Ever since the advent of human life, there has been a need for new Divine Guidance now and then. In each era, when man was clueless to the core, it was an intrusion from the Almighty that came to the rescue. Take a glimpse into the stories of the nations in the Quran, and you’ll know how Divine Guidance happened.
As for Muhammad (ﷺ), most of us are aware of how he pulled his people out of their moral and religious darkness. Pre-Islamic Arabia was a classic example of the devil at its epitome. The poor and weak were oppressed beyond belief, and societal morals were in shambles.
Amidst this chaos, there were a few decent beings whose hearts remained unsettled over the state of affairs. Muhammad (ﷺ), then known as Ṣâdiq (“truthful; sincere; verifying the truth”) and Amîn (“trustworthy; faithful”), spent hours and sometimes days in a secluded cave, reflecting.
It was during one such episode when he received the first revelation from Allah. He was shaken, scared, and could not comprehend what would turn out to be his appointment as a prophet. The events that spiraled, later on, landed Muhammad (ﷺ) in a whole new perspective of life. Starting at the age of 40 and continuing until the age of 63, Muhammad (ﷺ) was the recipient of Divine Words.
The “Quran,” as we now know the collection of those revelations, was intended to rectify humanity. It is a manual that everyone is called to adhere to. The universality of this Word makes it the most reliable scripture ever witnessed. Unfortunately, not many people make enough effort to gain insights into the Quran. And those who do are usually unaware of how to conduct a systematic study of the Quran.
Considering you are reading this article, we presume you are aspiring to start the blissful journey. But before you do, let’s get a few things straight.
What is Tafsir?
The origin of this word tafsîr is F – S – R, or fasara, meaning “to discover”; the derived verb form fassara means “to explain, interpret, or to elucidate.”
Tafsir is the verbal noun indicating the explanation or interpretation of something. In the context of the Quran, tafsir means “exposing or uncovering its secrets. There are many multi-volume scholarly works of Tafsîr; major classical Tafsîr books —commenting on the Quran in great detail— are available translated into English and other languages. Modern authors, such as Sayyid Abul Ala Maudidi, have also produced books of Tafsîr. An example is Mawdudi’s Tafhim ul-Qur’an – The Meaning of the Qur’an, which is to be found in multiple south Asian languages, as well as accessable in free English pdf; Furthermore, there are free Tafsir classes online in English, such as those of Sh Yasir Qadhi (Al-Maghrib Institute): quran tafsir yasir qadhi – YouTube) and Sh. Nouman Ali Khan: http://www.quranwebsite.com/audio9/nouman_ali_khan_eng.html.
Why Study Tafsir?
It is plausible to question why there is a need to interpret the Quran. Are the Quranic words themselves not enough to guide us? The Quran itself states:
“This (Qur’an) is a declaration for mankind, a guidance and an admonition for those who ward off evil.” [Sûrah Âli CImrân, 3:138]
In light of such a verse, questioning the idea of Tafsir sounds reasonable, but scholars have put forth some solid arguments which make it impossible to deny the need for extra help.
- First of all, Allah has used an eloquent literary style. The meaning of which is exact for those who are well-grounded in the Arabic language. As for the non-Arabs, there is no choice but to study and analyze each word for better insight.
- Second, not every verse or an incident in the Quran comes with an explanation of the background. A peek into historical context only comes through scholarly interpretations.
- Lastly, some Arabic words contain multiple meanings in English or other language of translation. A scholarly study of these words will allow us to grasp the true meaning of each verse.
What is the Right Tafsir Approach?
You need to test the waters before you take the final plunge. That is, pick a language that you’re comfortable with. There need be no such restriction of understanding the Quran in Arabic only. And once you are confident in the chosen language, find an authentic Tafsîr book. Names like Al-Jalalayn (in English and multiple languages) (https://www.amazon.com/s?k=tafsir+al-jalalayn&ref=nb_sb_noss_1) and Zubdat Al-Tafsîr (in Arabic) often pop-up when you’re looking for a beginners’ Tafsîr book.
Finally, make Dua. Ask The Almighty to ease your journey and provide you with an extraordinary insight to evaluate the truth.
Ayah – the first fragment
A sequence of ayahs in the Quran helps us figure out the context and meaning of a subject in detail. For example, the initial pages of Surah Al-Baqarah introduce us to three levels of believers. In verses 3-20 there is a classification of people. It allows us to reflect on our position and relate where we fit in.
This entire passage sums up the kind of people in terms of imân (faith). Later, the reader must determine the classification of every group discussed in the Surah according to the standard set earlier.
Hence, the Quran is a cohesive Book. We have to understand the position of an ayah, its placement in the particular Surah. And then we can ponder over its context.
Context – the background review
As mentioned above, each verse in the Quran is a fragment of a bigger picture. The students must ponder upon the context in which it was revealed. Typically, the context of a verse derives from its historical and cultural background.
Perceiving the actions and atmosphere behind each verse broadens our horizons. Basically, historical context answers the following queries:
- When was the Surah revealed? What were the conditions lived by the people directly addressed by that sûrah?
- Are there any comments recorded regarding the situation when a particular ayah was revealed?
All of this information helps us to understand the verse. And a solid foundation of knowledge will enable you to put up a good argument against the individuals who have a misunderstanding about an ayah.
Take for example, when someone comes up to you with the following verse:
“So woe to those who pray…” [Sûrah Al-MâCûn, 107:04]
The ultimate interpretation that crosses your mind is that people who pray receive a curse (Nau’dhu’billah!)
But when those words are read as a part of the Surah, it tells you a different story. All seven verses in this Surah define the character of hypocrites. These are the people who drive away oters from the orphans, who do not encourage the feeding of poor people, and who show off their prayers. This is the reason why destruction is sent towards them.
Thereby, reading the surrounding ayahs, or the whole Surah altogether, adds a new dimension, different than when you read it in isolation. A Kalam (“word”) must have continuity in its context, which the Quran has at its finest.
Surahs – the larger division
Quran comprises of 114 Sûrahs, where each is classified as a Makkan/Makki Sûrah or a Madinan/Madani Sûrah, depending on whether the Prophet received those verses in the earlier period (when Muslims were oppressed in Makkah) or whether in the later period (when the independent community had been established in Madinah). Overall, the Sûrahs are divided into seven large portions, known as Manzils, each having certain historical and literary characteristics.
Nonetheless, when you set on a journey to understand the Quran, it is essential to know where it was revealed. This helps to grasp contextual elements even better. Take Sûrah Al-Nûr, for instance; when you begin to study it, the first thing to acknowledge is that it was revealed in Madinah, when the revelation was addressing regulations needed for social behavior.The beauty lies in the fact that Madinan Surahs do not all appear in consecutive order to reflect chronological history. There is a gap after Surah Al-Nûr (24th in final arranged order); then comes Surah Al-Ahzab (33rd in final arranged order), with more or less similar content or topics.
It is plausible to wonder what makes a Makkan Sûrah different from the Madinan Sûrah. Well, for starters, there are two methods to distinguish between the two:
- Historically recorded comments from the Companions of RasulAllah (ﷺ)
- Analysis of the contents included in a particular Surah
Once you figure out the whole setting behind each revealed commandment (ayah), it gets easier to grab the meaning in its entirety.
Put It Together
Starting off from the groundwork is easy. You steadily lay down a foundation, move further, and cover more topics. Just remember to align everything in a context. You may need to research thoroughly for better insight. A clear perspective into history helps you to analyze the facts and information.
Using the classical commentaries is where you can look into various Tafsîr works and find out what scholars have to offer.
Ibn Al–Jawzi, Ibn Kathîr: Amazon.com : tafsir ibn kathir english, Al-BiqâCi , Ibn Âshûr, and Al-Râzi (https://www.amazon.com/Great-Exegesis-al-Tafsir-al-Kabir-Fatiha/dp/191114121X/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=tafsir+al-Razi+-+english&qid=1609186101&s=books&sr=1-1) are some shrewd works to follow. Along the way, it is crucial to associate yourself with a scholar or a tutor. Make sure it is a person with a firm understanding of the Quran and someone who holds a respectable reputation in the community.
Wrap it Up
Every individual who has proclaimed Shahadah must strive to expand their knowledge of the Quran. Some native Arabs might fall into the false assumption that they do not need to take the pains of studying a Tafsîr as the Quran is in a language they have command of. Such thinking could be a grave mistake on their part.
The dialect used in the Quran is not in use anymore. Plus, some words have more than one meaning, making it harder to string together the verses properly, as what Almighty Allah meant. When a person begins their course to understand the Word of Allah
(تعالى و سبحانه ), the Barakah (blessing), and an incredible sense of motivation engulfs them. It is no longer impossible for them to sacrifice their whims and desires to please their Lord (تعالى و سبحانه ).
Know that every single letter and symbol in the Quran is at its perfect place. And as you flow with the Tafsîr tide, try implementing the lessons in every nook and cranny of your life. The study’s whole purpose might go down the drain if there is no practical action taken by the students.
May Allah (تعالى و سبحانه ) enhance our knowledge of His Book and make it a source of our relief on the Day of Judgment. Âmîn!