One of the major Islamic sciences, concerned with the interpretation of
the Qur'an. Classically it took the form of sequential verse-by-verse
or word-by-word commentaries on the entire Qur'an. Such commentaries
ranged in size from the one-volume gloss of the two Jalals (al-Jalalayn: Jalal
al-Din al-Mahalli [d. ca. 1460], and Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti [d. ca. 1505])
to enourmous works such as the Tafsir of al-Tabari,
which takes up 30 volumes.
There are many approaches to writing tafsir, which evolved over the centuries:
- A) Gloss: Paraphrasing Qur'anic words or verses
- B) Isra'iliat: Relating traditional stories (often
from Jewish sources) so as to provide background to Qur'anic references (e.g.
background stories about
- C) Legal tafsir: Organizing verses by legal topic
(prayer, fasing, inheritance, etc.) and explaining their legal meaning.
- D) Philological and grammatical tafsir: Analyzing
unusual Qur'anic words or grammatical constructions in terms of formal linguistic
- E) Traditionalist tafsir: Giving information
(in the form of a hadith with an isnad)
about the circumstances under which each verse was revealed (asbab al-nuzul),
and the explanations
that the Prophet Muhammad and his
had given to each verse. This may be considered the mainstream approach. (E.g.
- F) Abridgements of the massive traditional commentaries.
- G) Rationalist tafsir: Speculative
a more rationalist exegesis based on the linguistic sciences, and offering
of anthropomorphic expressions in the Qur'an.
- H) Shi`ite tafsir, emphasizing the interpretations of
the Shi`ite imams.
- I) Sufi and Isma`ili tafsir, emphasizing the interior or hidden meaning (batin)
of the Qur'an.
- J) Modernist tafsir, finding answers in the Qur'an
to modern social and scientific questions.
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