Narration-based Tafsir before Opinion-based Tafsir: Sheikh Saalih Aal al-Sheikh

In a lecture entitled, “How to Read the Books of the People of Knowledge”, sheikh Saaleh Aal al-Sheikh mentioned the following important points related to studying tafsir (explanation of the Qur’an):

وكتب التفسير كما هو معلوم منقسمة إلى مدرستين: مدرسة التفسير بالأثر. ومدرسة التفسير بالرأي، ومدرسة التفسير بالرأي أيضا لها عدة أقسام منها ما هو من ثوابت الرأي المحمود، يعني الاجتهاد والاستنباط، المقبول، الذي له أُسُسه، المقبولة شرعا، ومنها ما فسر القرآن برأي مجرد يعني بغير حجة، إما في الاعتقاد أو في غيره. ـ

As is well-known, the books of tafsir are divided into two schools:

  • The narration-based school of tafsir, and
  • The opinion-based school of tafsir

And the opinion-based school of tafsir also has a number of sub-categories. One of them is that of praise-worthy opinions, meaning the acceptable processes of reasoning and derivation based on the texts, whose basis according to the sharee’ah is that it is accepted. Another one of its categories is that which interprets the Qur’an by mere opinion alone, meaning without any evidence or proofs. This could be in terms of beliefs or in other areas.

فكتب التفسير إذًا على قسمين كتب التفسير بالأثر وكتب التفسير بالرأي، كتب التفسير بالأثر، نعني بها الكتب التي تمحظت في نقل الآثار، فيأتي في التفسير هذه فسرها ابن عباس كذا وهو قول ابن عباس ومجاهد وسعيد بن جبير مثلا، وابن مسعود وعلقمة إلى آخر ذلك، به قال فلان وفلان وفلان يعني نقل أقوال السلف في التفسير تسمى التفسير بالمأثور ـ

So then, the books of tafsir are divided into two categories: the books of narration-based tafsir and the books of opinion-based tafsir. And by the books of narration-based tafsir, I mean those books which focus on transmitting the statements of the early generations. So it would come in the tafsir as “ibn ‘Abbaas explained this to mean such-and-such” or “this was the position of ibn ‘Abbaas, Mujaahid, and Sa’eed ibn Jubayr”, for example, or “of ibn Mas’ood and ‘Alqamah,” and so on. “This was what so-and-so and so-and-so said.” Meaning: transmitting the statements of the salaf in the field of tafsir, which is called “Narration-based Tafsir“.

من المهم الطالب العلم، قبل أنْ يقرأ في كتب التفسير بالرأي المحمود، مثل تفسير القرطبي، أو تفسير الألوسي أو تفسير كذا وكذا من الكتب، سواء كانت من مدرسة التفاسير الفقهية أو الموسوعية، قبل أنْ يقرأها لابدّ أنْ يطالع قول السلف في التفسير لمَ؟ ـ

Something of great importance for the student of knowledge is that before he reads through the books of praiseworthy opinion-based tafsir – such as Tafsir al-Qurtubi, Tafsir al-Aloosi, and other such similar works, regardless of whether these fall into the category of fiqh-oriented tafsir or the encyclopedic broad-ranging tafsirs – before he reads these, he must acquaint himself with the positions of the salaf in the field of tafsir. Why is this?

لأنّه من المتقرر عند أهل العلم بعامة أنّه لا يجوز أنْ يعتقد أنّ صوابا في مسألة من مسائل التفسير يحجب عن الصحابة والتابعين، ويُدْرِكُ هذا الصواب من بعدهم؛ لأنّهم هم الذين نزل عليهم التنزيل، أعني الصحابة، فنقوله إلى من بعدهم، فكل تفسير يضاد، -وألحظ أنني أقول يضاد، ولا أقول يخالف- تفسير السلف فإنه قطعًا غلط؛ لأنّه لا يجوز أنْ يُعتقدَ أو يظنّ أنّ ثمة صوابا في التفسير يُحجب عن سلف هذه الأمة لأنه لا يجوز أنْ نقول أو نظن أنّ كلمة من القرآن جهلها الصحابة وأدركها من بعدهم، فسرها الصحابة بتفسير ويأتي المتأخر فيفسرها بتفسير مضاد له ويكون الصواب مع المتأخر هذا قطعا ممتنع. ـ

That is because it is widely acknowledged among the scholars that it is not permissible for anyone to believe that the correct stance in any issue of tafsir was unknown among the Sahabah and the Tabi’oon but instead that the correct understanding was later apprehended by someone who came after them. This is because they – meaning the Sahabah – were the ones to whom the revelation came, and it was then transmitted to those who came after them. So any explanation with opposes – and notice that I say “opposes” and not “differs from” – the tafsir of the salaf is categorically incorrect. For it is not permitted to believe or to think that the correct understanding in the explanation of the Qur’an was concealed from the salaf of this ummah because it is not permissible to say or to think that there is any word of the Qur’an which the Sahabah did not know but then somebody after them did. To think that the Sahabah explained it but then some latter-day person comes and interprets it with an opposing explanation and that this is the one that is correct despite him having come in a later generation – this is absolutely not allowed.

ولهذا نقول في أساسيات قراءة كتب التفسير أنْ تبدأ بقراءة التفسير بالمأثور، قبل التفسير بالرأي، أنْ تطالع آثار السلف في الآية، قبل أنْ تنظر في اجتهادات المتأخرين التي تكون مبنية على العلوم المختلفة، النحو ومفردات اللغة وأصول الفقه إلى غير ذلك . ـ

Therefore we say that one of the fundamentals of reading the books of tafsir is that one begins with reading narration-based tafsir before reading opinion-based tafsir. And that he familiarizes himself with the statements of the salaf regarding an ayah before looking into the independent reasoning of later generations based on the various sciences such as grammar, vocabulary, fiqh principles, and so on.

كتب التفسير بالأثر متدرجة، عندك صحيفة علي بن أبي طلحة التي ذكرنا مهمة انْ تقرأ تفسيرها أول ما تقرأ ثم تفسير عبد الرزاق وهو مطبوع في أجزاء قليلة، ثم تفسير ابن جرير، تفسير البغوي، تفسير ابن كثير إلى آخره، هذه مدرسة التفسير بالأثر ثم مدرسة التفسير بالرّأي يعني بالاجتهاد والاستنباط، وأكثرهم استخدموا علوم الآلة يعني اللغة والمفردات في التفسير هذه وهذه فإذا ضبطت أقوال المفسرين ومشيت ومعها خَطوة فخطوة، ترجع إلى التفسير بالرأي -لا بأس-، يكون عندك منهجية صحيحة تدرك بها الصواب من غيره في التفسير. ـ

The books of narration-based tafsir have many grades and levels. You have Saheefah ‘Ali ibn Abi Talhah which we mention as a prerequisite to have that be the first tafsir that you read. Then there is the tafsir of ‘Abd al-Razzaaq which is published in a few small volumes. Then there is Tafsir ibn JarirTafsir al-BaghawiTafsir ibn Kathir, and so on. This is the narration-based school of tafsir, and then after that there is the opinion-based school of tafsir – “opinion-based” meaning based on the textually-grounded reasoning and derivation. And most of these works draw on the study of the means of communication such as linguistics and vocabulary in their explanations.

So once you have checked the statements in the narration-based explanations and looked through them thoroughly, you can refer to the opinion-based explanations – that is fine. You will have a sound approach by which you can distinguish what is correct out of the various interpretations.

[al-Manhajiyyah fee Qiraa’ah Kutub Ahl al-‘Ilm, as transcribed on the sheikh’s website here]

See also: About the Books of Tafsir

See also: The Types of Tafsir: Sheikh Muhammad Bazmool

See also: The Difference Between Narration-based Tafsir and Opinion-Based Tafsir: Sheikh Muhammad Bazmool

See also: The Importance of Tafsir and its Sources: Sheikh al-Fawzan

See also: The Conditions for Making Tafsir: Sheikh Saalih Aal al-Sheikh

See also: Mufassir Profiles

See also: Examples of Blame-worthy Opinion-based Tafsir: Sheikh Muhammad Bazmool

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14 thoughts on “Narration-based Tafsir before Opinion-based Tafsir: Sheikh Saalih Aal al-Sheikh

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