic language, their own personal reasoning (ijtihaad), and Judaeo-Christian tradition.

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

Historically, three primary learning centres were established in the Muslim empire: Makkah, Madeenah and Koofah. Each of these areas became leading centres of knowledge during the period of the Successors, including the knowledge of tafseer.

In Makkah, where Ibn ‘Abbaas had taught, his primary students became the scholars of this area. In particular, Sa’eed ibn Jubayr (d. 95 A.H.), Mujaahid ibn Jabr (d. 104 A.H.), ‘Ikrimah (d. 104 A.H.), Taawoos (d. 106A.H.), and ‘Ataa ibn Rabaah (d. 114 A.H.) became leading authorities in this field, and their names are still to be found in many works of tafseer.

In Madeenah, the influence of’Ubay ibn Ka’ab was the strongest in the arena of tafseer, and his students Aboo al-‘Aaliyah (d. 90 A.H.), Muhammad ibn Ka’ab al-Quradee (d. 118 A.H.) and Zayd ibn Aslam (d. 136 A.H.) emerged as the scholars of tafseer in Madeenah during this period.

In Koofah, ‘Abdullaah ibn Mas’ood left behind his great legacy to ‘Alqamah ibn Qays (d. 61 A.H.), Masrooq (d. 63, A.H.), and al-Aswad ibn Yazeed (d. 74 A.H.). Other Successors from Koofah who were famous for their knowledge of tafseer were: ‘Aamir ash-Sha’bee (d. 109 A.H.), al-Hasan al-Basree (d. 110 A.H.) and Qataadah as-Sadoosee (d. 117 A.H.)

During this period, greater emphasis was placed on Judaeo-Christian tradition (known as Israa eeliyaat), and because of this, many of these narrations entered into Islaamic literature. Most of the people who narrated these traditions were Jews and Christians who had embraced Islaam, such as ‘Abdullaah ibn Salaam (he was a Companion, d. 43 A.H.), Ka’ab al-Ahbaar (he embraced Islaam after the death of the Prophet (SAW) and did not see him; he died 32 A.H.), Wahb ibn Munnabih (d. 110 A.H.), and ‘Abdul Maalik ibn Jurayj (d. 150 A.H.). Much of the Judaeo-Christian traditions prevalent in tafseer 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. Another characteristic of this period is the increase of forged narrations attributed to the Prophet (SAW). 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 for the Companions, since more verses needed explanation than during the time of the Companions.


After the period of the Successors, the stage of the actual compilation and writing of tafseer began. The most important works were by scholars of hadeeth, who, as part of their narrations and works of hadeeth, also had sections on tafseer. Therefore, during this stage, the narrations of ‘tafseer were considered a branch of hadeeth literature. Some of the scholars of this period that were known for their tafseer narrations include Yazeed ibnHaaroonas-Sulamee (d. 117 A.H.), Sufyaan al-Thawri (d. 161 A.H.), Sufyaan ibn ‘Uyaynah (d. 198 A.H.), Wakee’ ibn al-Jaraah (d. 197 A.H.), Shu’bah ibn al-Hajjaaj (d. 160 A.H.), Aadam ibn Abee Iyaas (d. 220 A.H.), and ‘Abd ibn Humayd (d. 249 A.H.). None of their works have survived intact until the present day.[8]

The next stage in the history of tafseer saw the separation of tafseer literature from hadeeth, and the emergence of independent works solely on tafseer. Another stride during this stage was that every verse was discussed, so that tafseer was not only limited to those verses for which narrations from the Prophet (SAW) and Companions existed; rather, these tafseers encompassed all the verses in the Qur’aan.

In attempting to answer who the first person to write a comprehensive tafseer of the Qur’aan was, the researcher is faced with a rather significant impediment: a lack of almost all manuscripts written during the first century of the hijrah. However, there are a number of references in later works to such manuscripts, and among the earliest works referenced is that of Sa’eed ibn Jubayr (d. 95 A.H.).[9] Most likely, this work was not a complete tafseer of the Qur’aan, but rather composed of narrations from the previous generations. An interesting narration in the Fihrist of Ibn Nadeem (d. 438 A.H.) reads as follows:[10]

‘Umar ibn Bukayr, one of the students of al-Farraa, was with the governor Hasan ibn Sahl. He wrote to al-Farraa: ‘The governor sometimes questions me concerning (the tafseer of) a verse in the Qur’aan, but I am unable to respond to him. Therefore, if you think it suitable to compile something with regards to the Qur’aan, or write a book concerning this, I can return to this book (whenever he asks me)’. al-Farraa said to his students, ‘Gather together so that I may dictate to you a book on the Qur’aan’…and he told the muadhin to recite Soorah al-Faatihah, so that he may interpret it, until the whole book (i.e., the Qur’aan) was finished. The narrator of the story, Aboo al-‘Abbaas, said, ‘No one before him ever did anything like it, and I don’t think that anyone can add to what he wrote!’

Al-Farraa died in the year 207 A.H., and thus we can say that this is definitely one of the earliest works of this nature.[11 ] Ibn Maajah (d. 273), of Sunan fame, also wrote a tafseer of the Qur’aan, but again this was limited to narrations from the previous generations.

One of the greatest classics available is without a doubt the monumental tafseer of the Qur’aan by Muhammad ibn Jareer at-Tabaree (d. 310A.H.). This tafseer, although heavily based on narrations, also discusses the grammatical analysis of the verse, the various qiraaat and their significance on the meaning of the verse, and, on occasion, Ibn Jareer’s personal reasoning (ijtihaad) on various aspects of the verse. In many ways, this can be considered to be the first tafseer to attempt to cover every aspect of a verse. Other tafseers followed quickly; in particular the tafseers of Aboo Bakr ibn Mundhir an-Naisapooree (d. 318 A.H.), Ibn Abee Haatim (d. 327 A.H.), Aboo Shaykh ibn Hibbaan (d. 369 A.H.), al-Haakim (d. 405 A.H.) and Aboo Bakr ibn Mardawayh (d. 410).[12]

This era also saw the beginning of the specialisation in tafseer, with tafseers being written, for example, with greater emphasis on the grammatical analysis and interpretation of the Qur’aan. Greater emphasis was also placed on personal reasoning (ijtihaad), and tafseers written solely for the defence of sectarian views (such as the tafseers of the Mu’tazilah), and even for the defence of one’s fiqh madh-hab (such as the tafseers of the Hanafees, Shaafi’ees and Maalikees) appeared. Another aspect that started during this era was the deletion of the isnaad from tafseer narrations, and this led to the increasement of weak and fabricated reports in tafseer literature.

A Summary

To summarise, it is possible to divide the history of tafseer into five periods.[13 ] The first period is considered to be the time of the Companions and Successors, and consisted mainly of narrations concerning those verses over which there was a difference of opinion or misunderstanding, in addition to the hadeeth of the Prophet {SAW) dealing with tafseer. Personal reasoning {ijtihaad) from the Companions and Successors was, in general, only resorted to when absolutely necessary.

The second period is the era of the late Successors, and the generation after them. During this time, hadeeth literature had begun to be compiled, and tafseer narrations therefore become a part of hadeeth works. Also during this time, the various hadeeth of the Prophet (SAW) and narrations from different Companions began to be compiled, whereas in the first period, these narrations were typically limited to a specific area.

The third stage saw the rise of independent tafseer works, based on the hadeeth works of the previous generation, and thus tafseer became an independent science among the Islaamic sciences. This stage, which can be said to begin in the second half of the third century, also produced the first complete Qur’aanic tafseers, whose commentary was not limited to only those verses concerning which narrations existed from previous generations. However, during this stage, the primary source of tafseer still remained narrations from the previous generation.

It was only during the fourth stage where reliance on narrations decreased, and much greater emphasis was placed on personal reasoning, and tafseers were written based on sectarian bias. For example, as-Suyootee narrates concerning the verse,

“…Not the path of those whom You are angry with, nor those who are astray” [1:7]

that there exist ten different opinions concerning who this verse refers to, despite the fact that the Prophet (SAW) has clearly explained that it refers to the Jews and Christians!14 This period also witnessed the increasement of forged narrations in tafseer literature, as the isnaad disappeared from tafseer works. [15]

The final period of the history of tafseer, which has lasted from the fourth century of the hijrah until today, saw the culmination of the science of tafseer, and the emergence of various categories of tafseer, such as tafseer based on narrations, on personal reasoning, topic-wise interpretation, polemical interpretation, and jurisprudential interpretation (these will be discussed in greater detail below). Other tafseers sought to combine all of these topics into one work, thus giving a broad, all-encompassing approach to interpretation.

1 Reported by al-Bukhaaree.

2 Ibn Taymiyyah, p. 12.

3 A term that means ‘The rightly-guided caliphs’, used to denote the first four caliphs, Aboo Bakr. ‘Umar, ‘Uthmaan and ‘Alee.

4 as-Suyootee, v. 2, p. 239.

5 adh-Dhahabee, v. l,p. 72 (the reference to adh-Dhahabee, whenever it appears in this chapter, refers to Dr. ad-Adh-Dhahabee’s Tafseer wa al-Mufasiroon, unless otherwise specified).

6 Reported by al-Bukhaaree.

7 Reported by al-Bukhaaree.

8 adh-Dhahabee, v.l.p. 152.

9 ibid., v.l, p. 155.

10 ibid., v.l, p. 154. from the Fihrist.

11 This work, unlike many others from its era, is available in manuscript form, and part of it has been published by Daar al-Kutub al-Misriyah, 1956.

12 adh-Dhahabee, p. 152.

13 cf. adh-Dhahabee, v. 1, pps. 151-56.

14 as-Suyootee, v. 2. p. 190.

15 as-Suyootee, v. 2. p. 225.

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