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TAFSĪR is an Arabic word meaning "interpretation"; it is, more specifically, the general term used in reference to all genres of literature which are commentaries upon the Qurʾān.

TafsĪr and Related Terms

The word tafsīr is used only once in the Qurʾān (25:33), but this is not overly surprising, for most technical terms involved in Muslim exegesis have been derived and adapted either from the field of rhetoric or from the legal tradition. In the case of tafsīr the word appears to have evolved from a description of a poetic figure in which one hemistich contains an explanation of the preceding one.

There is much discussion in various Arabic sources concerning the precise meaning of the term tafsīr and its relationship to other technical words such as maʿānī, ta˒wīl, and shar, all of which connote "interpretation" in some way. Historically, maʿānī, literally "meanings," appears to have been the earliest major term used for the title of works of interpretation; ta˒wīl, literally related to the notion of "returning to the beginning," was introduced perhaps late in the third century ah (early tenth century ce) as the general term for works of Qurʾānic interpretation, only to have been supplanted in the eleventh century ce by tafsīr. Shar seems to have been reserved primarily for profane purposes such as commentaries on poetry, but it was also employed for Qurʾanic super-commentaries. The prime focus of a dispute which took place probably in the early tenth century and which involved such central figures of early exegesis as Abū Jaʿfar al-abarī (d. 923 ce) and al-Māturīdī (d. 944) was the differentiation of tafsīr from ta˒wīl. Both of these major exegetes, note, used the word ta˒wīl in the title of their commentaries upon the Qurʾān: Jamiʿ al-bayān ʿan ta˒wīl āy al-Qurʾān (The gathering of the explanation of the interpretation of the verses of the Qurʾān) and Ta˒wīlāt al-Qurʾān (The interpretations of the Qurʾān), respectively. The basic question at stake concerned the ways in which traditional material could be employed to provide exegetical data. Ta˒wīl, in the understanding of some scholars, was interpretation which dispensed with tradition and was founded upon reason, personal opinion, individual research, or expertise, whereas tafsīr was based upon material (adīth) transmitted through a chain of authorities from the earliest period of Islam, preferably from Muhammad himself or at least from one of his companions. However, the point was certainly never clear, because other proposed differentiations between ta˒wīl and tafsīr glossed those simple edges. Muqātil ibn Sulaymān, an early exegete (d. 767), for example, implies a distinction between tafsīr as what is known on the human level and ta˒wīl as what is known to God alone. According to a similar notion, tafsīr applies to passages with one interpretation and ta˒wīl to those with multiple aspects. And, of course, a further complication is indicated by the very title of al-abarī's tafsīr: that is, ta˒wīl could be used for a work that was quite tradition-oriented, at least in basic form. A further suggestion is that the dispute over tafsīr and ta˒wīl is to be traced back to the earliest sectarian disputes in Islam, between the general community and the followers of Muammad's son-in-law and cousin, ʿAlī ibn Abī ālib (d. 661), known as the Shīʿah, who wished to appropriate the word ta˒wīl for reference to interpretation of "concealed" (i. e., esoteric) parts of the Qurʾān as demanded by Shīʿī doctrine.

It should also be noted that the terms tafsīr and ta˒wīl were not in fact the exclusive property or concern of Muslims; Jews and Christians writing commentaries on the Bible in Arabic used both words. The Jewish theologian Saʿadyah Gaon (d. 942) titled his Arabic translation of the Pentateuch Tafsīr basī na al-Tūrāh (The simple interpretation of the text of the Torah), and the Copt Butrus al-Sadamanti in about the year 1260 wrote Al-muqaddimah fī al-tafsīr (Introduction to interpretation), which formed a part of his overall work on the interpretation of the New Testament Passion narratives. These are only two examples of use of the word tafsīr for scriptural interpretation outside Islam; many other similar instances could be cited.

Purpose of TafsĪr

Interpretation aims to clarify a text. Tafsīr takes as its beginning point the text of the Qurʾān, paying full attention to the text itself in order to make its meaning clear. It also functions simultaneously to adapt the text to the present situation of the interpreter. In other words, most interpretation is not purely theoretical; it has a very practical aspect of making the text applicable to the faith and the way of life of the believers. The first of these two interpretive aspects is generally provoked by insoluble problems in meaning, by insufficient detail, by intratextual contradiction, or by unacceptable meanings. Interpretation that fits the text to the situation serves to align it with established social custom, legal positions, and doctrinal assertions.

Other practical reasons can also be cited for the initial creation of tafsīr as an entity. As Islam expanded, it was embraced by a large number of people who did not know Arabic; interpretation, sometimes in the form of translations (although this was officially frowned upon) and other times in a simple Arabic which did not contain the ambiguities and difficulties of the original scriptural text, fulfilled the purpose of allowing easier access to the book. In addition, there was the basic problem of the text itself and how it was to be read. The early Arabic script was defective in its differentiation of letters of the alphabet and in the vocalization of the text; although eventually there arose an official system of readings (qirā'āt) which gave sanction to a basic seven sets of vocalizations of the text (with further set variations still possible to some extent), in the earliest period a greater freedom with regard to the text seems to have been enjoyed. This freedom extended to the consonantal structure of the text and was legitimized through the notion of the early existence of various codices of the Qurʾān, each with its own textual peculiarities. Differences between these versions and the later, official ʿUthmanic text (as far as theses could be cited by the exegetes), as well as the variations created by the different official vocalization systems, then demanded explanation and justification in order to establish claims that a particular reading provided the best textual sense. The end result was that tafsīr acted to establish a firm text of scripture within what became the set limits of the qirā˒āt.

Origins of TafsĪr

Traditionally it has been held that tafsīr arose as a natural practice, originating with Muammad and then continuing organically from that point forward; the earliest material has thus become known as tafsīr al-nabī ("the interpretation of the Prophet"). Various companions of Muammad and some early believers are also seen as the major figures who started interpreting the Qurʾān and teaching people exactly what their understanding of the text was; central among them was ʿAbd Allāh ibn ʿAbbās (d. 687?), who gained the title tarjumān al-Qurʾān, "the interpreter of the Qurʾān."

A debate rages in the scholarly literature on the nature of early tafsīr, most especially over the idea of opposition to the activity itself in the early Islamic period. This notion was first isolated by Ignácz Goldziher in Die Richtungen der islamischen Koranauslegung (Leiden, 1920); on the basis of traditional Muslim reports concerning the caliph ʿUmar (d. 644) and his punishment of a certain person (variously identified) for interpreting unclear passages of the Qurʾān, Goldziher concluded that interpretation of Qurʾanic verses dealing with historical legends and eschatology was illegitimate. Harris Birkeland in Old Muslim Opposition against Interpretation of the Koran (Oslo, 1955) rejected this contention on the basis of his own evaluation of the traditional reports, which suggested to him certain contradictions, especially over the identity of the flogging victim and over whether such punishment was in keeping with ʿUmar's character. Birkeland has argued that, rather than general opposition to tafsīr, there was no opposition at all in the first Muslim century, that strong opposition arose in the second century, and that thereafter the activity of tafsīr was brought into and under the sphere of orthodox doctrine and requirements. In particular, strict methods were introduced for the transmission of the information, which formed the core of interpretational procedure, and in this way, tafsīr gained total acceptance. Nabia Abbott, in an excursus to her Studies in Arabic Literary Papyri II: Qurʾānic Commentary and Tradition (Chicago, 1967), reasserted Goldziher's isolation of early opposition on the basis of traditional information that the person in question certainly existed and that flogging was in keeping with the character of ʿUmar. For Abbott, however, the opposition was limited to the interpretation of a specific category of unclear verses (mutashābihāt), a claim that she based on the traditional biographical material, which indicates that those people who are mentioned as opponents of tafsīr in fact transmitted much material themselves. Therefore, for Abbott, the only opposition to tafsīr that ever existed was that connected with the ambiguous or unclear verses. Precisely what is to be understood by the "unclear verses," however, is glossed over in this argument. Exegetes never have agreed and never will agree on which verses are unclear, or even on what that expression means. Some things are unclear to one person while they are perfectly clear to another, often because of a different (especially religious) perspective on the material.

The major problem with all of these discussions is the lack of substantial evidence, with the result that the entire argument remains speculative. Manuscript evidence for tafsīr barely reaches back to the third century ah (ninth century ce), at which point several genres of commentary had already emerged. Much of the material found in these texts seems to have originated in a popular worship context (such as semiliturgical usage or sermons) or in the storyteller environment provided by wandering preachers (quā) and their didactic, homiletic sermonizing, which aimed to improve the religious sentiments of the uneducated majority of people. In other words, producing entertaining tales was a key to the development of tafsīr. From this point of view, the whole discussion of the origins of tafsīr as conducted by Goldziher, Birkeland, and Abbott is rendered rather redundant.

Legitimation of TafsĪr in the QurʾĀn

While the Qurʾān does not explicitly state that it should be interpreted, commentators have been able to justify their profession over the centuries by reference to the text itself. The most famous and the most problematic passage applied in this way is sūrah 3:56, the terminology of which has been referred to several times in the preceding sections:

It is He who has sent down to you the book in which are clear verses [mukamāt ] that are the essence of the book and others that are unclear [mutashābihāt ]. As for those in whose hearts is a perversion, they follow the unclear part, desiring dissension and desiring its interpretation [ta'wīl]. But no one knows its interpretation [ta'wīl] except God. And those firm in knowledge say: "We believe in it; all is from our Lord." Yet none remember except men who understand.

This passage establishes two categories of interpretation, perhaps most easily viewed as "clear" (mukam) versus "unclear" (mutashābih). Many different translations and identifications have been put forth for the latter, some of which render the category hermeneutically trivial (e.g., identification of the "mysterious letters" which precede various sūrahs as the mutashābihāt ), while others prove more valuable (e.g., identification of all verses with more than one interpretive aspect as mutashābihāt ). Even more crucial, however, was the punctuation of the verse. The original Arabic text provides no indication of where stops and pauses should be taken; as a result, it was also possible to render the latter part of the pericope:

But no one knows its interpretation except God and those firm in knowledge who say: "We believe in it; all is from our Lord."

With such a reading, the interpretive task was not limited to the rather trite exercise of making totally plain the already clear verses; the unclear verses, too, became targets for the commentators, and with that concept defined in some appropriate manner, the way was opened for the creation of a tafsīr on every verse of the Qurʾān.

Emergence of TafsĪr Literature

It seems fairly certain that written tafsīr works began to emerge in the second century ah at the latest. Documentation starts to proliferate toward the end of that period, and various modes of analysis (e.g., attention to the convergent lines of transmission of a text) also suggest this as the earliest verifiable period. The emergent literature itself can be analyzed into various categories which not only display the distinctive literary qualities and differences of the texts but also suggest an overall relative historical ordering of them. The five sequential categories suggested by John Wansbrough in his Quranic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation (Oxford, 1977) are narrative (aggadic), legal (halakhic), textual (masoretic), rhetorical, and allegorical. While the historical sequence itself may be open to some debate, the categorization itself is, in true scientific fashion, functional, unified, and revealing.

Narrative tafsīr

Narrative tafsīr is exemplified in the text by Muqātil ibn Sulaymān, which has subsequently been given the title Tafsīr al-Qurʾān (Interpretation of the Qurʾān), although that is unlikely to have been the original name, and is also embodied in various sections of the work by Ibn Isāq (d. 768), Sīrat Rasūl Allāh (The life of the messenger of God). The creation of an edifying narrative, generally enhanced by folklore from the entire Near Eastern world (including the heritages of Byzantium, Persia, and Egypt, but most especially that of the Judeo-Christian milieu) is the main feature of such commentaries. Adding detail to otherwise sketchy scripture and answering the rather mundane questions which the curious mind will raise when confronted by a contextless scriptural passage are the central concerns of this genre. In fact, the actual narrative seems to be of prime importance; the text of scripture remains underneath the story itself, often subordinated in order to construct a smoothly flowing narrative.

For the first part of sūrah 2:189 ("They are asking you about the new moons. Say: 'They are appointed times for the people and the pilgrimage'"), Muqatil tries to provide the answers for the curious reader. Just who is asking? Why did they ask? Precisely what did they ask? This type of approach is the essence of aggadic tafsīr. Muqatil provides the following comment on the verse:

Muʿādh ibn Jabl and Thaʿlabah ibn Ghanamah said: "O Messenger! Why is it that the new moon is just visible, then it appears small like a needle, then brightens until it is strong, then levels off and becomes a circle, only to start to decrease and get smaller, until it returns just as it was? Why does it not remain at a single level?" So God revealed the verse about the new moons.

The identification of the participants and the precise question being asked (provided in a marvelously naive and therefore entertaining manner) are specified. The overall interpretation of the verse becomes clear through this supplying of contextual material.

Legal tafsīr

Muqātil ibn Sulaymān once again is a focal point in the development of legal interpretation. Here, the arrangement of the material becomes the prime indicator of the genre; whereas in narrative interpretation the order of scripture for the most part serves as the basic framework, for the legal material a topical arrangement is the definitive criterion. The fact that the actual content of Muqātil's legal tafsīr, entitled Tafsīr khams mī'ah āyah min al-Qurʾān (The Interpretation of Five Hundred Verses of the Qurʾān), is probably derived from his narrative tafsīr reveals that the prime criterion is indeed the form of the work.

Muqātil's text covers the following topics: faith, prayer, charity, fasting, pilgrimage, retaliation, inheritance, usury, wine, marriage, divorce, adultery, theft, debts, contracts, and holy war. This range of topics gives a fair indication of the nature of much of the material in the Qurʾān which was found to be of legal value.

Textual tafsīr. Activities centered on explanations of the lexicon of scripture, along with its grammar and variant readings, are the focus of textual commentaries. One of the earliest texts devoted to this type of analysis is that of the philologist al-Farrā˒ (d. 822) entitled Maʿānī al-Qurʾān (The meanings of the Qurʾān), a fairly technical work which primarily explains the difficult points of grammar and textual variants. The work of Abū ʿUbayd (d. 838), Faāʾil al-Qurʾān (The merits of the Qurʾān), is similar, although it is divided by topic rather than following the Qurʾanic order, as does the work of al-Farrā˒. Earlier simple texts also exist, including that by Muqātil ibn Sulaymān, Kitāb al-wujūh wa-al-naā˒ir (The book of [word] senses and parallels), and al-Kisā˒ī (d. 804), Mushtabihāt al-Qurʾān (The resemblances of the Qurʾān), both of which are devoted to semantic analysis of the text. Muqātil's text compiles lists of word usages according to the number of senses of meaning (wujūh) of a given word; al-Kisā˒ī's work is similar but deals with phrases rather than individual words.

Rhetorical tafsīr

Concern for the literary excellencies of scripture is the focal point of works such as that by Abū ʿUbaydah (d. 824), Majāz al-Qurʾān (The literary expression of the Qurʾān), although the origin of this type of analysis may well be in textual exegesis (with a grammatical focus) rather than in a purely literary type. The impetus for its development as a separate genre, however, was the nascent notion of the miraculous character of the Qurʾān and the literary evidence for it. While this became a full doctrine only in the fourth century ah, its exegetical roots are to be found here. The work Ta˒wīl mushkil al-Qurʾān (The interpretation of the difficulties in the Qurʾān), by Ibn Qutaybah (d. 889), proves to be an important transition point between this earliest rhetorical analysis based upon grammatical and exegetical niceties and that of the later doctrine of the miraculous character or inimitability of the Qurʾān (iʿjāz). In these texts attention is paid to the literary qualities of the Qurʾān which place it outside the norm of Arabic prose and poetry; various poetical figures are isolated, for example, are subjected to analysis for meaning, and, in many cases, are then compared with older Arabic poetry.

Allegorical tafsīr

Support for dissident opinion in Islam was generally found ex post facto through the expediency of allegorical interpretation. Supported through a terminological differentiation of the āhir as historia, "literal," and the bāin as allegoria, "symbolic," the ūfī tafsīr of Sahl al-Tustarī (d. 896) exemplifies this trend in the earliest period. No attempt is made in this work, however, to provide an overall allegorical interpretation; rather, it takes isolated passages from the text of scripture and views them in light of mystical experience. The order of scripture is followed in al-Tustarī's text as it now exists, although the initial compilation may not have followed any such order. About one thousand verses (out of some sixty-two hundred) in the Qurʾān are covered in this manner.

The commentary itself, which is structured piecemeal and reads in a disjointed fashion, contains much more than straightforward allegorical interpretation: legends of the ancient prophets, stories about Muammad, and even some about the author of the work himself also find their place. Nor is any overall pursuit of mystical themes to be found; indeed, its general nature is fragmentary. The esoteric portions of the text are formed around typically ūfī meditations on the Qurʾān, each taking a key word from the text. Allegorical interpretation in this case becomes as much a process of thematic association as one of textual commentary.

Consolidation of Classical TafsĪr

It is with the fourth century ah (tenth century ce) that true works of tafsīr emerge, combining in various ways the five formative elements I have described above. The first landmark of this type of tafsīr is that of al-abarī, Jāmiʿ al-bayān ʿan ta˒wīl āy al-Qurʾān, which gathers together in a compendium reports from earlier authorities dealing with most aspects of the Qurʾān. Verse-by-verse analysis is provided, each detailed with virtually every major interpretational trend (except sectarian). The material supplied in this manner is given in its full form, complete with the chains of transmitters for each item of information to lend the weight of tradition to each statement. This type of work is classically called tafsīr bi-al-ma˒thūr ("interpretation by tradition"), as opposed to tafsīr bi-al-ra˒y ("interpretation by opinion"), but the categories are misleading. Al-abarī provides his own personal interpretation, both implicitly by his editorial selection of material and explicitly by stating his opinion where different trends of interpretation exist, sometimes even going against the entire thrust of tradition and providing his own point of view; in this sense, this work, too, is tafsīr bi-al-ra˒y.

In the centuries after al-abarī, tafsīr as an activity increased and became more and more sophisticated and, in some cases, reached voluminous quantities. Al-Māturīdī, Abū al-Layth al-Samarqandī (d. 983?), al-Thaʿlabī (d. 1035), and al-Wāidī (d. 1075) are all prominent people who in the fourth and fifth centuries ah produced volumes of tafsīr, sometimes, as in the case of al-Wāidī, in multiple editions.

Theological concerns begin to make a greater impact upon tafsīr in this period; it is a trend which culminates in the production of the most famous Qurʾān commentaries in the Muslim world, those of the rationalist Muʿtazilī al-Zamakhsharī (d. 1144), the philosopher Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 1209), and the Sunnī traditionalist al-Bayāwī (d. sometime between 1286 and 1316). Debates rage among these authors, and many others, over the central questions of Islamic theology and the various positions to be found in the Qurʾān. Topics covered include free will and predestination, the attributes of God, the nature of the Qurʾān, the imposition of the tasks of the law, the nature and extent of the hereafter, and so forth. The Muʿtazilī al-Zamakhsharī opts for interpretation based upon reason in his commentary Al-kashshāf ʿan aqā˒iq ghawāmi al-tanzīl (The unveiler of the realities of the secrets of the revelation). Apparent contradiction between verses of the Qurʾān are resolved in favor of the Muʿtazilī doctrines of the unity and justice of God. Al-Bayāwī produced an edited version of the text by al-Zamakhsharī in his Anwār al-tanzīl wa-asrār al-ta'wīl (The lights of the revelation and the secrets of the interpretation), removing in the process most of the Muʿtazilī tendencies and compressing the material into an even more concise form. Al-Rāzī's unfinished tafsīr, Mafātī al-ghayb (The keys of the unknown), discusses the Qurʾān in terms of a rationalist philosophy which for the most part involved a rejection of the Muʿtazilī position and argued in support of orthodoxy. Humans, for al-Rāzī, are predetermined, and God's freedom and power cannot be confined by human ration-ality.

Encyclopedist tafsīr works in the tradition of al-abarī also continue with writers such as Ibn Kathīr (d. 1373), al-Shawkānī (d. 1839), and al-Ālūsī (d. 1854). The opposite trend toward distillation reaches its peak, in popular terms, with the Tafsīr al-Jalālayn of Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūī (d. 1505) and Jalāl al-Dīn al Maallī (d. 1459).

Specializations within Classical TafsĪr

While the all-encompassing commentary marks the highlight of exegetical activity in the classical period, the field of specialized Qurʾānic sciences was emerging at the same time, providing a number of subdisciplines within tafsīr. Some of these are continuations of the earliest developments; others arise under new impetuses. General compendia of information on these sciences arise in the discipline known as ʿulūm al-Qurʾān ("the sciences of the Qurʾān"), represented by such works as Nukat al-intiār li-naql al-Qurʾān (Gems of assistance in the transmission of the Qurʾān), by al-Bāqillānī (d. 1012); Al-burhān fī ʿulūm al-Qurʾān (The criterion for the sciences of the Qurʾān), by al-Zarkashī (d. 1391); and Al-itqān fī ʽulūm al-Qurʾān (The perfection about the sciences of the Qurʾān), by al-Suyūī. The topics gathered in these books are also subjects of separate monographs by a wide variety of writers; these topics include naskh, abrogation of legal passages of the Qurʾān; asbāb al-nuzūl, the occasions of revelation of individual verses and surahs of the Qurʾān; tajwīd, recitation of the Qurʾān; al-waqf wa-al-ibtidā˒, pauses and starts in recitation of the Qurʾān; qirā˒āt, variants to the text of the Qurʾān; marsūm al-kha, the writing of the Qurʾān; akām, the laws of the Qurʾān; gharīb, the strange or difficult words in the Qurʾān; iʿrāb, the grammar of the Qurʾān; qia al-anbiyā˒, the stories of the prophets; and iʿjāz, the inimitability of the Qurʾān. As these topics indicate, it is indeed difficult to separate developed tafsīr from both legal concerns (fiqh) and grammar (naw).

Sectarian TafsĪr

Parallel to the development of mainstream Sunnī Muslim tafsīr in the classical period, works arose from various other Muslim groups, each pursuing its own particular sectarian aim and, once again, attempting to make the Qurʾān relevant to its own particular point of view and situation.


For the Shīʿah in general, the authority of the imams who descended from ʿAlī ibn Abī ālib was ultimate in matters of interpretation of the Qurʾān. While adīth traditions circulated in Sunnī circles were generally accepted, this material was often supplemented or corrected on the authority of the imams. The category of the mutashābihāt was particularly useful to the Shīʿah, for a number of appropriate "unclear" verses could be understood as referring to ʿAlī and his family. Such verses were also useful for "discovering" stridently critical comments concerning the early leaders of the Muslim community, namely Abū Bakr (d. 634), ʿUmar, and ʿUthmān.

The earliest Ithnā ʿAsharīyah or Twelver Shīʿītafsīr in existence today appears to be the somewhat fragmentary commentary of ʿAlī ibn Ibrāhīm al-Qummī (d. tenth century) with the ascribed title Tafsīr al-Qurʾān; other prominent works include Al-tibyān fī tafsīr al-Qurʾān (The explanation in interpretation of the Qurʾān), by Muammad ibn al-asan al-ūsī (d. 1067), and a major commentary which is a compendium of information comparable to that of al-abarī, Majmaʿ al-bayān li-ʿulūm al-Qurʾān (The collection of the explanation of the sciences of the Qurʾān), by Abū ʿAlī al-abarsī (d. 1153 or later).

Allegorical interpretation is favored in Shīʿī tafsīr as a process of looking for the "inner" meaning in many passages. The special way of applying this method is to find references to ʿAlī and his family, which, of course, serves to promote Shīʿī claims to power and legitimacy. For example, in al-Qummī's tafsīr, the notion of Islam itself is defined not simply as submission to God but also as submission to the authority of the line of imams. The use of textual variation is also present in some works, although whenever the Shīʿah have been powerful in political affairs and fully institutionalized, such notions have generally been rejected as anti-status quo. This was already true to some extent in the eleventh century but became even more so with the rise of the Safavids in the sixteenth century. The specific argument occurred over whether some of the Qurʾān had been changed, or even omitted by ʿUthmān when he ordered its compilation, in order to undermine Shīʿī claims. Passages referring directly to ʿAlī had been erased, it was suggested. Al-Qummī argues, for example, that there are verses in the Qurʾān where "letters have been replaced by other letters," and he says that there are places where "verses contradict what God has sent down" (that is, they contradict or at least do not support Shīʿī beliefs). Al-abarsī argues, however, that the only change that has occurred in the Qurʾān concerns the overall order of the text itself and not its contents. One common textual variant which does receive wide acceptance among Shīʿī commentators concerns the word ummah ("community"), which is believed to be properly read a˒immah ("leaders") or imams (a˒immah being the plural of imām and having the same basic consonantal structure as ummah).

The Shīʿah, like the Muʿtazilah, looked to the Qurʾān for support of the rationalist theological doctrines that were a key element of their belief system: free will and the created Qurʾān. Their interpretational method, therefore, is similar to that employed by al-Zamakhsharī. The Ismāʿīlīyah likewise employed the Qurʾān as a reference point for their theologizing; the group's esoteric leanings, often characterized as extreme, are not witnessed in many texts but are found, for example, in the fragmentary Mizāj al-tasnīm (The condition of tasnīm ) by Ismāʿīl ibn Hibat Allāh (d. 1760). In general, the Ismāʿīlī movement sees the outer meaning of the Qurʾān as only the symbol of the true inner meaning. The imam of the age, who has in him the true, full revelation, adapts the Qurʾān to the spiritual and mental condition of humanity through interpretation; eventually, people will be brought to the true and full meaning of the text, which is essentially the knowledge of the unity of God. Such is the presupposition with which all Ismāʿīlī tafsīr approaches the text.

The more recent Bahā˒ī movement establishes its clear Islamic heritage through the existence of works of tafsīr written in Arabic by Sayyid ʿAlī Muammad al-Shīrāzī (18191850). Known as the Bāb, or "gate," he claimed to have initiated a new prophetic cycle and became the focal point of the movement which developed later as the Bahā˒ī. Among his works are commentaries on sūrahs 12, 108, and 113 of the Qurʾān. In general these are marked by a spiritualistic interpretation of eschatology, including the notions of paradise, hell, death, and resurrection, all of which are taken to refer to the end of the prophetic cycle as well as the end of the physical world (although the latter is recreated by God in each prophetic cycle).


Directly related to Shīʿī tafsīr in general is ūfī interpretation, which provides a mystical speculation upon the Qurʾān. This interpretation usually justifies itself through reference to mystical activities believed to have been practiced and supported by Muammad. Sahl al-Tustarī, mentioned above, probably represents the earliest example of this tendency. Abū ʿAbd al-Ramān al-Sulamī (d. 1012) compiled his aqā˒iq al-tafsīr (The truths of interpretation) from various ūfī authorities and other important personalities. All of the material can be considered allegorical, since it is devoted to finding the inner meaning of each passage as it relates to the mystical quest. A typical example is found in the interpretation of sura 17:1, the classical reference to Muammad's "night journey" to heaven, which is taken as a reference to each mystic's ascent to the higher levels of consciousness. Another prominent ūfī, Abū amīd al-Ghazālī (d. 1111), did not write a commentary on the Qurʾān as such but found many occasions on which to record his approach to the text of scripture from the point of view of the intellectual ūfī. For al-Ghazālī as for most other mystics, the Qurʾān works on two levels: the practical and the cognitive. The former applies to the inner self and its purification without neglect of the outer activities, while the latter is a meaning found through inner experience in light of mystical thought, and it can be reached only through firm knowledge of the practical or outer aspects. ʿAbd al-Razzāq al-Qāshānī (d. 1330?) compiled perhaps the most widely known ūfī tafsīr, although it has often been mistakenly attributed directly to his teacher, the famous Muyī al-Dīn ibn al-ʿArabī (d. 1240), and thus is usually known under the title of Tafsīr Ibn al-ʿArabī (The interpretation of Ibn al-ʿArabī). As with al-Ghazālī, the outer principles of religion are not to be forgotten, although within the context of the tafsīr they certainly become submerged under allegorical interpretation, here seen in terms of the esoteric inner meaning as well as the symbolism of real events in the world.

Emergence of Modern TafsĪr

The rise of colonialism and the impact of Western thought in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries certainly did not spell the end of tafsīr activity; in fact, at various times, the modern world has provoked more and more voluminous commentary upon the Qurʾān. Modern tafsīr is no different in basic impetus from its classical counterpart; it, too, desires to fit the text of scripture to the conditions of the era contemporary with the interpreter.

The impact of science has perhaps been the major factor in creating new demands and also the element of contemporary life to which much early modern tafsīr made its response. Muslims had not understood the true message of the Qurʾān, most modernists argued, and had therefore lost touch with the true scientific, rational spirit of the text. Out of this basic point several elements have emerged that unite all modernist interpretations: (1) the attempt is made to interpret the Qurʾān in the light of reason ("to interpret the Qurʾān by the Qurʾān," as it is frequently phrased) rather than with all the extraneous material provided by tradition in the form of adīth reports and earlier commentaries; "Back to the source" often becomes the motto of such approaches; (2) the attempt is made, through the expediency of interpretation, to strip the Qurʾān of all legendary traits, primitive ideas, fantastic stories, magic, fables, and superstition; symbolic interpretation is the primary means for such resolutions; (3) the attempt is made to rationalize doctrine as found in or as justified by reference to the Qurʾān.

The earliest focal point of modernist tafsīr activity arose in India. Shāh Walī Allāh (17031762) is often seen as the precursor of the Indian reformist movement, but that trend reached its true blossoming with the Indian civil servant and educator Sayyid Ahmad Khan (18171898), who wrote the first major explicitly modernist tafsīr, entitled simply Tafsīr al-Qurʾān. His commentary was directed toward making all Muslims aware of the fact that Western influence in the world required a new vision of Islam, for Islam as it was actually practiced and believed in by most of its adherents would be seriously threatened by modern advances in thought and science. Where, therefore, was the true core of Islam to be found? How was its center to be defined? For Ahmad Khan, these questions were to be answered through reference to the Qurʾān, which, if it were properly understood through the use of the powers of reason, would provide the necessary answers. The basis of the required social and educational reforms, for example, were to be found in the Qurʾān. By returning to the source of Islam, the religion would be revitalized and the future would be secure.

In the Arab world, Muammad ʿAbduh (18491905), a vigorous champion of educational reform, also wrote a commentary on the Qurʾān, commonly called Tafsīr al-Manār (The interpretation of al-Manār), which was completed after his death by his pupil Rashīd Riā (18651935). Not overly modernistic in outlook, ʿAbduh's tafsīr does, however, urge the moderate use of rationality in matters of theology and tries to demonstrate that the Qurʾān is to be read primarily as a source of moral guidance applicable to the modern situation. The spiritual aspect of the Qurʾān was most important to ʿAbduh, and he, like many commentators in the past, was quite prepared to leave certain matters in the Qurʾān unexplained and to concentrate on their mysteriousness rather than to suggest resolutions for interpretational difficulties.

This type of interpretation continues more recently in the Arab world, represented, for example, by the intellectual spokesman for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Sayyid Qub (19061959), who in his work Fī ilāl al-Qurʾān (In the shade of the Qurʾān) interprets the text according to his own particular ideological leanings. India, too, has produced many such commentaries; examples are Abū al-Kalām Azād (18881959), whose Urdu work Tarjumān al-Qurʾān (The interpretation [or translation] of the Qurʾān) emphasized the notion of the unity of humankind while its author faced the rising tide favoring the formation of Pakistan, and Abū al-Aʿlā Mawdūdī (19031979), the author of Tafhīm al-Qurʾān (The meaning of the Qurʾān), who uses the Qurʾān to establish a blueprint for a future Islamic society in Pakistan to be formed through his political party, Jamāʿat-i Islāmī.

The impact of Western science is perhaps the most notable aspect of modern commentaries. Both Ahmad Khan and ʿAbduh were intent on encouraging their compatriots to embrace the scientific outlook of the West in order to share in the progress of the modern world. Often this effort involved little more than simply stating that the Qurʾān enjoins its readers to seek and use rational knowledge, but at other times it also involved the historical claim that Islam had developed science in the first place and had then passed it on to Europe, so that in embracing the scientific outlook in the present situation Muslims were only reclaiming what was truly Islamic. A more distinctive trend in tafsīr emerges also, however, primarily in the person of anāwī Jawharī (18701940) and his twenty-six-volume work, Al-jawāhir fī tafsīr al-Qurʾān (Jewels in the interpretation of the Qurʾān). God would not have revealed the Qurʾān, so the argument goes, had he not included in it everything that people needed to know; science is obviously necessary in the modern world, so it should not be surprising to find all of science in the Qurʾān when that scripture is properly understood. Jawharī also makes reference to the classical notion of the miraculous character or inimitability of the Qurʾān (iʿjāz), which he takes to refer primarily to the content of the text in terms of its knowledge concerning matters which are only now becoming clear to humankind. Since the scientific knowledge contained in the text is proof of its miraculous character, references are found in the Qurʾān for numerous modern inventions (electricity, for example) and scientific discoveries (the fact that the earth revolves around the sun).

Western thought has also influenced tafsīr in another way, although perhaps not so dramatically in terms of its popular acceptance as has "scientific" exegesis; the emergence of modern literary-philological-historical criticism has, thus far, played a fairly minor role but most certainly has found its supporters. ʿĀ˒ishah ʿAbd al-Ramān, a university professor in Morocco who writes under the name Bint al-Shāi˒, represents a development of this line. This modern interpretation is not a resurrection of the philological type of commentary associated with al-Zamakhsharī, for example, who, although he wrote with great critical acumen, is for most modernists too full of unnecessary material which is seen to be a hindrance to understanding in the modern world; rather, ʿAbd al-Ramān pursues a straightforward approach, searching for the "original meaning" of a given Arabic word or phrase in order to understand the Qurʾān in its totality. This process does not involve the use of material extraneous to the Qurʾān itself, except perhaps for the use of a small amount of ancient poetry, but rather it uses the context of a given textual passage to define a word in as many overall contexts as it occurs. Neither the history of the Arabs nor that of the biblical prophets nor scientific topics are to be found in the Qurʾān because providing such material is not seen to be the task of the text. The purpose of the narrative elements of the Qurʾān is to provide moral and spiritual guidance to the believers, not to provide history or "facts." Within the Muslim world, the attempt to demythologize scriptureas in this approachmarks the beginnings of an incorporation of a type of modern critical scholarship developed in the context of biblical studies; its future at this point, however, remains uncertain.

See Also

Biblical Exegesis; Iʿjāz; Qurʾān; Scripture.


On the principles of interpretation there is little material available specifically for the Muslim context; works on Jewish midrash are, however, most useful. Reference should be made to Géza Vermès's "Bible and Midrash," in volume 1 of The Cambridge History of the Bible, edited by Peter R. Ackroyd and C. F. Evans (Cambridge, 1970); this essay has been reprinted in Vermès's Post-Biblical Jewish Studies (Leiden, 1975). Also see Renée Bloch's "Midrash," in volume 5 of the Supplement au dictionnaire de la Bible, edited by Louis Pirot and others (Paris, 1957); an English translation by Mary Howard Callaway has been published in Approaches to Ancient Judaism, edited by William S. Green (Missoula, Mont., 1978).

Four books are fundamental to the modern study of tafsīr: Die Richtungen der islamischen Koranauslegung (Leiden, 1920), a collection of Ignácz Goldziher's lectures delivered in 1913, has yet to be replaced as a general overview of the subject; Theodor Nöldeke's Geschichte des Qorāns, vol. 2, Die Sammlung des Qorāns, 2d ed. (Leipzig, 1919), contains, especially on pages 123192, much valuable and basic material; John Wansbrough's Quranic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation (Oxford, 1977) is essential to the study of the formation and early development of tafsīr and to all discussions of terminology and genres of exegetical literature; volume 1 of Fuat Sezgin's Geschichte des arabischen Schrifttums (Leiden, 1967) records most of the known Arabic works of tafsīr up to the fifth century ah.

Jane I. Smith's An Historical and Semantic Study of the Term "Islām" as Seen in a Sequence of Qurʾān Commentaries (Missoula, Mont., 1975), discusses the works of seventeen exegetes on specific verses of the Qurʾān and at the same time provides useful introductions to the lives and works of the individuals. On ūfī tafsīr two excellent works exist: Paul Nwyia's Exégèse coranique et langage mystique (Beirut, 1970) and Gerhard Böwering's The Mystical Vision of Existence in Classical Islam: The Qurʾānic Hermeneutics of the ūfī Sahl al-Tustarī, d. 283/896 (New York, 1980). The latter discusses both textual and thematic matters in exemplary fashion.

Modern tafsīr has been analyzed by J. M. S. Baljon in Modern Muslim Koran Interpretation, 18801960 (Leiden, 1961) and by J. J. G. Jansen in The Interpretation of the Koran in Modern Egypt (Leiden, 1974); both works provide basic yet informative overviews of the subject and bring Goldziher's work up to the present day.

Not many works of tafsīr have been translated, primarily because of their overly technical nature. Helmut Gätje has compiled extracts from various exegetes and arranged them thematically for the use of students in his Koran und Koranexegese (Zurich, 1971), translated by Alford T. Welch as The Qurʾān and Its Exegesis (Berkeley, 1976). Full works of tafsīr which have been translated are very few: The Tales of the Prophets of al Kisā˒ī, translated by Wheeler M. Thackston (Boston, 1978), a book of the qia al-anbiyā˒ genre, and The Recitation and Interpretation of the Qurʾān: Al-Ghazālī's Theory, translated by Muhammad A. Quasem (London, 1982), are two worthwhile texts. Attention should be paid to The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ishaq's "Sīrat Rasūl Allāh" (1955; reprint, Lahore, 1967), by Alfred Guillaume for the passages of early tafsīr which are contained in it; reference to these is, however, unfortunately not facilitated by an index of Qurʾānic verses in the translation. Translations of two chapters from the Tafsīr of al-Bayāwī are available. These are primarily intended for students of Arabic, since the discussion frequently tends to revolve around the sense of a given Arabic word or grammatical construction; Bayāwī's Commentary on Surah 12 of the Qurʾān, edited by A. F. L. Beeston (Oxford, 1963), is the most accessible of such texts. Modern tafsīr has not been served well by translation either, although the following are available: The Meaning of the Qurʾān, 8 vols., translated by A. A. Maududi (Lahore, 19671979); Abū al-Kalām Āzād's Tarjumān al-Qurʾān, 2 vols., translated and edited by Syed Abdul Latif (New York, 19621967), and Sayyid Qub's In the Shade of the Qurʾān, translated by M. A. Salahi and A. A. Shamis (London, 1979).

Further bibliography on tafsīr can be found in my article "The Present Status of Tafsīr Studies," Muslim World 72 (JulyDecember 1982): 224238.

Andrew Rippin (1987)