‘Ulûm al Qûr’an #6 – Tafsîr through the Sunnah


Taken from the Book, ‘Introduction to the Sciences of the Qur’an’, published by al-Hidaayah Ltd, and can be purchased online at www.Islaam.Biz

(NOTE: If you want to build a strong and powerful relationship with Allah, check out Islamia TV, where you can watch Islamic speakers from across the globe deliver inspiring and motivational courses. Learn more at www.islamia.tv.)

After the tafsîr of the Qur’ân by the Qur’ân itself the second source of tafsîr is tafsîr by the Sunnah. It must be mentioned that even though the Sunnah is taken to be the ‘second’ source of tafsîr, it is in fact of equal importance to the Qur’ân. In other words, a person wishing to understand the Qur’ân must turn to the Sunnah in order to understand it correctly. The Qur’ân and Sunnah must be taken together to arrive at a proper understanding of a verse.

In fact, one of the primary roles of the Prophet (saws) was to explain the meanings of the Qur’ân to mankind. Allâh says,

  And We have sent down to you (O Muhammad (saws) the Remembrance, so that you may clearly explain to mankind what has been revealed to them, and so that they may give thought [16:44]

Therefore, not only was the job of the Prophet (saws) to convey the literal text of the Qur’ân, he also had to convey its explanation as well.[1]

How Much of the Qurân was Explained?

The question arises, then, as to how much of the Qur’ân was actually explained by the Prophet (saws) ? In other words, do there exist narrations from the Prophet (saws) concerning the interpretation of every single verse, and if not, then how is the previous quoted verse of the Qur’ân understood?

The scholars of Islâm were divided into two opinions with regards to this issue. Shaykh al-Islâm Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 728 A.H.) was of the view that the Prophet (saws) explained all of the Qur’ân, whereas Jalâl ad-Dîn as-Suyûtî (d. 911 AH.) claimed that the Prophet (saws) only explained a small portion of it.[2] In fact, both of these opinions are correct once the intent of both sides is understood. Those who claimed that the Prophet (saws) only explained a small portion of the Qur’ân meant that there do not exist very many verbal narrations from the Prophet (saws) concerning the detailed explanation of every single verse in the Qur’ân. On the contrary, as-Suyûtî only managed to find a few hundred narrations from the Prophet (saws) (including weak and fabricated ones) in which he (saws) explicitly interpreted a verse.[3]

On the other hand, what Ibn Taymiyyah meant was that the Prophet (saws) left us all the necessary knowledge needed in order to properly understand the Qur’ân. As ‘Aa’ishah reported, the Prophet’s (saws) character embodied the Qur’ân.[4] Therefore, even though there might not exist many explicit statements from the Prophet (saws) concerning tafsîr, the Prophet (saws) did leave us with the information and methodology necessary for understanding the Qur’ân. Therefore, it is essential to understand the Qur’ân not only in light of the explicit narrations of the Prophet (saws) on the Qur’ân, but also in light of all of the hadîth of the Prophet (saws), whether they are concerning beliefs or laws, and in light of the actions of the Prophet (saws), since his sayings and actions can be considered to be embodying the laws of the Qur’ân.

This opinion is supported by numerous statements from the Companions. Abû ‘Abd ar-Rahmân as-Sulamî (d. 75 A.H.), the famous Successor, narrated,

  “Those who taught us the Qur’ân, such as ‘Uthmân ibn ‘Affân, ‘Abdullâh ibn Mas’ûd, and others, told us that they would not memorise more than ten verses until they had understood what knowledge it contained, and implemented it. They used to say, ‘So we learnt the Qur’ân, (its) knowledge and (its) implementation at the same time.”[5]

It is apparent, then, that the Companions made sure that they understood the meaning of the Qur’ân, and then implemented it.

‘Umar narrated,

  “Amongst the last verses to be revealed were the verses pertaining to interest, and the Prophet (saws) passed away before explaining them to us.”[6]

This narration explicitly shows that the Prophet (saws) used to make sure that the Companions understood the Qur’ân, since the only reason that the verses of interest were not explained in great detail was due to the sudden death of the Prophet (saws).

As was mentioned earlier, there are only a small percentage of verses for which explicit narrations exist from the Prophet (saws). The verse concerning the interpretation of ‘wrongdoing’ (6:82) as shirk has already been given above. This example illustrates the necessity of the interpretation of the Prophet (saws), for even the Companions, despite their knowledge of Arabic, could not understand the correct interpretation of this verse until they had asked the Prophet (saws).

Another example is the hadîth of the Prophet (saws) in which he explained ‘…those whom You are angry with,’ and ‘…those who are astray,’ (1:7) as the Jews and Christians.[7]

He also explained the ‘middle prayer’ (2:238) as the Asr prayer,[8] the ‘additional (reward)’ (10:26) as the seeing of Allâh by the believers in Paradise,[9] and that al-Kawthar (108:1) was “…a river that my Lord has given me in Paradise.”[10]

In addition to such explicit examples of tafsîr, there exist numerous examples from the life and sayings of the Prophet (saws) which explain certain verses of Qur’ân, but are not recorded as explicit statements of tafsîr. For example, the Prophet (saws) stated,

 “ “Hell will be brought forth on that Day (i.e., Day of Judgement). It will have seventy thousand ropes (attached to it), and on each rope, there will be seventy thousand angels dragging it.”[11]

Although this hadîth does not mention any verse in the Qur’ân, it can be used to interpret verse 90:23, ‘And Hell will be brought that Day.” The hadîth describes how it will be brought. In another example, the penalty prescribed for theft is,

  “As for the thief male or female, cut off his/her hand” (5:38).

The Sunnah of the Prophet (saws) explains that the thief’s hand is only to be cut off if he steals above a certain monetary value, and that in such a case the right hand is to be cut off from the wrist joint.[12] These additional details needed for understanding this verse are not present in the Qur’ân itself In another verse, the Qur’ân proclaims,

  Say, I do not find in that which has been revealed to me anything which is forbidden to eat by anyone who wishes to eat it except a dead animal, or blood poured forth, or the flesh of swine…’ [6:145]

However, this verse is not exhaustive, as the Sunnah adds to this list all animals with fangs or claws, and excludes from the general ruling of dead animals seafood and locusts.[13]

From these and other examples, it is possible to say that the Prophet (saws) explained the Qur’ân in the following manners:[14]

    1) By his implementation of general or vague commands. For example, the Qur’ân orders the believers to pray and perform Hajj. The Prophet (saws), by his actions and statements, showed the believers the exact procedure and timings of prayer, and the specific rites of Hajj.

    2) By explaining unclear concepts in verses. For example, the verse commanding the believers to begin their fasts,

      …when the white thread becomes clear from the black thread [2:187]

    was explained by the Prophet (saws) as being the streaks of light in the sky after dawn.

    3) By specifying the exact connotation of a word or phrase. The example in which the Prophet (saws) specified that the ‘injustice’ referred to in 6:82 was shirk falls in this category.

    4) By constraining a general ruling or verse. The example’ of the specification of ‘thief’ and ‘hand’ by the Prophet (saws) was given above.

    5) By generalising a specific ruling or verse. An example of this is when some Companions came to the Prophet (saws) and asked him concerning the verse,

      And if you travel through the land, there is no sin upon you if you shorten your prayers, if you fear that those who disbelieve may harm you [4:101]

    The Companions could not understand why the Prophet (saws) and the Muslims were still shortening their prayers during travel, despite the fact that there was no longer any fear from enemy attacks. The Prophet (saws) responded,

    “(The concession to shorten prayers even in a state of security) is a charity which Allâh has given you, therefore accept the charity.”[15]

    6) By explaining the intent of a verse. The example in which the Prophet (saws) explained

      ..those whom You are angry with, and those who are astray [1:7]

    as the Jews and Christians falls under this category.

    7) By adding extra commands or prohibitions to the verse. An example of this is the Prophet’s (saws) prohibition of joining a woman with her maternal or paternal aunt in marriage (i.e., as co-wives), whereas the Qur’ân only prohibits combining a woman with her sister (4:23).

    8) By emphasising the meaning of the verse. In other words, by practising and affirming the laws in the Qur’ân. For example, all hadîth stressing good treatment to wives merely affirm the verse,

      And live with them on good terms (and kindness) [4:19]

    9) By showing that the verse was abrogated. This category has already been discussed.[16]

These few examples should be sufficient to illustrate that the Sunnah is of equal importance to the Qur’ân in deriving laws and understanding the Qur’ân. The Qur’ân can never be understood properly without the Sunnah.Even the Companions, whose knowledge of the Arabic language was unparalleled, had difficulty understanding many verses until the Prophet (saws) cleared up the exact meaning for them.

These two sources of tafsîr, tafsîr of the Qur’ân by the Qur’ân, and tafsîr of the Qur’ân by the Sunnah,are the two ultimate sources for understanding the Qur’ân. Neither is allowed to contradict itself or the other, and both sources must be taken simultaneously in order to arrive at a correct understanding. These two sources are also the final authority on the interpretation of the Qur’ân – no interpretation is allowed to contradict or supersede the interpretation of the Qur’ân by the Qur’ân and the Sunnah.


1 al-Albânî, Muhammad Nâsir ad-Dîn, Manzilat as-Sunnah ft al-Islâm (Dar al-Hayah al-Islâmiyah, Egypt, n.d.), p.5.

2 adh-Dhahabî, v. 1, p. 54. Actually, as-Suyûtî clarifies his point of view later on in his Itqân, which agrees in principle with Ibn Taymiyyah’s view. c£ Itqân, v. 2, p. 264.

3 cf. Itqân, v. 2, pps. 244-264.

4 Reported by al-Bukhârî.

5 Ibn Taymiyyah, p. 12.

6 Reported by Ahmad and Ibn Mâjah.

7 Reported by at-Tirmidhî.

8 Reported by at-Tirmidhî, and referred to in al-Bukhârî and Muslim.

9 Reported by Muslim.

10 Reported by al-Bukhârî and Muslim.

11 Reported by at-Tirmidhî.

12 c£ al-Albânî, Manzilat, p. 6.

13 ibid, p. 7.

14 Based on adh-Dhahabî, pps. 60-62, and others.

15 Reported by Muslim.

16 See, ‘The Categories of Naskh,’ in Chapter 13 – See Top of article for Purchase of Full Book

(NOTE: If you want to build a strong and powerful relationship with Allah, check out Islamia TV, where you can watch Islamic speakers from across the globe deliver inspiring and motivational courses. Learn more at www.islamia.tv.)


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