The Quran is the last Book revealed by Allah Almighty. He has promised to protect it from any distortion or loss. Allah Says in the Quran (what means): “Verily, We have revealed the Reminder (the Quran) and We will assuredly guard it (from corruption)." [Quran 15:9] Its written and recited forms have been preserved without even the slightest change for over fourteen hundred years. This cannot be said about the New Testament or the Old Testament. However, Allah’s protection of the Quran did not stop there; He also safeguarded the original meaning. If the protection of the Quran’s meaning had not taken place, deviants would have turned the Book of Allah into a jumble of symbols, riddles and codes open to a multiplicity of interpretations, and its original meaning would have been lost. Allah preserved the meaning of the Quran by explaining some of its generalities within the Quran itself and by entrusting the Tafseer (explanation) of the remainder to His final Messenger, Muhammad .
The Prophet's companions may Allah be pleased with them were taught to seek their understanding of the Quran first from the Quran itself, then from the explanations of the Prophet and from their own intimate understanding of the language of the Quran. After the Prophet’s death, those who entered Islam as new converts depended first on the Quran to explain itself, then they depended on the Companions to explain the Quran to them. The Companions would inform their students among the Taabi'een (second generation) of the circumstances in which the verses were revealed, the interpretations given by the Prophet’s statements and actions. Finally, they would explain the meanings of some words which may not have been familiar or which may have had a different meaning to Arabs outside of the Arabian Peninsula.
With the passing of era of the Companions, the scholars among the Taabi'een shouldered the grave responsibility of conveying the original meanings of the Quran to the next generation of Muslims exactly as they had received it. It was this next generation which began the process of gathering and recording the various narrations of Tafseer from the Taabi'een.
From the above mentioned methodology of the Prophet and his companions, and of the early generations of Muslim scholars which followed them, the following points have been deduced by scholars as being the correct steps for making correct Tafseer of the Quran.
Tafseer of the Quran by the Quran Itself:
There are many places in the Quran where questions are asked and subsequently answered in order to catch the attention of the reader and to increase the impact of the concept mentioned. In other places, general statements are made and then later explained in order to vary the modes of presentation and encourage readers and listeners to reflect more. This self-explanatory process is referred to as Tafseer of the Quran by the Quran. Allah chose to clarify what He intended by revealing other explanatory verses. For example Allah asks (what means): “By the Sky and the night comer. And what will make you know what the night comer is?” [Quran 86: 1-2] Then He, the Most Exalted, answers His question in the next verse (which means): “It is the piercing star).” [Quran 86:3] Allah also states in the Quran (what means): “Beasts which are herded have been made Halaal (allowable) for you except those which will be recited to you.” [Quran 5:1]
Shortly afterwards, He explains (what means): “The dead animal, blood, pork, animals sacrificed for other than Allah, animals strangled to death, killed by a blow or by falling from a height, killed by goring or partially eaten by wild animals are forbidden to you.” [Quran 5: 3]
Another example can be seen in the verse in which Allah Almighty describes Himself Saying (what means), “No vision can grasp Him…” [Quran 6:103] This verse implies that Allah can not be seen. However, Allah later describes the believers in the next life as (what means): “Gazing at their Lord.” [Quran 75:23] and disbelievers as (what means): “Verily, they will be veiled from their Lord on that day.” [Quran 83:15]
Hence, before any explanation or interpretation may be sought, the Quran must be relied upon to explain itself, for Allah knows best what He intended.
Tafseer of the Quran by the Sunnah
On many occasions, the Prophet added further clarification to various verses of the Quran. Allah had entrusted the task of explaining the Quran to the Prophet . This trust was expressed in the verse (which means): “Verily, We have revealed the Reminder (Quran) to you (O Muhammad) so you may explain to the people what has been revealed to them.” [Quran 16:44] And the verse (which means): “We have only revealed the book to you (O Muhammad) in order that you clarify for them the things about which they differ.” [Quran 16:64]
The Companions may Allah be pleased with them understood this clearly and always turned to the Prophet for clarification whenever they were in doubt about the meaning of any of the Quranic passages. In fact, most of the fine details of prayer, almsgiving, pilgrimage, and inheritance laws, etc. were explained either by the Prophet’s statements or practical demonstration and applications (the practical Sunnah). Thus, the Prophet’s explanations of the Quranic passages are referred to as the Tafseer of the Quran by the Sunnah.
For example, the Prophet explained the word "Al Kawthar" in the verse (which means): “Verily, We have given you Al Kawthar” as a river in paradise which Allah has given him. [Al Bukhari] Because the Sunnah was based on guidance from Allah, it represents the second part of Allah’s promise to explain the Quran, as He Says (what means): “…Then verily, We will explain it.” [Quran 75:19] Consequently, no other human interpretation can be given precedence over of the Prophet .
Tafseer of the Quran by Aathaar (explanations of the Sahaabah)
Whenever the Sahaabah (companions of Prophet Muhammad ) could not find the Tafseer (exegesis) of a passage in the Quran itself or in the Sunnah (Prophetic narrations), they would use their own reasoning based on their knowledge of the contexts of the verses and the intricacies of the Arabic language in which the Quran was revealed.
One of the greatest commentators of the Quran, Imaam Ibn Katheer wrote in the preface of his Tafseer: "If we are unable to find a suitable Tafseer in the Quran or in the Sunnah, we go to the opinions of the Sahaabah, for it is certain that they knew the Quran better than anyone else due to their knowledge of the circumstances of its revelation, their complete and accurate understanding of it, and their righteous deeds." These explanations of the Sahaabah are known as the Tafseer by Aathaar (sayings of the Sahaabah). For example, when Ibn 'Abbaas, may Allah be pleased with him, was questioned about the verse (which means): “And tell the believing women to reduce [some] of their vision and guard their private parts and not display their adornment except that which [ordinarily] appears thereof…” [Quran: 24:31] he replied: ‘It refers to the face and hands'. On another occasion, after reciting the verse (which means): “…And whoever does not judge by what Allah has revealed – then it is those who are the disbelievers.” [Quran: 5:44] Ibn 'Abbaas may Allah be pleased with him said: "It is a form of Kufr (disbelief) that is less than real Kufr.’
The Sahaabah also provided information about the circumstances under which the verses were revealed, which further clarified their meanings. However, the Tafseer transmitted from the Prophet and the Sahaabah did not cover all of the verses of the Quran. The Prophet explained only what was unclear to the Sahaabah.
Tafseer of the Quran by the Arabic Language
With the passage of time, words took on new meanings and old meanings became lost, foreign words entered into the language and vast sections of vocabulary fell into disuse. This natural process necessitated the explanation of some of the Quranic verses according to their literal and logical meanings. Consequently, this period witnessed the appearance of dictionaries such as Mukhtaar As-Sihaah, written specifically to deal with the Quranic Arabic vocabulary and philology.
In cases where words had more than one meaning, this step created differences of opinion, which could only be solved by finding some support in the Sunnah. For example, the word 'Lams' literally means to touch but figuratively means sexual intercourse, thus Muslim scholars were of two basic opinions concerning the following verse (which means): “…Or you have touched women and find no water, then seek clean earth and wipe over your faces and your hands…” [Quran: 4:43]
Imaams Ash-Shafi'ee and Maalik held that it meant the touch of the hand, though each Imaam added certain stipulations to it. On the other hand, Imaam Abu Haneefah ruled that it meant sexual intercourse. The Prophet’s wives, may Allah be pleased with them, reported that on some occasions, he kissed them before performing prayers, which indicates that touching was not intended by this verse.
Tafseer of Quran by Opinion
Opinions based on a careful study can be considered valid as long as they do not contradict any known authentic explanations. Likewise, the application of obvious meanings of the Quran to existing situations and the formation of conclusions based on their similarities is also allowed as long as such interpretations do not clash with authentic classical explanations. However, free interpretation based on philosophical, scientific or sectarian ideas is totally forbidden. The Prophet was reported to have said thrice: "Opinion-based arguments about the Quran is Kufr (disbelief)." Then he said: "What you know of it, act on it; and what you are ignorant of, refer it to one who knows." [Ahmad]
We can see from the above mentioned narration that the Prophet sternly warned his companions and later generations of Muslims concerning the interpretations of the Quran based on speculation and unsubstantiated opinions. This was done because the Quran is the foundation of Islam and, as such, it had to remain pure and untampered with.
If free rein were given to any and everyone to interpret the Quran as he wished, its value would be totally destroyed and Islam itself would be undermined from its foundation. Thus, the only accepted Tafseer is that which follows the following sequence: Tafseer of the Quran by the Quran, Tafseer by the Sunnah, Tafseer by the sayings of the Sahaabah, Tafseer by language, and finally, Tafseer by opinion.