The Era of the Companions:
The Quran is the final revelation sent by Allah to Prophet Muhammad (may Allah exalt his mention). It is an eternal miracle that grows in clarity and strength with time and each new scientific discovery. It was revealed over nearly twenty-three years, during which the Prophet taught it and explained it to his companions, may Allah be pleased with them. He sallallaahu' alayhi wa sallam also answered all of their questions and did not die before completely delivering the message of the Quran, making it clearly understood.
At the same time, the Companions, may Allah be pleased with them, were very keen to memorise, understand and practice it. Due to their mastery of Arabic, the purity of their minds and hearts, and because they had witnessed the Quran being revealed under many circumstances and in response to diverse events, they were able to accumulate much understanding and knowledge of the Quran.
Some of them actually mastered its knowledge. Abdullaah bin Mas'ood, may Allah be pleased with him, was one of those who realised this great achievement. He described his knowledge of the Quran by saying: “I swear by Allah that there is not a verse of the Quran except that I know where and why it was revealed, and if I knew of anyone who knows the Book of Allah more than I do, I would travel to him.” [Al-Bukhari]
Other Companions devoted all of their lives to the Quran. Abdullaah bin 'Umar, may Allah be pleased with him, for example, was reported by Imaam Maalik in ‘Al-Muwatta’ as having spent eight consecutive years completely memorising and learning Soorah (chapter) Al-Baqarah (the second Quranic chapter).
It was also reported that the Companions, may Allah be pleased with them, used to say, “It is considered to be a great thing that one of us learns the Soorahs Al-Baqarah and Aal 'Imraan (The second and third chapters).” And that: “They used to learn the Quran from the Prophet ten verses at a time, and that they would not go beyond them until they had learned all possible knowledge and actions in them and applied them.”
This great knowledge was not all written down as text, except for what was written down by some Companions, may Allah be pleased with them. The reason was that the basic process of teaching and learning in those times was the oral tradition. Only the Quran itself and those Companions' writings were received in written format by the next generation of Muslims.
However, many of the Companions, may Allah be pleased with them, were known for their excellent knowledge and understanding of the Quran. People like 'Uthmaan, Ali, Zayd, Ubay, Ibn Mas'ood, Ibn 'Abbaas and Ibn 'Umar, may Allah be pleased with them, as well as others, had many brilliant and inspired students, such as Mujaahid, Qataadah and 'Ataa', may Allah have mercy on them, who then conveyed that knowledge to the rest of Ummah (Muslim community) as the practice of writing down knowledge became widespread.
The Companions’ circles of teaching were attended by hundreds of students. As those students went back home, they taught others the same knowledge as they had learned. Within a short period of time, the Companions’ knowledge, was spread across the vast Muslim lands.
What is so remarkable is that after writing became popular, the pieces of knowledge collected from different scholars who had never seen or known one another were found to be the same and, therefore, supported one another – showing consistency in the knowledge and the guidance of Islam.
To this day and forever, no other Ummah or religion can claim similarity to this unique feature of Islam.
After the Era of the Companions
It was through the efforts of such Companions as the four Caliphs, Ibn 'Abbas, Ibn Mas'ood, Zayd bin Thabit, Abu Moosa Al-Ash’ari, Ubay bin Ka’b and 'Abdullaah bin Az-Zubayr among others, that all of the knowledge related to the Quran was transferred and conveyed to the Tabi’een (the second Muslim generation after the companions) and from them onto the rest of the Ummah (Muslim Nation).
Among these successors, some are noteworthy: Mujahid, 'Ataa' bin Rabah, 'Ikrimah, Qatadah, Al-Hasan Al-Basri and Malik bin Anas . These great scholars laid the foundation for the subject of Tafseer (exegesis) of the Quran, as well as the numerous other branches of knowledge that eventually comprised the sciences of the Quran.
Very little was written in specialised books or treatises in the first Hijri century, but many were later documented towards the end of the second century, marking the beginning of what is referred to as 'The Era of Scriptwriting.'
Since most scholars were focused on Hadeeth (prophetic statements), this remarkable era provided the first collections of Ahadeeth (plural of Hadeeth) dealing with the subject of Tafseer, such as those collected by Shu’bah bin Al Hajjaj (160 AH), Waki’ bin Al-Jarrah (197 AH), 'Abdur-Razzaq (211 AH), and Ahmad ibn Hanbal (240 AH) whose collection exceeded 100,000 Ahadeeth, but never reached us except what has remained as part of his Musnad (Hadeeth collection).
So, Tafseer originated as an oral tradition that was transmitted along with other topics of the Sunnah (Prophetic tradition) to find its place in the books of Sunnah. If any of these scholars had written a Tafseer book, then it was either lost or has not yet reached us. The first major, authentic and complete Tafseer compilation was written by Imam Ibn Jareer At-Tabari (310 AH) . Many similar writings followed it.
Many other books were written that dealt with other topics and subjects related to the Quran. These writings primarily focused on a single issue or theme per book. Of the many books written throughout the centuries, only some have been checked, edited and printed. Imam Ali bin Al-Madeeni (234 AH) for example, wrote about the Circumstances of Revelation, Imam Abu 'Ubayd Al-Qasim bin Salam (224 AH) wrote about Abrogation and about the Qiraa’t (modes of Quranic recitation), while Imam Ibn Qutaybah’s (276 AH) book dealt with the subject of Mushkil (unclear or problematic) words and meanings of the Quran.
This thematic approach continues to this day, and Al-Baqillani (403 AH) wrote about the miraculous nature of the Quran while Al-Mawardi (450 AH) chose to discuss its Amthal (proverbs or parables). Later, Imam Ibn Al-Qayyim (751 AH) wrote about the oaths or vows that are found in the Quran.
The first book known to use the term and was entitled '`Uloom Al-Quran' was written by Imam Ali bin Ibraheem al-Hawfi (430 AH) . It is available but missing some volumes, and is still in manuscript form, and has not yet been printed. This book deals with and covers topics that partially comprise what we consider today as Sciences of the Quran, which is a major treatment of topics related to the Quran.
Later, Imam As-Suyooti (911 AH) wrote 'Al-Itqan Fi `Uloom Al-Quran' that followed the same lines of '`Uloom Al-Qur'an', but in an abridged format, with added topics, and is printed today in two large volumes. These two works are considered the classical references on the subjects of the Sciences of the Quran. Today, there are more than a hundred books written on all aspects related to the Quran and Tafseer, some of which have been translated into English.