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Prof Adnan Muhammad Zarzour gained his undergraduate degree from the University of Damascus’ faculty of Shari’a in 1960, and his Masters and PhD from Dār al-[Ulūm, Cairo University. Over a long and productive career, he has taught at numerous universities throughout the Arab world. He is currently a visiting professor at Qatar University. His scholarly work covers a wide spectrum of fields including: Qur’anic and Hadith studies, Islamic theology, intellectual history, scholarly biography, and studies in contemporary political philosophy, covering the topics of human rights, secularism and nationalism.



Prof Zarzour also explores contemporary scholarship on the Qur’an, notably through a critical evaluation of modern tendencies such as the claim that the Qur’an contains scientific miracles, as well as through an evaluation of some of the most scintillating modern works of Qur’anic commentary (tafsir). This invaluable work will considerably enrich anyones library and will serve as a reference work for generations to come.

An In-Depth Exploration of Islam’s Sacred Scripture

Ever since its revelation over fourteen hundred years ago, the Qur’an has been the focus of considerable scholarly research. The present work represents one of the finest contemporary examples of Qur’anic scholarship written by a scholar who has spent a lifetime studying and teaching Qur’anic studies. In the course of five rich sections, Prof Adnan Zarzour considers an incredible range of topics including the nature of Qur’anic revelation, the history of the Qur’an’s compilation, an exploration of the Qur’an’s language, style and the nature of its stylistic inimitability and artistic features. Other themes explored here include the impact of the Qur’an on Islamic civilisation, as well as the various classical sub-disciplines of Qur’anic studies, including the study of the variant readings (qirā’āt), the reasons for revelation (asbāb al-nuzūl), and abrogation (naskh).




THE QUR’AN AND ITS STUDY An In-Depth Exploration of Islam’s Sacred Scripture

A D NA N Z A RZ OU R Translated and Edited by Adil



THE QUR’AN AND ITS STUDY An In-Depth Exploration of Islam’s Sacred Scripture


Translated and Edited by Adil



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The Qur’an and its Study Published by The Islamic Foundation Markfield Conference Centre, Ratby Lane Markfield, Leicestershire LE67 9SY, United Kingdom Qur’an House, Po Box 30611, Nairobi, Kenya PMB 3193, Kano, Nigeria

Distributed by Kube Publishing Ltd. Tel: +44(0)1530 249230, Fax: +44(0)1530 249656 e-mail: Copyright © Adnan Muhammad Zarzour, 2018/1439AH All rights reserved The right of Adnan Zarzour to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the copyright, designs and Patents act, 1988. Cataloguing-in-Publication Data is available from the British library ISBN 978-0-86037-780-1 paperback ISBN 978-0-86037-785-6 casebound ISBN 978-0-86037-795-5 ebook Cover design and typesetting: Nasir Cadir Printed by: Mega Basim, Turkey


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Introduction to the English Edition Transliteration Table

Section One: The Qur’an and Arabic t 1 Chapter 1 The Language of the Qur’an t 3 1. The Arabic Tongue t 3 2. The Arabs and the Qur’an t 6 Chapter 2 The Impact of the Qur’an on Arabic t 12 1. The Historical Impact t 12 2. The Lingustic Impact t 18 Chapter 3 The Impact of the Qur’an on Islamic Culture and Civilisation t 22


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Section Two: The Authenticity of the Qur’anic Text and the Date of its Finalisation t 25 Chapter 4 The Qur’an and Earlier Divine Books t 27 1. Definition of the Qur’an and How it Differs from the Hadith t 27 2. A Brief Comparison with Earlier Divine Books t 30 3. Other Names of the Qur’an and Another Form of its Preservation t 36 Chapter 5 Revelation: The Source of the Qur’an t 38 1. The Revelation Phenomenon t 38 2. Erroneous Views of the Phenomenon of Revelation t 42 3. The True Phenomenon of Revelation t 44 Chapter 6 The Revelation of the Qur’an and Why it was Revealed in Parts t 50 1. Revelation and Sending Down t 50 2. The Duration of Sending Down the Qur’an: The First and the Last Revelations t 52 3. Why was the Qur’an Revealed in Parts? t 56 4. Other Purposes for Revelation over a Period t 63 5. Revelation and Reality t 65 Chapter 7 The Collation and Writing of the Qur’an t 68 1. The Preservation and Writing of the Qur’an During the Prophet’s Lifetime t 69 2. The Collation of the Qur’an During Abu Bakr’s Reign in Year 12AH t 74 3. The Copying of the Qur’an During [Uthman’s Reign in year 26 AH, 646 CE t 78 4. [Uthman’s Rule on the Copies of the Qur’an. Features of the [Uthmani Standard Copies t 82 5. The Burning of Other Scrolls and Documents: Misconceptions and Refutation t 86 6. The [Uthmani Character Design of the Qur’anic Writing t 97 7. Diacritics, Letter Dotting and other Markers in the Qur’an t 99 8. The Printing of the Qur’an in Modern Times t 101 Chapter 8 Verses, Surahs and their Arrangement t 103 1. Names and Methods of Reading t 103 2. Definition of Ayah and Surah t 104 3. The Number of Surahs, their Names and Different Lengths t 105 4. The Order of Verses t 106 5. The Order of Surahs t 110 6. The ruling on Disregarding the Order Folllowed in the Mushaf t 112 7. Relationships Between Verses and Surahs t 114


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Chapter 9 The Seven Pronunciations or Harfs t 117 1. Some Reports Confirming the Revelation of the Qur’an in Seven Pronunciations or Harfs t 118 2. What these Reports Tell Us t 119 3. What are these Seven Pronunciations or Harfs? t 123 4. The Seven Pronunciations: A Temporary Concession or Permanent? t 130 5. What these Pronunciations Give Us t 132

Section Three: The Qur’anic Disciplines t 133 Chapter 10 What is Meant by Qur’anic Disciplines t 135 Chapter 11 Reasons for Revelation t 138 1. Definition t 139 2. Its Importance t 141 3. How to Know the Reasons for Revelation t 144 4. Reasons for Revelation, Life and the Qur’an in General t 145 5. Comment t 148 Chapter 12 Makkan and Madinan t 150 1. The Established Basis for Distinguishing Makkan and Madinan Revelations t 151 2. The Criteria of Makkan and Madinan Revelations t 152 3. Misconceptions about these Distinctions t 155 Chapter 13 Openings of the Surahs t 161 1. Types of Openings of Qur’anic Surahs t 161 2. Patterns of Openings with Separate Letters t 164 3. Best Known Views Explaining the Separate Letters t 165 Chapter 14 Precise and Equivocal t 175 1. Wording Similarity t 177 2. Similar and Problematic t 182


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Chapter 15 The Variant Recitals of the Qur’an t 207 1. How the Discipline of Variant Recitals Started t 207 2. The Definition and Number of Variant Recitals t 211 3. The Criteria for Acceptability of Variants t 216 4. The Irregular Recitals t 220 5. The Status of the Discipline of Variant Recitals t 222 Chapter 16 Abrogation t 225 1. Definition t 225 2. The Concept of Abrogation and its Validity t 226 3. Abrogation or Re-Initiation t 230 4. The Abrogation of Earlier Codes of Law, but No Abrogation in the Qur’an t 231 5. Abrogation as a Means of Education t 233 6. The Special Status of the Generation that Received Revelation t 234 7. Reasons for the Special Status t 236 8. When a Latter Revelation does not Abrogate an Earlier One t 237

Section Four Features of Old and New Commentaries t 241 Chapter 17 The Start and Development of Qur’anic Commentary t 243 1. Commentary and Ultimate Meaning t 244 2. Interpretation on the Basis of Authentic Reports t 248 3. Interpretation Based on Personal Views and Conditions of Interpretation t 255 4. The Age of Difference: Reasons for Adopting New Methodologies t 267 Chapter 18 Methodologies t 271 1. The Methodology of Scholastic Theology t 271 2. The Methodology of Sufism t 275 3. The Methodology, or Rather the Confused Medley, of Esotericism t 280 4. A Refutation of Esoteric Interpretation t 286 5. Introductions to the Methodologies of Qur’anic Commentary t 292 6. Thematic Interpretation t 296 7. Broad Interpretation and Comparative Interpretation t 299 8. The Obscure in the Qur’an t 300


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Chapter 19 Translation of the Qur’an t 305 1. Arabicisation, Translation and Interpretation t 305 2. The History of the Qur’an’s Translation t 307 3. What is Required? t 316 4. Literal Translation t 317 5. Explanatory Translation and its Conditions t 319 Chapter 20 Scientific Interpretations of Verses on Nature and the Universe t 321 1. The Meaning of Scientific Interpretation and the Reasons Behind it t 321 2. Scientific Interpretation is No Miracle t 323 3. Scientific Interpretation and Scientific Methodology t 325 4. Stages of Scientific Methodology in the Qur’an t 326 5. Conditions for Scientific Interpretation t 330 Chapter 21 In the Shade of the Qur’an: An Introduction t 335 1. The Prophet’s Companions and Interpretation of the Qur’an t 336 2. Commentators and the Qur’an’s Main Objective t 338 3. Conditions to be Met by Contemporary Commentators t 341 4. Sayyid Qutb’s Method and the Status of His Work t 347 Chapter 22 Some Types of Commentary t 351 1. The Surah’s Overall Meaning t 359 2. The Surah’s Sections and Main Theme t 359 3. Characteristics of the Surah’s Text t 360 4. Presentation t 360 5. Language Structure t 362 6. Tone and Rhythm t 362 Section Five The Inimitability of the Qur’an: General Features t 365 Chapter 23 Inimitability: How it Happens and What it Means t 367 1. The Two Sides of Inmitiability: Introduction and Notes t 367 2. The Inimitability of the Qur’an: An Historical Fact t 371 3. Inimitability as the Subject of the Challenge t 375


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Chapter 24 Inimitability: Views and Theories t 379 1. The Concept of Turning Away: A Critical View t 380 2. The Structural Flow of the Qur’an: The History t 382 3. Al-Jurjani’s Theory of Structural Flow t 390 4. Artistic Imagery t 405 5. The Musical Structure t 414 6. Yet Another Aspect of Inimitability t 422 7. Concluding Comments: Expression and Man t 423

Chapter 25 Characteristics of the Qur’anic Style t 426 1. Characteristics of the Qur’anic Style t 426 2. General Features of Style t 428 Chapter 26 Verse Endings and Rhyme in the Qur’an t 439 1. Definition t 440 2. The Role and Place of the End Word t 441 3. Types of End Words t 448 4. End Words, Assonance and Poetry t 450 5. Assonance in the Qur’an t 451 Chapter 27 The Literary Status of the Qur’an: Content and Style t 457 1. The Challenge t 457 2. Characteristic of the Qur’an’s Meaning t 458 3. The Effect of the Meanings on the Presentation t 461 4. A Comprehensive Balanced Address t 462

Section Six The Inimitability of the Qur’an: Unique Artistic Features t 469 Chapter 28 The Use of Simile t 471 1. An Historical Outlook t 471 2. The Simile: Definition and Function Words t 473 3. The Role of the Simile and its Artistic Purposes t 473 4. Types of Simile in the Qur’an t 475 5. Characteristics of the Simile in the Qur’an t 477


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Chapter 29 The Oath in the Qur’an t 488 1. The Oath Formula t 488 2. By What are Oaths Sworn in the Qur’an? t 489 3. The Oath: Glorification and Evidence t 490 4. What is Confirmed by Oath? t 492 5. The Oath Starting with a Negative t 494 6. The Relationship Between the Two Parts of the Oath t 494 7. The Eloquence Dimension of Qur’anic Oaths t 495 Chapter 30 Stories in the Qur’an t 498 1. The Story as Art Form t 498 2. The True Status of the Story: A Response to al-Aqqad t 500 3. The Distinctive Features of the Qur’anic Story t 503 4. The Qur’anic Story as a True Historical Account t 504 5. The Qur’anic Story: The History of Man t 510 6. The General Purpose of the Qur’anic Story t 514 7. Presentation and Artistic Features t 519 Conclusion t 532 Bibliography t 534 Index t 541


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Introduction to the English Edition

The idea of translating this book into English began just after the completion of the recent fifth Arabic edition, which has incorporated many revisions and additions. I felt that an English edition would also serve a good purpose, God willing. For one thing, views on the different subjects the book addresses differ and, at times, scholars take divergent lines. For another, the climate of dialogue between civilisations makes it necessary for people of other cultures to have access to an in-depth study of the Qur’an. Needless to say, the Qur’an itself took the lead in calling for such a dialogue, as it laid down the principle that all mankind has the same origin, and all are absolutely equal. God says in the Qur’an: ‘Mankind! We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another. Truly, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most genuinely God-fearing. God is All-Knowing, All-Aware’ (49: 13). In such a climate of dialogue, which has stolen a march ahead of the slogan ‘clash of civilisations’, a translation of the subjects addressed in this book is very important. These topics deal with the most important religious text in the life of Muslims. It is the pivot around which their culture, civilisation and history turn. Moreover, the book puts before Western readers the views of a Muslim researcher who belongs to the Arabic-Islamic culture. While I hope that the way in which I have tackled the different topics in the book has combined comprehensiveness and objectivity, I also hope that researchers who belong to other faiths, particularly Jewish and Christian researchers in Islamic studies, will also maintain objectivity in their study of the Qur’an and Islamic civilisation generally. Under the subject of ‘revelation’, or the source of the Qur’an, I have pointed out some of the


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errors many of these researchers make in their study of the Qur’an or the life of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). I have devoted ample space to the topics of the history of the Qur’an, its revelation, writing, preservation and different stages of copying. Likewise, the topics of equivocal verses, story-telling and the inimitability of the Qur’anic style are dealt with at length. This may require readers to patiently bear with me. Moreover, these topics give both the translator and the editor, Dr Susanne Thackray, an added responsibility, which I trust both of them have patiently fulfilled. To both I am greatly indebted. May I say that certain concepts illustrated in this book may not be easily understood by Arabic readers, let alone by speakers of other languages. My especial thanks go to my brother and lifelong friend, Adil Salahi, who undertook the translation of this book and contributed valuable details to the chapter on the translation of the Qur’an, based on his long experience in this area. Finally, a word of gratitude from a father, as I am indebted to my daughter, Dr Asma’ Zarzour, who supervised the Arabic edition and followed up with the translation. She has diligently undertaken both tasks in a scholarly way. I praise God for enabling me to write this work and hope that it will be of benefit to both Muslim and non-Muslim readers.

Adnan Muhammad Zarzour Doha June 2014


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Transliteration Table

Consonants. Arabic initial, unexpressed, medial and final: ‫’ ﺀ‬ ‫ﺍ‬




‫ ﺽ‬d







‫ ﻁ‬t







‫ ﻅ‬z



































With a saddah, both medial and final consonants are doubled Vowels, diphthongs, etc. short:



‫  ــﹺــ‬i




‫  ــﹸﻮ‬u   ‫ ــﹺـﻲ‬i


  ‫ ــﹸــ‬u

‫ﹶـﻮ‬ ‫  ــ ﹾ‬aw ‫ﹶـﻰ‬ ‫  ــ ﹾ‬ay


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Section One

The Qur’an and Arabic

Chapter 1 The Language of the Qur’an Chapter 2 The Impact of the Qur’an on Arabic Chapter 3 The Impact of the Qur’an on Islamic Culture and Civilisation


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The Language of the Qur’an

1. The Arabic Tongue1 That God chose Arabic from among the great multitude of human languages to be the language of His last Book addressed to mankind suggests that the Arabic tongue has particular and very important features that place it above others. We should remember too that the Prophet Muhammad’s greatest miracle is closely related to the expression of the message. So, the miraculous aspect of the Qur’an, which is associated with a challenge to produce even a small portion like it, relates purely to its language and way of expression, as confirmed by many scholars. An important aspect of Arabic is that it uses the whole length of the vocal tract. Its sounds are perfectly and accurately arranged to make use of all places of articulation. This is a highly useful feature of Arabic. The late [Abbas Mahmud al-[Aqqad describes Arabic as a ‘poetic language’ which uses the artistic and musical patterns of poetry. He adds: ‘This quality is clear in Arabic sounds, on their own, and how they are articulated; in Arabic words, on their own; and in its rules and phraseology; as also in its metres of poetry... The human system of articulation is a complete musical instrument. No community, past or 1.

The Qur’an uses the word lisan, which means tongue, in both its singular and plural forms. The word lughah, which means language, does not occur in the Qur’an. Hence, we can infer that the choice of lisan carries connotations of sound and meaning, which subsequently opens the way to the study of linguistics, particularly in the study of the Arabic language. The idea of using linguistics in the interpretation of the Qur’an is, however, something that we will not attempt in this study.


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present, has used it to its full potential as the Arab nation has done, making use of all its places of articulation to distribute its sounds.’2 Al-Aqqad further explains that the Arabic alphabet does not include more sounds than these languages: ‘Arabic on the other hand has more sounds that are not repeated with additional features. No place of articulation in the vocal tract is missing in Arabic. Indeed, Arabic relies on distributing its sounds along the right places in the vocal tract, without the need to add or omit features of articulation.’3 In his discussion of the poetic aspect of Arabic, from the point of view of its sounds, al[Aqqad describes Arabic as ‘an articulate human language’ because of its full usage of the system of speech. Arabic, in his view, does not omit any tool of sound. The best known sound that, according to al-[Aqqad, exists only in Arabic is the dad, given the symbol, d. Indeed, Arabic is often referred to as the language of the ‘dad’, making it the one sound that distinguishes it from all other languages. Perhaps this is due to the fact that this sound alone represents the vocal system in Arabic, since some of the other five sounds that exist in Arabic only may also exist in other languages with some variation of articulation. This sound is the only one given in Arabic that features istitalah, which scholars of Qur’anic recitation define as ‘the spread of the sound along the length of the tongue’. As such, it represents the vocal system and has no parallel in other languages.4 Al-[Aqqad’s remark that Arabic is an articulate language may refer to the fact that in addition to its having these special sounds, Arabic incorporates all that is given to other languages of these sounds. We cannot include here even a summary of all that al-[Aqqad says about what may be termed the excellence of the Arabic tongue, or how Arabic sounds give the language its poetic character. Nor can we give a full account of his discussion of individual terms, case markings, poetic metres, allegory, as well as what he terms scientific eloquence. Indeed, we will only make a few short quotations. On words, he says that poetic talent is equally or even more apparent in sounds ‘because words add the musical quality of rules and meanings to the clearly noticeable music of pronunciation, even without any particular meaning speakers express.’5

2. 3. 4.


Al-[Aqqad, Al-Lughah al-Sha[irah, p. 11. Ibid, p. 9. Perhaps this explains why scholars differ in prescribing the place of articulation of the d sound, or the part of the vocal tract where it is articulated. Ibn Abi Maryam (died 565/1170) said: ‘The d sound is articulated with the edge of the tongue touching the molars next to it. Some scholars place it before the place of articulation of the group j, sh, y, which are articulated between the middle of the tongue and the hard palate... In articulating the d sound, you may use either edge of the tongue, but using the left edge with the molars is easier.’ Ibn Abi Maryam, Al-Kitab al-Muwaddah, vol. 1, p. 164. This perhaps explains the enchantment one feels when merely hearing this language, as expressed by the German author Annemarie Schimmel: ‘We feel enchanted when we listen to music, but a Muslim is more enchanted by the mere sound of words.’


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T H E L A N G UAG E O F T H E Q U R ’ A N 5

In the composition of words from letters and sounds, it is sufficient to note that the wazn, i.e. phonic pattern, is what distinguishes the parts of speech in Arabic. Other derivative languages of the Semitic group have not attained the same high standards of derivation control according to the phonic pattern. In Arabic, phonic patterns apply to all parts of speech and match, as perfectly as possible, the structure of a word to its meaning. Yanzur, nazir, manzur, nazir, naza’ir, nazzarah, munazarah, minzar, manzar, muntazar, are a few of the derivations from the root nazara. The differences between them are those of nouns, verbs, adjectives, singular and plural. Yet all these differences are based on the phonic patterns, or rather the different musical notes in pronouncing them.6 Phonic patterns of individual words in other languages do not follow the same system. Words may have the same phonic pattern but without any reference to similarity of meaning, or coining nouns, verbs or prepositions. They may have phonic similarities, but it is only accidental. Without it, such languages would have had as many phonic patterns as their vocabulary.7 These quotations give us enough to understand why the Arabic tongue is described in the Qur’an as ‘making things clear’, and why it is contrasted with other languages.8 God says in the Qur’an: ‘We know fully well that they say: “It is but a man that teaches him [all] this.” But the man to whom they so maliciously allude speaks a foreign tongue, while this is Arabic speech, pure and clear’ (16: 103). ‘Most certainly, this [Qur’an] has been bestowed from on high by the Lord of all the worlds. The trustworthy Spirit has brought it down into your heart – so that you may give warning, in the clear Arabic tongue’ (26: 192–195). We now realise why the Qur’an was revealed in the Arabic language. Many Muslim authors have expressed the view that as a clear and lucid tongue, Arabic is the most suited language God has given to communities and nations to carry God’s Book which is inimitable in both word and meaning. God says: ‘Yet before this the 6.



The root nazara means ‘to look’ and these words mean: Yanzur, he looks; nazir, on-looker; manzur, looked at; nazir, parallel or equal; naza’ir, things looking similar; nazzarah, spectators; munazarah, debate; minzar, telescope or magnifying glass; manzar, scene; muntazar, something yet to happen or awaited. Al-Aqqad, p. 12. He adds: ‘English has words like Anne, pan, tan, ban, than, can, ran, fan and man, but these only accidentally have the same phonic pattern. Some of these words are nouns, some verbs and some prepositions. As such, the phonic pattern does not have any meaningful significance as is the case in the phonic patterns in Arabic.’ Some Arabic words, sentences or constructions are described as ineloquent, but this appears to be due to the fact that these, rare as they are, do not use the vocal tract properly. Such poor usage clearly appears in using several sounds that are close together in their places of articulation. An example is the word hu [khu[, which includes three pharangeal sounds. Ineloquence may also be reflected in using similar sounds in consecutive words. This means that ineloquence is the result of bad usage, and not due to any poor quality of the language itself. One aspect of the inimitable musical pattern of the Qur’an is the splendid succession of Arabic sounds, regardless of their features and places of articulation, in an easy flow in the Qur’anic verses and surahs. This attains the summit of eloquence in all Qur’anic terms and sentences.


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book of Moses was revealed as a guide and a (sign of God’s) grace. This Book confirms it in the Arabic tongue, to warn the wrongdoers and to give good news to those who do good’ (46: 12). The language that is poetic in its sounds, vocabulary and inflection is the one most suited to express the Qur’an, God’s eternal word. God wanted His Book to be superior to poetry in its precision and effect, as well as in its rhythm and music.9 It is well known that, unlike Arabic poetry, the Qur’an does not maintain rhymes or metres. Yet the Qur’an renders itself to reading and recitation in a way that accommodates musical tunes. As such, it is superior to poetry, but it is unique prose. Hence, people memorise it in full in a few months, and some people achieve this even in a few weeks. None of the superb speeches of the Arabs of old, or the texts of the finest writers of Arabic literature, of olden and recent times, comes close to this. May we say that the revelation of the Qur’an in ‘poetic language’ meant that it did not need to be in poetry so as to be recited and memorised. This is particularly so because it attained with this language a standard of superior excellence that is impossible to imitate. Moreover, the poetry of this language needs metres that bear special significance once added to the phonic patterns of words and structures. Hence, what may be called poetry in other languages does not necessarily apply to Arabic. Hence, we find it very strange when writers speak of their ‘prose poems’. Moreover, in its sentences, verses and surahs, the Qur’anic text flows in a unique way, one that we may describe as the Qur’anic spirit or the essence of its construction. Hence, it is perhaps right to say that whoever achieves a good standard of reading or reciting this inimitable book can read and recite well any text of Arabic literature across the language’s history from pre-Islamic days to the present. The reverse does not apply. To prove this we may need broad theoretical and applied studies. What we may say for the present is that the literary or poetic nature of Arabic, which is reflected in its sounds, vocabulary, rules and constructions, attains in this immortal book a summit that cannot be scaled by anyone. Reading the Qur’an and reciting it according to the considered rules of recitation, i.e. tajwid, gives a person a good command of literary language and enhances his phonetic skills. Furthermore, it gives him a wealth of expressions and fine meanings that is not confined to scholars or adults. The Qur’an is a book that is rich in the best linguistic constructions and the finest literary expressions, all of which are easily memorised. When children start, at five years of age, to memorise parts of the Qur’an, they are able to achieve a good command of Arabic and gain a keen sense of faith and solid moral values that stay with them for life.

2. The Arabs and the Qur’an The Qur’an was revealed to the Arabs in their own language. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was an Arab from the Quraysh, and he was given his message among them. 9.

Annemarie Schimmel quotes the German poet Friedrich Ruchert as saying that poetry is the mother tongue of the human race. On this basis, can we say that poetic language is the mother of all languages, or the one that provides the example to follow? I think so.


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T H E L A N G UAG E O F T H E Q U R ’ A N 7

Then, the Arabs carried this noble book, the Qur’an, to the world as a message for mankind embodying God’s grace to the world. The role of the Arabs with regards to the Qur’an is to deliver or present it to people, showing them the guidance it provides and to strive to make it known. In this way, they take mankind from darkness into light. Their role is by no means one of stressing their own supremacy or fanatic preaching. It is the role of one assigned a hard task for which he has to strive with great effort. Human privileges are associated with tasks to be fulfilled and burdens to be carried, not with pleasure and enjoyment. God says to His Messenger in the Qur’an: ‘Hold fast to what has been revealed to you: you certainly are on a straight path; and it is an honour for you andyour people. In time, you will all be called to account’ (43: 43–44). Commenting on these verses, Ibn Kathir said: ‘Take the Qur’an, revealed to you, because it is the truth. It guides you to the truth and to God’s straight path that leads to Heaven and its everlasting happiness and bliss... The Qur’an is an honour granted to the Prophet and to his community. It has been revealed in their language. They are the ones who understand it best. Hence, they should be the keenest to learn what it requires of them and to fully implement it.’10 God has made mankind into nations and communities, giving them talents of different types: mental, literary, artistic and scientific. Thus, mankind can complement one another. They should not make their talents a basis to press their superiority on one another. To press one’s superiority over others on the basis of natural qualities that are given to man, and about which one can do nothing either to acquire or discard them, such as regards race or colour, is merely to confine oneself to the stage of childhood or adolescence. This is something that is unbecoming of any rational and mature person. Humanity should have got rid of such attitudes when it received the Qur’anic revelation that says: ‘Mankind! We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another’ (49: 13). Having established this, the verse goes on to state the proper criterion which gives people their status. This is due to personal action that is undertaken by free will and clear resolve. God says: ‘Truly, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most genuinely God-fearing’ (49: 13). The criteria to determine superiority is not based on the qualities that distinguish a particular community or nation. These qualities are meant to stress the unity of the human race and to make it easier for people to get to know one another. Moreover, every good quality entails certain duties and responsibilities that are commensurate with its nature and value. The Prophet (peace be upon him) says: ‘The people who are put to the hardest test are the prophets, then the most God-fearing, then the test gets easier as their good qualities get less and less.’11 God chose the Arabs to be the bearers of His last message to mankind. He knew that they were most qualified for this by their nature and talents, not by their behaviour and practices. Such was the case at a moment in history which witnessed wars and conflicts 10. 11.

Ibn Kathir, Tafsir al-Qur’an al-[Azim, vol. 4, p. 128. Related by al-Tabarani in Al-Mu[jam al-Kabir, with a good chain of transmission. Also related by Ibn Majah and al-Hakim. The latter said that it is authentic according to the criteria set by Muslim.


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and in an environment that suffered a number of ills in relation to the economy pertaining therein, social relations and other areas of life. Hence the Prophet’s statement: ‘You find people of different metal. The best of them prior to Islam are the best under Islam, if they get a good grasp of it. You will find among the best people in this faith some who hated it most before accepting it’ (Related by Muslim). This is also indicated by the Prophet’s supplication: ‘My Lord, give good support for Islam through the one who You love best: either Abu Jahl or [Umar ibn al-Khattab’ (Related by Ahmad and al-Tirmidhi). This prayer for one of the two means that each of them could, by nature and talent, achieve a high standard. In reality, it was [Umar who became a Muslim and climbed higher and higher to achieve a unique status in Islamic and human history. Abu Jahl was by no means a lesser person by nature or talent, but all this was smothered by hatred and arrogance and was eventually buried under heaps of desert sand. His talent and good nature were lost when the man denied Muhammad (peace be upon him) and the Qur’an. In the context of mental, literary and other qualities possessed by the Arabs, Ibn Taymiyyah draws the same distinction and says: The basis of the [Arabs’] distinction is their special qualities: mental, language, ethics and actions. People are distinguished either by useful knowledge or good action. Knowledge has a start which is the mental ability to understand and retain, and a final point which is the logical ability to express and explain. The Arabs are better qualified in these than other nations, and their tongue is the best in expression and distinction of meaning. Action is determined by ethics, which are personal instincts. The instincts of the Arabs are more responsive to goodness. They are more ready to show generosity, forbearance, courage, honourable commitment and other good values. Prior to Islam, however, they had a nature that was susceptible to goodness but were prevented from doing it. They had no revealed knowledge, nor a code of law given to them by a prophet. Nor were they pursuing some purely mental knowledge. All their knowledge was what their talent gave them of poetry and fine speeches, what they learnt of their history, ancestors and special days, and what they needed to learn about the weather, the stars and war. Then God sent Muhammad (peace be upon him) with the best guidance that He has or will ever place on earth, and they (the Arabs) first responded with determined opposition. He worked hard to move them away from their ignorant practices and the darkness of unbelief that corrupted their nature. When they accepted that great guidance, all the rust that covered their hearts and minds was removed. They now had the light of Divine guidance and responded to it with their good nature. Thus, they combined the power they were created with and the perfection God revealed to them. That was like a land that is fertile but neglected, allowing weeds and useless trees to grow in


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it and letting pigs and wild animals make it their habitation. If this land is cleared of useless plants and wild animals, and then planted with grains and fruit trees, it will yield very useful crops.12 In his lucid style, Ibn Taymiyyah refers to the advantage of the Arabic tongue. He also refers to the clear compatibility between the natural strengths of the Arabs and the perfection of the Qur’an and the Divine law revealed to them. In other words, the compatibility is total between the message of Islam and its first recipients, or between their talents and the special qualities of the Islamic message. The revelation of the Qur’an and the Islamic message to the Arabs and the choice of the final messenger from among them were due to their psychological and mental qualities, good attributes and fine values. Moreover, the fact that they were greatly influenced by fine speech and eloquent address enabled them to fully interact with the Divine message, expressed in God’s own words and the unique style of the Qur’an. In further explanation of our distinction between given talent and natural susceptibility on the one hand and the Arabs’ social environment at the time of the Qur’an’s revelation and the start of the Prophet’s mission, we may say that much of that corrupt reality had good and noble motives. Its corruption was the result of choosing the wrong methods and practices, or exaggeration that leads to worse results than any possible risks. For example, some Arabs buried their young daughters alive for fear that they might bring them shame. It is well known that the worst vices of the Arabs included their drunkenness and gambling. They indulged in these because of their generosity and compassion for the poor. Arab poets extolled the praises of drinking because it made a person ready to part with his money and to spend it generously. They might, for example, gamble for a number of camels. Yet the winner did not take any of them. Instead, he left their meat for the poor and needy. These were the benefits that accrued to people from drinking and gambling, as stated by the Qur’anic verse: ‘They askyou about intoxicants and games of chance. Say, “In both there is great evil although they have some benefits for people, but their evil is far greater than their benefit’” (2: 219). The Indian scholar Hamid al-Din al-Farahi, nicknamed ‘the teacher’, called the negative practices of the Arabs in their pre-Islamic days ‘wrongs’, and explained at length their noble motives and moral aims, saying that these wrongs were the result of good qualities. He said: Despite all their wrong doings, the Arabs were of simple nature, aspiring to noble actions such as hospitality, kindness to kinsfolk, protection of honour, and gratitude. This applied in particular to their chiefs and the good people among them. Even their wrongs had a basis in their good qualities. Their drunkenness and gambling were due to their generosity. Their battles were mostly to do with what was due to those who were killed. Their anger aimed to establish justice. Their injustice was motivated by their abhorrence of being humiliated. Therefore, they were compassionate to the weak and widows. In 12.

Ibn Taymiyyah, Iqtida’ al-Sirat al-Mustaqim, pp. 106–162.


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their wars, they did not kill women and children; nor did they deal badly with the vanquished. They tolerated poverty because they would not submit to a king who could have united them. They only submitted to a ruler who would maintain justice and live with them as one of them, like Abu Bakr and ‘Umar did after Islam and some of their chiefs in pre-Islamic days. The one who was able to exercise the greatest authority was the one who was most fair, like [Umar ibn al-Khattab who was able to exercise maximum authority through being most fair.13 We conclude this discussion by citing what the Prophet (peace be upon him) himself said about the moral values of the Arabs in their pre-Islamic days. A long Hadith describes how the Prophet presented Islam to the Bani Shayban when he used to approach Arabian tribes during the pilgrimage season. He went, together with Abu Bakr and [Ali, and found the pilgrims from the Shayban seated, calm and respectable. Abu Bakr started by offering a greeting: in this respect, [Ali said: ‘Abu Bakr was ahead in every good thing’. So, he introduced the Prophet (peace be upon him). Mafruq ibn [Amr, one of their chiefs, asked: ‘What are you advocating?’ The Prophet said: ‘I call on people to believe that there is no deity other than God and that I am God’s Messenger. And I ask you to accommodate and support me.’ He then recited: ‘Come, let me tell you what your Lord has forbidden to you: Do not associate partners with Him; (do not offend against but, rather,) be kind to your parents; do not kill your children because of your poverty – We provide for you and for them; do not commit any shameful deed, whether open or secret; do not take any human being’s life – which God has made sacred, except in the course of justice. This He has enjoined upon you so that you may use your reason’ (6: 151). Mafruq said: ‘What else do you advocate?’ The Prophet recited: ‘God enjoins justice, kindness [to all], and generosity to one’s kindred; and He forbids all that is shameful, all reprehensible conduct and aggression. He admonishes you so that you may take heed’ (16: 90). Mafruq said: ‘You certainly advocate good morality and fine action. Those who deny you and collaborate against you are in the wrong.’ Hani’ ibn Qubaysah, who was their religious chief, said to the Prophet: ‘I have heard what you said. I feel that if we were to abandon our religion and follow you after merely meeting you once would be unwise. It does not take into consideration all possible consequences. Error is often the result of hasty action. We left our people back home, and we do not like to conclude agreements without consulting them. I suggest that we and you go back, and each party will consider and weigh things up.’ 13.

Cited by A.H. Farhat, Journal of the Faculty of Jurisprudence and Islamic Studies, vol. 6, no. 13, Ramadan 1409 AH, p. 11.


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Al-Muthanna ibn Harithah, who was in charge of defence, said to the Prophet: ‘I have heard what you said. Our answer on the point of abandoning our religion is that expressed by Hani’ ibn Qubaysah. We have made a pledge to the Persian Emperor (as they had settled in an area between the rivers of Iraq and the springs in Arabia). This pledge requires us not to initiate action or give shelter to an offender. I feel that what you are calling on us to accept is something that kings dislike. If you wish that we accommodate you and help you against those who are beyond the springs in Arabia, we will do so.’ The Prophet said to them: ‘You have given a good reply as you stated the truth. God’s faith cannot be supported except by people who understand it fully. What would you say if it happens that before long God gives you their land and wealth...’. The Prophet then rose up. He took Abu Bakr’s hand and said: ‘Abu Bakr, Abu Hasan: how splendid are these moral values that prevail in the time of jahiliyyah! It is by such values that God protects some people from the tyranny of others, and they stand apart from each other.’14 This conversation is reported in full in books of the Prophet’s biography; we, however, have chosen to leave out some portions of it. Nonetheless, it is clear that at least this Arabian tribe had a system of authority and that their chiefs ruled on the basis of consultation. Mutual respect is evident in their talk, with everyone speaking about his area of responsibility. Moreover, they received their visitors well, and looked at the matter patiently, giving it due consideration and diligence. Honouring their pledges was paramount to them. Besides, Arabs placed bravery and support for those suffering injustices among their top priorities. In addition, they gave high value to clear expression and lucid speech. To sum up: it was God’s will that He chose the Arabs and their language for His message. The Qur’an was revealed in their tongue and they were given the task of delivering its message to the world. This choice fits perfectly with the general and everlasting nature of this message. Indeed, the choice points to the human, not national, nature of the Islamic message. When we looked at Arabic, we found it a language for humanity, as al-Aqqad rightly described it. When we looked at the total picture of human virtues advocated in the Qur’an on the one hand and at the true moral motives, talents, psychological and rational qualities that enable people to undertake responsibility for the complete and balanced implementation of Islam on the other hand, we found ourselves facing that Arab generation. God knows best whom to choose to deliver His message.


Al-Suhayli, Al-Rawd al-Unuf, vol. 2, pp. 181–182.


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The Start and Development of Qur’anic Commentary

The Qur’an was revealed in Arabic, adopting the Arabs’ best literary style. God says: ‘We have revealed it as a discourse in Arabic so that you may understand’ (12: 2). ‘Most certainly, this (Qur’an) has been bestowed from on High by the Lord of all the worlds... In the clear Arabic tongue’ (26: 192–195). Many verses refer to the language of the Qur’an, stressing that it is Arabic. Some commentators single out certain words, such as qistas and sijjil, saying that they are Byzantine, Abyssinian etc. What they mean is that these words are also words belonging to those languages. Hence, when they discuss these words, they often add their meanings in these languages. Or they might say that Arabic borrowed them from those languages and subjected them to its rules. Thus, they merely refer to word origins, rather than claiming that they are foreign words. Al-Tabari said: ‘What Ibn [Abbas and other commentators say about certain words stating that they are Persian, Abyssinian or Nabataean etc. is merely a reference to the fact that they occur in Arabic and other languages.’ It is well known that the Prophet (peace be upon him) used to recite these verses to the Arabs. Had the Qur’an included foreign words, they would have questioned him. What further confirms that these words were borrowed and Arabicised in pre-Islamic days is the fact that most of them have been subjected to Arabic rules of morphology. The Qur’an also uses the same styles the Arabs themselves employed in expressing their ideas. This includes the factual and the allegorical, the clear and the metonymy, the brief and the detailed, the general and the specific, etc. In all these, the Qur’an follows the practice of the Arabs in expressing their purposes.


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[Abd al-Qahir al-Jurjani said: ‘The Qur’an neither altered single rules of the language, nor changed the meanings of its vocabulary. If any word is given additional meanings, these were explained by the Prophet, as he did with terms like prayer, pilgrimage, zakat and fasting. Likewise, the Qur’an neither altered the traditions of the Arabs nor changed their ways or styles. It did not stop them from using their normal ways of expression, such as using similes, metaphors, omission or verbosity.’439 Ibn Khaldun said: ‘It should be known that the Qur’an was revealed in Arabic, and it uses the Arabs’ literary styles. Hence, they understood the meanings of its words, phrases and sentences.’440 Before we embark on a brief history of Qur’anic commentary, we need to clarify the distinction between commentary and ultimate meaning, i.e. tafsir and ta’wil.

1. Commentary and Ultimate Meaning Linguistically speaking, the Arabic word tafsir is derived from a root that means to explain something and make it clear. The word occurs only once in the Qur’an: ‘Whenever they come to you with an argument, We shall reveal to you the truth and the best explanation’ (25: 33). It is also said that its root is associated with a symptom used by a medical practitioner to diagnose a patient’s illness. Commentators on the Qur’an give several definitions for what the expression tafsir al-Qur’an or ‘commentary on the Qur’an’ means, but they do not differ with regard to its purpose, which is the explanation of its meanings in any way possible. One of the best known definitions states: ‘Tafsir is a discipline that tries to explain the meaning of the Qur’an with regard to its expression of God’s purpose, within the limits of human endeavour.’ Thus, they exclude all studies of the Qur’an that do not seek to explain its meanings, such as the disciplines of Qur’anic variant recitals, and the [Uthmani style of writing, etc. They add the phrase ‘within the limits of human endeavour’, so as to make clear that lack of knowledge of some ambiguities or the openings of the surahs does not detract from Qur’anic commentary.441 Some scholars define Qur’anic commentary as ‘a discipline which aims to make people understand God’s Book that He revealed to Prophet Muhammad, explain its meanings and deduce its rulings and purposes.’ They add: ‘This is derived from the disciplines of linguistics, grammar, morphology, rhetoric, fiqh, Usul al-Fiqh, and the variant recitals of the Qur’an.’442

439. Al-Jurjani, Asrar al-Balaghah, p. 394. 440. Ibn Khaldun, Al-Muqaddimah, p. 1130. 441. Al-Zurqani, Manahil al-[Irfan, Vol. 2, p. 3. While the disciplines of the Qur’an are considered introductory to its explanation, a large portion of them may be included within the sphere of commentary. We have already suggested that this portion should perhaps be called ‘disciplines of Qur’anic commentary’. 442. Al-Suyuti, Al-Itqan, Vol. 4, pp. 335–336.


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Mahmud Muhammad Shakir said: ‘Qur’anic commentary aims to explain the meanings of its vocabulary, interpret its sentences and expound on how the words and sentences express its ideas. This applies equally to the verses that give stories and history, define moral values and manners, outline rulings and all other purposes of the Qur’an.’443 Linguistically speaking, ta’wil is derived from a source that means ‘end up at’. Hence, it is described as putting something at the end it is intended to achieve. Al-Tabari said: ‘In Arabic usage, ta’wil means explanation, and the ultimate end...’444 The linguistic meaning of ta’wil is interpretation as well as the ultimate end. We cannot say that these are two different meanings. In fact, every ta’wil is a tafsir, or explanation. If the latter term means explanation and interpretation, ta’wil suggests a special type of explanation which requires more careful consideration so as to incorporate the connotation of giving the text its intended meaning or the meaning that may be intended. When we look at the usage of the word ta’wil in the Qur’an itself, we realise that it is used in places that require such careful consideration. Let us look at some of these: ‘None save God knows its final meaning’ (3: 7); ‘Even thus will your Lord make you His chosen one, and will impart to you some understanding of the real meaning of statements’ (12: 6); ‘Thus, We established Joseph in the land, and We imparted to him some understanding of the real meaning of statements’ (12: 21); ‘They replied: “This is but a medley of dreams, and we have no deep knowledge of the real meaning of dreams”’ (12: 44); ‘He said: “Father, this is the real meaning of my dream of long ago”’ (12: 100), and ‘Now I shall explain to you the real meaning of all (those events) which you were unable to bear with patience’ (18: 78). In the first three of these verses the word ta’wil refers to the explanation of Qur’anic verses or statements, while in Joseph’s story, which is told in Surah 12, it refers to the interpretation of dreams. In the last instance, which occurs in the story of Moses when he meets a devout man, it refers to explaining certain actions. In all these instances, there is an element of resorting to an ultimate explanation. The first of these verses speaks of two types of Qur’anic verses: those which are clear and precise and others that are equivocal. To find out the meaning of the latter, we need to refer to the ones that are clear and precise. This is the course followed by people who want to know the truth and abide by it. Others who swerve from the truth give the equivocal verses an interpretation that agrees with their falsehood. The ta’wil of the dreams in Joseph’s story resorts to the actual events of which the dreams foretold. In Moses’ story with the good man, the apparently outrageous actions done by the latter resorted to the beneficial results that they would ensure. Thus, causing a hole in the boat of the poor people prevented the 443. Shakir’s Introduction to Malek Bennabi, Al-Zahirah al-Qur’aniyyah, p. 24. 444. Al-Tabari, Jami[ al-Bayan, Vol. 3, p. 184.


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tyrannical king from confiscating it and depriving those people of their livelihood. The young lad was killed so that he would not be a source of great hardship and pain to his parents. Building a wall in a village where Moses and his friend were denied food was done to preserve a treasure underneath it which belonged to two orphan boys whose father had been devout. In Islamic contexts, ta’wil is defined by scholars in the following ways: i. Al-Ghazali as ‘a possibility supported by evidence that makes it more likely than the apparent meaning.’ ii. Ibn Rushd gives it the following definition: ‘Giving a statement a figurative meaning instead of its literal meaning, without contravening Arabic traditions of making implicit meanings, such as calling something by what it looks like, or its cause, or consequences, or comparisons, or similar matters that are used in figurative speech.’445 iii. Explaining his own definition, al-Ghazali said: ‘It appears that all ta’wil will take the text away from its literal meaning to a figurative one.’ vi. Imam al-Haramayn al-Juwayni defined ta’wil as ‘an elaboration that takes the apparent meaning to its ultimate significance as claimed by the interpreter.’ It appears that the need for ta’wil arises after explaining (i.e. tafsir) the words of a text in order to arrive at the true meaning. Thus, when the apparent meaning is explained, some sort of evidence, which may be through reasoning or citing a text or a tradition, or what is generally termed as ‘conclusive evidence’, is needed to make it clear that the intended meaning is different. Thus, the text under discussion is understood as figurative, not literal.446 Hence, some scholars distinguish ta’wil and tafsir, saying that the latter is concerned with what is reported by scholars while ta’wil is concerned with the knowhow.447 They do not mean anything other than supporting what is reported by scholars with what is confirmed by reasoning, so as to arrive at the intended meaning of texts. It does not mean that reasoning is at variance with what is reported. This is how we should understand alRaghib al-Isfahani’s statement that tafsir is more general than ta’wil, because he suggests that tafsir is mostly used to explain individual words while ta’wil is used to explain the meanings of texts.448 To give an example, scholars cite the verse 89: 14, which may be translated literally as: ‘Your Lord is on the watch’. What this really means is that, ‘He observes all matters.’ However, through ta’wil it is interpreted as a warning against taking God’s orders too lightly or being negligent of what prepares man to stand before God on the Day of Judgement.449 ‘Conclusive evidence suggests that usage of the term mirsad, meaning watching, is used to signify something different from its linguistic meaning.’ 445. Ibn Rushd, Fasl al-Maqal, p. 14. Al-Ghazali, Al-Mustasfa, Vol. 1, p. 157. 446. Al-Tha[alibi suggests that ta’wil is that whereby the meanings of individual words that present a problem are put together in a single form that presents no problem. 447. Al-Suyuti, Al-Itqan, Vol. 4, p. 334. 448. Ibid., Vol. 4, p. 332. 449. Ibid., Vol. 4, p. 334.


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To sum up: the linguistic meaning of ta’wil is the ultimate end, and in relation to the Qur’an it means resorting to a figurative meaning instead of the literal one so as to clarify the meaning of a text. In other words, the figurative meaning is the one that must be adopted. It should be pointed out that some scholars question such requirements, although it is hardly possible to deny or reject the process of moving away from the literal meaning.

The Development of Ta’wil For many of the early scholars the linguistic meaning of ta’wil was such that it accorded with al-Shafi[i’s description whereby: ‘assigning to the text one of the meanings that it accepts’.450 They might also have endorsed al-Maturidi’s definition of ta’wil as ‘giving more weight to one possibility without claiming finality or making a claim on God’s behalf.’451 Thus, ta’wil means giving a word one of its possible meanings. Therefore, tafsir means stating the meaning of words that admit one possible meaning. Perhaps the rarity of such words in Arabic was one of the causes that prompted Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari to name his voluminous commentary on the Qur’an Jami[ al-Bayan [an Ta’wil al-Qur’an. He often uses expressions like: ‘The ta’wil of God’s statement...’ and ‘Scholars differ as to the ta’wil of...’. He commits himself to mentioning all the meanings and presenting the views of commentators before giving preference to one or other of them. Perhaps he chose to use these terms to illustrate that he had looked at all possible meanings before making his choices and the way he expressed such choices. The alternative that was determined as the meaning was then considered by the majority of scholars to be al-majaz or the figurative meaning. Both majaz and ta’wil share in going beyond the original position or status. [Abd al-Qahir al-Jurjani (died 471 AH/1079 CE) defines majaz as: ‘What is intended to mean something other than its linguistic meaning. It is derived from moving from one’s original position to a new one.’452 It should be emphasised that the fact that ta’wil also relies on language means that it has nothing to do with symbolism or hidden meaning. Thus, the claims of those who stress ‘hidden’ meanings have nothing to do with explaining the Qur’an. They are no more than lies claimed to be interpretations, as al-Ghazali describes them. We will have more to say on this point later.

Ta’wil and ‘the Meaning of the Meaning’ We need perhaps to refer to what al-Jurjani calls ‘the meaning of the meaning’. He divides speech into two types: the first is that which gives you the meaning merely by the referents of the words used. If you want to state the fact of Zayd’s leaving, you say, ‘Zayd has left’. The other type is that whereby the words on their own cannot give the intended meaning. The 450. M.A. Salih, Tafsir al-Nusus fi al-Fiqh al-Islami, p. 252. 451. Al-Suyuti, Al-Itqan, Vol. 4, p. 332. 452. Al-Jurjani, Asrar al-Balaghah, p. 395.


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words simply point out the linguistic meaning and then associate this meaning with another idea that gives the intended meaning. Al-Jurjani adds: ‘This is done through metonymy, simile and metaphor... Just like you say of a man that he “has plenty of ash”, or “the strap of his sword is long”; or you say of a woman that she “sleeps through the morning”. In any of these instances you do not express your intended meaning by the words themselves. The words indicate the meaning that they carry, and the listener uses that meaning as an indicator of another meaning, which is the one you intended to express. Thus, the plentiful ash indicates that the person referred to is hospitable, while the long strap means that the man is tall. Sleeping through the morning indicates that the woman has servants to do her housework and prepare breakfast for her family. If you say of a person that he ‘takes a step forward and a step backward’, you mean that he is hesitant about something and has not made up his mind.’ Al-Jurjani adds: ‘Now that we know this, we may speak of the “meaning” and the “meaning of the meaning”. The first refers to the apparent meaning of the words which is directly gathered. “The meaning of the meaning” refers to the process of understanding something from the words, which then leads you to a different meaning.’453

2. Interpretation on the Basis of Authentic Reports (al-Ma’thur) 2.1 The Prophet’s Companions and the interpretation of the Qur’an: As we have noted, the Qur’an was revealed in Arabic, using the literary styles of the Arabs. As such, the interpretation of the Qur’an should be based on Arabic. God says: ‘Ha. Mim. A revelation from the Lord of Grace, the Ever Merciful: A Book, the verses of which have been clearly spelled out as a discourse in Arabic for people of knowledge’ (41: 1–3). These verses indicate that anyone who has a good knowledge of Arabic is addressed by the Qur’an. The phrase, ‘for people of knowledge’, implies that anyone who is well versed in Arabic may explain the Qur’an. Hence, Ibn Khaldun said: ‘All Arabs understood it and were aware of its meanings and constructions’.454 Needless to say, the Prophet’s Companions were of different standards in their knowledge of Arabic. Some might even have been unaware of the meanings of some words or the significance of some phrases or constructions. Ibn Qutaybah said: ‘The Arabs were not of the same standard of knowledge of all that the Qur’an contained of unfamiliar words and equivocal expressions.’455 It is clear that the Prophet’s Companions did not try to write long commentaries on the Qur’an, as later generations did. What is attributed to them is limited to the explanation of some words and constructions, as well as stating the occasions when revelations were given, and the places and developments relating to the revelation of some verses. Hence, their differences in the interpretation of the Qur’an, or rather the verses they interpreted, 453. Al-Jurjani, Dala’il al-I[jaz, paragraph 304, pp. 262–263. 454. Ibn Khaldun, Al-Muqaddimah, p. 403. 455. Ibn Qutaybah, Al-Masa’il wal-Ajwibah, p. 8.


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were more akin to variation than opposing views. Ibn Taymiyyah and some earlier scholars mention two types of such variations. The first is that each Companion expresses the same meaning in different ways. For example, the first surah includes the verse that says: ‘Guide us on the straight path’. Some of the Prophet’s Companions said that the ‘straight path’ means the Qur’an while others said it means Islam. Both mean the same thing, because the Islamic faith means implementing the Qur’an. Yet they describe this in different ways. Others interpret ‘the straight path’ as the Sunnah and the Muslim community, or proper submission to God, or obedience of God and His Messenger, etc. The other type means that ‘each of them might explain a general noun by mentioning one or more of its kinds, by way of example, to alert the recipient to that kind and how it fits the description generally and specifically.’ An example may be given in the way the following verse was interpreted: ‘We have given this Book to such of Our servants as We choose: among them are some who wrong their own souls, some follow a middle course; and some who, by God’s leave, are foremost in deeds of goodness. That is the greatest favour’ (35: 32). ‘It is well known that the one who wrongs himself is the person who neglects duties and commits what is prohibited, while the one who follows a middle course performs duties and abandons what is prohibited. The one who is foremost in goodness does the same but adds other good deeds. Thus, the ones who steer a middle course are those referred to as the ones on the right, while those who are foremost are the ones given advanced positions.’456 ‘Then each of them mentions this in one aspect of good deeds. Someone may put it in the context of prayer and say that the one who is foremost in good deeds is the one who offers his obligatory prayers at the beginning of their time range, while the one who steers a middle course prays during the time range. The one who delays his obligatory prayer until the end of the time range wrongs himself. Someone else may suggest that all three types are mentioned towards the end of Surah 2. The one who does good deeds is often charitable, while the one who deals in usury wrongs himself and the one who conducts fair trading steers a middle course.’ ‘With regard to financial dealings, people differ: some are good, some fair and others unfair. The one who fulfils his duty and adds what is recommended takes the foremost position, while the one who deals in usury or refuses to pay zakat wrongs himself. The one who steers a middle course only pays the obligatory zakat and refrains from usury.’ Ibn Taymiyyah said: ‘These two types of commentary we have referred to, mentioning various names and qualities in one case and mentioning some kinds or cases of a specific thing, by way of example, predominate the interpretations given by the early scholars. This is what makes some people think that they had different interpretations.’ Ibn Taymiyyah then mentions other types of differences in the interpretations given by early scholars. These remain within the framework of giving variants, rather than opposites. They may, for example, express their meanings in similar words. One commentator says that the word tubsal, which occurs in 6: 70, means ‘held captive’, while another says that it means ‘held in pledge’. Needless to say, both are very similar. 456. Al-Suyuti, Al-Itqan, Vol. 4, pp. 347–348. See also: Ibn Taymiyyah, Muqaddimah fi Usul al-Tafsir.


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It is important to point out that the Prophet’s Companions did not write voluminous commentaries on the Qur’an nor did they follow fundamentally different methodologies in those commentaries they taught. This was not, however, due to any lack of knowledge on their part. On the contrary, they were well versed in the Qur’an and in full command of Arabic. Rather, then, it is because they witnessed the revelation of the Qur’an that they could understand its verses, relate them to the occasions of their revelation, and put them in their appropriate contexts. This is particularly important in understanding the verses that were revealed far apart but which tackle the same subject. Moreover, the Prophet (peace be upon him) was then among them and he was able to explain whatever needed explanation: they always had access to him and could question him about everything they needed to know. Moreover, the need to explain the Qur’an increased in the generations that followed because most people then were not conversant in Arabic, or at least the language of the Qur’an, and did not personally know the events that occurred during the twenty-three year period of Qur’anic revelation. We may also say that the extent of commentary or interpretation, with regard to the number of verses that need such interpretation, relates to what the commentator feels necessary. This is one factor that helped the growth of Qur’anic commentary over many generations. The Prophet’s Companions that gave most interpretations of the Qur’an were [Abdullah ibn [Abbas, [Abdullah ibn Mas[ud, Ubayy ibn Ka[b, [Ali ibn Abi Talib and [Abdullah ibn [Amr ibn al-[As (may God be pleased with them all).457 2.2 Commentary by the Tabi[in The tabi[in refers to the generation that followed the Prophet’s Companions. Many of their scholars interpreted the Qur’an, and the ones who rose to prominence included alDahhak ibn Muzahim, al-Hasan al-Basri, Mujahid, Qatadah, al-Rabi[ ibn Anas, Muqatil ibn Sulayman, [Ikrimah (Ibn [Abbas’s servant), [Ata’ ibn Abi Rabah, Isma[il ibn [Abd alRahman al-Suddi, [Abdullah ibn Zayd ibn Aslam. Ibn Taymiyyah said: ‘Some of the tabi[in learnt commentary on the Qur’an from the Prophet’s Companions, just as they learnt the Sunnah. They might also add some interpretation through deduction and citing evidence, like they did with regard to some of the recommended practices.’458 This means that the tabi[in reported the interpretations they learnt from the Prophet’s Companions, and this represented most of their views on the meanings of the Qur’an. They also expressed their own scholarly opinions on its meanings. The next generation followed the same method. Hence, books of commentary on the Qur’an began to gradually expand as the area of scholarly views expanded. Then, the second century saw the appearance of a class of scholars who exercised much scholarly endeavour.

457. Al-Zurqani, Manahil al-[Irfan, Vol. 2, p. 26. 458. Ibn Taymiyyah, Muqaddimah fi Usul al-Tafsir, p. 32; Majmu[ al-Fatawa, Vol. 13, p. 132.


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Jewish Stories We need to point out that some of the new additions were learnt through scholars of other Divine religions. Some of the tabi[in were in contact with a number of Jewish scholars who had embraced Islam, such as Ka[b al-Ahbar, Wahb ibn Munabbih and [Abdullah ibn Sallam.459 They took some explanations from them particularly those relating to the histories of earlier prophets. As is well known, the Qur’an records true accounts of the lives of earlier prophets and their histories with their nations, focusing on the lessons that should be learnt from such happenings. Commentators did, however, pay more attention to some details related by the Jews. This was the start of how Jewish stories found their way into books of commentary on the Qur’an. This continued to develop as commentators wished to expand and record more strange stories and give greater details. This inevitably, however, caused some distortion, distortion that is found in at least some pages of Qur’anic commentary. Furthermore, with the passage of time, the incorporation of Jewish stories went further so as to add explanations of verses speaking of the universe and natural laws. Early commentators did not have much knowledge about the scientific facts such verses mention. Hence, they did not see anything wrong in resorting to such Jewish reports. What perhaps made it easy for them to include such reports was the fact that such verses do not include any religious rulings or impose any duties. In other words, to explain them on the basis of such Jewish reports could not lead to the prohibition of anything that was permissible or the cancellation of any prohibition. Yet these reports included much that was wrong, as later discoveries proved. The interpretation of the Qur’an by the tabi[in is considered to be on the basis of authentic reports (al-ma’thur) only in so far as the tabi[in reported what they learnt from the Prophet’s Companions, which was the majority of their interpretations. Their own views and what they took from the followers of other religions, however, do not rely on any authentic reports. Yet we must also explain what is meant by commentary on the basis of authentic reports, because scholars who documented the development of Qur’anic commentary distinguished between two schools: commentary based on authentic reports (al-ma’thur) and commentary based on scholarly opinions (al-ra’y). 2.3 Definition of Interpretation on the Basis of Authentic Reports (al-Ma’thur) Al-ma’thur means what is learnt through reporting. Some scholars define this type of interpretation as ‘What is given in the Qur’an, or the Sunnah, or what the Prophet’s Companions said in explanation of what God stated in His Book.’460 i. Interpreting the Qur’an by reference to the Qur’an itself is the primary and most important aspect of this method of explanation. This is due to the 459. Ibn Khaldun said: ‘The people of the Torah who lived among the Arabs at the time were Bedouin like them. Most of them were from the Himyar tribe who had adopted Judaism.’ (Al-Muqaddimah, p. 403.) 460. Al-Zurqani, Manahil al-[Irfan, Vol. 2, p. 12.


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fact that some verses of the Qur’an interpret others, whether they occur in the same context, or in different contexts, or in the Qur’an generally. Ibn Taymiyyah said: ‘The most reliable method of interpreting the Qur’an is to resort to the Qur’an itself. What is given in general terms or in brief in one place is expanded upon and given more detail in another.’461 Yet this type, in our view, is part of the methodology, or perhaps it is a Qur’anic explanation that preceded commentary, particularly when the explanation is given in the same context, as in the verses: ‘Man is born with a restless disposition: when misfortune befalls him, he is fretful; and when good fortune comes his way, he grows tight-fisted’ (70: 19–21). The Arabic word halu[ is translated as ‘with a restless disposition’. To say that it means that man is fretful at misfortune and tight-fisted when he has plenty cannot be described as interpretation by quoting God’s words. This is rather inaccurate; it simply describes the Qur’an itself. Needless to say, interpretation is what is stated in addition to the Qur’an, not part of it. ii. Authentic Hadiths constitute the essence of interpretation by al-ma’thur, because the Prophet (peace be upon him) was assigned the task of explaining the Qur’an. God says: ‘We have now bestowed on you the reminder so that you may elucidate to mankind all that has been bestowed on them’ (16: 44). The content of such interpretation is much smaller than interpretation through scholarly opinion or endeavour. The reason being that the Prophet (peace be upon him) gave us the practical explanation in his way of worship, dealing with people and his general conduct. If we include all this, however, then this interpretation too becomes much larger. In addition, the Prophet’s Hadiths may be considered to provide an explanation of the Qur’an. These Hadiths are included under all headings in Hadith anthologies in addition to what is entered under the heading ‘interpretation of the Qur’an’, and arranged according to the order of the Qur’an’s surahs. Al-Zarkashi discusses the major sources of interpretation of the Qur’an. He states that the first source, which gives the most reliable information, is what is learnt from the Prophet (peace be upon him). However, a warning must be stated as there is much in what is attributed to the Prophet (peace be upon him) that is lacking in authenticity or even which is fabricated. Hence, Ahmad ibn Hanbal said that what is stated under the headings of the Prophet’s expeditions, major encounters and the interpretation of the Qur’an has no sound basis. Ahmad’s reliable disciples explain his words saying that the Hadiths mentioned in these chapters do not have sound chains of transmission. Other scholars say that Ahmad’s statement refers to particular books that are devoted to these subjects,462 because much of 461. Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmu[ al-Fatawa, Vol. 13, p. 363. 462. Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi said: “This is understood to mean certain books on these subjects. These books are unreliable because their narrators are suspect, and people added much to them. Ahmad ibn Hanbal said that al-Kalbi’s book of commentary is forgery from start to finish, and


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what is attributed to the Prophet (peace be upon him) in these subjects is authentic. They cite examples such as the Prophet’s interpretation of wrongdoing as meaning associating partners with God in the verse that says: ‘Those who believe and do not taint their faith with wrongdoing are the ones who will feel secure, as they follow the right path’ (6: 82). Another example is his explanation of lenient reckoning as merely looking at people’s records of their deeds: ‘He who is given his record in his right hand will in time have a lenient reckoning’ (84: 7–8). Al-Bukhari and Muslim relate on the authority of [Abdullah ibn Mas[ud: ‘When God revealed the verse that says, “Those who believe and do not taint their faith with wrongdoing are the ones who will feel secure, as they follow the right path,” people found this very hard. They said: “who of us does not commit wrongs?” The Prophet said to them: “No. It is not as you think. It is like what Luqman said in his advice to his son: My dear son! Do not associate any partners with God; for, to associate partners with Him is indeed a great wrong”’463 (31: 13). Al-Bukhari and Muslim relate on the authority of [A’ishah: ‘The Prophet said: “Whoever is held to account for his deeds will be ruined.” I said: “Messenger of God, I sacrifice myself for your sake. God says: ‘He who is given his record in his right hand will in time have a lenient reckoning’” (84: 7–8). He said: “That is merely looking at his record, but anyone who is questioned about his deeds will be ruined.”’464 Al-Bukhari and al-Tirmidhi relate on Abu Hurayrah’s authority: ‘The Prophet said: “The mother of the Qur’an is the seven oft-repeated verses and this sublime Qur’an.”’465 Abu Sa[id ibn al-Mu[alla reports: ‘I was praying in the mosque when the Prophet called me, but I did not answer. When I finished I told him: “Messenger of God, I was offering a prayer”. He said: “Has not God said: ‘Believers, respond to the call of God and the Messenger when he calls you to that which will give you life?’” (8: 24). He then said to me: “I shall teach you before you leave the mosque a surah which is the greatest of all surahs.” When he was about to leave, I said to him: “Have you not said that you will teach me the greatest surah in the Qur’an?” He said: “It is: All praise is due to God, the Lord of all the worlds. It is the seven oft-repeated verses and the sublime Qur’an which has been bestowed on me.”’466 Al-Suyuti said in Al-Itqan: ‘What is authentic of such Hadiths (that interpret the Qur’an) is a very small number. Indeed, those of them that directly quote the Prophet are very few. I will mention them at the end of this book.’ He certainly did. These Hadiths are listed by him as entered in the six authentic anthologies and in others. They take up about forty pages. At the end he said: ‘This is all that I recall of the Hadiths that interpret the Qur’an and directly quote the Prophet. They include the ones graded as authentic, good, poor in

463. 464. 465.


that it is not lawful to study it.” Some contemporary writers have expressed views that show that they have misunderstood Ahmad’s words.” I discuss this fully in my annotation of Ibn Taymiyyah’s book Muqaddimah fi Usul al-Tafsir. Al-Bukhari, Hadith No. 3360; Muslim, Hadith No. 124. Al-Bukhari, Hadith No. 4939; Muslim, Hadith No. 2876. Al-Bukhari, Hadith No. 4704; al-Tirmidhi, Hadith No. 3124. The expression ‘the mother of the Qur’an’ refers to Surah 1, which is composed of seven short verses. It is read in every rak[ah of every prayer. Related by Al-Bukhari, Hadith No. 4474.


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authenticity or problematic.’ He adds that he did not include those which are fabricated or false.467 Among the most authentic of these Hadiths is the one entered in all six authentic Hadith anthologies and also related by Ahmad in his al-Musnad, in which al-Bara’ ibn [Azib quotes the Prophet (peace be upon him) as saying: ‘When a Muslim is questioned in his grave, he will testify that he believes that there is no deity other than God and that Muhammad is God’s Messenger. This is the meaning of God’s statement: “God will strengthen the believers through the true, unshakeable word in both this life and the life to come”’ (14: 27).

An Important Note on Interpreting the Qur’an by Means of Hadith It is necessary here to explain why many Sunni commentators include many Hadiths in their commentaries. What is important to note is the fact that their inclusion of these Hadiths does not diminish their reliance on the apparent meanings of the Qur’an or the context in which each verse occurs. In other words, the reports they include do not say anything that is contrary to the context or which tries to undermine its order. When some of them include reports that are lacking in authenticity, they do not give them more weight than the apparent meaning of the text or its context. Indeed, these reports are always consistent with the apparent meaning. On the other hand, the interpretations of some other sects often give greater weight to reports than the apparent meaning of the Qur’anic text and the context in which any text occurs. Their rule appears to be explaining the Sunnah by means of the Qur’an, or interpreting the Qur’an so as to fit with the reports, when the reverse should be the case. We are not discussing here the concept such sects attach to the Sunnah and its reporting or verification. For example, one contemporary Shi[ah scholar said: ‘The official abandoning of the methodology that relies on reports in the Shi[ah thinking in favour of the methodology has not led to the exclusion of reports from scholarly and social life, as often stated by Murtada Mutahhiri. We find today some scholars hesitating to explain a statement in God’s book without relying on a reported text. Some even give more weight to such reports than to reasoning or the overall Qur’anic concepts. Indeed, some follow the same method adopted by al-Majlisi which he states in the Introduction to his work, Bihar al-Anwar, referring to a journey that starts with studies and knowledge, going through the Qur’an to reach what he considers the ultimate resort, namely, the noble Sunnah.’ Al-Tabataba’i, a prominent scholar, is quoted to have said: ‘Some scholars have expressed the view that the apparent meanings of the Qur’an are not binding, while books like Misbah al-Shari[ah, Fiqh al-Rida, and Jami[ al-Akhbar are binding! Some have gone to extremes claiming that the Hadith interprets the Qur’an even when it is contrary to its express meaning!’468 467. Al-Suyuti, Al-Itqan, Vol. 4, p. 480. (For details refer to pp. 405–480) 468. Haydar Hubbullah, Al-Kalimah Magazine, No. 38, Lebanon, 1424 AH, 2003, pp. 97–98. For what he means by the ‘noble Sunnah’ reference may be made to my book Al-Sunnah al-Nabawiyyah wa [Ulumuha Bayn Ahl al-Sunnah wal-Shi[ah al-Imamiyyah.


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This is a clear case of discarding the Qur’an and giving preference to false ‘Hadiths’ and fabricated reports that are contrary to the clear meaning of the Qur’an or contrary to reason and authentic reports. iii. What is attributed to the Prophet’s Companions is considered as al-ma’thur interpretation, if it relates to something that is not subject to personal views or discretion, such as the reasons for the revelation of a particular verse or passage. Indeed, most scholars consider such statements by the Prophet’s Companions to carry the same degree as that which is authentically attributed to the Prophet (peace be upon him). If it relates to linguistic meaning, then it is their own interpretation, but scholars are in agreement that it is accepted as correct. The Prophet’s Companions spoke the language of the Qur’an and they witnessed the events and were aware of other relevant factors. Al-Zarkashi said: ‘If the statements of some Companions of the Prophet differ, they should, if possible, be reconciled. If such reconciliation is hard to achieve, the view of Ibn [Abbas is taken, because the Prophet prayed for him: “My Lord, make him conversant with the ultimate meanings (i.e. ta’wil)”’. Al-Shafi[i gives more weight to Zayd ibn Thabit’s opinion on matters of inheritance because the Prophet (peace be upon him) said: ‘The one who knows the inheritance best among you is Zayd.’469 In this context, we may quote what Abu Hanifah said: ‘What is attributed to the Prophet we accept with much pleasure, and what we learn from the Prophet’s Companions is subject to our choice. As for the following generation, i.e. the tabi[in, we stand with them on the same level.’ He thus makes clear that when the Prophet’s Companions express different views, he may choose any of them, but would not disagree with all of them. As we have noted, their difference is one of variation, not contradiction. Needless to say, Abu Hanifah belonged to the tabi[in.

3. Interpretation Based on Personal Views and Conditions of Interpretation Interpretation on the basis of personal views means reliance on linguistic meaning and reasoning in identifying the meaning of Qur’anic texts. Alternatively, it means reliance on language and personal view, or merely on the language. The Qur’an, as we know, is revealed in the clear Arabic tongue. Needless to say, casual knowledge of Arabic is not enough, because the Qur’an uses the highest, most perfect and accurate style. Hence, anyone who wants to explain it should have in-depth knowledge of Arabic, in addition to knowledge of the variant recitals, reasons for revelation, etc.

469. Al-Zarkashi, Al-Burhan, Vol. 2, p. 189.


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Bearing this in mind, Mujahid said: ‘It is not lawful for anyone who believes in God and the Last Day to express any opinion about God’s Book unless he is highly conversant with the language of the Arabs and its variations.’ In his book, Shu[ab al-Iman, al-Bayhaqi quotes Malik as saying: ‘I will severely punish anyone who does not have good knowledge of Arabic and tries nevertheless to explain God’s Book.’470 Al-Hasan al-Basri said: ‘They are ruined by their lack of knowledge of Arabic. A person may read a verse of the Qur’an and cannot fathom its meanings. He then starts to fabricate things.’471 Commenting on al-Tabari’s interpretation of the verse that says: ‘Your wives are your tilth; go, then, to your tilth as you may desire’ (2: 223), Mahmud Shakir said: ‘Al-Tabari’s view on this is one of the best examples of clarifying the meanings of the Qur’an and its vocabulary... It shows that in-depth knowledge of Arabic, its poetry, rhetoric and literary styles is one of the essentials. No one may speak about the Qur’an unless he has such knowledge.’472 A commentator who has such in-depth knowledge of Arabic and is conversant with its literature, particularly the poetry of the pre-Islamic era, need not meet the conditions that are required of a scholar who attains the standards of ijtihad which enables him to deduce and state rulings on various questions. Rather, a commentator can limit himself to explaining the language. When we look at the Qur’anic verses that mention its language, describing it as the Arabic tongue, we can identify some of the conditions that must be met by anyone who wants to explain God’s words. The following verses may be cited for illustration. God says: ‘Most certainly, this (Qur’an) has been bestowed from on High by the Lord of all the worlds. The trustworthy Spirit has brought it down into your heart – so that you may give warning, in the clear Arabic tongue’ (26: 192–195). The last of these verses, ‘in the clear Arabic tongue,’ points out that a commentator must be master of two distinct matters: the Arabic language and its literary styles.473 3.1 To master a language means having an in-depth and accurate knowledge of the meanings of its vocabulary and the meanings of its constructions and sentences. 470. Al-Suyuti, Al-Itqan, Vol. 2, p. 507. 471. Ibn [Atiyyah, Al-Muharrar al-Wajiz, Vol. 1, p. 27. 472. Al-Tabari states the views of various scholars about this verse, then he says: “What is right of all these is the view that says that ‘anna shi’tum’ (translated as ‘as you may desire’) means ‘any way you desire’. In Arabic usage, when anna occurs at the beginning of a sentence, it signifies ways and methods. Its meaning is close to the meaning of ‘where’ and ‘how’. Hence, it may be confused with either, but discerning usage gives each of them its own connotations. ‘Where’ enquires about places, while ‘how’ about conditions. Al-Tabari cites many examples to explain the differences. He then says: “Those who claim that the Qur’anic statement, ‘go, then, to your tilth as you may desire,’ permits anal sex are grossly wrong. There can be no tilth in anal sex, while God makes clear that the permission is to seek to have children. Hence, He permits sex that leads to pregnancy however one goes about it.” 473. In the translation of this verse the word ‘clear’ stands for the Arabic mubin, which means that ‘it makes things clear’. The word is derived from the same root as bayan, which refers to fine literary styles. Thus its connotations in the verse mean more than mere clarity, adding a sense of fine style and literary expression.


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i. Knowledge of the vocabulary means much more than gathering the meaning from dictionaries or books that discuss individual words and rarely used ones. Such knowledge requires awareness of the different usages of words through studying texts, prose and poetry. This is precisely what Mahmud Shakir referred to. Ordinary knowledge of the vocabulary of the language and the meanings of its individual words is inadequate. A word may have two distinct meanings and a person may know only one of them while the word itself may well be used in the other sense.474 A commentator on the Qur’an must have full knowledge of the differences between words of similar significance, which many people imagine to have exactly the same significance, such as scholarship and knowledge; praise and thanksgiving; miserliness and stinginess; characteristic and feature; sit down and take a seat; etc. This applies to nouns, verbs, prepositions and adjectives. ‘Every word has its own qualities that distinguish it from its pair in some aspect of its meaning, even though they share other aspects.’475 We may quote here some of the examples cited by al-Khattabi (died 388 AH/999 CE): ‘You may say of something that you understand it, [alimt, or you know it [araft, if you simply want to make clear that you have knowledge of it. The two Arabic words imply knowledge but the first takes two objects while the second takes one only. Hence, we use [araft to denote knowledge of God’s Oneness and presence. To use [alimt for God in this sense requires adding one of His attributes as a second object.’476 In Arabic, the two words bala and na[am mean ‘yes’. However, the first is the one that must be used when answering a question in the negative form, such as, ‘Have you not done this before?’ The second is used to answer an ordinary question without a negative. Bala is used in the verse that says: ‘(God said): “Am I not your Lord?” They replied: “yes, indeed, we bear witness to that”’ (7: 172). Al-Farra’ said: ‘Had their answer been, “na[am”, they would have been unbelievers.’ By contrast na[am is used in reply to a different question: ‘ “Have you, too, found the promise of your Lord to be true?” They will answer: “Yes”’ (7: 44). Likewise, the prepositions min and [an have similar imports in certain usages and differ in others. Thus, if you say: ‘I heard something minhu or [anhu,’ the first means that you heard something that he said, while the second means that you heard something about him being said by someone else. Malik ibn Dinar reported: ‘Al-Hasan called us to check copies of the Qur’an. With me were Abu al-[Aliyah al-Riyahi, Nasr ibn [Asim al-Laythi and [Asim al-Jahdari. One person asked Abu al-[Aliyah about the verses that say: “Woe, then, to those who pray but are heedless of their prayers” (107: 4–5). He said: “What is this heedlessness mentioned in this verse?” Abu al-[Aliyah said: “It is that of a person who finishes his prayer and he is unaware of how many 474. Al-Suyuti, Al-Itqan, Vol. 4, p. 362. 475. Al-Khattabi, Thalath Rasa’il fi I[jaz al-Qur’an, p. 29. 476. Ibid, pp. 29–30.


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rak[ahs he prayed.” Al-Hasan said: “No, this is incorrect. The verse refers to those who are unaware of their prayer until its time range has lapsed. Do you not realise that God said [an (which means ‘of, about’) not fi (which means ‘in, during’) before ‘their prayers’. Had God meant that a person forgets how many rak[ahs he has prayed while he is offering his prayers, He would have used fi. As He uses [an, He means that they are negligent of their prayer allowing its time to lapse.”’ ii. Understanding and explaining sentences and constructions requires broad and accurate knowledge of grammar and case marking. ‘Indeed, a commentator on the Qur’an must be fully conversant with grammar, so as not to confuse meanings’ as Abu Talib al-Tabari said.477 Meanings change and differ according to how rules of grammar are applied. Indeed, grammatical mistakes and ignorance of differences in grammar may lead to attributing to God something He has not said. In some contemporary ‘interpretations’ there are many cases of such gross mistakes.478 Needless to say, the literary merits of the Qur’an are far superior to anything Arabic has ever known. Hence, it cannot be interpreted on the basis of odd or rarely used grammatical forms. In his commentary entitled al-Bahr al-Muhit, Abu Hayyan al-Andalusi said: ‘The Qur’an should be understood on the basis of the best grammatical rules and the best constructions. God’s words are of surpassing excellence. Hence, they do not admit all that grammarians allow of uneasy phrases, complex ambiguities or far-fetched forms.’ Coupled with knowledge of grammar, a commentator must be well versed in morphology and derivation, so that he will know the phonic patterns and the root words. Some words may not reveal their full meaning unless their roots are known. On the other hand, a noun may be derived from two different roots, and its meaning differs accordingly. 3.2 Mastering the art of rhetoric and fine style is one of the most essential tools for anyone who attempts to interpret the Qur’an, which attains the highest grade of perfection of style, making it absolutely inimitable. Al-Zamakhshari said: ‘It is right that anyone who undertakes the task of interpreting the Qur’an should ensure that its flow retains its beauty, its rhetoric remains at its best and its challenge remains intact.’479 We may add a brief note on the three branches of Arabic eloquence: semantics, figures of speech, i.e. bayan, and subtlety of expression, i.e. badi[, and their functions in the interpretation of the Qur’an. Al-Suyuti said: ‘Semantics gives us the characteristics of language construction and how it expresses the meaning, while bayan gives us its 477. Quoted in al-Suyuti, Al-Itqan, Vol. 4, p. 345. 478. We may cite for example the book entitled Al-Kitab wal-Qur’an alleged to be written by an engineer called Muhammad Shahrur. A scholarly linguistic criticism of this work is published under the title Baydat al-Dik by Yusuf al-Sidawi, an eminent scholar. 479. Al-Suyuti, Al-Itqan, Vol. 4, p. 365.


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characteristics with regard to the clarity of meaning. Badi[, on the other hand is concerned with style improvement.’480 Ibn Khaldun spoke of the importance of the art of eloquence in understanding the inimitability of the Qur’an. He makes clear that no commentator on the Qur’an should overlook it. He said: ‘It should be realised that this art is essential to understand how the Qur’an is inimitable. Its inimitability is in the fact that it expresses its meanings most fully in all situations and aspects, and in wording and understanding. This is the highest class of eloquent expression. Its perfection is also manifested in the choice of its vocabulary and the way the words are used and arranged.’ He adds: ‘This art is most needed by commentators. Unfortunately, it was ignored by most early commentaries, until Jarallah al-Zamakhshari authored his commentary.’481 3.3 Another very important condition that is related to mastering the arts of rhetoric and eloquence is sticking to the structural flow of the Qur’anic text and maintaining the development of its context. To disturb or confuse this is contrary to the fact that the Qur’an, which is the greatest miracle given to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), is inimitable. In fact, changing its flow leads to making the Qur’an a confused medley of purposes. God says: ‘Just as We have bestowed from on High on those who later broke it into parts, and made the Qur’an into a confused medley’ (15: 90–91). The absence of unity, consistency and integrity of the parts is unacceptable in what fine writers produce. How can it fit the Qur’an, which is God’s inimitable word? The above verses use the Arabic term [idin, which is translated as ‘confused medley’. This particular word is chosen in preference to others that mean division into separate parts, and the choice is intended in order to impart a clear sense that the Qur’an does not admit any interpretation that is inconsistent with its unity. Division into parts may apply to certain things without necessarily causing any harm. Dividing the Qur’an into parts, separating its verses, is described as making it [idin, which implies ‘separating the organs of a living body’, and gives the sense that it kills the spirit of the text. It is a complete crime. This is clearly noted in some interpretations that rely on fabricated ‘reasons for revelation’. Such interpretations disrupt the flow and the context, splitting the verses. God says: ‘Thus have We revealed a spirit to you (Muhammad) by Our command. You knew neither revelation nor faith, but We made it a light, guiding with it whoever We will of Our servants. You most certainly give guidance to the straight path’ (42: 52). Ibn [Atiyyah said: ‘The “spirit” in this verse means the Qur’an and the guidance Islam provides. It is called “spirit” because it gives life 480. Ibid. According to Arabic scholars of olden times, the art of semantics includes aspects like using sentences of narration and statement, omission, inversion, using the definite and indefinite forms, restriction, abandoning the apparent meaning, separation and connection, and the use of the concise and the verbose, etc. Bayan relates to the use of figures of speech, such as simile, metaphor, allegory and metonymy. Badi[ relies on the use of the finer elements of style, such as similarities, dualities, coherence, contrast, equivocation, choice, etc. as well as some sound aspects like alliteration and inversion. 481. Ibn Khaldun, Al-Muqaddimah, p. 521.


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to people and to the world, just like a body becomes alive when it has a spirit. This is all figurative.’482 The Qur’an’s perfect construction and flow indicates that a profound spirit runs through its words and sentences. In the light of the above verse, we may even say, literally, that it is ‘a spirit given by God’s command’. Any interpretation that ruins its flow will inevitably kill this spirit. It should be said that such interpretations whose authors make the Qur’an a confused medley may do so either out of ignorance or in a deliberate attempt to ruin its flow. This because their views or beliefs benefit by such action, or because they may not have any acceptance unless its flow is ruined. 3.4 We may add an ‘ethical condition’ that must also be met by anyone who undertakes to explain the Qur’an. This condition takes into consideration two elements. The first is the fact that the Qur’an was bestowed from on High and it is ‘a spirit’ revealed by God’s command. It tells of one of God’s essential and permanent attributes, namely, speech. The second element is that the required interpretation is, as Muhammad [Abduh puts it, ‘an understanding of the Qur’an as a religion that guides people to what ensures their happiness in this present life and in the life to come. This is the ultimate purpose of revealing it. Whatever else should serve this purpose.’ What this means is that a person who does not make the aim of his commentary the fulfilment of this ultimate purpose of its revelation, or does not acknowledge that the Qur’an is God’s word, is not qualified to explain or interpret the Qur’an. God says: ‘Is, then, he who knows that what has been revealed to you by your Lord is the Truth like one who is blind? Only those who are endowed with understanding keep this in mind’ (13: 19). Abu Talib al-Tabari said: ‘It should be known that one of the conditions that must be met by a commentator on the Qur’an is that he should be a person of sound faith and he should follow the Sunnah. A person of suspect faith cannot be trusted with ordinary matters. How, then, can he be trusted with matters of faith? Moreover, in matters of faith, he cannot be trusted in reporting what a scholar has said: how can he, then, be trusted with explaining the meanings of God’s words? If he is suspect in his faith, he may try to deceive people and divert them from the right faith. This is always attempted by those who follow secretive creeds and by the extremist Shia.’483 Muhammad [Abduh explains some of the difficult aspects in interpreting the Qur’an. The most important of these, as he explains, is that ‘the Qur’an is a Divine word that was bestowed by God, Whose nature is beyond our perception, and received by the most perfect of God’s messengers. It includes superior truths and noble facts that can only be understood by people with noble souls and clear minds. Anyone who aims to explain it is overwhelmed by its majesty to the extent that he almost gives up... However, God has made things easier for us. He has ordered us to understand and appreciate His word. He bestowed 482. Ibn [Atiyyah, Al-Muharrar al-Wajiz, Vol. 8, pp. 356–357. 483. Al-Suyuti, Al-Itqan, Vol. 4, p. 344.


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the Qur’an to give light and guidance to mankind, outlining His laws and rulings. It cannot provide such light and guidance unless people can understand it.’484

Further Conditions Many scholars add several other conditions that need to be met by a commentator on the Qur’an, so that he will be qualified for the purpose. Shaykh Muhammad [Abduh calls the provision of a clear explanation of the Qur’an a collective duty of the Muslim community. He also adds a number of conditions that are based on the nature of the Qur’anic text and its sublime perspective. His additional conditions include: i. Sociology, which Shaykh Muhammad [Abduh calls ‘the study of mankind’. He was particularly interested in this study as he taught and spoke highly of Ibn Khaldun’s al-Muqaddimah. The Qur’an discusses various aspects of mankind and their nature, and it gives us highly edifying accounts of earlier nations and communities. [Abduh said: Anyone studying the Qur’an should study the different situations of mankind in various stages and the reasons for their different conditions of strength and weakness; power and humiliation; knowledge and ignorance; belief and disbelief... This requires knowledge of various specialities including history, which is particularly important... The Qur’an speaks briefly of other nations, the laws of nature which God has set in operation, His signs in the heavens and earth, across the horizon and within ourselves. Such brevity could only be achieved by the One Who thoroughly knows everything. God also orders us to look around, study and contemplate, and also to go all over the earth so that we can understand in detail what He has stated in brief. Thus, we gain in status. If we were to limit our knowledge of the universe to a single superficial look we will be like one who evaluates a book by the colour of its cover, not by its contents. ii. Knowledge of how the Qur’an provides guidance for all mankind. This condition, as it is called by [Abduh, relates to understanding the nature of the guidance the Qur’an provides and how it ensures man’s happiness in this life and in the life to come. The message of the Qur’an is intended to put mankind on the right course, taking them out of darkness into the light. This requires knowledge of the causes of human misery and the types of darkness that afflict humanity. Explaining this condition, [Abduh says:

484. M. [Abduh, The Complete Works, Vol. 4, p. 7.


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A commentator on the Qur’an must be aware of the conditions of the Arabs and other nations at the time of the Prophethood of Muhammad (peace be upon him). The Qur’an states that all mankind lived in misery and error, and that God sent Prophet Muhammad to give them guidance that ensured their happiness. How can a commentator understand people’s customs that the Qur’an condemns, or at least formulate an idea of such customs without knowing their conditions and practices?485 We understand the importance of this condition when we realise, in the light of the previous condition, that in their values and standards, people sink back into darkness, or into a state of ignorance, in every period of history. Hence, it is necessary to renew the interpretation of the Qur’an in every age. iii. Knowledge of the history of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and his Companions, their own understanding and their way of conducting their affairs, whether this relates to this present life or the life to come. In addition, one should know the traditions of the Arabian society that witnessed the Qur’an’s revelation.486 The need for this is clearly obvious. What we said about the Prophet’s Companions and the interpretation of the Qur’an partly explains this. Moreover, the interpretations of some sects include many flagrant errors, oddities and deviant views. These are largely due to their ignorance of the Prophet’s history and the life of his noble Companions. In other words, these errors, some of which actually distort the meaning of the Qur’an, could not have been circulated by such people had they had even a secondary school standard knowledge of the history of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and his Companions.

Scholars Who May Interpret the Qur’an Let us recall what we mentioned under the heading of revelation regarding the variety, depth and comprehensiveness of the topics the Qur’an mentions. We may then say that the scholars who are best qualified to interpret the Qur’an are those with encyclopaedic knowledge and who are well versed in all Arabic and Islamic studies. In the second stage come the linguists, followed by scholars specialised in Arabic literary styles. It should be remembered that these disciplines and areas of study are not separate or isolated. This order is simply based on specialities, but does not exclude the need to have knowledge of other areas, as Arabic Islamic culture is an integrated whole. 485. M. [Abduh, The Complete Works, Vol. 4, p. 12. 486. Ibid, Vol. 4, p. 12. See also: M. R. Rida, Tarikh al-Imam, Vol. 2, p. 515. Rida quotes [Abduh as saying: ‘The Qur’an is easy for a person who wants to understand it, provided he is well versed in Arabic, the Arabs’ methods of expression, their history and traditions during the period of the revelation of the Qur’an.’


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Views that May Not Be a Basis for Interpreting the Qur’an Scholars are unanimous that it is not permissible for anyone who lacks proper knowledge to interpret the Qur’an. Ahmad, al-Tirmidhi and al-Tabari relate on the authority of Ibn [Abbas that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said: ‘Whoever interprets the Qur’an without having proper knowledge will take his place in Hell.’ Another version states that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said: ‘Be careful of attributing anything to me other than what you know for certain. Whoever deliberately attributes a falsehood to me will take his place in Hell, and whoever interprets the Qur’an on the basis of his own opinion will take his place in Hell.’ Although this Hadith includes in its chain of transmission a suspect narrator named [Abd al-A[la ibn [Amir al-Tha[labi, scholars are still unanimous that it is forbidden to try to interpret the Qur’an without proper and sound knowledge.487 This is how scholars explain the prohibition of interpreting the Qur’an on the basis of personal opinion, whether it is mentioned in Hadiths, regardless of their degree of authenticity, or mentioned by some of the Prophet’s Companions. It is appropriate to include here what Majd al-Din ibn al-Athir al-Jazari (died 606 AH/1210 CE) says about this in his book Jami[ al-Usul fi Ahadith al-Rasul: The prohibition against interpreting the Qur’an on the basis of personal opinion means either limiting its interpretation to what is quoted and reported, without any attempt at deduction, or means something else. It is wrong to claim that it means that no one may interpret the Qur’an in anyway other than what they have heard. The Prophet’s Companions interpreted the Qur’an and gave varying interpretations. Not everything they said was a quotation from the Prophet. Moreover, the Prophet prayed for Ibn [Abbas and said: ‘My Lord, give him good knowledge of the religion and teach him the interpretation (of the Qur’an).’ If its interpretation must be heard, like its text, why would the Prophet mention this especially in his prayer for Ibn [Abbas? The prohibition is explained in one of two ways. The first is that the person concerned has some view on a certain matter, which he is interested in, and he interprets the Qur’an in a way that suits his view so as to cite the Qur’an as evidence confirming his view. Had he not had such a view, he would not understand the Qur’an in that way. a. This type may be deliberate, as in the case of someone who cites some verses of the Qur’an to prove his erring ways, knowing full well that these verses do not support his claims. His intention is only to confuse those who do not share his wrong views. 487. The same applies to another Hadith in which Jundub ibn [Abdullah quotes the Prophet (peace be upon him) as saying: ‘Whoever interprets God’s Book on the basis of personal opinion is wrong, even if he is right.’ The chain of transmission of this Hadith includes Suhayl ibn Abi Hazm who is graded as ‘unreliable’ by al-Bukhari, Ahmad and Abu Hatim. see: Ibn al-Athir, Jami[ al-Usul, Vol. 2, pp. 3–6.


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b. On the other hand, it may be in ignorance. This takes place when the verse admits different interpretations. He chooses the one that suits his purpose, and gives that interpretation more weight to justify his stand. Thus, his interpretation is based on personal opinion. Had he not had such opinion, he would not have preferred this particular interpretation. Another case is that of a person whose purpose is sound, but he seeks support from the Qur’an and quotes verses that he knows to mean something else. Take, for example, the case of one who advises resistance to hardened hearts. He quotes the verse which tells of God’s instruction to Moses and Aaron: ‘Go to Pharaoh; for he has indeed transgressed all bounds’ (20: 24). As he reads this verse, he points to his heart, indicating that the word ‘Pharaoh’ refers to hardened hearts. Some people use this type of interpretation in support of their sound purposes to attract listeners and improve their admonition. However, it is forbidden. Such are the cases of the first type of forbidden interpretation on the basis of personal opinion, as summarised by Ibn al-Athir. The other type relates to knowledge of the language. He says: This is the case of one who hastens to interpret the Qur’an on the basis of the apparent meanings of its Arabic wording, without relying on reports that explain the unfamiliar words or phrases the Qur’an uses. It is well known that there are many cases of ambiguous expression in the Qur’an, as well as inversion, deletion, precision, implicit reference, change of word order, etc. Therefore, a person who does not have solid basis about the meanings of the Qur’an, and tries to deduce its meanings merely on the basis of his knowledge of Arabic is bound to make many mistakes. He is counted as one who interprets the Qur’an on the basis of personal opinion. Knowledge of reports and learning the apparent meanings from scholars are essential so as to avoid slips and pitfalls. When this condition is fulfilled, deduction may be exercised. Unfamiliar points that can be only understood through learning from scholars are numerous. Take for example the verse that says: ‘To the Thamud We gave the she-camel as a sign to open their eyes, but they did wrong in respect of her’ (17: 59). A literal translation of the first part is: ‘To the Thamud We gave the she-camel with open eyes.’ The wrong they did was killing the she-camel. A person who attempts to interpret this verse merely on the basis of the language will imagine it to mean that the she-camel was not blind, but he will not be able to understand what wrong they did, and whether they wronged themselves or wronged others. This is just an example of the deletion of what may be easily understood. There are many cases of this in the Qur’an. Apart from these two types, it is not forbidden, but God knows best.488 488. Ibn al-Athir, Jami[ al-Usul, Vol. 2, pp. 4–6.


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Ibn Taymiyyah (died 728 AH/1328 CE) takes a similar view, dividing those who interpret the Qur’an on the basis of personal opinion into two types: The first type includes those who have certain concepts and interpret the words of the Qur’an to suit these concepts. Such people are of two types:  They deny the meanings the Qur’anic words imply, or  They interpret its words to mean what they do not. In both cases, the meaning they want to negate or endorse may be false, which puts them in error with regard to both the evidence and the point they want to prove, or it may be correct, which means that they err with regard to the evidence but not the point. Among those who have erred in both the point and the evidence and whose interpretations give clear examples of interpretation based on wrong views are the followers of deviant creeds who have given the Qur’an meanings that suit them. They at times cite its verses to prove their case when these verses give them no such support. At other times they seek to prove what is contrary to their beliefs by twisting the meaning of Qur’anic verses. Among these are groups of the Khawarij, Shi[ah, Jahmiyyah, Mu[tazilah, Qadariyyah, Murji’ah, etc. Those who have erred with regard to the evidence but not the point they want to prove include many Sufis and preachers. They interpret the Qur’an, giving it meanings that it does not imply, although these meanings are correct in themselves. Its words either do not give such meanings or their usage does not support such meanings. On the other hand, the meanings they give may be wrong. In this case, their interpretation is like that of the first group which errs with regard to both evidence and point. This is the case of some Sufi interpretations that are similar to those of sects that have esoteric beliefs. In the other type we find people who interpret the Qur’an just according to its linguistic meaning, without considering whose word it is, and on whom it was bestowed and the people addressed by the Qur’an.489 It seems that Ibn Taymiyyah rejects that linguistic meanings should be the only ones to rely upon in interpreting the Qur’an, although the Qur’an is revealed from on High in the clear Arabic tongue. In other words, he considers that dealing with the Qur’an as a mere literary text is wrong. Consideration must be given to Islamic terminology, what may or may not be said about God. For example, the verses that mention God’s attributes must be interpreted in a way that is consistent with the principle that God is incomparable to anyone or anything and that none of His creations’ characteristics apply to Him. In addition, it is important to note the circumstances of revelation, and the Prophet (peace 489. Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmu[ al-Fatawa, Vol. 13, pp. 355–357.


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be upon him) who was the recipient of the Qur’an and addressed by it. There are Qur’anic statements phrased in general terms but which apply to specific people or situations, and vice versa. Many scholars of the Qur’an have explained these. We will be discussing the methodology of interpretation advocated by Muhammad [Abduh, but we may say that it partly endorses this trend. He said: ‘The best evidence indicating the true meaning of any word in the Qur’an is that it should be consistent with what comes before it, and fits with the general meaning, and that it is in line with the purpose for which the Qur’an as a whole was bestowed.’490

Two Stages Not Two Methodologies As we have noted, interpretation of the Qur’an started on the basis of reported explanations. It then developed to add scholarly discretion and views. It thus moved into another stage without developing any new methodology. It is strange that these two stages should be counted as two methodologies or two schools. In fact, the first stage continued in the second, without any sort of demarcation to separate the two so as to be based on different methodologies. We have already stated that interpretation based on reports, i.e. al-ma’thur, constituted the basis of interpretation based on scholarly views. This is also noted by Ibn Khaldun in his discussion of the two types of interpretation. He mentions that the first is based on reports learnt from scholars in the early generations: ‘This includes information on verses that abrogate earlier ones, the reasons for revelation, and the meanings of the Qur’anic verses.’ This type has been criticised because of the lack of strict diligence in accepting reports. Ibn Khaldun adds: ‘The other type is based on knowledge of the language, grammar and the use of literary forms and figures of speech to convey the intended meanings.’ He then comments: ‘This latter type is rarely separated from the former.’491 This is confirmed by the fact that what was reported of the Prophet’s explanations, and indeed the explanations of his Companions and their successors of the Qur’an, did not include all its verses. Apart from what Ibn Khaldun mentioned, it included explanations of what was unclear or unfamiliar to some of the Prophet’s Companions or their successors or to their generations. The need for interpretation steadily grew the further away from the time of revelation people were. This growing need was further increased as social and cultural life expanded, more land was liberated and interaction between Arabs and other communities became much greater. All this helped to extend the area of interpretation of the Qur’an, taking it from one stage to the next. This is easily noted in the fact that explanations of ‘the unfamiliar in the Qur’an’ continued to increase as the lack of knowledge of Arabic became much wider as a result of the expansion of the Muslim state and many words became less and less used.

490. M. [Abduh, The Complete Works, Vol. 4, p. 11. 491. Ibn Khaldun, Al-Muqaddimah, pp. 404–405


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The different methodologies of commentary developed at a later stage. These methodologies deserve to be explained at length, but we will only mention in brief their main features.

4. The Age of Difference: Reasons for Adopting New Methodologies These two stages may be considered as one, which is the initial stage. The next stage witnessed the beginning of the age of difference, or new methodologies. We may consider that this stage started towards the end of the Umayyad period: (The Umayyad state collapsed in year 132 AH/750 CE.) The different views expressed by the Prophet’s Companions and many of their successors were merely variations, rather than contradictions. The new types of difference, which led to the adoption of different methodologies, was not of the same nature. Essentially, there were two factors involved. 4.1 Firstly reference to the people of other scriptures. This is what is known as the Jewish stories, or Isra’iliyyat, mentioned earlier. These stories contained numerous contradictory views. When some commentators relied on these, or generally adopted views advanced by followers of other religions, this ushered in the stage of different methodologies, leading to mutual contradictions. Some of these commentators facilitated the way to something even more serious. Muqatil ibn Sulayman al-Balkhi (died 150 AH/767 CE), for example, included in his commentary numerous instances in which God is described in form or likeness, reminding us of the Jewish conception of God. Exalted is God above all that they claim. Abu Hatim was right to say that Muqatil derived his knowledge of the Qur’an from the Jews and Christians, and he brought his knowledge in line with what their scriptures say.492 In their dealings with such stories, those commentators, and many later ones, did not abide by the system outlined by several Hadiths. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: ‘When the people of earlier religions tell you things, do not take what they say as either true or false.’493 Another version of this Hadith adds: ‘They may tell you something true but you disbelieve it, or something false and you believe it.’ Ahmad relates the same Hadith on Jabir’s authority with different wording: ‘Do not ask the people of earlier scriptures about anything. They cannot give you guidance, as they have gone astray. You will be in one of two situations: you will either deny something right or believe a falsehood. By God, if Moses were alive among you, he would have had no option other than following me.’ The Prophet (peace be upon him) said this at a time when he has made it clear that it is permissible to report what the Jews say. He said: ‘Convey to others what you hear from me, even if it be a single verse. You may report what you hear from the Jews and there is no harm. Whoever 492. Ibn Khillikan, Wafayat al-A[yan, Vol. 2, p. 112. Al-Dhahabi, Mizan al-I[tidal, Vol. 3, p. 196. See also: M.Z. al-Kawthari’s Introduction to al-Malti, Al-Tanbih wal-Radd [ala Ahl al-Ahwa’ wal-Bida[, p. 6. 493. Al-Bukhari relates (Hadith No. 7362) on Abu Hurayrah’s authority: ‘The people of earlier revelations used to read their scriptures in Hebrew and translate it into Arabic for Muslims. The Prophet said: “Neither believe the people of earlier revelations nor disbelieve them. Say to them: ‘We believe in God and what has been bestowed to us and what was bestowed to Abraham...’” (2: 136).’


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deliberately attributes something false to me will have his place in Hell.’494 What the Hadith means is that if the Jews take the initiative and speak to us about matters of religion, we must not judge what they say as true or false without solid evidence. Otherwise, we may either believe a falsehood or deny what is right. What we should do is to examine their reports on the basis of the standard that is immune to any distortion, i.e. the Qur’an. Whatever agrees with the Qur’an we accept, and whatever is in conflict with it we discard. Al-Shafi[i said: ‘It is well known that the Prophet does not permit saying anything false. Therefore, the Hadith tells us that we may report what the Jews say if we know it not to be false. What we accept as possible may be reported without harm.’ This is in line with the ultimate authority God has given to the Qur’an, as it supersedes all previous revelations. Ibn Taymiyyah said that the Jewish reports may be quoted as evidence, but not as a basis of belief. He divides such reports into three categories: ‘First, what we know to be true, confirmed by the revelations we have. This category is true. Second, what we know to be false as it is contrary to the truth we have. Third, what belongs to neither category. This we neither believe nor disbelieve. It is permissible for us to quote it. The majority of things in this category are of little or no use in matters of faith, such as the names of the people of the cave, the colour of their dog, or from which kind of tree Moses cut his staff, or which part of the cow was used to hit the murdered man with. All these matters have been left out of the Qur’an, because they are of little use to religious people in their present life and they have no effect on their faith.’495 Some commentators, however, did not confine themselves to such matters of detail that are of little use, particularly in relation to the histories given in the Qur’an. They went further, referring to the Jewish stories in explaining the verses that mention the universe and the laws of nature. Indeed, some commentators were influenced by such Jewish reports in explaining the verses that mention God’s attributes, or the histories of some prophets, particularly the Jewish prophets. As a result of their reliance on Jewish reports, some commentators made flagrant mistakes in explaining the verses related to these two topics. 4.2 The second factor was the emergence of theological differences started by the Khawarij, and also by Wasil ibn [Ata’ (died 131 AH/749 CE) who was described by al-Mas[udi as ‘the leader and initiator of the Mu[tazilah’. The question raised by these people about the status of a person who commits a cardinal sin had clear impact on the interpretation of a number of Qur’anic verses that speak of beliefs. As the oldest and one of the most important of all theological questions, it was also a major factor in the emergence of groups and sects. Another question which had a similar impact in both areas was that 494. Related by Al-Bukhari, Hadith No. 3461, on the authority of [Abdullah ibn [Amr. See also Ibn Hajar, Fath al-Bari, Vol. 6, p. 388. The last sentence in this Hadith attains the degree of tawatur, which is the highest degree of authenticity. (Ibn Hajar, ibid, Vol. 1, pp. 161–165; al-Tirmidhi, Homs edition, Vol. 7, p. 307; al-Haythami, Majma[ al-Zawa’id, Vol. 1, pp. 142–148.) 495. Ibn Taymiyyah, Muqaddimah fi Usul al-Tafsir. In the edition I annotated, I included useful comments about this subject, particularly about the reports that mention some of the Prophet’s Companions quoting Jewish stories.


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of predestination. Books of Qur’anic commentary and books of grading scholars and narrators mention that Qatadah ibn Di[amah al-Sadusi (died 117 AH/736 CE) discussed the question of predestination. In fact, Qadi [Abd al-Jabbar puts him in the fourth grade of the Mu[tazilah scholars. He added: ‘There is no dispute that he belonged to the “people of justice”’, which is the description the Mu[tazilah give themselves. Qadi [Abd al-Jabbar also includes among the Mu[tazilah scholars Mujahid ibn Jabr of Makkah (21–104 AH/642–723 CE). His grounds for doing so appear to be the question of predestination, as also the fact that Mujahid was quoted as having interpreted some verses on the basis of allegory, or comparability. The Mu[tazilah were later to extend this area whenever they encountered some difficulty in accepting the apparent meanings of some verses in the light of their own strictly rational perception,496 or when they judged that such apparent meanings do not fit with their own fundamental concepts of God’s justice and Oneness. This trend led the Mu[tazilah of Baghdad, but not the Basra ones, to interpret God’s attributes in a way that was close to denial, or could lead to it. Thus, methodologies of commentary started to appear at this early stage, and continued to develop and crystallise over time. It is not our purpose to discuss the history of such development. We will simply point out that the next stage witnessed some sort of ‘specialisation’, or rather paying more attention to certain aspects of interpretation, but within the general trend of the development of methodologies. The personal scholarship and interests of the commentator were instrumental in determining such specialisation. A grammarian commentator, like alZajjaj or Abu Hayyan, gives particular attention to the grammar, which is greatly important in understanding the Qur’an, and often discusses points of detail as well as disagreements between different schools. A theologian, like al-Fakhr al-Razi, pays attention to what philosophers say, cites their objections and controversies and replies to these. He may even digress to discuss some questions of nature and the universe, or what we now call ‘scientific interpretation’. A historian, like al-Tha[labi or al-Khazin, gives numerous stories. A scholar of Islamic jurisprudence, like al-Qurtubi or al-Khazin, discusses at length the verses that give rulings on fiqh questions. He would perhaps seize every opportunity to go into points of detail, putting arguments in support of his fiqh school or in reply to those who take a different view. A commentator who is well versed in literary styles and rhetoric, such as al-Rummani or al-Zamakhshari, takes much care to highlight aspects of eloquence and to show the elements of the Qur’an’s inimitability.

496. At a later stage the Mu[tazilah talked about three types of allegory: allegory of addition, allegory of omission and allegory of similarity, comparison and putting something in a place other than its natural one. I discuss this in my book Al-Hakim al-Jushami wa Minhajuh fi Tafsir al-Qur’an, p. 284.


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Prof Adnan Muhammad Zarzour gained his undergraduate degree from the University of Damascus’ faculty of Shari’a in 1960, and his Masters and PhD from Dār al-[Ulūm, Cairo University. Over a long and productive career, he has taught at numerous universities throughout the Arab world. He is currently a visiting professor at Qatar University. His scholarly work covers a wide spectrum of fields including: Qur’anic and Hadith studies, Islamic theology, intellectual history, scholarly biography, and studies in contemporary political philosophy, covering the topics of human rights, secularism and nationalism.



Prof Zarzour also explores contemporary scholarship on the Qur’an, notably through a critical evaluation of modern tendencies such as the claim that the Qur’an contains scientific miracles, as well as through an evaluation of some of the most scintillating modern works of Qur’anic commentary (tafsir). This invaluable work will considerably enrich anyones library and will serve as a reference work for generations to come.

An In-Depth Exploration of Islam’s Sacred Scripture

Ever since its revelation over fourteen hundred years ago, the Qur’an has been the focus of considerable scholarly research. The present work represents one of the finest contemporary examples of Qur’anic scholarship written by a scholar who has spent a lifetime studying and teaching Qur’anic studies. In the course of five rich sections, Prof Adnan Zarzour considers an incredible range of topics including the nature of Qur’anic revelation, the history of the Qur’an’s compilation, an exploration of the Qur’an’s language, style and the nature of its stylistic inimitability and artistic features. Other themes explored here include the impact of the Qur’an on Islamic civilisation, as well as the various classical sub-disciplines of Qur’anic studies, including the study of the variant readings (qirā’āt), the reasons for revelation (asbāb al-nuzūl), and abrogation (naskh).




THE QUR’AN AND ITS STUDY An In-Depth Exploration of Islam’s Sacred Scripture

A D NA N Z A RZ OU R Translated and Edited by Adil


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The Qur'an and Its Study by Adnan Zarzour  

A contemporary exploration of Qur’anic studies, analysing the various approaches to the Qur’an taken by leading scholars through the centuri...

The Qur'an and Its Study by Adnan Zarzour  

A contemporary exploration of Qur’anic studies, analysing the various approaches to the Qur’an taken by leading scholars through the centuri...