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Introduction of the history of Al-Tafseer
Qur’anic studies

                                                                       Qur’anic studies
                                                                            Part One
                                                  Introduction of the history of Al-Tafseer
                                                    The early stages of the Revelation.

By the Grace of Allah (SWT), will start a series of Qur’anic studies. Together will concentrate on how to apply the divine order, translated as: “(This is) a Book that We have revealed unto you, blessed, that they may ponder its verses, and that men of understanding may reflect.” Qur’an 38:29
And also, in another place He remind us of the importance of this matter, translated as: “ Do they not then reflect on the Qur’an? Nay, on the hearts there are locks.” Qur’an 47:24
Now, we will elaborate on two concepts are well known among the people and in the same time there is confusion in understanding them.

*Al-Tafseer (interpretation), that is, explaining the meanings of the Qur'anic verse, clarifying its import and finding out its significance, is one of the earliest academic activities in Islam. The interpretation of the Qur'an began with its revelation, as is clear from the words of Allah, translated as: “ No sooner do they represent you with an analogy, than We bring forward to you the evident truth, and a better explanation.” Qur’an 25:33

*Al-Ta'wil (expolso, in another place He remind us of the importance of this matter, translated as: “ Do they not then reflect on the Qur’an? Nay, on the hearts there are locks.” Qur’an 47:24
Now, we will elaborate on two concepts are well known among the people and in the same time there is confusion in understanding them.

*Al-Tafseer (interpretation), that is, explaining the meanings of the Qur'anic verse, clarifying its import and finding out its significance, is one of the earliest academic activities in Islam. The interpretation of the Qur'an began with its revelation, as is clear from the words of Allah, translated as: “ No sooner do they represent you with an analogy, than We bring forward to you the evident truth, and a better explanation.” Qur’an 25:33

*Al-Ta'wil (expounding) is that reality to which a verse refers; it is found in all verses, it is not a sort of a meaning of the word; it is a real fact that is too sublime for words; Allah has dressed them with words so as to bring them a bit nearer to our minds; thus help the hearer to clearly grasp the intended idea. Allah (SWT) said, translated as: “ ….. but none knows its expounding except Allah, and those who are firmly rooted in knowledge say: we believe in it, it is all from our Lord; and none do mind except those having understanding. ” Qur’an 3:7

Words on the history of “ Al-tafseer”
The first exegetes were a few companions of the Prophet, like Ibn 'Abbas, 'Abdullah ibn 'Umar, Ubayy (ibn Ka'b) and others. Interpretations in those days was confined to the explanation of literary aspects of the verse, the background of its revelation and, occasionally interpretation of one verse with the help of the other. If the verse was about a historical event or contained the realities of genesis or resurrection etc, then sometimes a few traditions of the Prophet were narrated to make its meaning clear. The same was the style of the disciples of the companions, who lived in the first two centuries of hijrah.

They relied even more on traditions, including the ones forged and interpolated by the Jews and others. They quoted those traditions to explain the verses which contained the stories of the previous nations, or which described the realities of genesis, for example, creation of the heavens and the earth, beginning of the rivers and mountains, the "Iram" (the city of the tribe of 'Ad), of Shaddad the so-called "mistakes" of the prophets, the alterations of the books and things like that. Some such matters could be found even in the exegesis ascribed to the companions.
During the reign of the caliphs, when the neighboring countries were conquered, the Muslims came in contact with the vanquished people and were involved in religious discussions with the scholars of various other religions and sects. This gave rise to the theological discourses, known in Islam as 'Ilm 'Al-kalam. Also, the Greek philosophy was translated into Arabic. The process began towards the end of the first century of hijrah (Umayyad's period) and continued well into the third century (Abbasid's reign).


At the same time, at-tasawwuf (Sufism, mysticism) raised its head in the society; and people were attracted towards it as it held out a promise of revealing to them the realities of religion through severe self-discipline and ascetical rigors instead of entangling them into verbal polemics and intellectual arguments.
And there emerged a group, who called themselves people of tradition, who thought that salvation depended on believing in the apparent meanings of the Qur'an and the tradition, without any academic research. The utmost they allowed was looking into literary value of the words.
Thus, before the second century had proceeded very far, the Muslim society had broadly split in four groups: The theologians, the philosophers, the Sufi's and the people of tradition. There was an intellectual chaos in the ummah and the Muslims, generally speaking, had lost their bearing. The only thing to which all were committed was the word, "There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad (PBUH) is the Messenger of Allah". They differed with each other in everything else. There was dispute on the meanings of the names and attributes of Allah, as well as about His actions; there was conflict about the reality of the heavens and the earth and what is in and on them; there were controversies about the decree of Allah and the divine measure; opinions differed whether man is a helpless tool in divine hands, or is a free agent; there were controversies about various aspects of reward and punishment; arguments were kicked like ball, from one side to the other concerning the realities of death, al-barzakh (intervening period between death and the Day of Resurrection); resurrection, paradise and. hell.

In short, not a single subject, having any relevance to religion was left without a discord of one type or the other. And this divergence, not unexpectedly, showed itself in exegesis of the Qur'an. Every group wanted to support his views and opinions from the Qur'an; and the exegesis had to serve this purpose.
The people of tradition explained the Qur'an with the traditions ascribed to the companions and their disciples. They went ahead so long as there was a tradition to lead them on, and stopped when they could not find any such tradition. They thought it to be the only safe method, as Allah says translated as: “ . . . and those who are firmly rooted in knowledge say:' "We believe in it, it is all from our Lord . . . " Qur’an 3:7

But they were mistaken. Allah has not said in His Book that rational proof had no validity. How could He say so when the authenticity of the Book itself depended on rational proof. On the other hand, He has never said that the words of the companions or their disciples had any value as religious proof. How could He say so when there were such glaring discrepancies in their opinions? In short, Allah has not called us to the sophistry which accepting and following contradictory opinions and views would entail. He has called us, instead, to meditate on the Qur’anic verses in order to remove any apparent discrepancy in them. Allah has revealed the Qur’an as a guidance, and has made it a light and an explanation of everything. Why should a light seek brightness from others' light? Why should guidance be led by others' guidance? Why should "an explanation of everything" be explained by others' words?
The theologians' lot was worse all the more. They were divided into myriad of sects; and each group clung to the verse that seemed to support its belief and tried to explain away what was apparently against it.

The seed of sectarian differences was sown in academic theories or, more often than not, in blind following and national or tribal prejudice; but it is not the place to describe it even briefly. However, such exegesis should be called adaptation, rather than explanation. There are two ways of explaining a verse - One may say: "What does the Qur’an say?" Or one may say: "How can this verse be explained, so as to fit on my belief? " The difference between the two approaches is quite clear. The former forgets every pre-conceived idea and goes where the Qur’an leads him to. The latter has already decided what to believe and cuts the Qur’anic verses to fit on that body; such an exegesis is no exegesis at all.

The philosophers too suffered from the same syndrome. They tried 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.

The Sufis kept their eyes fixed on esoteric aspects of creation; they were too occupied with their inner world to look at the outer one. Their tunnel-like vision prevented them from looking at the things in their true perspective. Their love of esoteric made them look for inner interpretations of the verses; without any regard to their manifest and clear meanings. It encouraged the people to base their explanations on poetic expressions and to use anything to prove anything.

Of course, there are traditions narrated from the Prophet saying for example: "Verily the Qur'an has an exterior and an interior, and its interior has an interior up to seven (or according to a version, seventy) interiors . . . But the Prophet 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. Interpretation is not a meaning against the manifest meaning of the verse. Such an interpretation should more correctly be called "misinterpretation". This meaning of the word, "interpretation", came in vogue in the Muslim circles long after the revelation of the Qur'an and the spread of Islam.

In recent times, a new method of exegesis has become fashionable. Some people, who were deeply influenced by the natural sciences and the social ones, followed the materialists of Europe. Under the influence of those anti-Islamic theories, they declared that the religion's realities cannot go against scientific knowledge; one should not believe except that which is perceived by any one, of the five senses; nothing exists except the matter and its properties.

What the religion claims to exist, but which the sciences reject -like The Throne, The Chair, The Tablet and The Pen, 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, prophet hood, apostleship etc. - are spiritual things, and the spirit is a development of the matter, or let us say, a property of the matter; legislation of those laws is manifestation of a special social genius, who ordains them after healthy and fruitful contemplation, in order to establish a good and progressive society.

They have further said: One cannot have confidence in the traditions, because many are spurious; only those traditions may be relied upon which are in conformity with the Book. As for the Book 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. The best, rather the only, way is to explain the Qur'an with the help of other Qur'anic verses - except where the science has asserted something which is relevant to it.

This, in short, is what they have written, or what necessarily follows from their total reliance on tests and observations. We are not concerned here with the question whether their scientific principles and philosophic dicta can be accepted as the foundation of the Qur'an's exegesis. But it should be pointed out here that the objection which they have leveled against the ancient exegetes - that theirs was only an adaptation and not the explanation is equally true about their own method; they too say that the Qur'an and its realities must be made to conform with the scientific theories. If not so, then why do they insist that the academic theories should be treated as true foundations of exegesis from which no deviation could be allowed?

This method improves nothing on the discredited method of the ancients.
If you look at- all the above-mentioned ways of exegesis, you will find that all of them suffer from a most serious defect: They impose the results of academic or philosophic arguments on the Qur'anic meanings - they make the Qur'an conform with an extraneous idea. In this way, explanation turns into adaptation, realities of the Qur'an are explained away as-allegories and its manifest meanings are sacrificed for so-called "interpretations".

As we mentioned in the beginning, the Qur'an introduces itself as the guidance for the nations, translated as: “the first Sanctuary appointed for mankind was that at Bekka, a blessed place, a guidance to the peoples” Qur’an 3:96, the manifest light, translated as: “O people! surely there has come to you manifest proof from your Lord and We have sent to you clear light.” Qur’an 4:174, and the explanation of everything, translated as: “….and We have revealed the Book to you explaining clearly everything, and a guidance and mercy and good news for those who submit.” Qur’an 16:89

But these people, contrary to those Qur'anic declarations, make it to be guided by extraneous factors, to be illuminated by some outside theories, and to be explained by something other than itself. "What is that "something else"? What authority has it got? And if there is any difference in various explanations of a verse and indeed there are most serious differences - which mediator should the Qur'an refer to? What is the root-cause of the differences in the Qur'an's explanations?

It could not happen because of any difference in the meaning of a word, phrase or sentence. The Qur'an has been sent down in plain Arabic; and no Arab (or Arabic-knowing non-Arab) can experience any difficulty in understanding it. Also, there is not a single verse (out of more than six thousand) which is enigmatic, obscure or abstruse in its import; nor is there a single sentence that keeps the mind wandering in search of its meaning. After all, the Qur'an is admittedly the most eloquent speech, and it is one of the essential ingredients of eloquence that the talk should be free from obscurity and abstruseness.

Even those verses that are counted among the " allegorical " ones, have no ambiguity in their meanings; whatever the ambiguity, it is in identification of the particular thing or individual from among the group to which that meaning refers. This statement needs some elaboration:-
In this life we are surrounded by matter; even our senses and faculties are closely related to it. This familiarity with matter and material things has influenced our mode of thinking. When we hear a word or a sentence, our mind races to its material meaning. When we hear, for example, the words, life, knowledge, power, hearing, sight, speech, will, pleasure, anger, creation and order, we at once think of the material manifestations of their meanings. Likewise, when we hear the words, heaven, earth, tablet, pen, throne, chair, angel and his wings, and Satan and his tribe and army, the first things that come into our minds are their material manifestations.

Likewise, when we hear the sentences, "Allah created the universe", "Allah did this", "Allah knew it", "Allah intended it" or "intends it", we look at these actions in frame of "time" because we are used to connect every verb with a tense.
In the same way, when we hear the verses: 50:35 ” ... and there is more with Us”. And in 21:17 “… We should surely have taken it from the things nearest to Us”, and in 62:11 “...and that with Allah is better ...”, and in 2:28 “... and to Him you shall be brought back.”,
We attach with the divine presence the concept of "place", because in our minds the two ideas are attached together.
Also, on reading the verses: I7:16: “ And when We intend to destroy a town, 28:5: “ And We intend to show a favor ...”, 2:185 “… and Allah intends ease for you ”, we think that the "intention" has the same meaning in every sentence, as is the case with our own intention and will.

In this way, we jump to the familiar (which most often is material) meaning of every word. And it is but natural. Man has made words to fulfill his social need of mutual intercourse; and society in its turn was established to fulfill the man's material needs. Not unexpectedly, the words became symbols of the things, which men were connected with and which helped them in their material progress. But we should not forget that the material things are constantly changing and developing with the development of expertise. Man gave the name, lamp, to a certain receptacle in which he put a wick and a little fat that fed the lighted wick which illuminated the place in darkness. That apparatus kept changing until now it has become the electric bulb of various types; and except the name "lamp" not a single component of the original lamp can be found in it.


Likewise, there is no resemblance in the balance of old times and the modern scales - especially if we compare the old apparatus with the modern equipment for weighing and measuring heat, electric current's flow. And the armaments of old days and the ones invented within our own times have nothing in common, except the name.


The named things have changed so much that not a single component of the original can be found in them; yet the name has not changed. It shows that the basic element that allows the use of a name for a thing is not the shape of that thing, but its purpose and benefit.
Man, imprisoned as he is within his customs and habits, often fails to see this reality. Those who believe that God has a body interpret the Qur’anic verses and phrases within the frame-work of the matter and the nature. But in fact they are stuck with their habit and customs. Even in the literal meanings of the Qur'an we find ample evidence that relying on the habit and customs in explanation of the divine speech would cause confusion. There are numerous verses manifestly show that what we are accustomed to cannot be ascribed to Allah. In 42:11 translated as: “…there is nothing whatever like unto Him…. .” It was this reality that convinced many people that they should not explain the Qur'anic words by identifying them with their usual and common meanings, customs and habits.

They sought the help of logical and philosophical arguments to avoid wrong deductions. This gave a foot-hold to academic reasoning in explaining the Qur'an and identifying the individual person or thing meant by a word. Such discussions can be of two kinds: 
1- The interpreter takes a problem emanating from a Qur'anic statement, looks at it from academic and philosophical point of view, weighs the pros and cons and with the help of the philosophy, science and logic decides what the true answer should be. Thereafter, he takes the verse and fits it anyhow on that answer which, he thinks, is right.
The Muslim philosophers and theologians usually followed this method; but, as mentioned earlier, the Qur'an does not approve of it. 
2- The interpreter explains the verse with the help of other relevant verses, meditating on them together - and meditation has been forcefully urged upon by the Qur'an itself - and identifies the individual person or thing by its particulars and attributes mentioned in the verse.
No doubt this is the only correct method of interpretation ( tafseer).

Allah has said, translated as: “…and We have sent down to you the Book explaining all things, a Guide, a Mercy, and Glad Tidings to Muslims.” Qur’an 16:89 Is it possible for such a book not to explain its own self? The Qur'an is, accordingly, a guidance, an evidence, a discrimination between right and wrong ( Furqaan) and a manifest light for the people to guide them aright and help them in all their needs. Is it imaginable that it would not guide them to the right way in its own matter, while it is their most important need? Again Allah says, translated as: “And those who strive in Our (cause), We will certainly guide them to our Paths: For verily Allah is with those who do right.” Qur’an 29: 69
Which striving is greater than serious reflection to understand His Book? And which way is more straight than the Qur'an?

“ Truly is not their eyes that are blind, but their hearts which are in their breasts.” Qur’an 22:46

References:
• The Holy Qur’an,
• Vocabulary of the Holy Qur’an- Dr. Abdullah Abbas Al- Nadawi,
• The history of the companions and their disciples,
• Ibn Katheer,
• Tabatabai,
• Al-Qurtubi


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