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.