Tafsir e Quran – Its Importance and Different Types

Tafsir e Quran – Its Importance and Different Types


Quran is the word of Allah Almighty, therefore, in order to understand it in the true sense, a person has to sharpen his or her intellectual ability as well as increase the knowledge. When one is at a particular intellectual level, only then can he or she start understanding the true message, which Allah Almighty conveyed through words of Quran.

Pertaining to the explanation of Quran for the understanding of general audience, different people have tried to write the Tafsir of Quran. Although Muslims recite Quran and try reading it with translation, however, the reading of Tafsir has its own importance. The lines below discuss what Tafsir is, why is it important and its different kinds.


The word ‘tafsir’ comes from the root word ‘fassara’, which means to expound or to explain. Therefore, Tafsir of Quran means the explanation or interpretations of the verses of Quran. The Tafsir of Quran is not something done by anyone with ordinary or common intellect and understanding of Islam, rather it is done by people after obtaining extensive knowledge about Islam and reading the history of Islam thoroughly. The objective of a Tafsir is to find out the true meanings of the verses of Quran, so that the audience could benefit from it and know the right and true message of Quran.

The Importance of Tafsir:

There is a variety of reasons why Tafsir is important and people consult Tafsir when it comes to understanding of Quran. The few important reasons that make Tafsir important are as follows:

  1. Firstly, it tries to explain Quran so that the understanding of the reader about Quran and its message increases. Reading only the translation can give the literal meanings of the words of Quran, however, Tafsir comes with context in which a particular Ayah was revealed, hence giving a context to each and every word, which consequently means a better understanding of Quran and its verses. If you want to read Quran with its translation, you can enroll for the online Quran Translation course now and start knowing the verses with their meanings.
  2. Secondly, Tafsir is also important when it comes to driving out the laws of Islam from Quran. Verses of Quran come with instructions, and then there are the hadiths of Prophet (PBUH) that also gives instructions. Thus, Tafsir combines both and gives a complete and comprehendible set of instructions to the reader.
  3. Thirdly, when there is no science involved in the interpretation of Quran, then ambiguity and contradiction is surely to rise. When there is Tafsir of Quran available, that contains the scientific method of analysis of verses, the chances of ambiguity and conflict decrease. Hence, instead of ambiguous interpretations there are clear explanations.

Types of Tafsir:

When it comes to the different types of Tafsir, there are three major types, namely, Tafsir bil Riwaya and Tafsir bil Ray. These are the two major types and all the Tafsirs that are written in one or more of these types. The lines below explain each type of Tafsirs.

1. Tafsir bil Riwaya:

It is the first type of Tafsir, in which explanation of the verses of Quran is made through different transmission sources. These sources Quran itself, where explanation is done by referring to other ayahs of Quran that speak of the same subject matter. Second source is the traditions of Prophet (PBUH), where His said and done things shed light on the meaning of verses of Quran. Thirdly, it is the explanation of verses of Quran done by the Companions of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The lines below explain Tafsir made from these sources with some examples.

Quran – It happens while reading Quran that a person finds a statement unexplained and wants to search for the answer. In this regard, Quran itself is the best answer as the things that are mentioned in Quran at one part are also mentioned in another part of Quran as well. Thus by relating those ayahs, one can find answer to the questions that may arise. For instance in one ayah of Quran, Allah Almighty says:

“We sent it down during a blessed night.” (44:3)

Now the question that comes to mind is that which is the night in which Allah Almighty sent down Quran, because the ayah apparently does not mention a particular night. However, when one reads the other ayah of Quran in which Allah Almighty says:

“We have indeed revealed this in the Lailat al-Qadr.” (97:1)

Thus, from this ayah of Quran it becomes clear that the ayah to which Allah Almighty referred as the blessed night in an earlier ayah is actually the Lailat al-Qadr. This way, by using Quran and relating its ayahs, one can find the explanation and answers to the ayahs of Quran, which is the first kind of Tafsir.

Traditions of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) – After Quran, it is the traditions of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) that stand as a secondary source of guidance for Muslims. Therefore, the second kind of Tafsir is the one that tries to explain the verses of Quran from the traditions of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). For instance, in Quran, Allah Almighty says:

“And eat and drink until the white thread of dawn appears to you distinct from its black thread..” (2:187)

Narrated ‘Adi b. Hatim: I said: ‘O Allah’s Apostle! What is the meaning of the white thread distinct from the black thread? Are these two threads?’ He said: ‘You are not intelligent, if you watch the two threads’. He then added, ‘No, it is the darkness of the night and the whiteness of the day’. [Itqan 11. pp. 191-205.]

Thus, this way the Companions would ask Prophet (PBUH) questions and get answers about the verses of Quran.

The Companions of Prophet (PBUH) – The companions of Prophet (PBUH) were the people who received the information directly from Him. Therefore, after His life, they would converse upon the verses of Quran and everyone would try interpreting the ayahs on the bases of his experience with Prophet (PBUH). Thus, the interpretations made by the Companions of Prophet (PBUH) are also authentic pertaining to explanations of Quran.

2. Tafsir bil Ray:

It is the second kind of Tafsir of Quran, which although is not based on the transmission of knowledge, rather it is based on reasoning and what is called ‘ijtihad’. The thing to note is that Ijtihad does not mean abrupt or random interpretations, rather it is done by comparing the verses, traditions and sayings of the renowned Companions of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Thus, by this comparison and contrast, scholars reason and reach a particular interpretation of the verses of Quran.


In short, the Tafsir of Quran is of grave importance if a person wishes to understand and learn the Holy Quran with its true essence and meaning. With the help of a Tafsir, a Muslim is able to connect between Quran, Sunnah and sayings of Companions of Prophet (PBUH) along with the views of different scholars, thus the understanding of Quran is way greater than simple reading of translation.


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Tafsir (Arabic: تفسير‎, tafsīr, “interpretation”) is the Arabic word for exegesis or commentary, usually of the Qur’an. Ta’wīl is a subset of tafsir and refers to esoteric or mystical interpretation. An author of tafsīr is a mufassir(Arabic: ‘مُفسر‎, mufassir, plural: Arabic: مفسرون‎, mufassirūn).


The word tafsir is derived from the Arabic root, F-S-R which means to explain, to expound, to disclose.[1] In Islamic context, it is defined as understanding and uncovering the will of Allah which has been conveyed by the Qur’anic text, by means of the Arabic language and one’s own knowledge.[2] This definition includes;

  • determining the style of the text and its eloquence
  • defining unknown or otherwise less used words
  • the clarification of the meanings of verses
  • extraction of laws and rulings
  • explaining the underlying thoughts in metaphors and figurative speech
  • reconciling verses that seem contradictory
  • finding out the underlying reasons for parables

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 History Prophet Muhammad ((صلى الله عليه و آله وسلم))

The first examples of tafsir can be traced back to Prophet Muhammad (صلى الله عليه و آله وسلم). During his prophethood, as the Qur’an was revealed to him, he recited the verses to his companions, usually explaining their meanings to teach them. It must be noted that this is one of the prophet’s responsibilities.[3] Elements of the prophet’s explanations are;

  • Clarifying verses whose intents are not understood
  • Indication of names, places, times etc. which have not been mentioned in the verse
  • Restriction of meanings which have been given as absolute
  • Reconciling expressions which seem contradictory

Although scholars including ibn Taymiyyah claim that the prophet has commented on the whole of the Qur’an, others including Ghazali cite the limited amount of narratives, thus indicating that he has commented only on a portion of the Qur’an. These interpretations have not been collected independently in a book, rather, they have been recorded in hadith books, under the topic of tafsir, along with other narrations of the prophet.[4]
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 Sahabah(ra) (companions of Hazrat Muhammad (صلى الله عليه و آله وسلم))

The Sahabah, undertook the task of interpretation, thus starting a new age in tafsir. Most of the Sahabah, including Abu Bakr refrained from commenting with their personal views, and only narrated comments by (صلى الله عليه و آله وسلم). Others including ibn Abbas used their own knowledge from the Arabic language to interpret the Qur’an. At this stage, the Qur’an was still not fully interpreted, and commentaries were not separated from the hadith collection nor written separately, mainly due to other occupations such as the collection of the Qur’an.[5]
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 Successors (tabi’in and beyond)

By the time of the next generations ensuing the Sahabah, the tabi’in scholars started using a wide range of sources for tafsir. The whole of the Qur’an is interpreted, and narrations are separated from tafsir into separate books and literature. Grammatical explanations and historical data are preserved within these books; personal opinions are recorded, whether accepted or rejected.
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The mufasireen (exegetes) listed 15 fields that must be mastered before one can authoritatively interpret the Quran

  1. Classical Arabic: Is how one learns the meaning of each word. Mujahid (rah) said, “It is not permissible for one who holds faith in Allah and the Day of Judgment to speak on the Quran without learning classical Arabic.” In this respect, it should be known that classical Arabic must be mastered in its entirety because one word may have various meanings; a person may only know two or three of them whereas the meaning of that word in the Quran may be altogether different.
  2. Arabic Philology: Is important because any change in the diacritical marks affects the meaning, and understanding the diacritical marks depends on the science of Arabic philology.
  3. Arabic morphology: is important because changes in the configuration of verb and noun forms change the meaning. Ibn Faris said, “A person who misses out on Arabic morphology has missed out on a lot.”
  4. Al-Ishtiqaaq: should be learned because sometimes one word derives from two root words, the meaning of each root word being different. This is the science of etymology which explains the reciprocal relation and radical composition between the root and derived word. For example, masih derives from the root word masah which means “to feel something and to touch something with a wet hand,” but also derives from the root word masaahat which means “to measure.”
  5. Ilm-ul-Ma’ani: is the science by which one figures the syntax through the meaning of a sentence.
  6. Ilm-ul-Bayaan: is the science by which one learns the similes, metaphors, metonymies, zuhoor (evident meanings) and khafa (hidden meanings) of the Arabic language.
  7. Ilm-ul-Badi’: The science by which one learns to interpret sentences which reveal the beauty and eloquence of the spoken and written word. The above mentioned three sciences are categorized as Ilm-ul-Balagha (science of rhetoric). It is one of the most important sciences to a mufassir because he is able to reveal the miraculous nature of the Quran through these three sciences.
  8. Ilm-ul-Qira’t: Dialecticisms of the different readings of the Quran. This science is important because one qirat (reading) of the Quran may differ in meaning from another, and one learns to favor one reading over another based on the difference in the meanings.
  9. Ilm-ul-Aqaa’id: is important because we cannot attribute the literal meaning of some ayaat to Allah. In this case, one will be required to interpret the ayah as in ‘the hand of Allah is over their hand’.
  10. Usul-ul-Fiqh: are the principles of Islamic Jurisprudence. It is important to master this field so one understands the methodology of legal derivation and interpretation.
  11. Asbaab-ul-Nuzul: is the field by which one learns the circumstances in which an ayah is revealed. It is important because the meaning of the ayah is more clearly understood once the circumstances in which they were revealed are known. Sometimes, the meaning of an ayah is wholly dependent on its historical background.
  12. Ilm-ul-Naskh: is knowledge of the abrogated ayaat. This field is important because abrogated rulings must be separated from the applied rulings.
  13. Fiqh: Jurisprudence. This field is important because one cannot gain an overview of any issue until he has understood its particulars.
  14. Ilm-ul-Hadith: is knowledge of the ahadith which explain mujmal (general) ayaat.
  15. Ilm Laduuni: Last but not least is the endowed knowledge which Allah grants to his closest servants. They are the servants indicated in the hadith: “Allah Y will grant one who acts upon whatever he knows from a knowledge he never knew.”

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There are two main methods and one prohibited method of commenting on the Qur’an:
It is the act of commenting on the Qur’an using traditional sources. This classical tafsir method is agreed upon by all scholars, and is the most used method throughout history, partly because other methods have been criticized;

  • The Qur’an states that it is made easy to understand so no one is allowed to divert its literal meaning.[6]
  • The Prophet has condemned those who interpret the Qur’an from their own point of view.[7]
  • Most companions of the Prophet have refrained from presenting their own ideas.[8]

Some important examples are Jami al-bayan by al-Tabari and Tafsir al-Qur’an al-Azim by ibn Kathir. The sources used for riwaya tafsir are:
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Interpretation of the Qur’an with the Qur’an is very common because of the close interrelatedness of the verses of the Qur’an with one another. The Qur’anic verses explain and interpret one another, and therefore constitute the highest level of authenticity. Many verses or words in the Qur’an are explained or further clarified in other verses of the Qur’an. One example of this kind is Tafsir al-Mizan

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Using narratives of the prophet to interpret the Qur’an. In this approach the most important external aids used are the collected oral traditions upon which Muslim scholars based Islamic history and law. The Qur’an states that the Prophet is responsible for explanation and guidance.[9] While some narratives are of revelation origin, other can be the result of reasonings made by the Prophet.[10] One important aspect of these narratives is their origin. Narratives used for tafsir, and in general, must be of authentic origin (see Hadith terminology). Narratives of such origin are considered requisite for tafsir.
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 Sahaba and Tabiiun

The Ṣaḥābah, or companions of (صلى الله عليه و آله وسلم), also interpreted and taught the Qur’an. If nothing is found in the Qur’an or the Hadīth, the commentator has recourse to what the Ṣaḥābah reported about various verses. These are generally considered above personal opinion, because these people grew up with everyday interaction with (صلى الله عليه و آله وسلم), and had often asked about the meanings of verses or circumstances of their revelation; and they were very knowledgeable in both Arabic literature and Islamic thought.
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 Arabic literature

The classical Arabic poetry and the text of the Qur’an are two resources which can be used as foundational reference in ascertaining the meaning and signification of the remaining literal and figurative diction of the Qur’an and its style of expression.[11] Using Arabic poetry for defining words is a long used practice, in fact there are nearly no scholars who hasn’t used this source.[12]
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Isra’iliyat is the body of narratives originating from Judeo-Christian traditions, rather than from other well-accepted sources. The Isra’iliyat are mostly non-biblical explanatory stories and traditions (Hebrew: midrashim) giving extra information or interpretation about events or individuals recorded in the Hebrew scriptures. Scholars starting with the Sahabah have studied narrative accounts of other Abrahamic religions to further explain and clarify verses, especially parables, in the Qur’an. While some may be accurate, these narratives are not subject to hadith authenticity criteria, and are generally not favored for use. It is considered a major weakness in tafsir, as theses narratives are not compatible with Islamic thought.
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The use of reason and mind (ijtihad) to form an opinion-oriented tafsir. This method is not interpretation by mere opinion, which is prohibited, but rather opinions must be based on the main sources. Its most distinctive feature is the inclusion of the opinions of the commentator, thus forming an objective view on Qur’anic verses. Some important examples include Anwar al-Tanzil by al-Baiḍawi and Irshad al-Aql as-Salim by Abu Sa’ud al-Ḥanafi. Some parameters used by these scholars are:
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Linguistic resources

Literary elements of the Arabic language, including morphology, eloquence, syntax are an integral part of tafsir, as they constitute the basis of understanding and interpretation. Arabic has a systematic way of shaping words (see morphology) so one can know the meaning by knowing the root and the form the word was coined from. If any word can be given a meaning that is compatible with the rules of grammar, Qur’anic text can be interpreted that way.
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 Historical sources

Scholars may choose to interpret verses according to;

  • Their historical context. This is particularly important to interpret verses according to how the Qur’an was revealed, when and under which circumstances. Much commentary was dedicated to history. The early tafsir are considered to be some of the best sources for Islamic history. (see Asbab al-nuzul).
  • Their place of revelation, whether it was revealed in Mecca or Medina. This classification is important because generally, Meccan verses tend to have a legislative nature, whether it be theological foundations or basic faith principles. On the other hand, Medinan verses constitute rules of worship and social regulations.
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Verses may be interpreted to preserve the general goals of shariah (see maqasid), which is simply to bring happiness to a person in this life and the hereafter. That way, any interpretation that threatens to compromise the preservation of religion, life, lineage, intellect or property may be discarded or ruled otherwise in order to secure these goals.
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 Socio-cultural environment

This includes understanding and interpreting the Qur’an while taking into account the cultural and social environment to which it has been revealed; or according to the scholars own time. This is an integral part of the universality of the Qur’an. Scholars usually do not favor to confine verses to a single time interval, but rather interpret according to the needs of their time.

 Prohibited tafsir

Muslims believe that it is prohibited to perform Qur’anic interpretation using solely one’s own opinion. This, they base on an authenticated hadith of (صلى الله عليه و آله وسلم) which states that it is prohibited;

“He who says (something) concerning the Qur’ân without knowledge, he has taken his seat of fire”‘.[13]

 Schools of tafsir

Theologists are divided into myriad of sects; each commenting the Qur’an with their own point of view. Some of these sects and their famous examples are;

 Classic Sunni

The oldest and widest school of tafsir, they are generally classified as riwaya tafsirs, made by Sunni scholars. Major examples are;

  • Jami al-bayan; written by Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari
  • Ma’alim al-Tanzilby al-Baghawi
  • Al-Muḥarrar al-wajizby ibn Atiyyah
  • Tafsir al-Qur’an al-Azimby ibn Kathir
  • Zad al-Masirby ibn al-Jawzi


Mu’tazilah have a very rational way of tafsir, making them an important part of diraya tafsir. Most famous example are:

  • Al-Kashshaafwritten by al-Zamakhshari
  • Cami al-Ta’wil; written by al-Isfahani


Interpretation of the Qur’an according to Shia point of view. Examples include:

  • Tafsir al-Kummi a work by Ali ibn Ibrahim Kummi
  • Al-Tibyan by Abu Cafer Tusi
  • Tafsir al-Mizanby Allamah Tabatabai

 Sufistic approach

It is an interpretation of the Qur’an which includes attribution of esoteric or mystic meanings to the text by the interpreter. In this respect, its method is different from the conventional exegesis. Esoteric interpretations do not usually contradict the conventional (in this context called exoteric) interpretations; instead, they discuss the inner levels of meaning of the Qur’an. A hadith from (صلى الله عليه و آله وسلم) which states that the Qur’an has an inner meaning, and that this inner meaning conceals a yet deeper inner meaning, and so on (up to seven levels of meaning), has sometimes been used in support of this view. Islamic opinion imposes strict limitations on esoteric interpretations specially when interior meaning is against exterior one. Esoteric interpretations are found mainly in Sufism and in the sayings (hadiths) of Shi’a Imams and the teachings of the Isma’ili sect. But the Prophet and the imams gave importance to its exterior as much as to its interior; they were as much concerned with its revelation as they were with its interpretation. These are generally not independently written, however are found in the books of Sufis. Some examples are;

  • Hakaik al-tafsir by Sulemi

 Scientific approach

Scholars deeply influenced by the natural and social sciences followed the materialists of Europe or the pragmatists. Under the influence of those secular theories, they declared that the religion’s realities cannot go against scientific knowledge. What the religion claims to exist, but which the sciences reject should be interpreted in a way that conforms with the science; as for those things which the science is silent about, like the resurrection etc., they should be brought within the purview of the laws of matter; the pillars upon which the divine religious laws are based — like revelation, angel, Satan, prophethood, apostleship, Imamah (Imamate) etc. – are spiritual things, and the spirit is a development of the matter. As for the Qur’an itself, one should not explain it in the light of the old philosophy and theories, because they were not based on observations and tests — they were just a sort of mental exercise which has been totally discredited now by the modem science. Found by Ghazali and built upon by Razi, it is one of today’s most abundant way of tafsir. Common examples are;

  • Mafatiḥ al-Ghaybby Fakhruddin al-Razi

 Philosophic approach

The philosophers try to fit the verses on the principles of Greek philosophy . 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 Qur’an had to conform.

 Fiqhi approach

Fiqhi tafsir deals mainly with verses that have a legislative meaning (see ahkam), and it strives to obtain Islamic law from the Qur’an. It is a very common school classically and modernly. There is a dispute over the number of verses that contain jurisprudence, numbers ranging from 5 to 200 are reported.