Principles of Explaining the Quran: Tools

I begin in the name of Allah who taught Quran and created man.

The Quran is one of the greatest blessings Allah has granted us. It definitely befits us to do it justice when reading, understanding, and explaining it.

There are many principles to keep in mind when explaining the Quran. To make it easier to understand, this will be a series of articles loosely divided based on somewhat arbitrary distinctions. This first article will be about tools.


The section of tools will discuss four things: techniques, sources, references, and semi-sources. First, there will be a skeleton of each term for easy reference, then there will be more detailed discussions.

The techniques of explaining the Quran are two:

  1. Reference to authorities
  2. Ijtihad from the sources directly

The sources of explaining the Quran are four:

  1. The Quran itself
  2. The Sunnah
  3. The Arabic language
  4. Observation and reasoning

The references one refers to when explaining the Quran are six:

  1. Allah (in the Quran)
  2. Prophet
  3. Sahabah (Companions)
  4. Tabi’een
  5. Tab’ Tabi’een
  6. The rest of the scholars

The semi-sources of explaining the Quran are many. The four following are mentioned and discussed:

  1. Consensus
  2. Popularity
  3. Isrāīliyyāt (Judeo-Christian tradition)
  4. Arab tradition


The methods of explaining the Quran are two: 1) referring to authorities and 2) doing ijtihad from the sources directly.

The scholars also called this division tafsir bil-ma’thūr vs. tafsir bir-ray or tafsir bir-riwāyah vs. tafsir bid-dirāyah.

The first is when the mufassir explains a verse by referring to an authority of the past or quotes one of their opinions. That is because he considers that authority more qualified in speaking about the Quran either due to their possibility of divine knowledge or superior ability to do ijtihād.

The second is when the mufassir explains a verse with their ijtihād; ijtihād is reasoning based on the sources.

Most of the time, people do a combination of the two. They come to an opinion because of both their ijtihad and authorities of the past.

That said, some mufassirūn were more focused on reference based explanation and others were more focused on direct ijtihād. Among the mufassirūn known for their reliance on reference are Tabari, Baghawi, and Ibn Kathīr.


The ultimate sources of explaining the Quran are four:

  1. The Quran itself
  2. The Sunnah
  3. The Arabic language
  4. Observation and reasoning

The reason why the Quran and Sunnah are sources is obvious. The Quran is a source in two major ways: using other verses to explain a verse and using a verse’s context. The Sunnah is also a source in two major ways: the Prophet’s explanations and the circumstances of revelation.

As for the Arabic language, it is a source because Allah says the Quran was revealed “In a clear Arabic language.” (26:195)

As for observation and reasoning, it is a source when the Quran describes something in the world. We use observation and reasoning to determine what the Quran was most likely referring to. Allah says: “Then do they not reflect upon the Qur’an?” (4:82)

Circumstances of Revelation

The circumstances of revelation (asbab an-nuzūl) are extremely important in understanding what many verses mean. Without knowing their circumstances, a mufassir could explain them in an entirely incorrect way.

That said, there is a famous principle in tafsīr that states “The meaning is according to the generality of the wording, not the specificity of the circumstance.”

This principle however requires elaboration.

If there is a verse that mentions a general noun that can include many different things inside it, the existence of a specific circumstance in which the verse was revealed does not by itself limit its application to other circumstances that also fall into the general words. But, it may still be limited with the use of other evidence. The only point is that it is not limited solely by the circumstance.

On the other hand, if there is a verse that mentions a phrase or sentence that could be interpreted in separate ways, the circumstance of revelation usually is enough evidence to limit the verse to one interpretation. However, that other interpretation is not necessarily entirely discarded from use especially when the meaning is already based on other sound evidence. It is simply a weak interpretation, and someone who uses the verse for this meaning is more likely only using the verse for barakah.

The difference between the first and the second case is that the first case is about inclusion in one word or phrase while the second case is about there being multiple possible interpretations of one phrase or sentence.

An example of each might clarify the difference.

First example: In the time of the Prophet (SAW), a man saw his wife committing adultery with someone and came to the Prophet and accused her of adultery. He did not have four witnesses. So, technically, he was at fault for slander and deserved 80 lashes in accordance with the verse of slander.

Allah revealed in the case of this man:

And those who accuse their wives [of adultery] and have no witnesses except themselves – then the witness of one of them [shall be] four testimonies [swearing] by Allah that indeed, he is of the truthful.

And the fifth [oath will be] that the curse of Allah be upon him if he should be among the liars.

But it will prevent punishment from her if she gives four testimonies [swearing] by Allah that indeed, he is of the liars.

And the fifth [oath will be] that the wrath of Allah be upon her if he was of the truthful. 

Quran 24:6-9

This is narrated in Sunan at-Tirmidhi 3179.

The noun “those [who accuse their wives]” is general to include all men who do this. So, the verse is general to include all such cases even though it was revealed during a specific case.

Second example: Before Islam, the polytheists used to have the practice that people who returned from Hajj would enter their houses from the back rather than the front.

So, Allah revealed:

They ask you, [O Muhammad], about the new moons. Say, “They are measurements of time for the people and for Hajj.” And it is not righteousness to enter houses from the back, but righteousness is [in] one who fears Allah. And enter houses from their doors. And fear Allah that you may succeed.

Quran 2:189

This is narrated in Sahih Bukhari 1803

The common and well-known interpretation of this verse is that Allah discredits this pre-Islamic practice and says it has no basis.

Abu Ubaidah in his Majāz al-Quran gives the following interpretation:

“Righteousness” is in the place of “righteous person.” Its figurative meaning is: Seek righteousness from its people and from its face, and don’t seek it from the ignorant polytheists.

Majāz al-Quran

Essentially, he says the verse is a metaphor to mean one should not try to seek good from the wrong places i.e. the polytheists (which is like entering houses from the back) but rather from the proper places i.e. the believers (which is what it means to enter houses from their doors).

A third interpretation which no Muslim takes but is technically possible from the wording would be to say it is forbidden to enter houses from the back and obligatory to enter through the doors.

Here, it can be seen how the same sentence is interpreted in some different ways. Only the interpretation that is based on the circumstance is correct, and the others are wrong.

Arabic Language

See elaborated article on Meaning and Definition.

The Arabic language in this discussion refers to grammar and the meaning of words, phrases, and sentences.

We know the Arabic language from primary and secondary sources. Primary sources are the Quran itself, the Sunnah, the statements of the Salaf, and poetry. Secondary sources are Arabic linguists and their works: both grammatical and lexical.

The Quran and Sunnah are primary sources of the language for obvious reasons. Allah is the speaker of the perfect Arabic book, and the Prophet is the first audience of that book. So, the way the Quran uses words is evidence in the Arabic language. Likewise, the way the Prophet used words is evidence in the language.

The Salaf were early enough to live in a time when the language had not changed as much from the time of the Quran’s revelation. Their explanations may be considered evidence in the language.

Poetry was the literature of the Arabs. What they considered eloquent speech is recorded in it. The importance of poetry in how the past mufassirūn explained the Quran cannot be understated.

Because Allah says the Quran is in “clear Arabic language,” it is expected for the Quran to follow what is expected, clear, and eloquent in Arabic.

There is one primary source we no longer have access to except through secondary sources: the normal usage of the Arabs, especially the Bedouins. This is only known today through the secondary sources.

The linguists and grammarians are important sources for those explaining the Quran today. However, because they are secondary, they should usually yield to one of the primary sources if there is a contradiction.

If they say the usage of the Quran or Sunnah is incorrect (which is probably impossible to find since all the important linguists were Muslim), the Quran is obviously preferred because Allah knows Arabic better than the linguists. If they say the explanation of a large amount of the Salaf is linguistically wrong, the explanation of the Salaf is usually preferred because they are a primary source. However, a singular scholar from the Salaf could be considered wrong especially when there are opposing views from other scholars from the Salaf.


References are those that a mufassir refers to when explaining the Quran. The main references are as follows in order of importance:

  1. Allah (in the Quran)
  2. Prophet
  3. Sahabah (Companions)
  4. Tabi’een
  5. Tab’ Tabi’een
  6. The rest of the scholars

As it can be seen in the first two, there is some overlap between sources and references.

These references differ in three aspects: authority, authenticity, and relevance. All three aspects determine the final strength of the explanation based on them.

Other references like Judeo-Christian tradition will be discussed in another section.


It is obvious why Allah and the Prophet are authorities. As for Allah, the Quran is His own book. As for the Prophet (SAW), he was the perfect embodiment of how to follow the Quran. The opinions of Allah are taken from the Quran itself, and the opinions of the Prophet (SAW) are taken from the Sunnah.

Both of their authority is absolute.

The Sahabah are authorities because of their closeness to the Prophet (SAW) and the events during which the Quran was revealed, their sincerity and Allah’s praise for them in the Quran, and their closeness to the Arabic in which the Quran was revealed. When they speak about the Quran, we are reasonably sure they are speaking sincerely, and it is possible they are speaking based on something the Prophet said even if they don’t explicitly mention so.

Their authority is not absolute. Its strength is disputed among the scholars. Some of them said anything the Sahabah said explaining the Quran should be taken as prophetic because they would not speak without knowledge. This view is problematic, because it is possible the Sahabah spoke based on ijtihad from the sources.

The first three generations are preferred over the rest because of the hadith of the Prophet (SAW):

“The best people are those of my generation, and then those who will come after them (the next generation), and then those who will come after them (i.e. the next generation), and then after them, there will come people whose witness will precede their oaths, and whose oaths will precede their witness.”

Sahih Bukhari 6429

But, that does not mean it is impossible for some scholars of the first three generations to be wrong and later scholars to be correct with some caveats as will be mentioned in another article.

They are also preferred because of their closeness to pure Arabic and the higher likelihood of their statements being from the Prophet due to their closeness to his time.

As for the later scholars, they are used as authorities by laymen Muslims, but it is preferable for them to refer to the earlier generations whenever possible.

Relevance: Direct, Indirect, and Connections

From the authorities mentioned above (especially the Quran and Sunnah), the explanation quoted or referred to from them can either be direct or indirect in relevance.

Direct is when there is little to no doubt that the quoted statement is meant as an explanation for a verse. For example, the Prophet (SAW) may explicitly quote a verse and say something as explanation for it. In the Quran, Allah might explicitly define a word Himself like the word qāri’ah.

Indirect is when the quoted statement is not explicitly stated to be an explanation for the verse. For example, the Prophet (SAW) might say something that appears like a good explanation of a verse but does not quote the verse himself.

In direct statements from the Quran and Sunnah, the explanation is absolute and must be accepted.

In indirect statements, the mufassir must show a connection between the quote and the verse being explained. The strength of the explanation depends on how clear the connection is.


Semi-sources are things that act like sources but are not actually sources in and of themselves. There are probably many examples of this, however some of the more important ones are:

  1. Consensus
  2. Popularity
  3. Isrāīliyyāt (Judeo-Christian tradition)
  4. Arab tradition


Consensus is a source of law in Islam, hence it also applies in tafsir. Consensus is either direct and obvious or indirect. An example of obvious consensus is the consensus that there are five obligatory prayers in a day. Obvious consensus is completely binding evidence. The one who opposes it is at risk of sin if not disbelief.

Indirect consensus is also known as consensus from silence. There are different definitions and boundaries of it according to different scholars. But, in tafsir, I would say it is when a large amount of the mufassirūn of the Sahabah and the Salaf spoke about a verse giving a particular interpretation without any opposing opinion among them. It is indirect and of silence because it is not directly known all of them agreed, but it is extremely likely because of the prevalence of the view and silence of everyone else.

If there are few mufassirūn from the Salaf who gave an opinion on a verse while most were silent, that is not considered a consensus.

It is hard to register consensus after the generation of the Salaf.

Indirect consensus is also binding evidence for a mufassir when explaining the Quran. The one who opposes it is at risk of misinterpreting the Quran and twisting Allah’s words.

Some misconceptions about consensus will be mentioned in a later article.


Popularity is not itself a source of law in Islam. However, it is an important secondary consideration in explaining the Quran.

When one view is very popular among the Salaf that may point to there being some linguistic basis for that interpretation being superior or there may be a statement of the Prophet (SAW) that did not reach us. It may also simply point to a view being more like to be correct since more people adopted it.

But, popularity is not binding evidence. It is only something a mufassir may use when preferring one view or another.

It is also important to track the change of popularity through history. It is possible a view was popular among the Salaf then another view became popular among the later scholars. That does not necessarily indicate the first view was correct.


Isrāīliyyāt are also known as Judeo-Christian tradition. They were a common source used by the Salaf in elaborating on the summarized stories of the Quran.

It is important not to conflate this with the Bible itself as it is today. Arab Jews and Christians, which is where most of the early mufassirūn got their traditions, had many differences from the strands that are popular now. That is why there are many narrations mentioned in the Muslim sources from the Jewish tradition that would not be found in the books of the Jews today.

The scholars differed on whether using these traditions is allowed or recommended. Many of them allowed on the basis of ahādith like:

The Prophet (ﷺ) said, “Convey from me even if one verse; relate traditions from Bani Israel, and there is no harm in that; but whoever deliberately forges a lie from me, let him take his seat in the fire.”

Sahih Bukhari 3461

The side that discourages or prohibits using their traditions quotes other narrations that seem to point to prohibition. Then, both sides have long discussions about which came first and which abrogated what, which will not be delved into here.

Using the traditions of Bani Israil was the widespread practice of the Salaf and many Sahabah. So, whoever prohibits it would need to contend with that reality.

But, I do not know the exact basis of using their traditions. It is for one of two reasons or a combination of them:

  1. It is possible some of them are from the revelation of Allah
  2. They were simply the best historical records they had access to.

If it was for the second reason, then modern subjects like history and archaeology should be treated similar to how the Salaf treated Isrāīliyyāt. Perhaps they should even be preferred over them since one could argue they are more proven than them.

A third reason is possible: They hold lessons in them even if the exact details are not accurate.

As it stands today, there are two major questions on the use of Israiliyāt that need to be answered:

  • What should be done with the past scholars’ explanations of verses with Isrāīliyyāt? Should they be accepted or rejected? How to even identify whether an opinion is based on Isrāīliyyāt or not?
  • Should we continue to use Isrāīliyyāt today by reading the Bible today and using that as a source when explaining the Quran?

All these questions and more will be discussed in a future article on Isrāīliyyāt.

And I end by praising Allah and sending salawāt on the Prophet. Allah knows best.

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