Lecture 18 in the Ramadaan Series


Monday 11 June 2018 (27 Ramadaan 1439) at the Ahlul Bait (a.s) Masjid, Ottery, Cape Town delivered by Mowlana Syed Aftab Haider.

Up until this point, we have critically analysed the theme of the definitive and metaphorical verses, which leads us onto an even broader topic in the form of Tafsir.

Tafsir literally originates from the Arabic word “fassara” – a term which is used when an object or topic is dissected. Allamah Tabatabai (ra) expounded on the science of Tafsir based on three parameters:

– Explanation of the meanings of the words of the Quran. 

– Exploration of the purpose of the ayah/verses.

– Exploration of the underlying message that is projected in a verse.

An important point to note is that tafsir ought not to be confused with translation. Translation stops at the first stage of tafsir, in which the explanation of the Quran is made through separating the words of an ayah and identifying their correct individual meanings. While a translation stops at this point, the tafsir ventures further into deeper themes contained within the same verses.


As evident from the parameters set out above, this task is by no means an easy duty. Ayatollah Shaheed Mutahhari (ra) – a prominent student of Allamah Tabatabai (ra) – outlined three components a mufassir or exegete requires as a bare minimum before being able to delve into Tafsir:

– Mastery over the Arabic Language

Ayatollah Mutahhari insisted on having a command over the Arabic language, as a mere translation would not suffice if one sought to truly understand the Quran. Furthermore, translations themselves are not considered to be “Quran” as numerous subtle meanings are often lost in the process. The reality of translations is that they are the impression of the translator, and on this basis, cannot be wholly consistent with Allah’s explanation. 

– Story of Revelation – Sha’nun Nuzul

If one desires to understand a Quranic ayah, the historical context in which that verse was revealed needs to be a part of the discussion. This includes the occasion it was revealed in as well at what particular time. The background of the revelation serves as a protection from misquoting and misinterpreting various ayaat in the Quran, and therefore is held in high regard.

– Hadith of the Prophet (SAW)

This final component has been commanded by Allah (swt) to the Holy Prophet (SAW) in verse 44 of Surah Nahl:

وَأَنزَلْنَآ إِلَيْكَ الذّ‌ِكْرَ لِتُبَيّـِنَ لِلنَّاسِ مَا نُزّ‌ِلَ إِلَيْهِمْ وَلَعَلَّهُمْ يَتَفَكَّرُونَ

“And We sent down to you the ‘Thikr’ (the Reminder, Qur’an) that you may make clear to mankind what has been sent down to them, that they may reflect.”

This verse emphasises the responsibility of the Prophet (SAW) to explain the Quran. His guidance in this regard is therefore considered to be fundamental in reaching the deeper realities of the Quran’s message. 


As mentioned previously, tafsir was carried out by Prophet Muhammad (SAW) with great determination as it was a duty he had been vested with. As a result of this, numerous companions became well-known for their ability in this field – among them being Imam Ali (as), Abdullah ibn Masud, Ibn Abbas, and Ubay ibn Ka’ab. Although during the time of the Prophet (SAW) the word Qira’ah was typically used instead of tafsir, it had the same implications of reaching greater levels of understanding the Quran.

With the coming of scholars such as Mujahid, tafsir slowly began to develop into its own science separate from basic Quranic recitation. Tafsir now not only required the basic entrance level of having a command over the Arabic language, but required different specialities of the language which included:

– Sarf – word conjugation.

– Nahw – words and appropriate harakahs.

– Balagha – eloquence.

– Fasahah – laws of eloquence. 

– Lughah – vocabulary.

All of these topics needed to be studied in addition to Islamic history and the ahadith of the Prophet (SAW). 

In the school of the Ahlulbait (a.s), this also needed to be coupled with the ahadith of the Imams (a.s) as well as a philosophical and logical basis. The latter part is given special attention, as understanding any of the metaphorical and clear verses without a theological background had little to no value.

In addition to this, the works of previous mufassireen also needed to be studied. This was required to understand what methodologies scholars had used in understanding the Quran, as well as how they had classified metaphorical and clear verses. 


In order to understand the position of tafsir in the modern world, an appropriate comparison would be to the methodology used to interpret the Bible, namely hermeneutics. The question that is of particular interest is as to whether or not tafsir is identical to hermeneutics, as well as whether the methods used in both sciences are identical.

Our answer is that tafsir is completely different. Hermeneutics is the understanding of scripture according to the framework of an interpreter, not the revealer himself. Hermeneutics intends for the interpreter to understand the scriptures based on his own subjective tendencies, and not the factual history that accompanied the scripture in its revelation. The interpreter is completely isolated from the revealer, and therefore he understands the text based on his own time. Due to this understanding that is being adopted, a text had various differing messages as time progressed.

Tafsir is the opposite in this instance, as the exegete strives to understand what Allah (swt) is trying to convey, not what he wishes to convey. 


There are various categories and approaches of tafsir that have been used by scholars over centuries. Traditional tafsir for example, involves interpreting the Quran in a sequential manner. This method starts with Surah Fatiha and ends with Surah Nas, with the tafsir moving from verse to verse.

Another opinion is that the tafsir should be done according to subject – known as Tafsir Mawdu’ie. This process involves collating all the verses that deal with a specific topic, interpreting them, and then arriving at a final opinion about a specific subject. The logic of these scholars is that when the Quran proposes an idea, it has a single message. Although the verses relating to this idea may be scattered throughout the Quran, it does not mean that the message has multiple differing meanings at different places. 

If one wishes to reach a truly comprehensive understanding of a topic, it can only be actualised by following this methodology. By looking at verses relating to a topic in isolation, it often only leads to a one-dimensional perspective. This form of tafsir broadens the way we look at Quranic themes, and leads to a more wholistic understanding. This method has become more common practise in contemporary times and continues to result in a much more wider understanding of Quran than the traditional methods. 


Tafsir of the Quran by the Quran is a pathway of tafsir which involves using different verses of the Quran to explain itself. This has specifically been used by the Ahlulbait (as) themselves. When they were approached by their companions with questions relating to interpretation, they had employed this method in answering them. 

Another form of tafsir involved identifying all the traditions relating to the Quran and its interpretation, and used this to form a basis to explain the verses. This method has both been used by both Sunni and Shia scholars.

There has also been extremes in which some scholars have claimed that the Quran is too great to be understood. Only the Prophet (SAW) and his Ahlulbait (as) are capable of understanding it, and therefore we should not exercise any intellectual activity whatsoever in this regard. This form of literalism or Akhbariyyah restricted the understanding of the Quran as it was only viewed through one lens.

The answer to this group lies in the fact that the Quran constantly invites people to contemplate over the signs present in the natural world, as well as in the Quran itself. Allamah Tabatabai (ra) had said that there are perhaps over three hundred verses in the Quran inviting people to use their aql. While at the same time, there is not a single verse that commands people to accept a belief without using their rationale. Intellectual reasoning is important, however, interpreting the Quran purely by intellectual reasoning also has its own limitations. Some individuals have employed this method to the extent that it has contradicted ahadith relating to different ayahs present in the Quran, and hence the Ahlulbait (as) have advised to remain on the middle path.

To be continued…………