The following summarizes some major points to remember regarding the commentaries
explaining the Qur'aan. The preface to the book "Introduction To The Principles of Tafseer"
by Shaykhul-Islaam Ibn Taymiyyah does this task quite well and we strongly recommend
this book to all English readers.
"This introduction to the exegesis of the Qur'aan is by Shaykh Al-lslaam Taqee ud-Deen
Ahmad Ibn Taymiyyah (661/1262-728/1327), one of the most erudite personalities of
Islaam, an outstanding scholar of the Qur'aan and Sunnah, a great expounder of Islaamic
ideas, and a profound critic of all those alien concepts and practices that have entered into
the body of Islaam.
Ibn Taymiyyah discusses how to understand and interpret the Qur'aan, how to use the commentaries written on it, how to know what is a right and proper exposition of the Qur'aanic verses, and how to know what is not."
"The first thing that he suggests one should do is to refer to the Qur'aan itself. For the
Qur'aan often alludes to a thing stating it briefly at one place and then elaborates upon it
at another, it discusses one aspect of a subject on one occasion and another aspect of it on
another. By referring, to the relevant passages at different stages at different places, one
will have a clear understanding of its verses and so a complete view of its themes.
The second thing one should do is to refer to the expositions of the Prophet, may peace
and blessings of Allah be upon him. For he was commanded not only to communicate the
words of the Qur'aan but also to explain their meaning. Since he performed this task under
Allah's guidance, his expositions are authoritative.
Thirdly, one should refer to the elucidations of the companions of the Prophet(r). They
understood the Qur'aan better than anyone else; for they witnessed revelation, knew the
circumstance in which it was revealed, and learned its meaning directly from the Prophet
closest associates of the Prophet(r), the first four Caliphs, and then two outstanding
scholars, 'Abdullah Ibn Mas'ood (d.32/656) and 'Abdullah Ibn 'Abbaas (d.68/687)
Fourthly, one should refer to the exegesis presented by the next two generations, the
successors (al-Taabi'een) and their successors (Tabul-Taabi'een). As Ibn Taymiyyah says,
their expositions have not been influenced by foreign ideas, have not been affected by
political and theological disputes that marred the exegesis of later generations, and are, to
be sure, the best and the purest expositions in the spirit and letter of the Qur'aan.
However, their expositions carry authority only when they are all in agreement. Where
they differ, no one view is binding over and above another or for that matter binding over
the following generations."
"Ibn Taymiyyah is perfectly aware that if one follows the Salaf one will come across
differences between them. But these differences are not real, or, as he puts it, are
differences of variation (tanawwu') rather than of contradiction (tadadd). Broadly
speaking, there are four differences. One is of expression, as for example, when, one of
the Salaf characterizes 'the straight path' (As-Siraat al-Mustaqeem) as the Qur'aan, or
obedience to the Qur'aan, and another characterizes it as Islam.
The second difference is one of illustration, when, for example, someone explains the three
categories of Muslims (see al-Qur'aan 35:32) as the wrongdoers (adh-Dhaalim li Nafsi-
hee), the average performer of religious duties (al-Muqtasid), and the most obedient (al-
Saabiq) in terms of some act of obedience: prayer, charity or otherwise. One may,
therefore, say that the dhaalim is the one who at times offers obligatory prayers, and at
times not; the muqtasid is one who offers them regularly; and the saabiq is one who, over
and above the obligatory prayers, offers also the supererogatory ones.
The fourth kind of difference arises from the fact that there are very few words that can convey precisely the meaning of another word. It is only natural that people will differ in their choice of the most appropriate word in their translations.
lbn Taymiyyah mentions two additional differences which one is likely to find in the
exegetical material that has come down from the Salaf One arises from the Israelite
transmissions which some companions began to use in their elucidation of Qur'aanic
references, particularly when a number of Israelite books were found after the battle of
Yarmook (13 A.H. /634 AD). The key figures in the transmission of the Israelite material
are Ka'b al-Ahbar (d.32/652), Wahb Ibn Munabbah (d. 110/728) and Muhammad Ibn
Ishaaq (d. 150/767). This material, Ibn Taymiyyah says, is of three kinds. The first is
contradicted by our own Ahadeeth, and must be rejected; the second is supported by our
own Ahadeeth, and can be utilized; and the third is neither supported nor contradicted by
our Ahadeeth. These can be quoted without approval or disapproval. This material has,
moreover, a very limited utility: it is not at all necessary for our understanding of the
verses which deal with the important matters of belief and practice. At the most they are
helpful in the case of historical narrative. But here, too, many of the details which they
offer are of little significance. For example, we are not going to gain much if what we are
told is the size of the Arc of Noah, or what the color of the dog was which the people of the
Another difference concerns our own Ahadeeth. It may be noted that only a part of the
Ahadeeth concerning exegesis (tafseer) are musnad; that is, have come down from the
Prophet(r). Of these, there are, of course, many that are mutawaatir, that is, reported in
so many ways that their authenticity becomes absolutely certain. However, the majority of
the Ahadeeth are one-man reports (Khabar al-Waahid). Of them, those which have been
accepted and approved by the scholars of the ummah are definitive. However, most of
ahaadeeth used in tafseer are mursal, that is, reported by a successor directly from the
Prophet(r). As a rule, Ahadeeth used in tafseer literature have not been scrutinized as
much as the other Ahadeeth. Consequently, a number of weak and even fabricated
Ahadeeth have found place in the various commentaries on the Qur'aan. This is the case
particularly with the Ahadeeth concerning the merits of the Soorahs and the verses which
were produced, for example, by Ath-Tha'labee (d. 477/ 1036), al-Wahidee (d.468/2075)
and al-Zamakhsharee (d.538/ 1043) in their commentaries. However, it is by no means
difficult to find out which Ahadeeth are authentic and which are weak and fabricated. The
scholars of hadeeth have written much on the subject and have provided us with enough
The real differences in tafseer arose after the first three generations of the Salaf had
passed, when people had the positions on political and theological issues, and had worked
out doctrines in the light of their reasoning and with the help of Greek logic and
philosophy. Their knowledge of the Qur'aan and the Sunnah was inadequate, and they paid
little regard to the expositions of the Salaf. Consequently, they denied at times one
hadeeth or another, and the result was exaggerated, even fantastic interpretations."
"Ibn Taymiyyah condemns a rational interpretation of the Qur'aan so strongly that many
people take it as a complete denial of reason in his exegesis. This is not correct. The
tafseer bil ra'y which Ibn Taymiyyah condemns is that tafseer which one carries out mainly
on the basis of one's reason without fully acquainting oneself with relevant passages of the
Qur'aan, the hadeeth of the Prophet(r) and the elucidations of the Salaf on the subject, or
without paying due regard to them. Ibn Taymiyyah does not recommend that one should
simply quote the Ahadeeth and the words of the Salaf, and never exercise one's mind. Nor
is this his own practice in the commentaries that he has written on the various Soorahs
and verses of the Qur'aan. All that he condemns is that use of reason which is not rooted
in the Qur'aan, the Sunnah and the traditions of the Salaf He sees no inherent
contradiction between reason and divine text. In fact, one of the basic principles of his
thought is that the unclouded reason (al-'aql al-sareeh) with which Allah has created man
supports rather than contradicts the authentic text (al-naql al-saheeh) of religion. He has
taken great pains to demonstrate this truth in his writings.
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