An Introduction to the Theory of Qur’anic Interpretation
The Noble Qur’an is a divine book and a sacred text that God revealed so as to encompass matters of belief, legal practice, morality, ideals and lessons. God fashioned the Qur’an to be inimitable and He guarded it from error unlike the other divine books. It is thus truly an inimitable book and that there is no limit to the ways in which it is inimitable. Throughout Islamic history, the scholars have pondered the depth of the Qur’an’s miraculous nature and they have found that the many aspects of its inimitability have continued to increase.
The number of written works about the Qur’an and its inimitability has continued to grow to the extent that the great scholar and poet Mustafa Sadiq al-Rafi’I (d. 1937CE), may God have mercy on him said, “Since human history was first recorded, no book can be found that has had as many commentaries, interpretations, books, and words written on it to the extent of that written on the Qur’an, not in a similar manner or even close to it .” A multitude of works have been published regarding its interpretation, which expound on its inimitability in every area, including its grammar, rhetoric, the clear and unclear verses, its written form and transmission, as well other areas of study.
There are innumerable commentaries and exegeses on the Qur’an, which is a proof of its inimitability since the scholars have taken so many centuries and they still continue to explore its depths to this day, and they will continue to do so until the Day of Judgment. Numerous commentaries have been written on the Qur’an, which, for example, treat legal matters like al-Qurtubi’s (d. 671 H.) work, or grammar like Abu Hayyan’s (d. 414 H.), or hadith like IbnJarir’s (d. 310 H.), IbnKathir’s (d. 774 H.) and al-Suyuti’s (d. 911 H.), or stories and history like Tha’alabi’s (d. 429 H.), or rhetoric like Zamakhshari’s (d. 538 H.), and so on.
The Science of Exegesis, Its Inception, and Development Exegesis or interpretation (tafsir) refers in the Arabic language to “explanation” and “uncovering”. The word tafsir is derived from the Arabic root “f-s-r”which means uncovering a mask or lid or making manifest a meaning that is to be understood . Tafsir is technically understood as the elucidation or clarification of God’s speech or as the explanation of the words and meanings of the Qur’an. As reported by Suyuti (d. 911 H.) in his book al-Itqan, some scholars have defined tafsir as the science of the revelation of verses, the occasions or context of their revelation, the reasons for their revelation, as well as knowledge of verses that are Meccan, versus those that are Medinan, the clear versus the unclear verses, the abrogated versus the abrogating verses, the specific versus the general verses, the absolute versus the limited verses, the prohibiting and the permitting verses, and those verses that warn, command, and recount lessons and parables . Al-Zarqani (d. 1122 H.) defines tafsir thus: It is the science in which one investigates, within human capacity, the various aspects of the Qur’an insofar as they indicate God’s intentions .
The Subject-Matter of Exegesis (Tafsir): The Scholars of Tafsir agree that the subject matter of Exegesis is God’s speech in the Quran .
Its Benefit: The benefit of tafsir is to provide lessons and reminders and it is the means to know the guidance of God in matters of belief, worship, transactions, morals, so that individuals and communities may obtain the immediate and distant good .
The Rank of the Science of Exegesis:
Al-Asfahani (d. 597 H.) states: “The noblest craft in which a person partakes is the exegesis of the Qur’an. This is because the nobility of a science is due to the nobility of its subject-matter, its aim, or the need for it, and tafsir possesses nobility in all three respects: its subject-matter is God’s speech, its aim is to obtain true and eternal happiness, and as for the need for it, every religious or worldly perfection, immediate or distant, requires religious science and knowledge which is dependent on knowledge of God’s book .”
Regarding the nobility of this science, al-Tabari (d. 310 H.) states, “Servants of God, know that what is most deserving of care and thoroughness in study is what Allah is pleased with in terms of our knowledge of it and that by means of which the knower gains guidance to the right path and the most comprehensive of all that is God’s book, in which there is no doubt .”
The Relation of Science of Exegesis (to other sciences):
The scholars maintain that the science of exegesis, in relation to other sciences, is like the relation of the eye to the human and the human to the eye .
The Founder of the Science of Exegesis:
The Prophet (peace be upon him) was the first interpreter or the Book of God, elucidating to people what was revealed to him as per God's commandment to him the Holy Quran: "And We revealed to you the message that you may make clear to the people what was sent down to them and that they might give thought". (16:44)
The name of this science in Arabic is the science of tafsir, which, as mentioned, is due to it involving the revealing or clarification of meanings. Only this science was assigned the name tafsir, even if the other sciences reveal or clarify meanings, because of the greatness of its status, and its aim to elucidate God’s intentions, making this science as though it was in fact the only exegesis or tafsir .
The Sources of Tafsir:
Tafsir finds its source-material in the science of language, grammar, morphology, rhetoric, legal source interpretation, the science of recitation. It also requires knowledge of the reasons of revelation and knowledge of those verses that abrogate and those that abrogated .
The Legal Status of Studying Tafsir:
There is a consensus amongst the scholars that learning it is a collective obligation and is the most noble of the three religious sciences .
Its Origin and Development:
The origin of tafsir is located in the era of the Prophet (peace be upon him). If the Companions (God be pleased with them) were puzzled by a certain verse, they would ask the Prophet (peace be upon him) and he would clarify to them anything that they did not understand or anything that was obscure. Ibn Mas’ud (d. 32 H.) (God be pleased with him) said, “When the verse, ‘Those who believe and do not conflate their belief with error,’ was revealed, the Companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him) were distressed by it and said, ‘Who of us does not wrong himself!’ So the Prophet, peace be upon him, said, ‘It is not what you think, but it is only as Luqman said to his son, ‘Son, do not ascribe partners to God, polytheism is grave error.’” (Luqman: 13)
The Companions (may God be please with them) were keen on learning the Qur’an from the Prophet (peace be upon him) and were keen on its interpretation and its memorization. Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Sulami (d. 74 or 75 H.) states that those who would recite the Qur’an, like Uthman b. Affan (d. 35 H), Abdallah b. Mas’ud (d. 32 H.) and others, would tell us that if they had been taught ten verses by the Prophet, peace be upon him, they would not exceed that amount until they had learnt what they contained in terms of knowledge and practice. They said, “So we learned the Qur’an, knowledge, and practice at once and for this reason they used to spend some time in memorizing one particular chapter (sura) .”
Tafsir, or the interpretation, of the Qur’an was not recorded in the time of the Prophet (peace be upon him) as an independent field of study, but statements of the Prophet (peace be upon him) which bore on the interpretation of the verses of the Qur’an were transmitted from him, just as hadith were transmitted from him (peace be upon him). The era of the Companions continued like this, i.e., without tafsir being recorded independently, then came the time of the Successors who took their knowledge of the Qur’an and Sunna from the Companions. Each group of Successors received knowledge directly from the Companions. So they collected everything that was transmitted by the Companions from the Prophet (peace be upon him) as hadith, and they heard from the Companions what concerned the interpretation of the verses of the Qur’an. So the scholars of each region collected what their predecessors knew, as the people of Mecca did with regard to the tafsir of Ibn Abbas (d. 68 H) (may God be pleased with him), and as the people of Kufa did with regard to the Ibn Mas’ud’s (d. 32 H.) (may God be pleased with him) traditions on tafsir. Subsequent to this, the science of tafsir was recorded as an independent science and has continued to be recorded to this day .
Tafsir in the time of the Companions and the Successors was narrated and memorized, and after their time hadith was recorded which contained tafsir. Sufyan b. Uyayna (d. 198 H.), Waqi’ b. Jarrah (d. 197 H.) were some authorities that recorded hadith.
Then towards the end of the Umayyad dynasty, and at the beginning of the Abbasid dynasty, tafsir was provided for each verse of the Qur’an according to the order of the mushaf, i.e., the Qur’an in its complete ordered form. This was done by a number of scholars, including Ibn Majah (d. 273 H.), Ibn Jarir al-Tabari (d. 310 H.), and others. In the Abbasid period, tafsir with interpretation was recorded along with tafsir that consisted only of transmitted reports and sayings .
Sources Utilized by the Companions in Tafsir:
The Companions (may God be pleased with them) used to base their independent opinions in tafsir on the following:
1. Knowledge of the nature of the Arabic language: Their knowledge of the Arabic language assisted them in understanding the verses of the Qur’an which was expressed in on the Arabic language.
2. Knowledge of the reasons of revelation: The Companions were contemporaneous with revelation and they witnessed it, so they knew the context and reasons for the revelations of certain verses . IbnTaymiyya (d. 1328 CE) states, “Knowledge of the reason of revelation assists in comprehending the verse because knowledge of the cause engenders knowledge of that which is caused .”
3. Knowledge of the condition of Jews and Christians in the Arabian Peninsula during revelation: This assists in understanding verses in which their actions are mentioned and commented on.
4. Knowledge of the customs of the Arabs: In the Qur’an there are many verses that are related to Arab customs.
5. The ability to comprehend and understand: This is a virtue that God gives to whomever he wills. The meanings of many verses of the Qur’an are subtle or obscure and cannot be understood except by one who is given a sufficient measure of intelligence and insight. ‘Abdullah ibn‘Abbas (d. 68 H) was given the greatest share of that which was due to the prayer that the Prophet (peace be upon him) made for him.
The First to Record and Codify Tafsir:
We cannot specify with any precision the first exegete who provided the tafsir of the Qur’an verse by verse or the first to record it as a continuous text according to the order of the mushaf, but there was the following group of scholars: Ibn Jarir al-Tabari (d. 310 H.), Ibn Majah (d. 273 H.), Ibn Hayyan (d. 815 CE), and al-Hakim . Of these, we do not know who the first to record a work of tafsir was.
The Most Famous Authors of Tafsir:
The Companions (may God be pleased with them) were concerned with teaching the Qur’an and learning its meanings from the Prophet (peace be upon him). Ibn Mas’ud (d. 32 H.) said, “If one of us was taught ten verses, he would not exceed that until he understood their meaning and put them into practice.” Many of them were known for interpreting the Qur’an, for example, the Righteous Caliphs Abu Bakr (d. 13 H.), ‘Umar (d. 23 H.), Uthman (d. 35 H.), and ‘Ali (d. 40 H.) (God be pleased with them). Also ‘Abdallah ibn‘Abbas (d. 68 H.) (God be pleased with him) was also known for his knowledge oftafsir and was named “the interpreter of the Qur’an” for his understanding and accurate knowledge of the meaning of the text of the Qur’an. The Prophet (peace be upon him) used to pray for him by saying, “God, make him learned in the religion and teach him interpretation (ta’wil).” Ta’wil here refers to tafsir. ‘Abdullah bin Mas’ud (d. 32 H.) was also well known for tafsir. He used to say, “Not a verse was revealed of God’s book except that I would know about whom it was revealed to and where it was revealed. If I knew anyone who was more knowledgeable than I, and to whom there is transportation, I would go to him.” The many Successors acquired knowledge of tafsir from the Companions (God be pleased with them), including: Hasan al-Basri (d. 110 H.), Sa’id ibn Jubayr (d. 95 H.) , Ikrima the servant of Ibn Abbas (d. 105 H) and others. They then transmitted what they learned to those who came after them. The scholars and authorities in tafsir learned from them and recorded tafsir in books and wrote lengthy works by which tafsir was transmitted to us.
The Most Famous Books of Tafsir:
1. The Tafsirof al-Tabari:
Its title is “The Collected Exposition of the Interpretation of the Verses of the Qur’an”, which belongs to the master of the interpreters of the Qur’an, and the first to record tafsir, Muhammad ibnJarir al-Tabari (d. 310). He collected in it the statements of the Companions, the Successors, the Successors of the Successors. This book is considered the first complete source in tafsir. Everyone who came after him considered this work a source for the tafsir of the Qur’an.
2. The Tafsir of al-Qurtubi:
It is entitled “The Collection of the Rules of the Qur’an”, authored by Imam Abu Abdallah Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Ansari al-Qurtubi (d. 671). His method in tafsir is to cite verses and then list transmitted traditions as well as interpretations. He also discussed legal rulings and the juristic positions and schools where he treats verses that have legal significance and implications and the various recitations and aspects of grammar. It is one of the lengthy and expansive works of tafsir.
3. The Tafsir of the Noble Qur’an:
The work was written by the hadith authority and expert, the historian, Isma’il ibn Kathir (d. 774), also known as the Tafsir of Ibn Kathir. This book is the most famous book written on tafsir by means of transmitted reports and is considered only second to the Tafsir of Tabari. In it, Ibn Kathir relies on interpreting the Qur’an by means of the Qur’an, then interpreting the Qur’an by means of hadith, then by what was transmitted by the Companions (God be pleased with them), and then by the words of the righteous successors. It is an indispensible source for the student of knowledge
4. Tafsir of the Encompassing Ocean ( Al Bahr Al Moheet):
The work was authored by the grammarian and exegete, Muhammad ibn Yusuf ibn Ali ibn Hayyan, the Andulusian (d. 745). The book is considered the foremost source on the grammatical interpretation of phrases in the Qur’an, and on grammatical problems, as well as the various recitations and the reasons of revelation.
5. The Opening from the All-Powerful (Fath al-Qadir):
By the master hadith specialist and jurist, Muhammad ibn Ali al-Shawkani (d. 1250). The work is considered one of the sources of tafsir, which drew on the works of the predecessors and added to them. His method in tafsir is to cite a verse and clarify its meaning, then list the various recitations and reciters, provide grammatical interpretations for many of the phrases, and finally provide juristic positions on legal verses.
There are also many concise works of tafsir which focus on explaining the meanings of words and providing short commentaries on verses.
Tools and Principles that Help the Exegete to Better Understand the Book of God:
In undertaking any field of study, one must know its general foundations and specific characteristics so that the student is aware of what he aims to study. One obtains success in a field of study to the extent that one acquires the tools relevant to that field of study, so that one, having given the keys to it, enters it through the proper gates. And if the Qur’an was revealed in clear Arabic speech (“We have revealed it as a clear recitation so that you may understand.” (12: 2), the principles and rules that the exegete needs for comprehending the Qur’an will focus on understanding Arabic rules of grammar and their foundations, as well as the style and subtleties of the language.
The scholars have stipulated that the exegete who intends to interpret the Qur’an with his independent judgment needs to know a variety of sciences by means of which he will be able to properly interpret the Qur’an. These sciences will prevent him from falling into error and protect him from asserting things about God without knowledge.
The sciences that the exegete needs are the following:
1. Lexicology/Semantics: By means of this science one can explain the established meanings of words, since it might be the case that a word is a homonym and the exegete might know one meaning but not another and the latter meaning might be what is intended by the text.
2. Grammar: Meanings differ according to changes in grammatical interpretation and for this reason one must be acquainted with grammar and its rules.
3. Morphology: By means of morphology, the exegete comes to know the structure and forms of words.
4. Etymology: This science is required because a word may be derived from two different root meanings which determine the meaning of the word. For example, “Messiah” (masih) can derive from “travel” (siyaha) or “rubbing”/“wiping” (mash).
5. The Rhetorical Sciences: (a) the science of meaning: concerns the order and structure of speech insofar as they affect meaning; (b) the science of clarity: concerns the order and structure of speech insofar as they affect clarity and obscurity; (c) the science of eloquence: by this science one learns how to make speech more eloquent.
6. The Science of Recitation: By this science, one learns how to pronounce and recite the text of the Qur’an. By knowledge of recitation, the exegete can compare various readings and differentiate between readings that are widely transmitted and those that are rare or rejected.
7. The Principles of Belief/Theology: The science is named ilm al-kalam and by means of it the exegete knows what is necessary, possible and impossible with regard to God. He can also assess verses that are related to prophecy. Without this science, the exegete can fall into error.
8. Legal Interpretation: The exegete knows the manner in which rules are derived and proven.
9. The Science of Reasons of Revelation: By means of this science, the exegete understands the intent behind the revelation of a verse. For example, the verse, “To God belongs the East and the West, wherever you turn is the Face of God,” suggests that a Muslim can pray in any direction, though this is not the intent of the verse.
10. History: Knowledge of historical narrations in detail assists one in clarifying what is mentioned in a general manner in Qur’an. Also, by means of it, the exegete can distinguish between those stories that are interpolations to tafsir and those that are valid.
11. Knowledge of Abrogation: By this, one knows what is established legally and what is not. If one does not know what is abrogated, one might dispense a legal ruling that is abrogated and thus fall into error.
12. Knowledge of Hadiths that Elucidate Verses which are Indeterminate or Unclear: Hadiths can clarify verses that are not clear. One must differentiate between strong and weak or fabricated hadiths.
13. Insight: It is knowledge that God gives to whoever practices what he knows, which is indicated in the verse: “Be Mindful of God and he will teach you”. This is because one who investigates the Qur’an will not come to understand its meaning or its secrets while he has in his heart pride, heresy, self-indulgence, and material desire or is insistent on sinning, which is indicated in the verse, “I will turn away from my signs those who act arrogantly on earth without right.” Ibn‘Uyayna (d. 198 H.) states, “They are divested of any understanding of the Qur’an.”
These are the sciences and fields of knowledge that the scholars consider are tools for understanding the Book of God, though some scholars may not mention all of them. Indeed, some scholars subsume some sciences under others. Moreover, this list of sciences does not comprise all the sciences on which the exegete depends. For this reason, we will summarize what was stated in Muhammad Rashid Rida’s (d. 1935 CE) introduction to his tafsir to complete the point: Tafsir has levels, the lowest of which is to clarify in a general manner what fills the heart with the greatness of God and his transcendence and what turns the self away from wrongdoing and towards the good. The highest of it is not attained without the following things:
1. Knowledge of the reality of the individual words that are contained in the Qur’an so that the exegete verifies it by means of their original usage by the people of the language. This is because many words were used in the time of revelation with particular meanings that changed in later times.
2. Style: One must know about rhetorical style and technique in the language so that one understands the elevated style of the Qur’an. This knowledge is acquired by engaging in the practice of eloquent speech.
3. Knowledge of human nature: God speaks of the conditions of people and their natures and divine precedents that were decreed for people. God related that stories of those nations whose fates were in accordance with his precedents.
4. Knowledge of the guidance of all people by means of the Qur’an and to know what the Prophets’ contemporaries were like. The Qur’an states that they were in strife and error and that the prophets were sent for their guidance and happiness.
5. Knowledge of the Prophet’s biography (peace be upon him) and the biographies of the Companions (God be pleased with them).
Introduction to the Principles of Qur’anic Interpretation (Tasfir)
The Qur’an was revealed to a people whose primary commodity was the Arabic language and they excelled in it to an extraordinary degree, knowing all its details. So they had two immediate benefits from the revelation of the Qur’an: (1) They understood the greatness of its mode of discourse and its inimitability, and that it is divine and that it is beyond the ability of man to reproduce it. They understood that it was from God and that it is the truth along with what it comprises in terms of principles, rules and arguments; (2) They understood its meaning and purpose. They also understood its style and composition. So the Arabs undertook from then on the project of examining its form, composition and style so that they developed a complete plethora of sciences related to the Qur’an and its study.
The Qur’an was the initial inspiration and the engine that drove the intellectual movement which developed these sciences. Due to this, the scholars devoted themselves to gaining and deriving from this Sacred Book meanings, lessons, and benefits through tafsir and through studying its verses. They founded new sciences and methods to study and engage with the Qur’an. The honorable Dr. Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, views that, with regard to the sciences that were founded for the interpretation of the Qur’an, we need to return to the practice of generating new sciences. He has a book on the question of founding new sciences, entitled “Founding New Sciences is an Obligation on Muslims ”. This is because the Qur’an arrived endorsing certain sciences explicitly and others implicitly, while others it prohibited since they contradict the Qur’an’s principles. As such, a detailed and nuanced view is required to know the relation of the sciences to the Qur’an, since the various sciences bear varying relations to it. Some sciences related to the Qur’an directly, while others are only related to it indirectly.
The Relation of the Sciences to the Qur’an
Tahir ibn ‘Ashur (d. 1973 CE) states in his book, (al Tahrir wa Al Tanweer) or The Exposition and Enlightening, that the relation of the sciences to the Qur’an has four levels:
1) Sciences that are contained in the Qur’an, like the history of the prophets and nations, morals, law, belief, theology, the Arabic language, and rhetoric.
2) Sciences that add to the knowledge of the exegete, like philosophy, astronomy, and knowledge about creation.
3) Sciences that are indicated in the Qur’an or are reinforced by the Qur’an, like geography, medicine, and logic.
4) Sciences that have no relation to the Qur’an, either due to its being baseless, like mythology, or because it does not help in interpreting the Qur’an, like prosody .
This division of the sciences is especially important for exegete to understand in interpreting the Qur’an.
The Levels of Qur’anic Guidance and its Relevance to Exegete’s Understanding of How the Qur’an Addresses People In General:
The theory of guidance expounded by the Qur’an is based on an overarching framework under which there are various branches that divide into commands and prohibitions, maxims and parables, stories and reminders, ideals and morals, and so on.
Guidance in the Qur’an:
Guidance in the Qur’an divides into two parts:
1) Guidance that engenders motives that incline one to belief and obey God, which is also part of God’s grace in following His law and His prophets. This level is purely a divine act that any created being cannot attain.
2) Guidance that is an exposition or elucidation. It is a call, debate, argument, a setting forth of proofs and dispelling of doubts. But the one who endeavors to do so does not have any real effect on people’s hearts, such that he brings them to believe or persuades them. This is the kind of guidance that God commanded his prophets and messengers to propagate. He attributes this to them, like where He states regarding the Prophet (peace be upon him): “You shall guide to the straight path.” (42: 52)
The second kind of guidance, which is a guidance of indication, subdivides into two:
a) General guidance which applies to all people, as He states, “The month of Ramadan in which the Qur’an was revealed as a guidance to people and with proofs of guidance and discernment.”
b) Specific guidance, which is all the legal rulings and divine injunctions which God directs to those who believe in Him and His messenger and follow His book and affirm His law and His authority. God says, “That is the Book in which there is no doubt, a guidance for those who obey.” (2: 2)
c) The Qur’an Elucidates Itself
The first thing that an exegete must carefully do is bring together all the verses that are unclear in meaning and to compare them, since some meanings that the Qur’an mentions in an unclear manner in one place might be clarified in another place. The Qur’an treats one word or meaning in more than one place. For wise reasons, in each place the word is specified to the extent appropriate for where it is mentioned, so if the exegete brings all the instances together, the general sense will become clear that God intended to apply in that particular case.
The Prophet (peace be upon him) taught the Companions this method in understanding the Qur’an on a number of occasions. For example, Ibn Mas’ud (d.32 H.) (God be pleased with him) states: “When the verse, ‘Those who believe and do not confuse their belief with error’ (An’am: 82), was revealed, the Companions were burdened by it. They said, “Who of us has not wronged himself?” The Prophet said, “The matter is not what you think. Have you not heard the words of the righteous servant: ‘My son, do not associate partners with God, polytheism is a grave injustice’ (31: 3).Rather, the matter concerns polytheism.” Here the word zulm was used and the usual meanings of it were applied, whereas it was interpreted in another place as polytheism.
For this reason, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 606 H) states, “The entire Qur’an is like one sura, one part of it affirms or clarified another. Do you not see that the verses that treat punishment are general and after they are connected to verses regarding repentance and forgiveness. ”
The Prophetic Sunna is the Second Revelation that Springs from the Qur’an and Clarifies the Meanings of the Qur’an:
The Prophetic model or sunna is the first elucidation of the Qur’an, which an elucidation that is distinguished by being immune to error. It is thus the first precise clarifying statement that is safeguarded and correct, which explains the meanings of the Qur’an. Because it safeguarded from error and is an authoritative source, it completes the Qur’anic guidance, such that it constitutes the noble law in every problem or issue. Imam Suyuti states (d. 911 H), “Imam Shafi’i (d. 204 H) states, ‘Everything that the Muslim community states is a commentary on the Sunna, and the entire Sunna is a commentary on the Qur’an.’” He also states, “Everything that the Prophet, peace be upon him, pronounces as a ruling is what he understood from the Qur’an.” This is supported by the statement of the Prophet: “I only permit what God permits in His Book and I only prohibit what God prohibits in His Book .”
Because of the great status of the Sunna and its importance, the scholars developed sciences that preserve it, protect it, and serve to elucidate it. Thus, the sciences of hadith and its narrators were developed.
It is necessary for an exegete to be acquainted with all hadiths and narrations so that he can understand and interpret the Qur’an. There is another benefit of being acquainted with transmitted material which relates to questions more generally, that is, each individual speaker or exegete does not need to rely on his own mental abilities alone. The exegete can draw on the results of earlier minds, so that thoughts and views become clear and accessible to him, which would perhaps not be available if he relied solely on his own views.
The Science of Islamic Legal Theory contains the Rules of Understanding
and Assessing Texts The science of Islamic legal theory contains rules for understanding and assessing texts and so the exegete must be attentive to it. One of the main goals of the exegete is to master the tools and instruments with which he can analyze a complex text and fully understand it.
To understand a text by analysis and in all its parts and aspects, and to understand its aims and meanings, and to determine its style and approach is a goal that both the exegete of the Qur’an and the master of the science of Islamic legal thoery strive towards.
Since the exegete needs to analyze the words of a text and comprehend its meanings in doing tafsir, his task ultimately comes to the question of the signification of meanings by words, which is one of the deepest and most subtle aspects of the science of Islamic legal theory. For this reason, the exegete must, before embarking on tafsir, be fully acquainted with the science of Islamic legal theory, since it provides the principles for investigation.
The great scholar al-Tahir ibn ‘Ashur (d. 1973 CE) states, “As for the science of Usul Al Fiqh, they did not used to consider it a source for the science of tafsir but they used to discuss commands, prohibitions, general statements, which are all part of the science of Islamic legal theory. So ultimately some of it is a source fortafsir, which is in two respects: first, the science of legal theory contains many things regarding the ways in which the language of the Arabs was employed and its sources which was not dealt with by the scholars of language, such as questions concerning scope and semantic implications. Imam al-Ghazali (d. 505 H) considered the science of legal theory one of the sciences that are connected to the Qur’an, so it is no doubt a source for tafsir. Second, the science of Islamic legal theory determines the rules of deriving norms and clarifies them, so it is a tool for the exegete in deriving the legal senses of a certain verses .
The Stories of the Qur’an and Debating Human Thought
The stories of the prophets are mentioned to challenge the ways in which humans thought throughout time. These stories are related for various divine ends, which people are required to consider and reflect upon so that great benefits and lessons can be derived from them. One can also learn how to put the Qur’an into practice.
When you contemplate the stories of the Qur’an, you find that they are not simply recounted as anecdotes or stories; rather, each one is narrated to challenge a certain misguided view or other, or to assess and analyze a certain philosophy, or to examine some aspect of people’s worldview. For example, the story of Shu’ayb treats the problem of secularism, which separates religion from every aspect of life, a problem that is not new. The Qur’an states, “They said, ‘Shu’ayb, does your prayer command you that we should turn away from what our forefathers worshipped or to do with our money what we wish’” (Hud: 87). The Qur’an thus raised the problem of secularism and elucidated the points by which it can be resolved, and it clarifies the wrong and harm in it. It provides a divine proof and guidance.
The exegete must examine this story, and every place it is mentioned in the Qur’an, and contemplate how it is treated. In this way the stories of the prophets provide more insights and benefits in their lessons. One’s view should be expanded and new approaches to the study of the Qur’an should be inaugurated in the methods that the Qur’an takes in addressing the views and approaches of modern philosophies. It should be made clear that every story in the Qur’an addresses a philosophy or worldview that recurs throughout human history.
The Major Themes the Chapters of the Qur’an and their Effects on Understanding its Text
Each chapter of the Qur’an has a central theme upon which the chapter is based and on which it centers. The chapter elaborates the central theme by various detailed examples and illustrations. To this end, the chapter marshals various stories and incidents, at times, in great length and at other times with concision. Such stories encompass legal commands and moral paradigms and address various viewpoints and modes of thought, all of which, though treating particular points, come together to support the central theme.
As such, each chapter contains a central theme that it centers on and consisting of a central concern. For example, in the chapter ‘The Opening’, we find the verse, “Only You do we worship and Only in You do we seek help.” The chapter focuses on the relation between the creation and the Creator, since worship comes from the created and assistance or help only comes from the Creator. In the chapter entitled ‘The Cow’, the verse states, “For his Lord said, ‘Submit’, and he said, ‘I submit to the Lord of the worlds.'The chapter centers on the question of submitting to God and how it shows the way to better understand the question of being a servant and worshipper and the question of assistance discussed in The Opening, since it is matter of absolute submission to God.
As such, it is the duty of an exegete to grasp the central theme of a chapter and how to apply the verses of the chapter and its sections within the context of the central theme, so that new subtle meanings will become apparent to him and so that he comprehends the important lessons. In this way, the exegete will come to know things that the scholars that preceded him did know about a certain matter.
Knowledge of the Aims of the Qur’an and its Role in Tafsir
Knowledge of the aims of the Qur’an is considered one of the major tools of the exegete, which is exemplified in questions such as divinity, revelation, prophecy, guidance, the inimitability of the Qur’an, legal rulings, norms, paradigms, morals and social principles and rules.
There is a distinction between knowledge of Qur’anic aims and legal aims and the relation between them is that there is a certain overlap. That is, every aim of the law is also a Qur’anic aim. Specialists of Islamic legal theory throughout Islamic history have studied the science of legal aims and authored books on it. However, developing a science that studies Qur’anic aims should have been a greater priority. Such science would set the Qur’anic aims on varying levels, relating to various aspects of life and thought, so that those aims that are central and those that are subsidiary become clear. But the scholars before us considered divine revelation as simply treating the following three things: unity of God, legal norms, and stories.
The exegete should investigate as independent topics questions that are connected to the Qur’anic aims such as prophecy, guidance, inimitability, legal rulings, norms, ideals, morals and so on. He should invoke these aims to show how such examples and stories are provided to illustrate those aims.
The Great Derivation and Its Relevance for Understanding the Qur’anic Text Derivation or etymology is one of the central sciences of language studies and it has the strongest effect on understanding the meaning of a text. It is a science that investigates the riches of the language and expanse of its oceans. It is based on grasping meanings and discerning the application of a meaning in every linguistic form that signifies that meaning, where one form is derived from another. Similar terms are brought together in a certain way so that one can find the meaning that is common to all the forms.
Etymology is a broad field with subtleties and of various kinds. For example, one kind is “the great derivation” which is to derive a word from another word by means of a change in the order of some of its (root) letters, where a similarity in meaning is preserved and the original letters are identical .
The exegete should thus master the analysis of Qur’anic terms and know the senses the each term carries. If we examine the words of the Qur’an in this way by examining its derivation, expansive horizons will open up for us so that we fully apprehend what the Qur’an intends for us to know and comprehend. The great scholar Abdallah al-Amin stated, “If one properly benefits from this kind of derivation, it will supply one’s knowledge of language with rich resources .” This is because the terms will then spill its hidden secrets and show the meaning of each term from various angles. No doubt, this is of utmost importance in understanding the Noble Qur’an, which is clear Arabic.