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

By Prof Hamid Naseem Rafiabadi

February 7, 2021

Early Development

During the lifetime of the Prophet (SAW), his companions used to ask him questions relating to the interpretation of the Qur'an and the different aspects of the injunctions contained in it. The prophet (SAW) used to explain to them the revelation. The authority to explain was granted to the Prophet(SAW) by Allah (SWT) Himself as laid down in the Qur'an, "We have sent down unto thee (also) the Message; that thou mayest explain clearly to men what is sent for them, and that they may give thought" (16:44). Therefore, Muslim scholars state that the things said by the Prophet (SAW) in explanation or to which he gave silent approval was committed to memory by the companions. Being men of great learning many of them had not only memorised the Qur'an but also had full knowledge of when, where and why verses of the Qur'an were revealed.


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


There are numerous examples of explanation of the Qur'an by the Prophet (SAW), who either himself asked the Angel Gabriel for explanation of matters not clear to him, or who was asked by the Companions about the Qur'an. Suyuti has given a long list of explanations of the Qur'an by the Prophet (SAW) surah by surah. Here one example may suffice: And eat and drink until the white thread of dawn appears to you distinct from its black thread. . . [Q2:187].Narrated 'Adi b. Hatim: I said: 'O God's Apostle! What is the meaning of the white thread distinct from the black thread? Are these two threads?' He said: 'You are not intelligent, if you watch the two threads'. He then added, 'No, it is the darkness of the night and the whiteness of the day'.

Next, after explanation of the Qur'an by the Prophet (SAW) himself, ranks the explanation of the Qur'an by the Sahabah. After the death the Prophet (SAW), the companions taught others the Qur'an and its interpretation. Scholars recognise that the pious Caliphs (Khulafa Rashidun), the rightly guided, were Mufassirin of the Qur’an. AS we know, the following were best known for their knowledge of and contribution to the field of Tafsir: Abu Bakr (RA), ‘Umar (RA), ‘Uthman (RA) Ali (RA), 'All, although much has been reported from them regarding Tafsir. Apart from the pious Caliphs (RA) ,the names of Ibn Mas'ud(RA) , Ibn 'Abbas(RA) , 'UbayIbnKa'b(RA), Zayd Ibn Thabit(RA) , Abu Musa al-Ash'ari (RA), 'Abdullah Ibn Zubair (RA) are very important. Thus from the Prophet's time the following were the recognised scholars of the Qur'anic Tafsir:

Abdullah Ibn Abbas (RA) (d. 687),  Abdullah Ibn Mas'ud (RA) (d. 653), Ubayy Ibn Ka'b (RA) (d. 640 AD), Zayd Ibn Thabit (RA) (d. 665), Abu Musa al-Ashari (RA) (d. 664) and Abdullah Ibn Zubayr (RA) (d. 692). It is generally stated that in the subsequent period after Prophet Muhammad (SAW), three schools were established to explain the Qur'an: The Meccan School led by Abdullah Ibn Abbas (RA), the Madinan School led by Ubayy Ibn Ka'b (RA) and the Iraqi school led by Abdullah IbnMas’ud (RA). It is believed that within a half century after Prophet Muhammad's (SAW) death three main schools of Qur'anic Tafsir had developed in Makkah, Madinah and Iraq.

The Makkan group is said to have been taught by Ibn Abbas (RA). The best known of the group among learners are Mujahid (d.722), Ata (d. 732) and Ikrimah (d. 729). Among all the Companions of the Prophet (SAW), Abdullah Ibn 'Abbas (RA) (d. 68/687) is considered to be the most knowledgeable in Tafsir. He has been called 'Tarjuman al-Qur’an', the interpreter of the Qur'an. He was very close to the Prophet (SAW), as he was the cousin of the Prophet (SAW), and his maternal aunt Maimuna (AS) was one of the Prophet's wives.

Thus Ibn Abbas (RA) learnt much about the revelation. It is said that he saw the Angel Gabriel twice. Apart from his detailed knowledge of everything concerning Tafsir, he is also given the credit for having emphasized one of the basic principles of 'ilm al-Tafsir which has remained important to this day, namely, that the meaning of words, especially of unusual words in the Qur'an ought to be traced back to their usage in the language of pre-Islamic poetry. While Abdullah Ibn Abbas (RA) who is reputed to be the first exegete in the history of Islam, in the light of the traditions it would seem that Abdullah Ibn Mas'ud (RA) had also the reputation in teaching the Qur'an.

The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) recognised the efforts of Abdullah Ibn Masud’s (RA) learning of the Qur'an, so much so that he recommended others to learn from him. Ali Ibn Abi Talib (RA) said about his scholarship, "He knows the Qur'an and the Sunnah and his knowledge is the best."Many of the companions of the Prophet taught the Qur'an and its exegesis to the next generation of Muslims, Tabi’in. The conversion of many people from different faiths and walks of life made it imperative that the Tabi’in should not only treasure the existing information but also build on it a body of learning known as Ulum al-Qur'an.

The Madinan group had the best known teachers such as Ubay b. Ka’b (RA). This group had some well known Muffasirin for example; Muhammad b. Kab al-Qarzi (d. 735), Abul AlliyaalRiyahi (d. 708) and Zaid b. Aslam (d. 747).The Iraqi group who followed IbnMasud (RA) had centres in Basra and Kufa. The best known among the teachers in tafsir were Al-HasanalBasri (d. 738), Masruq (d. 682) and Ibrahim al-Nakhai (d. 713). There are many more persons from among the Tabi’in known for their preoccupation with Tafsir, because many more people had embraced Islam and the need for knowledge about the Qur'an had increased manifold. Also, the Prophet himself and many of his Companions were no longer available to give this guidance, and therefore greater efforts had to be made to satisfy this need for proper understanding of the book of Allah.

According to many scholars, this group of mufassirun from among the tabi’un are the most knowledgeable in Tafsir, because they learnt about it from 'Abdullah b. 'Abbas (RA). They are many in number, and among the best known out of many others are Mujahid (d.104/722), 'Ata'

(d.114/732) and 'Ikrima (d.107H). Mujahid, the best known among them, is reported to have gone through the Qur'an thrice with Ibn 'Abbas (RA) and to have asked him about the 'when' and 'how' of each verse that had been revealed.

The mufassirun among the tabi’un from Madinah had many Companions as their teachers, among the best known being 'Ubay b. Ka'b (RA). The following are some of the well known Qur'an exegetes among them: Muhammad b. Ka'b al-Qarzi (d.117/735), Abu al-'Alliya al-Riyahi (d.90/708) and Zayd b. Aslam (d.130/747).

There were also many Mufassirun among the tabi’un in Iraq. Their principal teacher was IbnMas'ud (RA). Their main centers were Basra and Kufa. The best known among them are: Al-Hasan al-Basri (d.121/738), Masruq b. al-'Ajda' (d.63/682) and Ibrahim al-Nakha'i.(D.95/713).

The methodology adopted by the early commentators was based more on transmission, Riwayat. Numerous books have been written by Muslim scholars on the subject of tafsir. The oldest text available is attributed to Ibn 'Abbas (RA) (d.68/687) although some doubt its authenticity. Other old books of Tafsir, still available to us, include the works of Zayd Ibn 'Ali (d.122/740) and Mujahid, the famous tabi`i (d.104/722).However it is generally accepted that the magnum opus among the early books of Tafsir, which have come down to us is the Tafsir al-Tabari.

This book was written by IbnJarir al-Tabari (d-310/922) under the title jami al-bayan fiTafsir al-Qur’an. It belongs to the most famous books in Tafsir and is perhaps the most voluminous work we have on the subject. It belongs to the class of Tafsir bi al-riwayah and is based on the reports from the Prophet (SAW), the sahabah and the tabi’un, giving the various chains of transmission and evaluating them. However, it also contains reports that are not sound, without clearly indicating this, including so-called isra'iliyat. Tabari also says in some places that one cannot know about certain things and that not to know about them does not do any harm. In spite of all this the book is nevertheless one of the most important works in Tafsir referred to by almost every subsequent scholar. It has been printed twice in Egypt (in 1903 and 1911) in 30 volumes, while a third edition begun in 1954 has reached volume 15. Tafsir al Tha'alabi: by Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Tha'alabi al-Nisaburi (d.383/993) under the title Al-Kashf wa-al-bayan `an Tafsir al-Qur’an with some Sanad and some unsound tales and stories. Tafsir al-Baghawl: by Hasan Ibn Mas'ud al-Baghawi (d.510/1116) under the title Ma'alim Al-Tanzil being an abridgement of Tha`alabi with its weaknesses but with more emphasis on soundness of hadith.

In the period following the above, others like al-Suddi (d. 745) and Sulayman (d. 767) came forward in this field and some of their work survives in the collections of Hadith and recent versions attributed to them. A complete book of tafsir by Mujahid (d. 935) is available which is based on a manuscript from the 13th century AD. However the oldest work of Tafsir extant today is of Al-Tabari (d. 922 AD).

(To be continued...)


Prof Hamid Naseem Rafiabadi is Head, Department of Religious Studies, 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 – II

Source: The Rising Kashmir


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