Tafseer, or interpretation of the Qur’an — and translation is a kind of tafseer — can make or break one’s understanding of the Qur’an. For what is understanding but how one interprets something? Misinterpretation causes misunderstanding. Which can lead to wrongful acts based on that misunderstanding. This is a common human error. But its significance is incalculable when we speak of wrong tafseer of the Qur’an, God’s message to the world…
Much interpretation or explanation of the Qur’an involves scholars who refer to texts outside the Qur’an, such as hadeeths attributed to Prophet Mohammad or historical or literary sources, as well as mere interpretation using commonly accepted definitions of terms. Often a scholar will simply refer to previous scholars’ explanations and collect these as his own. For an understanding of language, reading prior explanations is useful. But if the Qur’an is in fact a revelation sent down from Allah (glory to His name), which itself claims to be self-explanatory and clear, does it really make sense to rely solely on human sources without thinking, or finding explanations within a text whose source is divine? Can these sources adequately or correctly explain a book such as the Qur’an? One might ask, “How else can I reach an understanding of such a book?”
There are really two elements here. One is the understanding of the reader and the issue of bringing to that reader an explanation s/he can relate to. One could say this means giving a familiar context to the text being explained. For example, in explaining the meaning of a word like thikr, which has no English equivalent, one can give examples of how it is used, such as to mean “mention” but also “bring to mind” as well as “remembrance” as in remembrance of the dead, and also it can refer to words or phrases that are invoked, repeated, or recited (said) that bring a particular concept, person, place, act, etc. to mind. Then show this word used in the Qur’an or in daily usage.
The other element is the actual meaning itself in the context of the Qur’an or a specific aya or portion of the Qur’an being interpreted. Here, for example, “thikr al-Hakeem” or “the wise thikr,” refers to the Qur’an itself. That meaning is clear from how the Qur’an uses this expression. By reading this usage in various locations in the Qur’an, one can understand easily if this interpretation is correct. It needs no outside source to confirm or explain this. This way of interpreting or explaining the Qur’an is the highest form of tafseer. And indeed many tafseers explain the Quran this way; but also involve hadeeths, many of which (and there are so many!) are dubious in content yet accepted unquestioningly because they are in Bukhari’s collection. The narrative chains alone cannot prove definitively if the prophet actually said this, because it’s hearsay evidence and the evidence wasn’t collected in any provable way until around 200 years after the prophet’s time. What can prove their veracity would be simply to compare them to the Quran to see if there is any contradiction. Because the majority of accusations against Islam by non-Muslims come from rulings and beliefs that are entirely hadeeth-based, not in the Quran. Is it not time that we clear up these misconceptions and follow the Islam that Allah presented in the Quran? Not that presented by the dogmas and prejudicial selected texts of humans? Did they not read the hadeeths that actually denigrate Prophet Mohammad (pbuh)? Yet they claim one must accept all hadeeths or one has rejected or insulted the prophet?
In critical interpretations, we find erroneous and clearly contradictory conclusions being drawn by using dubious outside sources. For example, in Surat Al-Qamar 44:1 —
اقْتَرَبَتِ السَّاعَةُ وَانشَقَّ الْقَمَرُ
“The hour drew nigh and the moon did rend asunder.”
One of many similar tafseers presents this explanation:
The Hour has drawn near, the Resurrection is close at hand, and the moon has split, it broke in two at [Mount] Abū Qubays and Qu‘ayqa‘ān, as a sign for the Prophet (s), for it had been demanded of him, and [when it took place] he said, ‘Bear witness [now]!’ — as reported by the two Shaykhs [al-Bukhārī and Muslim].
This supposed historical incident in which the prophet Mohammad somehow caused or at least witnessed the moon splitting (and then reassembling apparently) literally is often claimed as a miracle performed by prophet Mohammad by Allah’s will. But the entire story is erroneous! Aside from the huge fact that it makes no sense and contradicts logic; aside from the fact that it serves no reasonable purpose; this interpretation actually contradicts the Qur’an.
For example, in Surat Al-Anaam (6):35-7
وَإِن كَانَ كَبُرَ عَلَيْكَ إِعْرَاضُهُمْ فَإِنِ اسْتَطَعْتَ أَن تَبْتَغِيَ نَفَقًا فِي الْأَرْضِ أَوْ سُلَّمًا فِي السَّمَاءِ فَتَأْتِيَهُم بِآيَةٍ وَلَوْ شَاءَ اللَّهُ لَجَمَعَهُمْ عَلَى الْهُدَىٰ فَلَا تَكُونَنَّ مِنَ الْجَاهِلِينَ
“And if their aversion has become too much for you, then perhaps you could make a tunnel in the earth, or a ladder to the heavens, and bring them a sign. Had Allah willed, He would have gathered them to the guidance; so do not be of the ignorant ones.” 6:35
إِنَّمَا يَسْتَجِيبُ الَّذِينَ يَسْمَعُونَ وَالْمَوْتَىٰ يَبْعَثُهُمُ اللَّهُ ثُمَّ إِلَيْهِ يُرْجَعُونَ
“Only those who listen will respond. As for the dead, Allah will resurrect them, then to Him they will return.” 6:36
وَقَالُوا لَوْلَا نُزِّلَ عَلَيْهِ آيَةٌ مِّن رَّبِّهِ قُلْ إِنَّ اللَّهَ قَادِرٌ عَلَىٰ أَن يُنَزِّلَ آيَةً وَلَٰكِنَّ أَكْثَرَهُمْ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ
“And they said: “If only a sign was sent to him from his Lord!” Say: “Allah is able to send a sign, but most of them would not know.” 6:37
By the word “aya” or “sign” is meant “miracle” in the physical sense, as were the miracles of, for example, Aissa (Jesus) and Moosa (Moses). The sole Miracle given to Prophet Mohammad is the Qur’an. This is generally a well-known fact, and the supposed “miracle” of splitting the moon is not necessarily accepted. Many Muslims never heard of this story. But it is a perfect example of how interpreting the Qur’an using “sources” other than the Qur’an can lead to disaster: actual apparent contradictions in a divine revelation whose veracity should be determined by, at the very least, its lack of internal contradiction.
The Qur’an very frequently defines itself as “Qur’an mubeen,” or “clear and unequivocal Qur’an.” The word mubeen implies something that is almost obvious in its clarity — i.e., self-explanatory — and certainly contradictions would preclude fitting that description.
By using outside sources to explain and interpret the Qur’an, scholars may imply, sometimes quite deliberately and openly, that the Qur’an is “insufficient” for our understanding. As if it needs to be elucidated by stories and incidents entirely extraneous and obviously invented by humans. This, of course, does not mean one cannot study the tafseers that have been written, or even examine hadiths. But if they contradict the Quran as many do, what would be the benefit to place them on a par with an obviously irrefutable source? Eliminate the story of the moon being seen with half over one mountain and half over the other, and we can understand obviously that here is an astronomical event that is foretold will happen very close to Judgment Day. Clearly, it hasn’t happened yet. And what sort of point would be served by such a cheap magician’s illusion as the apparition of the moon being split, but only for a short time? The very people who claim to honor the Prophet with this story, unwittingly make him appear to be a like a magician in the eyes of those with knowledge of astronomy and basic logic. In a sense, they are treating him as a magician, as if the task of disseminating the Quran were not impressive enough, despite the Quran telling us a mountain could not receive it. Humans always seem to be more impressed with magic tricks than reality, wanting that rather than an astounding and miraculous book. Just as the people who only use the Qur’an as a means of causing their sons to graduate or daughters to marry, thinking of it as a source of “magic words” rather than guidance.
A message should be only a message. With meaning. Not magic. And the prophet should be only a prophet. He warns the disbelievers, brings good news to those with faith in Allah alone, and brings a revelation from Allah in a very specific and recognizable way. In the case of Prophet Mohammad, this is the Qur’an. His mission was NOT to provide micromanagement for future generations of Muslims, nor was it storytelling or provision of anecdotes, including miracles that would have impressed those living when the hadiths that tell about this came out — but not those of knowledge in our modern world.
In fact, the Qur’an should not be restricted in its interpretation to what was relevant during the time and place of Prophet Mohammad. After all, this is a message for all time, all people, all cultures and ethnicities. Its interpretation should be therefore accessible to that intended audience. Which the Qur’an clearly gets right, and thus is the only source capable of such universality and applicability. If this seems impossible, let it be considered a miracle. But in fact, this only makes common sense.
What if Muslims attempted to actually read the Qur’an for themselves to understand its meaning, not to memorize the meaningless sounds of its words to gain “hassanat” in some sacred accounting not mentioned in the book of guidance itself? They would begin to wonder how it is they never tried to do this before, and discover how magnificent and all-encompassing the Qur’an really is.
Just two ayat down from the above references to miracles, we find this:
وَالَّذِينَ كَذَّبُوا بِآيَاتِنَا صُمٌّ وَبُكْمٌ فِي الظُّلُمَاتِ مَن يَشَإِ اللَّهُ يُضْلِلْهُ وَمَن يَشَأْ يَجْعَلْهُ عَلَىٰ صِرَاطٍ مُّسْتَقِيمٍ
And they who reject Our communications are deaf and dumb, in utter darkness; whom Allah pleases He causes to err and whom He pleases He puts on the right way.
Here it is. Can you understand the above statement? Do you need to know, for example, an inference that by “darkness” is meant “being non-Muslim” by which is meant “not being a member of the community of people defining themselves as Muslim under the following terms…etc”??? Afa la taaqiloon? Which means “Will you not use your minds?!”
And even more to the point, from Surat al-Qamar (54:17):
وَلَقَدْ يَسَّرْنَا الْقُرْآنَ لِلذِّكْرِ فَهَلْ مِن مُّدَّكِرٍ
And We made the Qur’an easy to remember. Are there any who want to learn?”