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The History of Tafsir

Understanding the Quran and Its Sciences
By Yasir Qadhi
American Muslim Writer
tafsir-al-quran
After the death of the Prophet, the science of tafsir took on a more systematic approach.

It is no surprise to discover that the science of tafsir (interpretation of the Quran) started during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad himself.

In fact, one of the primary roles of the Prophet, as shall be expounded on later, was to interpret the Quran.

God says:

{And We have sent down to you (O Muhammad (SAW) the Remembrance, so that you may clearly explain to mankind what has been revealed to them, and so that they may give thought} (An-Nahl 16: 44)

Tafsir in the Time of Prophet Muhammad

The science of tafsir during the Prophet's life was a relatively easy matter. This was so for a number of factors. Firstly, the companions were witnessing the revelation of the Quran, and the circumstances during which it was revealed. They were aware of the reasons behind the revelation of a verse, and as such did not need to search for this knowledge as later interpreters would have to.

Secondly, the Arabic of the companions was the Arabic of the Quran, as the Quran was revealed in their dialect. Therefore the Arabic of the Quran was, in general, understood by them without any difficulties.

Lastly, and most importantly, the Prophet was alive, and the Quran was still being revealed, so even if there were any difficulties in understanding any verse, they could turn to the Prophet for an explanation. An example quoted earlier is with regards to the verse: {Those who believe and do not mix their belief with injustice…} (Al-An’am 6: 82)

The companions asked: O Messenger of Allah! Who amongst us does not do injustice (to his soul)?" The Prophet replied, "Have you not read the statement of Luqman, {Verily, shirk is a great injustice?} (Al-Bukhari)

In other words, the Prophet informed them that the injustice referred to in this verse was shirk, or the association of partners with God.

The companions were careful that they understood every single verse in the Quran properly. Abu 'Abdu-Rahman as-Sulami (d. 75 A.H.) reported that whenever the people who taught them the Quran, like Uthman ibn 'Affan, 'Abdullah ibn Mas'ud, and others, learnt ten verses of the Quran, they would not proceed further until they had understood whatever ideas and regulations those verses contained. They used to say: "We learnt the Quran, and studied its ideas and injunctions all together.” This narration shows that the companions were eager to understand the Quran, so much so that they would not memorize any verses until they had already understood what they knew.

The Period of the Companions

The most knowledgeable companion with regards to the interpretation of the Quran is considered to be Ibn 'Abbas.

After the death of the Prophet, the science of tafsir took on a more systematic approach. Thus it can be considered that the first true interpreters were actually the companions. The sources that the companions used for tafsir were the Quran, the statements of the Prophet, the principles of Arabic grammar and rhetoric, their own personal reasoning (ijtihad), and pagan and Judeo-Christian customs that were prevalent at the time of the revelation of the Quran. These sources will be discussed in greater detail in the following section.

There were many among the companions who were well known for their knowledge of the interpretation of the Quran. As-Suyuti wrote: "There are ten who were famous for their knowledge of tafsir among the companions: the four Khulafa’ ar-Rashidun (the right guided Caliphs), 'Abdullah ibn Mas'ud, 'Abdullah ibn 'Abbas, Ubay ibn Ka'ab, Zayd ibn Thabit, Abu Musa Al-Ash'ari and 'Abdullah ibn Zubayr. As for the Caliphs, 'Ali ibn Abi Talib has the most narrations amongst them; as for the other three, there reports are very rare to find, since they died relatively earlier..." (Tafsir al Jalalayn, 239)

In other words, the tafsir narrations of Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman are not as common due to the fact that they were not compiled because of their relatively early deaths. Also, during their time, there was no great need to interpret much of the Quran, as the companions were many and wide-spread. During later times, however, such as during the Caliphate of 'Ali, the need to interpret the Quran was much greater than before.

There were others besides these ten companions who were well known for their knowledge of tafsir, such as Anas ibn Malik, Abu Hurairah, Jabir ibn 'Abdullah and Aisha, except that they were not in the same category as the ten whom As-Suyuti mentioned.

The most knowledgeable companion with regards to the interpretation of the Quran is considered to be Ibn 'Abbas. 'Abdullah ibn Umar said: "Ibn 'Abbas is the most knowledgeable of this ummah concerning the revelation given to Prophet Muhammad." (Al-Tafsir, 72)

This is due to the fact that the Prophet himself prayed for Ibn 'Abbas, he said:

"O Allah! Give him the knowledge of the Book, and of Wisdom." (Ahmad)

In another narration, he said:

"O Allah! Give him the knowledge of the religion, and interpretation." (Al-Bukhari)

Ibn Abbas used to accompany the Prophet during his youth, as he was his cousin. Also, his aunt Maymunah was a wife of Prophet Muhammad.

Ibn 'Abbas was held in great esteem by the companions, despite his age (he was only thirteen when the Prophet passed away). Umar used to let Ibn 'Abbas enter into the meetings of the older companions, so some of them complained: "Why is it that you let him enter, even though we have sons the same age as him (whom you do not allow to enter)?" Umar answered: "Since he is amongst the most knowledgeable of you!" So he called them one day, to prove to them this statement, and he asked them, "What do you think of the verse: {When the help of Allah comes, and the Conquest)} (An-Nasr 110: 1)

Some of them did not reply, while others said: "We have been commanded to thank Allah and ask for His forgiveness whenever we are helped and aided to victory." Umar asked Ibn 'Abbas: "And do you think the same also, O Ibn 'Abbas?" He answered: "No!" Umar asked: "Then what do you say." He replied: "This is an indication to the Prophet from Allah that his life is about to end. The verse means, "When the help of Allah comes, and the Conquest' then this is a sign of your approaching death, therefore: {Glorify the Praises of your Lord, and ask for Forgiveness, for verily He is ever-accepting repentance!)} (An-Nasr 110: 3)

Umar said: "I don't know any other meaning to this except what you have said!" (Al-Bukhari)

The narrations of Ibn 'Abbas, along with those of Abdullah ibn Mas'ud, 'Ali ibn Abi Talib, and Ubay ibn Ka'ab, are the most numerous narrations from companions that are to be found in tafsir literature. Each one of them established centers of learning during their lifetimes, and left many students among the Successors after their deaths.

After the generation of the companions, the students of the companions took over the responsibility of explaining the Quran.

The companions did not leave narrations concerning every single verse in the Quran. This is because the people of their time understood much of what the Quran discussed, and only where the possibility for misinterpretation or ignorance existed did the companions give their own interpretation of the relevant verse. Such interpretation typically consisted of explaining a verse in clearer words, or explaining a particular phrase or word with pre-Islamic poetry. Another characteristic of this time is the relatively trivial differences in tafsir, as compared to later generations.

The Period of the Successors

After the generation of the companions, the students of the companions took over the responsibility of explaining the Quran. The Successors used the same sources to interpret the Quran that the companions did, except that they added to the list of sources the interpretations of the companions. They understood that an interpretation given by the companions of the Prophet could not be compared to an interpretation of any person after them. Therefore, the sources for interpreting the Quran during this generation were: the Quran, the statements of the Prophet that the companions had informed them of, the companions' personal reasoning (ijtihad) of the verse, the Arabic language, their own personal reasoning (ijtihad), and Judeo-Christian tradition.

After the death of the Prophet, the companions spread out to different Muslim cities in order to teach people the religion of Islam. Each one taught many Successors, most of whom became scholars in their own right in due time.

Historically, three primary learning centers were established in the Muslim empire: Makkah, Madinah and Kufah. Each of these areas became leading centers of knowledge during the period of the Successors, including the knowledge of tafsir.

In Makkah, where Ibn 'Abbas had taught, his primary students became the scholars of this area. In particular, Sa'id ibn Jubayr (d. 95 A.H.), Mujahid ibn Jabr (d. 104 A.H.), 'Ikrimah (d. 104 A.H.), Tawus (d. 106A.H.), and 'Ata’ ibn Rabah (d. 114 A.H.) became leading authorities in this field, and their names are still to be found in many works of tafsir.

In Madinah, the influence of 'Ubay ibn Ka'ab was the strongest in the arena of tafsir, and his students Abu al-'Aliyah (d. 90 A.H.), Muhammad ibn Ka'ab al-Quradi (d. 118 A.H.) and Zayd ibn Aslam (d. 136 A.H.) emerged as the scholars of tafsir in Madinah during this period.

In Kufah, 'Abdullah ibn Mas'ud left behind his great legacy to 'Alqamah ibn Qays (d. 61 A.H.), Masruq ibn ajda’ (d. 63, A.H.), and al Aswad ibn Yazid (d. 74 A.H.). Other Successors from Kufah who were famous for their knowledge of tafsir were: 'Amir ash-Sha'bi (d. 109 A.H.), al-Hasan al-Basri (d. 110 A.H.) and Qatadah as-Sadusi (d. 117 A.H.)

During this period, greater emphasis was placed on Judeo-Christian tradition (known as Israeliyat), and because of this, many of these narrations entered into Islamic literature. Most of the people who narrated these traditions were Jews and Christians who had embraced Islam, such as 'Abdullah ibn Salam (he was a companion, d. 43 A.H.), Ka'ab al-Ahbar (he embraced Islam after the death of the Prophet and did not see him; he died 32 A.H.), Wahb ibn Munabbih (d. 110 A.H.), and 'Abdul Malik ibn Jurayj (d. 150 A.H.). Much of the Judeo-Christian traditions prevalent in tafsir literature can be traced back to these scholars.

Also during this time, the differences in interpreting the Quran were much greater than during the time of the companions. Another characteristic of this period is the increase of forged narrations attributed to the Prophet. This was due to the political and religious strife that was rampant throughout the Muslim territories at that time. Lastly, the quantity of verses for which narrations exist from the Successors is greater than that for the companions, since more verses needed explanation than during the time of the companions.

The Compilation of Tafsir (Interpretation)

The next stage in the history of tafsir saw the separation of tafsir literature from Hadith

After the period of the Successors, the stage of the actual compilation and writing of tafsir began. The most important works were by scholars of Hadith, who, as part of their narrations and works of Hadith, also had sections on tafsir. Therefore, during this stage, the narrations of tafsir were considered a branch of Hadith literature. Some of the scholars of this period that were known for their tafsir narrations include Yazid ibn Haroon as-Sulami (d. 117 A.H.), Sufyan al-Thawri (d. 161 A.H.), Sufyan ibn 'Uyaynah (d. 198 A.H.), Wakie' ibn al-Jarah (d. 197 A.H.), Shu'bah ibn al-Hajjaj (d. 160 A.H.), Adam ibn Abi Iyas (d. 220 A.H.), and 'Abd ibn Humayd (d. 249 A.H.). None of their works have survived intact until the present day. (152)

The next stage in the history of tafsir saw the separation of tafsir literature from Hadith, and the emergence of independent works solely on tafsir. Another stride during this stage was that every verse was discussed, so that tafsir was not only limited to those verses for which narrations from the Prophet and companions existed; rather, these tafsirs encompassed all the verses in the Quran.

In attempting to answer who the first person to write a comprehensive tafsir of the Quran was the researcher is faced with a rather significant impediment: a lack of almost all manuscripts written during the first century of the hijrah. However, there are a number of references in later works to such manuscripts, and among the earliest works referenced is that of Sa'id ibn Jubayr (d. 95 A.H.). (155)

Most likely, this work was not a complete tafsir of the Quran, but rather composed of narrations from the previous generations. An interesting narration in the Fihrist of Ibn Nadim (d. 438 A.H.) reads as follows:

Umar ibn Bukayr, one of the students of al-Farra’, was with the governor Hasan ibn Sahl. He wrote to al-Farra’: The governor sometimes questions me concerning (the tafsir of) a verse in the Quran, but I am unable to respond to him. Therefore, if you think it suitable to compile something with regards to the Quran, or write a book concerning this, I can return to this book (whenever he asks me)'. Al-Farra’ said to his students, 'Gather together so that I may dictate to you a book on the Quran'...and he told the muadhin to recite Surah al-Fatihah, so that he may interpret it, until the whole book (i.e., the Quran) was finished. The narrator of the story, Abu al-'Abbas, said, 'No one before him ever did anything like it, and I don't think that anyone can add to what he wrote!' (The Fihrist, 154)

Al-Farra’ died in the year 207 A.H., and thus we can say that this is definitely one of the earliest works of this nature. Ibn Majah (d. 273), of Sunan fame, also wrote a tafsir of the Quran, but again this was limited to narrations from the previous generations.

One of the greatest classics available is without a doubt the monumental tafsir of the Quran by Muhammad ibn Jarir at-Tabari (d. 310A.H.). This tafsir, although heavily based on narrations, also discusses the grammatical analysis of the verse, the various recitations and their significance on the meaning of the verse, and, on occasion, Ibn Jarir's personal reasoning (ijtihad) on various aspects of the verse. In many ways, this can be considered to be the first tafsir to attempt to cover every aspect of a verse. Other tafsirs followed quickly; in particular the tafsirs of Abu Bakr ibn Mundhir an-Naisapuri (d. 318 A.H.), Ibn Abi Hatim (d. 327 A.H.), Abu Shaykh ibn Hibban (d. 369 A.H.), Al-Hakim (d. 405 A.H.) and Abu Bakr ibn Mardawayh (d. 410).

To summarize, it is possible to divide the history of tafsir into five periods.

This era also saw the beginning of the specialization in tafsir, with tafsirs being written, for example, with greater emphasis on the grammatical analysis and interpretation of the Quran. Greater emphasis was also placed on personal reasoning (ijtihad), and tafsirs written solely for the defense of sectarian views (such as the tafsirs of the Mu'tazilah), and even for the defense of one's fiqh madh-hab (such as the tafsirs of the Hanafis, Shafi'is and Malikis) appeared. Another aspect that started during this era was the deletion of the isnad from tafsir narrations, and this led to the increase of weak and fabricated reports in tafsir literature.

 Summary

To summarize, it is possible to divide the history of tafsir into five periods. The first period is considered to be the time of the companions and Successors, and consisted mainly of narrations concerning those verses over which there was a difference of opinion or misunderstanding, in addition to the Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad dealing with tafsir. Personal reasoning (ijtihad) from the companions and Successors was, in general, only resorted to when absolutely necessary.

The second period is the era of the late Successors, and the generation after them. During this time, Hadith literature had begun to be compiled, and tafsir narrations therefore become a part of Hadith works. Also during this time, the various Hadith of the Prophet and narrations from different companions began to be compiled, whereas in the first period, these narrations were typically limited to a specific area.

The third stage saw the rise of independent tafsir works, based on the Hadith works of the previous generation, and thus tafsir became an independent science among the Islamic sciences. This stage, which can be said to begin in the second half of the third century, also produced the first complete Quranic tafsirs, whose commentary was not limited to only those verses concerning which narrations existed from previous generations. However, during this stage, the primary source of tafsir still remained narrations from the previous generation.

It was only during the fourth stage where reliance on narrations decreased, and much greater emphasis was placed on personal reasoning, and tafsirs were written based on sectarian bias. For example, As-Suyuti narrates concerning the verse: “{...Not the path of those whom You are angry with, nor those who are astray} (1: 7) that there exist ten different opinions concerning who this verse refers to, despite the fact that the Prophet has clearly explained that it refers to the Jews and Christians! (190)

This period also witnessed the increase of forged narrations in tafsir literature, as the isnad disappeared from tafsir works. (225)

The final period of the history of tafsir, which has lasted from the fourth century of the hijrah until today, saw the culmination of the science of tafsir, and the emergence of various categories of tafsir, such as tafsir based on narrations, on personal reasoning, topic-wise interpretation, polemical interpretation, and jurisprudential interpretation. Other tafsirs sought to combine all of these topics into one work, thus giving a broad, all-encompassing approach to interpretation.

 

Works Cited:

Al-Dhahabi, Muhammad Hussein. Al-Tafsir wal-Mufassirun. vol.1. Cairo: Maktabat Wahbah, 1989

As-Suyuti, Jalalu-d-Din. Tafsir al jalalayn. Trans. Feras Hamza. US: Fons Vitea Publishing, 2008

Ibn al-Nadim, Abu ‘l-Faraj Muhammad. The Fihrist: A 10th Century AD Survey of Islamic Culture. ed. and translated by Bayard Dodge. Chicago: Kazi Publications, 1998

Source: An Introduction to the Sciences of the Quran, by Sheikh Yasir Qadhi, Islamic Network - http://www.islaam.net
Related Links:
Ways for New Muslims to Find Inner Peace
The Quranic Verse of the Throne
The Wise Leader: Perfect Plans to Madinah
Tips for New Muslims on How to Read the Quran
The Quran in Focus (Folder)

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