In this preface we shall describe the method adopted in this book to find out the meanings of the verses of the Qur’an.
al-Tafsīr (exegesis), that is, explaining the meanings of the Qur’anic verse, clarifying its import and finding out its significance, is one of the earliest academic activities in Islam. The interpretation of the Qur’an began with its revelation, as is clear from the words of God: Even as We have sent among you a messenger from among you who recites to you Our communications and purifies you and teaches you the Book and the wisdom and teaches you that which you did not know (2:151).
There are two methods of exegesis:
- The exegete takes a problem emanating from a Qur’anic statement, looks at it from academic and philosophical point of view, weighs the pros and cons and with the help of the philosophy, science and logic decides what the true answer should be. Thereafter, he takes the verse and fits it anyhow on that answer which, he thinks, is right. The Muslim philosophers and theologians usually followed this method; but, as mentioned earlier, the Qur’an does not approve of it.
- The exegete explains the verse with the help of other relevant verses, meditating on them together—and meditation has been forcefully urged upon by the Qur’an itself—and identifies the individual person or thing by its particulars and attributes mentioned in the verse.
No doubt the second is the only correct method of exegesis. God has said: And We have revealed the Book to you explaining clearly everything (16:89). Is it possible for such a book not to explain its own self? Also He has described the Qur’an in these words: a guidance for mankind and clear evidence of guidance and discrimination between wrong; and He has also said: and We have sent down to you a manifest light (4:174). The Qur’an is, accordingly, guidance, an evidence, a discrimination between right and wrong and a manifest light for the people to guide them aright and help them in all their needs. Is it imaginable that it would not guide them aright in its own matter, while it is their most important need? Again God says: And [as for] those who strive hard for Us, We will most certainly guide them onto Our ways (29:69).
Which striving is greater than the endeavor to understand His Book? And which way is more straight than the Qur’an? Verses of this meaning are very numerous, and we shall discuss them in detail in the beginning of the third chapter, The Family of ʿImrān.
God taught the Qur’an to His Prophet and appointed him as the teacher of the Book: The Faithful Spirit has descended with it upon your heart that you may be of the warners, in plain Arabic language (26:193-194); and We have revealed to you the Reminder that you may make clear to men what has been revealed to them, and that haply they may reflect (16:44); … a messenger … who recites to them His communications and purifies them, and teaches them the Book and the Wisdom (62:2).
And the Prophet appointed his progeny to carry on this work after him. It is clear from his unanimously accepted tradition: “I am leaving behind among you two precious things; as long as you hold fast to them you will never go astray after me: The Book of God and my progeny, my family members; and these two shall never separate from each other until they reach me (on) the reservoir.”
And God has confirmed, in the following two verses, this declaration of the Prophet that his progeny had the real knowledge of the Book: Allah only desires to keep away the uncleanliness from you, O people of the House! and to purify you a [thorough] purifying (33:33); Most surely it is an honored Qur’an, in a Book that is hidden; None do touch it save the purified ones (56:77-79).
And the Prophet and the imams from his progeny always used this second method for explaining the Qur’an, as may be seen in the traditions that have been narrated from them on exegesis, some of which will be quoted in this book in appropriate places. One cannot find a single instance in their traditions where they might have taken help of an academic theory or philosophical postulate for explaining a verse.
The Prophet has said in a sermon:
“Therefore, when mischief come to confuse you like the segments of darkened night, then hold fast to the Qur’an; as it is the intercessor whose intercession shall be granted; and a credible advocate; and whoever keeps it before him, it will lead him to the Garden; and whoever keeps it behind, it will drive him to the Fire; and it is the guide that guides to the best path; and it is a book in which there is explanation, particularization and recapitulation; and it is a decisive (world), and not a joke; and there is for it a manifest (meaning) and an esoteric (one); thus its apparent (meaning) is firm, and its esoteric (one) is knowledge; its exterior is elegant and its interior deep; it has (many) boundaries, and its boundaries have (many) boundaries; its wonders shall not cease, and its (unexpected) marvels shall not be old. There are in it the lamps of guidance and the beacon of wisdom, and guide to knowledge for him who knows the attributes. Therefore, one should extend his sight; and should let his eyes reach the attribute; so that one who is in perdition may get deliverance, and one who is entangled may get free; because meditation is the life of the heart of the one who sees, as the one having a light (easily) walks in darkness; therefore, you must seek good deliverance and (that) with little waiting.”
Imam Ali said, among other things, speaking about the Qur’an in a sermon: “Its one part speaks with the other, and one portion testifies about the other.”
This is the straight path and the right way which was used by the true teachers of the Qur’an and its guides, may God’s blessings be on them all!
We shall write, under various headings, what God has helped us to understand from the honored verses, by the above mentioned method. We have not based the explanations on any philosophical theory, academic idea or mystical revelation.
We have not put into it any outside matter except a fine literary point on which depends the understanding of Arabic eloquence, or a self evident or practical premises which can be understood by one and all.
From the discussions, written according to the above mentioned method, the following subjects have become crystal clear:
- The matters concerning the names of God, and His attributes, like His Life, Knowledge, Power, Hearing, Sight and Oneness and so on. As for the Person of God, you will find that the Qur’an believes that He needs no description.
- The matters concerning the divine actions, like creation, order, will, wish, guidance, leading astray, decree, measure, compulsion, delegation (of Power), pleasure, displeasure and other similar actions.
- The matters concerned with the intermediary links between God and man, like the Curtain, the Tablet, the Pen, the Throne, the Chair, the Inhabited House, the Heavens, the Earth, the Angels, the satans, and the jinns and so on.
- The details about man before he came to this world.
- The matters related to man in this life, like the history of mankind, knowledge of his self, the foundation of society, the prophethood and the messengership, the revelation, the inspiration, the book and the religion and law. The high status of the prophets, shining through their stories, come under this heading.
- The knowledge about man after he departs from this world, that is, al-Barzakh.
- The matters about human character. Under this heading come the various stages through which the friends of God pass in their spiritual journey, like submission, faith, benevolence, humility, purity of intention and other virtues.
(We have not gone into details of the verses of the law, as more appropriately it is a subject for the books of jurisprudence.)
As a direct result of this method, we have never felt any need to interpret a verse against its apparent meaning. As we have said earlier, this type of interpretation is in fact misinterpretation.
As for that “interpretation” which the Qur’an has mentioned in various verses, it is not a type of “meaning”; it is something else.
At the end of the commentaries, we have written some traditions of the Prophet and the imams of Ahl al-Bayt, narrated by the Sunni and Shia narrators. But we have not included the opinions of the companions and their disciples, because, first, there is too much confusion and contradiction in them; and second, they are not vested with any authority in Islam. On going through those traditions of the Prophet and the imams (peace be on them all!), you will notice that this “new” method of exegesis (adopted in this book) is in reality the oldest and the original method which was used by the Teachers of the Qur’an (peace of God be on them all!).
Also, we have written separately various topics—philosophical, academic, historical, social and ethical—when there was a need for it. In all such discussions, we have confined our talk to the basic premises, without going in too much detail.
We pray to God, High is He, to guide us and keep our talk to the point; He is the Best Helper and the Best Guide.
Dependent on God,
Muhammad Husayn al-Tabataba’i
Note: The preface has been shortened here and the complete version appears in the first English volume of al-Mizan.