A Brief Introduction to Qur’anic Exegesis

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By: Ali Suleiman Ali

London and Washington: The International Institute of Islamic Thought. 188pp. $12.95, ISBN: 9781565646889

Volume: 6 Issue: 2

February 2018

Review by:

Issa J. Boullata, PhD

McGill University

Montreal, Canada

Qur’an exegesis (tafsir al-Qur’an) is one of the most important Islamic sciences.  In various forms and modalities, initially oral and later in books, it has been practiced throughout Islamic history, from the time of Prophet Muhammad to our modern times. Its aim of understanding the meaning of the Holy Book of Islam has always been at the center of the concerns of scholars; and as time went by, methodologies of comprehending the sacred book developed in accordance with changing circumstances related to the growth of linguistic knowledge, theological traditions, sectarian visions, and even political interests.

At 177 pages, Professor Ali’s book is really a brief   introduction to this science, especially when one knows that works of Qur’an exegesis normally consist of large volumes of close arguments and intricate explanations. In seven chapters and a conclusion, he has been able to present the history of the science in a clear and well-written manner with rich and up-to-date documentation; he followed this science’s development into methodological schools across the ages and ended with a good account of its trends in modern times.

Professor Ali begins with a useful historical overview and then, in the following chapters, he goes into the details of Qur’an exegesis developments. His masterful account of tafsir in the third and fourth centuries A.H. leads to an insightful study of the two emerging methodologies, namely, (1) al-tafsir bi al-ma’thur [exegesis based on tradition] as received from the Prophet, his Companions, and their Successors; and (2) al-tafsir bi al-ra’y [exegesis based on opinion] as received from Muslim scholars who depended on their own understanding of the Qur’anic text, as far as its language and its revelation circumstances. Works of the first kind include books like Jami’ al-Bayan by al-Tabari; and works of the second kind include books like al-Tafsir al-Kabir by al-Razi. The two major methodologies are analyzed by Professor Ali in dozens of works of Qur’an exegesis throughout Islamic history, and examples are shown from them how and to what extent their particular interpretation was affected by theological principles and by sectarian and political interests.

Coming to modern times in his last chapter, Professor Ali takes into consideration the cultural and political influences of the West in Muslim life, and the attempt of Muslims to stem them and strengthen their own identity. Their revivalist and reformist stance affected their writings on Qur’an exegesis as is shown by him in works like Tafsir al-Qur’an al-Hakim (known as Tafsir al-Manar ) of Muhammad Abduh, continued after the latter’s death by his student Muhammad Rashid Rida, and like Al-Jawahir fi Tafsir al-Qur’an al-Karim by Jawhar Tantawi who offered an understanding of the Qur’an  in the light of modern science. But there were other modern trends like the rhetorical-literary one of Sayyid Qutb in his Fi Zilal al-Qur’an and the philological-historical one of Bint al-Shati’ in her Tafsir al-Bayan li-al-Qur’an al-Karim.

I believe Professor Ali’s book is a good historical conspectus of the Islamic science of Qur’an exegesis and is a very useful introduction for graduate students and others who, from it, can go to more detailed studies in Arabic and other languages. It has a good and up-to-date bibliography, but the book could have been improved by an index. The contributions of Orientalists to Qur’an exegesis studies are mentioned summarily in the course of the book, but these contributions might have needed a separate chapter devoted to them showing their positive and negative aspects. And yet, Professor Ali is to be congratulated on a well-written book that should be welcome in the field of Qur’an exegesis studies.

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