‘Ulûm al-Qur’ân #3 – The History of Tafsîr


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

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A. The Time of The Prophet (SAWS)

It is no surprise to discover that the science of tafsîr started during the lifetime of the Prophet (saws) himself, In fact, one of the primary roles of the Prophet (saws), as shall be expounded on later, was to interpret the Qûr’an. 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]

The science of tafsîr during the Prophet’s (saws) life was a relatively easy matter. This was so for a number of factors. Firstly, the Companions were witnessing the revelation of the Qûr’an, and the circumstances during which it was revealed. They were aware of the reason behind the revelation of a verse (asbâb an-nuzûl), and as such did not need to search for this knowledge as later interpreters would have to.

Secondly, the Arabic of the Companions was the Arabic of the Qûr’an, as the Qûr’an was revealed in their dialect. Therefore the Arabic of the Qûr’an was, in general, understood by them without any difficulties.

Lastly, and most importantly, the Prophet (saws) was alive, and the Qûr’an was still being revealed, so even if there were any difficulties in understanding any verse, they could turn to the Prophet (saws) for an explanation. An example quoted earlier is with regards to the verse,

Those who believe and do not mix their belief with injustice…[6:82]

The Companions asked, “O Messenger of Allâh! Who amongst us does not do injustice (to his soul)?”The Prophet (saws) replied, “Have you not read the statement of Luqman, «Verily, shirk is a great injustice?» [31:13] [1]

In other words, the Prophet (saws) informed them that the injustice referred to in this verse was shirk or the association of partners with Allâh.

The Companions were careful that they understood every single verse in the Qûr’an properly. Abû ‘Abd ar-Rahmân as-Sulamî (d. 75 AH.) reported that whenever the people who taught them the Qûr’an, like‘Uthmân ibn ‘Affân, ‘Abdullâh ibn Mas’ûd, and others, learnt ten verses of the Qûr’an, they would not proceed further until they had understood whatever ideas and regulations those verses contained. They used to say, “We learnt the Qûr’an, and studied its ideas and injunctions all together.”[2]

This narration shows that the Companions were eager to understand Qûr’an, so much so that they would not memorise any verses until they had already understood what they knew.
The role of the Prophet (saws), and quantity of the Qûr’an that he interpreted, will be elaborated upon in the next section.

B. The Period of The Companions

After the death of the Prophet (saws), the science of tafsîr took on a more systematic approach. Thus it can be considered that the first true mufassirs were actually the Companions. The sources that the Companions used for tafîr were the Qûr’an, the statements of the Prophet (saws), the principles of Arabic grammar and rhetoric, their own personal reasoning(ijtihâd), and pagan and Judaeo-Christian customs that were prevalent at the time of the revelation of the Qûr’an. These sources will be discussed in greater detail in the following section.

There were many among the Companions who were well known for their knowledge of the interpretation of the Qûr’an. As-Suyûtî wrote, “There are ten who were famous for their knowledge of tafîr among the Companions: the four Khulafâ ar-Râshidûn [3] ‘Abdullâh ibn Mas’ûd, ‘Abdullâh ibn ‘Abbâs, Ubay ibn Ka’ab, Zayd ibn Thâbit, Abu Mûsâ al-Ash’arî and‘Abdullâh ibn Zubayr. As for the Khulafâ ‘Alî ibn Abî Tâlib has the most narrations amongst them; as for the other three, there reports are very rare to find, since they died relatively earlier…”[4]

In other words, the tafsîr narrations of Abî Bakr, ‘Umar and ‘Uthmân are not as common due to the fact that they were not compiled because of their relatively early deaths.
Also, during their time, there was no great need to interpret much of the Qur’ân, as the Companions were many and wide-spread. During later times, however, such as during the Caliphate of ‘Alî, the need to interpret the Qur’ân was much greater than before.

There were others besides these ten Companions who were well known for their knowledge of tafsîr, such as Anas ibn Mâlik, Abû Hurayrah, Jâbir ibn ‘Abdillâh and‘Aa’ishah, except that they were not in the same category as the ten whom as-Suyûtî mentioned.

The most knowledgeable Companion with regards to the interpretation of the Qur’ân is considered to be Ibn ‘Abbâs. ‘Abdullâh ibn ‘Umar said, “Ibn ‘Abbâs is the most knowledgeable of this ummah concerning the revelation given to Muhammad (saws).”[5]

This is due to the fact that the Prophet (saws) himself prayed for Ibn ‘Abbâs, for he (saws) said, “O Allâh! Give him the knowledge of the Book, and of Wisdom!”and in another narration, “O Allâh! Give him the knowledge of the religion, and interpretation.”[6]

He used to accompany the Prophet (saws) during his youth, as he was his (saws) cousin. Also, his aunt Maymûnah was a wife of the Prophet (saws)

Ibn ‘Abbâs was held in great esteem by the Companions, despite his age (he was only thirteen when the Prophet (saws) passed away). ‘Umar used to let Ibn ‘Abbâs enter into the meetings of the older Companions, so some of them complained, “Why is it that you let him enter, even though we have sons the same age as him (whom you do not allow to enter)?”

‘Umar answered, “Since he is amongst the most knowledgeable of you!” So he called them one day, to prove to them this statement, and he asked them, “What do you think of the verse,

When the help of Allâh comes, and the Conquest [110:1] ?

Some of them did not reply, while others said, “We have been commanded to thank Allâh and ask for His forgiveness whenever we are helped and aided to victory.”‘Umar asked Ibn ‘Abbâs, “And do you think the same also, O Ibn ‘Abbâs?”He answered, “No!” ‘Umar asked, “Then what do you say.”

He replied, “This is an indication to the Prophet (saws) from Allâh that his life is about to end. The verse means, When the help of Allâh comes, and the Conquest then this is a sign of your approaching death, therefore,

Glorify the Praises of your Lord, and ask for Forgiveness, for verily He is ever accepting repentance! [110:3]

‘Umar said, “I don’t know any other meaning to this except what you have said!”[7]

The narrations of Ibn ‘Abbâs, along with those of’Abdullâh ibn Mas’ûd, ‘Alî ibn Abî Tâlib, and Ubay ibn Ka’ab, are the most numerous narrations from Companions that are to be found in tafsîr literature. Each one of them established centres of learning during their lifetimes, and left many students among the Successors after their deaths.

The Companions did not leave narrations concerning every single verse in the Qur’ân. This is because the people of their time understood much of what the Qur’ân discussed, and only where the possibility for misinterpretation or ignorance existed did the Companions give their own interpretation of the relevant verse. Such interpretation typically consisted of explaining a verse in clearer words, or explaining a particular phrase or word with pre-Islamic poetry. Another characteristic of this time is the relatively trivial differences in tafsîr as compared to later generations.

C. The Period of The Successors

After the generation of the Companions, the students of the Companions took over the responsibility of explaining the Qur’ân. The Successors used the same sources to interpret the Qur’ân that the Companions did, except that they added to the list of sources the interpretations of the Companions. They understood that an interpretation given by the Companions of the Prophet (saws) could not be compared to an interpretation of any person after them. Therefore, the sources for interpreting the Qur’ân during this generation were: the Qur’ân, the statements of the Prophet (saws) that the Companions had informed them of, the Companions’ personal reasoning (ijtihâd) of the verse, the Arabic language, their own personal reasoning (ijtihâd), and Judaeo-Christian tradition.

After the death of the Prophet (saws), the Companions spread out to different Muslim cities in order to teach people the religion of Islâm. Each one taught many Successors, most of whom became scholars in their own right in due time.

Historically, three primary learning centres were established in the Muslim empire: Makkah, Madînah and Kûfah. Each of these areas became leading centres of knowledge during the period of the Successors, including the knowledge of tafsîr.

In Makkah, where Ibn ‘Abbâs had taught, his primary students became the scholars of this area. In particular, Sa’îd ibn Jubayr (d. 95 A.H.), Mujâhid ibn Jabr (d. 104 A.H.), ‘Ikrimah (d. 104 A.H.), Tâwûs (d. 106 A.H.), and ‘Atâ ibn Rabâh (d. 114 A.H.) became leading authorities in this field, and their names are still to be found in many works of tafsîr.

In Madînah, the influence of ‘Ubay ibn Ka’ab was the strongest in the arena of tafsîr, and his students Abû al-‘Aaliyah (d. 90 A.H.), Muhammad ibn Ka’ab al-Quradî (d. 118 A.H.) and Zayd ibn Aslam (d. 136 A.H.) emerged as the scholars of tafsîr in Madînah during this period.

In Kûfah, ‘Abdullaah ibn Mas’ûd left behind his great legacy to ‘Alqamah ibn Qays (d. 61 A.H.), Masrûq (d. 63 A.H.), and al-Aswad ibn Yazîd (d. 74 A.H.). Other Successors from Kûfah who were famous for their knowledge of’ tafsîr were: ‘Aamir ash-Sha’bî (d. 109 A.H.), al-Hasan al-Basrî (d. 110 A.H.) and Qatâdah as-Sadûsî (d. 117A.H.)

During this period, greater emphasis was placed on Judaeo-Christian tradition (known as Isrâ îliyât), and because of this, many of these narrations entered into Islâmic literature. Most of the people who narrated these traditions were Jews and Christians who had embraced Islâm, such as ‘Abdullâh ibn Salaam (he was a Companion, d. 43 A.H.), Ka’ab al-Ahbâr (he embraced Islâm after the death of the Prophet (saws) and did not see him; he died 32 A.H.), Wahb ibn Munnabih (d. 110 A.H.), and ‘Abdul Mâlik ibn Jurayj (d. 150 A.H.). Much of the Judaeo-Christian traditions prevalent in tafsîr literature can be traced back to these scholars.

Also during this time, the differences in interpreting the Qur’ân were much greater than during the time of the Companions. Another characteristic of this period is the increase of forged narrations attributed to the Prophet (saws). This was due to the political and religious strife that was rampant throughout the Muslim territories at that time. Lastly, the quantity of verses for which narrations exist from the Successors is greater than that for the Companions, since more verses needed explanation than during the time of the Companions.


1 Reported by al-Bukhârî

2 Ibn Taymiyyah, p. 12.

3 A term that means ‘The rightly-guided caliphs’, used to denote the first four caliphs, Abû Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthmân and ‘Alî.

4 as-Suyûtî, v. 2, p. 239.

5 adh-Dhahabî, v. 1, p. 72 (the reference to adh-Dhahabî, whenever it appears in this chapter, refers to Dr. ad-Adh-Dhahabî’s Tafsîr wa al-Mufasirûn, unless otherwise specified).

6 Reported by al-Bukhârî.

7 Reported by al-Bukhârî.

(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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