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Sciences of the Qur’an part 1: The Definition of Tafseer and T’awil

Sciences of The Qur’ân #1 – Defining Tafsir and Ta’wil

Author: Abû Ammâr Yasir al-Qadhî
Source: ‘Introduction to the Sciences of the Qur’an’, published by al-Hidaayah Ltd

The topic of tafsir is the most important topic of ‘ulum al-Qur’an, since in many ways it is the primary goal of‘ulum al-Qur’an — to understand and implement the Qur’an properly. This has also been the first topic of ‘uloom al-Qur’an to have been written on, and without a doubt the one in which most of the works in this field have been written about.

I. The Definition of Tafsir and Ta’wil

The word ‘tafsir’ comes from ‘fassara’, which means, ‘to explain, to expound, to elucidate, to interpret.’ The word tafsir is the verbal noun of ‘fassara’, and means ‘the explanation or interpretation of something.’

According to another opinion,[1] the word tafsir is a transposition from s-f-r, which means, ‘to expose, to uncover.’ Thus, a woman who uncovers her face is called a ‘saafirah’, and the act of uncovering her face is called ‘sufur.’ Therefore, according to this definition, ‘tafsir would mean uncovering the meanings and exposing the secrets of the Qur’an. However, the stronger opinion is the first one, even though both of these meanings are correct.

In Islamic sciences, tafsir is defined to be:

The science by which the Qur’an is understood, its meanings explained, and its rulings derived.[2]

Another common word that is heard in this subject is the word ‘ta’wil’. What, then, is the difference, if any, between tafsir and ta’wil?

The word ‘ta’wil is from a-w-l, which means ‘to return, to revert,’ which implies going back to the original meaning of a word to see what its meanings and connotations are. The meanings of the word ‘ta’wil’ were given earlier, and are repeated here.
The word ‘ta’wil has three meanings:

  1. To understand a word in light of one of its connotations, despite the fact that this connotation is not the primary intent of the word.
  2. To explain a word or phrase.
  3. The actuality of an event.

With these two definitions in mind, there are five main opinions as to the difference between tafsir and ta’wil,as follows:[3]

  1. They are equivalent in meaning. This was the opinion of at-Tabari (d. 310 A.H.), as his commentary of the Qur’aan uses these two terms interchangeably.
  2. Tafsir is used in explaining a word which carries only one meaning, whereas ta’wil is used in choosing one of the connotations of a word that possesses many connotations.
  3. According to al-Maturidi (d. 333 A.H.), when the interpretation is based on certain knowledge, this is called tafsir,whereas when it is based on personal reasoning (ijtihad), it is known as ta’wil.
  4. Abu Talib at-Tha’labi held the view that tafsir was the explanation of the literal meaning of the verse, whereas ta’wil was the actual intent behind the verse. For example, the tafsir of the verse,

    Verily, your Lord is ever-Watchful [89:14] is that Allaah is aware of all that man does, but the ta’wil is that the verse is a warning to man not to lapse into sins or to belittle the commandments of Allah.

  5. Tafsir is meant to give the meanings of the individual words in a verse, whereas ta’wil gives the meaning of the verse as a whole.

There is no one correct opinion amongst these five, since various authors use these two words in all of these meanings. However, the most common understanding in modern usage of the two words is the second one, namely that tafsir is used to explain the meaning or intent of a verse which has only one connotation, whereas tawil is used when one of the possible connotations of a verse or word is chosen over the others due to external factors.


Footnotes

1 az-Zarkashi, v. 2, p. 147.

2 as-Suyuti, v. 2, p. 223.

3 cf., as-Suyuti, v.2, pps. 221-2, ar-Rumi, pps. 8-9, Zarabozo, p. 14.