‘Ulûm al-Qur’ân #4 – The Compilation 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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D. The Compilation of Tafsîr

After the period of the Successors, the stage of the actual compilation and writing of tafsîr began. The most important works were by scholars of hadîth, who, as part of their narrations and works of hadîth, also had sections on tafsîr. Therefore, during this stage, the narrations of tafsîr were considered a branch of hadîth literature. Some of the scholars of this period that were known for their tafsîr narrations include Yazîd ibn Hârûn as-Sulamî (d. 117 A.H.), Sufyân al-Thawri (d. 161 A.H.), Sufyân ibn ‘Uyaynah (d. 198 A.H.), Wakî’ ibn al-Jarâh (d. 197 A.H.), Shu’bah ibn al-Hajjâj (d. 160 A.H.), Aadam ibn Abî lyâs (d. 220 A.H.), and ‘Abd ibn-Humayd (d. 249 A.H.). None of their works have survived intact until the present day.[1]

The next stage in the history of tafsîr saw the separation of tafsîr literature from hadîth, and the emergence of independent works solely on tafsîr. Another stride during this stage was that every verse was discussed, so that tafîr was not only limited to those verses for which narrations from the Prophet (saws) and Companions existed; rather, these tafsîrs encompassed all the verses in the Qur’ân.

In attempting to answer who the first person to write a comprehensive tafsîr of the Qur’ân was, the researcher is faced with a rather significant impediment: a lack of almost all manuscripts written during the first century of the hijrah. However, there are a number of references in later works to such manuscripts, and among the earliest works referenced is that of Sa’îd ibn Jubayr (d. 95 A.H.).[2] Most likely, this work was not a complete tafsîr of the Qur’ân, but rather composed of narrations from the previous generations. An interesting narration in the Fihrist of Ibn Nadîm (d. 438 A.H.) reads as follows:[3]

  ‘Umar ibn Bukayr, one of the students of al-Farrâ, was with the governor Hasan ibn Sahl. He wrote to al-Farrâ: The governor sometimes questions me concerning (the tafsîr of) a verse in the Qur’ân, but I am unable to respond to him. Therefore, if you think it suitable to compile something with regards to the Qur’ân, or write a book concerning this, I can return to this book (whenever he asks me)’. al-Farrâ said to his students, ‘Gather together so that I may dictate to you a book on the Qur’ân’…and he told the muadhin to recite Sûrah al-Fâtihah, so that he may interpret it, until the whole book (i.e., the Qur’ân) was finished. The narrator of the story, Abû al-‘Abbâs, said, ‘No one before him every did anything like it, and I don’t think that anyone can add to what he wrote!’

Al-Farrâ died in the year 207 A.H., and thus we can say that this is definitely one of the earliest works of this nature.[4] Ibn Mâjah (d. 273), of Sunan fame, also wrote a tafsîr of the Qur’ân, but again this was limited to narrations from the previous generations.

One of the greatest classics available is without a doubt the monumental tafîr of the Qur’ân by Muhammad ibn Jarîr at-Tabarî (d. 310 A.H.). This tafsîr, although heavily based on narrations, also discusses the grammatical analysis of the verse, the various qira’ât and their significance on the meaning of the verse, and, on occasion, Ibn Jarîr’s personal reasoning (ijtihâd) on various aspects of the verse. In many ways, this can be considered to be the first tafsîr to attempt to cover every aspect of a verse. Other tafsîrs followed quickly; in particular the tafîr of Abû Bakr ibn Mundhir an-Naisapûrî (d. 318 A.H.), Ibn Abî Hâtim (d. 327 AH.), Abû Shaykh ibn Hibbân (d. 369 A.H.), al-Hâkim (d. 405 A.H.) and Abû Bakr ibn Mardawayh (d. 410).[5]

This era also saw the beginning of the specialisation in tafsîr, with tafsîrs being written, for example, with greater emphasis on the grammatical analysis and interpretation of the Qur’ân. Greater emphasis was also placed on personal reasoning ( ijtihâd), and tafsîrs written solely for the defence of sectarian views (such as the tafîrs of the Mutazilah), and even for the defence of ones fiqh madhhab, such as the tafsîrs of the Hanafîs, Shâfi’îs and Mâlikîs) appeared. Another aspect that started during this era was the deletion of the isnâd from tafsîr narrations, and this led to the increasement of weak and fabricated reports in tafsîr literature.

A Summary

To summarise, it is possible to divide the history of tafsîr into five periods.[6] The first period is considered to be the time of the Companions and Successors, and consisted mainly of narrations concerning those verses over which there was a difference of opinion or misunderstanding, in addition to the hadîth of the Prophet (saws) dealing with tafsîr. Personal reasoning ( ijtihâd) from the Companions and Successors was, in general, only resorted to when absolutely necessary.

The second period is the era of the late Successors, and the generation after them. During this time, hadîth literature had begun to be compiled, and tafsîr narrations therefore become a part of hadîth works. Also during this time, the various hadîth of the Prophet (saws) and narrations from different Companions began to be compiled, whereas in the first period, these narrations were typically limited to a specific area.

The third stage saw the rise of independent tafsîr works, based on the hadîth works of the previous generation, and thus tafsîrs became an independent science among the Islâmic sciences. This stage, which can be said to begin in the second half of the third century, also produced the first complete Qur’ânic tafsîr, whose commentary was not limited to only those verses concerning which narrations existed from previous generations. However, during this stage, the primary source of tafsîr still remained narrations from the previous generation.

It was only during the fourth stage where reliance on narrations decreased, and much greater emphasis was placed on personal reasoning, and tafsîrs were written based on sectarian bias. For example, as-Suyûtî narrates concerning the verse,

..Not the path of those whom You are angry with, nor those who are astray

that there exist ten different opinions concerning who this verse refers to, despite the fact that the Prophet (saws) has clearly explained that it refers to the Jews and Christians![7] This period also witnessed the increasement of forged narrations in tafsîr literature, as the isnâd disappeared from tafsîr works.

The final period of the history of tafsîr, which has lasted from the fourth century of the hijrah until today, saw the culmination of the science of tafsîr, and the emergence of various categories of tafsîr, such as tafsîr based on narrations, on personal reasoning, topic-wise interpretation, polemical interpretation, and jurisprudential interpretation (these will be discussed in greater detail below). Other tafsîrs sought to combine all of these topics into one work, thus giving a broad, all-encompassing approach to interpretation.


1 adh-Dhahabî,v.l,p. 152.

2 ibid.,v.l,p. 155.

3 ibid., v.l, p. 154, from the Fihrist

4 This work, unlike many others from its era, is available in manuscript form, and part of it has been published by Dâr al-Kutub al-Misriyah, 1956.

5 adh-Dhahabî, p. 152.

6 c£ adh-Dhahabî, v. 1, pps. 151-56.

7 as-Suyûtî, v. 2, p. 190.

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