The history of Quranic Tafsir
Tafsir is the science of explaining and interpreting the Quran, the sacred scripture of Islam. Tafsir aims to provide a clear understanding and conviction of Allah’s will as revealed in the Quranic verses. Tafsir has a long and rich history that spans over 14 centuries of Islamic civilization.
When did the Tafsir start?
The origins of Tafsir can be traced back to the time of Prophet Muhammad (S), who was the foremost interpreter of the Quran. He recited the verses to the people and provided explanations regarding their meanings, contexts, implications, and applications. He also addressed any ambiguities, contradictions, or difficulties present in the Quranic text. His explanations were derived from divine guidance and his extensive knowledge of the Arabic language and culture.
While some scholars, such as ibn Taymiyyah, claim that Muhammad (PBUH) commented on the entire Quran, others, like Ghazali, argue that his commentary is limited to certain portions, citing the scarcity of narratives (hadith) on certain verses. This indicates that the Prophet’s commentary covers only a portion of the Quran..
Tafsir at the time of the Sahabah
After the death of Prophet Muhammad (S), his companions (Sahabah) undertook the task of Tafsir, drawing upon his teachings and traditions (hadith) as their primary source of guidance. They also utilized their own linguistic, juristic, and theological expertise to expound upon the Quranic verses. Among them, Abdullah ibn Abbas, who was a student of Imam Ali (AS), was considered one of the foremost experts in Tafsir and wrote the earliest recorded Tafsir of the Quran.
During this period, Tafsir was selective and concise in its coverage, focusing on certain words, phrases, and verses for explanation. The Quran had not yet been fully interpreted, and commentaries were not yet separate from the collections of hadith, primarily due to other pressing occupations such as the compilation of the Quran. Some of the notable commentators from this time include Ali ibn Abi Talib (AS), Abi bin Ka’b, Abdullah bin Masoud, Jabir bin Abdullah, and others.
Tafsir at the time of Tabi’in
During the era following the Sahabah, scholars in the generation of the Tabi’in began utilizing a diverse range of sources for Tafsir. The entire Quran was interpreted, and narrations were separated from Tafsir into distinct books and literature. These books contained grammatical explanations, historical data, and recorded personal opinions, whether accepted or rejected. This period witnessed the emergence of various schools of Tafsir in different centers of scholarship, including Mecca, Medina, and Iraq. The Iraqi schools of Tafsir, in particular, employed a methodology that incorporated personal judgment alongside transmitted reports, and they also made use of Jewish apocryphal reports. Notable compilers during this period include Sufyan al-Thawri.
Up until this point, Tafsir had been transmitted orally and had not been independently collected in book form. Instead, it had been compiled by scholars of hadith in their hadith collections under the topic of Tafsir, alongside other narrations of Prophet Muhammad (S). This indicates that Tafsir, during its early stages, was considered a specialized domain within the field of hadith. The expansion of the scope of Tafsir and the emergence of mufassirun (interpreters) in the era of the successors led to the development of an independent discipline of Tafsir. Some of the noteworthy commentators from this period include Mujahid, Saeed bin Jubeer, Yahya bin Yamar, and others.
Types of Tafsir
As Islam expanded to different regions and cultures, Tafsir developed into various schools and methods, reflecting the diversity and dynamism of Muslim thought. Some of the main categories of Tafsir are:
- Tafsir bi-al-ma’thur (Tafsir based on transmitted sources): This type of Tafsir relies on the reports and narrations from Prophet Muhammad (S) and his companions, as well as their successors (tabi’un) and other authoritative figures in Islamic history. This type of Tafsir is considered to be the most authentic and reliable, as it preserves the original understanding of the Quran. Some important interpretations of Shia in this category include Tafsir Ali Ibn Ibrahim Qomi and Tafsir Ayashi.
- Tafsir bi-al-ra’y (Tafsir based on opinion): This type of Tafsir uses rational reasoning, personal reflection, or independent analysis to interpret the Quran. It may also incorporate other sources of knowledge, such as philosophy, science, history, or literature. This type of Tafsir is more flexible and creative, but also more prone to errors or deviations.
- Tafsir al-ta’wil (Tafsir based on allegorical interpretation): This type of Tafsir seeks to uncover the hidden or esoteric meanings of the Quranic verses, going beyond their apparent or literal meanings. Symbolic language, metaphors, parables, and mystical insights may be used to reveal deeper truths or secrets of the Quran.
The first person widely recognized as having written a Tafsir (exegesis) of the Quran from a Shia perspective is Ali ibn Ibrahim al-Qummi, commonly known as Al-Qummi. He lived in the 10th century CE and is considered one of the prominent early Shia scholars. Al-Qummi’s Tafsir, titled “Tafsir al-Qummi,” is a comprehensive work that provides explanations and interpretations of the Quranic verses from a Shia perspective. It covers various aspects, including theological, legal, and historical dimensions. Al-Qummi’s Tafsir incorporates narrations from the Prophet Muhammad (S) and the Ahl al-Bayt (the family and descendants of the Prophet) to provide insights into the deeper meanings of the Quranic text.
On the other hand, the first person widely recognized as having written a Tafsir (exegesis) of the Quran from a Sunni perspective is Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari (838–923), who wrote Tafsir al-Tabari. Tafsir al-Tabari is a significant work in Sunni Islam and provides exegetical material for the entire Quran. However, it is important to note that Tafsir al-Tabari also contains conflicting information, which Tabari attempts to reconcile or argue in support of the interpretation he deems more correct.
It’s important to acknowledge that Shia scholars have also made significant contributions to the field of Quranic exegesis throughout history. There are several other notable Tafsirs from Shia perspectives, including “Tafsir al-Mizan” by Allamah Muhammad Husayn Tabatabai and “Tafsir al-Burhan” by Sayyid Hashim al-Bahrani. These Tafsirs, among others, continue to be influential works in the Shia scholarly tradition.
Best Tafsirs of Shia
Determining the “best” Tafsir in Shia Islam is subjective and can vary depending on individual preferences and scholarly traditions. However, there are a few Tafsirs that are highly regarded and widely studied within the Shia community. Let me mention a few of them:
- Tafsir al-Mizan: Authored by Allamah Muhammad Husayn Tabatabai (1903-1981), this Tafsir is considered one of the most comprehensive and influential works in Shia exegesis. It combines traditional methods of interpretation with philosophical and mystical insights. Tafsir al-Mizan delves into the linguistic, theological, and ethical dimensions of the Quranic verses, providing a holistic understanding of the text.
- Tafsir al-Burhan: Written by Sayyid Hashim al-Bahrani (1698-1772), this Tafsir is known for its meticulous analysis and extensive references to hadiths and narrations from the Ahl al-Bayt. Tafsir al-Burhan covers various aspects of the Quran, including legal, theological, and ethical discussions.
- Tafsir al-Qummi: Authored by Ali ibn Ibrahim al-Qummi, as mentioned earlier, this Tafsir is one of the earliest and foundational works in Shia exegesis. It provides insights into the Quranic verses from a Shia perspective and incorporates narrations from the Prophet Muhammad(S) and the Ahl al-Bayt.
These Tafsirs, among others, have made significant contributions to the field of Quranic exegesis in the Shia tradition. It is important to consult multiple Tafsirs and engage with scholarly discussions to gain a comprehensive understanding of the Quranic text from a Shia perspective.
Best Tafsirs of Sunni
While there are numerous Tafsir works available, some are widely regarded as the best among Sunni scholars such as:
- Tafsir Ibn Kathir:
Authored by the renowned Islamic scholar Ibn Kathir (1300-1373 CE), Tafsir Ibn Kathir is considered one of the most authoritative and widely read Tafsir works in Sunni Islam. Ibn Kathir was a prolific scholar who dedicated his life to the study of Islamic sciences, including Hadith, Fiqh, and Tafsir. His Tafsir is highly regarded for its meticulous analysis, scholarly rigor, and adherence to authentic sources.
- Tafsir al-Tabari:
Tafsir al-Tabari, authored by the famous Islamic scholar Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari (839-923 CE), is one of the oldest and most influential Tafsir works. It is known for its meticulous analysis of the Quranic text, incorporating linguistic, historical, and legal perspectives. Al-Tabari’s Tafsir is highly regarded for its extensive use of Hadith and its focus on the context and circumstances of revelation.
- Tafsir al-Jalalayn:
Tafsir al-Jalalayn is a renowned Tafsir work authored by two prominent scholars, Jalaluddin al-Mahalli (1389-1459 CE) and his student Jalaluddin al-Suyuti (1445-1505 CE). This Tafsir is highly regarded for its concise yet comprehensive explanations of the Quranic verses. It provides a balanced view by incorporating various interpretations from early scholars, making it accessible to readers of different backgrounds.
In conclusion, the history of Tafsir in both Shia and Sunni Islam reveals a rich and diverse tradition of interpreting the Quranic text. While there are similarities in their dedication to understanding and interpreting the Quran, there are also notable differences in their approach and methodologies. Both Sunni and Shia Tafsir have been enriched by the contributions of prominent scholars throughout history, offering profound insights into the deeper meanings of Quranic verses and exploring theological, philosophical, and mystical dimensions.
Due to the importance of this topic, DarulQuran Academy offers a training course specifically focused on Quranic exegesis (Tafsir). This course examines and analyzes various issues encountered by human beings in life from the perspective of the Quran. Topics covered include the stages of the creation of man, equality between men and women, the duty of individuals towards their parents, charity and Zakat, and more.
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