Commentaries on the Qur-ān

Quranic literature is so voluminous that no single man can compass a perusal of the whole. Besides the extant works there were innumerable works written for special groups of people or from special points of view or for special purposes, which have perished. And more works are being added every day. The activity in this line has never been greater than it is now.

There is no Book in the world in whose service so much talent, so much labour, so much time and money have been expended as has been the case with the Qur-ān. A mere glance at Imām Suyūti’s (d. 911 H.) Itqān or Hājī Khalīfa’s (d. 1059 H.) Kashf-uz-zunūn will show the encyclopaedic volume of the Quranic sciences in their day.

Since then the volume has continued to go on increasing, although it must be admitted that the quality of the later literature on the subject leaves much to be desired. With the retrogression of the Islamic nations in original work in science, art, and philosophy, and the concomitant limitation in their outlook and experience in various phases of intellectual and spiritual life, has come a certain limitation in the free spirit of research and enquiry. The new Renaissance of Islam which is just beginning will, it is hoped, sweep away cobwebs and let in the full light of reason and understanding:

The need for an explanation of the verses of the Qur-ān arose quite early. Even before the whole of the Qur-ān was revealed, people used to ask the Apostle all sorts of questions as to the meaning of certain words in the verses revealed, or of, their bearing on problems as they arose, or details of certain historical or spiritual matters on which they sought more light. The Apostle’s answers were carefully stored in the memory of the Companions (as-hāb) and were afterwards written down. In the next generation, the Tābi’īn, were those who had not personally conversed with the Apostle, like the Companions, but had conversed with the Companions and learned from them. Subsequent generations always went back to establish a chain of evidence through the Tābi’īn and the Companions. Through them grew up the science of Hadīth or Traditions. As this literature grew, it became necessary to establish strict rules by which the evidence could be examined and tested, so as to separate that which was considered to be established from that which was doubtful or weak, and that which was to be rejected as unproved. In the evolution of the science of Hadīth, it became clear that even among the Companions certain persons had better memories than others, or better opportunities of becoming really acquainted with the Apostle’s true meaning, or in other ways, a better title to be called true expositors, and the number of such persons came to be limited to ten only. Similarly the claims of the Tābi’īn came to be examined and graded, and so on. Thus arose a new science, in which the names and positions of persons in Hadīth literature were examined biographically and in other ways.

The Hadīth literature dealt with all sorts of matters, including Theology, Ethics, and Exegesis (explanation of the Qur-ān). Exegesis soon became an independent science by itself and was called Tafsīr, and the sphere of Tafsīr itself began to widen as the experience and knowledge of the Arabs and Arabic writers began to increase. Besides the examination of correct traditions from various kinds and grades of authorities, it began to examine the meaning of words philologically, collecting a vast amount of learning as to root meanings, the usage of the Quraish tribe of Arabs, to which the Apostle belonged, the usage and meaning of words in the purest original Arabic before it became mixed up with foreign idioms and usages by the use of the Arabic language by non-Arabs in Islam, and by the influence of the enormous geographical expansion of the Arab race in the first few centuries of Islam. The increasing knowledge of history and of Jewish and Christian legends enabled the Commentators to illustrate the Text of the Holy Book with reference to these. Sometimes the amount of Jewish stuff (some of it absurd), which found its way into the Commentaries, was out of all proportion to its importance and relevance, and gave rise to the legend, which has been exploited by polemical Christian and Jewish writers, that Islam was built up on an imperfect knowledge of Christianity and Judaism, or that it accepts as true the illustrative legends from the Talmud or the Midrash or various fantastic schools of Christianity. Then came philosophy and the mystic doctrine of the Sūfī schools. The development of the science of kalām (built on formal logic), and its further offshoot the ‘Ilm-ul-‘Aqāid (the philosophical exposition of the grounds of our belief) introduced further elements on the intellectual side, while Tāawīl (esoteric exposition of the hidden or inner meaning) introduced elements on the spiritual side, based on a sort of transcendental intuition of the expositor. The Sūfī mystics at least adhered to the rules of their own Orders, which were very strict. But many of the non-Sūfī writers on Tāawīl indulged in an amount of licence in interpretation which has rightly called forth a protest on the part of the more sober ‘Ulamá.

For my part I agree with this protest. While freely reserving the right of individual judgment on the part of every earnest writer, I think the art of interpretation must stick as closely as possible to the text which it seeks to interpret. Every serious writer and thinker has a right to use all the knowledge and experience he possesses in the service of the Qur-ān. But he must not mix up his own theories and conclusions, however reasonable, with the interpretation of the Text itself, which is usually perfectly perspicuous, as it claims it to be. Our difficulties in interpretation often arise from various causes, of which I will mention just a few:

(1) Arabic words in the Text have acquired other meanings than those which were understood by the Apostle and his Companions. All living languages undergo such transformations. The early Commentators and Philologists went into these matters with a very comprehensive grasp, and we must accept their conclusions. Where they are not unanimous, we must use our judgment and historic sense in adopting the interpretation of that authority which appeals to us most. We must not devise new verbal meanings.

(2) Even since the early Commentators wrote, the Arabic language has further developed, and later Commentators often abandon the interpretations of earlier Commentators without sufficient reason. In exercising our selective judgment in such cases it would be a good rule to prefer the earlier to the later interpretation, though, where a later writer has reviewed the earlier interpretations and given good reasons for his own view, he has an advantage which we must freely concede to him.

(3) Classical Arabic has a vocabulary in which the meaning of each root-word is so comprehensive that it is difficult to interpret it in a modern analytical language word for word, or by the use of the same word in all places where the original word occurs in the Text. A striking example is furnished by the word Sabr, about which see my notes on ii. 45 and ii. 153. Even though one particular shade of meaning may be predominant in any particular passage, the others are latent. So in a ray of light, when a prism analyses it, we may look at a portion of the field where a particular colour predominates, but other colours do not escape our glance. An Arabic word is often a full ray of light; when a translator looks at it through the prism of a modern analytical language, he misses a great deal of its meaning by confining his attention to one particular colour. European translators have often failed in this respect and sometimes even been landed in absurdities because these delicate rich tones are not studied in their languages or literatures, and they do not look for them or appreciate them in the best examples of Oriental style. If they despise them or think them fantastic, they had best leave the interpretation of Oriental literatures alone. This is all the more so in religious or spiritual literature. No human language can possibly be adequate for the expression of the highest spiritual thought. Such thought must be expressed symbolically in terse and comprehensive words, out of which people will perceive just as much light and colour as their spiritual eyes are capable of perceiving. It is possible that their prism will only show them a dark blue while a whole glorious symphony of colours is hidden from their eyes. And so it comes about that through the prism of a clever English translation, poor ‘Umar (Omar) Khayyām emerges as a sensualist and cynic who sees no higher purpose in life than drinking wine, dallying with women, and holding up his hands in despair at “this sorry scheme of things entire.” And so the parables of stern morality in the Qur-ān, its mystic earnestness, and its pictures of future beatitude are distorted into idle fables, incoherent effusions, and a sensual paradise!

(4) An opposite error sometimes arises because in certain matters the rich vocabulary of the Qur-ān distinguishes between things and ideas of a certain kind by special words, for which there is only a general word in English. Instances are: Rahmān and Rahīm (Most Merciful); see i. 1. n.; afā, safaha, gafara (to forgive); see ii. 109 n.; and the various words for Creation; see ii. 117 n. The fact is that it gives us a very limited idea of God’s Mercy, when we only use the English word “mercy”: the Quranic idea implies not only pity and forgiveness but the Grace which protects us and keeps us from sin, and indeed guides us to the light of His “Countenance.” So the “forgiveness” of God is a thing totally different in quality from the forgiveness which a man can give to his brother man: the equation implied in “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us” is a misleading fallacy. So, again, “Creation” is not just a simple process done by God at some remote time and finished with: the Quranic idea implies various processes and the continuous presence and activity of God in His Creation.

(5) God’s purpose is eternal, and His plan is perfect, but man’s intelligence is limited at its very best. In the same individual it grows and declines according to the strength of his powers and the width of his experience. If we take mankind collectively the variations are even greater from age to age and from people to people. There is thus no finality in human interpretation. And in the thing interpreted—God’s Creation—there is constant flux and change. So that the impact of the one on the other must yield diverse results. The view of Kunchinjunga must vary infinitely according to the position of the observer, even if Kunchinjunga remained the same. But if Kunchinjunga itself varies, there is a double cause of variation in the view. So I believe in progressive interpretation, in the need for understanding and explaining spiritual matters from different angles. The difficulties that confront me may not be the same as those that confront you. The problems which our age has to meet may not be the same as the problems which puzzled earnest minds of the fourth or sixth or later centuries of the Hijra. Therefore it is no merit to hug the solutions offered in the fourth or sixth centuries when our souls cry out in hunger for solace in the fourteenth century of the Hijra.

The distinction drawn by Commentators between matters of report (manqūlāt) and matters of judgment (ma’qūlāt) is a sound one, and I heartily accept it. But I would extend the scope of the ma’qūlāt far beyond questions of idiom and meaning. In the former the issues are: what actually happened, or what was actually said, or how were certain things done? Here the closer we go back to contemporary authority, the better. In the latter, the issues are: what is the bearing of this truth on our lives, or what illustration helps us best to grasp this, or what is the wisdom we can extract from this? In such matters, the closer we come to our own circumstances and experiences, the better. It is not only our right but our duty to seek honestly our own solutions, and while we respect authority, we must not neglect or despise the gifts which God has accumulated for us through the ages.

The principles on which I have worked may be briefly stated. In matters of philology and language I accept the best authority among those who were competent to deal with these questions: the older the better. In matters of narration, contemporary authorities are best, subject to such corrections as have to be applied for their points of view. As to the particular Occasions on which particular verses were revealed, the information is interesting and valuable from a historical point of view, and our older writers have collected ample material for it. But to lay too much stress on it today puts the picture out of all perspective. The Qur-ān was not revealed for a particular occasion only, but for all time. The particular occasion is now past. Our chief interest now is to see how it can guide us in our present lives. Its meaning is so manifold, and when tested, it is so true, that we should be wise to concentrate on the matters that immediately help us. So in nature plants seek out of the soil just that food which gives them nourishment. There is plenty of other food left in the soil, which other plants take, which can digest it. In matters of remote history or folk lore, we must take the results of the latest researches. In interpreting Jewish or Christian legends or beliefs we must go to Jewish or Christian sources, but by way of illustration only, not in the direction of incorporating such beliefs or systems. Though they were true in their original purity, we are not sure of the form which they subsequently took, and in any case the fuller light of the sun obscures the lesser light of the stars.

In the application of spiritual truths to our own times and our own lives, we must use every kind of knowledge, science, and experience which we possess, but we must not obtrude irrelevant matter into our discussions. Let us take simple examples. When we speak of the rising of sun in the east, we do not go on to reconcile the expression with the Copernican system of astronomy. What we mean is as true under the Copernican system as it was under the Ptolemaeic system. When we speak of the endless plains of India, we are not put on our defence because the earth is round. Nor will such poetic expressions as the seven firmaments raise questions as to the nature of space in modern astronomy. Man’s intellect is given to him to investigate the nature of the physical world around him. He forms different conceptions of it at different times. Spiritual truths are quite independent of the question which of these conceptions are true. They deal with matters which are beyond the ken of physical science. In explaining or illustrating them we shall use such language as is current among the people to whom we speak.

Let me set out the names of the most important Tafsīrs, especially those to which I have from time to time referred. They are not, however, in any sense my authorities. They belong to widely different schools of thought, and some of them express extreme views with which I do not agree. I only adopt the general sense of accepted Commentaries.

(1) The monumental work of Abu Ja’far Muhammad lbn Jarīr Tabarī, d. 310 H. A perfect mine of historical information, as the author was both a historian and a Traditionist. Copies are not easily accessible.

(2) The Mufradāt, a dictionary of difficult words and phrases in the Qur-ān by Abul-Qāsim Husain Rāgib, of Ispahān, d. 503 H. Also explains allusions.

(3) The Kashshāf, by Abul-Qasim Mahmūd Zamakhsharī of Khwārism, d. 538 H. Very full in the explanation of words and idioms; takes a decidedly rational and ethical view of doctrine. Numerous Commentaries have been written on this Commentary.

(4) Tafsīr Kabīr, by Fakhr-ud-dīn Muhammad Rāzi, d. 606 H. Very comprehensive. Strong in interpretations from a Sūfī or spiritual point of view.

(5) Anwār-ut-Tanzīl, by Qadhī Nasīr-ud-dīn Abū Sa’īd Baidhāwi, d. 685 H. Has drawn largely from the, Mufradāt, the Kashshāf, and the Tafsīr Kabīr, but incorporates a good deal of original matter. A very popular Commentary, on which again numerous Commentaries have been written.

(6) The Tafsīr of Abul-Fidā Ismā’īl Ibn Kathīr, d. 774 H. Voluminous, but has great authority among the ‘Ulamā.

(7) Itqān fī ‘ulūm-il-Qur-ān by Jalāl-ud-dīn Suyūtī, d. 911 H. A comprehensive review of the sciences of the Qur-ān, being an introduction to his Majma’-ul-Bahrain.

(8) Tafsīr Jalālain. — Written by the two Jalāl-ud-dīns, one of whom was the author of the Itqān mentioned above, d. 911 H. A concise and meritorious Commentary, on which again a number of Commentaries have been written.

(9) Our country has produced some notable scholars in the realm of Tafsīr. They wrote in Arabic and Persian, and the latter ones have written in Urdu.

The earliest I can trace is Shaikh ‘Alī Ibn Ahmad Mahāimī (of Māhim, near Bombay), d. 835 H.=1432 A.D, author of the Tafsīr Rahmānī. Almost contemporary with him was ‘Allāma Shams-ud-dīn, of Daulatābād and Delhi, who lived during the brilliant reign of Ibrāhim Sharqī of Jaunpur (1400—1440 AD.). He wrote in Persian. During the nineteenth century, the famous Muhaddith of Delhi, Shāh Walī-ullāh, and his two sons Shāh ‘Abdul ‘Azīz (d. 1824) and Shāh ‘Abdul Qādir (d. 1826) wrote both translations and Commentaries. Shāh ‘Abdul ‘Azīz wrote in Persian and Shāh ‘Abdul Qādir in Urdu. The Urdu Commentary of Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan of ‘Alīgarh (d. 1898) has not met the approval of the ‘Ulamā. On the other hand the more recent Urdu Commentary of Maulvi ‘Abdul Haqq, the Tafsīr Haqqānī, has passed through several editions, is quite modern in tone and manageable in bulk, and is widely circulated in India. I have derived much instruction from it and have used it constantly. The Commentary of Maulvi Abul Kalām Āzād has been planned on a spacious scale and has not yet been finished.

(10) The Modernist school in Egypt got a wise lead from the late Shaikh Muhammad ‘Abduh (d. 1323 H.=1905 AD.), whose unfinished Commentary is being completed by Muhammad Rashīd Ridhā, the talented editor of the Manār newspaper. The work of Shaikh Tantāwī, Jauharī, a pupil of ‘Abduh, finds the “jewels” of the Qur-ān and of the sciences mutually illuminative, and suggests many new lines of thought. ‘Allāma Farīd Wajdī is also spoken of as a good modern Commentator: I have not yet been able to get a copy of his work.

(11) It has been said that the Qur-ān is its own best Commentary. As we proceed with the study of the Book, we find how true this is. A careful comparison and collation of passages from the Qur-ān removes many difficulties. Use a good Concordance, such as the one I have named among the Works of Reference, and you will find that one passage throws light on another.