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Milk for Babes, Meat for Men: The Three Kinds of Tafsir

In Dan Brown’s novel, The Lost Symbol, the book’s central character, Professor Robert Langdon, is told that the Biblical ‘manna from heaven’ – the food God sent down to the Israelites during their long desert travels – is actually a code word for a profounder scientific truth understood only by those initiated. As part of his own initiation into the “Ancient Mysteries,” he is told: ‘When you see these code words in Scripture, pay attention. They are often markers for a more profound meaning concealed beneath the surface.’

We see the same idea of profound meanings concealed beneath the surface in the words of St. Paul too (although his is a reference to profounder spiritual, not scientific, truths). So in his letter to the Corinthian Church (Bible, I Corinthians), Paul says: ‘I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for till now you were not able to bear it; and even now you are not able.’ Being fed with milk refers to being instructed in the basic, elementary doctrines of Christianity, while meat denotes the more sublime and mysterious doctrines of the faith. He is telling them, in other words, that they weren’t as yet sufficiently schooled in Christian knowledge to grasp its higher mysteries.

When it comes to Islam, and in particular the Qur’an, there has long been a recognition by our ‘ulema that the Qur’an is a vast and deep ocean of meanings and wisdoms.

Over the course of time, three modes of tafsir (“interpretation,” “commentary,” “exegesis”) of the Qur’an have met with scholarly approval in order to help deep dive for these revelatory gems – although with varying degrees of authority and validity: [i] tafsir bi’l-ma’thur or “interpretation based upon textual reports;” [ii] tafsir bi’l-ra‘y, “interpretation rooted in [reasoned] opinion and; [iii] tafsir bi’l-isharah, “allegorical [spiritual] interpretation”.

Of the three kinds, only tafsir bi’l-ma’thur has unconditional approval in the scholarly or exegetical community. This mode of tafsir consists of interpreting the Qur’an by [other parts of] the Qur’an, by the words and deeds of the Prophet ﷺ, and the interpretations of the earliest Muslim authorities (salaf). The basic assumption here is that those closest in time to the prophetic age (and thus to the revelation itself) can best explain and contextualise the text authoritatively. Later generation of Muslims, it is believed, ought to accept this and ensure that their Quranic interpretation is guided and molded by those left by the salaf. The tafsirs of al-Tabari, al-Baghawi, Ibn al-Jawzi, Ibn Kathir and al-Suyuti are pretty much typical of tafsir bi’l-ma‘thur.

Tafsir bi’l-ra‘y has occupied more of an uncomfortable place in the discipline of tafsir. One hadith emphatically states: ‘He who interprets the Qur’an based on his own opinion (ra‘y), then let him take his place in the Hellfire.’1 The scholars concur that interpretations of the Qur’an that violate the agreed upon premises or conclusions of tafsir bi’l-ma’thur, or that are based on personal opinions not rooted in the attendant sciences related to Quranic exegesis, are unacceptable. On the other hand, ra‘y which is led by linguistic, legal, theological, contextual and historical considerations, not contradicting anything catagorical (qat‘i) or for which there is scholarly consensus (ijma‘), has met with approval by most Muslim scholars. This genre of tafsir includes that of Ibn Juzayy, al-Qurtubi, al-Razi, al-Baydawi, al-Alusi and Ibn Ashur; among others. Not that such works are void of any tafsir bi’l-ma’thur, it’s just that their main aim is interpretation via scholarly reasoning or ijtihad.

Even more precarious than the above is tafsir bi’l-isharah. This genre of tafsir devotes itself mainly to allegorical, figurative and symbolic interpretations of the Qur’an: to profound meanings concealed beneath the surface. The nature of tafsir by way of isharah (lit. “sign”, “allusion”) is that it is very conjectural and speculative, void of a clear exegetical methodology. So to many of the ‘ulema, it is nothing more than fanciful ra‘y. Nonetheless, most leading imams do accept this mode of exegesis, provided certain conditions are met: (i) That no legal or theological position be derived by it. (ii) It must not contradict the zahir (“clear,” “apparent,” “obvious”) meaning of the verse. (iii) It not contradict other Qur’an or Hadith texts, nor an ijma‘. (iv) It should not claim to be the main or primary interpretation, let alone demand belief in it.

Examples in this category wherein its authors have attempted this esoteric and sublimely meditative interpolations are: the tafsirs of al-Tustari, al-Qushayri, al-Sulami, Ibn ‘Ajibah and al-Alusi’s Ruh al-Ma‘ani (a work that contours tafsir bi’l-ma’thur; indulges in the scholarly tafsir bi’l-ra‘y; and generally concludes with an ishari interpretation – making it one of the most comprehensive and satisfying of all tafsir works).

As an example of tafsir bi’l-isharah, consider the Quranic verse: And when Saul marched out with his army, he said: ‘God will put you to test by means of a river: whoever drinks therefrom shall not be of me, but whoever does not drink shall be of me, save he who takes a sip out of the hollow of his hand.’ But they all drank from it, except for a few. [Q.2:249] While affirming the apparent meaning and historical event, the following is the ishari meaning some have been inspired to give it: The river symbolises the world with which God tests His servants. Those who remain detached and don’t drink, only seeking God’s face, are the elect. As for those who take from it only as much as is needed, they are successful. But those who drink to their fill will be in loss.

Al-Qurtubi, having cited this ishari interpretation, said: ‘This would be excellent were it not for the fact that it involves distorted interpretation and a departure from the apparent sense. Its meaning, nonetheless, is sound from other than this [interpretation].’2 Which is to say, since it opposes the obvious meaning of the verse, it is unacceptable. If, though, the apparent meaning is affirmed, and the isharah is offered as a spiritual insight which attempts to uncover profound meanings concealed beneath the surface, then this would be valid.

Let’s look at one more example: Therefore, be patient with what they say. Praise your Lord’s glory before sunrise and before sunset, and glorify Him some hours of the night and the two ends of the day, that you may be content. [Q.20:130] The apparent meaning is in context of Allah consoling His Prophet ﷺ, telling him not to be grieved or distresses at what the unbelievers utter by way of taunts, ridicule or rejection. Instead, he in instructed to bear their scorn with patience, and to glorify his Lord throughout the day. Only when one’s heart is immersed in its Lord’s glory, the Prophet ﷺ is being told, and less concerned about what others say, will the heart be reassured of sacred truths and be made content. Most exegists also see in this ayah a reference to the five daily prayers: Praise your Lord’s glory before sunrise and before sunset is a pointer to the fajr and ‘asr prayer; some hours of the night, to the ‘isha prayer; and the two ends of the day, the zuhr and maghrib prayers.

As for the isharah; the spiritual allusion, Ibn ‘Ajibah had this to say: ‘Be patient, O you who are totally devoted to Allah and singularly obedient to their Master, with what others say in terms of what disturbs the heart. Instead, be engrossed with your Lord’s remembrance (dhikr) and [extolling] His transcendence at the rising and the setting of the sun and at the two ends of the day, until you lose yourself in the presence of the Knower of the Unseen. Perhaps then you will be given to spiritually witness the Beloved.’3

Of course, such ishari interpretations will not be to everybody’s taste, since not every person has a taste!

Wa bi’Llahi al-tawfiq.

1. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2950, saying: ‘This hadith is hasan sahih.’

2. Al-Jami’ li Ahkam al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1996), 3:164.

3. Al-Bahr al-Madid (Cairo: Dar al-Tawfiqiyyah, n.d.), 4:327.

Comprehensive Verse on Noble Character

Here’s the second in the series of “Qur’an Reflections,” that aims to convey some of the essential meanings of the Holy Book, in a concise visual format. This one sums up the attitude which best represents nobility of character and conduct. It is one of the most comprehensive verses of the Qur’an encouraging forbearance towards others; including religious opponents, or those by whom one has been wronged or badly treated. This reflection basis itself on the words of Imam al-Sa‘di in his Tafsir.

Nurturing Love for God

The above is the first in a series of “Qur’an Reflections” which aims to explain (in visual format) some of the ideas, practical wisdoms and subtleties that are found and embedded in the Holy Qur’an. This first one expresses eight practical ways in which we can actualise the reality of the above verse, based upon the words of Imam Ibn al-Qayyim.

Reading Qur’an While Not Knowing the Meaning: Is There Reward?

Q. Is there any reward for reading the Qur’an in Arabic, even if you don’t know or understand the meanings? If so, what would be the point?

A. Alhamduli’Lah, wa’l-salatu wa’l-salam ‘ala rasuli’Llah. This nagging question has been around for a while. But only recently has it begun to be argued about in a more bullish, uncharitable manner. So let’s address this niggling issue via the following points:

1 – As Muslims, we must all be absolutely clear as to the purpose of the Qur’an, about which Allah says in the Holy Book: كِتَابٌ أَنزَلْنَاهُ إِلَيْكَ مُبَارَكٌ لِيَدَّبَّرُوا آيَاتِهِ[This is] a Book that We have sent down to you, full of blessings, that they may reflect upon its signs. [Q.38:29] To this end, Ibn Taymiyyah wrote: ‘The purpose of the Qur’an is to understand its meanings and to act upon it.’1

2 – Al-Hasan al-Basri once remarked: ‘The Qur’an was revealed so as to act by it. But people have taken the recitation as the action.’2 The Qur’an speaks to such a discourteous attitude in these words: أَفَلاَ يَتَدَبَّرُونَ الْقُرْآنَ أَمْ عَلَى قُلُوبٍ أَقْفَالُهَاWill they not meditate on the Qur’an, or are their locks upon their hearts? [Q.47:24]

3 – The Qur’an says of those given revelation before hand: وَمِنْهُمْ أُمِّيُّونَ لاَ يَعْلَمُونَ الْكِتَابَ إِلاَّ أَمَانِيَّ وَإِنْ هُمْ إِلاَّ يَظُنُّونَAmong them are the illiterate, having no knowledge of the Book other than [vague] fancies; they do nothing but conjecture. [Q.2:78] One of the explanations given by Muslim exegists to vague fancies is: reciting the Book without any understanding.3 And while the tafsir literature tells us this verse refers to many Jews of Madinah vis-a-via the Torah, it’s a warning for Muslims not to behave like that with the Qur’an.

4 – In fact, the Qur’an goes so far as to say: مَثَلُ الَّذِينَ حُمِّلُوا التَّوْرَاةَ ثُمَّ لَمْ يَحْمِلُوهَا كَمَثَلِ الْحِمَارِ يَحْمِلُ أَسْفَارًاThe likeness of those who were entrusted with the Torah, then failed to uphold it, is as the likeness of a donkey carrying books. [Q.62:5] Imam Ibn al-Qayyim wrote: ‘Allah strikes an analogy of those who were entrusted with His Book – to believe in it, reflect over it, act upon it and call [others] to it, but they acted contrary to this and only upheld it by rote learning it; thus they read it without meditating upon it, or understanding it, or following it, judging by it, and acting upon what it necessitates – to a donkey on whose back are tomes of books. It has no idea of what’s in them. Its only share of them is to carry them on its back. Likewise, their state with Allah’s Book is as that of a donkey loaded with books. This likeness, although it is in context of Jews, is just as applicable to someone who memorises the Qur’an but doesn’t act on it, give it its right, or uphold its teachings.’4

5 – As for the many hadiths which speak about the ahl al-qur’an – the ‘People of the Qur’an’ or hamil al-qur’an – the ‘Bearers of the Qur’an, or other such lofty distinctions, these too must be understood in the light of not just memorising the Qur’an, but studying it; pondering its meanings, marvels and wisdoms; and acting by it. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Allah has family among mankind (ahlin min al-nas).’ They asked: O Messenger of Allah, who are they? He said: ahl al-qur’an hum ahlu’Llah wa khassatuhu – ‘The People of the Qur’an are the People of Allah and His elite ones.’5 Imam al-Munawi commented: ‘In other words, those who memorise the Qur’an and act according to it are the friends of Allah, who are as close to Him as a person’s family is to them. They are called this as an honour to them, just as [the Ka‘bah] is called ‘the House of Allah’.’6

6 – A more liberal view to the above hadith was presented by Ibn al-Qayyim, who said: ‘That’s why the People of the Qur’an are those who are learned about it and act according to what is in it, even if they haven’t committed it to heart. As for those who have memorised it, but neither understand it nor act upon it, they aren’t from its people.’7 This was said as part of his discussion on whether it is better to read the Qur’an slowly with reflection, or quickly in order to read more – about which the salaf differed.

7 – As for the sahabah and their relationship with the Qur’an, we encounter these words of Ibn ‘Umar: ‘We lived during a period of time in which one of us would be granted faith (iman) before the Qur’an. As chapters were revealed, we learnt what was lawful and unlawful, commanded and forbidden, and what required pausing at from it, just as you all, today, learn the Qur’an. But I have seen men today who are given the Quran before iman. He recites it from start to end without knowing what it commands or forbids, or what must be paused at. He races through it hurriedly.’8 In this context, the terms iman and Qur’an imply one of two things: the first refers to the foundations of faith; the latter, the rulings and injunctions. Or iman can refer to the meanings and wisdoms of the Book, while the Qur’an refers to the mere recitation of its words – which is what is intended here. The same explanations hold for the statement of Jundub b. ‘Abd Allah: ‘We learnt iman before the Qur’an, then we learnt the Qur’an and it increased us in iman.9 And Allah knows best.

8 – Spotlighting the sahabah again, we read the following: Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman relates. ‘They – i.e the sahabah – would learn ten verses from the Prophet ﷺ, and wouldn’t learn ten more till they knew what they contained of knowledge and action. They would say: “We learnt knowledge and action [together].”’10 So the way of the sahabah was iman before the Qur’an, while ours is Qur’an before iman. Their way was understanding (fahm), reflecting (tadabbur), acting (‘aml), while ours is confined to reading (qira’ah), reciting (tilawah), memorising (hifz). And then we wonder why we’re in the state we are in?

9 – But what about the question of reciting the Qur’an without understanding a word of what one is reading? Well it would be a foolish person who insists that there’s no point in reading the Qur’an as a sacrament; i.e. just to gain blessings or grace, unless one understands what is being read – especially in light of the following hadith: ‘Whoever recites a single letter from the Book of Allah will be given the likes of ten good deeds. I do not say alif lam mim is a letter. Rather alif is a letter, lam is a letter, and mim is a letter.’11 So here we see our Prophet ﷺ choosing the words: alif lam mim as an example, knowing full well he had not explained their meanings to the ummah (in fact, when it comes to the tafsir of such cryptic letters, these huruf al-muqatta‘at, the vast majority of our scholars simply assert: wa’Llahu a‘lam bi muradihi – ‘Allah knows best what it means.’). Yet despite that, he described the immense reward one gains for reciting these three cryptic letters that make up the Arabic and Quranic alphabet. Which is to say, there is indeed reward for reading the Qur’an, even if one doesn’t know the meaning. Moreover, one would be hard pushed to find even one single leading Imam who is followed in the ummah who forbids reading the Qur’an, or denies a reward for one’s recitation, unless the meaning is known.

10 – That said, such tilawah without understanding (fahm) must never become one’s usual practice. That would be to defeat the aim in sending the Qur’an and would be a type of disrespect of it. If it is recited to obtain rewards and blessings then – and this is what needs to be paid careful attention to – it is allowed, but it mustn’t be made into a habit such that this is the only engagement one has with the Holy Qur’an. One bears in mind the divine order: فَاتَّقُوا اللَّهَ مَا اسْتَطَعْتُمْSo fear Allah as best as you can. [Q.64:16]

11 – Lest there be even the slightest trace of confusion, all the above is in no way meant to discourage or belittle the act of reciting or memorising the Qur’an if one is unaware of its meaning. Certainly not! No one has the right to call others to leave off reciting the Qur’an. What the above is an invitation to is to raise our recitation from reciting just its words, to reciting it with tadabbur – meaning, reflection and deliberation; then reciting it so as to internalise its message and act upon its demands and guidance. The same applies to memorisation (hifz) of it. The established principle when it comes to doing good deeds is: ma la yudrak kulluhu la yutrak kulluhu – ‘If you cannot achieve all of it, do not abandon all of it.’ Yet let’s work on making our recitation (tilawah) ascend to higher heights. Only then will we be truly fulfilling Allah’s words: الَّذِينَ آتَيْنَاهُمْ الْكِتَابَ يَتْلُونَهُ حَقَّ تِلاَوَتِهِ أُوْلَئِكَ يُؤْمِنُونَ بِهِ – Those to whom We have given the Book, and who recite it the way it should be recited, truly believe in it. [Q.2:121]

12 – As for focusing on completing the Qur’an in Ramadan or in any other holy time or place, without taking the time to ponder its meanings, Ibn Rajab wrote: ‘The salaf would recite the entire Qur’an in the month of Ramadan, both inside and outside of prayer. Al-Aswad would finish the Qur’an every second night in Ramadan. Al-Nakha‘i would do likewise in the last ten nights, while in the rest of the month [he would finish it] every third night. Qatadah would consistently complete the Qur’an every seven days, and in Ramadan every third night; and each night during the last ten nights. Al-Shafi‘i would complete the Qur’an sixty times in Ramadan, outside prayer. Abu Hanifah did likewise … What is related about the forbiddance of reciting the Qur’an in less than three days applies to doing so regularly. As for times of great virtue, such as the month of Ramadan, especially the nights in which laylat al-qadr is sought; or in virtuous places like Makkah, for one who enters it not as a resident, it is recommended to increase in recitation of the Qur’an, taking advantage of the time or place. This was the view of Ahmad, Ishaq and others leading scholars. And this is proven from the action of others, whose mention has already preceded.’12

It is not unusual to hear scholars liken reading the Quran without knowing the meaning of what is being recited, to a sick patient for whom a doctor writes a prescription. Yet instead of understanding what the prescription says, or acting on what it requires, the patient simply keeps reading the prescription over and over again; making such recitation an end in itself. In all likelihood, we’d think this person a fool, and maybe even say that he has only himself to blame if his illness persists. So what is the case if we limit ourselves to reciting the Qur’an, without trying to understand its meanings in order to be shaped, even in some small way, by God’s final message to mankind? The Qur’an cajoles us to open it; invites us to read it; and demands that we understand and ponder over it: فَهَلْ مِنْ مُدَّكِرٍ – So is there any who will take heed? [Q.54:17]

1. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 23:55.

2. Cited in Ibn al-Jawzi, Talbis Iblis (Beirut: Dar al-Qalam, 1403H), 109.

3. See: Ibn Juzayy, al-Tashil li ‘Ulum al-Tanzil (Makkah: Dar Taybah al-Khudra’, 2018), 1:329.

4. I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 123H), 2:288.

5. Ahmad, no.11870; Ibn Majah, no.215, and it is sahih. See: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Da‘ifah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1988), 4:85; no.1582.

6. Fayd al-Qadir (Cairo: Dar al-Hadith, 2010), 3:518.

7. Zad al-Ma‘ad (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 1:327.

8. Al-Hakim, al-Mustadrak, 1:83.

9. Ibn Majah, no.61. It was graded as sahih in al-Albani, Sahih Sunan Ibn Majah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1997), 37; no.52.

10. Ahmad, Musnad, no.23482. Its chain was graded hasan in Shu‘ayb al-Arna’ut, Musnad Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 2001), 38:466.

11. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2912, who said it is hasan.

12. Lata’if al-Ma‘arif (Riyadh: Dar Ibn Khuzaymah, 2007), 399-400.

Most Comprehensive Verse in the Qur’an: A Brief Reflection

This Five Minute Meditation is a short reflection on, possibly, the most comprehensive, all-inclusive verse in the Qur’an. It touches upon the meaning of justice and what Islam sees as the greatest and most obligatory act of justice, as well as its opposite: injustice and oppression. It also deliberates on the Islamic obligation to show kindness to family, kith and kin; as well on the dangers of how sins can be normalised or trivialised. Watch here.


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