Types of interpretation (1)

Types of interpretation (1)

All praise is for Allah Who sent down the Quran to His servant so that he may be a warner to the worlds; and blessings be on him whom He sent as a witness, and a bearer of good news and a warner, and as one inviting to Allah by His permission, and as a light-giving torch; and on his progeny from whom Allah kept away the uncleanliness and whom He purified a thorough purifying.(1)
In this article we shall describe the method adopted in this book to find out the meanings of the verses of the Quran. at-Tafslr (exegesis), that is, explaining the meanings of the Quranic verse, clarifying its import and finding out its significance, is one of the earliest academic activities in Islam. The interpretation of the Quran began with its revelation, as is clear from the words of Allah: ﴾Even as We have sent among you an Apostle from among you who recites to you Our communications and purifies you and teaches you the Book and the wisdom and teaches you that which you did not know﴿.(2)

The first exegetes were a few companions of the Prophet, like Ibn 'Abbas, 'Abdullah ibn 'Umar, Ubayy (ibn Ka'b) and others. (We use the word, 'companion', for other than 'Ali (A.S.); because he and the Imams from his progeny have an unequaled distinction - an unparalleled status, which we shall explain somewhere else. Exegesis in those days was confined to the explanation of literary aspects of the verse, the background of its revelation and, occasionally interpretation of one verse with the help of the other. If the verse was about a historical event or contained the realities of genesis or resurrection etc., then sometimes a few traditions of the Prophet were narrated to make its meaning clear. The same was the style of the disciples of the companions, like Mujahid, Qatadah, Ibn Abi Layla, ash-Sha'bi, as-Suddi and others, who lived in the first two centuries of hijrah.

They relied even more on traditions, including the ones forged and interpolated by the Jews and others. They quoted those traditions to explain the verses which contained the stories of the previous nations, or which described the realities of genesis, for example, creation of the heavens and the earth, beginning of the rivers and mountains, the "Iram" (the city of the tribe of 'Ad), of Shaddad the so-called "mistakes" of the prophets, the alterations of the books and things like that. Some such matters could be found even in the exegesis ascribed to the companions. During the reign of the caliphs, when the neighboring countries were conquered, the Muslims came in contact with the vanquished people and were involved in religious discussions with the scholars of various other religions and sects.

This gave rise to the theological discourses, known in Islam as Ilmuu 'l-kalam. Also, the Greek philosophy was translated into Arabic. The process began towards the end of the first century of hijrah (Umayyad's period) and continued well into the third century ('Abbasid's reign). This created a taste for intellectual and philosophical arguments in the Muslim intelligentsia. At the same time, at-tasawwuf Sufism, mysticism) raised its head in the society; and people were attracted towards it as it held out a promise of revealing to them the realities of religion through severe self-discipline and ascetical rigoursinstead of entangling them into verbal polemics and intellectual arguments. And there emerged a group, who called themselves people of tradition, who thought that salvation depended on believing in the apparent meanings of the Quran and the tradition, without any academic research. The utmost they allowed was looking into literary value of the words. Thus, before the second century had proceeded very far, the Muslim society had broadly split in four groups: The theologians, the philosophers, the Sufis and the people of tradition There was an intellectual chaos in the ummah and the Muslims, generally speaking, had lost their bearing.

The only thing to which all were committed was the word, "There is no god except Allah, and Muhammad (peace be upon him and his household) is the Messenger of Allah'. They differed with each other in everything else. There was dispute on the meanings of the names and attributes of Allah, as well as about His actions; there was conflict about the reality of the heavens and the earth and what is in and on them; there were controversies about the decree of Allah and the divine measure; opinions differed whether man is a helpless tool in divine hands, or is a free agent; there were wranglings about various aspects of reward and punishment; arguments were kicked like ball, from one side to the other concerning the realities of death, al-barzakh intervening period between death and the Day of Resurrection); resurrection, paradise and hell. In short, not a single subject, having any relevance to religion, was left without a discord of one type or the other.

And this divergence, not unexpectedly, showed itself in exegesis of the Quran. Every group wanted to support his views and opinions from the Quran; and the exegesis had to serve this purpose. The people of tradition explained the Quran with the traditions ascribed to the companions and their disciples. They went ahead so long as there was a tradition to lead them on, and stopped when they could not find any such tradition (provided the meaning was not self-evident). They thought it to be the only safe method, as Allah says: ﴾... and those who are firmly rooted in knowledge say:' "We believe in it, it is all from our Lord...﴿.(3)

But they were mistaken. Allah has not said in His Book that rational proof had no validity. How could He say so when the authenticity of the Book itself depended on rational proof. On the other hand, He has never said that the words of the companions or their disciples had any value as religious proof. How could He say so when there were such glaring discrepancies in their opinions? In short, Allah has not called us to the sophistry which accepting and following contradictory opinions and views would entail. He has called us, instead, to meditate on the Quranic verses in order to remove any apparent discrepancy in them. Allah has revealed the Quran as a guidance, and has made it a light and an explanation of everything. Why should a light seek brightness from others' light? Why should a guidance be led by others' guidance? Why should "an explanation of everything" be explained by others' words? The theologians' lot was worse all the more. They were divided into myriads of sects; and each group clung to the verse that seemed to support its belief and tried to explain away what was apparently against it.

The seed of sectarian differences was sown in academic theories or, more often than not, in blind following and national or tribal prejudice; but it is not the place to describe it even briefly. However, such exegesis should be called adaptation, rather than explanation. There are two ways of explaining a verse. One may say: "What does the Quran say?" Or one may say: "How can this verse be explained, so as to fit on my belief? " The difference between the two approaches is quite clear. The former forgets every pre-conceived idea and goes where the Quran leads him to. The latter has already decided what to believe and cuts the Quranic verses to fit on that body; such an exegesis is no exegesis at all. The philosophers too suffered from the same syndrome. They tried to fit the verses on the principles of Greek philosophy (that was divided into four branches: Mathematics, natural science, divinity and practical subjects including civics). If a verse was clearly against those principles it was explained away. In this way the verses describing metaphysical subjects, those explaining the genesis and creation of the heavens and the earth, those concerned with life after death and those about resurrection, paradise and hell were distorted to conform with the said philosophy.

That philosophy was admittedly only a set of conjectures - unencumbered with any test or proof; but the Muslim philosophers felt no remorse in treating its views on the system of skies, orbits, natural elements and other related subjects as the absolute truth with which the exegesis of the Quran had to conform. The Sufis kept their eyes fixed on esoteric aspects of creation; they were too occupied with their inner world to look at the outer one. Their tunnel-like vision prevented them from looking at the things in their true perspective. Their love of esoteric made them look for inner interpretations of the verses; without any regard to their manifest and clear meanings. It encouraged the people to base their explanations on poetic expressions and to use anything to prove anything. The condition became so bad that the verses were explained on the-basis of the numerical values of their words; letters were divided into bright and dark ones and the explanations were based on that division. Building castle in the air, wasn't it? Obviously, the Quran was not revealed to guide the Sufis only; nor had it ad- dressed itself to only those who knew the numerical values of the letters (with all its ramifications); nor were its realities based on astrological calculations. Of course, there are traditions narrated from the Prophet and the Imams of Ahlul-Bayt (A.S.) saying for example: "Verily the Quran has an exterior and an interior, and its interior has an interior up to seven (or according to a version, seventy) interiors..".

The Source: The Holy Quran, Types of interpretation, Ali Abbas.

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1. Allamah Tabataba'i, Al-Mizan, Vol. 1, p. 3-16.

2. (The Holy Quran 2 :151).

3. (The Holy Quran 3:7).