What is the Tafsir of Quran? Qiratul Quran

The Arabic word ‘tafsir‘ literally means ‘interpretation’ or ‘explanation‘. In Islamic terminology, tafsir refers to the scholarly interpretation and explanation of the verses of the Holy Quran.

The Quran, which Muslims believe to be the direct words of God revealed to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) over 23 years, touches upon various theological, historical, legal, social, and other issues. Since the Quran was revealed in classical Arabic, which was the language of the people of Arabia during the Prophet’s time, even native Arabic speakers need some explanation and context to understand the deeper meanings of various verses fully.

What is the Tafsir of Quran? Types, principles, Meaning & History
What is the Tafsir of Quran? Types, principles, Meaning & History

Who wrote tafsir of Quran?

Many renowned Muslim scholars over the past 1400 years have written tafsir or Quranic exegesis. Some of the most influential tafsirs were written by:

  • Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari (838-923 CE).
  • Ismail ibn Kathir (1301–1373 CE).
  • Jalaluddin al-Suyuti (1445–1505 CE).
  • Shah Waliullah Dehlawi (1703–1762 CE).
  • Tantawi Jawhari (1862–1940 CE).
  • Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi (1903-1979 CE).

Over time, scholars have adopted different approaches and methodologies to interpret the Holy Quran, leading to various schools of Tafseer. Nevertheless, the objective has always been to explain the meaning of Quranic verses to aid understanding for both scholars as well as general readers or students of knowledge.

What are the 2 types of tafsir?

The two main types of Quranic tafsir or interpretation are:

Tafseer bil riwayah

This refers to the interpretation or exegesis of the Quran based on traditions (hadith) and reports from the Prophet (PBUH), his companions, and later scholars. It relies heavily on the context provided in hadiths or narrations about the reasons and circumstances of the revelation of various verses.

Tafseer bil dirayah

In this methodology of Tafseer, scholars use their reasoning abilities, knowledge, and analytical skills to explain the meanings and purpose of Quranic verses. This type of exegetical activity is also known as tafseer bil ra’yi. Scholars may interpret verses by considering the overall structure and style of the Holy Quran and the linguistic principles of the Arabic language.

What is tafsir based on?

Some of the sources and foundations tafseer or Quranic exegesis is based on include:

  • The Quran itself: Interpretation of some verses relies on the explanation provided in other clearer verses of the Quran.
  • Prophetic traditions: Statements and narrations from Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) provide context for understanding certain verses.
  • Opinions of the Prophet’s companions: Quranic verses revealed during the companions’ lifetimes are interpreted in light of their understanding.
  • Arabic linguistics: Quranic vocabulary, prose style, grammar, and idioms influence the tafsir activity.
  • Makkan and Madinan revelations: Classification of verses revealed in Makkah vs Madinah also provides an interpretative framework.

What is the difference between Quran and Tafsir?

The key differences between the Holy Quran and its interpretation or exegesis (tafsir) are:

  • The Quran is the directly revealed word of God to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), while tafsir is the interpretative activity by scholars to explain the divine word of God.
  • The language, prose style, and contents of the Holy Quran have remained unchanged since its revelation 1500 years ago. But tafsir reflects scholars’ efforts and different approaches over centuries of thought and analysis.

So while the Quran represents divine revelation, tafsir is a continuously evolving human activity of scrutinizing and pondering over the meanings and purpose of the divine book.

Why is Quran Tafseer important?

Some reasons why tafseer or exegetical study is important for understanding the Holy Quran include:

  • It elucidates the deeper meanings and wisdom of Quranic verses beyond their apparent meanings.
  • It explains metaphors, rhetorical styles, and idioms in classical Arabic used in verses.
  • It clarifies historical circumstances and reasons why various verses were revealed.
  • It correlates and distinguishes injunctions and stories mentioned across different surahs or chapters.
  • Deducing laws and codes of worship from revelatory guidance relies on interpretative activity.
  • It enables solutions to new issues and problems in line with the Quranic worldview.

In essence, Tafseer allows extraction of theological, social, moral, and cultural guidance from scripture in light of practical needs and conditions of the society at any given period in history.

What is the difference between Hadith and Tafsir?

While hadith refers to the collected reports of sayings, actions, or tacit approvals of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), Tafseer specifically focuses on exegesis or interpretation of the Quranic verses revealed to him. Some key differences include:

  • Contents: Hadith contains narrations about the Prophet’s teachings, while tafseer explains the meanings of Quranic verses.
  • Revelation: The Quran is considered divine revelation, while hadiths contain the teachings and wisdom of the Prophet himself.
  • Timeline: The Quran was revealed during the Prophet’s lifetime but its compilation occurred later. On the other hand, hadith scholars began compiling narrations extensively after the Prophet had passed on.
  • Authenticity: Scholars have developed stringent criteria to establish the reliability of hadith contents. But all verses of the Quran are considered equally authentic parts of the divine scripture.

Nevertheless, Tafseer and hadith often complement each other. Tafseer provides context to hadiths linked to specific revelations, while hadith clarifies general circumstances of revelation for verses touching similar themes.

How is Tafsir of the Quran done?

The methodology of interpreting the Quran adopted by scholars can typically involve:

  • Study of classical Arabic language including vocabulary, grammar, prose, and idioms.
  • Gaining knowledge of reasons and context of revelation from prophetic hadiths.
  • Referencing opinions of early exegetes including sahabah and later tafsir experts.
  • Subject-based correlation of verses across different surahs.
  • Study of nationality-specific revelations (Makki or Madani).
  • Evaluating interrelatedness between verses on similar themes.
  • Considering prophetic traditions that may clarify verses.
  • Linguistic analysis of keywords and possible alternate connotations.
  • Applying principles of Quranic hermeneutics and exegesis.
  • Using one’s reasoning and contemplation abilities.

The tafsir methodology aims to elucidate the meanings of verses at appropriate intellectual and practical levels for scholars as well as common believers.

Why is Tafsir needed?

Some reasons why scholars have felt the need to interpret and expound upon the meanings of Quranic verses over the centuries include:

  • To explain verses touching on complex theological doctrines or legal injunctions.
  • To clarify the historical contexts or background of various revelations.
  • To distinguish between verses with specific or general imperatives.
  • To develop coherence between Divine guidance and practical social realities.
  • To enable solutions to new or emerging socio-political problems and disputes.
  • To correlate interrelated verses across different surahs of the Quran.
  • To deduce laws and codes of worship from revealed scriptural directives.
  • To interpret idioms, metaphors, and rhetorical features of classical Arabic.
  • To distinguish between categorical and allegorical verses.
  • To allow experiential and intellectual taste (dhawq) of the Divine word.

What are the main principles of Tafsir?

Some agreed-upon principles of Quranic tafsir upheld by scholars over history include:

  • Tafsir must adhere to the teachings and traditions of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) as primary interpretative tools.
  • Interpretations should not contradict definitive verses of the Holy Quran.
  • Exegesis requiring interpolation or undue assumptions should be avoided.
  • Arabic language grammar, prose style, and idioms should guide interpretative activity.
  • Coherence should be maintained between revealed storylines or injunctions on similar themes.
  • Verses open to multiple linguistic meanings should be explained through hadith and exegetical opinions.
  • Speculative or dogmatic theological positions should not precondition the tafsir process.

What are the 5 methods of Tafseer?

The major methods adopted by scholars for interpreting the Holy Quran exegesis include:

Tafsir bil Riwayah: Exegesis based on prophetic traditions and statements by sahabah.

Tafsir bil Dirayah: Interpretation relying on personal reasoning and contemplation.

Tafsir bil Ra’yi: Exegesis based on personal opinions of scholar undertaking interpretative exercise.

Tafsir al Ishaari: Interpretation uncovering esoteric or inward meanings of Quranic verses.

Tafsir al Fiqhi: Exegetical activity focused on deducing jurisprudential directives and laws from verses.

What is the difference between translation and Tafsir?

Although tafsir books are commonly translated as ‘exegesis’, tafsir and translation are intricately different:

  • Translation involves the direct conversion of the original text into another language without adding explanations. Tafsir includes elaborate explanations of textual meanings and wisdom.
  • A translated Quran conveys meanings but loses rhetorical styles. Tafsir elucidates stylistic and linguistic features also.
  • Quran translations by multiple translators can vary slightly. But the original Arabic tafsir books have identical explanations.
  • Strict eligibility conditions need to be met to interpret the Word of Allah. Quran translation does not require such an Islamic scholarship.

So while translation serves to transfer concepts, tafsir enriches understanding through multi-layered deduction of meanings from the Holy Scriptures.

Who is considered to be the most knowledgeable in Tafseer of the Quran?

The most authoritative scholar in the domain of Quranic tafsir was considered to be:

Ibn Jarir al Tabari (838-923 CE)

Tabari’s monumental 30-volume tafsir compiled over decades has been hugely influential over the centuries. He was an early historian and had mastery over multiple Islamic sciences, especially Quranic exegesis. Later scholars have heavily relied on Tabari’s methodologies, chains of narrations, depth of correlations, and linguistic perspectives of verses.

While later tafsirs built upon his works, Tabari’s tafsir is distinguished by its reliance on early commentaries from sahabah and tabi’un. His encyclopedic knowledge of prophetic traditions and jurisprudence also guided his interpretative deductions about verses.

When did Tafsir begin?

The interpretation of Quranic verses began at the time of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) himself. He explained the circumstances of revelations, answered questions about verses, and clarified deeper meanings of the divine scripture beyond the literal word.

The prophetic companions also often discussed the early Meccan verses amongst themselves and asked the Prophet for clarification on issues they felt needed further elaboration.

Soon after the Prophet’s death, many sahabah began dispersing to different territories taking copies of the Quranic scripture with them. It was at this point that more systematic interpretative activity or tafsir gathered momentum to prevent misunderstandings about Divine revelation amongst common Muslims without scholarly backgrounds.

This heralded the emergence of definite methodological approaches towards Quranic exegesis.

Who is the father of Tafseer?

The undoubtedly accepted father of the “Science of Tafseer” who nurtured it into a structured discipline, formulated principles of interpretative deduction, and recorded much prophetic commentary on Quranic verses is:

Abdullah ibn Abbas (619 – 687 CE)

Ibn Abbas was the Prophet’s cousin and his companion from early childhood. He cultivated a passion for understanding the Quran and regularly discussed finer points of revelations with scholars like Ubay bin Kab.

Being firmly grounded in classical Arabic, he was able to deduce linguistic marvels, stylistic objectives, social frameworks, and prophetic wisdom underpinning various verses.

His enormous contribution was to collect and correlate contextual exegeses of verses attributed to Prophet Muhammad with memorized verses. Ibn Abbas’ methodology and scrupulousness enormously boosted the confidence of early Muslims in the tafsir domain.

How to read tafsir?

The ideal approach to studying or reading the tafseer of the Quran should be:

  • Recite each verse to be understood both in Arabic as well as native language translation.
  • Reflect deeply on the apparent and linguistic meanings of the verse.
  • Study available exegetical discussions around the contextual background of its revelation.
  • Evaluate interpretations deduced by early as well as recent tafsir scholars.
  • Relate interpretations logically to overall Quranic themes or adjacent verses.
  • Assess alternative linguistic expositions or legal deductions offered.
  • Determine explanations relying on authenticated hadiths from pure juristic analyses.
  • Apply meanings deduced to one’s individual, social, and cultural life experiences.
  • Aim to act upon the Divine guidance and injunctions in the verse.

Can Sunnah be regarded as tafsir to Quran?

The Sunnah refers to the traditions of Prophet Muhammad consisting of his statements, actions, and tacit approvals, as recorded in hadith literature.

In exegetical terms, the Prophetic Sunnah can undoubtedly be regarded as a tafsir (interpretation) of the Holy Quran because:

  • Numerous Sunnah elaborations came in response to questions posed by sahabah about specific Quranic verses.
  • Prophetic commands, decisions, sermons, etc amplified meanings of verses touching similar themes.
  • The Prophet’s setting of personal and social examples reflected the embodiment of Quranic philosophies.
  • Classification of some verses as allegorical rather than definitive was based on Prophetic directives.

Hence the Sunnah represents the practical interpretation by Muhammad of the revelatory guidance he received through Angel Jibreel over 23 years.

The tafsir books by early Islamic scholars heavily relied upon this prophetic exegesis or interpretation to deduce their explanatory frameworks about Quranic verses.


The science of elucidating meanings and contexts of the Holy Quran known as ‘tafsir’ reflects a continuously evolving branch of Islamic scholarship over 15 centuries. Through the rigorous hermeneutic activity, experiential rumination, and constant correlation of revelatory verses with Prophetic interpretations, scholars have kept the practice of Tafseer dynamic, vibrant, and grounded in linguistic principles.

This interpretative activity has unlocked deeper wisdoms underpinning the Divine scripture for both theological experts as well common believers. Guided by principles laid down by early masters like Ibn Abbas, later scholars integrated Hadith interpretations and rational deductive skills to understand the intents and contexts behind the Divine word to the fullest.

While multiple schools of thought exist around methodological approaches to tafsir, a shared aim has defined the practice – firm belief in the Quran as Allah’s Final Word and seeking solutions to human, cultural, and geopolitical problems besetting mankind in Divine Scripture under interpretative lights.


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