The Best Tafsir (Interpretation) of the Qur’an

On the 15th of March 2010 I was invited to give a talk at an exhibition of the Qur’an organized at the University of Liverpool, UK. In the evening I had dinner with two of my hosts, both of whom are currently finishing a PhD at the University. Naturally, most of our discussions were focused on the Qur’an and, in particular its interpretation. One of the two gentlemen, who is a qualified medical doctor from Saudi Arabia, then asked me about “the best tafsir (exegetical work) of the Qur’an.” He meant to ask which of the classical works of atTabari (224-310 H / 838-922 CE), Ibn Kathir (700-774 H / 1300-1372 CE)….etc is best.
I have not read in full any of the massive classical exegetical works because this is not how I use those books. I consult a number of them on a certain topic when I am actively researching that subject, often in the course of a book I am writing. For instance, when I was writing my interpretation of the Qur’anic chapter of Joseph, I studied the full interpretation of this chapter in a number of those sources. When it comes to the Qur’an, I am more of a specialist than a generalist, so my reading list is very much populated by my specific interests. Nevertheless, I have read enough of the main classical sources to feel confident enough to form a view on them.
My reply was that, to start with, there is no perfect exegetical work. Any attempt to interpret any one verse may or may not succeed. Any book that tries to interpret the whole of the Qur’an is bound to have many shortcomings. This fact did not stop scholars from producing comprehensive exegetical works, and rightly so. If the possibility of making mistakes were to be allowed to prevent us from trying to interpret the Qur’an then that would have led to neglecting the Book of Allah. Reading and applying the Qur’an involve and require interpreting it. A text and its interpretations are not one and the same; they are two different and separate entities. But the process of using a text involves interpreting it. This is an inevitability, so we might as well understand its implication and learn how to best take into account.
Given that no exegetical work is perfect, is it possible to consider some to be better than others? The answer must be a definite yes. Some of them excel more or, put differently, have less problems than others.
My answer to the question, which is obviously based on the works I am familiar with, came as a surprise to my hosts for a number of reasons. First, it is a work that they had not heard of. Second, it is a modern rather than old exegesis. Third, it is the work of a Shia scholar. The exegesis I am talking about is that of Muhammad atTabatabai (1892-1981 CE).
Like any other exegesis, atTabatabai’s has its own problems. There are two aspects of his work that I consider as its main shortcomings. First, its interpretation of the Qur’an shows a great deal of influence by Shia beliefs. As someone who is not given to any one particular denominational set of dogmas, I disagree with any attempt to approach the interpretation of the Qur’an with preset, extra-Qur’anic concepts. Second, atTabatabai over-relies on old literature the value of which he accepts on the basis of its attribution to certain famous scholars. These are mainly sayings attributed to the Shia Imams.
Now, none of these two problems is specific to atTabatabai’s work. They are driven by Shiaism in his case, but the same problems are found in any of the other classical works where the exegete’s interpretations can be influenced by certain, prior beliefs and the selection of sources that reflect them. In my view, the overreliance on old literature, including alleged Prophetic sayings or reports about how he acted, has been one of the fundamental problems in Muslim scholarship and has given birth to all kinds of unfortunate consequences at both the thought and application levels.
AtTabatabai excels over others, however, in two significant ways. First, he has a much more rational approach to the interpretation of the Qur’an. He is capable of avoiding the kind of absurdness that has blighted many exegetical works. His failures here are often caused by allowing inherited literature to cloud his otherwise fine judgment and analysis.
Second, I also highly respect atTabatabai’s ability to see in the endlessly rich Qur’anic text things that are often missed out by others. This, in my view, is the one skill or talent that distinguishes the great scholar of the Qur’an from the average. I am talking about those textual observations that leave you with a strong appreciation of the depth, beauty, consistency, and interconnectedness of the Qur’anic text. This sense of overwhelming pious warmth is partly caused by the realization of the intellect that its own power is being used to drown it in humbleness.
But even if one has a particular exegesis that he thinks is the best, he should consult as many and different interpretations as necessary when researching any one particular issue or verse. Because there is no one exegetical work that is better than the rest in every respect, it is essential not to rely on any one work. This means that atTabatabai’s interpretation of a particular verse is not necessarily better than someone else’s. Different sources can also offer different benefits. For instance, being the oldest surviving specialist exegetical work of the Qur’an, atTabari’s work is particularly valuable in its compilation of the views of older scholars. Those who rely on one source make the same dogmatic mistake that I mentioned earlier, which even atTabatabai makes. I concluded a previous article on The Evolving Nature of Qur’anic Exegesis as follows: “Muslims need to keep an open-mind and be ready to raise questions rather than accept passively anything and everything they read or hear. Perhaps, scrutinizing the arguments of this article would be a good start.” This is a critical mindset to take when studying the Qur’an in order to avoid leaving the Qur’an behind us, separated from us by centuries of time.
Surprised by my unconventional choice of atTabatabai, my host went on to ask about specific exegetes he was familiar with, naming Ibn Kathir in particular. As the names he had in mind were well-known and highly respected, I thought of a way of showing the difference between studying those scholars among the sources that one may seek and seeing them as containing the final word on the Qur’an, which I know is how some think. So instead of giving a direct answer, I started by asking what looks like an unrelated question: “How old do you think prophet Joseph was when he was abandoned by his brother and was taken to Egypt?” The reply was: “Ten years.” I followed up: “What makes you think he was this young?” The brother replied: “Because he is described in the Qur’an as being ‘ghulam’ (12.19) at the time, and this word means ‘young boy.’” I said that I agreed with him. This is one reference in the Qur’an that Joseph was a young boy at the time. There are other, more subtle references which I discuss in my book The Prophet Joseph in the Qur’an, the Bible, and History: A new detailed commentary on the Qur’anic Chapter of Joseph.
Then I told the brother that many exegetes have suggested that Joseph was seventeen years old when his brothers threw him in the well! This view has been cited by, among others, atTabari, al-Qurtubi (578-668 H / 1178 – 1269 CE), Ibn Kathir, and atTusi (597-672 H / 1200-1273 CE) in their commentary on verse 12.100; al-Jalalayn in their interpretation of verse 12.15; and as-Suyuti (849-911 H / 1445-1505 CE) when commenting on verse 12.42. I then explained why these scholars have cited a view that is clearly in conflict with the Qur’anic account: their influence by the Bible! More specifically, this identification of Joseph’s age comes from the Book of Genesis (37:2). The fundamental point I was trying to make to that intelligent person is that his interpretation, which is based on analyzing a simple Qur’anic text, can be more accurate than an interpretation of an expert whose judgment was clouded by extra-Qur’anic literature some of which even contradicted the Qur’an.
To further explain why the authority of those classical scholars should not be taken for granted and that the modern student of the Qur’an must be open-minded and questioning, I gave an example about the kinds of absurdness that is found in exegetical works. This instance, which I discuss in my book on prophet Joseph (pp. 14-15), is met in commentaries on verse 80 of the chapter of Joseph. Joseph prevented his older ten brothers from taking his younger brother back with them and decided to keep him in Egypt, so the following verse explains what happened afterward:

So, when they (Joseph’s brothers) despaired of [convincing] him (Joseph), they conferred privately. The eldest among them said: “Do you not know that your father has taken from you a covenant in Allah’s name, and how you gave away Joseph before? Therefore I will not depart from this land until my father permits me or Allah judges for me, and He is the best of judges.” (12.80) 

In his commentary on this verse, al Qurtubi attributes the following narrative to the old exegete Ibn ‘Abbas:

When Judah (one of Joseph’s brothers) would get angry and take the sword, not even a hundred thousand [fighters] would be able to repel him. The hairs of his chest would stand like large needles and penetrate his clothes. It was reported that Judah, who was the most volatile among his brothers, said to them: “Either you sort out the king (meaning Joseph who had detained his brother Benjamin) and I sort out the people of Egypt, or you sort out the people of Egypt and I sort out the king and those who are with him.” His brothers said: “You sort out the king and those who are with him, and we will sort out the people of Egypt.” So, he sent out one of his brothers to count the markets in Egypt, which they found to be nine. Each of them picked a market.

Judah then entered Joseph’s office and said: “O king! If you do not give us back our brother I will make such a cry that would make every pregnant woman in your city suffer a miscarriage.” That was a special attribute in them (Joseph’s brothers) when they got angry. Joseph angered Judah by saying something to him. Judah, therefore, got angry, his anger increased, and his body hair stood. This was the case with everyone of Jacob’s sons. When one of them would get angry, he would get goose bumps, his body would grow, the hairs of his back would protrude through his clothes, and a drop of blood would fall from each hair. If he would hit the ground with his foot, the earth would quake and buildings would collapse. If he would make a cry, every pregnant woman, animal, and bird would give birth, whether what they carried were fully developed or not. His anger would not go unless he shed blood or was touched by the hand of one of the offspring of Jacob.

When Joseph realized that the anger of his brother Judah had reached its climax, he asked in Coptic a young son of his to touch Judah between his shoulders without letting the latter see him. He did that, so Judah’s anger disappeared and he threw away the sword. He turned right and left expecting to see one of his brothers but he could not see any. He went out in a hurry to his brothers and asked them: “Was anyone of you with me [in the presence of Joseph]?” They replied: “No.” He said: “Where has Simeon (one of their brothers) gone?” They answered: “To the mountain.”

Judah left and met his brother who was carrying a massive rock. Judah asked Simeon: “What do you want to do with this?” Simeon replied: “I will go to the market that was assigned to me and smash the head of everyone there with this rock.” Judah said: “Return this rock or throw it in the sea, and do not say anything to anyone. I swear by the One who took [prophet] Abraham as His close friend that a hand of someone from Jacob’s offspring has touched me.”

Then, they entered Joseph’s office. The latter, who was the strongest among them, said: “O you Hebrews! Do you think that there is no one who is stronger than you?” He turned to a massive rock of the rocks of the mill and kicked it with his foot, pushing it through the wall. Then he caught Judah with one hand and wrestled him to the ground!

This incredible narrative has absolutely nothing to do with the Qur’an. None of its many absurd details comes from the Qur’an, yet it is mentioned in the context of interpreting the Qur’anic chapter of Joseph. But this story is not confined to the exegesis of al Qurtubi. It occurs in different and similar, and longer and shorter, versions in many exegetical books, such as those of atTabari, al-‘Ayyashi (d. 320 H / 932 CE), al-Qummi (d. 329 H / 940 CE), as-Suyuti, and al-Huwayzi (d. 1112 H / 1700 CE). Any genuine attempt to interpret the Qur’an must be respected, but that respect must not prevent us from properly assessing it and taking a view on where it succeeds and where it falls short.

To sum up, I consider the exegesis of atTabatabai superior to other exegetical works, because of its modern tone and the higher depth and quality of its analysis. But atTabatabai’s work has its own problems. There is no perfect interpretation of the Qur’an. This is why it is essential that the student of the Qur’an does not rely on any one source but consults a number of works by scholars from different periods, denominations, and schools of thought.

Copyright © 2010 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved.


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