Tafsir (Arabic: ??????, translit. Tafs?r, lit. 'interpretation'?) is the Arabic word for exegesis, usually of the Qur'an. An author of tafsir is a mufassir (Arabic: ????????; plural: ???????). A Qur'anic tafsir attempts at providing elucidation, explanation, interpretation, or commentary for clear understanding and conviction of God's will.
Principally, tafsir deals with the issues of linguistics, jurisprudence, and theology. In terms of perspective and approach, tafsir can be broadly divided into two categories, namely tafsir bi-al-ma'thur (lit. received tafsir) which is transmitted from the early days of Islam through the prophet Muhammad and his companions, and tafsir bi-al-ra'y (lit. tafsir by opinion) which is arrived through personal reflection or independent rational thinking.
There are different characteristics and traditions for each of tafsirs representing respective schools and doctrines, namely Sunni Islam, Shia Islam and Sufism. There are also general distinctions between classic tafsirs compiled by authoritative figures of Muslim scholar during the formative ages of Islam, and modern tafsir which seeks to address a wider audience including common people.
The word tafs?r is derived from the three-letter Arabic verbal root of ?-?-? F-S-R (fassara, 'interpret'). In its literal meaning, the word refers to interpreting, explaining, expounding, or disclosing. In Islamic contexts, it is defined as understanding and uncovering God's will which has been conveyed by the Qur'anic text, by means of the Arabic language and one's own knowledge.
The first examples of tafsir can be traced back to the Islamic prophet Muhammad. As the Qur'an was revealed to him, he recited the verses to his companions, usually explaining their meanings to teach them, as it was one of Muhammad's responsibilities. Elements of Muhammad's explanations including clarifying verses whose intents are not understood, the indication of names, places, times etc. which have not been mentioned in the verse, restriction of meanings which have been given as absolute and reconciliation of expressions which seem contradictory. Although scholars including ibn Taymiyyah claim that Muhammad has commented on the whole of the Qur'an, others including Ghazali cite the limited amount of narratives (hadith), thus indicating that he has commented only on a portion of the Qur'an.
After the death of Muhammad, his companions (sahabah) undertook the task of interpretation, thus starting a new age in tafsir. Most of the sahabah, including Abu Bakr, refrained from commenting based on their personal views, and only narrated comments by Muhammad. Others including ibn Abbas used their own knowledge from the Arabic language to interpret the Qur'an. At this stage, tafsir was selective and concise regarding its coverage, and only certain words, phrases and verses were explained. The Qur'an was still not fully interpreted, and commentaries were not separated from the hadith collection nor written separately, mainly due to other occupations such as the collection of the Qur'an.
By the time of the next generations ensuing the sahabah, scholars in the age of the successors (tabi'in) started using a wide range of sources for tafsir. The whole of the Qur'an is interpreted, and narrations are separated from tafsir into separate books and literature. Grammatical explanations and historical data are preserved within these books; personal opinions are recorded, whether accepted or rejected. During this time, a whole range of schools of tafsir came into existence in different scholastic centers, including Mecca, Medina and Iraq. Iraqi schools of tafsir came to be known for an approach relied on personal judgment aside from the transmitted reports, and Jewish apocryphal reports were also widely employed. Notable compilers on this age including Sufyan al-Thawri.
Until this age, tafsir had been transmitted orally and had not been collected independently in a book, rather, they had been gathered by muhaddithun (lit. scholars of hadith) in their hadith books, under the topic of tafsir, along with other narrations of Muhammad. This indicates that tafsir, in its formative age, used to be a special domain within hadith. Widening of the scope of tafsir and emergence of mufassirun in the age of the successors lead to the development of an independent discipline of tafsir.
The mufasireen (exegetes) listed 15 fields that must be mastered before one can authoritatively interpret the Quran.
There are two main methods and one method prohibited by Wahhabis for commenting on the Qur'an:
Riwaya is the act of commenting on the Qur'an using traditional sources. al-Tafsir bi al-Riwayah connotes tafsir using another portion of the Quran, or sayings of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad, or saying of the Companions.
This classical tafsir method is agreed upon by all scholars, and is the most used method throughout history, partly because other methods have been criticized;
Interpretation of the Qur'an with the Qur'an is very common because of the close interrelatedness of the verses of the Qur'an with one another. The Qur'anic verses explain and interpret one another, which leads many to believe that it has the highest level of authenticity. Many verses or words in the Qur'an are explained or further clarified in other verses of the Qur'an. One example of this kind is Tafsir al-Mizan
Using narratives of Muhammad to interpret the Qur'an. In this approach the most important external aids used are the collected oral traditions upon which Muslim scholars based Islamic history and law. The Qur'an states that Muhammad is responsible for explanation and guidance. While some narratives are of revelation origin, others can be the result of reasonings made by Muhammad . One important aspect of these narratives is their origin. Narratives used for tafsir, and in general, must be of authentic origin (see Hadith terminology). Narratives of such origin are considered requisite for tafsir.
The ?a??bah, or companions of Muhammad, also interpreted and taught the Qur'an. If nothing is found in the Qur'an or the Had?th, the commentator has recourse to what the ?a??bah reported about various verses. These are generally considered above personal opinion, because these people grew up with everyday interaction with Muhammad, and had often asked about the meanings of verses or circumstances of their revelation; and they were very knowledgeable in both Arabic literature and Islamic thought.
The classical Arabic poetry and the text of the Qur'an are two resources which can be used as foundational reference in ascertaining the meaning and signification of the remaining literal and figurative diction of the Qur'an and its style of expression. Using Arabic poetry for defining words is a long used practice, in fact there are very few scholars who haven't used this source.
Isra'iliyat is the body of narratives originating from Judeo-Christian traditions, rather than from other well-accepted sources. The Isra'iliyat are mostly non-biblical explanatory stories and traditions (Hebrew: midrashim) giving extra information or interpretation about events or individuals recorded in the Hebrew scriptures. Scholars starting with the Sahabah have studied narrative accounts of other Abrahamic religions to further explain and clarify verses, especially parables, in the Qur'an. While some may be accurate, these narratives are not subject to hadith authenticity criteria, and are generally not favored for use.
The use of reason and mind (ijtihad) to form an opinion-oriented tafsir. This method is not interpretation by mere opinion, which is prohibited, but rather opinions must be based on the main sources. Its most distinctive feature is the inclusion of the opinions of the commentator, thus forming an objective view on Qur'anic verses. Some important examples include Anwar al-Tanzil by al-Bai?awi and Irshad al-Aql as-Salim by Abu Sa'ud al-?anafi. Some parameters used by these scholars are:
Literary elements of the Arabic language, including morphology, eloquence, syntax are an integral part of tafsir, as they constitute the basis of understanding and interpretation. Arabic has a systematic way of shaping words (see morphology) so one can know the meaning by knowing the root and the form the word was coined from. If any word can be given a meaning that is compatible with the rules of grammar, Qur'anic text can be interpreted that way.
Scholars may choose to interpret verses according to;
Verses may be interpreted to preserve the general goals of shariah (see maqasid), which is simply to bring happiness to a person in this life and the hereafter. That way, any interpretation that threatens to compromise the preservation of religion, life, lineage, intellect or property may be discarded or ruled otherwise in order to secure these goals.
This includes understanding and interpreting the Qur'an while taking into account the cultural and social environment to which it has been revealed; or according to the scholars' own time. This is an integral part of the universality of the Qur'an. Scholars usually do not favor to confine verses to a single time interval, but rather interpret according to the needs of their time.
Some Muslims believe that it is prohibited to perform Qur'anic interpretation using solely one's own opinion. This is based on an authenticated hadith of Muhammad which states;
"He who says (something) concerning the Qur'ân without knowledge, he has taken his seat of fire"'.
However, this hadith can alternatively be interpreted to refer to the importance of first properly studying and learning the Qur'an before attempting to teach or preach it to others.
Theologists are divided into myriad of sects; each commenting the Qur'an with their own point of view. Some of these sects and their famous examples are;
The Major examples of Sunni Tafsir are;
The Mu'tazila tradition of tafsir has received little attention in modern scholarship, owing to several reasons. First, Al-Kashshaaf by al-Zamakhshari is the only traditional tafsir from the Mu'tazilite school which is available in a published form. It is narrower in scope than major tafsir works, concentrating mainly on grammar and language, and to some extent on theology. Secondly, several exegetical works by Mu'tazila scholars have been studied as books on theology rather than as works of tafsir. Thirdly, the large Mu'tazilite tafsir at-Tahdib fi tafsir al-Qur'an by al-Hakim al-Jishumi has not been edited, and there is no complete copy of it available at any single location, which limits its accessibility to scholars.
The Ahmadiyya movement has published a number of Quran commentaries, these include the following:
It is an interpretation of the Qur'an which includes attribution of esoteric or mystic meanings to the text by the interpreter. In this respect, its method is different from the conventional exegesis. Esoteric interpretations do not usually contradict the conventional (in this context called exoteric) interpretations; instead, they discuss the inner levels of meaning of the Qur'an. A hadith from Muhammad which states that the Qur'an has an inner meaning, and that this inner meaning conceals a yet deeper inner meaning, and so on (up to seven levels of meaning), has sometimes been used in support of this view. Islamic opinion imposes strict limitations on esoteric interpretations specially when interior meaning is against exterior one. Esoteric interpretations are found mainly in Sufism and in the sayings (hadiths) of Shi'a Imams and the teachings of the Isma'ili sect. But the Prophet and the imams gave importance to its exterior as much as to its interior; they were as much concerned with its revelation as they were with its interpretation. These are generally not independently written, however they are found in the books of Sufis. Some examples are;
Scholars deeply influenced by the natural and social sciences followed the materialists of Europe or the pragmatists. Under the influence of those secular theories, they declared that the religion's realities cannot go against scientific knowledge. What the religion claims to exist, but which the sciences reject should be interpreted in a way that conforms with the science; as for those things which the science is silent about, like the resurrection etc., they should be brought within the purview of the laws of matter; the pillars upon which the divine religious laws are based -- like revelation, angel, Satan, prophethood, apostleship, Imamah (Imamate) etc. - are spiritual things, and the spirit is a development of the matter. As for the Qur'an itself, one should not explain it in the light of the old philosophy and theories, because they were not based on observations and tests -- they were just a sort of mental exercise which has been totally discredited now by the modem science. Found by Ghazali and built upon by Razi, it is one of today's most abundant way of tafsir. Common examples are;
The philosophers try to fit the verses on the principles of Greek philosophy . If a verse was clearly against those principles it was explained away. In this way the verses describing metaphysical subjects, those explaining the genesis and creation of the heavens and the earth, those concerned with life after death and those about resurrection, paradise and hell were distorted to conform with the said philosophy. That philosophy was admittedly only a set of conjectures -- unencumbered with any test or proof; but the Muslim philosophers felt no remorse in treating its views on the system of skies, orbits, natural elements and other related subjects as the absolute truth with which the exegesis of the Qur'an had to conform.
Fiqhi tafsir deals mainly with verses that have a legislative meaning (see ahkam), and it strives to obtain Islamic law from the Qur'an. It is a very common school classically and modernly. There is a dispute over the number of verses that contain jurisprudence, numbers ranging from 5 to 200 are reported. Some works part of this school are;