Tafseer (Arabic: تفسير‎, tafsīr, "interpretation") is the Arabic word for exegesis or commentary, usually of the Qur'an. Ta'wīl is a subset of tafsir and refers to esoteric or mystical interpretation. An author of tafsir is a mufassir (Arabic: 'مُفسر‎, mufassir, plural: Arabic: مفسرون‎, mufassirūn).



The word tafsīr is derived from the Arabic root, F-S-R which means to explain, to expound, to disclose.[1] In Islamic contexts, it is defined as understanding and uncovering the Will of Allah which has been conveyed by the Qur'anic text, by means of the Arabic language and one’s own knowledge.[2] This definition includes;

  • determining the style of the text and its eloquence
  • defining unknown or otherwise less used words
  • the clarification of the meanings of verses
  • extraction of laws and rulings
  • explaining the underlying thoughts in metaphors and figurative speech
  • reconciling verses that seem contradictory
  • finding out the underlying reasons for parables



The first examples of tafsir can be traced back to the Islamic prophet Muhammad. During his prophethood, as the Qur'an was revealed to him, he recited the verses to his companions, usually explaining their meanings to teach them. It must be noted that this is one of Muhammad's responsibilities.[3] Elements of Muhammad's explanations are;

  • Clarifying verses whose intents are not understood
  • Indication of names, places, times etc. which have not been mentioned in the verse
  • Restriction of meanings which have been given as absolute
  • Reconciling expressions which seem contradictory

Although scholars including ibn Taymiyyah claim that Muhammad has commented on the whole of the Qur'an, others including Ghazali cite the limited amount of narratives, thus indicating that he has commented only on a portion of the Qur'an. These interpretations have not been collected independently in a book, rather, they have been recorded in hadith books, under the topic of tafsir, along with other narrations of Muhammad.[4]

Sahabah (companions of Muhammad)

After the death of Muhammad, his companisions, the Sahabah, undertook the task of interpretation, thus starting a new age in tafsir. Most of the Sahabah, including Abu Bakr, refrained from commenting with their personal views, and only narrated comments by Muhammad. Others including ibn Abbas used their own knowledge from the Arabic language to interpret the Qur'an. At this stage, the Qur'an was still not fully interpreted, and commentaries were not separated from the hadith collection nor written separately, mainly due to other occupations such as the collection of the Qur'an.[5]

Successors (tabi'in and beyond)

By the time of the next generations ensuing the Sahabah, the tabi'in scholars started using a wide range of sources for tafsir. The whole of the Qur'an is interpreted, and narrations are separated from tafsir into separate books and literature. Grammatical explanations and historical data are preserved within these books; personal opinions are recorded, whether accepted or rejected.


The mufasireen (exegetes) listed 15 fields that must be mastered before one can authoritatively interpret the Quran[citation needed]:

  1. Classical Arabic: Is how one learns the meaning of each word. Mujahid (rah) said, “It is not permissible for one who holds faith in Allah and the Day of Judgment to speak on the Quran without learning classical Arabic.” In this respect, it should be known that classical Arabic must be mastered in its entirety because one word may have various meanings; a person may only know two or three of them whereas the meaning of that word in the Quran may be altogether different.
  2. Arabic Philology: Is important because any change in the diacritical marks affects the meaning, and understanding the diacritical marks depends on the science of Arabic philology.
  3. Arabic morphology: is important because changes in the configuration of verb and noun forms change the meaning. Ibn Faris said, “A person who misses out on Arabic morphology has missed out on a lot.”
  4. Al-Ishtiqaaq: should be learned because sometimes one word derives from two root words, the meaning of each root word being different. This is the science of etymology which explains the reciprocal relation and radical composition between the root and derived word. For example, masih derives from the root word masah which means “to feel something and to touch something with a wet hand,” but also derives from the root word masaahat which means “to measure.”
  5. Ilm-ul-Ma’ani: is the science by which one figures the syntax through the meaning of a sentence.
  6. Ilm-ul-Bayaan: is the science by which one learns the similes, metaphors, metonymies, zuhoor (evident meanings) and khafa (hidden meanings) of the Arabic language.
  7. Ilm-ul-Badi’: The science by which one learns to interpret sentences which reveal the beauty and eloquence of the spoken and written word. The above mentioned three sciences are categorized as Ilm-ul-Balagha (science of rhetoric). It is one of the most important sciences to a mufassir because he is able to reveal the miraculous nature of the Quran through these three sciences.
  8. Ilm-ul-Qira’t: Dialecticisms of the different readings of the Quran. This science is important because one qirat (reading) of the Quran may differ in meaning from another, and one learns to favor one reading over another based on the difference in the meanings.
  9. Ilm-ul-Aqaa’id: is important because we cannot attribute the literal meaning of some ayaat to Allah. In this case, one will be required to interpret the ayah as in ‘the hand of Allah is over their hand’.
  10. Usul-ul-Fiqh: are the principles of Islamic Jurisprudence. It is important to master this field so one understands the methodology of legal derivation and interpretation.
  11. Asbaab-ul-Nuzul: is the field by which one learns the circumstances in which an ayah is revealed. It is important because the meaning of the ayah is more clearly understood once the circumstances in which they were revealed are known. Sometimes, the meaning of an ayah is wholly dependent on its historical background.
  12. Ilm-ul-Naskh: is knowledge of the abrogated ayaat. This field is important because abrogated rulings must be separated from the applied rulings.
  13. Fiqh: Jurisprudence. This field is important because one cannot gain an overview of any issue until he has understood its particulars.
  14. Ilm-ul-Hadith: is knowledge of the ahadith which explain mujmal (general) ayaat.
  15. Ilm Laduuni: Last but not least is the endowed knowledge which Allah grants to his closest servants. They are the servants indicated in the hadith: “Allah Y will grant one who acts upon whatever he knows from a knowledge he never knew.”


There are two main methods and one prohibited method of commenting on the Qur'an:

It is the act of commenting on the Qur'an using traditional sources. This classical tafsir method is agreed upon by all scholars, and is the most used method throughout history, partly because other methods have been criticized;

  • The Qur'an states that it is made easy to understand so no one is allowed to divert its literal meaning.[6]
  • The Prophet has condemned those who interpret the Qur'an from their own point of view.[7]
  • Most companions of the Prophet have refrained from presenting their own ideas.[8]

Some important examples are Jami al-bayan by al-Tabari and Tafsir al-Qur'an al-Azim by ibn Kathir. The sources used for riwaya tafsir are:


Interpretation of the Qur'an with the Qur'an is very common because of the close interrelatedness of the verses of the Qur'an with one another. The Qur'anic verses explain and interpret one another, and therefore constitute the highest level of authenticity. Many verses or words in the Qur'an are explained or further clarified in other verses of the Qur'an. One example of this kind is Tafsir al-Mizan


Using narratives of the prophet to interpret the Qur'an. In this approach the most important external aids used are the collected oral traditions upon which Muslim scholars based Islamic history and law. The Qur'an states that the Prophet is responsible for explanation and guidance.[9] While some narratives are of revelation origin, other can be the result of reasonings made by the Prophet.[10] One important aspect of these narratives is their origin. Narratives used for tafsir, and in general, must be of authentic origin (see Hadith terminology). Narratives of such origin are considered requisite for tafsir.

Sahaba and Tabiiun

The Ṣaḥābah, or companions of Muhammad, also interpreted and taught the Qur'an. If nothing is found in the Qur'an or the Hadīth, the commentator has recourse to what the Ṣaḥābah reported about various verses. These are generally considered above personal opinion, because these people grew up with everyday interaction with Muhammad, and had often asked about the meanings of verses or circumstances of their revelation; and they were very knowledgeable in both Arabic literature and Islamic thought.

Arabic literature

The classical Arabic poetry and the text of the Qur'an are two resources which can be used as foundational reference in ascertaining the meaning and signification of the remaining literal and figurative diction of the Qur'an and its style of expression.[11] Using Arabic poetry for defining words is a long used practice, in fact there are nearly no scholars who hasn’t used this source.[12]


Isra'iliyat is the body of narratives originating from Judeo-Christian traditions, rather than from other well-accepted sources. The Isra'iliyat are mostly non-biblical explanatory stories and traditions (Hebrew: midrashim) giving extra information or interpretation about events or individuals recorded in the Hebrew scriptures. Scholars starting with the Sahabah have studied narrative accounts of other Abrahamic religions to further explain and clarify verses, especially parables, in the Qur'an. While some may be accurate, these narratives are not subject to hadith authenticity criteria, and are generally not favored for use. It is considered a major weakness in tafsir, as theses narratives are not compatible with Islamic thought.


The use of reason and mind (ijtihad) to form an opinion-oriented tafsir. This method is not interpretation by mere opinion, which is prohibited, but rather opinions must be based on the main sources. Its most distinctive feature is the inclusion of the opinions of the commentator, thus forming an objective view on Qur'anic verses. Some important examples include Anwar al-Tanzil by al-Baiḍawi and Irshad al-Aql as-Salim by Abu Sa'ud al-Ḥanafi. Some parameters used by these scholars are:

Linguistic resources

Literary elements of the Arabic language, including morphology, eloquence, syntax are an integral part of tafsir, as they constitute the basis of understanding and interpretation. Arabic has a systematic way of shaping words (see morphology) so one can know the meaning by knowing the root and the form the word was coined from. If any word can be given a meaning that is compatible with the rules of grammar, Qur'anic text can be interpreted that way.

Historical sources

Scholars may choose to interpret verses according to;

  • Their historical context. This is particularly important to interpret verses according to how the Qur'an was revealed, when and under which circumstances. Much commentary was dedicated to history. The early tafsir are considered to be some of the best sources for Islamic history. (see Asbab al-nuzul).
  • Their place of revelation, whether it was revealed in Mecca or Medina. This classification is important because generally, Meccan verses tend to have a legislative nature, whether it be theological foundations or basic faith principles. On the other hand, Medinan verses constitute rules of worship and social regulations.


Verses may be interpreted to preserve the general goals of shariah (see maqasid), which is simply to bring happiness to a person in this life and the hereafter. That way, any interpretation that threatens to compromise the preservation of religion, life, lineage, intellect or property may be discarded or ruled otherwise in order to secure these goals.

Socio-cultural environment

This includes understanding and interpreting the Qur'an while taking into account the cultural and social environment to which it has been revealed; or according to the scholars own time. This is an integral part of the universality of the Qur'an. Scholars usually do not favor to confine verses to a single time interval, but rather interpret according to the needs of their time.

Prohibited tafsir

Muslims believe that it is prohibited to perform Qur'anic interpretation using solely one's own opinion. This, they base on an authenticated hadith of Muhammad which states that it is prohibited;

"He who says (something) concerning the Qur'ân without knowledge, he has taken his seat of fire"'.[13]

Schools of tafsir

Theologists are divided into myriad of sects; each commenting the Qur'an with their own point of view. Some of these sects and their famous examples are;

Classic Sunni

The oldest and widest school of tafsir, they are generally classified as riwaya tafsirs, made by Sunni scholars. Major examples are;


Mu’tazilah have a very rational way of tafsir, making them an important part of diraya tafsir. Most famous example are:


Interpretation of the Qur'an according to Shia point of view. Examples include:

  • Tafsir al-Kummi a work by Ali ibn Ibrahim Kummi
  • Al-Tibyan by Abu Cafer Tusi
  • Tafsir al-Mizan by Allamah Tabatabai

Sufistic approach

It is an interpretation of the Qur'an which includes attribution of esoteric or mystic meanings to the text by the interpreter. In this respect, its method is different from the conventional exegesis. Esoteric interpretations do not usually contradict the conventional (in this context called exoteric) interpretations; instead, they discuss the inner levels of meaning of the Qur'an. A hadith from Muhammad which states that the Qur'an has an inner meaning, and that this inner meaning conceals a yet deeper inner meaning, and so on (up to seven levels of meaning), has sometimes been used in support of this view. Islamic opinion imposes strict limitations on esoteric interpretations specially when interior meaning is against exterior one. Esoteric interpretations are found mainly in Sufism and in the sayings (hadiths) of Shi'a Imams and the teachings of the Isma'ili sect. But the Prophet and the imams gave importance to its exterior as much as to its interior; they were as much concerned with its revelation as they were with its interpretation. These are generally not independently written, however are found in the books of Sufis. Some examples are;

  • Hakaik al-tafsir by Sulemi

Scientific approach

Scholars deeply influenced by the natural and social sciences followed the materialists of Europe or the pragmatists. Under the influence of those secular theories, they declared that the religion's realities cannot go against scientific knowledge. What the religion claims to exist, but which the sciences reject should be interpreted in a way that conforms with the science; as for those things which the science is silent about, like the resurrection etc., they should be brought within the purview of the laws of matter; the pillars upon which the divine religious laws are based — like revelation, angel, Satan, prophethood, apostleship, Imamah (Imamate) etc. - are spiritual things, and the spirit is a development of the matter. As for the Qur'an itself, one should not explain it in the light of the old philosophy and theories, because they were not based on observations and tests — they were just a sort of mental exercise which has been totally discredited now by the modem science. Found by Ghazali and built upon by Razi, it is one of today's most abundant way of tafsir. Common examples are;

  • Mafatiḥ al-Ghayb by Fakhruddin al-Razi

Philosophic approach

The philosophers try to fit the verses on the principles of Greek philosophy . If a verse was clearly against those principles it was explained away. In this way the verses describing metaphysical subjects, those explaining the genesis and creation of the heavens and the earth, those concerned with life after death and those about resurrection, paradise and hell were distorted to conform with the said philosophy. That philosophy was admittedly only a set of conjectures — unencumbered with any test or proof; but the Muslim philosophers felt no remorse in treating its views on the system of skies, orbits, natural elements and other related subjects as the absolute truth with which the exegesis of the Qur'an had to conform.

Fiqhi approach

Fiqhi tafsir deals mainly with verses that have a legislative meaning (see ahkam), and it strives to obtain Islamic law from the Qur'an. It is a very common school classically and modernly. There is a dispute over the number of verses that contain jurisprudence, numbers ranging from 5 to 200 are reported. Some works part of this school are;

  • Aḥkam al-Qur'an by al-Jassas
  • Aḥkam al-Qur'an by Qaḍi Abū Bakr ibn al-'Arabī

Written Tafsirs

A wide range of Tafsirs heve been written in many languages since Sahaba and Tabiiun. One source can be the following website: www.altafsir.com [14]

See also


  1. ^ http://www.islamic-awareness.org/Quran/Tafseer/Ulum/Denffor6.html#Principles
  2. ^ Al-Zehebi, Al-Tafsir vel Mufassirun
  3. ^ Şatibi, El-muvafakat
  4. ^ Muhsin Demirci, Tefsir Usulü, 120
  5. ^ http://www.islamicboard.com/quran/5338-history-tafseer.html
  6. ^ Quran, V11:1, V41:3, V41:44, V54:17, V54:22, V54:32, V54:40)
  7. ^ Tirmizi, Tafsir, 1
  8. ^ Taberi, Camiul Beyan, I, 27
  9. ^ http://www.usc.edu/schools/college/crcc/engagement/resources/texts/muslim/quran/016.qmt.html#016.064
  10. ^ http://www.icsfp.com/de/Contents.aspx?AID=5596
  11. ^ http://www.al-mawrid.org/pages/articles_english_detail.php?rid=17&cid=82
  12. ^ Muhsin Demirci, Tefsir Tarihi, 128
  13. ^ Tirmizi, Tafsir 1
  14. ^ http://www.altafsir.com

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