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TAFSEER (The Interpretion of the Qur'an)

The topic of tafseer is the most important topic of 'uloom al-Qur’an, since in many ways it is the primary goal of 'uloom al-Qur’an — to understand and implement the Qur’an properly. This has also been the first topic of 'uloom al-Qur’an to have been written on, and without a doubt the one in which most of the works in this field have been written about.


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Definition of Tafseer

The word 'tafseer comes from fassara', which means, 'to explain, to expound, to elucidate, to interpret.' The word tafseer is the verbal noun of fassara', and means 'the explanation or interpretation of something.'


According to another opinion, [1] the word tafseer is a transposition from s-f-r, which means, 'to expose, to uncover.' Thus, a woman who uncovers her face is called a 'saafirah', and the act of uncovering her face is called 'sufoor.' Therefore, according to this definition, 'tafseer would mean uncovering the meanings and exposing the secrets of the Qur’an. However, the stronger opinion is the first one, even though both of these meanings are correct.


In Islaamic sciences, tafseer is defined to be: The science by which the Qur’an is understood, its meanings explained, and its rulings derived. [2]


The Necessity and Importance of Tafseer

The question arises: Why is there a need for tafseer? After all, does not Allaah say in the Qur’an


Indeed, this Qur'an guides to that which is most suitable and gives good tidings to the believers who do righteous deeds that they will have a great reward. Qur’an 17:9

and thus everybody can find the Straight Path through this Book? And is not the Qur’an a complete source of guidance in and of itself, as it says,


And We have sent down the Book to you as an explanation for everything, a guidance, a mercy and glad tidings for Muslims" [16:89]


 Indeed, it is true that anyone who approaches the Qur’an with a pure heart, seeking the guidance of Allaah, will find it. As Allaah says,


This [Qur’an] is a clear statement to [all] the people and a guidance and instruction for those conscious of Allah . Qur’an 3:138


But this in no way implies that a person who is unaware of the numerous hadeeth of the Prophet (May Allah Honour him and Grant him Peace) in explaining the Qur’an, and of the reasons behind the revelation of specific aayaath, and of the intricacies of Arabic grammar and principles of rhetoric, and of the various qiraaat, and of the knowledge of the abrogated rulings, and of all of the other topics of 'uloom al-Qur’an will benefit from the Qur’an to the same degree that a person who does know these facts will.


Scholars View

As-Suyootee (May Allah have mercy on him) discusses the necessity of 'tafseer in his al-Itqaan.[4] He begins by stating that it is a known fact that Allaah communicates with man in a way that the will be able to understand. This is the reason that every messenger has been sent in the language of his people. However, there are three basic reasons why tafseer is necessary despite these facts. First of all, Allaah uses the most clear, eloquent and concise language, and in doing so the meaning is clear to those who are well-grounded in the Arabic language, but not so clear to those who are not. Secondly, the Qur’an itself does not always mention the events or references for which each particular ayath was revealed, and these must be known in order for the ayath to be fully and totally understood. Lastly, some words may have multiple meanings, and it is the job of the person that does tafseer to explain what is meant by the word.


It can be said that the purpose of tafseer is to elaborate the principles which the Qur’an came to clarify:


1) The elaboration of a perfect set of beliefs with regards to the Creator, and the relationship of the created with the Creator.


2) The perfection of personal conduct and good morals.


3) The establishment of a set of laws and code of conduct to govern individual and familial relations.


4) The establishment of laws governing societal and political dealings between com munitiesand nations.


5) The narrations of the history of the previous nations, so that the pious among them may be followed, and the impious to act as a warning.


6) To give the good news of Paradise and the blessings in store for the believers, and the evil tidings of the punishment of Hell in store for the disbelievers.


7) To prove the truthfulness of the Prophet (May Allah Honour him and Grant him Peace), and this is done by explaining the miraculous nature of the Qur’an (i'jaaz).


Therefore, the job of a mufassir is to explain all of the above points to mankind. From the above discussion, the importance of tafseer should become apparent. The science of tafseer is meant to explain to mankind the Book that has been revealed to them from Allaah. The Qur’an is like a treasure trapped in a glass receptacle; mankind can view and benefit from this treasure, but they are in need of tafseer, for tafseer acts like the key that unlocks the treasure, so that mankind can benefit from it to the greatest possible extent. Iyaas ibn Mu'aawiyah (d. 122 A.H.) said, "The example of a people who recite the Qur’an and do not know its explanation is like a group of people who have a written message from their king that comes to them during the night, and they do not have a lamp. Therefore, they do not know what is in the message. The example of one who knows tafseer is like a person who comes to them with a lamp and reads to them what is in the message."  And the Successor Sa'eed ibn Jubayr (d. 95 A.H.) said, "Whoever recites the Qur’an and does not explain it, is like an ignorant person.


As-Suyootee said,

(The science of tafseer) is the most honourable of all sciences for three reasons. The first reason is with respect to its topic. It deals with the Speech of Allah, which contains every kind of wisdom and virtue. It contains pronouncements about what has passed, reports of what will happen and judgements concerning what happens between the people. Its wonders never cease. The second reason is with respect to its goal. Its goal is to lead mankind to the firm handhold of Allaah, and to the true happiness, one that does not end. The third reason is with respect to the great need for this science. Every aspect of this religion and this world, in the near or distant future, is in need of the sciences of the sharee'ah and knowledge of the religion, and this knowledge can only be obtained through the understanding of the Book of Allah.



[1] az-Zarkashee, v. 2, p. 147.

[2] as-Suyootee, v. 2, p. 223.

[3] cf, as-Suyootee, v.2, pps. 221-2, ar-Roomee, pps. 8-9, Zarabozo, p. 14.

[4] as-Suyootee, v.2, p. 223.


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