The Tafseer (Interpretation of the Qur’an)

What is the tafseer of the Qur’an?

Etymologically, the word ‘tafseer‘ comes from the word ‘al fasru’, which means unveil something closed. In terminology, tafseer means an explanation of the meanings of Qur’anic verses and everything it contains, from creed matters, laws, wisdoms, advices, social interactions, and so on.

Ruling regarding learning the tafseer

It is compulsory for every one to learn about tafseer, since each is obliged to contemplate over the contents of the Qur’an according to his or her capability. Allah decreed,

كِتَابٌ أَنْزَلْنَاهُ إِلَيْكَ مُبَارَكٌ لِيَدَّبَّرُوا آيَاتِهِ وَلِيَتَذَكَّرَ أُولُو الْأَلْبَابِ

“This is the Blessed Book that We have revealed to you, (O Muhammad), that people with understanding may reflect over its verses and those with understanding derive a lesson.” (QS. Shad/The Letter Shad: 29)

Allah mentioned that the aim of Qur’an revelation is to be reflected over, and to be taken lessons from, because there is no way to perform the laws of the Qur’an but after understanding it’s meaning first.

The contrary, which is by turning away from any efforts to reflect over and understand it, means neglecting the wisdoms of The Qur’an revelation. Hence, Allah mocked every one who refuses to think about the contents of the Qur’an. Allah decreed,

أَفَلا يَتَدَبَّرُونَ الْقُرْآنَ أَمْ عَلَى قُلُوبٍ أَقْفَالُهَا

“Do they, then, not reflect on the Qur’an? Or are there locks on their hearts?” (QS. Muhammad: 24)

In this verse, Allah mocked every one who does not reflect the Qur’an over, by calling them as “the locked hearts”, who do not get the goodness brought by the Qur’an. This is one of reason why the companions were paying close attention to the meanings of the Qur’an.

Abu Abdirrahman As Sulami told that, “The companions like Uthman Ibn Affan, Ibn Mas’ud, and others told us that in the past, if they were learning ten verses from the Prophet -peace and prayer of Allah be upon him-, they wouldn’t ask for more until they understood the lessons and deeds contained in those verses. They said, ‘The Prophet -peace and prayer of Allah be upon him- taught us the Qur’an, by explaining both the knowledge and deeds contained in it.” (See: “Tafseer Ath-Thabari”, 1:80)

The Obligation of Those who Interpret the Qur’an

Every one who tries to interpret the Qur’an must be aware that he is interpreting the Qur’an, the words of Allah, The Exalted. Thus, he must be very cautious to avoid interpreting Allah’s decree without knowledge and firm basis, since he’ll be questioned and he must be responsible of it in front of Allah on the Last Day.

Allah mocked those who are taking this interpretation work lightly, such as interpreting the Qur’an without using the foundation already set by shari’a, or merely interpret it using his intelligence and logical thinking. Allah includes such action in speaking of Him without knowledge. Allah decreed:

قُلْ إِنَّمَا حَرَّمَ رَبِّيَ الْفَوَاحِشَ مَا ظَهَرَ مِنْهَا وَمَا بَطَنَ وَالْأِثْمَ وَالْبَغْيَ بِغَيْرِ الْحَقِّ

وَأَنْ تُشْرِكُوا بِاللَّهِ مَا لَمْ يُنَزِّلْ بِهِ سُلْطَاناً وَأَنْ تَقُولُوا عَلَى اللَّهِ مَا لا تَعْلَمُونَ

“Tell them (O Muhammad): “My Lord has only forbidden indecent acts, whether overt or hidden; all manner of sin;  wrongful transgression;  and (He has forbidden) that you associate with Allah in His Divinity that for which He has sent down no sanction; and that you ascribe to Allah things of which you have no sure knowledge that they are from Him.” (QS. Al-A’raf/The Height: 33)

Thus, every time one wishes to interpret the Qur’an, he must understand all knowledges needed in interpreting it, including the science of hadith, narrations of the companions, arabic language, and others. And he is not allowed to use merely his logic in interpreting it.

References in Tafseer

The references used in tafseer if the Qur’an are the followings:

First: Allah’s decree. The Qur’an is interpreted using it too. It is the highest reference in tafseer/interpreting the Qur’an, since He is the most comprehend of His Own decree. Below are several examples of interpreting the Qur’an by Qur’an:

1. Allah decreed,

أَلا إِنَّ أَوْلِيَاءَ اللَّهِ لا خَوْفٌ عَلَيْهِمْ وَلا هُمْ يَحْزَنُونَ

“Surely the friends of Allah have nothing to fear, nor shall they grieve -“ (QS. Yunus/Jonah :62)

About who is the friends of Allah, is not mentioned in this verse. But in the next verse, Allah explained it’s meaning:

الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَكَانُوا يَتَّقُونَ

“the ones who believe and are God-fearing.” (QS. Yunus/Jonah:63)

2. Allah decreed,

وَالأَرْضَ بَعْدَ ذَلِكَ دَحَاهَا

“and thereafter spread out the earth,” (QS. An-Nazi’at:30)

Allah explained about how He spread out the the earth in the next verse,

أَخْرَجَ مِنْهَا مَاءَهَا وَمَرْعَاهَا (*) وَالْجِبَالَ أَرْسَاهَا

“and brought out of it its water and its pasture, and firmly fixed in it mountains;” (QS. An-Nazi’at:31–32)

And there are still examples of this interpretation. In this field, a scholar named Sheikh Muhammad Amin Asy Syinqithi had written a tafseer book containing verses that are interpreted by other verses of the Qur’an itself. The book is titled “Adwa`ul Bayan fi Idhahil Qur’an bil Qur’an.”

Second: Interpreting Qur’an using the sayings of the Prophet -peace and prayer of Allah be upon him.

Allah’s messenger -peace and prayer of Allah be upon him- is the messenger who deliver Allah’s treatise to the world, hence he is the most knowledgeable man of the meaning of Allah’s decrees. Among the examples of Qur’an interpretation using the saying/hadith of the Prophet -peace and prayer of Allah be upon him- are the followings:

1. Allah declared,

لِلَّذِينَ أَحْسَنُوا الْحُسْنَى وَزِيَادَةٌ

“For those who do good there is good reward and more besides;” (QS. Yunus/ Jonah:26)

The Prophet -peace and prayer of Allah be upon him- interpreted the words ‘more besides’ with ‘seeing Allah’s face.’ From Shuhaib Ibn Sinan, from the Prophet -peace and prayer of Allah be upon him-, regarding Allah’s decree (chapter Jonah:26), he said, ” When the people of Paradise enter Paradise, a caller shall call out: `Indeed you have a promise from Allah.’ They will say: `Did He not whiten our faces, save us from the Fire, and admit us into Paradise?’ They will say: `Indeed.’ Then the Veil shall be lifted.” He said: “So, by Allah, He did not grant them anything more beloved to them than looking at Him.” (Narrated by Tirmidhi, in hadith no. 2552, and classed sahih by Al Albani).

2. Allah’s decree,

وَأَعِدُّوا لَهُمْ مَا اسْتَطَعْتُمْ مِنْ قُوَّةٍ

“Make ready for an encounter against them all the forces and well-readied horses you can muster “ (QS. Al-Anfal/The Spoils of War:60)

The Prophet -peace and prayer of Allah be upon him- interpreted the word ‘forces’ in that verse, through his saying: From Uqba Ibn Amir -may Allah be pleased with him-, he heard the Prophet -peace and prayer of Allah be upon him- preached on the pulpit and read Allah’s decree (chapter Al Anfal/The Spoils of War: 60), and then said, “Know that the forces here means archery.” He repeated it several times. (Narrated by Muslim in hadith no. 1917)

Third: Using the words of the Companions

The Qur’an was revealed during the time of the companions, with their daily language. Beside that, they were the most truthful people after Prophet Muhammad -peace and prayer of Allah be upon him-, and they were the purest in intention from any lusts, and also the farthest from lying in the name of Allah. They’d got noble and pious characters combined within them.

Hence, their saying, interpreting the Allah’s decrees, should be put forward before others’ sayings, particularly the interpretations of companions who were considered as the experts in tafseer, and their scholars as well, such as the four caliphs after the Prophet, Ibn Mas’ud, Abdurrahman Ibn Auf, Ibn Abbas, Sa’ad Ibn Abi Waqqas, and some other companions.

Among the interpretation of the companions are:

وَإِنْ كُنْتُمْ مَرْضَى أَوْ عَلَى سَفَرٍ أَوْ جَاءَ أَحَدٌ مِنْكُمْ مِنَ الْغَائِطِ أَوْ لامَسْتُمُ النِّسَاءَ

” If you are either ill or traveling or have satisfied a want of nature or have had contact with women..” (QS. An-Nisa’/The Women : 43)

There is a valid narration from Ibn Abbas which stated that the meaning of ‘having had contact with women’ is sexual intercourse. (See: ‘Ushul Tafseer’)

Fourth: Using the words of the student of companions who took the interpretation from the companions

Generation of tabeen (generation after the companions) is the best generation after the companions. During their time, arabic language hasn’t endured many changes. Thus, their comments about the interpretation of the Qur’an should be put forward before the sayings of generations after them.

Among the example of Qur’an interpretation using the words of tabeen is,

وَمِنَ النَّاسِ مَنْ يَقُولُ آمَنَّا بِاللَّهِ وَبِالْيَوْمِ الْآخِرِ وَمَا هُمْ بِمُؤْمِنِينَ

“There are some who say: “We believe in Allah and in the Last Day,” while in fact they do not believe.” (QS. Al-Baqarah/The Cow:8)

Qatada Ibn Di’amah, a tabeen, explained the meaning of people who said the words in that verse, saying that the verse is talking about the hypocrites.

Fifth: Using the meaning of the words in Arabic language, or it’s meaning in shari’a, according to the context of the sentence

There are many indications that confirm that the Qur’an was revealed in Arabic language. Among those indications are:

Allah’s decree,

إِنَّا جَعَلْنَاهُ قُرْآناً عَرَبِيّاً لَعَلَّكُمْ تَعْقِلُونَ

“verily We have made it an Arabic Qur’an that you may understand. “ (QS. Az-Zukhruf/The Gold Ornaments:3)

2. Allah’s decree,

وَمَا أَرْسَلْنَا مِنْ رَسُولٍ إِلَّا بِلِسَانِ قَوْمِهِ لِيُبَيِّنَ لَهُمْ

“Never have We sent a Messenger but he has addressed his people in their language that he may fully expound his Message to them. (And after the Message is expounded), Allah lets go astray whomsoever He wills, and guides to the Right Way whomsoever He wills. He is the All-Mighty, the All-Wise.” (QS. Ibrahim:4)

3. Allah’s decree,

وَكَذَلِكَ أَنْزَلْنَاهُ حُكْمًا عَرَبِيًّا

“And it is with the same directive that We revealed to you this Arabic Writ. Were you indeed to follow the vain desires of people after the true knowledge has come to you, none will be your supporter against Allah, and none will have the power to shield you from His punishment.” (QS. Ar-Ra’d/The Thunder: 37)

4. Allah’s decree,

وَكَذَلِكَ أَنْزَلْنَاهُ قُرْآنًا عَرَبِيًّا وَصَرَّفْنَا فِيهِ مِنَ الْوَعِيدِ لَعَلَّهُمْ

“(O Muhammad), thus have We revealed this as an Arabic Qur’an  and have expounded in it warning in diverse ways so that they may avoid evil or become heedful.” (QS. Thaha/Ta ha:113)

If there is a difference between the meaning in shari’a and in the language, then the meaning in shari’a should be used before the language, since the Qur’an was revealed to explain shar’i meanings and not the language, unless there are clues that indicate that the language meaning is stronger than shar’i. In this exception, the language meaning is considered more correct than shar’i meaning.

The example of the difference between the shar’i and language meaning, and the more correct meaning is the shar’i, is Allah’s decree,

الَّذِينَ يُؤْمِنُونَ بِالْغَيْبِ وَيُقِيمُونَ الصَّلَاةَ

“for those who believe in the existence of that which is beyond the reach of perception,  who establish Prayer…” (QS. Al-Baqarah/The Cow: 3)

In language terms, prayer means ‘supplicating or invoking’, while in shari’a, prayer is a discrete type of worship performed with certain ways, begun with takbiratul ihram and ended with salam. The meaning of ‘establish prayer’ in that verse is the prayer according to shari’a, because one is considered to perform a prayer if he performs it the way the shari’a rules.

Whereas example of a difference between shar’i and language meanings, and the more correct one is the meaning in language, is Allah’s decree,

خُذْ مِنْ أَمْوَالِهِمْ صَدَقَةً تُطَهِّرُهُمْ وَتُزَكِّيهِمْ بِهَا وَصَلِّ عَلَيْهِمْ

“(O Prophet)! “Take alms out of their riches and thereby cleanse them and bring about their growth (in righteousness), and pray for them. Indeed your prayer is a source of tranquillity for them.” Allah is All-Hearing, All-Knowing.” (QS. At-Taubah/The Repentance : 103)


  • “Jami’ Al-Bayan fi Ta’wil Al-Qur’an” –also known as “Tafseer Ath-Thabari”– Author: Abu Ja’far Ath-Thabari. Published by Muassasah Ar-Risalah, Saudi Arabia Kingdom. 1420 H.
  • “Ushul fi Tafsir”. Author: Sheikh Muhammad Ibn Shaleh Al Uthaymeen.
  • “Shahih Muslim”. Author: Muslim Ibn Al-Hajjaj An-Naisaburi. Published by Dar Ihya’ At-Turats. Beirut. Without year.
  • “Al-Jami’ Ash-Shahih” –which is known as “Sunan At-Tirmidhi”–. Author: Muhammad Ibn Isa At-Tirmidhi. Published by Dar Ihya’ At-Turats. Beirut. Without year .

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