Qurʾān: Tradition of Scholarship and Interpretation
QURʾĀN: TRADITION OF SCHOLARSHIP AND INTERPRETATION
The Qurʾān is, for Muslims, the revealed word of God. Hence, the interpretation of the Qurʾān (tafsīr ) has emerged as one of the most revered disciplines in Islam. Given that the life of the early Muslims revolved around the Qurʾān from the beginning, one of their earliest concerns was to understand the message of the sacred text. The Prophet Muḥammad (d. 632) and his immediate followers (known as the companions ) used the Qurʾān for day-to-day guidance, prayer, and spiritual enrichment, and for liturgical and congregational use. Although interpretation of the Qurʾān as a discipline developed over time, Muslims engaged with it from the beginning in less formal ways: reflecting on it, reciting it, discussing it, and attempting to explain it to each other. It was such activities that gradually led to the development of the exegetical tradition in Islam.
The standard traditional Muslim view, both Sunnī and Shīʿī, of the revelation attributes the composition of the Qurʾān to God alone, and denies any human role in its production. According to this view, the Prophet faithfully communicated what had been "dictated" to him by God in the Arabic language through the angel of revelation, usually identified as Gabriel, without addition or alteration. Muslims also view the language of the Qurʾān, Arabic, as an essential aspect of the revelation. Similarly, when the Qurʾān says that God "says," "speaks" or "commands," these words were understood by most Muslims literally, not metaphorically. Thus, the revelations the Prophet "received" were transmitted verbatim to his followers, who passed them on to succeeding generations. On the whole, this understanding of the revelation has been maintained throughout Islamic history and is still the basis of most Islamic exegetical work. By and large, Muslim scholars, even of the modern period, adhere to this doctrine of revelation (Saeed, 1999).
T afsĪr and TaʾwĪl
There are two key terms for Qurʾanic exegesis: tafsīr and ta ʾwīl. The term tafsīr occurs in the Qurʾān once in the sense of "explanation" (25:33), not in a technical sense, and its meaning may be related to the uncovering or revealing of something that is hidden. Linguistically, ta ʾwīl is derived from the root a.w.l, which means to go back to the origin of something. Edward Lane lists ta ʾwīl as "the discovering, detecting, revealing, developing or disclosing, or the explaining, expounding or interpreting, that to which a thing is, or may be, reduced.…" (1955–1956, p. 126). In the Qurʾān, ta ʾwīl is used to mean explanation, discovery, and clarification (Zurqānī, 1988, vol. 2, p. 6) and therefore is virtually synonymous with tafsīr. It seems to have been used in this way by the early generations of Muslims, as is shown in the Prophet's reported invocation to God to bestow upon Ibn ʿAbbās (d. 652), his cousin, the understanding of religion and to teach him the ta ʾwīl (interpretation of the Qurʾān) (Ibn Saʿd, 1957, vol. 2, p. 365). A number of early exegetes, such as Mujāhid (d. 722), and even some relatively later ones, such as Ṭabarī (d. 923), used ta ʾwīl in this sense (Zurqānī, 1988, vol. 2, p. 7).
There are, however, some scholars who argue that tafsīr is different from ta ʾwīl. For some, tafsīr deals with the "literal" meaning of the text, whereas ta ʾwīl deals with the "deeper" meaning. For others, tafsīr is associated with narration, tradition, and text (riwāyah ), while ta ʾwīl is associated with understanding and interpretation (dirāyah ) (Suyūṭī, 1974–1975, vol. 4, p. 193). Tafsīr is thus closely related to the knowledge handed down from the early generations (tradition), whereas ta ʾwīl may involve giving preference to one meaning over another, supported or unsupported by evidence, or attributing allegorical meanings to the text. In its more controversial sense, ta ʾwīl may be used for purely personal interpretation of the text, without linguistic or textual evidence and driven by one's theological or religio-political beliefs and doctrines, as well as for interpretation based on "esoteric" meanings, or to avoid anthropomorphism. In Shīʿī, Ṣūfī, and Ismāʿīlī exegesis, the term ta ʾwīl acquired a more technical meaning.
Early development of tafsīr
Contradictory opinions are held by Muslims (and Western scholars) on early attitudes toward interpreting the Qurʾān (Gilliot, 2002, p. 101). There are reports that senior companions, such as ʿUmar I (d. 644), discouraged Muslims from engaging in interpretation and in fact punished some for doing so. Equally, there are traditions from ʿUmar himself encouraging Muslims to explore the meanings of the Qurʾān. If there was general opposition to interpretation in the very early period, it is difficult to explain why a companion like Ibn ʿAbbās (d. 687) managed to engage in exegetical activity apparently on a large scale, and why other companions appear to have had no difficulty in doing the same, examples being ʿAbd Allāh ibn Masʿūd (d. 653) and Ubayy ibn Kaʿb (d. c. 656). This suggests that it may have been only a particular form of exegetical activity that was discouraged, perhaps exegesis that relied solely on personal opinion or that attempted to elaborate on verses that were considered ambiguous (mutashābihāt ); however it must be acknowledged that Muslim scholars did not agree on which verses of the Qurʾān were ambiguous (Rippin, 1988).
A rudimentary tafsīr tradition began during the Prophet Muḥammad's time. On numerous occasions, the Qurʾān refers to itself as being in "clear Arabic" and as a book that is "clear" (26:195). At other times, it says that one of the functions of the Prophet is to explain the Qurʾān (16:44). There is debate among Muslims as to whether the Prophet ever provided explanations for the whole Qurʾān. Those who say he did rely on the Qurʾanic verse, "And We have sent down unto thee [also] the Message; that thou mayest explain clearly to people what is sent for them" (16:44). Others believe that the Prophet only explained very small portions of the Qurʾān, arguing that his followers were already familiar with it because it was in their own language, Arabic. Despite this general familiarity with the language of the Qurʾān among the first generation of Muslims, the need for explanation and interpretation must have existed from the very beginning, most importantly because the Qurʾān introduced new concepts and used many pre-Islamic terms in new ways. Examples include ṣalāt (prayer), zakāt (alms tax), ḥājj (pilgrimage), ṣawm (fasting), allāh (God), malak (angel), yawm al- ʾākhirah (the Last Day). In particular, converts to Islam from other religious traditions might have had very different understandings of many or some of these terms.
Little of the Prophet's own interpretation of the Qurʾān is recorded, and much of it exists only in the form of what we may call practical exegesis, but this should not be considered insignificant. Practical exegesis exists where the Qurʾān used a particular term or concept that the Prophet then illustrated by his actions, notnecessarily explained in the form of a ḥadīth.. From the substantial body of information encompassed in the ḥadīth, one may argue that the time of the Prophet should be considered the richest period of exegetical activity through practice. The emerging "established practice" (for example, descriptions of how the Prophet performed the ṣalāt ) thus became the foundation of later exegesis. With the death of the Prophet, the Qurʾān was ipso facto in its final and complete form. Muslim tradition holds that it was compiled ("collected") during the caliphate of the third caliph, ʿUthmān (r. 644–656).
Even though the Prophet had hundreds of followers (companions) at the time of his death, only a few reportedly contributed directly to Qurʾanic exegesis. They included the first four caliphs, Abū Bakr (d. 634), ʿUmar (d. 644), ʿUthmān (d. 656) and ʿAlī (d. 661), as well as ʿĀʾishah (d. 678), the Prophet's wife. Others included ʿAbd Allāh ibn Masʿūd, who settled in Iraq, Ubayy ibn Kaʿb (in Medina), ʿAbd Allāh ibn ʿAbbās (in Mecca), and Zayd ibn Thābit (in Medina). Of these, the most celebrated are ʿAbd Allāh ibn ʿAbbās, who reportedly had a large number of students in Mecca and who is known as the "Interpreter of the Qurʾān," ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib, and ʿAbd Allāh ibn Masʿūd, to whom many exegetical traditions are attributed. However, the small number of sound exegetical ḥadīth coming from most of the companions, even those listed here, suggests that there was no pressing need to embark on a large scale "explanatory drive" during their time.
With the Prophet's death and the conquests that followed from 634 onwards, many companions decided to settle in the newly emerging "Muslim" towns outside Arabia, such as Kufa and Basra in Iraq, while others remained in Medina and Mecca. Thus Ibn Masʿūd became the teacher of the Qurʾān in Iraq, Ibn ʿAbbās in Mecca, and Ubayy ibn Kaʿb in Medina. The tafsīr tradition that developed during the course of the first ah (seventh ce) and second ah (eighth ce) centuries often traces its material to these teachers.
The companions who engaged in exegesis had several sources for understanding and interpreting the Qurʾān: parts of the text itself that explained other parts; information received from the Prophet, both oral and praxis; and their own understanding of what the Qurʾanic text meant. They were also familiar with the language of the Qurʾān, the context of the revelation, the Prophet's ways of thinking, and the norms, values, and customs of the Arabs, all of which provided them with a unique basis for making sense of the Qurʾanic text within the overall framework of the emerging "established practice" of the community (living sunnah ). The final source was the traditions of the People of the Book (the Jews and Christians, or ahl al-kitāb ), particularly in relation to the narratives in the Qurʾān about past prophets, peoples, and events. Since the Qurʾān in many cases alluded only briefly to these narratives, many companions referred to accounts by converts to Islam, particularly ʿAbd Allāh ibn Sallām (d. 663) and Kaʿb al-Aḥbār (d. 653)), both formerly Jews (Dhahabi, 1976, vol. 1, pp. 42–67).
The need for interpretation increased with the second generation of Muslims, known as "successors" (tābi ʿūn ), who were a more heterogeneous group. They included children of the Arab companions brought up within the new religious (Islamic) environment, Arabic-speaking converts to Islam from other religions, mainly Christianity, and non-Arabic-speaking converts, mainly from Christianity and Zoroastrianism. Their different backgrounds meant that they had to approach the Qurʾān in different ways. Also, the wider the gap between their era and the time of the Prophet, the stronger the need was to address questions of exegesis. With the successors based in key locations such as Medina, Mecca, and the area now known as Iraq, these locations began to develop proto-traditions of local exegesis around the teachings of their respective companions.
It was during the seventh century ce that the domain of Islam expanded dramatically to include all of Arabia and a large part of the Middle East and North Africa, lands previously under the Sassanid and Byzantine empires. Muslims thus came into contact with other civilizations, peoples, and traditions. In due course, many of the peoples of the "conquered" regions professed Islam as their religion. In this new environment, answers to new problems that were primarily legal in nature caused by the expansion had to be found. It was the companions who provided a basis for solving these emerging problems, based on the established practice of the community. The companions had been flexible in relating the text (Qurʾān) and their experiences with the Prophet to the new conditions. In this, they appear to have relied on key objectives of the Qurʾanic message, such as "establishing justice." An instance of this was the Caliph ʿUmar's rationale for not distributing the lands (in present-day Iraq) that were conquered during his caliphate (634–644). Unlike the Prophet, ʿUmar refused to distribute the land as booty to warriors, arguing that the relevant Qurʾanic verses on the distribution of booty in general did not favor such a division of land. In his view, the land should be retained as public property from which the whole community would benefit, not just the warriors (Maḥmaṣṣāni, 1984, pp. 576–577). In his interpretation of the relevant Qurʾanic texts, he was relying on the general Qurʾanic principle of justice and of sharing wealth with the wider community.
Also during the seventh century ce, material from both the Jewish and Christian traditions (later to be known as isrāʾīliyyāt ) began to enter the discourse of exegesis via converts to Islam. These converts found an eager audience in exegetes, storytellers, and popular preachers who wanted to fill out details that were often only alluded to in the Qurʾanic narratives such as those related to Joseph, Moses, and Jesus. Significant divisions along religio-political and theological lines among Muslims began to emerge in this period too, for example on the definition of concepts such as "believer," "free will" and "predestination." This resulted in substantial differences in opinion among the successors on a range of issues to interpretation of several Qurʾanic texts (Dhahabī, 1976, vol. 1, pp. 140–141). Differences of opinion arose concerning who was right and who was wrong, and who was a true Muslim and who was not. Questions such as these contributed to the formation of theological discourse during the seventh century.
Several factors and events thus led to the further development of exegesis apart from the obvious religious reasons: (1) the political conflicts and their associated theological debates that raged after the death of the Prophet and in the wake of the assassination of ʿUthmān, the third caliph, in 656; (2) the conversion of a large number of non-Arabs to Islam; (3) the interest of popular preachers and storytellers in the Qurʾanic narratives; and (4) the development of ḥadīth and Arabic linguistics and literature as new disciplines. A number of other disciplines also began to develop during the late Umayyad and early Abbasid periods (eighth century ce) and provided further support to the emerging tradition of tafsīr. These included qirā ʾāt (readings/recitations of the Qurʾān), which explored the variety of ways in which the Qurʾān could be recited, the legitimate recitations, their sources, and their chains of transmission. Much of this academic activity took place in Iraq (in Kufa and Basra). Another discipline was Arabic grammar in particular and linguistics in general, which began with figures such as al-Khalīl ibn Aḥmad (d. c. 786) and Sībawayh (d. c. 796). Early linguists contributed to the tradition of exegesis directly or indirectly by documenting Arabic dialects and their associated vocabulary and grammar. Formal study of the language of the Qurʾān encouraged a more formal approach to understanding its meaning.
There is debate in the literature on the existence of written exegesis in the seventh century ce (first century ah). While Muslim tradition holds that some written works indeed existed from the mid-seventh century, the evidence of recent research indicates that they had begun to emerge at least by the early part of the eighth century (Gilliot, 2002, p. 104). The earliest exegesis (going back to the time of the Prophet and the companions) was primarily oral and depended on oral transmission; written exegesis developed later. Ibn Khaldūn (d. 1406) suggests that the explanations of the Qurʾān "continued to be transmitted among the early Muslims until knowledge became organized in scholarly disciplines and systematic scholarly works began to be written. At that time, most of these explanations were committed to writing" (Peters, 1990, vol. 2, p. 142). The exegetical writings from this early period, where they exist, are not necessarily complete commentaries; rather, they should be seen as the beginning of the documentation of teachings related to exegesis from the seventh century that continued into the eighth century.
It was perhaps natural for the tafsīr to begin with brief explanatory comments on specific words or phrases of the Qurʾān that appeared unclear, difficult, or ambiguous. Much of the very early exegesis falls into this category. No attempt is made to justify the explanatory comments, nor is grammatical or linguistic analysis systematically provided. An example of such a tafsīr work is that of Mujāhid ibn Jabr (d. 722), who belongs to the Meccan tradition of tafsīr going back to Ibn ʿAbbās. There is also tafsīr attributed to Ḥasan al-Baṣrī (d. 728), probably compiled later; Sufyān al-Thawrī (d. 778), a Kufan jurist and traditionalist; and Sufyān ibn ʿUyaynah (d. 811) (Gilliot, 2002). The Shīʿah also attribute the development of this exegetical tradition to ʿAlī and his immediate circle of followers.
Another form of early tafsīr was related to the community's interest in legal and ritual matters. Given that a number of Qurʾanic verses deal with law and ritual, this must have been an important part of the Prophet's explanatory task. For example, the Qurʾān commands the payment of zakāt and the performance of ṣalāt but does not give detailed instruction on how this is to be done. It was the Prophet who provided the explanation and demonstration. Attempts to collate, identify, and classify verses related to legal and ritual matters were probably among the earliest tafsīr works. An example of this early tafsīr is by Muqātil ibn Sulaymān (d. 767). In his Tafsīr khams mi ʾat āyah, Muqātil dealt with several legal topics: prayer, zakāt, fasting and pilgrimage; marriage and contracts; and punishments related to theft, adultery, and consumption of wine (Rippin, 1988).
The third most common form of tafsīr in this early period was where the exegete focused on certain Qurʾanic narratives, particularly about past prophets and their communities. One of the characteristics of Qurʾanic narratives is that they are brief, lacking in detail and often without references to time or place. These Qurʾanic narratives were elaborated upon and were used by the storytellers (quṣṣāṣs ) and popular preachers for entertainment or propagation of religion. Much of this extra-Qurʾanic material came from Jewish and Christian sources and from the folklore of the region (Rippin, 1988). Using such material, an elaborate narrative was constructed, and even if ḥadīth were used in elaborating the narrative there was no emphasis on the precautions taken in ḥadīth transmission by the scholars of ḥadīth such as scrutinizing the chain of transmission. It was perhaps for this reason that a number of ḥadīth scholars were highly skeptical about the value of the material used in this form of exegesis, and were openly critical of the material, which they considered as lacking in authenticity. In the later development of the tafsīr tradition, such material came to be known as isrāʾīliyyāt (Judeo-Christian materials), and highly suspect. But this attitude does not seem to have existed in the early development of the tafsīr tradition. In fact, Muslim tradition holds that even companions such as Ibn ʿAbbās approached a number of Jewish and Christian converts to Islam seeking information about the Qurʾanic narratives. Those who later contributed to this genre included al-Daḥḥhāk ibn Muzāḥim (d. 723) and al-Suddiyy (d. 746).
The early period of tafsīr continued into the eighth century. By the end of the eighth century, the stage was set for exegetical works that covered the entire Qurʾān, from beginning to end. Perhaps the most important figure that emerges in the late eighth and early ninth century is Ṭabarī (d. 923), whose tafsīr is extensive and systematic and covered the entire Qurʾān. By this time, tafsīr had become a fully established discipline and several scholars were writing complete tafsīr works. After this period, the body of work becomes large and varied and includes theological, legal, religio-political, and mystical exegetical works. Authors of tafsīr works often responded to and emphasized issues important to their communities, either historically or in a contemporary sense.
TafsĪr : Between Tradition and Reason
Tafsīr is often divided into two broad categories: tafsīr bi-al-maʾthūr, exegesis that relies on tradition; and tafsīr bi-al-ra ʾy, exegesis that is based on reason. In Sunnī Islam, tafsīr bi-al-ma ʾthūr is considered the most authoritative form of tafsīr because it is based on one of the most important sources of religious authority: the Prophet and his companions who were able to elaborate on the meaning of the Qurʾān based on the Prophet's instructions (ḥadīth ). Even tafsīr whose sources are the successors (the second generation of Muslims) is considered as deriving its authority from the Prophet himself either directly or indirectly.
Some Muslims see tafsīr bi-al-ra ʾy as unacceptable in Islam, based, in their view, on a prohibition of such tafsīr in the Qurʾān (Calder, 1993, pp. 131–134) It is also said that the Prophet Muḥammad prohibited interpretation based on ra ʾy on the authority of the ḥadīth : "Whoever explains the Qurʾān without knowledge [ʿilm ] let him take his place in hell" (Qurṭubī, 1993, vol. 1, p. 25). There are also several reports of the companions expressing their fear of interpreting the Qurʾān based on ra ʾy.
However, proponents of tafsīr bi-al-ra ʾy argue that there is nothing wrong with this form of interpretation and that the Qurʾān urges Muslims to reflect upon the text in that way (Calder, 1993, pp. 132–133). They maintain that if tafsīr based on ra ʾy is not allowed, then even arriving at Islamic laws from the Qurʾanic text is impossible. They also rebut the claim that the companions and successors did not engage in interpretation based on ra ʾy. Some of the proponents of tafsīr bi-al-ra ʾy differentiate between tafsīr based on ra ʾy that is acceptable and tafsīr based on ra ʾy that is not acceptable. Acceptable tafsīr bi-al-ra ʾy is that supported by linguistic and/or textual evidence while unacceptable tafsīr bi-al-ra ʾy is that which has no such support.
Despite the claims and counter claims, it is clear that tafsīr based on ra ʾy occurred in Qurʾanic exegesis from its inception. While it may be difficult for some Muslims to suggest that the Prophet Muḥammad based his interpretation of the Qurʾān simply on his own "personal opinion," it could be argued that the origins of the tafsīr tradition are strongly grounded in ra ʾy. Comments by companions and successors on the Qurʾān, as recorded in sources like Ṭabarī, indicate that the tafsīr of the very early period consisted of three things, all of which were largely related to personal opinion or reason and were not necessarily based on the Prophet's instructions and advice. They include: (1) ad hoc exploration of the meaning of a word or phrase, often through its usage in pre-Islamic times; (2) exploration of Qurʾanic narratives on the basis of Judeo-Christian material (isrā ʾīliyyāt) ; and (3) ad hoc comments or remarks on Qurʾanic verses by the earliest Muslims simply on the basis of their personal opinion. On the whole, early understandings of the Qurʾān were characterized by a high degree of subjectivity, fluidity, flexibility, and absence of absolute dogmatism in interpretation.
Trends in TafsĪr : From the Ninth Century
The ninth century saw the maturing of distinct groups, schools, or trends within Islam, following heated debates among Muslims on religio-political, legal, and theological issues. While the germ of many of these trends lay in the early to mid-seventh century, it took approximately one to two centuries for the trends to form and distinguish themselves from one another. While one may not speak about Sunnī tafsīr or Shīʿī or Khārijī tafsīr in the seventh century, one can certainly use those terms in the ninth century, by which time the trends were established, with each one supported, inter alia, by a body of tafsīr tradition. The vast majority of Muslims (mainstream in terms of numbers) came to be known as Sunnīs. Others were Khārijīs and Shīʿah who were further subdivided into Zaydīs, Twelvers (or Imāmīs), and Ismāʿīlīs. Apart from these groups, there were also the Ṣūfīs (mystics), the theologians (mutakallim ūn ), and the legists, who usually belonged to one of the three key groups: Sunnīs, Shīʿah, and Khārijīs.
Sunnism developed in the seventh and eighth centuries in the religio-political, theological, and intellectual context that emerged during this period. Early debates on religio-political and theological issues ranging from the imamate, freewill and predestination, God's attributes or the definition of a "believer" or "unbeliever," or the status of grave sinners, that existed among Muslims gave way to the adoption of certain positions by the majority of Muslims in relation to these and other similar matters, which in turn came to be known as Sunnism. In the ninth and tenth centuries, Sunnism accepted a set of creeds and legal schools (madhāhib ). With this came the consolidation of Islamic disciplines that provided the intellectual basis for Sunnism: tafsīr, ḥadīth, fiqh, and early Islamic biographical history (sīrah ). Given that Sunnism reflected the position of the majority of Muslims, it also came to be considered the "orthodoxy." Other groups that did not adhere to the Sunnī positions on theological, religio-political, or legal matters continued to exist and develop in their own ways, however.
Ṭabarī's (d. 923) exegetical work represents the most important early "Sunnī" tafsīr. He was born in Tabaristan and studied Qurʾān, ḥadīth, fiqh, history, grammar, lexicography, and poetry. While Ṭabarī's writings are enormous and varied, our interest is primarily in his thirty-volume tafsīr called Jāmiʿ al-bayān ʿan taʾwīl āy al-Qurʾān. Ṭabarī brought together in this massive work much of the tafsīr- related material of his time. He commented on each verse of the Qurʾān from beginning to end, brought together ḥadīth and other reports attributed to early authorities in relation to each verse, provided grammatical and linguistic analyses, noted systemically the various meanings of each text attributed to early authorities, and finally offered his own interpretation and the reasons for choosing that interpretation. Ṭabarī's Tafsīr is usually identified with the tradition of tafsīr bi-al-maʾthūr even though in some respects it can be associated with tafsīr bi-al-ra ʾy too. His mastery of the variety of Islamic disciplines and his encyclopedic knowledge make his tafsīr unrivalled in Sunnī tradition. Given that he compiled very early material, and that many of those early works are lost, Ṭabarī's tafsīr remains to this day the most important single primary source of information about the early period of the tafsīr tradition.
From the time of Ṭabarī, a large number of multivolume tafsīr works emerged that fall into the broad category of Sunnī tafsīr ; for example, Ibn Abī Hātim al-Rāzī's (d. 938), Tafsīr al-Qurʾān al- ʿazīm; al-Thaʿālabī's (d. 1035) Kashf al-bayān ʿan tafsīr al-Qurʾān; Ibn ʿAtiyyah's (d. 1147) al-Muḥarrar al-wajīz; al-Nasafī's (d. 1310) Madārik al-tanzīl wa ḥaqā ʾiq al-ta ʾwīl; and al-Suyūṭī's (d. 1505) al-Durr al-manthūr. Another example is that of Ibn Kathīr (d. 1373), who was a student of the Ḥanbalī theologian Ibn Taymiyah (d. 1328). Ibn Kathīr took Sunnī tafsīr to its extreme by rejecting reason-based interpretation of the Qurʾān, insisting on the rejection of isrāʾīliyyāt, emphasizing "tradition" to explain the meaning of the text, and indirectly rejecting the intellectual tradition of tafsīr (Calder, 1993) It could be argued that the vibrancy, creativity, and innovation that existed in tafsīr (as in other disciplines) began to wane from around the thirteenth century. The work of Ibn Kathīr may be seen as representing this phase.
Key characteristics of Sunnī tafsīr are emphasis on literal interpretation of the Qurʾān wherever possible, strongly justified by linguistic evidence; reliance on tradition (ḥadīth/athar ) in explaining the text; use of reason (ra ʾy ) within limits; rejection of the idea of esoteric meanings as unjustifiable speculation; respect for the companions of the Prophet collectively as the most important source of religious authority after the Prophet; acceptance of a set of theological positions on God's attributes, eschatology, prophecy and revelation, the definition of a believer (mu ʾmin ), and sources of authority in law; and rejection of positions held by rationalist theologians known as Muʿtazilah.
The Shīʿah, the second most important religio-political group of Muslims, is subdivided into a number of groups, most importantly, the Zaydīs, the Imāmīs, and the Ismāʿīlīs. Among the most important differences between the Shīʿah in general and the Sunnī Muslims are the Shīʿah doctrine of the imām and their view of the companions.
The Zaydīs are the closest to the Sunnī Muslims on these key issues. Several tafsīr works by Zaydī scholars have been lost, while many extant works remain in manuscript form. Zaydī tafsīr is heavily influenced by Muʿtazilī theology: many Zaydīs rely on the Muʿtazilī exegete Zamakhsharī's (d. 1144) al-Kashshāf as a primary source given the similarity between their theological positions and those of the Muʿtazilah (Dhahabi, 1976, vol. 2, p. 308). In many other respects, the exegetical works of Zaydīs come very close to those of the Sunnīs. A Zaydī scholar of the modern period is al-Shawkānī (d. 1834) from Yemen, who wrote Fatḥ al-qadīr, a 5-volume tafsīr that is largely tradition-based (al-ma ʾthūr ) and is widely available. The perceived closeness of the Zaydīs to Sunnism perhaps explains why Shawkānī's Fatḥ is widely used in Sunnī circles.
The Imāmīs (also known as Twelvers) are the largest subgroup among Shīʿah. The early Imāmīs strongly criticized the mode of compilation of the Qurʾanic text during the caliphate of ʿUthmān. They accused the compilers of the text of omitting and adding verses. However, many later Imāmī scholars toned down the criticism and argued that the existing Qurʾanic text did not contain falsifications (Bar-Asher, 1999, p. 16). For Imāmīs, the imāms are divinely inspired, endowed with a special ʿilm (knowledge). The imām should also be nominated as heir by his predecessor through an explicit designation (Bar-Asher, 1999, p. 12). Thus, ʿAli was the first imām designated as such by the Prophet himself, and any who befriended him are considered friends of the Shīʿah, but any who opposed him are seen as enemies, an example of an enemy being the Prophet's wife ʿĀʾishah because of her political opposition to ʿAli. Imāmīs were also heavily influenced theologically by the Muʿtazilah. Moreover, they believe in differences between the "inner" and "outer" meanings of the Qurʾān. This allows them to read into the Qurʾanic text their own theological and religio-political views, a characteristic that is not confined to Imāmīs, however, but cuts across almost all groups within Islam. Among the key tafsīr works of the Imāmīs are: al-Qummī (early tenth century), Tafsīr al-Qummī; al-Ṭūsī (d. 1067), al-Tibyān fi tafsīr al-Qur ʾān; and al-Ṭabarsī (d. 1153), Majmaʿ al-bayān fī tafsīr al-Qur ʾān.
On extant evidence, Ismāʿīlīs have not produced any tafsīr of the whole of the Qurʾān. Their exegetical works are interpretations of selected verses or groups of verses. According to Gilliot (2002, p. 118), "the science of tafsīr (exoteric exegesis) is absent from their literature." Ismāʿīlīs distinguish between the exterior (ẓāhir ) and interior (bātin ), related to exoteric and esoteric meanings respectively. For the Ismāʿīlīs, the true meaning of the Qurʾān can be arrived at only through ta ʾwīl (esoteric interpretation), which had its origin in the legitimate imām (Gilliot, 2002, p. 118). However, more recent studies suggest that there was a well-developed tradition of Qurʾanic interpretation among Ismāʿīlī thinkers of the Fatimid period.
Within Muslim tradition, Khārijīs have not contributed to tafsīr and other Islamic disciplines as extensively as have other groups. This is most likely because of the relatively small number of Khārijīs who were widely dispersed in North Africa, the Arabian Gulf, and East Africa. Most Khārijī tafsīr works were written by Ibāḍīs, a "moderate" Khārijī group, from a Sunnī point of view. Some of the Khārijī works have been lost, such as the tafsīr of ʿAbd al-Raḥmān ibn Rustum al-Fārisi (ninth century). Among the best known Khārijī tafsīr works are the Tafsīr of Hūd ibn Muḥakkam al-Hawwāri (d. c. 893) from North Africa and Himyān al-zād ilā dār al-ma ʿād (13 vols.) of Muḥammad ibn Yūsuf al-Itfish (d. 1913), also from North Africa.
Khārijī tafsīr relies heavily on the literal meaning of the text and often does not delve into deeper meanings. More recent research suggests a revision of the notion of a "wooden literalism" as associated with Khārijī exegetical thinking. Like other groups in Islam, Khārijīs interpret the text in line with their theological positions, an example being that the grave sinner (murtakib al-kabīrah ) is an unbeliever (kāfir ) and will remain in Hell forever (Dhahabī, 1976, vol. 2, pp. 329–344).
Kalām -based exegesis
Kalām is the discipline of dialectical theology in Islam. Debates on the definition of "believer" (mu ʾmin ), God's predetermination of events, human freedom versus God's power, the unity of God, God's attributes, God's justice, and the status of categories of human beings in the hereafter continued in intellectual circles in the seventh and eighth centuries. Theologians who wrote tafsīr works, who belonged to various groupings in Islam such as Sunnīs, Shīʿah, or Khārijīs, had to deal with these debates in their works. Among theologians, the Muʿtazilīs and Ashʿarīs have been the most prominent in their contribution to tafsīr.
Many theologians who wrote exegetical works were from a Muʿtazilī background. Many of these works have not survived, and those that have, while they may not be strictly speaking tafsīrs, give a sense of kalām -based exegetical work. Qādi ʿAbd al-Jabbār (d. 1025) made great contributions to this field in his al-Mughnī (a juridical and theological encyclopedia) (Gilliot, 2002, p. 114). The Shīʿī scholar al-Ṭabarsī's Majmaʿ al-bayān fī tafsīr al-Qurʾān is heavily influenced by Muʿtazilī doctrines. The most famous of Muʿtazilī tafsīrs is al-Zamakhsharī's al-Kashshāf ʿan ḥaqāʿiq al-tanzīl. However, Zamakhsharī's "reputation for exegesis rests not so much on his Muʿtazilism as on his qualities as a grammarian, philologist, and master of rhetorical and literary criticism" (Gilliot, 2002, p. 115).
Kalām -based tafsīr of the Muʿtazilīs emphasize interpretation of the Qurʾān in line with what reason demands, especially in relation to theological matters, rejection of "traditions" that conflicted with their theological positions, the use of linguistic evidence to support interpretation (particularly when literal meanings contradicted their theological positions), and an emphasis on the metaphorical meanings of the Qurʾān.
Ṣūfī exegesis was associated with the development of the Ṣūfī movement, taṣawwuf, which in part grew out of the early religious and political tensions within the Muslim community. It also arose from intense interest in the spiritual dimension of Islam, distaste for the materialism that developed as a result of the great wealth generated by the conquests (futūḥāt ) of the seventh century, and the legalism that came to dominate Islam from the ninth century. For many Ṣūfīs, the theological, legal, and religio-political debates of the seventh and eighth centuries drew believers away from the purpose of the Qurʾān towards legalism and other irrelevancies. For Ṣūfīs it was the language of the Qurʾān that held the answers to deeper questions, such as the nature of human existence and its relation to the divine. The inner dimension of the Qurʾān was paramount, and one could not arrive at those inner meanings by superficial reading and argument over points of law or theology. For Ṣūfīs, it was the allusions in the Qurʾanic text that were most closely related to the human spiritual condition.
Ṣūfī tafsīr is often traced back to figures like Ḥasan al-Baṣrī (d. 728), some of whose teachings are scattered in various tafsīr works, including that of Ṭabarī. Among the most influential Ṣūfī tafsīr works (or related works) are those of Ibn ʿArabī (d. 1240), as well as of other great Ṣūfīs, such as al-Qāshānī (d. 1329), al-Sulamī (d. 1021) in his Haqā ʾiq al-tafsīr, and ʿAbd al-Karīm al-Qushayrī (d. 1072) in his Latā ʾif al-ishārāt. Ṣūfī tafsīr also continued right up to the modern period and includes al-Maybūdī's Kashf al-asrār wa ʿuddat al-abrār (written in Persian), al-Brusāwī's (d. 1725) Rūh al-bayān, and al-Alūsī's (d. 1854?) Rūh al-ma ʿānī.
Some Ṣūfī tafsīrs are primarily "theoretical," while others are chiefly "intuitive" (Chaudhary, 2002, p. 1484). Ibn ʿArabī's (d. 1240) works are considered to belong to the theoretical tradition. He did not compose a tafsīr himself; the work usually attributed to him, Tafsīr ibn al- ʿArabī, was written by al-Qāshānī, but it does reflect the thought of Ibn ʿArabī. From a Sunnī perspective, the intuitive Ṣūfī tafsīr s were more moderate in their claims and interpretations. Examples of such tafsīr s include al-Sulamī's Haqā ʾiq al-tafsīr, one of the most important works in Ṣūfī tafsīr.
T afsĪr in the Modern Period: From the Mid-Nineteenth Century
Tafsīr of the modern period begins with the mid-nineteenth century and follows several trends. Many writers, however, adopted traditionalist patterns and approaches; in fact, many traditionalist Muslims of the modern period have written Qurʾanic commentaries that differ little from premodern works. This applies to the Sunnīs, as well as to other groups within Islam. Examples in-clude al-Shawkānī's (d. 1839) Fatḥ al-qadīr; al-Alūsī's (d. 1853) Rūḥ al-ma ʿānī, and al-Marāghī's (d. 1945) Tafsīr al-Marāghī.
Despite this, a significantly richer environment has emerged for exegetical work in which writers make a conscious effort to relate the Qurʾān to issues in the modern world. For many Muslims, particularly of a nontraditionalist orientation, this is the key problem for exegesis today, and it was in this light that Sayyid Ahmad Khan (d. 1898) of India and Muḥammad ʿAbduh (d. 1905) of Egypt, two modernist Muslims, embarked on their exegetical work.
Although from different parts of the Muslim world, both knew life for Muslims under British colonial rule. Furthermore, although they approached the Qurʾān differently in many respects, their works had much in common (Gilliot, 2002, pp. 126–129). Both stressed the importance of moving away from imitation of the past towards a responsive approach compatible with modern life. Both believed that the Qurʾān could guide Muslims towards becoming part of the modern world. Both had an affinity with rationalist thinkers in early Islam, such as the Muʿtazilah, and saw the need for interpretation of the Qurʾān with a scientific worldview in mind. In line with this, both, each in his own way, wanted to reinterpret what appeared to be "miracles" in the Qurʾanic text in line with modern science and reason. Both believed that the contemporary exegete should make the Qurʾān familiar to the modern mind, and realized that the exegetical procedures and jargon of previous generations had made the text obscure. In their works and teaching they argued for the rethinking of approaches to the Qurʾān in the modern period and attempted to demonstrate how this could be undertaken. Both these scholars were highly influential, particularly until the middle of the twentieth century.
Muḥammad ʿAbduh's treatment of the issue of polygamy is an example of modernist tafsīr. The problem is whether men should continue to be allowed four wives in an era of greater gender equality and in the light of changed economic, social, political, and economic conditions. ʿAbduh's solution to this problem was to interpret some of the phrases in the relevant Qurʾanic text. ʿAbduh argued that, by Qurʾanic logic, a man should be married to only one woman because permission to marry more than one is conditional upon "justice," which, according to the Qurʾān itself, must be strived for but is impossible to achieve. According to ʿAbduh, Qurʾanic logic states that the only form of marriage ideally should be monogamy (Riḍā, n.d., vol. 4, pp. 369–370). This example highlights the problems associated with the interpretative efforts of many modernist Muslims. At times the interpretation is forced upon the text when changed norms and values are taken as the basis for a fresh understanding.
Another distinctly modern approach involves examining the Qurʾān in the light of modern science. There are two ways in which "scientific" exegesis could be understood. First, the approach taken by the Egyptian Ṭanṭāwī Jawharī (d. 1940), who wrote al-Jawāhir fī tafsīr al-Qurʾān al-karīm. Although referred to as a tafsīr, it is not a tafsīr in the strict classical sense. Rather, it is an encyclopedia that enables Muslims to link the text of the Qurʾān to a modern scientific worldview (Gilliot, 2002, p. 130). Although his treatment of the Qurʾān is also called "al-tafsīr al- ʿilmī " (scientific exegesis), Ṭanṭāwī Jawharī was not interested in what in the mid to late twentieth century came to be known as the "scientific miraculous nature of the Qurʾān" (al-i ʿjāz al- ʿilmī ). His main interest was to encourage Muslims to learn and understand the sciences, which he saw as the main factor driving modern societies.
The second use of "scientific exegesis" is, in contrast, the use of science to highlight the so-called "scientific miraculous nature of the Qurʾān," which is essentially apologetic and attempts to demonstrate that modern scientific achievements were somehow foreseen in the Qurʾān fourteen centuries ago. It is also used as evidence that the Qurʾān had to have been composed by God, as the unlettered Prophet could not have possessed such knowledge. Its practitioners read what they consider scientific interpretations into the Qurʾān. The popular nature of this discourse is demonstrated by the large number of conferences, seminars, and publications devoted to it. Many Muslim thinkers, however, criticize it as ignoring the open-ended nature of scientific discovery and as misreading the Qurʾān, ignoring how the texts were understood by the earliest Muslims and also by the succeeding generations. Notwithstanding these criticisms, this latter form of scientific exegesis has become one of the most popular forms of exegesis in the modern period.
Sayyid Quṭb (d. 1966) wrote his Fī Zilāl al-Qur ʾān essentially to provide a new perspective on the relevance of the Qurʾān to modern Muslims. Quṭb's particular style of writing, his uncompromising commitment to his view of Islam, and his portrayal of many of the institutions of modern society as jāhiliyyah (akin to pre-Islamic institutions, that is, un-Islamic), ensure him an important place among those whose primary aim is to establish Islam as the dominant sociopolitical force in Muslim societies. Quṭb's work, a good example of a tafsīr of a personal reflective nature, is somewhat divorced from standard exegetical tradition in its more free-floating ideas: it draws in the modern world and its challenges, and refuses to follow dogmatically early approaches to tafsīr. It is, as the title suggests, "in the shade" of the Qurʾān, and attempts to find relevance and meaning at a personal and collective level for Muslims of the modern period. This perhaps explains its wide acceptability among Muslim youth. It lies at the heart of an understanding of Islam as an ideology and a system. In many ways it is the most inspiring and powerful tafsīr in the contemporary world for many young Muslims influenced by the thought of Muslim Brotherhood.
Studying the Qurʾān from a literary perspective is not new but the approaches adopted and the modern emphasis on the Qurʾanic narratives and whether these stories represent any historical reality are new. Tāhā Ḥusayn (d. 1973) caused a stir in Egypt when he argued for analyzing the Qurʾān as a literary text and suggested that the biblical stories mentioned in the Qurʾān may not necessarily be historical. Amīin al-Khūlī of Egypt (d. 1967) also argued for a study of the Qurʾān from a literary perspective, keeping in mind how this text was received by the first recipients (the Prophet and the companions) because this first reception and understanding are crucial to such a project.
This emphasis on the study of the Qurʾān from a literary perspective was taken up by a number of scholars who benefited from al-Khūlī's methodological insights. Muḥammad Khalafallah, also from Egypt, applied these ideas into his doctoral dissertation (in 1947), al-Fann al-qasasī fī al-Qurʾān al-karīm, which again caused a stir among the religious establishment of Egypt, leading to significant personal hardship for Khalafallah. Given the sensitivities associated with such studies, particularly if they question the "truth" (historical truth) of any aspect of the Qurʾān, not many Muslims attempt such studies.
In the mid-twentieth century, another popular approach emerged called thematic exegesis. This approach emphasizes the unity of the Qurʾanic text over the interpretation of verses in isolation. Verse by verse treatment in exegesis is seen as distorting the Qurʾanic message, and as not giving sufficient emphasis to related verses on a particular theme across the Qurʾān. This form of exegesis also goes back to the ideas developed by Amīn al-Khulī, who emphasized that it is more beneficial to interpret the Qurʾān by focusing on specific themes. In this way, one can explore in depth such concepts as "justice" and "unity of God" by looking at all aspects of the concept as dealt with in the Qurʾān in different sūrah s. Such an approach, besides enabling an in-depth look at relevant issues, facilitates a more "objective" treatment of the issues at hand. While these observations may be true about the thematic exegesis to a large extent, practitioners of thematic exegesis often advocate quite different views about how it should be undertaken, the benefits of such an exercise, and the reasons for engaging in it. Practitioners argue that this approach can be useful today in dealing with questions such as women's rights, human rights, and ethical problems, to give a few examples. Thematic exegesis has become very popular and influential in many parts of the Muslim world, including Egypt and Indonesia.
Muslim feminism brings cultural politics into exegetical scholarship. Several Muslim feminist exegetes have recently argued that it is important today to re-read the Qurʾān because the "male-oriented" readings of early and modern exegetes and theologians are biased against women. Historical injustices against women are thus seen to have been perpetuated in these readings. Feminist interpreters argue that if one half of the Muslim population is to enjoy equality with men, the Qurʾanic rules and values concerning women must be understood in the light of the sociohistorical context of the revelation. The argument continues that if the context in which the event occurs changes, so can the interpretations and rulings derived therefrom. Although it is accepted that the Qurʾān improved the position of women, the argument of these feminists is that the cultural and historical context of the revelation has remained a barrier to realizing the Qurʾanic ideals regarding women (Wadud-Muhsin, 1988; Barlas, 2002).
Unlike some so-called "radical feminists," mainstream Muslim feminists are not interested in casting religion and scripture aside in order to gain the rights they are seeking. Muslim feminists use the Qurʾān to assert their rights as women. Their weapon is the Qurʾān itself and how it should be read. Fatima Mernissi (1991) developed a critical approach to Islamic tradition and ventured into hitherto "sacred" areas. In a number of her works, she has examined the Qurʾanic text in the light of the ḥadīth, focusing on the biases of some of the companions who narrated these ḥadīth, particularly those concerning women. Amina Wadud-Muhsin and Asma Barlas have argued for a return to the message of the original text but with an emphasis on relating the Qurʾān to its historical and contemporary contexts as argued by Fazlur Rahman, in the light of the "spirit of the Qurʾān" (Wadud-Muhsin, 1988, p. 129).
T afsĪr and the Question of the Relevance of the QurʾĀn Today
The literature on Qurʾān interpretation in the modern period shows that there is a strong desire on the part of Muslims, scholars and laity alike, to find the relevance of the Qurʾanic text to contemporary issues without compromising the Qurʾanic value system and its essential and core beliefs and practices. It is seen as particularly urgent in relation to the ethico-legal content of the Qurʾān (Saeed, 2004). There are, broadly speaking, three trends among those who believe that the ethico-legal content of the Qurʾān is relevant to Muslims in the modern period: textualists, semi-textualists, and contextualists.
Textualists seek to maintain the interpretation of the ethico-legal content of the Qurʾān as handed down in the tradition and argue for a strict following of the text (as well as the "authorized" interpretations within the tradition, be they Sunnī or Shīʿī). Where possible, they prefer to be faithful to the literal reading of the ethico-legal texts. For many textualists, there is no need at all for the scripture or its understanding to change. For them, it is the Qurʾān that should guide Muslims, not any so-called modern "needs." The Qurʾān (both in its text and meaning) is permanent and universal. For instance, if the Qurʾān says that a man may marry four wives, then that should remain so forever. Textualists may be found today among those referred to as Salafīs, neo-Salafīs, and traditionalists.
Semitextualists essentially follow the textualists, but attempt to present the Qurʾān's ethico-legal content in a modern garb. They do not ask fundamental questions about the relationship the ethico-legal content may have to the sociohistorical context of the Qurʾān or about interpretations of that ethico-legal content in the following generations. They package the ethico-legal content in a somewhat "modern" idiom, often within an apologetic discourse. Semitextualists can be sympathizers or members of modern neo-revivalist movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamāʿat-i-Islāmī, as well as some traditionalists and some modernists.
In contrast, the contextualists emphasize the sociohistorical context of the ethico-legal content of the Qurʾān, as well as its subsequent interpretations. They argue for understanding the ethico-legal content in the light of the political, social, historical, religious, and economic contexts in which this content was revealed, understood, interpreted, and applied. Thus they argue for a high degree of freedom for the modern Muslim scholar in arriving at what is mutable (changeable) and immutable (unchangeable) in the area of ethico-legal content. Contextualists are found among what Fazlur Rahman called neo-modernists and among more "liberal" Muslim thinkers today.
The methodological innovations introduced in Qurʾanic exegesis by important figures such as Fazlur Rahman to resolve this problem are highly relevant (Saeed, 2004, pp. 37–66). They represent an important step in relating the Qurʾanic text to the contemporary needs of Muslim societies. Rahman relies heavily on understanding the historical context of the revelation at the macro level, and then relating it to a particular need of the modern period. In this, he draws on the idea of the "prophetic spirit" or, in other words, how the Prophet might act were he living in these times. Thus one could argue that many modern-era Muslim scholars, like Rahman, are preoccupied with a correct method of interpreting the Qurʾān that will show its relevance to the contemporary needs of Muslims (Rahman, 1982). They emphasize the thematic and spiritual unity of the Qurʾān, and that the revelation was not a "book" given at one time but a process over a twenty-two-year period, reflecting, throughout the mission's vicissitudes and the needs of the first community. The Qurʾān's guidance, in their view, was directly connected with, and organically related to, the linguistic, cultural, political, economic, and religious life of the people of Hijaz and, more broadly, of Arabia.
More radical approaches to the interpretation of the Qurʾān are also entertained by a number of Muslim thinkers today, including Muḥammad Arkoun and Nasr Ḥāmid Abū Zayd. While these approaches are not yet widely accepted, it seems likely that we will be seeing a more intense debate on the rethinking of approaches to the Qurʾān, and perhaps a more creative period in the area of tafsīr.
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Abdullah Saeed (2005)