The words tafseer and ta’weel were considered synonyms by the early generations of Muslims; however, in the centuries following the era of the taabi‘oon and their students (9th and 10th centuries CE/3rd and 4th centuries AH), the term ta’weel took on a new meaning with new and dangerous implications. Consequently, it is necessary for us to look at these terms in their original context, as well as their later usage.
The word tafseer, which comes from the verb fassara, literally means an explanation or an exposition, as in the verse,
“For any parable they bring, I will bring you the truth and a better explanation (tafseeran).”
However, in Qur’aanic sciences, this term is defined as a branch of knowledge by which the Qur’aan is understood, its meanings explained, and its points of law and wisdom derived.
On the other hand, the word ta’weel, which comes from the verb awwala, literally means interpretation. When the word ta’weel is used in the context of a command, it means its execution or implementation, as in the hadeeth reported by ‘Aa’ishah in which she said, “Allaah’s Messenger (r) used to implement (yata’awwal) the Qur’aan by saying in rukoo‘ (bowing) and sujood (prostration) [during salaah],
‘Glory be to You, O Allaah, our Lord, and Praised are You. O Allaah, forgive me’.”
She was referring to the Prophet’s execution of Allaah’s command in the verse,
“Glorify Your Lord and ask His forgiveness, for verily, He is Oft- Forgiving.”
When ta’weel is used in reference to news or information, it refers to its occurrence, as in the verse,
“Verily, I have brought them a book of knowledge—and explained it in detail—a guide and a mercy for the Believers. Are they only waiting for the occurrence (ta’weelahu) (of what is in the Book)?”
That is, Allaah ridicules those who do not accept revelation by asking them if they are foolishly awaiting the occurrence of the final hour and its signs, the Judgment, Paradise, and the Hellfire, when it will be too late.However, when the word ta’weel is used in reference to recorded speech, it refers to its explanation or interpretation, as in the verse:
“It is He who revealed the Book to you. In it are clear verses which are the essence of the Book and others which are obscure. As for those whose hearts are twisted, they follow what is obscure seeking to sow discord and searching for its interpretation (ta’weelahu).”
Hence, the early scholars of tafseer used the words tafseer and ta’weel interchangeably. For example, Ibn Jareer at-Tabaree, in his tafseer, commonly introduced each section with the phrase, “The opinion concerning the ta’weel (explanation) of the statement of the Exalted.”
In later centuries, when deviant and heretical explanations abounded, the term ta’weel was used by the scholars of that time to justify them and give them an air of legitimacy. They defined ta’weel as the shifting of an expression from its obvious meaning to one of its likely meanings due to its context; that is, the interpretation of a passage by other than its obvious meaning for whatever reason a scholar considered relevant. For example, scholars of this period under Mu‘tazilee (Rationalist) influence explained away the word ‘hand’ in the following verse, which refers to an oath taken by the sahaabah:
“Allaah’s hand is above their hands.”
They interpreted it as being Allaah’s help and support for the simple reason that, as they put it, Allaah could not possibly have a hand. This ‘ta’weel’ was based on the false premise that the attribution of a hand to Allaah automatically implied conceptualizing Him in human form. However, in the same way that referring to Allaah as a living being (al-Hayy) does not in any way make Him humanlike, because His life is in no way like our life, referring to Allaah’s hand as a real hand does not make Him humanlike, for his hand is in no way like our hands. It should be noted, however, that the affirmation by Ahl as-Sunnah wa al-Jamaa‘ah that Allaah has a real hand does not mean that they understand His hand to be a body part.