Suhaib Webb: Do We Need a Modern Tafsir?

Toward a Better Understanding of The Quran
By Reading Islam Staff

Imam Suhaib Webb
Imam Suhaib Webb

Tafsir is to understand.

Living in this country, unfortunately, we become addicted to presenting and reading classical texts.

Don’t get me wrong. Classical texts are important. But it’s impossible for those classical texts to address the problems of modern society, especially the particulars of modern society. They might address the universals of modern society to some degree, especially the particulars.

That’s why Sheikh Jamaludeen Zarabozo, may Allah reward him, told me something remarkable. He said: “I’m waiting for the day when someone in this society writes a tafsir for this society”. The day when someone writes a tafsir and talk about going to university, going to work everyday at Cisco, coming home and seeing Al-Jazeera on your TV.

Conditions for a Tafsir for this Society

So based on that, I’ll share with you what I think in my humble opinion are some of the conditions for the one who wants to make tafsir in this society. Because Al-Hamdulellah now in Al-Azhar Al-Sharif, which is a very great university, just in my own college, the College of Shari`ah, we have 6,000 Malaysians in one college. But in all of the Azhar we have less than 20 Americans. So in one college we have 6,000 Malaysians, but in the whole university we have only 20 Americans. Masha’Allah those American women and men whom I’m very proud of, they are excellent students, they are very good people and they are working hard.

But the question comes when you come back to the hood, how are we going to explain the Quran? Especially to a younger generation who is divorced from the relationship of the Sheikh (scholar) and Talib (student). In America we don’t have the relationship between the sheikh and the student, that you have in some places back there.

the Quran explains itself. So knowing those verses which explain other verses

So the first condition is that the Quran explains itself, that the one who wants to engage in tafsir (interpreting) of the Quran should look at the Quran first. The Quran explains itself.

For example, Allah Almighty says “What’s this Judgment Day”, then Allah Almighty tells us later in the Quran “On a day when no children or property will come to avail of any”, then later on in the Quran Allah Almighty makes it clear “Day of the Hereafter”, so the Quran explains itself. So knowing those verses which explain other verses.

Number two is knowing the Sunnah of the Prophet (peace be upon him). None of the scholars said that you have to memorize the Quran or memorize the Sunnah. Al-Shafi said memorizing the Sunnah is impossible. Nobody can memorize the Sunnah. There are too many hadiths of the Prophet (peace be upon him). But at least to have familiarity with the Sunnah, those ahadiths of the Prophet (peace be upon him) which explained verses of the Quran, or which his companions asked him a question and he answered them. The person should be familiar with those ahadiths of the Prophet (peace be upon him).

Number three, they should be familiar with the statements of the salaf (The companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and their students), so that they can choose if those people differed; if they agreed on something we should follow them, if they differed then the person has the right to choose from their statements. And that’s why the tafsir of Imam Al-Tabari is the best tafsir, as most scholars mentioned. And even Tafsir Ibn Kathir is actually a condensed version of Tafsir Al-Tabari. Because Imam Al-Tabari, may Allah have mercy on his soul, mentioned the verses of Quran, the statements of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and all of the statements of the salaf and most of the statements of the early generation, so you can see if they agreed on something it became a binding principle. If they differed on it and somebody is qualified, then they have the right to choose from their statements.

The next condition is that he should have knowledge of the Arabic language. He doesn’t have to be a great knowledgeable scholar of Arabic, as Al-Shatibi. But the person, he or she, should have enough knowledge of the Arabic language for them to be able to understand the meaning of the Quran and understand the meaning of those different tafasirs.

Number five, he should have a knowledge of Usul Al-Fiqh, and this is extremely important in Islam. For example, he will know the orders which have been abrogated. I remember once somebody came to me and said somebody in our community is making trouble. I said “over what?” When he told me I said does he  realize that the things that he was making a fuss over were orders that were abrogated by other verses of the Quran. So we have a principle in Usul Al-Fiqh that says “It’s forbidden to make a fatwa with something that is abrogated.” So here’s somebody going around to a community, not this community that I can assure you, and forcing his own opinion on people over something that was what? A verse that was abrogated by another verse of the Quran.

the person should have respect for the physical and social sciences

Also, they should know that every order in the Quran is conditioned, and they should know those conditions. For example, every single order in the Quran to do something is restricted by the statement of the Prophet (peace be upon him) “The pen is lifted for three types of people, the crazy, the insane person- may Allah protect us- until he becomes normal, the child until he becomes an adult and so on and so forth.” So this is an example of being restricted.

Next, and this is maybe where we differ from the classical opinions of scholars, is that the person should have respect for the physical and social sciences. And he should have an understanding, at least a basic understanding, of physical and social sciences especially in the areas of the Quran that are open for interpretation. And bear with me for a minute, I know you are expecting something else. But this is important also, because now we are talking about a methodology of teaching people.

Two Teaching Methodologies

In America now that we are faced with two methods which are saturating western Muslims: one is that we stay as those who lived 800 years ago, and all what we are going to use is the old classical text books. This is a possibility, and that's why you find the younger generation are slowly becoming secular because they can’t relate to those classical texts and classical discourses. If I’m to give the young brothers and sisters here for example the Mukhtasar of Imam Khalil in the madhhab of Imam Malik, believe me that you will need a GPS to understand what he said, may Allah have mercy on his soul, and this doesn’t mean that he is wrong. He addressed the realities of his age, and it’s the job of our scholars and students of knowledge to address the problems of this age with the talents that Allah gave them.

The other methodology is this methodology I’m referring to now, it's the methodology of what we believe now that Islam will live forever, it’s alive, breathing, addressing the problems of the Muslim community, offering guidance to them, protecting them from harm, bringing them benefit and spreading its goodness even to the non-Muslim people around them. I think if you think about it, you will be able to assess which one is more relevant to our situation here.

That’s why unfortunately, and I’m mentioning it again, we find in Muslim countries where people are clinging to these classical medieval articulation of Islam, a subliminal secularization of the Muslim community because people are becoming frustrated, because they want to live Islam in a modern context, but the scholars that are engaged are not speaking to them in a language that can empower them to do so.

That’s why Imam Ibn Malik, the great scholar of Arabic language Al-Tashil (facilitation), which is the opposite actually; it’s a very hard book, but in that book he was the greatest scholar of Arabic language. His student was Imam Al-Nawawi in language, and he said: “All the scholars who will come after us and their job is to add or change or fix what we did based on their situation”. The same thing was stated by Imam Ibn Khaldoun.

So what that means is that we respect the foundations of Islam. Nobody will touch the golden holy foundations of the deen (religion), but 95% of Islam is based on Ijtihad; the understandings of the scholars not al-wahy (revelation), so that 95% if somebody is qualified is open again for him especially in the social and physical sciences. I’ll give you one example; the Shafi school and the Maliki school and others, we say in the Malikis school “the water that was heated naturally by the sun is disliked." So we have a hadith by the Prophet (peace be upon him) that says: “Whoever uses this type of water, he will get leprosy”. This is also the statement of Umar.

The last condition is that the person should have a knowledge of the culture he lives in.

The hadith of the Prophet (peace be upon him) is weak, so it’s not acceptable to use it as proof, and this is the opinion of Umar, but is it the opinion of all the sahabah or just the opinion of Umar? So it’s acceptable in which position? Imam Nawawi in Al-Majmou of Imam Al-Shafi, Al-Hamdulellah I studied this book, and I’m not Hanafi except in Aqidah (creed), in his book Al-Majmou he said something remarkable. You know Imam Al-Nawawi, what was his hobby? His hobby wasn’t like me x-box or something. His hobby was medicine. He wanted to be a doctor actually. Can you imagine? This was like his side job, as his day job was faqih, muhadith, scholar, linguist, but his night job was reading medicine books and catching up, then he said I left it because I didn’t have time. What kind of person he must have been!

So Imam Al-Nawawi mentioned in this chapter about water that was heated by the sun, he said “I don’t accept the opinion that this is makrouh” (disliked), he said number one because the statement of the Prophet was weak, number two, Umar ibn Al-Khattab, may Allah be pleased with him, lived in his day but was not receiving revelation. Number three, he said because medical professionals in my day have told me that this is not correct. So this is Imam Al-Nawawi, may Allah have mercy on his soul, and he uses physical sciences and social sciences in other places to understand the verses of the Quran which are open for interpretation, and the hadiths of the Prophet (peace be upon him) which are open for interpretations and shaded by sciences.

The last condition is that the person should have a knowledge of the culture he lives in. I’ll say something to you that may shock you: Abu Yusuf, the great student of Abu Hanifah, he said “to such an extent that we should look at the verses of the Quran which are based on the culture of the Arabs, and if it’s clear that those verses are not universal in their orders and prohibitions, but that those verses are based on urf (customs and traditions) we have the ability to reinterpret them according to the urf we live in and the culture we live in”. This was the saying of Abu Yusuf, the great scholar.

The Malikis would say “the Culture of the people is like a legal text,” in certain situations. If somebody doesn’t understand the climate and the culture he lives in, Imam Al-Qarafi said he should not make fatwa. In fact he said, may Allah have mercy on his soul, in Al-Ihkam, which is a book of fatwa, “whoever makes a fatwa and he doesn’t understand the customs of the people, and he forces on them to follow what he finds in the classical texts without taking into consideration the culture of those people, he said, he is a criminal, and his law license should be suspended”. This is a statement of Al-Qarafi.

These are some of the important points I think we had to mention when we talk about tafsir (interpreting) Quran in the modern age, especially in this age that the one who lives in America if he is giving tafsir Al-Quran he should keep into consideration.

We are not dealing with a community. How many of you brothers and sisters have advanced degrees from western universities? So classical Islam that was largely in agricultural society of people who were completely illiterate, they couldn’t read and they couldn’t write, as the Prophet (peace be upon him) said, we are an illiterate Ummah, but now the scholar, the Sheikh and the Imam is dealing with people who have degrees in advanced mathematics, advanced social sciences and physical sciences. Al-Hamdulellah illiteracy has been wiped up in many places of the world, unfortunately except in many Muslim countries. So now the scholar has to take into consideration that the people he is speaking to are highly intelligent and he should respect that.

May Allah Almighty give us the knowledge that will benefit us in the Hereafter, and may Allah Almighty strengthen our iman (faith) with Quran.

Watch Imam Suhaib Webb's Talk

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