Tafsir al-Qur'an: Definition, Function and Development


The word tafsir is derived from the Arabic word fasara, which literally means to lift the curtain, to make clear, to show the objective, and hence by analogy tafsir is the body of knowledge which aims to make clear the true meaning of the Qur'an, its injunctions and the occasions of its revelation. This research is based upon the traditional transmitted material about the Qur'an. Although tafsir is an Arabic word the process was known before the age of Islam. Jews and Christians used the term in various ways for their translations and commentaries on the Bible in the past.[1 ]Another word ta'wil has been also used to denote the interpretation or reclamation of meanings of the Qur'an text. Some scholars believe that ta'wil is synonymous with tafsir, others have denied and suggest that tafsir refers to the illumination of the external meaning of the Qur'an while ta'wil is the extraction of the hidden meanings. [2]

The commentator or exegete is called a mufassir. His responsibility is to explain the text of the Qur'an as fully as possible. He aims to show where, when and why a subject is written and what it meant during the time of the Prophet, his companions and subsequent followers. He eventually tries to make the text communicate meaningfully within his or her own time and cultural framework.

Basic Conditions / requisites

According to Shah Abdul Aziz Dehlawi, a Mufassir should keep in mind the following three conditions in his exegesis of the Qur'an:

  • a) Every word should be explained with its real meaning. In order to achieve the mufassir should have command in linguistic knowledge and grammar.
  • b) Everything needs to be explained within its reference and context to the main theme.
  • c) The interpretation should not be contrary to that of the Sahaba (Muhammad's companion) who witnessed the coming of the revelations to the Prophet.[3]

Though there are both Muslims and non-Muslims who have written commentaries on the Qur'an, the majority of Muslim scholars insist that the mufassir must be a Muslim. He should be sound in belief, aqida; well grounded in the knowledge of Arabic and its rules as a language." He should "have the ability for precise comprehension" of the Qur'an and "abstain from the use of mere opinion.[4]

A mufassir should have the knowledge of the science of recitation of the Qur'an, Ilm al-Tajwid. He should know the Ilm al-Hadith to recognize that which is Mubhem, ambiguous, and to elaborate on that which is Mujamil, brief or abridged. He must have studied thoroughly the various schools of thought, Ilm al-Fiqh. The Mufassir should have knowledge of Asbab al-Nuzul, reasons for the revelation of the different verses and should have knowledge about the theory of abrogation of verses of the Qur'an, al-Nasikh wa al-Mansukh.[5]

Kinds of tafsir

In later years, commentators and Qur'anic scholars formulated various rules of interpretation. Foreign thoughts, knowledge and reasoning were also woven into the fabric of Islamic thought and culture. This amalgamation emerged in several kinds of tafsir and can be divided into two or three groups, i.e., tafsir bil riwaya, by transmission; tafsir bil-ra'y, sound opinion or knowledge and tafsir bil-ishara, by indication.

  • Tafsir bil-riwaya (also known as Tafsir bil-mathur) includes the interpretation of the Qur'an by Quranic verses and use of the explanations of the prophet and his companions. Books of this class of tafsir include those attributed to Ibn Abbas, Ibn Abi Khatim, Ibn Habban, and that of Imam Suyuti known as Al-Dur al-Mansu, tafsir by Khatir and al-Shukani may also be included in this group.
  • Tafsir bil-ray (or Tafsir bil-dirayah) is not based directly on transmission of knowledge from the past, but on reason. Exegesis is derived through opinion based on reason and Ijtihad or Qiyas. In this area we find tafsirs like al-Kashaf by Zamakshari (d. 1144).
  • Tafsir bil-ishara: It goes into the detail of the concepts and ideas associated with the words and verses of the Qur'an. This kind of tafsir is often produced by mystically inclined authors. The most famous are those by al-Razi and al-Khazin.

Ibn Jarir has reported through Muhammad ibn Bashshar Muammal, Sufyan and Abul Zanad that Ibn Abbas said, "tafsir is of four kinds: One which Arabs can know from the language; second which no one can be excused for not knowing; third which only the scholars know; and fourth, which God alone knows."[6]

Early Development: tafsir in the time of Muhammad

During the lifetime of the Prophet, his companions used to ask him questions relating to the interpretation of the Qur'an and the different aspects of the injunctions contained in it. The prophet used to explain to them the revelation. Muslim scholars believe that the result of such inquiries was that the companions came to know all about the causes of revelation, Asbab an-Nazul of different verses. They also became aware of the verses that were abrogated and those verses that were replaced by other verses.

The authority to explain was granted to the Prophet by God himself as laid down in the Qur'an, "We have sent down unto thee (also) the Message; that thou mayest explain clearly to men what is sent for them, and that they may give thought" (Surah 16:44). Therefore, Muslim scholars state that the things said by the Prophet in explanation or to which he gave silent approval were committed to memory by the companions. Being men of great learning many of them had not only memorised the Qur'an but also had full knowledge of when, where and why verses of the Qur'an were revealed.

Tafsir in the time of the Khulafa Rashidoon

After the death the Prophet, the companions taught others the Qur'an and its interpretation. Scholars recognise that the Khulafa Rashidoon, the rightly guided, were Mufassirin of the Qur'an. Others from the Prophet's time that were recognised as scholars of the Qur'anic tafsir are Abdallah Ibn Abbas (d. 687), Abdallah Ibn Mas'ud (d. 653), Ubayy Ibn Ka'b (d. 640 AD), Zayd Ibn Thabith (d. 665), Abu Musa al-Ashari (d. 664) and Abdallah Ibn Zubayr (d. 692).[7] It is generally stated that in the subsequent period after Muhammad, three schools were established to explain the Qur'an: The Meccan school led by Abdallah Ibn Abbas, the Madinan school led by Ubayy Ibn Ka'b and the Iraqi school led by Abdallah Ibn Mas'ud. The methodologys adopted by them was based more on transmission, riwaya. While Abdallah Ibn Abbas who is repudiated to be the first exegete in the history of Islam, in the light of the traditions it would seem that Abdallah Ibn Mas'ud had a reputation in teaching the Qur'an. Muhammad recognised the efforts of Abdallah Ibn Masud's learning of the Qur'an, so much so that he recommended others to learn from him. Ali Ibn Abi Talib said about his scholarship, "He knows the Qur'an and the Sunnah and his knowledge is the best."[8]

Tafsir in the time of the Tabi'un

Many of the companions of the Prophet taught the Qur'an and its exegesis to the next generation of Muslims, Tabi'un. The conversion of many people from different faiths and walks of life made it imperative that the Tabi'un should not only treasure the existing information but also build on it a body of learning known as Ulum al-Qur'an.

It is believed that within a half century after Muhammad's death three main schools of Qur'anic tafsir had developed in Makkah, Madinah and Iraq. The Makkan group is said to have been taught by Ibn Abbas. The best known of the group among learners are Mujahid (d. 722), Ata (d. 732) and Ikrima (d. 729).

The Madinan group had the best known teachers such as Ubay b. Kab. This group had some well known Muffasirin for example, Muhammad b. Kab al-Qarzi (d. 735), Abul Alliya al-Riyahi (d. 708) and Zaid b. Aslam (d. 747).

The Iraqi group who followed Ibn Masud had centres in Basra and Kufa. The best known among the teachers in tafsir were Al-Hasan al-Basri (d. 738), Masruq (d. 682) and Ibrahim al-Nakhai (d. 713).

Tafsir in the time of Taba' Tabi'un

In the period following the above, others like al-Suddi (d. 745) and Sulayman (d. 767) came forward in this field and some of their work survives in the collections of Hadith and recent versions attributed to them. A complete book of tafsir by Mujahid (d. 935)is available which is based on a manuscript from the 13th century AD.[9] However the oldest work of tafsir extant today is of Al-Tabari (d. 922 AD).[10] Some believe that he was the first man to write Qur'anic exegesis explaining it side by side with the Sunnah. Since then the process of tafsir has continued until today. Some of the classical tafsirs amongst the Sunni Muslims are those of al-Baghawi; al- Zamakhshari, al-Baidawi, Al-Ghazali, al-Qartabi, al-Jalalayn, al-Mudarik, al-Hussain, Al-Jalalayn, al-Mazhari and Azizi, etc .[11]

Tafsir in modern times

Though the mood of tafsir writing in modern times is the same to make the text understandable and relevant, there have been other areas in which attempts are made to interpret the Qur'anic text in the light of "modern and scientific reason". The earliest effort in this area was of Sayyid Ahmad Khan (d.1898). His modernist but incomplete subject wise commentary was entitled simply Tafsir al-Qur'an. He tried to interpret the question of revelation, miracles and the message of the Qur'an in the light of available "enlightenment" from the West. To encourage social and educational reforms he tried to strike a balance between western and eastern ideas and find support in the Qur'an.

Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905), from Egypt is considered by some the most significant exponent of the modernist school. He spent his time as a teacher and later as a judge, mufti, giving decisions, fatwas which embodied the modernist stance. He struggled against the traditional enterprise of tafsir. His incomplete tafsir of the Qur'an, tafsir al-Manar, based upon his class lectures and the text of his legal decisions has been edited and published by Rashid Rida, his follower.[12]

Other tafsirs in this arena are Tarjuman al-Qur'an by Abul Kalam Azad (d. 1958), Fi Zilal al-Qur'an by Syed Qutub (d. 1960), and Tafhim al Qur'an, by Mawdudi (d. 1979). In English there are several commentaries available today as of Yusuf Ali, Mawdudi, and  of Muhammad Asad etc. Abridged and some incomplete editions of a few classical commentaries, e.g. Tabari, Baidhawi, Zamkhshari and Ibn Kathir are also available.

Differences in tafsir

One tafsir may differ with another on the interpretation of a text of the Qur'an. There are a number of reasons for this but the most important one may be external or internal. In Ibn Taimiya's opinion, for example, a Mufassir may have used unsound material and his interpretation actually rests on some pre conceived belief or other motive thus introducing false innovation, bida.

Some Mufassirin have used the Isra'iliyat, the Jewish origins of the narratives mentioned in the Qur'an particularly derived from non-canonical Jewish and Christian traditions. Such material was used by some of the Sahaba, but it was referred to more by the Tabi'un and by later generations. The other difference may have been internal. A Mufassir may have had difficulty understanding the words or may explain them according to the limitations of his circumstances.[13]It is due to such reasons that some scholars in their exposition of kind of tafsirs have divided Tafsir bil-ray further into two categories: Tafsir mamduh (praise worthy tafsir) and Tafsir madhumumah (blameworthy tafsir). Tafsir madhumumah is a tafsir which has mostly relied on dha'if (weak) and mawdu' (spurious) traditions; has not given consideration to the saying of the sahaba (companions of Muhammad); has no regard for the Arabic language in its interpretation and given no consideration to phenomena that are in conformity with the meaning of the Arabs.


Much has been written to interpret the Qur'an to help Muslim communities in their daily doings through the years. Nowadays as we saw above, the Qur'an is interpreted in the light of scientific reasons and methodology. However, the best method and foremost way is to interpret the Qur'an by the Qur'an and use the Prophet's Sunnah and the way the Sahaba understood the text as mentioned in the classical literature.



[1] Robert Britton, The Last of the Prophets, p. 109, (Worthing: Churchman Publishing, 1990).

[2] Suyuti, al-Itqan fi Ulum al-Qur'an, chapter 77, pp. 424-430.

[3] Abdur Rahman I. Doi, Shariah: The Islamic Law, p.22, (London: Taha Publishers, 1984).

[4] Ahmad Von Denffer, Ulum al-Qur'an: An Introduction to the Sciences of the Qur'an., p.122 (Leicester: Islamic Foundation, 1994).

[5] Abdur Rahman I. Doi, Shariah: The Islamic Law, p.35.

[6] Imam Ibn Taymiyah, tr. M. Abdul Haq Ansari, An introduction to the exegesis of the Qur'an, p. 48, (Riyadh: Ibn Saud Islamic University, 1989).

[7] Al-Suyuti, Al-Itqan fi Ulum al Qur'an, p. 968, cited by Doi, pp.25-26.

[8] Al-Dhabi, p.86 cited by Doi, pp. 26.

[9] Surti, Tafsir Mujahid, 2 Vols. (Beruit, n.d), cited by Ahmad Von Denffer, p.130

[10] Helmut Gatje, The Qur'an and its exegesis, p. 34, (Oxford: Oneworld, 1997).

[11] Thomas Patrick Hughes, Dictionary Of Islam, p.522, (Delhi: Cosmos Publication, 1978).

[12] Rashid Rida, Tafsir al-Manar, 12 vol., (Beirut: Dar al-Kutb al-Ilmiyya, 1999).

[13] Ibn Taymiyah, tr. M. Abdul Haq Ansari, An introduction to the exegesis of the Qur'an, p.17.


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Imam Ibn Taymiyah, tr. M. Abdul Haq Ansari, An introduction to the exegesis of the Qur'an, (Riyadh: Ibn Saud Islamic University, 1989).

Mawdudi, Abul A'ala. Towards understanding the Qur'an, Vol 1, [Ed. Zafar Ishaq], (Leicester: Islamic Foundation, 1988).

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