Why do the Mufassiroon differ?: Ibn Taymiyah

One section of the book Majmoo’ al-Fataawa ibn Taymiyah begins with the following question:

وسئل رحمه الله عن قوله صلى الله عليه وسلم { من فسر القرآن برأيه فليتبوأ مقعده من النار } ” فاختلاف المفسرين في آية واحدة إن كان بالرأي فكيف النجاة ؟ وإن لم يكن بالرأي فكيف وقع الاختلاف والحق لا يكون في طرفي نقيض أفتونا . ؟

He was asked – may Allah have mercy on him – about the statement of the Prophet, “Whoever interprets the Qur’an according to his own opinion, then let him take his seat in the Hell-Fire”:

If the different positions that the hold mufassiroon regarding certain ayah arose due to their personal opinions, then how can they be saved? Or if these different positions where not a product of their own personal opinions then how did these different opinions come to be when the truth is not at odds with itself? Won’t you give us a verdict?

Sheikh al-Islaam ibn Taymiyah responded by saying:

فأجاب رحمه الله تعالى ينبغي أن يعلم أن الاختلاف الواقع من المفسرين وغيرهم على وجهين : ” أحدهما ” ليس فيه تضاد وتناقض ; بل يمكن أن يكون كل منهما حقا وإنما هو اختلاف تنوع أو اختلاف في الصفات أو العبادات وعامة الاختلاف الثابت عن مفسري السلف من الصحابة والتابعين هو من هذا الباب فإن الله سبحانه إذا ذكر في القرآن اسما مثل قوله : { اهدنا الصراط المستقيم } فكل من المفسرين يعبر عن الصراط المستقيم بعبارة يدل بها على بعض صفاته وكل ذلك حق بمنزلة ما يسمى الله ورسوله وكتابه بأسماء كل اسم منها يدل على صفة من صفاته فيقول بعضهم : { الصراط المستقيم } كتاب الله أو اتباع كتاب الله [ ص: 382 ] ويقول الآخر : { الصراط المستقيم } هو الإسلام أو دين الإسلام ويقول الآخر : { الصراط المستقيم } هو السنة والجماعة ويقول الآخر : { الصراط المستقيم } طريق العبودية أو طريق الخوف والرجاء والحب وامتثال المأمور واجتناب المحظور أو متابعة الكتاب والسنة أو العمل بطاعة الله أو نحو هذه الأسماء والعبارات . ـ

One needs to understand that the differing which occurs among the mufassiroon – and among others as well – occurs in two ways.

First, there is differing which does not actually involve any opposition or contradiction. In fact, it is possible that both of the different stances are true and that it is only a differing of categorization or a differing in descriptions or acts of worship. Out of what has been authentically transmitted, the bulk of differing among the scholars of tafsir of the salaf, namely the sahabah and the taabi’oon, falls into this category. For when Allah mentions a term in the Qur’an such as His statement:

اهْدِنَا الصِّرَاطَ الْمُسْتَقِيمَ

guide us to al-siraat al-mustaqeem (the straight path) [1:6]

then each one of the mufassiroon spoke about al-siraat al-mustaqeem with terms that referred to some of its attributes, all of which are true according to the names which Allah and His Messenger and His Book called them. Each one of the names that they gave it points to a certain quality of it.

Some of them said, “al-siraat al-mustaqeem is the Book of Allah or following the Book of Allah.”

Others said, “al-siraat al-mustaqeem is the al-Islaam or the religion of al-Islaam.”

Others said, “al-siraat al-mustaqeem is the sunnah and the jamaa’ah.

Still others said, “al-siraat al-mustaqeem is the path of servitude”, or “the path of fear, hope and love, and complying with the commands and avoiding the forbidden things”, or “following the Book and the Sunnah“, or “acts of obedience to Allah”, or other such similar names and terms.

ومعلوم أن المسمى هو واحد وإن تنوعت صفاته وتعددت أسماؤه وعباراته كما إذا قيل : محمد هو أحمد وهو الحاشر وهو الماحي وهو العاقب وهو خاتم المرسلين وهو نبي الرحمة وهو نبي الملحمة . ـ

It is understood that the object of discussion is one thing even if a variety of descriptions or a number of different names and terms are used. This is like saying, “Muhammad is Ahmad, and he is al-Haashir, and he is al-Maahee, and he is al-‘Aaqib, and he is the Seal of the Messengers, and he is the Prophet of Mercy, and he is the Prophet of Bloodshed.”

وكذلك إذا قيل : القرآن هو الفرقان والنور والشفاء والذكر الحكيم والكتاب الذي أحكمت آياته ثم فصلت . ـ

Likewise if one were to say: the Qur’an is al-Furqaan and al-Noor and the Cure and the Wise Remembrance and the Book whose verses are perfected and then presented in detail.

وكذلك أسماء الله الحسنى { هو الأول والآخر والظاهر والباطن وهو بكل شيء عليم } وهو { الذي خلق فسوى } { والذي قدر فهدى } { والذي أخرج المرعى } { فجعله غثاء أحوى } { هو الله الذي لا إله إلا هو عالم الغيب والشهادة هو الرحمن الرحيم } { هو الله الذي لا إله إلا هو الملك القدوس السلام المؤمن المهيمن العزيز الجبار المتكبر } { هو الله الخالق البارئ المصور } وأمثال ذلك . ـ

And likewise with the beautiful names of Allah,

هُوَ الْأَوَّلُ وَالْآخِرُ‌ وَالظَّاهِرُ‌ وَالْبَاطِنُ ۖ وَهُوَ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ عَلِيمٌ

He is the First and the Last, the Ascendant and the Intimate, and He is, of all things, Knowing [57:3].

And He is

الَّذِي خَلَقَ فَسَوَّىٰ * وَالَّذِي قَدَّرَ‌ فَهَدَىٰ * وَالَّذِي أَخْرَ‌جَ الْمَرْ‌عَىٰ * فَجَعَلَهُ غُثَاءً أَحْوَىٰ

He who created and proportioned * And who destined and guided * And who brings out the pasture * And makes it black stubble. [87:2-5]

هُوَ اللَّـهُ الَّذِي لَا إِلَـٰهَ إِلَّا هُوَ ۖ عَالِمُ الْغَيْبِ وَالشَّهَادَةِ ۖ هُوَ الرَّ‌حْمَـٰنُ الرَّ‌حِيمُ * هُوَ اللَّـهُ الَّذِي لَا إِلَـٰهَ إِلَّا هُوَ الْمَلِكُ الْقُدُّوسُ السَّلَامُ الْمُؤْمِنُ الْمُهَيْمِنُ الْعَزِيزُ الْجَبَّارُ‌ الْمُتَكَبِّرُ‌ ۚ سُبْحَانَ اللَّـهِ عَمَّا يُشْرِ‌كُونَ * هُوَ اللَّـهُ الْخَالِقُ الْبَارِ‌ئُ الْمُصَوِّرُ

He is Allah, other than whom there is no deity, Knower of the unseen and the witnessed. He is the Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful. * He is Allah, other than whom there is no deity, the Sovereign, the Pure, the Perfection, the Bestower of Faith, the Overseer, the Exalted in Might, the Compeller, the Superior. Exalted is Allah above whatever they associate with Him. * He is Allah, the Creator, the Inventor, the Fashioner [59:22-24]

And so on.

 ـ [ ص: 383 ] فهو سبحانه واحد صمد وأسماؤه الحسنى تدل كلها على ذاته ويدل هذا من صفاته على ما لا يدل عليه الآخر فهي متفقة في الدلالة على الذات متنوعة في الدلالة على الصفات ; فالاسم يدل على الذات والصفة المعينة بالمطابقة ويدل على أحدهما بطريق التضمن وكل اسم يدل على الصفة التي دل عليها بالالتزام ; لأنه يدل على الذات المتكنى به جميع الصفات فكثير من التفسير والترجمة تكون من هذا الوجه . ـ

For He – exalted is He – is One, Eternal, and His beautiful names all refer back to His Being. Some of His attributes indicate what others do not, but they are all united in referring to the same essence while having variation in the attributes that they indicate. For a name indicates both the essence and a specific attribute that goes along with that name, and the name will indicate one of these two things by way of that being an integral part of the meaning. Every name points to an attribute which is inextricably tied to the name. That is the case because all attributes indicate the essence which they are named after. So, many explanations and definitions of terms are also like this [i.e. referring to one essence but describing it with different attributes, thus all pointing to the same thing]

ومنه ” قسم آخر ” وهو أن يذكر المفسر والمترجم معنى اللفظ على سبيل التعيين والتمثيل لا على سبيل الحد والحصر مثل أن يقول قائل من العجم : ما معنى الخبز ؟ فيشار له إلى رغيف وليس المقصود مجرد عينه وإنما الإشارة إلى تعيين هذا الشخص . ـ

Then there is the second type of reason why the mufassiroon differ, which is that the mufassir or one defining a term will use a specific instance or a particular example when giving the meaning of a word rather than providing a precise and exact definition. For example, that one of the non-Arabic speakers might ask, “what is the meaning of al-khubz (bread)?”, and then a person might point to a loaf. He doesn’t mean to say that this loaf is the only possible answer; he just pointed to one specific example of this thing.

وهذا كما إذا سئلوا عن قوله : { فمنهم ظالم لنفسه ومنهم مقتصد ومنهم سابق بالخيرات } أو عن قوله : { إن الله مع الذين اتقوا والذين هم محسنون } أو عن الصالحين أو الظالمين ونحو ذلك من الأسماء العامة الجامعة التي قد يتعسر أو يتعذر على المستمع أو المتكلم ضبط مجموع معناه ; إذ لا يكون محتاجا إلى ذلك فيذكر له من أنواعه وأشخاصه ما يحصل به غرضه وقد يستدل به على نظائره . ـ

And this is like if one were to be asked about Allah’s statement:

فَمِنْهُمْ ظَالِمٌ لِّنَفْسِهِ وَمِنْهُم مُّقْتَصِدٌ وَمِنْهُمْ سَابِقٌ بِالْخَيْرَ‌اتِ بِإِذْنِ اللَّـهِ

And among them is he who wrongs himself, and among them is he who is moderate, and among them is he who is foremost in good deeds by permission of Allah [35:32]

or about His statement:

إِنَّ اللَّـهَ مَعَ الَّذِينَ اتَّقَوا وَّالَّذِينَ هُم مُّحْسِنُونَ

Indeed, Allah is with those who fear Him and those who are doers of good [16:128]

or concerning the words al-saalihoon or al-thaalimoon or other such broad and comprehensive terms which are perhaps difficult or impossible for the listener or the speaker to pinpoint the totality of their meanings. Since he is not in need of all that, the mufassir just tells the listener some of the types of examples which serve to illustrate the meaning and he might support that drawing on some other similar Qur’anic passages.

فإن الظالم لنفسه : هو تارك المأمور فاعل المحظور و ” المقتصد ” [ ص: 384 ] هو فاعل الواجب وتارك المحرم و ” السابق ” هو فاعل الواجب والمستحب وتارك المحرم والمكروه . ـ

As for the precise meanings,

ظَالِمٌ لِّنَفْسِهِ

he who wrongs himself

is the one who abandons the commanded actions and commits the warned-against actions, and

مُّقْتَصِدٌ

he who is moderate

is the one who does the obligatory acts and leaves off the forbidden acts, and

سَابِقٌ بِالْخَيْرَ‌اتِ

he who is foremost

is the one who does the obligatory and recommended acts and abandons the forbidden and disliked actions.

فيقول المجيب بحسب حاجة السائل : ” الظالم ” الذي يفوت الصلاة والذي لا يسبغ الوضوء أو الذي لا يتم الأركان ونحو ذلك و ” المقتصد ” الذي يصلي في الوقت كما أمر و ” السابق بالخيرات ” الذي يصلي الصلاة بواجباتها ومستحباتها ويأتي بالنوافل المستحبة معها وكذلك يقول مثل هذا في الزكاة والصوم والحج وسائر الواجبات . ـ

So according to the need of the questioner, the mufassir might say: “he who wrongs himself” is the one who misses the salaah and does not perform the wudhoo’ and who does not complete the pillars, etc. And “he who is moderate” is the one who performs the salaah in its time as he was commanded, and “he who is foremost” is the one who performs the salaah according to its obligatory and recommended components and who performs the recommended voluntary prayers along with that. And he could say the likes of this concerning the zakaah or the fasting or the Hajj or the rest of the obligatory matters.

وقد روي عن ابن عباس رضي الله عنهما أنه قال : التفسير على أربعة أوجه : تفسير تعرفه العرب من كلامها وتفسير لا يعذر أحد بجهالته وتفسير يعلمه العلماء وتفسير لا يعلمه إلا الله فمن ادعى علمه فهو كاذب . ـ

And it is narrated from ibn ‘Abbaas – may Allah be pleased with both of them – that he said:

Tafsir comes in four categories: 1) the tafsir which native speakers of Arabic recognize from its wordings, 2) the tafsir for which no one’s ignorance can excuse him from knowing, 3) the tafsir which the scholars know, and 4) the tafsir which no one knows except Allah, so whoever claims knowledge of it, then he is a liar.

والصحابة أخذوا عن الرسول لفظ القرآن ومعناه كما أخذوا عنه السنة وإن كان من الناس من غير السنة فمن الناس من غير بعض معاني القرآن ; إذ لم يتمكن من تغيير لفظه . ـ

The Sahabah learned both the wordings of the Qur’an and its meanings from the Messenger just as they took the Sunnah from him. So just as there are some people who alter the Sunnah, then likewise there are some people who alter some of the meanings of the Qur’an, since they are not able to alter its wordings.

و ” أيضا ” : فقد يخفى على بعض العلماء بعض معاني القرآن كما خفي عليه بعض السنة ; فيقع خطأ المجتهدين من هذا الباب . والله أعلم . ـ

And a final note: perhaps some of the meanings of the Qur’an have been concealed from some scholars just as some of the Sunnah was not known or available to them. The mistakes of the mujtahid scholar would fall into this category. And Allah knows best.

[Majmoo’ al-Fataawa 13/382-385]

For more on this topic, see:

An Example of Reconciling Different Explanations from the Salaf: Sheikh Muhammad Bazmool

Different Categories of Tafsir from the Companions: Sheikh Saalih Aal al-Sheikh

Tafsir of the Qur’an and its Connection to the Qiraa’aat: al-Suyooti

And Tell the Believing Women Not to Show off Their Adornment, Except for What is Apparent: ibn Taymiyah

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

See also: Turning Away from the Sources of Tafsir: Ibn Taymiyah

See also: Where Do the Differences in the Qiraa’aat Come From?: ibn Taymiyah

3 thoughts on “Why do the Mufassiroon differ?: Ibn Taymiyah

  1. Pingback: An Example of Reconciling Different Explanations from the Salaf: Sheikh Muhammad Bazmool | Tulayhah

  2. Pingback: We made the way easy for him: Tafsir al-Tabari & Tafsir ibn Kathir | Tulayhah

  3. Pingback: Where Do the Differences in the Qiraa’aat Come From?: ibn Taymiyah | Tulayhah

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.