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The End of Tafsir?

The Question of Ultimate

Methodology in Quranic Hermeneutics

ICAS, London

Student Number: MAIS080001

Module Title and Code: MI401: Sources of Islamic Knowledge
Tutor: Prof. M. S. Bahmanpour
Term and Academic Year: 1st Semester, 2008/2009
Date of Submission: 30/01/2009
Approximate Word Count: 1,800 words
Contents Page

Introduction 3

The Historical Development of Quranic Hermeneutics

Hadith Transmission (10th Century) 3-4

The Classical Period (12th Century) 4-5

Consolidation (17th Century) 5-6

Current (20th Century) 6-7

Developing from al-Mizan 7-8

Conclusion 8

Notes 8

References 9


The Quran is the foundation through which Muslims define and conduct their lives
and therefore clarifying the meaning of its verses (tafsir) is of the utmost importance.

Tafsir, or Quranic hermeneutics, has developed in line with broad trends in the
cultural-historical contexts the hermeneutists lived in. This paper seeks to show how
the Quranic hermeneutists have confined in their methodologies to the thought in their
own time, specifically to thought in the Principles of Jurisprudence (usul al-fiqh). The
current position of Quranic hermeneutics in Shi’ite thought will then be analysed to
see if the best methodology in approaching the Quran has been defined by Allamah
Tabatabai in his Tafsir al-Mizan.

Critically analysing Tabatabai’s approach will help find the answer to the question of
ultimate methodology, as well as indicate towards the directions tafsir can progress,
including expanding on the content of al-Mizan without altering the approach, or
drawing on the developing thought in usul al-fiqh. The issues and ideas raised by this
analysis will aid the development of thought regarding tafsir methodology.

The Historical Development of Quranic Hermeneutics

Broadly, tafsir has developed in four main phases, hadith transmission, classical,
consolidation and the current period.1

Hadith Transmission (10th Century)

Restriction to using other verses of the Quran, citing hadith and explaining Arabic
terms are characteristics of early tafsir. Good examples of this style are Tafsir al-
Qummi and the tafsir of Tabari, Jami al-Bayan. Restricting his work to what was
acceptable to mainstream Sunni opinion; Tabari omitted Shi’ite traditions and
allegorical Sufi explanations (see al-Tabari, 1990, p xii).

This is an adaptation of Dr M. Ayoub’s five stages; (see Ayoub, 1984, p 23-40)

The methodology of hadith transmission was brought about by the opinion that the
authority of scriptural interpretation was for those who had been bestowed by divine
knowledge or those who had been informed by them. For Sunnis this meant the
Prophet and his Companions and for Shi’ites the Prophet and Imams. The idea was
founded upon imposing a literal interpretation of the prophetic traditions forbidding
tafsir based on ones personal opinion such as:

“Whosoever speaks about the Quran without knowledge has prepared for himself a
place in the fire.” (See al-Kashani, p 35).

The literalist thought was also present in usul al-fiqh, specifically in Shafi’s Risala
and in Hambali thought which focused on keeping usul al-fiqh pure from non-Islamic
influences (see Makdisi, 1990, p 2-15). But with the separation of time between the
Prophet and Imams, as well as the quantity of hadith explaining the Quran being as
low as two hundred and fifty (see Tabatabai, 1984, p 54) compared to some 6000
verses in the Quran itself, Muslims could not resist the urge to explain what they
understood by the foundation of their faith. This marked the beginning of the classical

The Classical Period (12th Century)

Being aware of the admonishment from speaking about the Quran without knowledge,
hermeneutists used a wider range of scholarship prevalent in the Islamic world,
including sciences such as theology, philosophy, and literature. Although these
sciences were not free from error, they did have some sort of methodological
approach which separated them from baseless opinion. Tafsirs such as; al-Kashaf of
Zamakhshari whose Mutazilite ideas inevitably influence his tafsir (see Ayoub, 1984,
p 5); al-Kabir of Fakhr al-Din Razi who focuses on a philosophical approach (see
Ayoub, 1984, p 33) and Sufi tafsirs with a more scientific approach to Sufism such as
Ibn Arabi’s Tafsir al-Quran al-Karim, all contributed to this classical form of tafsir
where each hermeneutist would explain the Quran according to his field.

The problem with this type of tafsir, despite attempts to adopt a scientific approach,
was the temptation and ease to which a hermeneutist to add their own opinion to the
meaning of the verses. This meant that there was little agreement among the
hermeneutists (see Tabatabai, 1983, p 5). This later developed into a movement within
the Shi’ites to re-emphasise the importance of traditions by the Akhbaries in the
Safavid kingdom.

The science of usul al-fiqh progressed in the same direction in the classical period to
include some aspects of theology and philosophy of jurisprudence advocated by
figures like al-Ghazali (see Makdisi, 1990, p 2-15).

Consolidation (17th Century)

The conflict between Akhbaries and Usulis demonstrates the movement in thought
between reliance on the infallibles and the independent thought of the Shi’ite
community.2 This had become essential due to the change in circumstances of the
Shi’ite community chiefly due to the occultation of their 12th Imam. In order to
safeguard the Shi’ite interpretation of Islam, it was nessesary to delve into the
meanings of the Quran and think about how to derive religious laws. Although the
conflict was essentially jurisprudential, it had an inevitable effect on tafsir as the
requirement of acting upon knowledge is common to both sciences.

Akhbari tafsirs are clearly representative of the thought of their authors and their time.
Typically they do not endeavour to explain the verses and often simply relate
traditions after citing the verse. There is a lack of scrutiny of traditions and much
emphasis on the importance of the family of the Prophet (see Todd Lawson, 1993 p
173-210). Tafsirs of this kind include Nur al-Thaqalain of al-Huwayzi, Kitab al-
Burhan by al-Bahrani and Mirat al-Anwar by al-Amili al-Isfahani (see Todd Lawson,
1993 p 173-210). However the most famous in this category is al-Safi by Fayd al
Kashani the foremost student of Mulla Sadra (see Shirazi, 2008, p xii) and teacher of
Allamah Majlisi.

For a detailed insight into this conflict at the court level see Newman, A.J., 1986. The Development
and Political Significance of the Rationalist (Usuli) and Traditionalist (Akhbari) schools in Imami Shi’i
History from 3rd to 9th to the 10th/11th Century A.D.Ph.D. diss, University of California.

Majlisi compiled Bihar al-Anwar, the encyclopaedic collection of hadith, aiming to
provide the Shi’ites with a comprehensive reference to draw inspiration from. This
was in reaction to new found Shi’ite political prowess and the need for the Safavid
government to base their government on tradition (see Jafarian, 2008, p 1-17). The
works of hadith and tafsir in this interval demonstrate a strong relationship with the
periods’ challenges.

By the end of the 17th Century the Usulis finally prevailed establishing the use of
intellect in jurisprudential proof. Of these intellectual proofs the acceptance of
apparent meaning being the actual meaning intended by God and the Imams was to
have an effect on Tabatabai’s methodology, allowing contemplation on the outward
meaning of grouped verses.

Current (20th Century)

The current authority on the methodology of tafsir in Shi’ite thought is Allama

Tabatabai. He justifies his approach of explaining the Quran using other passages in
the Quran that relate to the same subject, on three main premises (see Tabatabai,
1983, p 9-14).

1) Direct reference in traditions to the characteristic of the Quran to explain itself such
as the reported words of Imam Ali:

“Its one part speaks with the other, and one portion testifies about the other.” (See
Amili, 2004, p 13).

2) Encouragement by the Imams to only accept traditions that concur with the Quran,
meaning Muslims must have the ability to analyse the text of the Quran to decide a
traditions’ validity.

3) The Quran claims to explain everything,3 therefore how can it not explain itself?

See for example Quran, 16:89

Although tafsir of Quran by the Quran was clearly acceptable and had been used in a
limited way by other hermeneutists,4 justification was requisite as Tabatabai was to
use it as his primary methodology, making al-Mizan a pioneering work. Never before
had this methodology been used in such a comprehensive way.

The method comprised of firstly allowing the verses to explain themselves, by

gathering the relevant verses on a topic and then reflecting, without bias, on their
apparent meaning. Then in the light of these meanings, explaining the same meanings
in different ways, such as philosophically, scientifically or from traditions. Hence
traditions took a secondary role as they were compared against the Quranic content to
authenticate them. This is a complete reversal of the Akhbari method which preferred
the hadith over the general Quranic principles as the Quran was considered
incomprehensible to Muslims other than the Prophet or the Imams.

Developing from al-Mizan

With any scholarly work, the methodology used is crucial to the value of that
research. Tafsir of the Quran by the Quran is undoubtedly one of the best methods of
tafsir, as an infallible source is used to explain a verse which necessitates explanation
with knowledge. Therefore it’s hard to envisage developments in tafsir methodology
not incorporating this approach.

However in my opinion, instead of limiting progress in tafsir, al-Mizan has opened a

new and very exciting frontier. This is because a key feature of Tabatabai’s approach
is reflection on the outward meaning of grouped verses leading to several areas for

Firstly, as understanding of the verses improves, other verses may be relevant to a

particular subject. Adding these verses to those present in al-Mizan could unlock new
understandings. Secondly, strength of reflection is dependant on the scholar. As time

See especially Majma al-Bayan of Tabarsi

proceeds there may be scholars with higher contemplative power due to the progress
of man. A tradition from the fourth Imam indicates towards this fact:

“Verily God the Almighty and Glorious, knew that in the ultimate era there would be
people of profound thinking, and so God, the Exalted, sent down (Say: He is Allah,
the One) and the verses of sura al-Hadid until His words ‘…and He knows well that
which is in the breasts.’ Hence someone who seeks to go beyond this will perish.”
(See Khomeini, 2003, p 649).

There is scope therefore for uncovering countless new dimensions to the verses while
staying within the outward meaning of the grouped verses, a point Ibn Arabi seems to
allude towards (see Chittick, 1989, p 232).

Thirdly, there is a connection between the development in usul al-fiqh and tafsir
methodology. Currently there is a discussion about contextuality of the Quran and the
flexibility of some of its laws. This discussion focuses on closer analysis of Quranic
verses and if it results in a reliable method for changing some jurisprudential rules
may also have an impact on methods of tafsir.

Finally the importance of hadith may be revisited, as Tabatabai has taken a strong
Usuli approach to hadith which could have resulted from his education in Najaf,
whereas a milder approach to hadith validation is currently advocated in Qum (see
Bahmanpour, 2008, p 87-97). Although it would be ideal if every verse could be
explained by another, this is not always the case in the Quran, which indicates a
continued reliance on hadith.


In this essay a link between the methodology of tafsir and the cultural-historical
contexts in which the hermeneutists lived had been identified, with a specific link to
thought in Jurisprudence. With this historical background Tabatabai was able to
formulate his method of Quranic hermeneutics and has opened the way to many tafsir
works to come, remaining within his method but adding further dimensions and

reflections.5 This brief study has also identified that future developments in tafsir
methodology may derive from developments in usul al-fiqh due to debates on the
contextuality of verses for jurisprudential purposes.

Recent works include among others Partuwi az Quran, Tafsir Namunih, Tasnim, Tafsir Ahsan and
Tafsir Rahman. (See Bahmanpour, 2008, p 87-97)


Al-Kashani, M.M., Tafsir al-Safi, (1). Beirut: Muassasa al-Aalamiy al-Matbouat.

Al-Tabari, 1990. The Commentary on the Quran. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Amili, H.Z., 2004. Fi Sama al-Marifa. Beirout: Muassasa al-Qura lil tahqiq wa al-

Ayoub, M., 1984. The Quran and its Interpreters Volume 1. Albany: State University
of New York Press.

Bahmanpour, M.S., 2008. “The Hawzah Ilmiyyah of Qum and the Production of
Religious Knowledge in the Contemporary Era.” In Journal of Shi’ite Islamic Studies,
1 (3), 87-97.

Chittick, W., 1989. The Sufi Path of Knowledge. Albany: State University of New
York Press.

Jafarian, R., 2008. “The Encyclopaedic Aspect of Bihar al-Anwar (Part 1).” In
Journal of Shi’ite Islamic Studies, 1 (3), 1-17.

Khomeini, R., 2003. Forty Hadiths, translated by Wali Teymouri. Tehran: The
Institute for the Compilation and Publication of Imam Khomeini’s Works.

Makdisi, G., 1990. The Rise of Humanism in Classical Islam and the Christian Islam
and the Christian West. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Shirazi, S., 2008. Breaking the idols of ignorance; admonition of the soi-distant Sufi,
translated by M. Dasht Bozorgi and F. Asadi Amjad. London: ICAS Press.

Tabatabai, M.H., 1983. Tafsir al-Mizan, (1) translated by Saeed Akhtar Rizvi. Tehran:

Tabatabai, M.H., 1984. The Quran in Islam. Tehran: Islamic Propagation


Todd Lawson, B., 1993. “Akhbari Shi’i Approaches to Tafsir.” In Hawting G.K., and
Shareef A.A., (eds.), Approaches to the Quran. London: Routledge.