'Ulûm al-Qur'ân #5 – The Principles of Tafsîr: The Qur’ânic Context
Taken from the Book, ‘Introduction to the Sciences of the Qur’an’, published by al-Hidaayah Ltd, and can be purchased online at www.Islaam.Biz
By the ‘Principles of tafsîr is meant the proper methodology in interpreting the Qûr’an, which includes the conditions and characteristics of a mufassir (one who interprets the Qûr’an), and the basis and characteristics of a proper tafsîr.
The science of tafsîr is one which, similar to the other sciences of Islâm, is based on well-grounded, systematic principles. These principles are derived from the Qûr’an, the Sunnah and the statements of the Companions.
As-Suyûtî, in summarising the principles of tafsîr, said,
|The scholars have said: Whoever wishes to interpret the Qûr’an, he should first turn to the Qûr’an itself. This is because what has been narrated succinctly in one place might be expounded upon in another place, and what is summarized in one place might be explained in another…
If he has done that, then he turns to the Sunnah, for it is the explainer of the Qûr’an, and a clarifier to it. Imâm as-Shâfi’î said, All that the Prophet (saws) said is based on his understanding of the Qûr’an.’ And Allâh said,
Verily, We have revealed to you the Book, in truth, so that you may judge between mankind by that which Allâh has shown you [4:105]
And the Prophet (saws) said, Indeed, I have been given the Qûr’an, and something similar to it, meaning the Sunnah. If he does not find it (the tafsîr) in the Sunnah, he turns to the statements of the Companions, for they are the most knowledgeable of it, since they witnessed the circumstances and situations the Qûr’an was revealed in, and since they were blessed with complete understanding, and true knowledge, and pious actions…
These principles, and others, will now be discussed in greater detail.
Tafsîr of the Qûr’an by the Qûr’an
The most important source of understanding the Qûr’an is the Qûr’an itself after all, the Qûr’an is an entire Book that has been revealed by Allâh, and therefore in order to understand any one verse, the entire context of this verse must be looked at. The meanings of the Qûr’an can never contradict each other, as Allâh says,
|Do they not ponder over the Qûr’an? For indeed, had it been from other than Allâh, they would surely have found many contradictions in it [4:82]|
In this verse, the command is given to ponder over the whole Qûr’an, verse by verse, for had it been from any other than Allâh, its verses would have contradicted one another. Therefore, it is essential to turn to the Qûr’an itself in order to interpret any verse in the Qûr’an.
This principle is demonstrated in many verses in the Qûr’an. Sometimes, a question is asked, and then answered in the next verses. For example,
|By the Heavens, and the târiq. And what will make you know what the târiq is? (It is) the star of piercing brightness [86:1-3]|
In other cases, the reference to another verse is not obvious. For example, the reference to the path of those whom You have favoured [1:7] is explained in 4:69 as:
And whoever obeys Allâh and His Messenger, they will be in the company of those whom Allâh has shown favour, of the Prophets, and the truthful followers, and the martyrs, and the pious. And how excellent these companions are! Therefore, the second verse explains who ‘those whom You have favoured’ are.
In some places in the Qûr’an, a story is mentioned in brief and in another place it is elaborated. For example, in the story of the repentance of Aadam, verse 2:37 states,
|Then Aadam received from his Lord words, and He relented towards him.|
In this verse, the ‘words’ that Aadam received are not mentioned, and it is essential to turn to another verse to know what Aadam said:
|They (Aadam and Eve) said, ‘Our Lord! We have wronged ourselves. If you do not forgive us and have Mercy on us, we will be of the lost! [7:23]|
Other verses direct the reader to another passage in the Qûr’an, or tell the reader that the subject has already been mentioned. For example, Allâh says,
|And unto the Jews, We forbade them such (foods) that We have already mentioned to you before… [16:118]|
In other words, these prohibitions have already been elaborated upon elsewhere in the Qûr’an (cf 6:146). In another verse, Allâh states,
|Lawful to you (for food) are all the beasts of cattle, except that which will have been recited to you. [5:1]|
After two verses, the beasts that are forbidden are ‘recited':
|Forbidden to you are all dead animals, and blood, and the flesh of pigs…. [5:3]|
The Prophet (saws) also showed the principle of interpreting the Qûr’an by the Qûr’an when he was asked concerning the verse,
|Those who believe and do not mix their belief with injustice…[6:82]|
The Companions asked, “O Messenger of Allâh! Who amongst us does not do injustice (to his soul)?” The Prophet (saws) replied, “Have you not read the statement of Luqman, ‘Verily, shirk is a great injustice?'” (31:13). In other words, the Prophet (saws) quoted them another verse in the Qûr’an to explain to them what the ‘injustice’ referred to in the verse actually meant – an example of tafsîr of the Qûr’an by the Qûr’an.
Included in the interpretation of the Qûr’an with the Qûr’an is the knowledge of asbâb an-nuzûl, the knowledge of makkî and madanî verses, the nâsikh and mansûkh verses, the various qira’ât, and the knowledge of the different categories of verses (the muhkam and mutashâbih, the ‘âm and the khâs, the mutlaq and the muqqayad, the mantûq and the mafhûm, the haqîqî and the majâzî, and other categories which were not discussed).
This is because a general ruling (‘âm) in one verse might be specified ( khâs) in another verse, and so forth. In addition, all the different qira’ât of a verse must be considered to arrive at a proper understanding of a verse. All the relevant verses must be taken into account to form a complete picture, as all the verses of the Qûr’an complement one another.
To conclude, it is essential that every verse of the Qûr’an be looked at in light of its sister verses; no interpretation of any verse can contradict another verse.
1 as-Suyûtî, v. 2. p. 225.
2 Reported by Abû Dâwûd, at-Tirmidhî and an-Nasâ’î.
3 Reported by al-Bukhari