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Saturday, April 3, 2010

Can there be a universal tafsir of the Quran?

Quranic tafsir or explanation (also often referred to as 'Quranic exegesis') initially emerged as a branch of the science of Hadith, in an attempt to gather elucidations of Quranic passages which the medieval imams considered 'obscure.' Later on, it developed into a separate branch of study with the inclusion of etymology.

The fact is that no one has been able to compile the complete explanations or tafsirs of Quranic verses recognized universally as the a 'book of tafsirs.' Most tafsir writers have actually gone quite awry with their explanations. And as we have seen, Hadith, which is widely looked upon as an institution that "explains the Quran" has in truth made a complete mess of matters with its thoroughly incorrect explanations.

But most importantly, the Glorious Quran is not supposed to have a universal explanation or tafsir. The answer for this is contained within the Quran itself. "None knows its explanation save Allah." (3:7) And, "Each one does according to his rule of conduct, and your Lord is best aware of him whose way is right." (17:84) These assertions from the Divine Power are clear indications of the freedom granted by Him to the human mind to perceive and interpret His Words as they sincerely deem right. Eventually, God Almighty will be the Judge for NONE besides Him has the ultimate authority on Quranic explanations.

Last but not least, the term "exegesis" which refers to a 'critical explication' by definition stays best if avoided. It has a far from humble connotation - a concept largely coming from various orientalists - and frankly using such terms in connection with the study of the Glorious Quran makes me awfully uncomfortable and deeply critical of my own self.


  1. Zainab..

    Why r u quoting incomplete verse..."None knows its explanation save Allah." (3:7)...quote the remaning as well

  2. As-salaam Alaikum, Abuzar. Sorry for the late response. Please read my detailed reply carefully so that you don't misunderstand again

    Here's the full verse which you requested. The portion of this verse in capital letters is the one I quoted.

    "He it is Who hath revealed unto thee (Muhammad) the Scripture wherein are clear revelations - they are the substance of the Book - and others (which are) allegorical. But those in whose hearts is doubt pursue, forsooth, that which is allegorical seeking (to cause) dissension by seeking to explain it. NONE KNOWETH ITS EXPLANATION SAVE ALLAH. And those who are of sound instruction say: We believe therein; the whole is from our Lord; but only men of understanding really heed." (3:7) Surah Al-Imraan.

    The reason I didn't quote the full verse was because that portion which I mentioned is the gist of the theme of this post. Whether I quote the full verse or only that portion to make it brief (for the convenience of readers) does not alter the explanation.

    The complete Verse 3:7 highlights the aspect that the Quranic verses are of two kinds:

    1) Verses that are the substance of the Book
    2) Verses that are allegorical

  3. continued ..

    1) Verses that are the substance include the direct and categorical commandments for which no tafsir or commentary is required. We simply read the substance and follow it. E.g. Shirk is Haram. Adultery / fornication is Haram. Alcoholic drinks must be avoided. Consuming pigs as food is prohibited. Etc. There are various other such plain and direct dictates from Allah which we simply read and obey.

    2) It's the allegorical verses that I'm discussing in this blog entry and about which I mentioned that there can be no universal explanation. Only Allah is the final authority. This is precisely what Allah says in that portion of Verse 3:7 which I quoted. There are many allegorical verses in the Noble Quran and they include narratives that can be interpreted to reveal hidden meanings, namely, a spiritual, moral, social or political one. It's the interpretations of these allegorical Quranic narratives which different people may interpret in different ways. E.g. Let's take Surah Al-Kahf. One of the narratives which Allah mentions in this Surah is the story of a group of believing men who fled persecution from disbelievers and took refuge in a cave along with their pet dog. We do not know the exact number of men in this group. Only Allah knows it. Similarly, we only know that Allah protected them inside the cave for a long time, but we do not know the exact length of time. Only Allah knows it. This aspect is clarified in the following two verses.

    "(Some) will say: They were three, their dog the fourth, and (some) say: Five, their dog the sixth, guessing at random; and (some) say: Seven, and their dog the eighth. Say (O Muhammad): My Lord is Best Aware of their number. None knoweth them save a few. So contend not concerning them except with an outward contending, and ask not any of them to pronounce concerning them." (18:22)

    "Say: Allah is Best Aware how long they tarried. His is the Invisible of the heavens and the earth. How clear of sight is He and keen of hearing! They have no protecting friend beside Him, and He maketh none to share in His government." (18:26)

    The spiritual and moral aspect of this event, as I personally see it, is the righteousness and strength of faith of this group of believing men and Allah always protects the faithful. Someone else might interpret it differently. But the final answer is only with Allah.

    But most importantly, details such as the exact number of people in that group and the precise length of time they spent in the cave is only known to Allah. We should not try to come up with random guesses through all that nonsensical man-written Ahadith stories. Whatever Allah has not confirmed in the Quran, we must leave it at that and not attempt to tamper with it.

    Thus, for allegorical Quranic verses there can be no single explanation which can be taken to be universal. Different people can perceive various allegorical verses differently within their own minds but the Imams and "scholars" who are also human beings like us do not have the authority to officially confirm whatever Allah has not confirmed in the Quran.


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