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Student Notes: Fundamentals of Tafsir

Prepared by Tom Facchine

Notes from An Introduction to the Fundamentals of Tafsir, by Shaykh ul-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah (explanation by Shaykh Salih Aali-Shaykh)

  • Early in the work, Shaykh ul-Islam proposes that an individual needs to possess mastery in 5 disciplines before making tafseer of the Quran. They are:
  1. The Quran itself.
  2. The Sunnah
  3. The Arabic Language
  4. The sciences that confer the ability to make ijtihaad, namely Usool ul-Fiqh, Usool ul-Lughah, and Usool ul-Hadeeth.
  5. Tawheed

These prerequisites made me think of some of the different groups, mostly in the Western academic circles, that have recently arisen touting "Quranic hermeneutics," by which some mean license to interpret the Quran without such prerequisites and contrary to all established norms of traditional Islamic scholarship. When I have tried to insist to such individuals that there are and well should be rules for interpreting the Quran, I have been accused of making the Quran irrelevant by freezing the meanings in time 1400 years ago. The most bold words I heard was that such rules are "killing the Quran" itself. Before I could corral these experiences and thoughts into the form of a question, the Shaykh with whom I'm studying this work digressed and offered a crucial distinction that satisfied me: to ponder over the Quran and interpret it are two very different things. Everyone has the ability to ponder over the Quran, to reflect on the infinite situations and circumstances to which it is applicable, and the numerous examples and instances to which the meanings of verses point. However, to extract and clarify those meanings in the first place is the work of trained scholars. And Allah knows best.

  • I had a conversation once with someone who was under the impression that the science of "Asbaab An-Nuzool" (circumstances under which the Revelation was revealed) restricted the Quran's meanings to specific individuals in history, thus making the Quran irrelevant to our lives today. Because this individual correctly sensed that the Quran was meant to speak to him directly, he thus rejected the entire science of Asbaaab An-Nuzool.

Shaykh ul-Islam ibn Taymiyyah uses very strong language to dispel this misunderstanding of Asbaab An-Nuzool. He goes so far as to say that no Islamic Scholar has ever said that knowledge of the circumstances of revelation limit a verse's applicability to that individual only. The historical context, he says, does not specify the meaning of the general wording, rather, it clarifies the type of person to whom the verse applies, or the situation in which it applies.

While reading the literature of Asbaab An-Nuzool, you might find there are verses where entirely different circumstances are narrated. This, too, is not a contradiction, for the Prophet, sallallahu alayhi wa sallam, would recite or recall the same verse or hadith as it applied to different situations or individuals, further proof that the context does not limit but clarifies the applicability of the revelation.

  • Shaykh ul-Islam ibn Taymiyyah says that true synonymy in the Arabic language is extremely rare. In the Quran, he says, it's basically non-existent. One word will always have subtle connotations that aren't found in another, similar word. For this reason the majority of the statements of the Companions and their immediate followers regarding the meanings of words must be understood as pointing to some of the meanings and not all of them. For this reason as well a true "translation" of the Quran is impossible; for when a person selects a word in a different language to represent the meaning of a word selected by Allah the translator necessarily includes some of the connotations and excludes others.
  • If the Companions and their followers rarely differed on the interpretation of the Quran as Shaykh ul-Islam takes pains to demonstrate, how do we account for the vast differences in Quranic interpretation amongst the later scholars? Shaykh ul-Islam writes that these divergences in tafseer are of three types:
  1. That in which the author held a preconceived belief and imposed it on the text, and this happened both in theology as well as fiqh.
  2. That in which the author sought to derive a linguistically inadmissible meaning from the verse.
  3. That in which an error was committed in establishing evidence for the interpretation, and this can happen in the case of someone arriving at a meaning that is in harmony with the known Islamic legislation but the verse in question doesn't relate to that meaning, or the case of the meaning itself being in contradiction with known Islamic legislation.

The Shaykh punctuates this section by asserting that all three of these types of mistakes found amongst later interpreters of the Quran are caused by abandoning the interpretations of the Companions and their immediate successors.

  • What, then, is the best, most accurate and trustworthy way to interpret the Quran? Shaykh ul-Islam outlines three avenues for us:
  1. Explanation of the Quran by the Quran itself. Sometimes this occurs within the same verse or an adjacent verse, such as Surat ul-Qaariyah or Surat ut-Tariq, where Allah Himself poses a rhetorical question and then immediately answers it. It can also occur in another verse in an entirely different part of the Quran.
  2. Explanation of the Quran by the Sunnah. The evidence for the admissibility of the Sunnah explaining the Quran is found, amongst other verses, in verse 44 of Surat-un-Nahl. The explanation itself can be explicit, such as a specific reference to the verse in question or a Companion inquiring about the meaning of a word in a specific verse. The explanation can also be implicit, such as a hadith that specifies a verse with a general meaning in the Quran, and likewise the actions and implementation of the Prophet himself, sallallahu alayhi wa sallam.
  3. The statements of the Companions regarding the meanings of the Quran, and foremost among them those singled out for their knowledge of its interpretation, such as Abdullah ibn Abbas and Abdullah ibn Masud, radiyallahu anhum.
  • Amongst the earliest schools of tafseer, three locations emerged as the focal points of Quranic knowledge:
    • Madinah: Led by the Rightly Guided Caliphs
    • Kufah: Led by ibn Masud
    • Makkah: Led by ibn Abbas

As Shaykh ul-Islam points out, the geographical history of the dissemination of Islamic knowledge becomes important when weighing any contradicting viewpoints. The students of these three locations who studied under their leaders are generally held in a privileged position compared to students from other locations.

  • Why are the statements of the Companions regarding the Quran and its interpretation superior to those who came after them? Shaykh ul-Islam mentions 3 reasons:
  1. They witnessed the revelation themselves and understood the context in which it was revealed.
  2. They possessed a superior understanding of the Arabic language.
  3. They were the most cautious when it came to speaking about the Quran and its meanings.
  • What distinguishes the statements of the Companions' students (tabi'een) regarding the Quran and its interpretation? Shaykh ul-Islam ibn Taymiyyah makes 4 observations:
  1. They agreed regarding issues of doctrine or belief (aqeedah).
  2. Their words were few but vast in meaning.
  3. Their linguistic analysis and conclusions adhered to existing conventions in the Arabic language.
  4. A great many of their interpretations and commentaries were written down.

The Shaykh juxtaposes the tafseer of the Companions' students to those of many later-day writers, who would spill much ink while saying very little of substance, and would bring far-fetched and unprecedented linguistic interpretations into their analyses.

  • In some circles these days "ra'ee" and "ta'weel" are dirty words, associated with people who play fast and loose with their interpretation of the Quran and hold heterodox beliefs. Part of being just and precise is understanding exactly what these terms mean and how those meanings have changed throughout the history of Islamic scholarship.

The Shaykh breaks down both terms into acceptable and unacceptable forms.

  • Ra'ee (opinion or insight) is acceptable in tafseer if it is done according to the rules of ijtihaad, based upon knowledge, wherein knowledge is the Quran, the sunnah, and the consensus of the Companions. If it is based on other than knowledge, such as philosophical reasoning, dreams, etc., ra'ee is blameworthy and unacceptable.
  • Similarly, ta'weel (literally interpretation) is correct if it follows the guidelines outlined previously by the Shaykh, such as following established linguistic conventions, the statements of the Companions, etc. However, it is sheer falsehood if it deviates from those guidelines, as is the case with those who attempted to interpret Allah's names and attributes in ways that deviated from the understanding of the Prophet, the Companions, and their students, whose interpretations eventually became exclusively branded as "ta'weel."

To conclude the excerpts from my notes on An Introduction to the Fundamentals of Tafseer by Shaykh ul-Islam ibn Taymiyyah, I'd like to share the statement of ibn Abbas cited in the book, which nicely addresses the tension some might feel between two truths: on the one hand that the Quran is addressed to everybody and on the other hand that its meanings are limited and best understood by the earliest generations of scholars and those who follow them. The statement should also serve as motivation to learn Arabic!

"There are four aspects to tafseer: one aspect is that which is understood by the Arab from knowing the language; another aspect is that which anyone can understand and, indeed, no one has an excuse not to understand; another aspect is that which only the scholars know; and the final aspect is that which only Allah knows."

I seek refuge in Allah for any mistakes I have made in translation, or any additions or omissions I have made that affect the overall message of the noble Shaykh. Thanks for reading.

Tom Facchine is a New Jersey native and graduate of Vassar College.  Tom is a member of the South Jersey Muslim community and has dedicated much of his time leading youth activities.  He is currently enrolled in the Islamic University of Madinah. To keep up with Tom's writings and experiences in Madinah visit his facebook page, Tom The Taalib