Tafsir of the Quran


The messenger’s job was not just to deliver the Qur’an like a postman but his duty is also to explain and give commentary of the divine message. In many Quranic verses it is stated that he gives the knowledge of the Book. The knowledge and Tafsir (Exegesis) of the Book of Allah that the messenger has given is contained in the books of traditions. Thus Qur’an is the theory while the compilations of traditions are its Tafsir.


While it is correct to state that the messengers duty was not restricted to merely reciting the Qur’an to his people, as is evident by the words: "...He will give them the knowledge of the Book ..." (2:129), it is also an incontestable fact that the books of traditions that are upheld by varous sects and attributed to the messenger, do not contain the explanation of each and every verse of the Qur’an. What exists in those compilations are some ascribed paradoxical reports limited to certain verses only. No book of tradition contains the complete commentary and explanation of the Qur’an from Surah Al-Fatiha, the first chapter to Surah An-Naas, the last chapter, that it could attribute to the messenger of Allah.

This being the case, the question arises that how did the messenger confer the knowledge of the Book of Allah to his audience? And where can we find those explanations? The Qur’an provides us the adequate answer to these questions of extreme importance.

Allah informs us that His Book has been kept independent of all sorts of traditions for its exegesis, by indicating that the Qur’an is its own commentary.

The Qur'an is not like an ordinary book, such that most other books discuss a specific topic at one place and have their subjects compiled and bifurcated within specific chapters.

Unlike this, the Book of Allah has its topics spread out throughout itself within various chapters. For example, if we were to ascertain as to what Allah's Book says about the topic of divorce we find verses dealing with the subject of divorce in Surah Al-Baqara which is the second Surah (chapter) of the Qur'an, Surah Al Nisa the fourth Chapter , then in Surah Al Ahzaab the thirty third chapter and further in Sura At Tal'aaq which is the sixty fifth chapter of the Qur'an.

By compiling all the verses about the topic of divorce as discussed in all the locations of the Qur'an we come to know what the Book of Allah has to say about this subject. And we observe that each verse clarifies and explains the other. It is by this manner that Allah Himself has dealt with different subjects in His Book, i.e. by repeating topics in various chapters throughout the Qur'an. The manner of exegesis is <Tasreef ul Ayaat> or recurrence and repetition of subjects within the Qur’anic verses, and it is by this method that the Book of Allah deals with various topics and provides its own explanation. We are reminded:

<unzur kaifa nusarriful a_ya_ti la'allahum yafqahu_n>

"See how We repeat the verses that they may understand." (6:65)

<Wa laqad sarrafna_ lin na_si fi ha_zal qur'a_ni min kulli masal(in), fa aba_ aksarun na_si illa_ kufu_ra>

"And certainly We have repeated for mankind in this Quran, every kind of similitude, but the majority of mankind do not consent to aught but denying." (17:89)

Allah Himself has circulated topics within His Book, and what is unclear at one passage is made distinct by another verse in another passage within the Qur’an itself. One verse will throw light on the other. Furthermore we are informed that the messenger of Allah also explained the Qur’an by the Qur’an itself:

<Wa kaza_lika nusarriful a_ya_ti wa liyaqu_lu_ darasta wa linubayyinahu_ liqaumiy ya'lamu_n>

"And thus do We repeat the verses and that they may say: You have read; and that We may make it clear to a people who know." (6:108)

It is evident from the above that the messenger’s lectures on the Qur’an were based on <tasreef_ul_ayat>, i.e. recurrence of Ayat, to clarify topics within the Qur’an. The messenger gave Dars ul Qur-an, by this manner, and the Qur’an was clarified by the Qur’an itself. This is further supported in Surah Al-Furqan, where a certain objection of the unbelievers is identified:

<Wa qa_lal lazina kafaru_ lau la_ nuz zila alaihil qur a_nu jumlataw wa_hidah kaza_lika linusab bita bihi fu a_daka wa rat talna_hu tartila_Wa la_ yatu_naka bimasalin il la_ jina_ka bil haq qi wa ahsana tafsira>

"The unbelievers say: "Why is not the Qur'an revealed to him all at once? Thus (is it revealed gradually) that We may strengthen thy heart thereby and We have rehearsed it to thee in slow well-arranged stages gradually. And no example do they bring to thee but We bring to thee the truth and the best explanation." (25:32-33)

The above verses inform us about a matter of grave importance. To the objection of unbelievers as to why is not the Qur’an revealed all at once, it is stated that the Qur’an is revealed in stages due to the following reasons:

  1. So that the messengers heart may be strenghtened. This is confirmed when it is stated: "Thus (is it revealed gradually) that We may strengthen thy heart thereby and We have rehearsed it to thee in slow well-arranged stages gradually." Hence the messenger was encouraged and enjoined to be stead fast by the revelation of Qur’anic verses.
  2. So that the arguments that the unbelievers may bring forth should be answered sufficiently by ‘Haqq’, i.e. the Qur’anic truth. As it is stated: "And no example do they bring to thee but We bring to thee the truth.."
  3. The third reason for the gradual descent of the Qur’an is to provide <Ahsan_ul_Tafsir>, i.e. the best explanation and exegesis of Allah’s Book.

<Wa la_ yatu_naka bimasalin il la_ jina_ka bil haq qi wa ahsana tafsira>

"And no example do they bring to thee but We bring to thee the truth and the best ‘Tafsir’ (exegesis)" (25:33)

Thus Allah revealed verses which provided Tafsir of other verses themselves. What remained ambigous in one verse, its clarification and exegesis was provided by Allah Himself by the gradual descent of other verses of the Qur’an. Hence Allah provided the Tafsir of the Qur’an by the Qur’an itself, and did not make His Book dependent on any compilations of traditions for its exegesis. It is by this manner that Allah gave the Tafsir of His Book to the messenger and the messenger inturn conveyed to his audience. The messenger did not give any separate book of Tafsir to the Ummah as the Tafsir of the Qur’an which he imparted on the Ummah was contained inside the pages of the Qur’an itself.

While it is identified that the Qur’an explains its self by repetition of verses, we are also instructed to ponder and reflect on Allah’s Book, for the message of the Qur’an will be evident to those who will strive to comprehend its meaning and conduct research on it. It is mentioned that those who will use their faculties of understanding and engage in an inquiry into the meaning of the divine message, for them the Qur’anic verses will be rendered plain:

"Thus do We make the verses distinct for a people who reflect." (10:24)

"Indeed We have made the verses distinct for a people who will utilize their understanding." (6:98)

Along with stating the above, we are also advocated to ponder and reflect on the Book:

"A Book We have revealed to you abounding in good that they may ponder over its verses, and that those endowed with understanding may be mindful." (38:29)

Thus the injunction to reflect and ponder over the Book has been given for all generations, so that in the light of divine guidance they seek the solutions to the problems of their times. The meaning of the Qur’an will be made clear by the repetition of verses and likewise people are asked to use their abilities of reason and intellect to understand the Qur’an. The following verses shed further light in stating that the meaning of Allah’s Book will be evident by <Tasreef ul Ayat> and it is in this manner that Qur’an should be understood:

" See how We repeat the verses that they may understand." (6:65)

"See how We repeat the verses, yet they turn away (from the truth rendered by recurrence of Ayat)." (6:46)

It is Allah, who is the ‘Mufasir’ i.e commentator of the Qur’an, and the Tafsir of one verse was provided by the revelation of other verses which would throw light on the subject under discussion. Thus it is said:

"Ar-Rahmaan (The Beneficent God). It is He who teaches the Qur’an." (55:1-2)

Not only was the revelation, compilation and protection of the Book taken up by Allah himself, but also its explanation. As we are informed:

"Do not move your tongue with this (Qur'an) to make haste with it. Surely on Us (devolves) the collecting of it and the reciting of it. Therefore when We have recited it, follow its recitation. Again on Us (devolves) the explaining of it." (75:16-19)

Hence it is Allah who provides the Tafsir of His Book by <Tasreef ul Ayat>, that is, by repetition of verses. We will now observe the manner of Tafsir of Qur’anic subjects that is given by Allah in His Book itself and which was consequently taught by the messenger to his audience.

Example of Tafsir provided by Allah in the Qur'an itself, and given by Nabi (S.A.W) to the Ummah

Here we demonstrate how the Qur’an has clarified its own concepts and thus becomes its own best Tafsir. In Surah Al-Baqara, the very beginning of the Qur’an, it is stated that Allah’s Book is guidance for ‘Mutaqeen’ (those who guard from injurious activity):

"That is The Book, there is no perplexity in it, guidance for the ‘Mutaqeen’." (2:2)

In the above verse, a question can be raised as to, who are the 'Mutaqeen'? What are their qualities? The answer to these questions and many others like them are given in the Qur'an itself, in the advancing verses of Sura Al Baqara as well as other verses.Like:

"And hasten to the protection given from your Sustainer against the consequences of faults; and a Garden, the extensiveness of which is (as) the heavens and the earth, it is prepared for the ‘Mutaqeen’. (They are) Those who spend in ease as well as in straitness, and those who restrain (their) anger and pardon men; and Allah loves the doers of good (to others).And those who when they commit an indecency or do injustice to their souls remember (the law of) Allah and seek protection from the consequences of their faults-- and who can give protection from the consequences of faults but Allah, and (who) do not knowingly persist in what they have done." (3:133-135)

Thus the above verses shed light on the attributes of ‘Mutaqeen’, similiarly further Tafsir of above is given in other passages of the Qur’an:

"Surely the 'Mutaqeen' will be in the midst of Garden and springs.Taking joy in the things which their Sustainer gives them,because before that they lived a good life.(further details given about them) They were in the habit of sleeping but little by night.And in the hours of early dawn they were found seeking protection from the consequences of faults. And in their wealth was the right of him who asked and also of those who were prevented (from asking)." (51:15-19)

The ‘Mutaqeen’ always keep the divine guidance before themselves while dealing in any situation pertaining to human affairs, thus they guard themselves from the injurious effects of those actions which are not consistent with the divine laws:

"Surely those who guard (al lazina attaqau), when a visitation from the Shaitan afflicts them, they remind themselves (of the divine laws), then lo! they see (the right way)." (7:201)

Apart from implementing the social laws given for human guidance in Allah’s Book, the ‘Mutaqeen’ also concentrate on harnessing the laws of nature, and guard themselves from the ill effects of being unaware of their utilization. They are reminded about this aspect in the following Surah:

"He it is Who made the sun a shining brightness and the moon a light, and ordained for it mansions that you might know the computation of years and the reckoning. Allah did not create it but with truth; He makes the signs manifest for a people who have knowledge. Most surely in the variation of the night and the day, and what Allah has created in the heavens and the earth, there are signs for a people who guard <qaum in yataqoon>." (10:5-6)

From above we observe how the Qur’an itself gives the explanation of its Ayat and how its passages shed light on other passages. Further example of the Tafsir of Qur’an by the Qur’an itself is demonstrated by considering the following verse:

"O you who believe! Be not like those who annoyed Moses, but Allah cleared him of what they said, and he was worthy of regard with Allah." (33:69)

In the above verse, some people are mentioned who used to annoy Moses, the messenger of Allah in a certain way. Now who are these people and in what manner did they harass a messenger of God? The Qur’an itself provides the detailed description of this category of people and their means of harassment.

Tafseel (Details) of annoyance imparted to Moses by his people

Although his people should have been grateful to Moses for bringing them out of the bondage of Pharoah, but instead of expressing their gratitude they used to say:

"They said: ‘We have had (nothing but) trouble both before and after thou came to us."(7:129)

They were given heavenly sustenence in the form of <Man wa salwa>, but they rebelled even at that and said to Moses:

"O Moses! we cannot endure one kind of food (always).." (2:61)

While passing through a habitation they observed some people being dedicated to the service of idols, and seeing this they asked Moses, a messenger of God who had always taught them not to bow down before anyone except Allah, that:

".. O Moses! Make for us a god as they have (their) gods He said: Surely you are a people acting ignorantly." (7:138)

When Moses went for communion with Allah for a few days, they started worshiping the calf. (see 20:86). When they were told to maintain a certain type of behaviour while entering a city, they deliberately acted insolently (see 2:58-59). When Moses directed them to have belief in Allah, they told him:

"O Moses! We will not believe in you until we see Allah manifestly.." (2:55)

When God instructed them through the agency of Moses to slaughter a calf in order to purify them from the false sanctity they had developed due to the worship of idols, they gave numerous excuses, the details of which are given in (2:67-71). Moses asked them to enter the Holy land which was written for them, but instead they again started making excuses and replied:

"..go therefore you and your Sustainer, then fight you both surely we will here sit down." (5:24)

This was the attitude and insolent behaviour that the people of Moses demonstrated in front of their messenger, and it was because such annoying behaviour that Moses was compelled to say:

"And when Moses said to his people: O my people! why do you annoy me? And you know indeed that I am Allah's messenger to you.."(61:5) And he thus implored God:
"He said: My Sustainer! Surely I have no control (upon any) but my own self and my brother; therefore make a separation between us and the nation of transgressors."(5:25)

Hence it is by bringing forth the above mentioned narratives of the Children of Israel, the Believers in the Qur’anic message were instructed:

"..Be not like those who annoyed Moses.." (33:69)

The reader can see how clearly and without any vagueness the Qur’an has listed the annoyance that the people of Moses had imparted to their messenger, and the manner in which the meaning of verse 33:69 is clarified in the Qur’an itself. But against this the books of traditions attribute the following narration to the person of the messenger, to demonstrate his explanation of the divine Book. While considering the Tradition given below, it should be kept in mind that the messenger was to give the Tafsir of the Qur’an by repetition of verses, and explained the Qur’an by the Qur’an itself, as stated in 6:104.
It is stated in Sahih Al-Bukhari:

"It has been narrated to me by Ishaq bin Ibraheem, as Ruh bin Ubadah told us, from Auf who was informed by Al Hasan, Muhammad and Khilas, that he narrated from Abu Hurraira who said that, Allah's Apostle said, "(The Prophet) Moses was a shy person and used to cover his body completely because of his extensive shyness. One of the children of Israel hurt him by saying, 'He covers his body in this way only because of some defect in his skin, either leprosy or scrotal hernia, or he has some other defect.' Allah wished to clear Moses of what they said about him, so one day while Moses was in seclusion, he took off his clothes and put them on a stone and started taking a bath. When he had finished the bath, he moved towards his clothes so as to take them, but the stone took his clothes and fled; Moses picked up his stick and ran after the stone saying, 'O stone! Give me my garment!' Till he reached a group of Bani Israel who saw him naked then, and found him the best of what Allah had created, and Allah cleared him of what they had accused him of. The stone stopped there and Moses took and put his garment on and started hitting the stone with his stick. By Allah, the stone still has some traces of the hitting, three, four or five marks. This was what Allah refers to in His Saying: "O you who believe! Be you not like those Who annoyed Moses, But Allah proved his innocence of that which they alleged, And he was honorable In Allah's Sight."33/69- (Sahih Bukhari Volume 4 Hadith 616)

The readers are urged to carefully examine the above narration in which a mighty messenger of God is humilated in front of his people, and the Qur’anic repetitions pertaining to the subject. The guile of the people who forged this tradition should also be observed, as to how they absolved themselves from this fictitious tale, by cleverly attributing it to the person of the messenger of Allah (p), thus taking advantage of the immense love and respect that the Muslims have for him in their hearts in order to insert their forgeries within the house of Islam. While the Qur’an has informed us that the messenger imparted knowledge of Allah’s Book by giving its explanation as occured within the passages of the Book itself, can we consider the story given in the above tradition to earnestly come from the messenger?

To any person who sincerely seeks to ascertain the meaning of the Qur’an it will be apparent that passages of the Qur’an explain and comment each other, and are not dependent on any outisde source for their exegesis. Although many Modern day translators of the Qur’an are also marred by traditional preconceptions in their work, but they have also realized this fact, and have acknowledged that the Qur’an is its own ‘Tafsir’.

Renowed Islamic Scholar, Allama Abdullah Yusuf Ali, has the following to say as concluding remarks in the preface to Qur’anic commentaries, given in his world famous translation and commentary of the Qur’an:

"It has been said that the Qur’an is its own best commentary . As we proceed with the study of the Book, we find how true this is. A careful comparison and collation of passages from the Qur’an removes many difficulties. Use a good concordance, such as the one I have named among the Works of reference, and you will find that one passage throws light on another."
The Holy Qur’an- Translation and commentary by A. Yusuf Ali, pp xi

Another renown Translator of the Qur’an, Muhammad Asad also acknowledges that the Qur’an provides its own Tafsir, when he states the following in the foreword of His Translation:

"The Qur’an must not be viewed as a compilation of individual injunctions and exhortations but as one integral whole: that is, as an exposition of an ethical doctrine in which every verse and sentence has an intimate bearing on other verses and sentences, all of them clarifying and amplifying one another. Consequently, its real meaning can be grasped only if we correlate every one of its statements with what has been stated elsewhere in its passages, and try to explain its ideas by means of frequent cross references, always subordinating the particular to the general and the incidental to the intrinsic. Whenever this rule is faithfully followed, we realize that the Qur’an is - in the words of Muhammed Abduh- "its own best commentary"
. The Message of THE QUR-AN by Muhammad Asad, pp vii

A person should approach the Book for the purpose of sincerely seeking divine guidance, and should keep his mind receptive and free from all pre conceived notions. If this is done, the meaning of the Qur’an will be clearly apparent to him and he will discover that the Qur’an is a simple, clear and self explanatory Book, kept independent from all sorts of traditions for its exegesis.