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Exegesis (Tafsir) of the Quran Is the Most Important Science for the Muslims – Part One

By Prof Hamid Naseem Rafiabadi

February 5, 2021

Islam is a complete code of conduct and its primary sources of guidance are two, i.e. the Quran and the Hadith. The Quran was revealed at Makkah and Madinah over the period of twenty three years and was compiled in a complete Mashaf during the reign of Hazrat Uthman (RA) and has been since then acknowledged by all the Muslims world over as the basic source of Islamic law and legislation apart from being a spiritual and moral code of conduct . Later on for the coming generations the Quran was explained by the scholars of Islam in very explicit terms, which came to be known as Tafsir .The earliest Mufassir was Ibn Abbas (RA), the Cousin and the Companion of the Prophet (SAW) and he was known as Tarjuman al Quran. After Ibn Abbas (RA) many Mufassirin came and they became very famous .However, Ibn Kathir and Zamakhshari became very renowned and they represented Tafsir Bil Mathur and Tafsir al Aqliyah respectively. While the Quran has since from the beginning of Islam been considered no less than the very ipsissima verbal of God its interpretation and application was anything but literal. To early exegetes already, it was patently clear that the word of God was in dire need of the mind of man to make comprehensible the Qur’anic teachings.

Tafsir (exegesis) of the Qur'an is the most important science for the Muslims. All matters concerning the Islamic way of life are connected to it in one sense or another, since the right application of Islam is based on proper understanding of the guidance from Allah (SWT). Without Tafsir there would be no right understanding of various passages of the Qur'an. Thus in order to fulfil his God-given assignment, the Prophet (SAW) recited, taught, explained and implemented the Qur’an revealed to him piecemeal over some twenty-three years of his Prophetic mission in Makkah and Medina. These years contain a practical commentary on the Qur’anic teachings on all aspects of human life - for which there is no parallel for any other revealed scripture. The companions of the Prophet (SAW) were directly involved in a number of important events mentioned in the Quran. On occasions they asked the Prophet (SAW) when the meaning of the revealed verses (Ayat) was not clear to them.

The Quran presents itself as the prime source of Tafsir, one section of it helping to elucidate others. The need for a written Tafsir did not arise during the lifetime of the Prophet (SAW). After his death a few learned companions started teaching Tafsir, the most prominent among whom were 'Abdullah IbnMas¢ud (RA), Ali IbnTalib (RA) and UbayIbnKa`b (RA). In early Islam books on Hadith and Seerah incorporated Tafsir as well. Later, with the remarkable expansion of Islam, the need was strongly felt to compile independent books on Tafsir. In this respect mention may be made of the contributions of Mujahid bin Jabr al -Makki (d.104/772), Zayd bin Ali (d.122/740), Ata al-Khurasani (d.133/755), Muhammad bin al-Saib al-Kalbi (d.146/763) and Muqatil bin Sulayman (d.150/767).

Introduction to Tafsir

The word Tafsir is derived from the root 'fassara' – to explain, to expound. It means 'explanation' or 'interpretation'. The author of al –Misbah says that the meaning of fassara is to make things explicit and clear. In al-Qamus the al-Tafsir has been used in the sense of Alibanah Wa Kashaf Al Ghita, meaning that Tafsir is to make things clear and remove the ambiguous and veiled words and sentences. In Bahr al Muhit Abu Hayyan Muhammad Ibn Yusuf (d.745.A.H) says that the meaning of the Tafsir has been given to release or make something free (al intilaq) and its connotation is that something is being unveiled and made explicit .Thus the external and internal senses of the terms and words are made intelligible by Tafsir.

Tafsir is a science that discusses the nature of the Qur’anic text, its significance, rulings on its singular and synthetic contents, and the actual connotations of these and the conclusions there from. In Lisan al Arab the meaning of Tafsir has been given as Kashaf al Murad an al lafzi al Mushkil, indicating to unveil the meaning of the difficult word. This term has been used in this sense in the Quran also: “And they do not come to you with an argument except that We bring you the truth and the best explanation”. (25:33) .The full verse is as follows: “We sent its right answer to you in time and explained it all in the best manner.” Divine knowledge is a fathomless ocean. But glimpses of it can be obtained by any individuals sincerely searching for the Truth. Their progress will be in grades. If they ask questions, and answers are then furnished to them, they are more likely to apprehend the Truth, as they have already explored the part of the territory in which they are interested. In the same way, when concrete questions arise by the logic of events, and they are answered not only for the occasion, but from a general stand-point, the teaching has a far greater chance of penetrating the human intelligence and taking shape in practical conduct. And this is the usual way of instruction in the Qur'an.

The word Tafsir here indicates that the character of the Quran is self explanatory. Thus in literal and non-literal sense the Tafsir means explanation of everything whether abstract or concrete. In technical language the word Tafsir is used for explanation, interpretation and commentary on the Qur'an, comprising all ways of obtaining knowledge, which contributes to the proper understanding of it, explains its meanings and clarifies its legal implications. The best definition of this subject has been given by Al Zarakshi: “This is a science through which we come to know about the teachings of the Quran which was revealed on the Prophet (SAW) and to explain its meanings and explore its commandments and wise exhortations. That is possible through the language and lexicography, syntax and etymology, ilm al bayan, Principles of Fiqh and the manners of the Qur’anic recitations it also needs knowledge of Asbab-i-Nazul and Naskhwal Mansukh.”

In the terminological sense Tafsir deals with unveiling the meanings of the Qur’anic text and indicates the states of the verses from the point of view of their being Madinite or Makkan, Mutashabiat or Muhkamat, common or specific, general or particular detailed or concise .It also indicates about the verses pertaining to halal and haram, promises and warnings, commands and prohibitions and also such other issues.

In language the word Tafsir is also indicating the meaning of al izhar, al Kashaf and its source is in tafsuratun which means a little water in which the Physicians see as a physician looks into it to diagnose the disease of a patient .Or in other words it means the check –up conducted by a physician on a patient aimed at the detail of the ailment. In the same manner the Mufassir tries to unveil the meaning and status of a verse. Thus Tafsir is: “Kashaf al Mughlaqminal Muradbilafzihiwaitlaqlilmuhtasibis an al fahambhi”. The removing of the ambiguity from the words and making the difficult places understandable for a person”.(p415).Zarakshi (d.794A.H) says: “Tafsir is knowledge trying to encompass the revelation of the Qur’anic verse and chapters, Madani portions, it’s clear and ostensibly ambiguous passages, its abrogating and abrogated rulings, its specific sand general injunctions ,and their detailed explanation”.

Some people say that it is the perverted form of Safar which also means unveiling .In Arabic we say: Safaratilmaratusafuran it is said when a women lifts veil from her face .In the same sense is used the word asfarusubh when the morning becomes bright. Ibn Abbas (RA) (d.104) translates Tafsira (25:33) as Tafseela but usually Fassara is used for denoting the understandable meaning (p-416) The Tafsir of the Quran indicates the details of the divine injections.” Mujahid Ibn Jabr (d.104.A.H) says that Tafsir refers to tine explanation of the Quran”. In the same way RaghibIsfahani says that Fassara and Saffara are close in their meanings.

(To be continued...)


Prof Hamid Naseem Rafiabadi is Head, Department of Religious Studies, and Central University of Kashmir. Former Director, Shah-i-Hamadan Institute of Islamic Studies, University of Kashmir Srinagar.

Original Headline: The Quran And Its Interpretation: An Introduction – I

Source: The Rising Kashmir


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