Understanding Islam

What is Tafsir and why is it Important?

When the Prophet Muhammad recited the words of God to the earliest followers of Islam, he proclaimed, “A blessed Book that We have sent down upon thee, that they may contemplate His signs and that those possessed of intellect may reflect” ﴾38:29﴿.[1] It is therefore not just the curiosity of humanity which seeks to question and interpret the divine word, but a command by God to reflect on the words which the prophet delivered and to understand their meaning from all levels of intellect. The need for contemplation and varied interpretation of God’s message is what allows the Qur’an to be used not only as a guidance in one’s religious practice, but as a source of law and a book of guidance on how to live one’s life.

The reader of the Qur’an is even asked why it is that people do not contemplate its words, “Do they not contemplate the Quran? Or do hearts have their locks upon them?” ﴾47:24﴿, further suggesting that only those who hearts are not open to God and who fail to follow in the way of God, do not seek to understand His message. The tafsīr tradition creates a variety of interpretations and ways of understanding verses of the Qur’an that began with the companions of the Prophet Muhammad and continue into modern Qur’anic studies. The tafsīr tradition calls on the use of the Occasions of Revelation, the Qur’ān and Hadith, the historical uses of the forms of recitation, and the prophetic biographies, in order to give the reader of the Qur’an an interpretation which the author of the tafsīr believes to be an accurate and respectable translation that both acknowledges and provides newer understanding to the Qur’ān and the interpretations which came before it.[2] Without tafsīr, the more in depth meanings of the Qur’ān and its historical context, how individuals understand verses of the Qur’ān today would be much different. Without these recorded commentaries, the development and contemplation on the meaning and understanding of Qur’an verses would not be as advanced as they are today.

Tafsīr tends to reflect on the particular religious ideology of the individual who is creating it. Sunni, Shi’ī, and the Islamic mystical traditions, Sufism, all have tafsīr collections  which when compared, often show varied interpretation in how a particular verse should be understood. According to the Sufi traditions, tafsīr helps the individual to understand the some of the deeper meanings of the Qur’ān, “[…] The Qur’ān contains many levels of meaning, the man has the potential to uncover these meanings, and that the task of interpretation is endless.”[3] It is understood by Classical Islamic scholars from reading the Qur’ān, that each verse has a meaning derived from the most basic reading of the verse, a number of more in-depth meanings based on the reader and how the prophetic tradition tends to portray a verse, and a divine meaning which is said to be known by God and is the deepest form of understanding.[4] To be able to read the Qur’ān through the number of interpretations is in a sense, bringing the individual closer to understanding God.

Each tafsīr collection has a varied understanding in how a verse is interpreted based on how the author interprets other types of prophetic Sunnah, such as the Occasions of Revelation, Hadith literature, biographies of the Prophet Muhammad, and the oral tradition. An example of the various tafsīr collection vary in interpretation can be seen when looking at how the authors of tafsīr understand the Children of Israel in the Qur’an, and the idea of the ‘covenant’ which God made with them. The first verse that calls on the Children of Israel (بَنِي إِسْرَائِيلَ), is found in the second Surah “The Cow” (سورة البقرة), verse 40, in which they are told to ‘remember’ their covenant with God, “O Children of Israel! Remember My blessing which I bestowed upon you, and fulfill My covenant, and I shall fulfill your covenant, and be in awe of Me” ﴾2:40﴿. The covenant with the Children of Israel is subsequently mentioned again later in the same Surah, though this time is seems to be more specific with regards to the aspects of the covenant which had been made:

And [remember] when We made a covenant with the Children of Israel, “Worship none but God; be virtuous towards parents, kinsmen, orphans, and the indigent; and speak to people in a goodly way; and preform the prayer and give the alms.” Then you turned away, save a few of you, swerving aside ﴾2:83﴿.

The interpretation of verse ﴾2:40﴿ does not coincide the more specified covenant which is addressed in ﴾2:83﴿ by a number of Qur’anic commentaries. According to Tanwīr al-Miqbās min Tafsīr Ibn ‘Abbās, the covenant made by the Children of Israel with God which the Qur’an refers in verse ﴾2:40﴿ means, “fulfil my covenant regarding this Prophet,”[5] and that the covenant God makes with the Children of Israel in returned will be fulfill, “by admitting you to Paradise.”[6]  This particular interpretation, with variation in specific wording, is also given in Tafsīr al-Jalālayn, in which the covenant the Children of Israel are fulfilling, is specific to the Prophet Muhammad.[7]  From another perspective, Tafsir al- Kāshānī takes on a more pluralistic interpretation in which the covenant addressed in ﴾2:40﴿ refers to a covenant given to the Children of Israel prior to the time of the Prophet Muhammad, with allusions to the Islamic belief of a pre-temporal covenant made between God and man:

The Children of Israel are the people of the divine gentleness and the recipients of the favour of guidance and prophethood. He calls to them with gentleness and a reminder of the former favour and the bygone covenant taken from them in the Torah to affirm the unity of the acts after the pre-eternal covenant, which is the way with [one’s] beloved after [a period of] estrangement: Were there not between us ties of kinship and bonds as well as affection and brotherhood? This [divine] call is specifically qualified by the affirmation of the unity of [His] attributes that is the lifting of the second veil. It is more specific than the first general call made to remind [them] of the favour of religion and the covenant and the [divine] self-disclosure through the attribute of favour-giver and guardian.[8]

Tafsir al- Kāshānī speaks of a bygone covenant, one in which may or may not have addressed God’s command to follow the Prophet Muhammad and accept the Qur’ān as God’s message. It may also imply the covenant made with the Prophet Noah, the Prophet Abraham, the Prophet Noah, the Prophet David, or of a covenant made with God that was lost or forgotten by man and not written in the Torah. Though the specifics may not be stated, the abilities to refer to these commentaries for understanding the particular verses and to figure out whether or not verses work in reference to each other, creates an entirely new understanding of these verses of the Qur’ān outside of its most basic understanding.

There are many verses of the Qur’ān that when read at face value, often portray it as a message promoting forms of violence against those who do not believe in the Prophet Muhammad or his message. A famous example of this is the verse of the Qur’ān often refered to as “The Sword Verse,”[9] found in the ninth Surah “the Repentance” (سورة التوبة), verse five states:

Then, when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wheresoever you find them, capture them, besiege them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they repent, and perform the prayer and give the alms, then let them go their way. Truly God is Forgiving, Merciful ﴾9:5﴿.

This verse on its most basic level seems to call on the Muslim reader to kill ‘idolaters’ wheresoever a Muslim finds them with no apparent cause. For an individual reader who is unaware of the importance of the Occasions of Revelation and tafsīr written in regards to this verse, the verse could be taken as particularly violent and not at all representative of the more pluralistic nature of the Qur’ān. In Tanwīr al-Miqbās min Tafsīr Ibn ‘Abbās, it is explained that the command to ‘slay the idolaters’ refers to “[those] whose treaty is for fifty days,”[10] and does not refer to ‘idolaters’ in general. Though this tafsīr is not specific on which treaty it is referring, the reader can narrow down the time period to being during the time of the Prophet and most likely during the Prophet’s time in Medina, following the immigration to Yathrib, what is not present day Medina.

The tafsīr tradition provides the historical significance and context of a verse, how it is understood, and how it can be used within ones daily and spiritual life. These interpretation further spiritual growth and understanding and help dispel some of the more radical interpretations of certain verses. Though there are tafsīr that are regarded more highly than others, the reader can reflect on how the author derived a certain meaning, and from that come to understand the verses of the Qur’ān from a new perspective. These new perspectives create guidance, and this guidance allows the devote Muslim to worship God in a deeper way, and to adapt these perspectives into a way of life that follows the framework and example set by the Prophet Muhammad. To understand the Qur’ān is to know the Prophet Muhammad, and it is this knowledge which guides the individual to live in the example of the prophet, and bring them closer to living in the way in which God intended.



[1]All Qur’ān translation in this paper are credited to Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, Caner K. Dagli, Maria Massi Dakake, Joseph E. B. Lumbard, and Mohammed Rustom, eds., The Study Quran (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2015).

[2] Joseph E. B. Lumbard. NEJS 186b: The Qur’an: Composition, Collection, and Commentary. Lecture. (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University, Spring 2015).

[3]Kristin Zahra Sands. Ṣūfī Commentaries on the Qur’ān in Classical Islam (New York: Routledge, 2006), Pg. 7.

[4]Lumbard. NEJS 186b: The Qur’an, Spring 2015.

[5]‘Abdullāh Ibn ‘Abbās Muḥammad al-Fīrūzabādī, Tanwīr al-Miqbās min Tafsīr Ibn ‘Abbās. Trans. Mokrane Guezzou, (Amman: Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought, 2007), Pg. 9.


[7]Al-Suyūṭī and al-Maḥallī, Tafsīr al-Jalālayn. Trans. Feras Hamza. (Amman: Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought, 2007), Pg. 9.

[8]‘Abd al-Razzāq al-Kāshānī, Tafsir al- Kāshānī: Great Commentaries on the Holy Qur’an, Part I: Sūrahs 1-18. Trans. Feras Hamza, (Amman: Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought, 2007), Pg. 34.

[9]Lumbard. NEJS 186b: The Qur’an, Spring 2015.

[10]al-Fīrūzabādī, Tanwīr al-Miqbās min Tafsīr Ibn ‘Abbās, (Amman: Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought, 2007), Pg. 194.


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