Levels of understanding Qur’ān
- To recite Qur’ān without knowing its meaning. Since Qur’ān is kalāmUllah, they will get the nūr through recitation even if they don’t understand it.
- To know the translation. They understand the vocabulary and know what the Arabic words mean.
- To have a deep understanding. They know the context in which the surahs were revealed, their connection, relevance, and interpretations over time etc.
- To have the feelings of Qur’ān. On top of their deep understanding, they also have an emotional connection with it.
There are some people who do not understand Qur’ān but they keep crying while reciting it. While there are also some people who know the meanings but they cannot feel it. For example, we all know the meaning of Surah al-Fātiḥah, but how many of us truly feel it during salah?
Allah سبحانه وتعالى says that it may be that you dislike a thing which is good for you and that you like a thing which is bad for you [Q. 2,216]. We can use our mind to come up with different interpretation for this. But Imām Ghazālī writes that sometimes a person commits a sin and he dislikes the sin so much that he repents and becomes even closer to Allah سبحانه وتعالى.
How can the average man get guidance through Qur’ān?
There are many people in ummah who are illiterate. Then some people can understand it only on the surface-level. The question here is that there are so many people who do not academically study Qur’ān so how then can guidance be provided to the average man?
Our scholars have divided Qur’ān in different topics such as taqwā, haya, sila reḥmī, etc. Different relevant verses are collected on a topic and they are explained in simple terms so people can get the gist of it.
In Christian communities they sometimes have a bible-reading group. People form a circle – then the average man is asked to read and give meanings to words of bible. So these people explain whatever they can understand from their own minds. None of these people are scholars, they do not even know the original language of the bible.
When Muslims use this approach, the problem is that they have no knowledge or amal. And they have a very high chance of failing in doing the right tafsīr.
For Islamic scholarship a person should have mastered several different subjects before getting into tafsīr or translation of Qur’ān.
Ḥadrat Shāh WalīUllah Dehelvī was a big scholar of subcontinent. Ḥadīth sciences have reached us through him. He states that there are three levels for understanding Qur’ān .
- Level of the general public – to know the core teachings for example the basics of beliefs
- Level of the scholars – they have an academic approach towards Qur’ān and they will understand it on a scholarly level
- Level of the Awliyā – their understanding is such that they feel the feeling of every word in Qur’ān
Difference between Makkī and Madnī Surahs
The ones before hijrah are Makkī and after hijrah are Madnī. There are certain differences in Makkī and Madnī:
- The style of explaining words is different.Makkī Surahs are smaller and have more rhyme and they appear clipped – in parts.
- The audience is different. Makkī is by and large mukhātib (addressing) to kuffār. In Madnī the audience are Muslims.
- Subject matter is different. Makkī has more ayahs about Day of Judgement, Jannah and Jahannum. They also talk about the historical incidents of previous nations at length. Madnī ayahs are more about aḥkām (laws) like ṭalāq, and ikhlāqiyat e.g. do not raise your voice in front of Rusūl Allah (sws) [Q. 49,2].
Sources of understanding Qur’ān
- To understand Qur’ān through Qur’ān. For example Surah al-Fātiḥah says guide us on the path whom You have blessed [Q. 1,7], while another ayah explains that these blessed people are siddiqeen, shuhuda, saliheen… [Q. 4,69]
- To understand Qur’ān through Sunnah.Rusūl Allah (sws) was asked to recite the ayahs and then to explain them as well. This is waḥī-ghayr matlū (from tilāwah; waḥī that is not recited, that did not become a part of Qur’ān). It means they were not the exact words of Allah سبحانه وتعالى but the meanings were from Allah سبحانه وتعالى and Rusūl Allah (sws) would state it in his own words. This is ḥadīth. In addition to ḥadīth (verbal) the actions, forbidding of actions or permissibility of actions by Rusūl Allah (sws) all fall in sunnah category. This is also used to understand Qur’ān.
- To understand Qur’ān through Aqwāl (quotes) of Ṣahāba رضي الله عنه. All Ṣahāba رضي الله عنه received the knowledge of Islam on a kāmil (perfect/complete) level through Rusūl Allah (sws). Some of them were more involved in administrative tasks (like Ḥadrat Umar رضي الله عنه) while some were more involved in learning and transmission of knowledge (like Ḥadrat Abū Huraira رضي الله عنه), but they all had the complete guidance.
- To understand Qur’ān through history.Scholars will verify the sources of history. Not every history will be considered valid. Scholars do not derive rulings from this method but they can use history to explain certain stories or incidents. Also, these historical facts are not necessary for guidance of people, but just to develop their understanding of a particular time period.
Q. If an ayah was revealed regarding some kafir or munafiq, will that apply to us today in this day and age?
Every ayah of the Qur’ān has a general meaning, even though it might be specifically related to a certain person or a historical event. It will not just be for that specific time – Qur’ān is not time-bound. It will have a generic meaning and it will be applicable even in this day and age.
Knowledge based approach: To have an in-depth knowledge of Qur’ān, ḥadīth and related sciences and coming to a conclusion on the basis of that deep knowledge.
Pull quote journalism: To have a pre-conceived notion and then to look for ayahs or ḥadīth to support that point of view.
Muḥkamāt: Certain ayahs of Qur’ān are clear to understand. There is no room for any other meaning. Muḥkamāt means something that has a clear meaning. Qur’ān says that in it are muḥkamāt (verses with precise meanings) — they are the foundation of the book — and others mutashābihāt (unspecific) [Q. 3,7]
Mutashābihāt: It does not mean doubt. It means that it can hold different meanings and each meaning will be closely associated to one another and you would not know which meaning is the intended one on the surface-level.
For example: Allah سبحانه وتعالى is istawa (over) the Throne [Q. 32,4]. We do not know what this means because we cannot fully grasp the greatness of Allah سبحانه وتعالى. Some say it means Allah’s qudrat is over the Throne, etc. But at the end they do say that only Allah سبحانه وتعالى knows best the real meaning behind this verse.
But the person who has a khot (fault) in their hearts will go after such ayahs. They might say that Allah سبحانه وتعالى has a physicality like the creation. While what they should have said was: Amanna bih (we believe in this).
Why has Allah سبحانه وتعالى told us of these mutashābihāt? Qur’ān is Umm al-Kitāb. It has mostly muḥkamāt that holds guidance for us. Sifat (attribute) of īmān requires it to be bil ghayb (on blind faith). In Qur’ān at times Allah سبحانه وتعالى will point towards this sifat and what we have to say is that whatever it is, we believe in it. Deviant people will try to interpret it from their intellect. Because they think our intellect has the ability to understand everything.
One of the reasons people leave Islam is because such interpretations confuses them. This problem is becoming more common now. A woman once went to a cafe in Lahore and saw a group of children discussing how to tell their parents that they had become atheists.
One philosophical assumption is that intellectually we are progressing and the human mind has reached the epitome of rationality in the evolutionary timeline and now there is nothing that we cannot understand intellectually. While Islamic understanding is that we have a rūh and our rūh also has a heart and that heart also has an intellect. Recent research also shows that our heart communicates with our brain that significantly effects how we perceive and react to the world.
Tafsīr has different types:
- Some ayahs are very obvious to understand. People who know Arabic language can understand them just by reading.
- Some ayahs cannot be understood just by reading, but to know their meaning is necessary for everyone.
- Some ayahs hold meanings that are not necessary for everyone to know and only scholars would need to know them.
- Some ayahs hold meanings only known to Allah سبحانه وتعالى. Such as ayat–i–mutashābihāt.
The beginning of tafsīr sciences
When Qur’ān was revealed, Rusūl Allah (sws) would tell Ṣahāba رضي الله عنه its meaning, then Ṣahāba رضي الله عنه would memorize those ayahs and apply them in their lives. Some ayahs would be revealed in response to particular situations. Qur’ān was explained in detail to Ṣahāba رضي الله عنه.
If a person has a good command on Arabic language, they can understand Qur’ān to a certain extent, but there is also a part that cannot be understood just with language. This is something said by Ḥadrat Ibn Abbās رضي الله عنه who was himself a great scholar.
For example, to set limit for fasting, Allah سبحانه وتعالى said that you should eat and drink at night until you can differentiate between the white and black threads [Q. 2:187]. A Ṣahābī رضي الله عنه literally took two threads, one black and the other white, and waited till he could tell the difference between the two. When he told Rusūl Allah (sws) about this, he (sws) replied that by black and white thread the night sky and the light on the sky was meant.
Reasons of Prophethood
- To recite Qur’ān
- To purify people (Ṣahāba رضي الله عنه) and the teachings of this purification would be taught generation after generation
- To explain the Qur’ān
- To teach wisdom through ḥadīth
Rusūl Allah (sws) told us the meanings and explanations of Qur’ān.
Scope of Tafsīr
Q. Why do we need contemporary tafsīr if the meanings and explanation was given by Rusūl Allah (sws)?
All the Ṣahāba رضي الله عنه had the knowledge of Qur’ān but some of them had more knowledge, because some spent more time with Rusūl Allah (sws) or dedicated their lives to ʾilm. Ḥadrat Ibn Masood رضي الله عنه said that there is no ayah of Qur’ān that anyone knows more than I do. If I would know of anyone who knew something that I did not, I would go and get that knowledge from them.
Why did he say that, isn’t that ujub? Because when Rusūl Allah (sws) left, a lot of people entered Islam. Now people could have doubted that since Rusūl Allah (sws) has left, perhaps the knowledge has also left. Ṣahāba رضي الله عنه made this claim to let people know that we have preserved the knowledge so do not have doubt that the guidance has left us.
Scholars are the inheritors of Rusūl Allah (sws). It means that guidance and knowledge is still here. And scholars did not just get the knowledge, but also the feelings/kaifiyāt.
Rusūl Allah (sws) made duʾā for Ḥadrat Ibn Abbās رضي الله عنه that O Allah give him understanding of deen and teach him interpretation of Qur’ān. This opens the door to interpretation. The meaning of this duʾā is that interpretation is there. But it also does not mean everyone can now interpret.
There are two extremes.
Some say there should be no tafsīr, because even if you do it you are still wrong.
Mere Personal Opinion (IMO)
The other extreme is the Qur’ān reading-group where lay people interpret knowledge. Even people with surfacy knowledge should not be doing this, let alone people who do not even understand Arabic. Ye jo “apka khyal” hai na this is swimming in dangerous waters.
Some people do convert after just reading the translation. But to interpret Qur’ān one needs to have a lot of knowledge. In personal opinion then we have things like I’m always connected to Allah سبحانه وتعالى so I do not need salah, etc. Interpretation strictly on basis of opinion is forbidden. [ref?] They will end up ruining their own beliefs and that of others.
Well Founded Knowledge (WFK)
This is the in-depth knowledge of Qur’ānic sciences on the basis of which interpretation is done.
History and Development of Tafsīr
At the time of Ṣahāba رضي الله عنه there were some writings, but most of the preservation was done through memorization (Arabs had a very sharp memory). The Qur’ān that had been written was compiled after the passing away of Rusūl Allah (sws).
Tabiʾīn were teaching Taba-Tabiʾīn. They were also compiling tafsīr work. Some great scholars from the time of Ṣahāba رضي الله عنه had some great students. These Taba-Tabiʾīn started writing down the teachings of their teachers. There’s a sequence of sources that takes precedence in Qur’ānic sciences:
- For WFK, first and foremost Qur’ān
- Then its explanation through Rusūl Allah (sws) himself
- The explanation of Ṣahāba رضي الله عنه
- Sayings of Tabiʾīn
- Sayings of Taba-Tabiʾīn
- The tafsīr and aqwāl of pious predecessors
Then on that scholars can build up their interpretation. They cannot say out of the blue that all these people have said this, but in my opinion this is what it means (as opposed to the accepted interpretation). This is what happens in scientific community as well. The greatest of scientists admit that they are standing on the shoulders of giants.
Ṣahāba رضي الله عنه had traveled to spread out the knowledge and therefore different groups were formed in different regions.
Makkan Group: Ḥadrat Ibn Abbās رضي الله عنه and his students — ʾAtā Ibn Abi Razā and Ikramah , etc.
Madian Group: Ḥadrat Ubay Ibn ka’ab رضي الله عنه and his students Abū Āliya and Zaid Ibn Aslam , etc.
Kufī Group: Ḥadrat Ḥasan Basrī , etc.
We are never taught these things in our Islamic studies which is why students have a lot of doubts in their minds later on.
Naqlī ulūm: To quote the aqwāl of Ṣahāba رضي الله عنه, Tabiʾīn etc.
Aqlī ulūm: To interpret on the basis of WFK. Not everyone can do it. According to one source you need to know 300 different ulūm before even qualifying for getting into this; in depth knowledge Arabic language, qirat, Qur’ān related knowledge — like knowledge of nasikh and mansūkh, in depth knowledge of fiqh, and those ayahs which ʿulamā have an ijmāʿ on, seerah, etc., etc. Tafsīr is an amānah and demands a high level of responsibility from the scholar.