The Science of Tafsir is Delicate. The Modernists Misinterpret its Essence

The Science of Tafsir is Delicate. The Modernists Misinterpret its Essence
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Dr Nazir Ahmad Zargar

The basic purpose of the Qur’anic revelation is to guide mankind towards Al-Haqq (the Truth). The Qur’an is a guidance which is clear, evident and sure, without any least doubt (2:1). The Holy Text testifies to the fact that its message is self evident. It says in unequivocal terms:
“We have sent down to thee the Book explaining all things.” (16:89) [Emphasis added]
“(This is) a Book, with verses basic or fundamental (of established meaning), further explained in detail.” (11:1) [Emphasis added]
That is why people, in general, have been enjoined by Allah to think and ponder over its verses and know what Allah, their Creator has revealed to them.
“(Here is) a Book which We have sent down unto thee, full of blessings, that they may meditate on its Signs, and that men of understanding may receive admonition.” (38:29)
Had the Qur’an been something like ‘a silent text’ , watching just like a mute spectator what people sell in its name and never challenging them thereby defending itself against misleading conclusions, the very purpose of its revelation would be nullified. But, since different people have different levels of understanding, there were chances for misunderstandings at many places regarding what actually the Word of Allah meant. This issue, and perhaps the biggest natural hurdle towards a unanimous understanding of the basic Qur’anic message, was overcome by the Qur’an itself when Allah, the All-Knowing, Who Himself explained the Qur’an to His Prophet, entrusted him to explain it to the people. Thus says the Qur’an:
“We have sent down unto thee (also) the Message; that you may explain clearly to men what is sent for them.” (16:44) [Emphasis added]
The Orientalists have for long been casting aspersions on everything Islamic let alone the fundamental fountainhead of Islam, the Qur’an. But, it is unfortunate to say that some modernist Muslims of our time who have not studied Islam and the Qur’an enough make extravagant claims; whatever they have read is based on their understanding of the Orientalist sources coupled with their inferiority complex vis-a-vis the voices of dissent against Papacy in the West.
Their belief that the Ulama of Islam constitute a group like the Christian clergy who have monopolized the interpretation of the ‘Word of God’ and in order to free the ‘Divine Word’ form the clutches of the ‘Muslim Clergy’ also needs a protestant revolt. This misunderstanding is because of two reasons: a ‘zero’ or superficial study of the history of Islam especially the Islamic sciences and a faithful study of the Orientalist writings against Islam. Since this article is primarily aimed at presenting an overview of the history of the Qur’anic Tafsir which the modernists, as sincere students of the history of the interpretation of the Bible, prefer to mention as ‘hermeneutics’, I confine myself to give a brief outline of the history of Tafsir.
First Period
The Sahabah (companions of the Prophet(SAW)) knew the language of the Qur’an. So, they did not need any further explanations regarding particularly the fundamental message of the Qur’an. But since, as natural, their intellectual levels varied, thereby giving rise to varied understandings, they would approach the Prophet(SAW) for a clear and certain guidance in such situations. This marked the beginning of the history of the science of Tafsir in Islam.
Second Period
After the demise of the Prophet(SAW), a considerable number of the Sahabah had already mastered the Tafsir for which they had not merely relied upon their intellectual ingenuity but had based their understanding of the Qur’an solely upon what they had learn from their beloved master, the Prophet of Islam(SAW). Abu Abd al-Rahman, a famous Tabi‘i (follower of the Sahabah) says that whenever the Sahabah taught them the Qur’an, they told them that they would learn ten Ayat (verses) of the Qur’an and would not move further unless they had learnt all things related to the meanings and practical implications of these Ayat. (Musannaf ibn Abi Shaybah, Fada’il al-Qur’an). If people of this period faced any difficulty in understanding any particular issue in the Qur’an, they approached these great teachers and got their queries answered. Some of the great mufassirun of the Qur’an belonging to this period include Uthman, Ali, Abdullah b. Abbas, Zayd b. Thabit, Abdullah b. Mas‘ud and a large number of other great Sahabah.
Third Period
This is the period of the Tabi‘un (followers of the Sahabah). Around this time, Islam had spread to very distant lands and whosoever among the Sahabah was still alive had settled in different places. Differences of opinion took place in this period. The Tabi‘un dealt with the emerging situation according to the tradition of their predecessors, the Sahabah. So, for the explanation of the Qur’an, they would first of all refer to the Qur’an itself (Tafsir al-Qur’an bi al-Qur’an) and to the explanation of the Prophet(SAW) in Hadith. If, at all they could not find any further explanation in the Qur’an itself nor in the Hadith, they would then seek explanation from the Athar (traditions) of the Sahabah. Such Athar pertaining to the Tafsir of the Qur’an are taken as Marfu‘ even by the strict Muhaddithun. And, finally, to explain such revelations which Allah Himself had, out of His all encompassing knowledge, left to the intellectual acumen of the sincere seeker of Truth, they applied their reason and exercised Ijtihad (analogical reasoning within the contours of the Qur’an and the Sunnah). This was the time when a large number of Tafsir books came into existence. Some of the famous mufassirun of the Qur’an of this period were ‘Urwah, Salim, Umar b. Abdul Aziz, Sulayman b. Yassar, Ata b. Yassar, Hassan Basri and so on.
About the three periods consisting the time of the Prophet and his Sahabah down to the Tabi‘un and the Taba‘ Tabi‘un, the Prophet(SAW) had already guided his Ummah that the best of the times was his time, his Sahabah’s time and the time of the Tabi‘un. (Bukhari and Muslim). Hence, these three periods are the best periods in the history of Islam and the golden periods with respect to the mainstream understanding of the Qur’an.
Fourth Period
After the third period of the Tabi‘un, much work was done in the field of the science of Tafsir during the periods of the Umayyads and Abbasids making ‘Ilm al-Tafsir a systematic and complete branch of Qur’anic sciences. An, d since then a large number of Tafasir have been written.
The Prophet said: I have left two things in you: the Book of Allah and my Sunnah (including his explanation of the Qur’an); you will never get misled as long as you hold fast to them. (Al-Muwatta)
It must therefore, be borne in mind that any deviation from the mainstream understanding of the Qu’ran and emergence of sects in Islam is not because of the ‘undefined’, ‘uncertain’, ‘ambiguous’, Tafsir of the Qur’an so much so that anybody can ‘invoke the same text’ to claim his genuineness in the name of certain ‘standard readings’ of the Qur’an but because of not approaching the Qur’an through its own explanation, through its explanation made by the Prophet(SAW), through the explanation of its sincere, true, loyal and faithful students of the early three generations. Even the modernist Muslim who is basically influenced by the Western scholars of Islam, who are mostly Christian and view the science of Tafsir through their own history of the hermeneutics of the Bible which is altogether different from and far behind the ‘Ilm Usul al-Tafsir in Islam, cannot justify their position without deviating from the tradition of the ProphetSAW), his Sahabah, Tabi‘un and Taba‘Tabi‘un. The folly of the modernist Muslim lies in his failure to understand and appreciate the fundamental fact that the Qur’an has a well defined viewpoint.
If Allah, He Who revealed the Qur’an, the Messenger(SAW), to whom the Qur’an was revealed, the Sahabah, who learnt the Qur’an from the Prophet failed to explain the Qur’an then do we need the modernist Muslims who are just poor students of the non-Muslim students of the Qur’an to explain the Book to us? Let the modernist, who, as the student of the Western critics of the Qur’an, has no credentials to talk about the Qur’an in this age of specialization, answer some serious questions arising out of his ignorance:

The author is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the Central University of Kashmir. He can be reached at: