We are in extraordinary times. As difficult and challenging as this is, it nevertheless provides us with time and opportunities to (re)connect with the Qur’an. However, for the uninitiated, the sheer volume of interpretive works can prove daunting. Below, Shaykh Mohammad Bahmanpour provides an overview of the various approaches to interpreting Allah’s final revelation and explains how we can improve our own understanding of it.
Whilst translations are aplenty, tafaseer or interpretative works of the Qur’an have become sidelined in an era of instant information. Along with this, and perhaps due to a longer history of educational decline in the Islamic world, the process of interpreting the Qur’an has become more obscure to ordinary Muslims while discussions are increasingly prone to sectarianised polemics.
This is a brief introduction to some approaches in the hope that it will help readers overcome some fears and misunderstandings and open the way for them to connect with interpretative work through discussion of the process I use when doing tafseer.
Tafseer from the start
Right from the beginning of the revelation, there was great eagerness among the companions of the Prophet and those who came after them to understand the meanings of verses of the Quran as correctly and as accurately as possible. They sought the best methods and tried different approaches to better understand the meaning of this revelation.
Obviously, at the time of the Prophet, the best source for better understanding was the Prophet himself. Should there have been any ambiguities in understanding the verses, the companions could go directly to the Prophet and ask him about their meanings. They could ask him about how a verse regarding a specific practice like salat, or zakat or the like had to be carried out. They would have requested explanation from the Messenger of God because the Quran had explicitly assigned him that duty.
And We sent down the reminder to you so that you may clarify for the people that which has been sent down to them, so that they may reflect. (16:44)
But after the Prophet’s demise, the matter was not as easy. The commentators of the Quran disagreed on almost each and every single verse. There were reports and counter reports, views and counter views, which made life difficult for anyone who sought a simple straightforward understanding of the Quran. You only need to go to a comprehensive tafseer like Jami’ al-Bayan of Tabari or Majm’ al-Bayaan of Tabrasi to see how the opinions of the Companions and their Successors and of the later mufassireen differ from and sometimes oppose each other regarding the majority of the verses. This certainly leaves the reader of the Quran in confusion.
The Shias, of course, could have sought explanation from their infallible Imams, but that was also a limited resource, because the Imams, peace be on them, were not always available, especially to people who were living far away with little means of communication. So, what they had at their disposal were reports and counter reports from the Imams as it was in the case of the Prophet after his death. Thus, the confusion was widespread both in the Shia as well as the Sunni world. This situation necessitated the need for methods which could reasonably produce reliable interpretation of the Quran to understand the true meaning of the communication of God, a communication that is so important that whatever effort is expended for its in-depth understanding is worth it. Misunderstanding this book, or sometimes even a single verse of it, might affect the whole spiritual, personal and social life of individuals and communities.
As a resort to narrations of the Prophet and the Imams did not help very much, so the scholars tried to find other ways of understanding the Quran. They tried to establish a set of criteria by which they could judge between different understandings and distinguish between their rights and wrongs. Thus, different methods of understanding sprang up. The philosophically inclined scholars thought the best method for understanding the Book was the rational method. By rational method, they did not mean ‘common sense’, because that is what everyone must use in understanding any text. Rather, they meant understanding it in terms of philosophical schools of thought. In other words, they did not see the Quran as an original source of knowledge, but as a secondary source which would corroborate the knowledge found by their respective philosophical schools. That is, after establishing an idea by their rational demonstrative arguments, they would go to the Quran to find confirmation from the verses, and if the verses did not confirm their findings, they interpreted them in such a way as to comply with what they had rationally laid down.
Another approach was the theological approach. Like philosophers, the theologians tried to understand the Quran within the framework of their pre-set conceptual boundaries. They used the same method in a different way. They tried to understand the communications of God through the filter of their established theological schools. Thus, an Ash’ari would interpret all the verses in a way so that they fit in their perception of human action as an involuntary occurrence, while a Mu’tazili would interpret them to give exactly the opposite meaning. Faid Kashani, the author of the classic tafsir al-Safi, warns the reader of the Quran of this type of approach and regards it as one of the main hindrances towards understanding the Quran.
Another approach, which has been in use for several centuries and more so in our modern age is to resort to scientific theories for understanding the Quran. Thus, when a theory is suggested in scientific circles, the followers of this approach take its truth for granted and go to the Quran to see if the Quran says the same thing. And if the verses are not compatible with the theory, they try to interpret them in such a way as to make them compatible. In other words, the Quran is understood in the framework of scientific theories in the same way as the theologians or philosophers tried to understand the Quran in the framework of their theological or philosophical dogmas. Thus, in the age of Euclidean astronomy the Quran was a testimony to Euclid’s veracity and in the modern age it is a testimony to the Big Bang and Evolution theory.
Finally, some resorted to mystical interpretation of the Quran believing that there are much deeper meanings under the apparent veil of the words and letters of the Book. Although the Quran has spoken in our norms of communication, it has hidden its true meanings under the guise of our spoken language. However, this method is more problematic than the previous methods. Although there is no denial that there are deeper levels and layers of meanings of the verses of the Quran, nevertheless, one should first understand the apparent meaning or the tafseer of them. Mystical interpretation is highly subjective and precarious and cannot be regarded as a mode of collective understanding.
The Quran on the Quran
Thus, one can easily judge that none of these methods are satisfying and free from unbiased understanding of the Book of God. But if, in the interpretation of the Quran, the traditions are not of much benefit, if we could not use our philosophical schools, if we should not seek help from our theological disciplines, if we could not resort to scientific theories, and if mystical method is too subjective and precarious, then what is left for us? What kind of method we could use to understand the meaning of this important communication?
The safest method is the method which was used by Shi’a Imams – peace be on them – and by many exegetes from the early history of tafseer in both the Sunni and Shi’i world. It is the method of interpreting the verses of the Quran by seeking help from the Quran itself. That is, finding the meaning of a verse by considering other verses and cross-referencing them in a comprehensive manner. Even those who argue that the Imams did not need such a method agree that they used the method to show how the Quran is to be understood and that this is the safest methodology for understanding the Book of God.
This is the method which is used extensively by Allamah Tabatabai in his massive commentary of the Quran, al-Mizan. He believed that, basically, the Quran is self-explanatory and is not in need of anything else to explain it. It is clarification for everything (16: 89) so how could it need clarification? The verses which may need clarification both in terms of terminology or their conceptual meanings could be clarified by other verses. It is as Amir al-Mu’minin Imam Ali said: “some parts of it speak with the help of other parts and some pieces testify for other pieces.”(Nahj al-Balaghah, sermon 133).
Obviously using this method does not mean that we ignore any other source which may clarify the meaning of a verse further. We may refer to any evidence, in the light of which the meaning of a verse may become richer and more accurate, like scientific evidence, hadith sources, philosophical or theological arguments, or even mystical experiences. However, all these must be regarded as subsidiary supporting evidence.
The Quran is a coherent book, and those who believe in it believe too that it contains no contradictions. As such the reader of the Quran can take any sentence of this book to be an evidence for another sentence, because we know that there is no room here for contradiction, and if in one place it says something and in another place it apparently contradicts it, since we have established that there is no contradiction, we may use the two to construct a fuller perspective of what the author would have meant by them. It is as if one and the same thing is seen from different perspectives. From one angle you see one thing and from another angle you see another thing; the two may seem contradictory while together they create a multi-dimensional picture and a richer understanding of what the author of the text may have meant to convey.
This is the reason why we have repetition of many stories in the Quran. If we ponder deeply on these repetitions we would see that they are not in fact repetitions but are the same story looked at from different perspectives to give us the full picture of the event. For example, one of the most famous stories of the Holy Quran which is oft-repeated in many chapters is the story of Nabi Musa (a). One may wonder why God repeats this story again and again in the Quran. However, on deeper reflection it becomes clear that these are not repetitions but changes of perspective. This type of approach in the text is necessary, especially because the Quran talks about super-natural beings, concepts, and realms, like, Allah, the angels, the arsh, the kursi, the lawh, the qalam, the Hereafter, Paradise and Hell, which cannot be easily grasped by our conceptual tools. Unless these concepts are looked at from different perspectives and explored from different dimensions our minds cannot grasp them. For this reason, the verses of the Quran regarding one concept or event should be considered in their totality. This is called the tafseer of the Quran by the Quran, and this is the method that I mainly try to use. Eventually, all those outside sources, like hadith, philosophy, theology, mystical experience, etc. must be judged and evaluated by the Quran and not vice versa.
We may also need to refer to reports from the Companions and the Successors about the occasion of the revelation of verses if available, or to know about the order of revelation so that we know what happened at what time, or to know about the abrogating verses and those which were abrogated. However, these reports too sometimes contradict each other and again we need to judge them by the content of the Quran itself.
One may also seek help from other revealed Books, like the Bible, to understand better certain details of some stories or historical accounts in the Quran. This is fine so long as the Quran is taken as a benchmark for the authenticity of those materials and not the other way round; as the Quran says itself, “We have sent down to you the Book with the truth, confirming what was before it of the Book and as a guardian over it.” (5: 48)
On the salaf
Referring to the views of the salaf (the predecessors) is certainly a great resource for tafsir. Such a reference is in accordance with what our great scholars like Tabari, Sheikh Tusi, Sheikh Tabarsi, Fakhr al-din al-Razi and others have done. However, we have to bear in mind that referring to those views does not mean that we take them for granted
With all due respect to the opinions of some Salafiyyah scholars, I have to say that the idea that salaf understood the Quran and understood the faith better than us is an erroneous concept. It is based on the idea that the salaf were infallible, that they knew everything and could understand everything that the Prophet would want to convey to them. However, such a view ignores the fact that the salaf did not have 1400 years of continuous accumulation of knowledge and experience about the Quran, about fiqh, and about different aspects of faith. Saying that all these are in vain and the people who lived in the past knew better than those who came after them and after the cumulation of centuries of knowledge is a rationally unacceptable statement.
Of course, the Quran was revealed to the Prophet and the Prophet conveyed it to the Companions, and the Companions to the Successors; each companion or Successor formed an understanding of it and these understandings sometimes differed from one another. But they didn’t have the privilege of hundreds of years of reflection, deliberation and elaboration on the understanding of these verses of the Quran. So as time passes by, our understanding of the verses of the Quran, our understanding of different aspects of faith become clearer, sharper and more accurate.
Those who say we have to go back to the salaf to understand the Quran may argue that the baggage that different cultures brought with them to Islam has polluted the purity of Islam and we now need to purge Islam of these impurities by going back to the salaf. Of course that is true. However, different cultures didn’t only bring their cultural baggage, they brought their knowledge, their experience and intelligence to Islam as well, and we would be doing a disservice to the Quran if we were to deprive ourselves of all that.
Additionally, why should we think that the salaf didn’t have their own baggage when they came to Islam? Obviously, they had their own backgrounds and their cultural baggage was not any less or any more than the cultural baggage of other nations and other people who later converted to Islam.
This again becomes a reason why using the Quran as a benchmark for understanding the Quran is the key to both providing an open, integrative and interpretive space and ensuring that erroneous modes of interpretation are not allowed to hold sway.
When we want to interpret the Quran we have to be comprehensive, we have to be inclusive. The Quran is not something that we can interpret by prejudice – whether this prejudice is cultural, or sectarian, religious or scientific. We should look for guidance from the Quran, not interpret the Quran according to what we believe and our sect or culture allows.
To be able to understand the Quran in a comprehensive and unbiased manner, the first step is to be highly conversant with its verses. To that end, we need to allocate some time to read and reflect on the Quran on a daily basis. Referring to different interpretations of the Quran, regardless of the authors’ denomination, approach and inclination, would help to broaden our perspective and our reflective ability. Fortunately, many of these tafsirs are available to us online.
Shaykh Mohammad Saeed Bahmanpour is a senior lecturer at the Islamic College in London. He specialises in sciences and interpretation of the Quran. His latest book is Understanding Sura Yasin.