'Ulūm al-Qur'ān #4 - The Compilation of Tafsīr

by Abū Ammār Yasir al-Qadhī

Taken from the Book, 'Introduction to the Sciences of the Qur'an', published by al-Hidaayah Ltd, and can be purchased online at www.Islaam.Biz

D. The Compilation of Tafsīr

After the period of the Successors, the stage of the actual compilation and writing of tafsīr began. The most important works were by scholars of hadīth, who, as part of their narrations and works of hadīth, also had sections on tafsīr. Therefore, during this stage, the narrations of tafsīr were considered a branch of hadīth literature. Some of the scholars of this period that were known for their tafsīr narrations include Yazīd ibn Hārūn as-Sulamī (d. 117 A.H.), Sufyān al-Thawri (d. 161 A.H.), Sufyān ibn 'Uyaynah (d. 198 A.H.), Wakī' ibn al-Jarāh (d. 197 A.H.), Shu'bah ibn al-Hajjāj (d. 160 A.H.), Aadam ibn Abī lyās (d. 220 A.H.), and 'Abd ibn-Humayd (d. 249 A.H.). None of their works have survived intact until the present day.[1]

The next stage in the history of tafsīr saw the separation of tafsīr literature from hadīth, and the emergence of independent works solely on tafsīr. Another stride during this stage was that every verse was discussed, so that tafīr was not only limited to those verses for which narrations from the Prophet (saws) and Companions existed; rather, these tafsīrs encompassed all the verses in the Qur'ān.

In attempting to answer who the first person to write a comprehensive tafsīr of the Qur'ān was, the researcher is faced with a rather significant impediment: a lack of almost all manuscripts written during the first century of the hijrah. However, there are a number of references in later works to such manuscripts, and among the earliest works referenced is that of Sa'īd ibn Jubayr (d. 95 A.H.).[2] Most likely, this work was not a complete tafsīr of the Qur'ān, but rather composed of narrations from the previous generations. An interesting narration in the Fihrist of Ibn Nadīm (d. 438 A.H.) reads as follows:[3]

  'Umar ibn Bukayr, one of the students of al-Farrā, was with the governor Hasan ibn Sahl. He wrote to al-Farrā: The governor sometimes questions me concerning (the tafsīr of) a verse in the Qur'ān, but I am unable to respond to him. Therefore, if you think it suitable to compile something with regards to the Qur'ān, or write a book concerning this, I can return to this book (whenever he asks me)'. al-Farrā said to his students, 'Gather together so that I may dictate to you a book on the Qur'ān'...and he told the muadhin to recite Sūrah al-Fātihah, so that he may interpret it, until the whole book (i.e., the Qur'ān) was finished. The narrator of the story, Abū al-'Abbās, said, 'No one before him every did anything like it, and I don't think that anyone can add to what he wrote!'

Al-Farrā died in the year 207 A.H., and thus we can say that this is definitely one of the earliest works of this nature.[4] Ibn Mājah (d. 273), of Sunan fame, also wrote a tafsīr of the Qur'ān, but again this was limited to narrations from the previous generations.

One of the greatest classics available is without a doubt the monumental tafīr of the Qur'ān by Muhammad ibn Jarīr at-Tabarī (d. 310 A.H.). This tafsīr, although heavily based on narrations, also discusses the grammatical analysis of the verse, the various qira'āt and their significance on the meaning of the verse, and, on occasion, Ibn Jarīr's personal reasoning (ijtihād) on various aspects of the verse. In many ways, this can be considered to be the first tafsīr to attempt to cover every aspect of a verse. Other tafsīrs followed quickly; in particular the tafīr of Abū Bakr ibn Mundhir an-Naisapūrī (d. 318 A.H.), Ibn Abī Hātim (d. 327 AH.), Abū Shaykh ibn Hibbān (d. 369 A.H.), al-Hākim (d. 405 A.H.) and Abū Bakr ibn Mardawayh (d. 410).[5]

This era also saw the beginning of the specialisation in tafsīr, with tafsīrs being written, for example, with greater emphasis on the grammatical analysis and interpretation of the Qur'ān. Greater emphasis was also placed on personal reasoning ( ijtihād), and tafsīrs written solely for the defence of sectarian views (such as the tafīrs of the Mutazilah), and even for the defence of ones fiqh madhhab, such as the tafsīrs of the Hanafīs, Shāfi'īs and Mālikīs) appeared. Another aspect that started during this era was the deletion of the isnād from tafsīr narrations, and this led to the increasement of weak and fabricated reports in tafsīr literature.

A Summary

To summarise, it is possible to divide the history of tafsīr into five periods.[6] The first period is considered to be the time of the Companions and Successors, and consisted mainly of narrations concerning those verses over which there was a difference of opinion or misunderstanding, in addition to the hadīth of the Prophet (saws) dealing with tafsīr. Personal reasoning ( ijtihād) from the Companions and Successors was, in general, only resorted to when absolutely necessary.

The second period is the era of the late Successors, and the generation after them. During this time, hadīth literature had begun to be compiled, and tafsīr narrations therefore become a part of hadīth works. Also during this time, the various hadīth of the Prophet (saws) and narrations from different Companions began to be compiled, whereas in the first period, these narrations were typically limited to a specific area.

The third stage saw the rise of independent tafsīr works, based on the hadīth works of the previous generation, and thus tafsīrs became an independent science among the Islāmic sciences. This stage, which can be said to begin in the second half of the third century, also produced the first complete Qur'ānic tafsīr, whose commentary was not limited to only those verses concerning which narrations existed from previous generations. However, during this stage, the primary source of tafsīr still remained narrations from the previous generation.

It was only during the fourth stage where reliance on narrations decreased, and much greater emphasis was placed on personal reasoning, and tafsīrs were written based on sectarian bias. For example, as-Suyūtī narrates concerning the verse,

..Not the path of those whom You are angry with, nor those who are astray [1:7]

that there exist ten different opinions concerning who this verse refers to, despite the fact that the Prophet (saws) has clearly explained that it refers to the Jews and Christians![7] This period also witnessed the increasement of forged narrations in tafsīr literature, as the isnād disappeared from tafsīr works.

The final period of the history of tafsīr, which has lasted from the fourth century of the hijrah until today, saw the culmination of the science of tafsīr, and the emergence of various categories of tafsīr, such as tafsīr based on narrations, on personal reasoning, topic-wise interpretation, polemical interpretation, and jurisprudential interpretation (these will be discussed in greater detail below). Other tafsīrs sought to combine all of these topics into one work, thus giving a broad, all-encompassing approach to interpretation.


1 adh-Dhahabī,v.l,p. 152.

2 ibid.,v.l,p. 155.

3 ibid., v.l, p. 154, from the Fihrist

4 This work, unlike many others from its era, is available in manuscript form, and part of it has been published by Dār al-Kutub al-Misriyah, 1956.

5 adh-Dhahabī, p. 152.

6 c£ adh-Dhahabī, v. 1, pps. 151-56.

7 as-Suyūtī, v. 2, p. 190.

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