‘Ulûm al Qûr’an #6 – Tafsîr through the Sunnah

In addition to such explicit examples of tafsîr, there exist numerous examples from the life and sayings of the Prophet (saws) which explain certain verses of Qur’ân, but are not recorded as explicit statements of tafsîr. For example, the Prophet (saws) stated,

“Hell will be brought forth on that Day (i.e., Day of Judgement). It will have seventy thousand ropes (attached to it), and on each rope, there will be seventy thousand angels dragging it.”[11]

Although this hadîth does not mention any verse in the Qur’ân, it can be used to interpret verse 90:23, ‘And Hell will be brought that Day.” The hadîth describes how it will be brought. In another example, the penalty prescribed for theft is,

“As for the thief male or female, cut off his/her hand” (5:38).

The Sunnah of the Prophet (saws) explains that the thief’s hand is only to be cut off if he steals above a certain monetary value, and that in such a case the right hand is to be cut off from the wrist joint.[12] These additional details needed for understanding this verse are not present in the Qur’ân itself In another verse, the Qur’ân proclaims,

Say, I do not find in that which has been revealed to me anything which is forbidden to eat by anyone who wishes to eat it except a dead animal, or blood poured forth, or the flesh of swine…’ [6:145]

However, this verse is not exhaustive, as the Sunnah adds to this list all animals with fangs or claws, and excludes from the general ruling of dead animals seafood and locusts.[13]

From these and other examples, it is possible to say that the Prophet (saws) explained the Qur’ân in the following manners:[14]

    1) By his implementation of general or vague commands. For example, the Qur’ân orders the believers to pray and perform Hajj. The Prophet (saws), by his actions and statements, showed the believers the exact procedure and timings of prayer, and the specific rites of Hajj.

    2) By explaining unclear concepts in verses. For example, the verse commanding the believers to begin their fasts,

    …when the white thread becomes clear from the black thread [2:187]

    was explained by the Prophet (saws) as being the streaks of light in the sky after dawn.

    3) By specifying the exact connotation of a word or phrase. The example in which the Prophet (saws) specified that the ‘injustice’ referred to in 6:82 was shirk falls in this category.

    4) By constraining a general ruling or verse. The example’ of the specification of ‘thief’and ‘hand’ by the Prophet (saws) was given above.

    5) By generalising a specific ruling or verse. An example of this is when some Companions came to the Prophet (saws) and asked him concerning the verse,

    And if you travel through the land, there is no sin upon you if you shorten your prayers, if you fear that those who disbelieve may harm you [4:101]

    The Companions could not understand why the Prophet (saws) and the Muslims were still shortening their prayers during travel, despite the fact that there was no longer any fear from enemy attacks. The Prophet (saws) responded,

    “(The concession to shorten prayers even in a state of security) is a charity which Allâh has given you, therefore accept the charity.”[15]6) By explaining the intent of a verse. The example in which the Prophet (saws) explained

    ..those whom You are angry with, and those who are astray [1:7]

    as the Jews and Christians falls under this category.

    7) By adding extra commands or prohibitions to the verse. An example of this is the Prophet’s (saws) prohibition of joining a woman with her maternal or paternal aunt in marriage (i.e., as co-wives), whereas the Qur’ân only prohibits combining a woman with her sister (4:23).

    8) By emphasising the meaning of the verse. In other words, by practising and affirming the laws in the Qur’ân. For example, all hadîth stressing good treatment to wives merely affirm the verse,

    And live with them on good terms (and kindness) [4:19]

    9) By showing that the verse was abrogated. This category has already been discussed.[16]

These few examples should be sufficient to illustrate that the Sunnah is of equal importance to the Qur’ân in deriving laws and understanding the Qur’ân. The Qur’ân can never be understood properly without the Sunnah.Even the Companions, whose knowledge of the Arabic language was unparalleled, had difficulty understanding many verses until the Prophet (saws) cleared up the exact meaning for them.

These two sources of tafsîr, tafsîr of the Qur’ân by the Qur’ân, and tafsîr of the Qur’ân by the Sunnah,are the two ultimate sources for understanding the Qur’ân. Neither is allowed to contradict itself or the other, and both sources must be taken simultaneously in order to arrive at a correct understanding. These two sources are also the final authority on the interpretation of the Qur’ân – no interpretation is allowed to contradict or supersede the interpretation of the Qur’ân by the Qur’ân and the Sunnah.


1 al-Albânî, Muhammad Nâsir ad-Dîn, Manzilat as-Sunnah ft al-Islâm (Dar al-Hayah al-Islâmiyah, Egypt, n.d.), p.5.

2 adh-Dhahabî, v. 1, p. 54. Actually, as-Suyûtî clarifies his point of view later on in his Itqân, which agrees in principle with Ibn Taymiyyah’s view. c£ Itqân, v. 2, p. 264.

3 cf. Itqân, v. 2, pps. 244-264.

4 Reported by al-Bukhârî.

5 Ibn Taymiyyah, p. 12.

6 Reported by Ahmad and Ibn Mâjah.

7 Reported by at-Tirmidhî.

8 Reported by at-Tirmidhî, and referred to in al-Bukhârî and Muslim.

9 Reported by Muslim.

10 Reported by al-Bukhârî and Muslim.

11 Reported by at-Tirmidhî.

12 c£ al-Albânî, Manzilat, p. 6.

13 ibid, p. 7.

14 Based on adh-Dhahabî, pps. 60-62, and others.

15 Reported by Muslim.

16 See, ‘The Categories of Naskh,’ in Chapter 13 – See Top of article for Purchase of Full Book

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