Interpreting the Text
TAFSIR, ITS KINDS AND PRINCIPLES
Tafsir (exegesis) of the Qur'an is the most important science
for Muslims. All matters concerning the Islamic way of life are
connected to it in one sense or another since the right applica-
tion of Islam is based on proper understanding of the guidance
from Allah. Without tafsir there would be no right under-
standing of various passages of the Qur'an.
Tafsir and Ta'wil
The word tafsir is derived from the root 'fassara' - to
explain, to expound. It means 'explanation' or 'interpretation'.
In technical language the word tafsir is used for explanation,
interpretation and commentary on the Qur'an, comprising all
ways of obtaining knowledge, which contributes to the proper
understanding of it, explains its meanings and clarifies its legal
implications.  The word mufassir (pl. mufassirun) is the term
used for the person doing the Tafsir, i.e. the 'exegete' or
The word ta'wil, which is also used in this connection, is
derived from the root 'awwala' and also means 'explanation,
In technical language it similarly refers to explanation and
interpretation of the Qur'an.
Tafsir in the language of the scholars means explanation
and clarification. It aims at knowledge and understanding
concerning the book of Allah, to explain its meanings, extract
1. See Zarkashi, op.cit., 1, p. 13.
its legal rulings and grasp its underlying reasons. Tafsir
explains the 'outer' (zahir) meanings of the Qur'an. Ta'wil is
considered by some to mean the explanation of the inner and
concealed meanings of the Qur'an, as far as a knowledgeable
person can have access to them. Others are of the opinion that
there is no difference between tafsir and ta'wil.
Why is it Important?
There are a number of reasons why tafsir is of great impor-
tance, but the basic reason is the following: Allah has sent the
Qur'an as a book of guidance to mankind. Man's purpose is to
worship Allah, i.e. to seek His pleasure by living the way of
life Allah has invited him to adopt. He can do so within the
framework of the guidance that Allah has revealed concerning
this, but he can do so only if he properly understands its
meanings and implications.
Some Muslim scholars have warned against tafsir. Ahmad
b. Hanbal, e.g. has said: 'Three matters have no basis: tafsir,
malahim (tales of eschatological nature) and maghazi(tales of
the battles)'. 
By this is meant that there is much exaggeration and un-
sound material in these fields, but it does not mean that
neither of them ought to be considered. This is clear from
another version of the same verdict, in which the word isnad is
used for 'basis'.
Muslim scholars have laid down certain basic conditions for
sound tafsir. Any tafsir, which disregards these principles
must be viewed with great caution, if not rejected altogether.
The most important among these conditions are the following:
The mufassir must:
2 Ibn Taimiya, muqaddima fi usul al-tafsir, Kuwait, 1971, p.59.
- Be sound in belief ('aqida).
- Well-grounded in the knowledge of Arabic and its rules
as a language.
- Well-grounded in other sciences that are connected with
the study of the Qur'an (e.g. 'ilm al-riwaya).
- Have the ability for precise comprehension.
- Abstain from the use of mere opinion.
- Begin the tafsir of the Qur'an with the Qur'an.
- Seek guidance from the words and explanations of the
- Refer to the reports from the sahaba.
- Consider the reports from the tabi'un.
- Consult the opinions of other eminent scholars.
Grades of Sources 
The best tafsir is the explanation of the Qur'an by the
The next best is the explanation of the Qur'an by the
Prophet Muhammad, who, as Shafi'i explained, acted accord-
ing to what he understood from the Qur'an.
If nothing can be found in the Qur'an nor in the sunna of the
Prophet, one turns to the reports from the sahaba. 
If nothing can be found in the Qur'an, the sunna and the
reports from the sahaba, one turns to the reports from the
However, nothing can match the explanation of the Qur'an
by the Qur'an and the explanation of the Qur'an by the
Kinds of Tafsir
- Tafsir may be divided into three basic groups: 
3 See Ibn Taimiya, op.cit., p.93.
4 ibid., p.95.
5 ibid ., p. 102.
6 This classification has been borrowed from Sabuni, tibyan, p.63. See also
Qattan, op.cit.. section 25.
- Tafsir bi-l-riwaya (by transmission), also known as Tafsir
- Tafsir bi'l-ra'y (by sound opinion; also known as tafsir
bi-l-diraya, by knowledge).
- Tafsir bi-l-ishara (by indication, from signs).
By this is meant all explanations of the Qur'an which can be
traced back through a chain of transmission to a sound source,
- The Qur'an itself.
- The explanation of the Prophet.
- The explanation by Companions of the Prophet (to some
Naturally, the explanation of the Qur'an by the Qur'an and
the explanation of the Qur'an by the Prophet are the two
highest sources for tafsir, which cannot be matched nor super-
seded by any other source. Next to these rank the explanations
by the sahaba, since the sahaba were witnesses to the reve-
lations, were educated and trained by the Prophet himself and
were closest to the period of the first Muslim umma. Of course
all reports of explanations by the Prophet or by a sahabi must
be sound according to the science of rEwaya as in 'ulum al-
The Qur'an explained by the Qur'an. The interpretation of
the Qur'an by the Qur'an is the highest source of tafsir. Many of
the questions which may arise out of a certain passage of the
Qur'an have their explanation in other parts of the very same
book, and often there is no need to turn to any sources other
than the word of Allah, which in itself contains tafsir. To seek
to explain an aya from the Qur'an by referring to another aya
from the Qur'an is the first and foremost duty of the mufassir.
Only if this does not suffice, he will refer to other sources of
7 Itqan, II, pp.181-2.
A case in point is the detailed explanation of 5:2 by 5:4,
concerning permissible and prohibited meat. Another
example of explanation of one aya in the Qur'an by another
concerns a question which might arise from Sura 44: 3. It is
explained in Sura 97: 1:
'We sent it down during a blessed night' (44: 3).
Which night is this blessed night, in which the Qur'an was
'We have indeed revealed this in the lailatal-qadr' (97: 1).
A third example is the explanation of Sura 2:37 by Sura
'Then learnt Adam from his Lord words of inspiration,
and his Lord turned towards him, for He is Oft-
Returning, Most Merciful' (2: 37).
These 'words of inspiration' are explained by the Qur'an as
'Our Lord! We have wronged our own souls. If Thou
forgive us not, and bestow not upon us Thy mercy, we
shall certainly be lost' (7: 23).
The Qur'an explained by the Prophet. There are numerous
examples of explanation of the Qur'an by the Prophet, who
either himself asked the Angel Gabriel for explanation of
matters not clear to him, or who was asked by the Companions
about the Qur'an. Suyuti has given a long list of explanations
of the Qur'an by the Prophet sura by sura. 
Here one example may suffice:
'And eat and drink until the white thread of dawn
appears to you distinct from its black thread. . .' (2: 187).
Narrated 'Adi b. Hatim: I said: 'O Allah's Apostle! What
8 Itqan, II, pp. 191-205.
is the meaning of the white thread distinct from the black
thread? Are these two threads?' He said: 'You are not
intelligent, if you watch the two threads'. He then added,
'No, it is the darkness of the night and the whiteness of
the day'. 
Tafsir by sahaba.  Next, after explanation of the Qur'an by
the Qur'an and of the Qur'an by the Prophet himself, ranks
the explanation of the Qur'an by the sahaba. Among them,
the following were best known for their knowledge of and
contribution to the field of tafsir: Abu Bakr, 'Umar, 'Uthman,
'All (not much has been reported from them), Ibn Mas'ud,
Ibn 'Abbas, 'Ubay b. Ka'b, Zaid b. Thabit, Abu Musa al-
Ash'arl, 'Abdullah b. Zubair.
Ibn 'Abbas. Abdullah b. 'Abbas (d. 68/687) is considered to
be the most knowledgeable of the Companions in tafsir.  He
has been called 'tarjuman al-qur'an', the interpreter of the
Qur'an. Since he was related to the Prophet, being his cousin,
and his maternal aunt Maimuna being one of the Prophet's
wives, he was very close to the Prophet Muhammad and
learnt much about the revelation. It is said that he saw the
Angel Gabriel twice. Apart from his detailed knowledge of
everything concerning tafsir, he is also given the credit for
having emphasised one of the basic principles of 'ilm al-tafsir
which has remained important to this day, namely, that the
meaning of words, especially of unusual words in the Qur'an
ought to be traced back to their usage in the language of pre-
Islamic poetry. There is a long list of such explanations
quoted by Suyuti. 
The following is an example of tafsir from a sahabl, namely
Ibn 'Abbas, confirmed by 'Umar:
9 Itqan II. pp. 191-205.
10 For a brief summary on early tafsir see al-Sawwaf, 'Early
Tafsir', in Ahmad, K. and Z.I Ansari. Islamic Perspectives.
Leicester, 1979, pp.l35-45.
11 A book entitled tanwir al-miqbas min tafsir Ibn Abbas (Beirut,
n.d.) is a complete tafsir of the Qur'an. all explanations of which
are said to go back to Ibn Abbas. On the question of authenticity,
see al-Sawwaf, op.cit. p. 140.
12 Itqan 1 pp.120-33.
'So celebrate the praises of your Lord, and ask for His
forgiveness. Verily! He is the one who accepts the
repentance and forgives' (110: 3).
Narrated Ibn 'Abbas: 'Umar used to make me sit with
the elderly men who had fought in the battle of Badr.
Some of them felt it (did not like that3 and said to 'Umar:
'Why do you bring in this boy to sit with us, while we
have sons like him?'
'Umar replied 'Because of what you know of his
position' (i.e. his religious knowledge).
One day 'Umar called me and made me sit in the
gathering of those people, and I think that he called me
just to show them (my religious knowledge). 'Umar then
asked them in my presence: 'What do you say about the
interpretation of the statement of Allah'.
'When comes help of Allah, and the conquest . . .'
Some of them said: 'We are ordered to praise Allah and
ask for His forgiveness, when Allah's help and the
conquest (of Makka) comes to us'. Some others kept
quiet and did not say anything. On that 'Umar asked me:
'Do you say the same, O Ibn 'Abbas?' I replied: 'No'. He
said: 'What do you say then?' I replied: 'That is the sign
of the death of Allah's apostle which Allah informed him
of. Allah said:
'(O Muhammad) when comes the help of Allah (to you
against your enemies) and the conquest (of Makka)
(which is the sign of your death) - you should celebrate
the praises of your Lord and ask for His forgiveness, and
He is the One who accepts the repentance and forgives'
(110:1-3). On that 'Umar said: 'I do not know anything
about it other than what you have said'. 
Another short example is:
Narrated 'Ata': When Ibn 'Abbas heard:
13 Bukhari, Vl, No. 494.
'Have you not seen those who have changed the favour
of Allah into disbelief?' (14: 28).
He said: 'Those were the disbelieving pagans of
Tafsir by Tabi'un. There are many more persons from
among the tabiun known for their preoccupation with tafsir,
because many more people had embraced Islam and the need
for knowledge about the Qur'an had increased manifold.
Also, the Prophet himself and many of his Companions were
no longer available to give this guidance, and therefore
greater efforts had to be made to satisfy this need for proper
understanding of the book of Allah.
Of the mufassirun from among the tabi'un one distinguishes
three groups, according to their origin and area of activity:
- Those from Makka.
- Those from Madina.
- Those from Iraq.
The Makkan Group. According to many scholars, this
group of mufassirun from among the tabi'un are the most
knowledgeable in tafsir, because they learnt about it from
'Abdullah b. 'Abbas. They are many in number, and among
the best known out of many others are Mujahid (d.104/722),
'Ata' (d.114/732) and 'Ikrima (d.107H).
Mujahid, the best known among them, is reported to have
gone through the Qur'an thrice with Ibn 'Abbas and to have
asked him about the 'when' and 'how' of each verse that had
been revealed. 
A complete book of tafsir by Mujahid has been published.
It is based on a manuscript from the 6th Hijra century and is
edited by Surti. 
Humaid b. Qais Makki reported: I was with Mujahid and
14 Bukhari Vl No. 222.
15 Taimiya p. ;()2.
16 Surti, A.: Tafsir Mujdhid, 2 vols., Beirut, n.d.
we were circumambulating the house (Ka'ba). A man
came and asked whether the fasts of penalty of an oath
should be observed continuously or severally. Humaid
replied that if he liked he could observe them severally
too! But Mujahid said: Not severally, for the reading of
'Ubayy b. Ka'b is thalathi ayyamin mutatabi'at, i.e. to
fast three days continuously'. 
The Madinan Group. The mufassirun among the tabi'un
from Madina had many Companions as their teachers, among
the best known being 'Ubay b. Ka'b. The following are some
of the well-known Qur'an exegetes among them: Muh. ammad
b. Ka'b al-Qarzi (d.117/735), Abu-l 'Alliya al-Riyahi (d.90/
708) and Zaid b. Aslam (d.130/747).
The Iraq Group. There were also many mufassirun among
the tabiun in Iraq. Their principal teacher was Ibn Mas'ud.
Their main centres were Basra and Kufa. The best known
among them are: Al-Hasan al-Basri (d.121/738), Masruq b.
al-'Ajda' (d.63/682) and Ibrahim al-Nakha'i (d.95/713).
Nothing can excel the tafsir of the Qur'an by the Qur'an.
This is followed by sound reports about the Prophet's
explanation of the revelation.
Whatever is sound and genuine in the explanation of the
Qur'an by the sahaba and the tabi'un may not be rejected, but
the following principles are to be observed:
- Sound reports must be distinguished from unsound ones,
for many views have been falsely attributed to some
sahaba and tabisdn (especially to Ibn 'Abbas and
Mujahid, the most renowned ones among them), which
cannot be traced back to them when the isnad is
investigated. Those reports must of course be rejected.
- Material from the ahl-al-kitab, in particular the Jewish
traditions (israiliyat) must be sorted out and evaluated.
17 Muwatta Malik, No. 617.
18 For details, see below, p. 133.
- Material which crept in due to theological, philosophical,
political and other considerations, must be sorted out
and evaluated (such as e.g. some ShE'a attributions to
'Ali, or 'Abbasid attributions to Ibn 'Abbas, etc.).
- False material purposely introduced by the enemies of
Islam must be distinguished from sound material.
The second kind of tafsir, after tafsir bi'l-riwaya, is the
so-called tafsir bi'l-ra'y. It is not based directly on
transmission of knowledge by the predecessors, but on the use
of reason and ijtihad.
Tafsir bil-ra'y does not mean 'interpretation by mere
opinion', but deriving an opinion through ijtihad based on
sound sources. While the former has been condemned already
in the hadith, the latter is recommendable, when used in its
proper place as sound ijtihad, and was also approved by the
Prophet, e.g. when he sent Muiadh bin Jabal to Yemen. ' 
Tafsir bi'l-ra'y on the other hand has been declared haram
on the basis of the following hadith:
'From Ibn Abbas: Allah's messenger said: "He who says
(something) concerning the Qur'an without knowledge,
he has taken his seat of fire" *.
However this hadith has been explained in two ways:
- That no one should say of the Qur'an what is not from the
sahaba or tabi'un.
- That no one should say of the Qur'an what he knows to
The obvious meaning of the hadith is that one should not
say something about the Qur'an without having the proper
knowledge, the sources of which have already been
19 Mishkat al-masabih, op.cit., II, p.794: (Arabic), Vol. 2,
20 Ibn Taimiya, p.105, from Tirmidhi, who says it is hasan sahih.
22 The Qur'an explained by the Qur'an, by the Prophet, by the
Companions. By the tabi'un. by sound ijtihad.
Two Kinds of tafsir bi'l-ra'y. In view of this, it is obvious
that tafsir bi'l-ra'y should not be rejected in toto, but is
acceptable if based on sound ijtihad.  Scholars have therefore
grouped tafsir bi'l-raby into two kinds:
- Tafsir mahmud (praiseworthy), which is in agreement
with the sources of tafsir, the rules of shari'a and the
- Tafsir madhmum (blameworthy), which is done without
proper knowledge of the sources of tafsir, shari'a and the
Arabic language. It is therefore based on mere opinion
and must be rejected.
Sahaba and Tabi'un shun mere opinion. While the tafsir
bi'l-ra'y based on sound sources was accepted, it is reported
that from the outset the sahaba had refused to involve
themselves in giving explanations based on mere opinion:
It is reported that a man asked Ibn 'Abbas about the day
(mentioned in the Qur'an) which measures 50 years, and
Ibn 'Abbas replied: 'They are 2 days which Allah has
mentioned in His book, and Allah knows best about
them', and he disliked that he should say concerning the
book of Allah, what he did not know. 
The same attitude is also found among the tabi'un:
'We used to ask Sa'id b. al-Musayyib about halal and
haram, and he was the most learned man, but when we
asked him about tafsir of a verse of the Qur'an, he kept
silent, as though he did not hear.' 
Some scholars have said that tafsir bi'l-ra'y is not allowed.
since it cannot be traced back to the Prophet or his
23 Someone who practises tafsir bi'l-ra'y must have sound knowledge
in the following fields: 'ilm al-balagha, 'ilm usul al-fiqh, ma'rifat
asbab al-nuzul, ma'rifat al-nasikh wa-l-mansukh, 'ilm al-qira'a Also,
he must be inclined towards faith, which is a gift from Allah, and not
a skill to be acquired.
24 Ibn Taimiya, p. 110, based on Tabari.
25 Ibn Taimiya, p.ll2, based on Tabari.
Companions directly. Others, who form the majority, say that
it is permissible under the conditions described briefly above,
because it is done by iitihadd, based on sound sources, which is
a permissible means of obtaining knowledge.
By this is meant the interpretation of the Qur'an beyond its
outer meanings, and the people practising it concern them-
selves with meanings attached to verses of the Qur'an, which
are not visible to anyone, but only to him whose heart Allah
has opened. This kind of tafsir is often found with mystically-
inclined authors. While it must not be denied that Allah
guides to the understanding of the Qur'an whom He pleases
and as He wills, it has to be said that tafsir bi-l-ishara is not a
matter of science and scientific principles, which may be
acquired and then used, as are the other branches of 'ulum
al-qur'an and of tafsir. Some scholars have therefore rejected
it from the viewpoint of general acceptability and said it is
based on mere opinion.26 However Ibn al-Qayyim  is reported
to have said that results achieved by tafsir bi-l-ishara are
permissible and constitute good findings, if the following four
principles are jointly applied:
That there is no disagreement with the plain meaning of
That it is a sound meaning in itself.
- That in the wording there is some indication towards it.
- That there are close connections between it and the plain
Differences in Tafsir
In some cases the mufassirun do not agree on the interpre-
tation of a given verse from the Qur'an. There are a number of
reasons for this, the most important ones are the following:
26 Itqan. n, p.l74.
27 Qattan, op.cit., pp.309-10.
- External: Disregard for isnad.
Use of unsound materials, such as iSrawlgiyat.2s
Conscious misrepresentation, based on a pre-
conceived belief or other ulterior motives.
- Internal: Genuine mistake in comprehension.
Interpretation based on unconscious precon-
Multiplicity of meanings in the revelation from
The main cause however is, in the view of Ibn Taimiya, that
the people introduced false innovation (bid'a) and 'twisted
the speech (of God) from its actual position, and interpreted
the speech of Allah and His apostle(s) other than it is meant,
and explained it other than it should be explained'. 
This word, meaning 'of Jewish origin' refers to explanations
derived from non-Muslim sources and especially from the
Jewish tradition, but also including other ahl al-kitab in
general. Such material was used very little by the sahaba, but
more by the tabi'un and even more by later generations.
There are many aspects of the Qur'an which can be explained
by referring to such sources, when there is common ground
between the Qur'an and the other traditions. However, the
information taken from such sources must be used with great
caution and cannot be considered sound according to the
standards of 'ilm al-hadith, unless traced back to the Prophet
himself and his Companions. The Prophet has already cau-
tioned Muslims against this source of knowledge:
Narrated Abu Huraira: The people of the scripture
(Jews) used to recite the Torah in Hebrew and they used
to explain it in Arabic to the Muslims. On that Allah's
apostle said: 'Do not believe the people of the scripture
28 See below.
29 IbnTaimiya, op.cit., p.91.
30 See Ibn Taimiya, op.cit., pp.S6-8.
or disbelieve them, but say: "We believe in Allah and
what is revealed to us"' (2: 136).
Similarly Ibn Mas'ud, the well-known Companion, is
reported to have said: 'Do not ask the ahl al-kitab about
anything (in tafsir), for they cannot guide you and are them-
selves in error.
Hence one distinguishes three kinds of the so-called
- Those known to be true because the revelation to the
Prophet Muhammad confirms them.
- Those known to be false, because the revelation to the
Prophet Muhammad rejects them.
- Those not known to be true or false, and we do not say
they are true or false.
A concise but useful summary of the vast field of tafsir can
be found in the following words said to be from Ibn 'Abbas:32
'Tafsir has four aspects:
the aspect the Arabs knew because of its language, 
Tafsir, for ignorance of which no one will be excused, 
Tafsir, which the scholars know,
tafsir, which no one knows except Allah'.
THE TAFSIR LITERATURE
Some important Books of Tafsir
Numerous books have been written by Muslim scholars on
31 Ibn Taimiya, op.cit., p.57.
32 Ibn Taimiya, p. 115, based on Tabari.
33 i.e. Linguistic matters.
34 i.e. concerning haram and halal.
the subject of tafsir.35 The oldest text available is attributed to
Ibn 'Abbas (d.68/687) although some doubt its authenticity.
Other old books of tafsir, still available to us, include the
works of Zaid bin 'Ali (d.122/740) and Mujahid, the famous
However it is generally accepted that the magnum opus
among the early books of Tafsir, which have come down to us
is the tafsir al-Tabari.
Tafsir al-Tabari. This book was written by Ibn Jarir al-
Tabari (d-310/922) under the title jami al-bayan fi tafsir al
qur'an. It belongs to the most famous books in tafsir and is
perhaps the most voluminous work we have on the subject. It
belongs to the class of Tafsir bi'l-riwaya and is based on the
reports from the Prophet, the sahaba and the tabi'un, giving
the various chains of transmission and evaluating them. How-
ever, it also contains reports that are not sound, without
clearly indicating this, including so-called isra'iliyat. Tabari
also says in some places that one cannot know about certain
things and that not to know about them does not do any harm.
In spite of all this the book is nevertheless one of the most
important works in tafsir referred to by almost every subse-
quent scholar. It has been printed twice in Egypt (in 1903 and
1911) in 30 volumes, while a third edition begun in 1954 has
reached volume 15.
Other Well-Known Books of Tafsir
Tafsir al Samarqandi, by Abu al-Laith al-Samarqandi
(d.373/983) under the title bahr al 'ulum with many
reports from the sahaba and tabi'un, but without sanad .
Tafsir al Tha'labi, by Ahmad bin Ibrah. im al Tha'labi al
Nisaburi (d.383/993) under the title al kashf wa-l-bayan
'an tafsir al-qur'an with some sanad and some unsound
tales and stories.
Tafsir al-Baghawl, by Hasan bin Mas'ud al-Baghaw
35 For extracts from the classical books of tafsir translated into English see
Gaetje. H.: The Qur'an and its Exegesis, London. 1976.
36 See Sawwaf, op.cit., pp. l35 45.
(d.510/1116) under the title ma'alim al-tanzil being an
abridgement of Thailabi with its weaknesses but with
more emphasis on soundness of hadith.
Tafsir Ibn Kathir, by Isma'il bin 'Amr bin Kathir al
Dimashqi (d.774/1372) under the title Tafsir al-qur'an
al-azim, one of the better-known books on tafsir, perhaps
second to Tabari, with more emphasis on soundness of
reports, in particular rejection of all foreign influences
such as isra'iliyat, discussing the sanad of various reports
often in detail, which makes it one of the more valuable
books of tafsir. Makes much use of tafsir al-qur'an bi'l
quran, referring a reader to other relevant ayat on the
topic discussed. This book has been printed on various
occasions (in 8 volumes) and an abridged version
(mukhtasar) has been edited by Sabuni. No English
translation available. This book although of greatest
importance to Muslims has been widely ignored by the
Tafsir al-Suyuti, by Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (d.911/1505)
under the title al-durr al-manthur fi-l-Tafsir bi-l-mathur.
Some important books from the class of tafsir bi'l-ra'y are
- Al-kashshaf, by Abu'l-Qasim Mahmud Ibn 'Umar al
Zamakhshari (d.539/1144), one of the well-known books
of tafsir based on a mu'tazila approach and considered to
be the standard work of mu'tazila tafsir, with much
emphasis on Arabic grammar and lexicography as a
means of interpretation with less attention given to
_ Mafatih al-ghaib, by Muhammad bin 'Amr al-Husain
al-Razi (d.606/1209). One of the most comprehensive
works of Tafsir bi' l-ra'y covering many areas often beyond
the actual field of exegesis, also known as the tafsir al-
37 See e.g. Gaetje, op.cit., who does not even mention Ibn Kathir's name.
Also Goldziher, 1.: Die Richtungen der islamischen Koranslegung, Leiden,
1970, is silent about him.
- Anwar al-tanzil, by 'Abd Allah bin 'Umar al-Baidawi
(d.685/1286), a summary of Zamakhshari with addi-
tional material to counterbalance the mu'tazila stance of
- Ruh al ma'ani, by Shihab al-Din Muh. ammad al-Alusi
al-Baghdadi (d.1270/1854), criticises unsound reports;
considered to be among the best of tafsir bi'l-ray'.
- Tafsir al-Jalalain, by Jalal al-Din al Mahalli (d.864/1459)
and Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (d.911/1505)? a handy book of
tafsir, containing only brief notes on various passages of
None of these important books have ever been translated
into any European language. 
To conclude here is an example from the tafsir al-
'About the Hypocrites:
Among men are those who say, we believe in God and in
the Last Day - (that is the Day of Resurrection, because
it is the last of days): but they are not believers. They
endeavour to deceive God and those who have believed,
by making a show of the reverse of the infidelity that they
conceal; but they deceive not any except themselves; for
the punishment of their deceit shall come upon them,
and they shall be disgraced in this world, in consequence
of God's acquainting His Prophet with that which they
conceal, and shall be punished in the world to come; and
they know not that they deceive themselves. In their
hearts is a disease. Doubts and hypocrisy in this order
38 There are, however, a few extracts available in English, which
may help the reader gain some idea of this important field of study:
See Gaetje, op.cit.39 Lane, Edward William: Selection from the Kuran
with an interwoven commentary, London, Madden, 1843. This is a most
interesting though very rare book. Apart from a lengthy introduction
(96 pages) almost wholly from Sale, it contains selections from the
Qur'an, translated into English with commentary taken from the tafsir
al-Jalalain. It therefore gives some idea of what this tafsir is like.
The selections reflecting the translator's cultural and historical
millieu rather than the message of the Qur'an are on the following
topics: God and His Works, Predestination, Angels and Jinn, Various
Prophets and Books, Messiah, Muhammad and the Qur'an, Believers and
Unbelievers, Paradise and Hell.
them; and God has increased their disease by what he
has revealed in the Kuran, because they disbelieve it;
and for them (is ordained) a painful punishment because
they have charged with falsehood the Prophet of God
and when it is said to them: corrupt not in the earth by
infidelity and hindering others from embracing the faith
- they reply, we are all only rectifiers - assuredly they are
the corrupters; but they are not sensible thereof and
when it is said unto them, believe ye as other men, the
Companions of the Prophet, have believed- they say,
shall we believe as the fools have believed? - assuredly
they are the fools; but they know it not. And when they
meet those who have believed they say, we believe; - but
when they retire privately to their devils (that is, their
chiefs), they say, we agree with you in religion; we only
mock at them by making a show of their faith - God will
mock at them. He will requite them for their mockery
and continue them in their exceeding wickedness,
wandering about in perplexity. These are they who have
purchased error in exchange for right direction, and their
traffic has not been profitable; on the contrary, they have
incurred loss; for their transit is to the external fire; and
they have not been rightly directed in that which they
have done' (2: 7-15).
Contemporary Tafsir Literature 
Among numerous books on Tafsir that have been written in
the twentieth century, three are outstanding. They have
greatly influenced the thinking of Muslims all over the world,
and are briefly introduced here. They are:
- Tafsir al-manar.
- Fi zilal al qur'an
- Tafhim al-qur'an.
40 Lane. pp.285-7.
41 For a survey of the modern tafsir literature as perceived by the orientalists. See Baljon, J . M. S.: Modern Muslim Koran Interpretation.
Leiden. 1968 and Jansen. JG.: The Interpretation of the Qur'dn in Modern
Egypt. Leiden. 1971.
Tafsir al-manar. The actual title of this book is tafsir al-
qur'an al-hakim. It was compiled by Muhammad Rashid
Rida (d.1354/1935), the well-known disciple of Muhammad
'Abduh (d.1323/1905), and published in Egypt. It is called
tafsir al-manar since some of its parts had been serialised in
the periodical al-manar. The tafsir covers the first 12 juz' of the
Qur'an. The influence of the 'Manar School of Thought' on
Muslims all over the world since the turn of the century has
been tremendous, although today, after several decades,
some of the attempts to harmonise contemporary scientific as
well as social development with the teachings of the Qur'an
seem rather inappropriate. For example, the commentary on
Sura 1: 276, where Jinns are explained as microbes causing
diseases, or on 4:3 where polygamy is 'prohibited' according
to the tafsiral-manar, because justice cannot be done between
two or more wives. However the basic notion of the 'Manar
School of Thought' was that Islam is different and has to be
seen as different from all Western philosophies and must
regain its original position. This view, underlying the tafsir
al-mandr continues to be voiced by many later Muslim scholars
and leaders alike. 
Fi zilal al-qur'an. This book, covering the complete
Qur'anic text in 4 volumes, with the title In the Shade of the
Qur'an has greatly influenced numerous Muslims especially
the younger generations, and particularly in the Middle East.
It was written by the well-known author Sayyid Qutb (d.1386/
1966), mostly during his imprisonment (1954-64), and com-
pleted before he was executed by the Egyptian government
because of his association with the ikhwan al-muslimun.
Qutb's aim, with this commentary on the Qur'an was to
explain the true nature of Islam to contemporary Muslims, so
as to invite them to join the struggle for the establishment of
Islam both on the individual as well as the social level. He
emphasised in particular the differences that exist between
Islam and the non-Islamic systems, as well as the need for
Muslims to strive for the establishment of a movement for
42 Also juz' 'amma has been published. For a shon extract on Sura 4: 3, see
Gaetje, op. cit., pp.248-61.
Tafhim al-qur'an.44 Written in Urdu, and first published in
article form, from 1943, in the journal tarjuman al-qur'an, this
tafsir, covering the complete Qur'anic text was completed in
1973. It is of great importance for contemporary Muslim
thinking, particularly in the Indian subcontinent (Pakistan,
India, Bangladesh, Ceylon), but has also, by means of trans-
lation, reached a much wider audience.45 This tafsir, entitled
Understanding of the Qur'an was written by the well-known
founder of the Jama'at-i-Islami in Pakistan, Abul A'la Maw-
dudl (d.1400/1979). Addressed primarily to a non-Arabic
speaking audience this tafsir places great emphasis on the
thorough explanation of basic Qur'anic concepts, such as ilah}
rabb, ibada and din, and the Qur'an as a 'book of guidance',
not least containing guidance for a movement of Islamic re-
construction and the Islamic way of life. Numerous notes add
to the usefulness of this aid to understanding the Qur'an. It is
particularly suitable for the young educated Muslim with no
direct access to the Arabic original.
There is a common factor in these three contemporary
books. Tafsir al-manar for the first time in modern history
attempted to relate, to some extent, the Qur'anic message to
the actual situation of the Muslim umma in the contemporary
world, and here, for the first time for centuries, Tafsir is no
longer restricted to purely academic exercise and intellectual
stimulus, but regains social and political significance. This is
upheld and further elaborated in the two other books referred
Apart from these three main books of tafsir, numerous
other attempts have been made to interpret the Qur'an for the
contemporary age. All efforts of tafsir are however, apart
43 The last juz' of this book is now available in English: Qutb,
Sayyid. In the Shade of the Qur'an (Vol. 30), MWH Publishers,
44 See Ahmad, Khurshid: 'Some thoughts on a new Urdu tafsir', in
Actes du XXLXE Congres International des Orientalistes, 1, 1, Paris,
1975, pp. 1-7.
45 English translation, so far nine volumes, up to Sura 26, published
under the title The Meaning of the Qur'an, Islamic Publications Ltd.,
from their varying degrees of utility and reliability, only
human efforts to present the Qur'anic message in accordance
with the needs and requirements of the age, and therefore in
the final analysis can be only faint reflections of the Qur'an as
the word of God, against which all human efforts are inade-
quate, incomplete and of only limited validity. This basic
principle, which all mufassirun make the starting point of
their work, should also be well remembered by the readers of
the books of tafsir, so as to remain aware of the actual book
from Allah, the Qur'an, upon which all exegesis and explan-
TRANSLATION OF THE QUR'AN
By translation (tarjama) of the Qur'an is meant the expres-
sion of the meaning of its text in a language different from the
language of the Qur'an, in order that those not familiar with it
may know about it and understand Allah's guidance and will.
There is agreement among Muslim scholars that it is impos-
sible to transfer the original Qur'an word by word in an
identical fashion into another language. This is due to several
- Words of different languages do not express all the shades
of meanings of their counterparts, though they may
express specific concepts.
- The narrowing down of the meaning of the Qur'an to
specific concepts in a foreign language would mean miss-
ing out other important dimensions.
- The presentation of the Qur'an in a different language
would therefore result in confusion and misguidance.
However, there is no doubt that translations of the meanings
of the Qur'an had already been made at the time of the
Prophet Muhammad as a solution for those who did not
understand the language of the Qur'an:
When Heraclius, the Byzantine emperor received the
message Muhammad had sent to him by messenger, the
verses of the Qur'an therein, together with the message, had
to be translated, and the report by Abu Sufyan on this
matter  states expressis verbis that translators were called for
the conversation between the emperor and Abu Sufyan and
that the message from the Prophet included a passage from the
Qur'an, namely Sura 3: 64.
Similarly, translation from a passage from Sura Maryam
(19), which was recited by the Muslims in front of the Negus of
Abyssinia  must have occurred. It might even be taken as
indicating that the Muslims carried with them written extracts
from the Qur'an in case the Negas questioned them, before
one of them recited from the Qur'an: do you have something
with you from what he brought from Allah? 
There is also some reference to the Persian language:
'Some Iranians- one is not certain whether they were from
Yemen or Bahrain, Oman or elsewhere - were converted to
Islam and applied for permission to say their prayers
temporarily in their mother tongue. The Persian Salman al
Farisi translated the first chapter (Sura al-fatiha) and sent it to
one of them.' 
Translation of the Meanings
A word-by-word translation of the Qur'an into another
language would not be adequate. Therefore good translators
have always aimed at first determining the meaning of a
passage and then rendering it into the other language. Hence
translations of the Qur'an are actually expressions of
meanings of the Qur'an in other languages. M. Pickthall, one
of the well-known English Qur'an translators opened his
Foreword with the following lines:
46 Bukhari, VI, No. 75.
47 See Ibn Hisham, p. 152.
48 hal ma'aka mima ja'a bihi 'an allahi min shai': see Ibn Hisham,
Arabic 1, p.224.
49 Hamidullah, Munabbih, p. 19; also: Le Saint Coran, p.xxxvi; see
also: 'Is the Qur'an translatable? Early Muslim Opinion', in: Tibawi.
A.L., Arabic and Islamic Themes, Luzac, London, 1974, pp.7245, here p.73.
'The aim of this work is to present to English readers
what Muslims the world over hold to be the meaning of
the words of the Qur'an and the nature of that Book . . .
The Qur'an cannot be translated. That is the belief of old
fashioned Sheikhs and the view of the present writer.
The book is here rendered almost literally and every
effort has been made to choose befitting language. But
the result is not the glorious Qur'an, that inimitable
symphony the very sounds of which move men to tears
and ecstasy. It is only an attempt to present the meaning
of the Qur'an - and peradventure something of the
charm - in English.' 
Limitations of Translation
The Qur'an is the word of Allah. Scholars say that since the
Qur'an has been revealed in the Arabic language any trans-
lation of it would not be the word of Allah. Furthermore, the
concept of the uniqueness and inimitability of the Qur'an (i'jaz
al-qur'an) is, in the mind of these scholars, closely linked to its
expression in the Arabic language. This would become
immaterial in translation. Lastly, because of the different
meanings that words carry in different languages, the trans-
lation would never adequately express all the meanings of the
Qur'an carried by the original text.
Importance of Translations and their Benefits
The translations of the meanings of the Qur'an are of great
importance for two reasons:
- To present the message of Islam to non-Muslims and
invite them to ponder over the Qur'an.
- To point out to Muslims the revealed guidance and will of
Allah to be observed by them.
Without translations of the Qur'an today there is no way of
effective da'wa either to non-Muslims or to Muslims them-
50 Pickthall, M. M.: The Meaning of the Glorious Koran, New York, 1963.
selves since those familiar with the language of the Qur'an are
few in number, and the vast majority of people have no
opportunity to become acquainted with the meaning of the
Qur'an unless it be rendered into their mother tongue.
Translations of the meanings of the Qur'an therefore are
not only permissible but a duty and obligation upon Muslims,5'
and the practical basis for the extension of the Islamic da'wa
to other peoples all over the world.
Translation in Salat? 
There is a difference of opinion as to whether the translated
meanings of the Qur'anic verse could be recited during prayer.
Some scholars (in particular some Hanafites) say that someone
not familiar with the Qur'anic language may recite short
passages in his mother tongue until he has learnt them in the
Qur'anic language.  The majority of scholars say that this
would render the prayer invalid and only recitation of the
Qur'an in its revealed form is permissible.
The first translation of the Qur'an, from Arabic into Latin,
made in Europe was done under the instructions of Peter the
Venerable, Abbot of Cluny, in 1143. It was an attempt at the
dawn of crusades and to equip the 'reconquerors' for mission
among Muslims and refutation of Islam, and since then many
other translations have followed.
Here we are however only concerned with translations into
the English language. Borrowing from the field of Tafsir (and
translation, as we have seen is certainly some kind of Tafsir,
since the expression of its meaning in another language require
tagsgr) the conditions which need to be fulfilled would be:
- The translation must be done by someone with the correct
belief, i.e. by a Muslim.
50 Sabuni, tibyan, p.232.
52 See Qattan, op.cit., pp..272b.
53 See also GdQ, III, p. 106.
- The translation must be done by someone with adequate
knowledge of both the language of the Qur'an and the
language for the translation.
- The translation must be done by someone well acquainted
with the related sciences, such as hadith, tafsir, etc.
>From the above principles it is obvious that all such transla-
tions by missionaries and their help-mates, the orientalists
(even if excellent with regard to their English idiom)  should
be rejected. This also applies to all non-Muslim translators
and to those holding beliefs other than those based on the
Qur'an and sunna.
Authors well grounded in Islam but proposing explanations
not in conformity with the consensus should be read with
Translations by persons with insufficient knowledge of
either language, or with insufficient educational background,
poor knowledge of related sciences, etc., are of little use and
may confuse, if not mispresent, the meanings of the Qur'an.
There remain only a few translations into English which can
be recommended. Among them the following two seem most
- Abdullah Yusuf Ali: This is a book of mixed value, since
the translation in places is a little far from the text. The
numerous footnotes provide helpful explanations and
background information but some of them seem odd if
- Marmaduke Pickthall: This is a mere translation with no
explanation and footnotes which makes it perhaps more
difficult for the beginner. The author took great care to
give as far as possible a literal translation.
54 Such as e.8. Arberry, A. J.: The Koran Interpreted, London, 1964.