‘Ulûm al-Qur’ân #7-Tafsir by the Statement of The Companions


After the Qur’ân and Sunnah, the next important source for understanding the Qur’ân is the understanding of the Companions. The statements of the Companions are taken as a fundamental source of tafsîr for the following reasons:

    1) The primary reason is that the Companions are a generation that was chosen by Allâh to accompany the Prophet (saws), and to pass on the religion and teachings of Islâm to later generations. Their character and religious knowledge has been testified by Allâh and the Prophet (saws), for Allâh says in the Qur’ân,

      Muhammad (saws) is the Messenger of Allâh. And those who are with him (i.e., the Companions) are severe against the disbelievers and merciful amongst themselves. You see them bowing and falling down in prostration, seeking the Bounty of Allâh and His Pleasure… [48:29]

    In more than one verse of the Qur’ân, Allâh mentions the fact that

      He is well pleased with them, and they with Him [99:8]

    Thus clearly showing the superiority of the Companions over other generations. The Prophet (saws) said,

     “ “The best of all mankind are my Companions, then those that will follow them, then those that will follow them.”[1]

    2) The Companions actually witnessed the revelation of the Qur’ân. Many of its verses were revealed to cater to problems that had risen amongst them. As such, they were familiar with the asbâb an-nuzûl,with the makî and madanî verses, and with the nâsikh and mansûkh,and did not need to go searching for this knowledge, as later generations would have to do.

    3) The Qur’ân was revealed in the Arabic that the Companions spoke. Therefore, many words and phrases that later generations had difficulty understanding were clear to the Companions.

    4) The Companions were the most knowledgeable of generations with regards to pre-Islâmic customs. Therefore, they understood the references in the Qur’ân to such customs.

There is a difference of opinion whether the interpretation of a Companion is of definitive authority. In other words, once a Companion has given an interpretation of a verse, must that interpretation be accepted, as is the case with the previous two sources of tafsîr?

Al-Hâkim an-Naisapûrî (d. 404 A.H.), the author of al-Mustadrak, considered any interpretation by a Companion to be equivalent to a hadîth of the Prophet (saws), for he believed that all such interpretations must have originated from the Prophet (saws). However, this opinion is not accepted in its generality, and the majority of scholars, such as an-Nawawî (d. 676 A.H.), As-Suyûtî (d. 911 A.H.), and Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 728 A.H.), held the view that the interpretation of a Companion is equivalent to a hadîth of the Prophet (saws) only when it concerns matters which are not based on
personal reasoning ( ijtihâd), such as reports concerning sabab an-nuzûl, or the knowledge of the unseen.

This is because such knowledge could not have originated from the Companions’ ijtihâd, and must have come from the Prophet (saws). A report from a Companion not concerning these topics cannot be taken as equivalent to a hadîth of the Prophet (saws); rather, it is given a status below that of a. hadîth.[2] However, this does not diminish the status of the tafsîr from the Companions. The Companions were the most knowledgeable of this nation, and as such their personal reasoning ( ijtihâd) occupies a status above that of any later scholar.

Az-Zarkashî summarised this point when he said,

  As for the interpretation of the Companions, it is investigated into: if this interpretation was based upon language, then they are the scholars of the language, and there is no doubt that they should be given credence to in this interpretation. If this interpretation relies upon what they saw of asbâb an-nuzûl, or other circumstances (i.e., of pre-Islâmic customs), then again there is no doubt concerning this type of interpretation.[3]

After the interpretation of the Qur’ân by itself and by the hadîth of the Prophet (saws), the Companions relied upon four primary sources to interpret the Qur’ân:[4]

    1) Their knowledge of Arabic language, rhetoric, grammar and pre-Islâmic poetry.

    2) Their knowledge of the pre-Islâmic customs of the Arabs.

    3) Their knowledge of the habits of the Jews and Christians at the time of the revelation of the Qur’ân.

    4) Their personal reasoning and their keen intellect (which, of course, was based upon knowledge).

Another integral aspect of the tafsîr of the Companions is the shâdh and mudraj qira’ât which were discussed earlier. It is necessary to take these qira’ât into account when interpreting a verse. As mentioned earlier, such qira’ât cannot be considered as the Qur’ân, but may be studied as tafsîr.

One of the interpretations of this type of qira’ât is that they were added, not as Qur’ân, but for the sake of interpretation by the Companions. For example, in the shâdh qirâ’a of Ibn Mas’ûd, the verse which told the believers to “fast three days” (5:89) as an expiation of an unfulfilled oath was read by him as: “fast three consecutive days.” Due to this shâdh qirâ’a, later scholars differed over whether it was necessary to fast three consecutive days, or whether it sufficed to fast any three days if one did not fulfil an oath.

To conclude, if the Companions agreed to an interpretation of a verse, that interpretation must be accepted, since it qualifies as ijmâ’. On the other hand, if there exist narrations from one Companion concerning the interpretation of a verse, and there does not exist any narrations to the contrary from other Companions, this interpretation is also accepted, but is not equivalent in strength to the interpretation given by the Prophet (saws). If there exist various narrations from different Companions which are not contradictory in nature, then all such interpretations are accepted. If there exist contrary narrations from different Companions concerning the same verse, in this case the researcher can choose between the different interpretations, depending on which interpretation seems to have the strongest evidence to support it.

Tafsîr by the Statement of the Successors

Before moving on to the next section, a brief note concerning the tafsîr narrations from the Successors would be useful. Some scholars took the tafsîr of the Successors to be the next source of tafsîr after the tafsîr of the Companions. As proof for this stance, they relied on the statements of certain prominent Successors concerning their knowledge of the Qur’ân. Qatâdah (d. 110 A.H.) said,

  “There is not a single verse in the Qur’ân except that I have heard something concerning it.”

Mujâhid (d. 103 A.H.) said,

  “I recited the Qur’ân to Ibn ‘Abbâs three times. In each recitation, I stopped at every verse, asking him concerning its interpretation.”

This is why Sufyân ath-Thawree (d. 161 A.H.) said,

  “When you hear an interpretation from Mujâhid, this should be sufficient for you!”[5]

Other scholars, however, rejected this view. They claimed that an interpretation of a Successor could not have originated from the Prophet (saws), as could the interpretation of a Companion, since they never saw the Prophet (saws). Also, they did not witness the revelation, as did the generation before them, and their trustworthiness is not guaranteed specifically for every one of their generation, unlike the Companions (in other words, the trustworthiness of every single Companions is guaranteed by the Qur’ân, whereas this is not the case for the Successors, for they have been praised as a. generation, and not individually).

Therefore, the correct view in this matter, as Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 728 A.H.) said, is that if the Successors give the same interpretation to a verse, then their interpretation must be accepted, but if they differed among themselves, then the opinion of one group will have no authority over the other group, nor over the generations after them. In such cases, one must resort to the Qur’ân, the Sunnah, the Companions, and the Arabic language in order to obtain the correct interpretation.[6]


1 Reported by al-Bukhârî

2 c£ as-Suyûtî, Tadrîb ar-Râwî, pps. 156-8.

3 az-Zarkashî, v. 2, p. 172.

4 c£ adh-Dhahabî, v. 1, p. 63.



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