‘Ilm al-Munasabat and its Proper Place: Sheikh Saalih Aal al-Sheikh

Sheikh Saalih Aal al-Sheikh, current minister of Islamic Affairs for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, mentioned what follows in part of a lecture entitled discussing thematic tafsir of the Qur’an:

فما المقصود بعلم مقاصد السور؟ معلوم أن الله جل جلاله هو الذي تكلم بهذا القرآن وأن القرآن كلامه ﴿وَإِنْ أَحَدٌ مِنْ الْمُشْرِكِينَ اسْتَجَارَكَ فَأَجِرْهُ حَتَّى يَسْمَعَ كَلَامَ اللَّهِ ثُمَّ أَبْلِغْهُ مَأْمَنَهُ﴾ فالقرآن كلام الرب جل جلاله، ومقاصد السور يُعنى بها عند أهل هذا العلم: الموضوعات التي تدور عليها آيات سورة ما. يعني أن سورة من السور التي في القرآن أو أن معظم السور أو كل السور لها موضوع تدور عليه الآيات والمعاني التي في هذه السورة، إذا عُلم هذا المقصد؛ يعني هذا الغرض هذا الموضوع، فإن فهم التفسير سيكون سهلا، بل سيفهم المرء كلام الأولين، وسيفهم كلام المحققين بأكثر مما إذا أخذ الآيات مجردة عن موضوع السورة كما سيأتي في مثال نستعرضه إن شاء الله تعالى. ـ

What do we mean by “the study of the themes of surahs”? We all know that Allah is the One who spoke this Qur’an and that the Qur’an is His speech:

وَإِنْ أَحَدٌ مِنْ الْمُشْرِكِينَ اسْتَجَارَكَ فَأَجِرْهُ حَتَّى يَسْمَعَ كَلَامَ اللَّهِ ثُمَّ أَبْلِغْهُ مَأْمَنَهُ

And if any one of the polytheists seeks your protection, then grant him protection so that he may hear the words of Allah. Then deliver him to his place of safety [9:6]

So the Qur’an is the speech of the Lord, and according to experts in this field, what is meant by the “major themes of the surahs” are the topics and subjects which the ayaat are centered around. Meaning, at least one of the Qur’anic surahs, or most of them, or even all of them have certain topics which their ayaat are centered around and certain meanings which the surah contains. So if this theme or this objective or this point is known, then understanding the meanings of the surah becomes easy. Even more than that, a person will be much better able to understand the statements of the early generations as well as those of the later-day scholars who weigh the various opinions compared to if he had just looked at the individual ayaat themselves without knowing the larger theme of the surah, as we will see by looking at some examples, inshaAllaah.*

وأصلا في بحث مقاصد السور لم يكن بحثه في تاريخ العلم مبكرا، فإنما بحث قبله بُحث يسمى المناسبات، والعلماء اختلفوا في موضوع المناسبات، ويعنون بها مناسبات الآي؛ هل الآية هذه جاءت بعد الآية لمناسبة؟ هل بين الآية الأولى والثانية رابط؟ والثانية والثالثة بينها مناسبة؟ هل هذه الآيات في نظامها بينها وبين موضوع السورة اتصال؟ هذا يبحث في علم التفسير ويبحث في إعجاز القرآن، ولهذا عد طائفة من العلماء أن من وجوه إعجاز القرآن، وهو المنزل آية وبرهان ومعجز للخلق أجمعين، أنّ من وجوه الإعجاز أن يكون للسورة موضوع تدور عليه، وأن يكون بين الآيات ترابط هذه الآية بعد تلك، هذه القصة بعد تلك لغرض معلوم. ـ

The start of investigating the maqaasid al-suwar [themes/objectives of surahs] did not begin at the earliest stages of Islamic scholarship. The research in this area that preceded this was known as “al-munasabat” [relationships, links, connections], and there are different views among the scholars regarding the subject of munasabat.

And when one talks about the munasabat of some ayaat, what they mean is: did this ayah come after that ayah for a certain reason? Is there a link between the first ayah and the second one? Or a relationship between the second and the third? Is there some sort of connection between the ordering of these ayaat and the theme of the surah as a whole?

This is looking into the field of tafsir and researching into the inimitable nature of the Qur’an, and because of that, a group of the scholars considered all of this to be part of the inimitable nature of the Qur’an, and this itself is a sign and a proof and a miracle for all of mankind. Meaning: One aspect of the Qur’an’s inimitable nature is that a surah would have a certain theme which it centers around, that there is an interconnectedness between one ayah and the next, and that this story was placed after that one for a discernible purpose.

لهذا قلّ من يطرق هذا الموضوع من المفسرين أو من العلماء ولعدم كثرة طرقه أسباب منها: ـ

With all that being said, there were not many mufassiroon or scholars who focused on the themes of surahs. There are several reasons for this, including:

أولا: فيه نوع من الجرأة على كتاب الله جل وعلا، ولهذا ذهب طائفة من العلماء إلى أنّ السور ليس لها موضوعات، وإلى أنّ الآيات لا تناسب بينها، وهذا قال به قليلون وغُلطوا في ذلك، فموضوع السورة يحتاج إلى قراءة السورة عدة مرات وتدبر ذلك ومعرفة كلام العلماء في التفسير حتى نفهم هذه السورة ما الموضوع الذي تدور عليه. ـ

First: This field of research contains a certain type of boldness towards Allah’s Book. For this reason, a group of scholars held that the surahs do not have central topics and there are no relationships or connections between the ayaat. But it was only a few who voiced this position, and they were mistaken in this. For discerning the central topic of surah requires one to read the surah multiple times and to contemplate it, as well as knowledge of the scholars’ statements explaining it, until we understand this surah and the theme that it centers around.

السبب الثاني: أن كثيرين من أهل العلم لم يتناولوا التفسير إلا عبر مدرسة تفسير الآيات، ومدرسة تفسير الآيات منقسمة إلى مدرستين؛ مدرسة التفسير بالأثر ومدرسة التفسير بالاجتهاد، وكلها راجعة إلى تفسير الآية وتفسير الكلمات في الآيات، أما الربط بين الآيات فلم يكن من مدارس التفسير المعروفة، ما صار له ذكر ولا قوة عند أهل العلم بالتفسير. ـ

The second reason: That many of the scholars only approach the field of tafsir through the ayah-by-ayah school of tafsir. And this ayah-by-ayah school of tafsir can be further divided into two schools: 1) the narration-based school of tafsir and 2) the derived-rulings and scholarly discernment school of tafsir, but both of these schools ultimately go back to explaining each individual ayah and the words in that ayah. As for the connections between ayaat, then this does not fall into any of the widely-practiced schools of tafsir; it is not mentioned much or given much importance among the scholars of tafsir.

والسبب الثالث في عدم اشتهار هذا الموضوع: أن من تجرأ وكتب فيه من أهل العلم، وقال: إن للآيات تناسب وإن للسور موضوعات. رد عليه طائفة من العلماء وغلطوه بل ورموه بالقول على الله جل وعلا بلا علم، فهاب كثيرون أن يدخلوا هذا المضمار؛ لأجل براءة الذمة، ولأجل ألا يحملوا أنفسهم ما لا يطيقون، وهذا مقصد صائب. ولغير ذلك من الأسباب. ـ

The third reason for the lack of renown for this field of tafsir: that whatever scholars would boldly embark on this task and writes on it, saying, “these ayaat have some relationship and these surahs have themes” would be met with refutations by a group of scholars who would say such people fell into mistakes. Or what’s more, they would accuse him of speaking about Allah without knowledge. Therefore, many of the scholars would fear entering into that arena in order to be free of any censure and in order to not burden themselves with something they could not bear – and this is a fine goal.

And there were also other reasons as well.

ولهذا تقول العلماء في موضوع تركيب الآيات، والتناسق بين الآيات، وأن هذه الآية بعد هذه الآية لغرض، وأن هذه القصة بعد هذه القصة لغرض، وأنّ القصة لها موضوع ومقصد، اختلف العلماء في هذا على ثلاثة أقوال: ـ

Having said that, some scholars did discuss the connections and relationships between ayaat, saying that this ayah comes after this ayah for some reason, and that this story follows this story for some purpose, and that the stories have certain themes and objectives.

The scholars fall into three different opinions regarding discussing these topics:

أما القول الأول: وهو أنه لا تناسب بين الآيات، بل تنزل الآية بحسب الوقائع، وتوضع في المصحف بحسب ما يأمر الله جل وعلا جبريل به فيأمر به النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم أن الآية ضعها في سورة كذا في موضع كذا، وأنّ هذا بحسب الوقائع وحسب الأحوال، ولا يقتضي ذلك تناسبا بين الآية والآية، وصلة بين الآية والآية. ـ

The first position is that there are no relations between ayaat. Instead, each ayah was revealed in light of circumstances and events at the time and was placed in the mushaf according to what Allah commanded Jibreel, who then instructed the Prophet to place this ayah in such-and-such surah in such-and-such place. And they say that the revelation of the ayaat was according to the contemporary events and situations, and so that does not entail any sort of relationships or connections between the ayaat.

والقول الثاني: أنّ سور القرآن لا تخلو سورة إلا ولها موضوع، وليس ثم آية وبعد آية إلا وبينها تناسب وصلة، وأنه بين أول السورة وبين ختام السور تناسب، وأنه بين آخر السورة وأول السورة التي تليها تناسب واتساق في الموضوع، وأنه إلى آخر الأسرار واللطائف في علم التفسير، مما جعلوا ذلك لا يخرج عنه شيء البتة، وهذا قول قليلين من أهل العلم منهم البقاعي فيما صنف في نظم السور، والسيوطي وجماعة ممن قبلهم وبعدهم. ـ

The second position is that there is not a single surah of the Qur’an that lacks a theme and subject, and furthermore, there are not any two ayaat that lack a connection and relationship between them, and that there are links between the beginning and the ending of the same surah, and that that there is cohesion and connection in terms of content and themes between the end of one surah and the beginning of the next surah, and that so on and so forth with all the hidden gems and subtle benefits found in the field of tafsir. There were some who did not exempt any thing at all from this approach, but this was the position of only a small number of scholars, among them being al-Baqaa’ee in his work Nathm al-Suwar, as well as al-Suyooti and a group of scholars both before and after them.

والقول الثالث: وهو القول الوسط وهو أعدل الأقوال، أنّ سور القرآن منها سور يظهر للمجتهد؛ يظهر للعالم بالتفسير، يظهر له موضوعها، ويظهر بين آياتها من التناسب، فهذا إذا ظهر لا حرج في إبدائه؛ لأنّ الله جل وعلا جعل القرآن محكما ﴿الر كِتَابٌ أُحْكِمَتْ آيَاتُهُ ثُمَّ فُصِّلَتْ مِنْ لَدُنْ حَكِيمٍ خَبِيرٍ﴾[هود:1]، فالقرآن كتاب لو بحثت فيه عن خلل لو بحثت فيه عن عدم اتساق لن تجد ﴿أَفَلَا يَتَدَبَّرُونَ الْقُرْآنَ وَلَوْ كَانَ مِنْ عِنْدِ غَيْرِ اللَّهِ لَوَجَدُوا فِيهِ اخْتِلَافًا كَثِيرًا﴾[النساء:82]، فإذا ظهرت المناسبة وظهر الموضوع فلا مانع أنْ يقال هذه السورة موضوعها كذا، وهذه الآية بينها وبين ما قبلها المناسبة الفلانية، بحسب ما يظهر للعالم بالتفسير وللمجتهد، دون أنْ يكون الهمّ تطلّب ذلك والتكلف فيه؛ لأن التكلف فيه قد يُفضي إلى القول في المسألة بلا علم والاجتهاد فيما لا طائل منه وقد يكون الاختلاف فيه كبيرا. ـ

The third position – and this one falls between the other two and is the most balanced of them – is that there are some surahs of the Qur’an whose themes make themselves clear to the expert and scholar of tafsir and whose ayaat make their connections clear. So then, if the themes and links become clear to him, there is no harm in him expressing and sharing that. This is because Allah has made the Qur’an complete, perfect, and in total harmony with itself:

الر ۚ كِتَابٌ أُحْكِمَتْ آيَاتُهُ ثُمَّ فُصِّلَتْ مِن لَّدُنْ حَكِيمٍ خَبِيرٍ

Alif Laam Meem – a Book whose verses are perfected and then presented in detail from the Wise and Well-Acquainted. [11:1]

The Qur’an is a book which, if you were to search for shortcomings or a lack of harmony in it, you would never find that.

أَفَلَا يَتَدَبَّرُونَ الْقُرْآنَ ۚ وَلَوْ كَانَ مِنْ عِندِ غَيْرِ اللَّـهِ لَوَجَدُوا فِيهِ اخْتِلَافًا كَثِيرًا

Then do they not reflect upon the Qur’an? If it had been from any other than Allah, they would have found within it much contradiction. [4:82]

So, if some sort of link or theme presents itself, then there is nothing to prevent one from saying that the theme of this surah in such-and-such, or that between this ayah and the one before it there is such-and-such connection. This is according to what naturally presents itself to the expert and scholar of tafsir, not that one would make it his aim to hunt these things down and go to extremes in that. For going overboard in searching for these may very well lead to speaking about something without knowledge, exerting oneself in something which ultimately doesn’t pay off, and it could lead to come significant differences of opinion.

وهذا القول الثالث هو القول المعتدل الذي سلكه طائفة من العلماء في التفسير والعلماء بالاجتهاد، ومنهم ابن تيمية رحمه الله وابن القيم وجماعة من المحققين في التفسير، ويظهر لك صوابه فيما إذا نظرت إلى الكتب المؤلفة في مقاصد السور وتناسب الآيات والسور ونحو ذلك، فإنّ فيها أشياء متكلّفة، وفيها أشياء يتضح حسنها؛ بل إذا نظر ت إليها وتدبرت ما قيل من المناسبات والاتصال بموضوعات السور زادك يقينا بأنّ هذا القرآن إنما هو كلام الله جل وعلا، وإذا قرأت السورة أحسست بتأثير فيها ليس كتأثير من لم يعلم موضوع السورة ولا تناسب الآيات فيما يُذكر. ـ

So this third position is the balanced way which a group of the scholars of tafsir and exceptionally skilled scholars have tread. Among them was ibn Taymiyah (may Allah have mercy on him), ibn al-Qayyim, and a number of scholars who focused of sifting through the explanations of the Qur’an. And the correctness of this position will become clear to you if you look into the books that have been authored about the themes of the surahs, the connections between ayaat and different surahs and similar materials. These do contain some aspects of stretching for connections which are not really present, while also containing material whose value and merit is clear.

What’s more, if you look into these works and contemplate what has been said about the relationships and connections to the themes of the overall surah, it will increase your certainty that this Qur’an is nothing other than the speech of Allah. If you read a surah, you will find that the effect it has on on you is not at all like the effect that it will have on someone who does not know the theme of that surah or the connections between its various ayaat.

لهذا نقول إن هذه الأقوال الثلاثة المختار منها الثالث، وهو الذي يهم أن تعتني به من كلام أهل العلم؛ لأنّ فيه الفائدة المرجوّة إن شاء الله تعالى. ـ

So, we say that out of these three positions, the proper one is the third, and it is the one which should be given credence out of the different positions of the scholars, because there is much benefit that can come from it, inshaAllaah.

[An excerpt from the lecture entitled: Maqaasid al-Suwar wa Athar Dhalik fee Fahm al-Tafsir by sheikh Saalih Aal al-Sheikh]

*Translator’s Note: Moosaa Richardson has translated and published another part of this same lecture where the sheikh demonstrates this thematic approach to explaining surah al-‘Ankaboot. This translation can be purchased here, and previewed here.

Click here to read more translations related to munasabat.

See also: Connections and Links between Surahs: al-Zarkashi

See also: The Themes and Contents of Surah Maryam: ibn Taymiyah

See also: Thematic Tafsir: Sheikh Saalih Aal al-Sheikh

See also: Marriage and Divorce in the Qur’an: Imam al-Sa’di

See also: A Recurring Sequence in the Qur’an: al-Zarkashi

See also: The Proper Place of Asbaab al-Nuzool in Understanding the Qur’an: Imam al-Sa’di

8 thoughts on “‘Ilm al-Munasabat and its Proper Place: Sheikh Saalih Aal al-Sheikh

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