How to Study Tafsīr

Introduction to the science

Tafsīr is the science of understanding the intended meanings of the verses of the Quran. The Mufassir will evaluate the language used, extrapolate possible legal ruling and layout core theology matters. The Mufassir will consider the Sunnah and Riwaya from the blessed companions. Finally exercising independent reasoning, whilst incorporating a range of Islamic sciences.

There are two types of Tafsīr 1) Tafsīr bi-al-Riwaya and 2) Tafsīr bi-al-ra’y.

Tafsīr bi-al-Riwaya is Tafsīr based on the Quran and the Sunnah. The Tafsīr of a single verse or section will be supported by other verses in the Quran. This is a classical Tafsīr method and agreed upon by all scholars, as Tafsīr bi-al-ra’y has been criticised as 1) The Prophet ﷺ  has condemned those who interpret the Quran from their own point of view (without prior knowledge of the deen) [See Jamia Tirmidhi, Book of Tafsir], 2) most companions of the Prophet ﷺ  were also reluctant to share their personal opinion.

The sources used for Tafsīr bi-al-riwaya can be ordered by the rank of authority, as the Quran, Hadith, reports by Sahaba and Tabi’iun, classical Arabic literature, and Isra’iliyat.

Some examples of Tafsīr bi-al-riwaya are Jāmiʿ al-Bayān by al-Tabari and Tafsīr al-Qurʾān al-ʿAẓeem by ibn Kathir.

Tafsīr bi-al-ra’y is the method of using one’s independent rational reasoning, known as ijtiḥad. This allows a more objective view on Quranic verses. Proponents of such Tafsīr, say it is supported by the verse,

(This is) a Scripture that We have revealed unto thee, full of blessing, that they may ponder its revelations, and that men of understanding may reflect.

Quran 38:29

Although technically anyone can carry out Tafsīr work, as do many non-Muslim critics, Muslims must go through a process of elementary learning before attempting to understand the Quran. The following sciences are recommended:

  • A sound foundation in Aqidah – Islamic creed
  • Principles of Tafsīr – Agreed upon principles relating to deriving rulings from the Quran
  • Principles of Jurisprudence – How to derive legal rulings, comparative Fiqh
  • Hadith studies including Principles of Hadith
  • Arabic Grammar – Language, Literature and Morphology
  • Linguistic style – Rhetoric, Metaphor and Logic
  • Vocabulary – Including etymology, nuances and other very subtle elements relating to language
  • Qira’at – The modes of recitation – slight nuances in meaning.
  • Tajwid
  • Abrogation – Verses that have been abrogated or claim to be abrogated
  • Historical accounts – General history, comparative study, Arab history, biographies
  • Understanding of Human Psyche/Tassawuf
  • Studying other Tafsīr – Tabari is an early Tafsīr with many opinions, Fakkhurdin Razi wrote the first philosophical Qurʼān

It’s important to note translations of the Quran are the best interpretation of the scholar, they do not suffice as true translations of the Quran. So a Mufassir will need to master the Arabic language before attempting to break down each verse in the Quran. However, one may read the Quran in their mother tongue to quickly grasp a general meaning of a verse as well as study English commentary.


The first step is to find and study an abridged and easy to comprehend Tafsīr, this is to get a general understanding of the Quran. One may have to read it two or three times. One can also do this stage in English.

Secondly one must read upon the principles of exegesis, these are methods and principles agreed by Islamic scholars on universal principles of understanding the message of the Quran. For example, the nuances in Arabic of whether a command is for universal or for specific people.

The following three tafsir give the general meaning of each ayah, without explaining each and every word.

  1. Tafsīr al-Muyasir
  2. al-Muntakhab fi Tafsīr al-Quran al-Karim
  3. al-Mukhtasar fi al-Tafsīr

One should buy a dictionary like the in Arabic or Hans Wehr or Lanes Lexicon in English. As well as a dictionary of the ambiguous words in the Quran, like Tafsīr Gharib al-Quran, also known as ‘Umdah, by Makki al-Qaysi or Tuhfat al-Arib by Abu Hayyan.

Tafsīr al-Jalalayn is a popular Tafsīr taught at many madaaris. One key benefit of this work is the Tafsīr is incorporated in to the verse, making reading simple and fluent. As it also contains fiqh rulings and opinions, and the scholars are of a Shafi’ background, It is recommended to study under a qualified teacher to avoid confusion in some matters.

Safwat al-Tafasir by al-Sabuni focuses on introducing each surah, explaining vocabulary, highlighting subtleties, benefits, places verses in context in relation to others, causes of revelation, and rhetorical devices.


The objective at this stage is to familiarise oneself with multiple aspects of Tafsīr, especially concerning the explanation of words and the various narrations regarding each ayah.

One moves beyond having a general picture about each ayah that presents only one meaning and moves towards exegetical methodology (usul al-Tafsīr) and the various statements of the exegetes (aqwal al-mufassirin). It is important that one understands exegetical methodology, the causes of different opinions, the categories of interpretation, the rules of interpretation, the rules of giving preponderance (tarjih), knowing the nomenclature of the exegetes, knowing the variant readings (qira’at), causes of revelation (asbab al-nuzul), abrogation (al-nasikh wa al-mansukh), etc. One particular aspect is deriving fiqh rulings and different principles used by the Fuqaha especially the Hanafis v Shafi’’s.

Of course one can also argue to move away from any Usool standardised, and claim to understand the Quran without interference of rules. However I would say, such principles are not limiting factors of Tafsīr, rather enable the mufassir to translate in line with generic logical principles.

Zad al-Masir by Ibn al-Jawzi concisely presents the various opinions without selecting the preponderant view.

Tafsīr Ibn Juzayy is notable for its focus on definitions and the branches of learning that branch out from the Quran.

We spoke about Gharib al Quran earlier, works such as Majaz al-Quran by Abu ‘Ubaydah and Ma’ani al-Quran by al-Farra’ are more in depth in considering the ambiguous words.


At this stage one starts to address the issue of preponderance (tarjih) with the aim that the student should know which view is most correct about what is said about each ayah, as well as the strongest non-preponderant views, as these have the possibility of also being correct. One should research issues in the major references and practically apply the methodologies, focusing on the specialised features which distinguish each exegete, be that language, fiqh, variant readings, etc.

The best references for seeking the preponderant views in vocabulary and narration are:

  • al-Tabari,
  • Ibn ‘Atiyyah,
  • Ibn ‘Ashur,
  • Abu Hayyan,
  • al-Razi, and
  • al-Raghib.

Tafsīr al-Tabari – all knowledge of Tafsīr has its foundation in this book, as it shows one how to deal with: reconciling the variant opinions of the commentators, interplay with other ayat, deduce rulings, etc.

Tafsīr Ibn ‘Atiyyah pays great attention to establishing the preponderant view (tarjih) from the sayings of the Salaf (the first three generations), and it helps to train the student in the method of tarjih for other narrations not addressed by Ibn ‘Atiyyah.

Ibn ‘Atiyyah sources include the premier books of his time in Tafsīr, qira’at, fiqh, and lugha with the aim of Tafsīr the pinnacle of Islamic studies. He is unique for his time in that he included nothing of the Isra’iliyat common in Tafsīr books.

When Ibn Atiyyah quotes from earlier scholars, he looks very critically at what they say, making sure that what he quotes is correct and accurate. In this way, he was able to purge any interpretation that sought to give Qur’anic words or statements anything other than their immediate meanings. He rejects all suggestions that Qur’anic statements may have hidden meanings that could be known only to an elite group of people. To him, the Qur’an is God’s book addressed to all mankind in a direct and straightforward manner. This does not allow any room for hidden meaning.

Tafsīr Ibn ‘Ashur, al-Tahrir wa al-Tanwih (The Verification and Enlightenment), the distinguishing feature of his Tafsīr is his identification of the ta’lil, or rationale as well as underlining the maqasid, or objectives. He also highlights rhetorical devices and reconciling different views. It gives one a solid foundation in Tafsīr.

Ibn ‘Ashur listed the following eight objectives (maqasid) for his Tafsīr:

  1. Reforming Islamic education
  2. Explaining correct beliefs
  3. Defining Quranic law
  4. Clarifying the policy of the Islamic community
  5. Analysing the history of ancient punished community
  6. Demonstrating sound Quranic methods of proof and deduction
  7. Moral development
  8. Demonstrating the miraculous nature of the Quran

Tafsīr Abu Hayyan – is the apex of classical grammatical and linguistic Tafsīr and is the first point of reference in this regard. 

Tafsīr al-Razi – excellent at solving problems and is one of the main references scholars keep coming back to, alongside al-Tabari and Ibn ‘Ashur.

al-Mufradat fi Gharib al-Quran by al-Raghib al-Asfahani is the main reference for defining Quranic vocabulary.

Tafsīr al-Baydawi – Whilst this is a very popular commentary that is still studied (in part not in whole) in some institutes, it is not suitable even for intermediate students. It is a difficult book as is clear to anyone who has studied it. It is a Sunni refinement of Tafsīr al-Zamakhshari, removing the Mu’tazali arguments, whilst retaining its linguistic discussions, which are somewhat perplexing to most students, and even many teachers, today due to the paucity of contemporary understanding of Arabic linguistics.


The objective of this stage is to read the major references and give preponderance based on the skills acquired in the previous stage.

How does one identify the major works? I personally check the listings of major scholars. 

A list of Tafsīr

  • Al-Ṭabarī (d. 311)
  • Abū Mansụ̄r al-Māturīdī (d. 333) – the first major theological Tafsīr
  • al-Wāḥidī (d. 468)
  • ʿAbd al-Qāhir al-Jurjānī (d. 471) a major linguistic Tafsīr
  • al-Baghawī (d. 516)
  • al-Zamakhsharī (d. 538) a major linguistic Tafsīr (with al-Jurjānī)
  • Ibn ʿAṭiyyah (d. 542) – ma’thur masterpiece in tarjīḥ
  • Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 604)
  • al-Qurtụbī (d. 671)
  • al-Nasafī (d. 710)
  • al-Naysābūrī (d. 728)
  • Ibn Juzayy (d. 741)
  • Abū Ḥayyān al-Gharnāṭī (d. 745) – the apex of grammatical Tafsīr
  • Ibn Kathīr (d. 774) – distinguished in ḥadīth
  • al-Bayḍāwī (d. 791)
  • al-Suyūṭī (d. 911)  al-Durr al-manthūr and Tafsīr al-Jalālayn

Tafsīr Ibn al-Mundhir by Ibn al-Mundhir (318 AH)

  • Tafsīr Al-Musnad (Tafsīr Ibn Abi Hatim) by Abu Muhammad ibn Abi Hatim al-Razi (327 AH)
  • Laṭā’ifu-l-Ishaarat bi-Tafsīru-l-Qur’ān by Al-Qushayri
  • An-Nukat wa-l-‘Uyoon by Abu al-Hasan Ali Ibn Muhammad Ibn Habib Al-Mawardi (Alboacen) (d. 450/1058) — the author was an Islamic jurist of the Shafi’i school.
  • Ma’aalimu-t-Tanzeel by Hasan bin Mas’ud al-Baghawi (died 510 AH/1116 CE) also known widely as Tafsīr al-Baghawi — A popular Tafsīr amongst Sunni Muslims, it relies heavily on the Tafsīr of al-Tha’labi, whilst placing more emphasis on hadith.
  • Al-Kashshaaf (The Revealer) by Al-Zamakhshari (d. 539 AH/1144 CE). Al-Zamakhshari belonged to the Mu’tazili school of theology, but nevertheless this commentary has been popular among scholars down the years, and is usually printed along with Sunni commentaries, pointing out what they consider to be mistakes, made because of the author’s Mu’tazili beliefs.
  • Tafsīru-l-Qur’aan Al-‘Azeem by Izz al-Din ibn ‘Abd al-Salam
  • Al-Jami’ li-Ahkam al-Qur’an (The collection of Qur’anic Injunctions) by Al-Qurtubi (1214—1273 CE/671 AH) by the famous Maliki jurist of Cordoba, in Andalusia. This ten-volume Tafsīr is a commentary on the Qur’anic verses dealing with legal issues. Although the author was a Maliki, he also presents the legal opinions of other major schools of Islamic jurisprudence; thus it is popular with jurists from all of the schools of Islamic law.
  • Hashiyat al-Tibi (highly regarded by al-Suyuti and Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani), Hashiyat al-Kashf by Siraj al-Din ‘Umar al-Thani, and Hashiyat al-Taftazani. He is also noted for his Tafsīr of the Qur’an al-Tashil li Ulum al-Tanzil
  • Anwar al-Tanzil by Abdullah bin Umar al-Baidawi (d. 685 AH/1286 CE), also famous as Tafsīr al-Baidawi — a shortened version of Al-Kashshaf, with Mu’tazili references altered; printed in two volumes.[4] In Turkey it is often published with marginal notes by a Turkish scholar called ‘al-Qunawi’ in seven volumes.
  • Anwaaru-l-Qur’aan wa Asraawru-l-Furqaawn by Mullah Ali al-Qari, 1004AH, 5 Volumes, published by Daaru-l-Kutoob Ilmiyah, Beirut, Lebanon.
  • Ruh al-Bayan by Ismail Hakki Bursevi (1653—1725 CE).[8] A ten-volume Arabic work by the founder of the Hakkiyye Jelveti Sufi Order from Turkey.
  • Rawaa’i’u-t-Tafsīr by Ibn Rajab Al-Hanbali (795 AH).
  • Mafatih al-Ghayb by Fakhruddin al-Razi which is scientific and philosophical.
  • Shia mufassirs and its Tafsīr are Al-Tibbyan Fi Tafsīr al-Quran by Shaykh Tusi (460/1067), and Majma al-Bayan lif’ulum al-Quran by Shaykh Tabarsi (d. 548/1153)

Quran Tafsīr by Schools of Fiqh

  • Aḥkam al-Qur’an by al-Jassas was written according to the Hanafi Madhhab
  • Aḥkam al-Qur’an by Qaḍi Abū Bakr ibn al-‘Arabī and al-Jaami’ Li’Aḥkam al-Qur’an by al-Qurtubi were written according to the Maliki Madhhab
  • Aḥkam al-Qur’an by Ilkiya was written according to the Shafi’i Madhhab
  • Zad al-Maseer of ibn al-Jawzi as an example of a fiqhi Tafsīr according to the Hanbali Madhhab.

A list of English Tafsīr

  • Interpretation of the Meanings of the Noble Qur’an (1999) Dr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan The Study Qur’an by Seyyed Hossein Nasr
  • The Holy Qur’an: Text, Translation and Commentary by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, 1937
  • The Message of the Qur’an by Muhammad Asad, 1980
  • Tafhim-ul-Quran by Abul A’la Maududi.
  • Else many of the Arabic Quran tafsir have been translated in to English.

Here is a modern curriculum in the sciences of the Qur’an:

  • Al-Nawawi – Al-Tibyan
  • Shah Wali Allah – Al-Fawz al-Kabir (with Sharh al-’Awn al-Kabir)
  • Al-Sabuni – Al-Tibyan fi ‘Ulum al-Qur’an
  • Mustafa A’zami – History of the Compilation of Quran
  • Al-Zarqani – Manahil al-Irfan
  • Abd al-Sabur Shaheen – Tarikh al-Qur’an
  • Al-Suyuti – Al-Itqan
  • Al-Zarkashi – Al-Burhan

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