Studying the Tafseer: Birds without Wings


“A traveler without knowledge is like a bird without wings.” -Sa’di, Gulistan (1258)


I don’t deny having doubts about my belief, but as it has long rooted the conviction that this is the true path, I strive to find the answer for everything that I question. I don’t regard thinking and questioning my traditional belief i.e. Islam as I understood previously is an act of disobedience, but indeed the way Allah s.w.t wants in every believer to adopt. That is what Tariq Ramadan mentioned in his book ‘Messenger: The Meanings of the Life of Muhammad’, regarding the response given by Hajar in the famous story of Prophet Ibrahim a.s. , where he was asked to leave his wife and young son in the middle of nowhere in the desert:

Hagar questioned Abraham about the reasons for such behavior; finding it was God’s command, she willingly submitted to it. She asked, then trusted, then accepted, and by doing so she traced the steps of the profound “active acceptance” of God’s will: to question with one’s mind, to understand with one’s intelligence, and to submit with one’s heart.

And last weekend I spent two days (27-28 June) in London attending the Principles of Tafseer Seminar, conducted by the Muslim Research and Development foundation (MRDF) – and yes, I can’t thank Allah enough for making me attend this course. As Hanee described it : we came to this course at the right time – and it was indeed the perfect time. I do believe and have high regard on the traditional way of learning and also the traditional classical texts, which I have experienced studying during my two months in Egypt and also times spent in ‘pondok’ back home, but nevertheless, being in the West with distinctively different approach to knowledge, I know and aware that I began to doubt certain things.

That was one big motivation, but haven’t I mention previously that Tafseer is one branch of knowledge of my interest?

As the Seminar on Islamic Leadership (SIL) organised by MSD and a students’ group in London was cancelled on the same weekend, I couldn’t be more happier that I could now attend other course I have been eyeing earlier (which made me regret my decision to sign up for SIL ). I was torn between this one and another course held in London on history of Umayyad and Abbasid Dynasty, also my favourite topic, but since its registration has already closed, I was left with no choice but to attend this one.

And yes, the course indeed answered many of my unsettling doubts, alhamdulillah.

And remind me of bigger things that have been clouding my mind before, shaking my newly-found ideas.

I do believe sincerely that great scholars of the past held high credibility in the field of expertise, and it is satisfying enough for myself, from my limited knowledge of my previous basic classical study on usul fiqh, qawaid fiqh, arabic, etc, I am convinced by religious logic that most of what I received could not be doubted. But to discuss the same matters on another level, that is on the level of people without such knowledge and on intellectual basis, I am yet to be satisfied – that is, if I were to be in a situation where I have to convince someone solely on that intellectual level, I would not buy my own explanation.

And God teaches us that if we don’t know, we should ask the learned among us, and that was exactly what I was doing.

Fortunately, the shaykh, namely Shaykh Haitham al Haddad (which I first listened to during the FOSIS conference), Ustadh Fraz Farhat (I know this one from alKauthar course) and Abu Rumaysah, whose name sounded familiar to me, and was confirmed later by Hanee that he once delivered a talk for ISOC Manchester when we were young, err, in our first year I mean, were indeed clear in their explanation, guiding us on the thought process itself rather than giving the end answer only.

I wish I could share everything I got there in my blog, but it is, of course, impossible, though I will gladly share some points, for the sake of my own understanding:

  1. The modernists’ interpretation of Quran tried to look at things contextually, playing on the ambiguity of meanings in certain words in the verses. In case you don’t have any idea at all on how they argue about linguistic aspects of Al Quran hence its interpretations, feel free to download an example of this group’s interpretation, named the Reformists’ Quran here http://www.irshadmanji.com/reformist-quran , and see, if you don’t agree with them, can you confront them with the knowledge you have?
  2. The science of tafseer indeed places superiority of the early scholars of tafseer – those from the generation of the Companions, those following them, and those who followed the generation after the companions. True, my faith would have been enough for me to believe that that is the right thing to say, after all they are the closest generation trained directly under the Prophet s.a.w, or at least received second or third hand information and mentoring, but it is the mastery of the language that is the main reason why they were highly -esteemed in this area of science.
  3. Ever wonder why you can’t understand Shakespeare’s works to understand their widely proclaimed beauty? That is probably because he used Old English and people born in some other millennia would never understand fully. And exactly, that is the case with tafseer – those who lived in these era knew better about the language, hence regarded as primers in giving the correct, intended meaning of the words and verses.
  4. And in the case of Ibnu Abbas being wrong in one occasion, refuted by other tafseer scholars – leaving the room for some of us to doubt his credibility, here’s the answer from the shaykh when I asked him: if this one mistake of Ibnu Abbas has been corrected by so many scholars, chances are that all other commentaries made by him were also cross-checked, hence the possibility of mistake is minimal. And put the extensive and discipline of narrating hadith into the equation, the probability becomes much lower.
  5. If only the scholars with mastery in Arabic are credible to give tafseer, then how can we claim that the Holy Book can reach all people, while its interpretation is clearly limited to certain people to make? The answer that I obtained from this course is : That is not necessarily true – all are invited to derive their own lessons from the book – but the truth is without reading/studying the tafseer, you can’t get much from the translation only, without further commentary. There are even bigger chances that you might understand them in totally different and wrong light – after all, we should be careful to claim that something is what is intended by Allah by that verse. And here’s what I believe, certain people should be given this authority, because they understand more of the rules,just like this one person saying:

    No text is infinitely elastic, just as no rubber band can be stretched to any length. If any text was infinitely elastic by personal interpretation, we could replace the Koran with any other book and get the same result.

    Probably we need to review traditional views as we move on, but sticking to the right rules and discipline in doing so, and having this intellectual humility as we go by (as highlighted by Tariq Ramadan) could not be stressed enough.

  6. And this one last point : translations e.g. Yusuf Ali, Abdul Haleem, Pickthall are all considered tafseers. Why? They are indeed translating an Arabic word into English, and hence choosing the meaning intended by that word – recall Theory of Knowledge lesson on language.
  7. Oh no, there’s another one – Tafsir fi Zilal is not exactly a tafseer, but lessons derived from tafseers.

    And here’s one thing the Shaykh told me in our conversation:

    Most Malaysians he met are modernists.

    And he detected that I am one too!

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