The most notable centers of tafseer which evolved were those of Makkah, Madeenah, and ‘Iraaq. In Makkah, the tafseer school of Ibn ‘Abbaas became the most prominent. ‘Abdullaah ibn ‘Abbaas was considered to be the greatest tafseer scholar among the sahaabah. He reported that once the Prophet (ﷺ) hugged him and prayed for him as follows,
“ O Allaah, give him a deep understanding of the religion and make him skilled in interpretation.”
‘Abdullaah ibn Mas‘ood, the great scholar among the sahaabah, was reported to have conferred on him the title, “Tarjumaan al-Qur’aan,” “Translator of the Qur’aan.” The most famous students of Ibn ‘Abbaas were Mujaahid ibn Jabr, ‘Ikrimah (the freed slave of Ibn ‘Abbaas), Sa‘eed ibn Jubayr, Taawoos ibn Keesaan al-Yamaanee, and ‘Ataa ibn Abee Rabaah.
In Madeenah, the most noted school of tafseer was that of Ubayy ibn Ka‘b, who was considered by most of his contemporaries as the top reciter of the Qur’aan. Ubayy was also the first person chosen by the Prophet (ﷺ) to record the revelation of the Qur’aan.The Prophet (ﷺ) was reported to have said to him,
“ Verily, Allaah, the Most Great and Glorious, has commanded me to recite to you, ‘Lam yakunillatheena kafaroo.’ (Soorah al-Bayyinah).”
When Ubayy asked if Allaah had mentioned him by name, the Prophet (ﷺ) told him yes, and Ubayy cried. Ubayy’s most notable students were Zayd ibn Aslam, Aboo al ‘Aaliyah, and Muhammad ibn Ka‘b al-Qurathee.
In ‘Iraaq, Ibn Mas‘ood headed the most prominent school of tafseer. ‘Abdullaah ibn Mas‘ood, the sixth person to enter Islaam,was among the top reciters of the Qur’aan. The Prophet (ﷺ) himself praised his recitation saying,
“Whoever wishes to recite the Qur’aan in the tender manner in which it was revealed should recite it as Ibn Umm ‘Abd (Ibn Mas‘ood) does.”
As for his knowledge of tafseer, Ibn Mas‘ood said, “By the One besides Whom there is no other god, I know where and why every verse of Allaah’s book was revealed.”
Among the many students of Ibn Mas‘ood who later became scholars in their own right were al-Hasan al-Basree, ‘Alqamah ibn Qays, Masrooq, al-Aswad ibn Yazeed, and ‘Aamir ash-Sha‘bee.
Transmission of Tafseer
During the period of the Sahaba and the Tabieen, tafseer was taught by narration. That is, the sahaabah who headed schools of tafseer would quote the sayings of the Prophet (ﷺ) which explained the meanings of verses, or explain the historical context in which the verses were revealed, or they would quote verses of pre-Islaamic poetry which explained the meaning of some words that were no longer in common use.
After the era of the sahaabah, their students, the taabi‘oon, continued to teach by narration in much the same way that they had learned. However, some of them also began narrating along with their tafseers tales from Jewish and Christian sources to further explain certain passages of the Qur’aan.
It should be noted that some compilation of tafseer took place during the era of the taabi‘oon. The most noteworthy example is that of Mujaahid ibn Jabr , a student of Ibn ‘Abbaas. Mujaahid compiled the earliest known tafseer; however, no copy of his work has reached us. The significance of Mujaahid’s tafseer can be appreciated from his following statement, “I read the whole Qur’aan to Ibn ‘Abbaas three times. During each reading, I stopped at the end of every verse and asked him about whom and why it was revealed.”
Towards the end of the Umayyad dynasty,the systematic compilation of tafseer began. The scholars of hadeeth began compiling the sayings and actions of the Prophet (ﷺ) in chapters according to their subject matter, and the chapter on tafseer was one of them. Some of these scholars paid special attention to the narration of tafseer attributed to the Prophet (ﷺ), the sahaabah and the taabi‘oon. The foremost among them were Yazeed ibn Haaroon as-Salamee , Shu‘bah ibn al-Hajjaaj , Sufyaan ibn ‘Uyaynah , ‘Abdur-Razzaaq ibn Hammaam , and ‘Abd ibn Humayd , However, no tafseer of the complete Qur’aan took place at this time.
Near the end of the ninth century CE, the field of tafseer evolved into an independent Islaamic science. This generation of scholars was the first to compile tafseers of the Qur’aan according to the order of the written text. The earliest tafseer to reach us was authored by Ibn Jareer at-Tabaree , who comes from this era. Other tafseers were written by Ibn Maajah , Ibn Abee Haatim , Ibn Hibbaan , al-Haakim , and Ibn Mardawayh .
All of these scholars were also famous for compilations of hadeeth, most of which have reached us intact. Occasionally, tafseers were attributed to scholars of the previous generation, known as atbaa‘ at-taabi‘een (the students of the taabi‘oon). These tafseers also mentioned the legal rulings deduced from the verses and the breakdown of grammatical constructions where necessary.
Although the next generation of scholars followed the same general format as their predecessors, many of them deleted the chains of narration from their taffseers,leaving only the names of the sahaabah or taabi’oon and their interpretations;for example,Bahr al-‘Uloom by Aboo al-Layth as samarqandee.
Great stress was placed on literary forms and grammatical constructions in many of these tafseers. The various forms of recitation, without their chains of narration, were also recorded and used as explanations of the text. However, they also included in their tafseers a vast number of anonymous statements and opinions without any mention of who made them. Consequently, many of these tafseers are confusing. Accurate accounts and interpretations were mixed with inaccurate ones without any distinction between them.
In addition, the door of tafseer according to personal opinion was opened. Works of tafseer soon began to reflect various trends of thought in Muslim society. By the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the major works of Greek philosophy and science that had been translated in the previous centuries began to have an effect on all of the various Islaamic fields of study. Philosophical schools of thought like that of the Mu‘tazilees (Rationalists) had evolved which boldly threatened pure Islaamic thought.
Tafseers full of philosophical and scientific terminology, like al-Kash-shaaf of az-Zamakhsharee or Mafaateeh al-Ghayb of Fakhrud-Deen ar-Raazee , and tafseers expressing the thoughts of various heretical sects also appeared during this period. For example, the Twelver Shee‘ah tafseer of Mullah Muhsin al-Kaash made the verses of the Qur’aan speak of twelve infallible imaams, the imaginary walaayah (governorship) of the Prophet’s son-in-law ‘Alee and the claimed apostasy of all of the Prophet’s companions except a handful; and the Soofee tafseer of Ibn al-‘Arabee made Qur’aanic verses voice his pantheistic ideology of Allaah being all and all being Allaah.
There was also a trend towards specialization among the Islaamic scholars, resulting from the evolution of Islaamic learning into a multiplicity of disciplines. Consequently, tafseers like those of al-Jassaas and al- Qurtubee concentrated on the deduction of fiqh (Islaamic law) from the Qur’aanic passages according to their respective math-habs (schools of fiqh). Likewise, ath-Tha‘labee, who specialized in tales of ancient history, authored al-Jawaahir al-Hisaan fee Tafseer al-Qur’aan, in which he gathered all of the narrations about the ancients, regardless of their authenticity.
Tafseers of this era and subsequent generations contained a mixture of truth and falsehood, some valuable material and much that was worthless. Eventually, tafseer based on personal opinions completely superseded tafseer based on authentic narration. The authors of these tafseers stretched the meanings of the verses to affirm the thoughts and ideas of their respective sects or schools and rebut those of others. Thus, the primary role of tafseer, that of explaining religious instruction contained in the verses, was lost. The tafseer scholar Jalaalud-Deen as-Suyootee noted the following:
I have seen approximately ten different opinions concerning the tafseer of the verse:
“Not the path of those on whom is [Your] anger nor those who have gone astray,”
in spite of the fact that the Prophet (ﷺ) and his companions (sahaabah) and their students (taabi‘oon) all related that the verse referred to none other than the Jews and the Christians. And (one of the early scholars) Ibn Abee Haatim said concerning this verse, “I know of no disagreement among the scholars of tafseer about it.”
Some of the scholars of this and later periods confined themselves to making abridgements of earlier works while others were satisfied to write footnotes for earlier works. It should also be noted that in spite of the deviation and stagnation which afflicted the field of tafseer, as well as all of the Islaamic sciences, there were a number of great scholars who held high the banner of pure Islaamic thought. Thus, it should not be surprising to find that the most highly acclaimed tafseer of all times was produced by a scholar of this time, Tafseer al-Qur’aan al- ‘Atheem by al-Haafith ibn Katheer .
In this century, a new form of tafseer has evolved in which the authors have tried to apply the passages of the Qur’aan to the needs of the twentieth century. For example, tafseers like Tafseer al-Manaar, started by Muhammad ‘Abduh and completed up to Soorah Yoosuf by his student Muhammad Rasheed Ridaa,or Fee Thilaal al-Qur’aan by Syed Qutb point out the Qur’aanic foundations for human society, legislation, and scientific theories.
Both these tafseers have their critics. ‘Abduh was interested in reforming Muslim societies to meet the challenge of the west, and he called for the abandonment of taqleed as the starting point for that reform. He stressed the need for approaching the Qur’aan fresh, unencumbered by past inter-pretations of it.
Neither he nor Ridaa would look at anyone else’s tafseer until they had finished writing their own tafseers of a particular passage. In his zeal to accommodate scientific theories, ‘Abduh interpreted angels as being synonymous with natural forces, which led him to a symbolic interpretation of the story of Aadam and Iblees. His student denied that the Prophet (ﷺ) performed any miracles other than conveying the Qur’aan.
Both he and his student rejected a number of hadeeths reported by al-Bukhaaree and Muslim, claiming that they were weak. Ridaa was, however, more learned in hadeeth than ‘Abduh and relied on hadeeths more than him.Both of them gave their intellects great freedom to interpret as they saw fit.
Syed Qutb lived at a time when the Islaamic caliphate had just been abolished. The Islaamic world had been divided into small countries with legal systems that were the product of European colonialism. He felt a deep outrage at Islaamic societies’ abandonment of the Sharee‘ah in ruling their affairs.
His interpretations of the meaning of tawheed focused on Allaah’s sole right to formulate the laws for the rule of human society. His stress of this point led to the Muhammad Rasheed (took notes from ‘Abduh’s tafseer lectures, then wrote them up in his own words, and published them with his approval in his magazine al-Manaar. ‘Abduh died after having completed from Soorah al-Faatihah until verse 126 of Soorah an-Nisaa’, then his student continued until his own death in 1935. (Lamahaat fee ‘Uloom al-Qur’aan, p. 321.) neglect of other aspects of tawheed and of the dangers posed by forms of shirk other than shirk in legislation.
He seems to have actually been confused about the difference between tawheed al-ulooheeyah and tawheed ar-ruboobeeyah. His critics also say that he laid the seeds for today’s modern takfeer movements with his blanket condemnation of contemporary Islaamic societies as having nothing to do with Islaam, and with his praise of revolutionary movements in Islaamic history.Despite these shortcomings, he presented a vigorous Islaamic critique of the flaws of secularism and the European civilization that spawned it at a time when most Muslims were apologetic about Islaam.