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The Qur’an, God’s final book of revelation to man, represents the primary source of the principles which constitute the way of life known as Islam. The passages of the Qur’an contain advice and guidance in the form of laws, parables, stories, and arguments for those who choose to believe in God and the Day of Judgment. Hence, a believer’s success and happiness in this life and the next largely depend on his understanding, internalization, and application of the concepts contained in the Book. However, the depth of comprehension of the Qur’an’s meanings will vary from individual to individual due to natural differences in intelligence. This variation existed even among the sahaabah (companions of Prophet Muhammad, in spite of the Qur’an’s clarity of expression and its revelation in seven different dialects. Moreover, Allah, the Most Wise, chose to place generalities in the Qur’an, some of which He later explained in its other verses, while some he explained only to the Prophet. The Prophet knew and understood the Qur’an completely because Allah had chosen him as its vehicle and explained it all to him. Hence, Allah said in one verse: “Verily, collecting the Qur’an (for you) and reciting it (to you) is My [1] responsibility, so when I read it to you, listen to it. Then it is upon Me to explain it.” (75-17-19)


Therefore, it was the Prophet’s job to explain the Qur’an to his followers by his actions, as well as his statements. Allah stated this in the Qur’an: “I have revealed the Reminder (Qur’an) to you (O Muhammad) so that you may explain to people what has been revealed to them.” (16:44)


Consequently, the sahaabah all turned to the Prophet whenever possible during his lifetime for the tafsir (explanation, understanding, interpretation) of the Qur’an. For example, Ibn Mas‘ood related that when the following verse was revealed: “Those who believe and do not obscure their faith with transgression (thulm), for them there is security, and they are rightly guided,” (6:82) some of the companions became distressed, because the general linguistic meaning of thulm covers any kind of wrong, major or minor, and none of them were free from error. However, when they approached the Prophet about it, he replied,“ It is not as you all think. It is no more than what Luqmaan said to his son, ‘Verily, shirk (associating partners with God) is the greatest form of thulm. (31:13)” [2]


Thus the Prophet clarified for them that the broader meaning of thulm was not intended in the first verse; rather it was used to refer to shirk.


In this incident, the Prophet explained the Qur’an by the Qur’an, demonstrating the first step in the divinely ordained method of understanding and interpretation of the Qur’an that was established for all generations of Muslims until the Day of Resurrection. After the Prophet’s death, the sahaabah turned to those among themselves who were more gifted in understanding the Qur’an and who had been able to spend more time with the Prophet for interpretation and explanation of the Qur’an.


Among the sahaabah who became the most noted for their ability to make tafsir of the Qur’an are the following: The four Righteous Caliphs, [3] the Prophet’s wife, ‘Aa’ishah bint Abee Bakr, Ibn Mas‘ood, Ibn ‘Abbaas, Ubayy ibn Ka‘b, Zayd ibn Thaabit, Aboo Moosaa al-Ash‘aree, ‘Abdullaah ibn az-Zubayr, Anas ibn Maalik, ‘Abdullaah ibn ‘Umar, Jaabir ibn ‘Abdullaah, and ‘Abdullaah ibn ‘Amr ibn al-‘Aas. [4] Within the space of twenty-five years after the Prophet’s death, the sahaabah carried Islam to all corners of the known world, toppling in the process the great empires of Persia and Byzantine. Wherever the Muslim armies stopped their advance, some of the sahaabah would settle and begin teaching those who came into Islam the recitation and interpretation of the Qur’an. For this reason, the knowledge of tafsir spread throughout the Muslim realm, and centers of Qur’anic learning sprung up everywhere. Among the people who gathered around the sahaabah were some outstanding individuals who remained their students and absorbed their knowledge. These students became known as taabi‘oon. Each sahaabee carried with him a portion of knowledge, some of which overlapped with that of others and some of which did not. Consequently, some of the students traveled to other Islamic centers to study under other sahaabah, while others stayed with their teachers until their deaths.




[1] Literally, ‘Our.’ The ‘royal We’ is barely used in English, but it is a common feature of Arabic speech, used to indicate the importance of the speaker. It is my standard practice to translate this ‘We’ as ‘I,’ since the literal translation is a frequent cause of confusion for English speakers.


[2] Muslim, no. 226


[3] Aboo Bakr as-Siddeeq, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattaab, ‘Uthmaan ibn ‘Affaan, and ‘Alee ibn Abee Taalib.


[4] Al-Itqaan fee ‘Uloom al-Qur’aan, vol. 2, p. 239.


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