The Evolving Nature of Qur’anic Exegesis



In a recent poll on this website, visitors were asked the following question: “The text of the Qur’an remains unchanged. Should its interpretation develop with time?”. There were three available answers: “yes”, “no”, and “I do not know.” In total, 163 visitors cast their votes. About 59% (96 people) answered yes to the question, 33% (54 people) said no, and a minority of 8% (13 votes) were undecided. 163 may not be a large number to read much into these figures, but the results cannot be dismissed completely, and regardless of their statistical significance they serve well a discussion of a very important issue in Qur’anic exegesis (Arabic: Tafsir), which is whether the interpretation of the Qur’anic text can evolve with time or not.

The question clearly stresses the unchanging nature of the Qur’anic text, but it also implies that its interpretation could evolve. The “yes” answers of the majority clearly means that they accept that the interpretation of the Qur’an can and should evolve. The minority who voted “I do not know” were unable to completely rule out any of the two mutually exclusive possibilities. A third of the participants, who voted “no”, clearly thought that the interpretation of the sacred text should not evolve.

The main problem of the “no” vote, which may also be implied in some votes of the undecided group, is the underlying assumption that there is something specific and unambiguously defined called “the interpretation of the Qur’an,” more or less in the same way that the Qur’an itself is specifically and unambiguously identified. But is this image of the interpretation of the Qur’an realistic? The Qur’an is a book whose text has not changed since it was revealed to Prophet Muhammad 14 centuries ago. But is there similarly a book, group of books, or specific text that can be exclusively called “the interpretation of the Qur’an”? The simple answer is no, there isn’t. In fact, there has never been.

The concept of the unchangeability of the interpretation of the Qur’an can be attributed mainly to the misunderstanding of the following two facts: first, the Prophet Muhammad interpreted the Qur’an to the early Muslims; and second, the existence of highly respected classical exegetical works of the whole Qur’an. I will show below that neither of these facts justify the wrong conclusions – or, more accurately, assumptions — that there is something specific called the interpretation of the Qur’an and that this interpretation should not evolve.

Prophet Muhammad and the Interpretation of the Qur’an

There are three main points about the role of Prophet Muhammad in interpreting the Qur’an that are relevant to our discussion:

1) Although the Prophet did indeed interpret the Qur’an to Muslims, this does not mean that we have today his interpretation of every verse of the Qur’anic text. It is almost certain that a lot of what the Prophet said has gone unrecorded and has not reached us. Unless one claims that there was a divine plan to make sure that every word of the Prophet and every comment he made about the Qur’an or a Qur’anic verse reached us — and there is no evidence that there was such a plan — then we have to accept that some of the Prophet’s words were ever only heard by a few people. This means that there is room to further evolve the interpretation of the Qur’an.

2) Any assumption that everything that the Prophet said and reached us was transmitted exactly as he uttered it lacks any evidence. In fact, there are clear proofs that this was not the case at all. Note, for instance, the centuries old disagreement even among Muslim scholars about the authenticity of some of the sayings (Arabic: ḥadīth) that are attributed to the Prophet, including sayings that explain Qur’anic verses. This disagreement is not found only between scholars from different Islamic schools of thought or denominations (Arabic: madhahib), but also between scholars who share the same doctrinal background. Some scholars reject as unauthentic sayings that other accept as authentic.

The point here is not to suggest who is right or wrong, or to point a finger of accusation to the intention of those who first wrote and those who copied the sayings. Even the most intelligent, dedicated, and sincere person can make honest mistakes. The Qur’an is the only Islamic literature that has been completely preserved and whose integrity has been protected, not because people protected it, but because it was and is divinely guarded. This is how the Qur’an describes how Allah has protected it: 

Verily, it is We who revealed the Remembrance [the Qur’an], and verily, We are its Guardian (15.9).

Surely those who disbelieved in the Remembrance [the Qur’an] when it came to them [were wrong]; surely it is an impregnable Book (41.41). Falsehood cannot come to it from anywhere; [it is] a revelation from One who is Wise and Praised (41.42).

The Qur’an does not tell us that Allah has protected any other Islamic literature — not even the sayings of the Prophet. Even the available compilations of sayings of the Prophet cannot be described as being free of sayings that have been inaccurately recorded and others that are completely inauthentic, i.e. the Prophet never said.

3) As a divine book, the Qur’an is a book of endless miracles. One hadith that is attributed to the Prophet describes the Qur’an as a book “whose lessons never end and whose miracles never end.”[1] As man’s general knowledge and understanding developed, scholars started to discover new meanings in the Qur’an that were unknown to people in the past. It is a totally unsupported assumption to claim that the Prophet told Muslims at that time about what scientific facts would be discovered and how the Qur’an had already mentioned them. There is no justification for this assumption. If that had really happened, we would not have had to wait for centuries after the revelation of the Qur’an for those discoveries to be made. The Qur’anic text has many meanings, and some of these meanings can be understood only when particular conditions are met. A verse that refers to an unknown scientific or historical fact cannot be really fully understood and interpreted until our knowledge of that science or history has advanced. For instance, the recent progress of our understanding of embryology has allowed us to understand in more depth verses that talk about the development of human embryos.

These three points show that the interpretation of the Qur’an can and must evolve because of its inherent nature and because of practical problems in the transmission of Islamic literature.

Exegetical Literature and the Interpretation of the Qur’an

There are many highly rated exegetical books of the Qur’an. The very presence of this literature undermines the claim that the interpretation of the Qur’an is one, well-defined corpus of literature that we ought not add to or develop in any way. There is not one exegetical book of the Qur’an, but there are many. Some of the better known classical works include those by atTabari (9th-10th century), atTusi (11th century), Ibn ‘Arabi (12th-13th century), al-Qurtubi (13th century), Ibn Kathir (14th century), al-Jalalayn (15th century), and atTabatabai (20th century), to name only a few. There are many more. If there is one interpretation of the Qur’an, why do we have tens and hundreds of books of exegesis? A partial answer to this question is that different interpretational books were written by scholars who followed different schools of thought. For instance, atTabatabai was a Shia, al-Qurtubi was a Sunni, and Ibn ‘Arabi was a Sufi, and differences between the doctrines of the three exegetes explain some of the differences between their interpretations. However, this fact does not fully answer the question above.

A naïve sectarian reaction to these very different interpretations of the same Qur’an would be to pick one school of thought as the “right” one and accuse the others of being misguided or wrong. This way it may be suggested that, for instance, the Sunni interpretation is correct and the Sufi and Shia are not. But I called this response naïve because the concept of “one interpretation of the Qur’an” does not exist even within any one denomination! Differences exist and are considerable even between works written from the perspective of the same school of thought. For instance, the Sunni interpretations of al-Qurtubi and Ibn Kathir are not one and the same; the Shia exegetical works of AtTabatabai and atTusi have many differences; and the Sufi books of tafsir of Ibn ‘Arabi and al-Qushayri do differ considerably.

So, the concept of “one interpretation of the Qur’an” does not exist across all Islamic denominations, and it is not found even within any one of them. In fact, this concept does not exist even within any one exegetical work! If you look up the interpretation of a verse in, say, the tafsir of al-Qurtubi, the likelihood is that you would not find one authoritative statement about the interpretation of that verse and a rejection of alternative interpretations. This is not what you would see. Most of the time you would find al-Qurtubi cite a number of previous scholars who offered similar and different views on the meaning of that verse and, at many times, even on a word in that verse. Some of the different meanings are compatible and can be all supposed to be correct or at least plausible, but others are contradictory. There is no “one interpretation of the Qur’an” even in any one book of exegesis. This is why the statement that the interpretation of the Qur’an should not evolve is a nothing more than a fallacy.

The interpretation of the Qur’an has always been evolving, and any exegetical work we choose to read would have contributed to by many people who lived at different times and who agreed at times and disagreed at others in their interpretations. There may be one person who compiled that book of exegesis, but that person would have cited tens if not hundreds of other scholars.

Clearly, the availability of a large collection of interpretational books — even within the same school of thought — and the presence of many interpretations within the same book reflect the fact that there is nothing called “the Prophet’s interpretation of the Qur’an” that one could have simply learned or copied. Of course, all works cite at times narratives that link this interpretation or that to the Prophet, but these are narrative that may or may not be accurate.

Qur’anic exegesis has evolved by a principle known as “ijtihad”, or the use of one’s knowledge, reasoning, and best judgement to offer his or her view on a matter, including interpreting the Qur’anic text. The person who practices ijtihad, known as “mujtahid”, is clearly not infallible. As a human being, even if very knowledgeable, the mujtahid’s view on a particular issue may be right or wrong. This is why no interpretation book can claim to be right in everything it says. Surely, some books are better and more accurate than others, but no book can claim to be the exclusive authority on the interpretation of the book of Allah. Scholars over the centuries continued to add their own works to the already massive library of exegetical books. For instance, if Ibn Kathir did not believe that his exegesis of the Qur’an can add to and/or improve on atTabari‘s and other earlier works, he would not have written it. Similarly, Sayyid Qutb (20th century) or ash-Sha’rawi (20th century) must have believed that they can add/or improve on Ibn Kathir’s and older works. The door of ijtihad in Islam has and will always be wide open. Those who want it shut closed are attempting to change a fundamental aspect of Islamic thought and practice that is attested to by every era of Islamic history.


The life of the Muslim is one of continuous exertion of his/her best effort, or jihad, to get closer to the qualities of the ideal Muslim. Learning the Qur’an and developing one’s knowledge of it is one aspect of that endless jihad. There is no one book that we can read that would make us suddenly fully understand the Qur’an. This is an extremely simplistic view not only of the interpretation of the Qur’an, but also of the Qur’an itself. Nothing of value, let alone understanding the Qur’an, can be achieved through such a passive and lazy attitude. All great scholars realized that learning the Qur’an is an endless process and that its goal cannot be to know everything about the Qur’an or reach only correct interpretations of the divine text. As is the case with the learning of any subject, the more we study and the more sincere our efforts are, the more knowledgeable we become, though we would never gain absolute knowledge.

In order to advance our knowledge of the Qur’an we need to read for various old and modern scholars and think about what they had to say. Learning can take place only if the learner took an active role in the process. The Qur’an is full of verses that command and encourage us to think. Receiving passively what we are told is not learning; it is pseudo learning. We are not robots and we should not behave like them. We do not become more knowledgeable by merely memorizing information, but by learning how to process this information intelligently. Those thinking and analyzing skills are essential. Muslims need to keep an open-mind and be ready to raise questions rather than accept passively anything and everything they read or hear. Additionally, we must not forget that one critical requirement to gaining access to the inner knowledge of the Qur’an is piety: “Feat Allah, and Allah will teach you” (2.282).


1 This Prophetic saying has been reported by Abu al-Fadhl ar-Razi al-Qari’ in his book Fadha‘il al-Qur’an wa tilawatih (The Virtues of the Qur’an and its Recitation).

Copyright © 2005 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved.


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