Tafsir refers to Quranic exegesis. Tafsir claims to “clarify” the divine word, which serves to make the text “speak” to current social, moral, legal, doctrinal, and political conditions. Through their interpretive strategies, exegeses have struggled to make the Quranic text more accessible to believers, and more applicable to changing environments.
Origin of Tafsir
The emergence of the word tafsir as both a process and a literary genre is unclear. The word tafsir appears only once in the Quran (25:33), suggesting that no formal science of interpretation was established early in the Islamic tradition. Traditionally, tafsir can be traced back to Muhammad. However, within hadith collections, only a small amount of tafsir is ascribed to the Prophet; much of the early exegesis is attributed to one of his companions, Abdallah ibn Abbas. During the first three centuries of Islam, the words tawil and tafsir were used interchangeably to mean “interpretation of the Quran,” and many authors employed either one of these terms (or none at all) to describe their exegetical enterprises. For example, Ibn Ishaq (d. 768), in his biography of the Prophet (Sirat rasul Allah), surrounds his citing of scripture with contextual detail, which serves to explain many vague, ahistorical Quranic passages; however, his activity was never formalized or labeled as tafsir. Other early exegetical works focus on explicating legal issues or theological rhetoric, such as Muqatil ibn Sulayman’s (d. 804) Tafsir khams mia aya min al-Quran, and Ibn Qutayba’s (d. 889) Tawil mushkil al- Qur_an (respectively), but again, each author uses a different term to describe his activities. After the tenth century, a gradual distinction was drawn between tawil, which came to refer to exegesis based upon reason or personal opinion, and tafsir, which relied on hadith reports going back to Muhammad and his early companions. Throughout history, individual tafsir works emphasize either opinion or tradition, but sometimes rely on both.
With the rapid expansion of Islam, problems arose in non- Arabic speaking communities with regard to the Quran and its translation and interpretation, which called for more formalized exegetical commentary that extended beyond the words of Muhammad or his companions. During the time of the successors, schools of tafsir evolved within distinct geographical regions: Mecca, Medina, and Iraq, along with their corresponding exegetical “specialists” (mufassirun). The justification for the development of tafsir schools rests on Qur_an 3:5–6, which lays out two categories of Quranic verses: clear (muhkamat) and unclear (mutashabihat). The role of the exegete (mufassir) is to reiterate what is already “clear” and to clarify what is “unclear.” Much debate arose concerning what passages fell into either of these categories, as well as to what extent finite human reason could be relied upon to make such determinations. The resolution of this debate served to shape tafsir works (and continues to do so) on into the twenty-first century.
Typology of Tafsir
Generally, tafsir works emphasized four types of issues that required systematized interpretive efforts: linguistic, juristic, historical, and theological. Linguistic efforts focus on the meaning of a word, where to put in punctuation and pauses, the case endings of words, or the rhetorical presentation of information: Why are entire sentences or phrases repeated again and again? A juristic accent stresses what is to be taken as the general or specific application of a command, or what verses were to be abrogated by others. Questions of abrogation (naskh) rely heavily on those tafsir that deal specifically with the occasions of the revelation (asbab al-nuzul), that is, those tafsir that embed a historic Quranic passages within a progressive timeline. Without the exegetical efforts that contextualize specific Quranic passages, the legal tradition, in particular the theory of abrogation, would have no firm basis from which to operate. Theologically oriented tafsir engage such problems as predestination versus free will, the nature of God, or the infallibility of the prophets. Many tafsir works revolve around a single issue; others are composite in nature.
Tafsir studies can be divided roughly into six groups based on discrete literary and methodological features: classical, mystical, sensual, Shiite, modern, and fundamentalist. Classical tafsir emerges with full force in the fourth century of Islam, typified by the work of Abu Jafar Muhammad b. Jarir al-Tabari (d. 923), whose Jami al-bayan an tawil ay al- Quran (The collection of the explanation of the interpretation of the Quran) presents a seemingly objective collection of hadith reports that originated with the Prophet and his Companions. Other classical exegetes include Mahmud ibn _Umar al-Zamakhshari (d. 1144), who looked to Arabic poetry as a valuable source for his linguistic and literary interpretation of the Quran. His work engages both the rhetorical and theological aspects of Qur_anic exegesis. Fakhr al-Din Razi (d. 1210) surveys a whole range of debates in his commentary, in particular the differences between the Ashari and the Mutazili theologians. The Mutazalis, for example, argued that irrational passages could be interpreted to make sense through metaphorical (tawil) interpretation. Other exegetes defend the legal views of one school of law or another in their works, such as Ibn al-Jawzi (d. 1200), who supports the Hanbali tradition, or Abu _Abdallah al-Qurtubi(d. 1273), who backs the Malikis. In these examples, commentaries further a variety of theological, legal, or political agendas through formal explication of Quranic passages.
Mystical (Sufi) tafsir favors allegorical interpretation of scripture. Sufi exegetes suggest there are two possible readings of the Quran: the literal (zahir), and the allegorical (batin). They are most interested in allegorical readings, which often counter growing orthodox interpretations. Generally, Sufis are concerned with establishing an intimate relationship with the divine, and look to those Quranic verses that reveal his hidden nature in gnostic fashion. These inner meanings of scripture are accessible only to those who grasp it through intuitive knowledge (gnosis), rather than the intellect (grammatical, rhetorical, legal, and discursive interpretation). Sufi exegesis privileges seemingly random verses in the Quran rather than presenting a symbolic reading of the entire work. Oftentimes Sufi interpretations extract a single sentence from the Quran, give it an allegorical reading, and then use that reading to decipher a whole pattern of non textual symbols through which the inner nature of God is revealed. The relationship between the sign and the signified is not always apparent to the non-Sufi reader, who may expect a more systematized set of interpretative strategies. For example, Quranic references to Muhammad’s “night journey” (al-isra_;17:1), a journey that is taken quite literally by classical exegetes, is treated metaphorically by Sufis, who cast it as a model for one’s ascent along the Sufi path that requires a stripping away of the self so only the divine remains. Sufis understand the anthropomorphic statement in the Quran about God seating himself upon his throne (7:54) to mean God metaphorically setting himself over the heart of Muhammad. Some of the well-known collections of Sufi tafsir includeSahl ibn _Abdallah al-Tustari’s (d. 986) Tafsir al-Tustari (Exegesis of al-Tustari) and Muhyi al-Din ibn al-_Arabi’s (d. 1240) Tafsir Ibn al-_Arabi (Exegesis of Ibn al-_Arabi).
Sufis further interpret the Quran through their emphasis on the recitation of certain Quranic passages (dhikr), and their calligraphic art. Generally, Quranic recitation makes a written text a living text (for Sufis and non-Sufis). The words themselves do not lie static on the page, but rather resound in everyday existence, collapsing ordinary time into sacred time: the moment when God first uttered his revelation to the Prophet; when mystics directly encounter their God. And, just as the mystic finds hidden meanings within the written word, so too does he see the calligraphic form of particular words allowing for deeper reflection upon the dual meanings of their shapes and sounds. The calligraphic form of “Muhammad” or “Husayn” allows one to reflect not just on the word that signifies the person, but on the person’s true qualities and intimate relationship with the divine. These oral and visual forms of tafsir serve to extend the written document into the realm of direct sensual experience.
Shiites are primarily concerned with establishing a line of divinely ordained, infallible leaders (imams) who stem from the Prophet’s family, starting with _Ali, who was the first in a series of twelve. Shiites, like Sufis, rely heavily on the distinction between literal and allegorical readings of the Quran to support their understanding that the concept of the imam (along with the necessity of blood descent for true leaders of the Islamic community) is rooted in and validated by the Quran. For example, the cryptic Quranic statement that likens a good word to a good tree (14:24) is understood by Shiites to refer specifically to the Prophet and his family.
Contrarily, a corrupt word likened to a corrupt tree (14:26) points to the immoral Umayyads, whom Shiites view as usurpers of their rightful leadership. As is the case with Sufis, the connection between the sign and the signified is not readily apparent to those who do not accept Shiite theology. In their interpretive efforts, the Shia move beyond symbolic interpretations to favor textual variants of the Quran that validate their imamate doctrine, including one reference where Sunnis read “umma” (community), and Shia read “a’imma” (imami leaders). Some of the major Shiite tafsir include Abu Jafar al-Tusi’s (d. 1067) al-Tibyan fi tafsir al- Qur_an (The explanation in interpretation of the Quran), and Abu al-Tabarsi’s (d. 1153) Majma al-bayan liulum al-Quran (The collection of the explanation of the sciences of the Quran).
Modern tafsir refers to twentieth-century interpretation. The aim of modern tafsir is to understand the Quran in light of reason, rather than tradition; to strip the Quran of any traces of superstition or legend; and to use the Quran as a source to justify its own claims. Generally, modern exegetes try to make the text more readily accessible to the common person who faces the challenges of modernity in a postcolonial environment where past tradition no longer seems applicable to current concerns. Modern tafsir works differ from classical works in that they no longer focus on issues of grammar, rhetoric, law, or theology, but privilege more immediate social, political, moral, and economic concerns of the day. However, they are similar in that they strive to make the divine word more accessible to those who believe. A major modern work is Muhammad _Abduh’s (d. 1905) “Tafsir al-manar” (The beacon of interpretation), which calls for a rational approach to applying the Quran to modern dilemmas. _Abduh elaborates on the Quranic passage that suggests the taking of four wives is really an impossibility, due to the fact that a man could never treat them all equally (4:129), and argues that such polygamous relationships cause harm to spouses and children. Modernists like _Abdu locate the moral core of the text, and then use their rational capabilities to extend that general moral injunction to a variety of modern issues.
Future Trends in Tafsir
The study of fundamentalist tafsizr is still in its early stages. Many fundamentalists interpret the Quran according to their own political and theological agendas, with little regard for traditional modes of systematic exegesis. For example, in Fi zilal al-Quran (In the shadow of the Quran), Sayyid Qutb (d. 1960), spokesperson for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, denies the established Islamic tradition that jihad is a defensive act of war, and determines that jihad is incumbent upon all Muslims as they abolish corrupt political and religious regimes. In the early twenty-first century, Usama bin Ladin also bypasses the traditional understanding of jihad by reinterpreting the definition of a defensive attack to include the mere occupancy of sacred Muslim lands by foreign powers, or the sheer presence of anti-Islamic values in those lands, such as promiscuity or usury. Like many modernists, bin Ladin searches for the general intent of the Quran—as opposed to traditional statements—and then seeks to apply that general intent to specific political and religious crises. For example, bin Ladin bypasses traditional theories of abrogation of an earlier by a later verse to select and privilege those Quranic verses that most closely support his military goals, in particular verses that urge believers to slay idolaters (9:5) and to smite the necks of disbelievers (47:4). Unnamed members of al-Qaida describe the hijackings of the planes that destroyed the World Trade Center in New York City on 11 September 2001 as a kind of sacrificial ritual sanctioned by the Quran. In each of these examples, the fundamentalist exegete discards tradition in favor of his own personal charisma, which ultimately gives him the authority to “interpret the Quran by the Quran.” In each type of tafsir, the Quran is made eternally pliable to offer numerous interpretative solutions to Muslims as they confront changing political, economic, doctrinal, moral, and scientific conditions.