Approach to Quranic Exegesis (1)
By: Martyr Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr
Translated from Arabic by Mujahid Husayn
There is no doubt that there are
various types of exegesis and different schools founded on their basis. Most often they
diverge in approach and the aspect emphasised. There is a type of exegesis that emphasises
the philological and literary aspects of the Quranic text. Another type concentrates on
meaning and content. There is a type of exegesis that is largely based on hadith and which
interprets Quranic texts in accordance with the traditions narrated from the Prophet (S)
and the Imams (A), or from the Sahabah and the Tabi'un. Another type is the one which
applies reason as an instrument for comprehending the meanings of the Quran.
There is a partial and biased
kind of exegesis that seeks to make the Quranic text conform with the prior views of a
particular school. Opposed to this is another kind which is unbiased in its approach and
seeks the view of the Quran in order to fashion its own views accordingly, without
attempting to make the Quran conform to its views. Apart from these, there have been other
modes of exegesis in the Islamic exegetic tradition.
But what is specially important
for us at the outset of this Quranic study, is to focus on two principal methods of tafsir
which developed with the growth of Islamic thought. The first of these we will call the
'analytic approach' to exegesis (al-'ittijah al-tajzi'I fi al-tafsir) and the
second the 'thematic' or 'synthetic approach' (al-'ittijah al-tawhidi aw al-mawdu'I fi
The Analytic Approach:
By the 'analytic approach' we
mean the approach in which the exegete deals with the Quran verse by verse, in accordance
with their compiled sequence in the Quran. The exegete following this approach, follows
the Quranic text and expounds it in a piecemeal fashion, utilising those instruments of
exegesis that he believes to be effective (such as reliance on literal meanings,
traditions, or other verses that have some word or meaning in common with the verse under
study)to the extent of his capacity to throw light upon the import of the part being
commented upon, while taking into consideration the context in which it occurs.
Naturally, while discussing the
analytic approach to tafsir we should examine its most developed and complete form. The
analytic method made a gradual historical advance before reaching its present stage, where
the complete Quran comes under its purview.
This method began during the era
of the Sahabah and the Tabi'un, at the level of analytic exposition of some words and
verses of the Quran. With the passage of time, the need for the exegesis of further verses
increased, until by the end of the third and the beginning of the fourth century, it took
its final and most extensive form in the works of Ibn Majah, al-Tabari and others.
The aim of the analytic method
was to understand the meaning of God's words, which was possible for a large number of
people at the beginning of the Islamic era. But with the passage of time and growing
distance from the period of revelation, with new developments and changes in
circumstances, the meanings of words became obscure.
The development of the analytic
method followed the growth of uncertainties in comprehending the Quranic text and doubts
in determining the Divine intent, until, eventually, it acquired the most evolved form in
the shape of encyclopaedic exegeses in which the exegete begins from the first verse of
the Surat al-Fatihah and concludes with the last verse of the Surat al-Nas,
expounding the text verse by verse. This was because the literal meanings of many verses
required clarification, analysis and emphasis with the passage of time.
Obviously, we do not mean that in
following the analytic method the exegete neglects all other verses and does not take
their help in understanding the verse he is working upon. Rather, he does use other verses
while commenting upon a certain verse, while also using traditions for this purpose. But
his use of other verses is only for comprehending the literal meaning of the words of the
verse being commented upon. At every step his purpose is to understand the meaning of the
verse being dealt with, with the help of all the possible means at this disposal; that is,
his purpose is basically an analytic one. Consequently, the exegete stops after
comprehending the meaning of a certain part of the Quranic text without generally
exceeding this limit.
The result of the analytic method
of tafsir at its best is the vast collection of Quranic meanings taken into consideration
separately; that is, we become aware of a large number of ideas and teachings of the
Quran, which are disconnected and piled up in such a motley manner that it is not possible
for us to identify the link existing between them or to discover their pattern of
arrangement. After going through this exercise, it is not possible us to understand the
view of the Quran regarding the different spheres of human activity. Thus, what we
confront is a huge conglomeration of facts from which we cannot determine the relations
and links existing between them that may lead to the formation of composite ideas enabling
us to determine the point of view of the Quran concerning different fields and spheres of
human activity. The analytic tafsir does not have such an aim in view, and if it is
occasionally achieved, such is not its essential aim.
This condition of dispersion
arising from the analytic tendency has certainly led to the development of several
religious conflicts in Islam, because it is sufficient that an exegete should find a
certain verse as justifying his sect's stand, to proclaim it and gather a group of
followers around himself. This has happened with many issues of kalam, such as the issue
of freedom and predestination. It would have been possible to avoid many of these
conflicts if the exegete following the analytic method had taken a step further and not
confined himself to bringing together a number of verses.
The Thematic Approach:
In this method, the exegesis of
the Quran is not done verse by verse. On the contrary, it seeks to study the Quran by
taking up a particular theme from among the various doctrinal, social and cosmological
themes dealt by the Quran. It studies and discusses, for example, the doctrine of tawhid
in the Quran, the concept of prophethood in the Quran, the Quranic approach to
economics, the laws that shape the course of history (sunan al-tarikh) according to
the Quran, the cosmology of the Quran, and so on. Through such studies, this method seeks
to determine the Quranic viewpoints and to comprehend as a consequence the message of
Islam regarding a particular issue from among the various issues related to life and the
It should be clear that there is
no divorce between the two methods either on the level of actual practice or the practice
of exegesis through history, because the thematic method evidently stands in need of the
ascertainment by the analytic method of the meanings of the verses being dealt with by
thematic tafsir and related to a topic under study. Also, the analytic tafsir, in the
course of its semantic journey does stumble upon Quranic ideas related to major issues of
human life. Nevertheless, the two methods remain different from each other in their
features, aims and ideational characteristics.
Among the factors responsible for
the popularity of the analytic method and its domination for many centuries was the
traditionalist trend in tafsir. This trend was initially so strong that in fact exegesis
was a part of hadith in one form or the other, and apart from some lexical, literary and
historical information, hadith remained about the sole basis of exegesis for a long period
These traditions of the Prophet
(S) and the Imams (A), or the Sahabah and the Tabi'un, were generally replies to questions
asked by the people. It was not possible for a tafsir that stopped at the boundary of
hadith and relied solely upon it, to take a further step and attempt to combine and
synthesise the varied detailed meanings of the Quran and to derive a viewpoint lying
beyond its lexical meanings. This exegesis was by nature a commentary on the meaning of
isolated words, in the sense that synonyms were given, some unfamiliar terms were
elucidated, and some ideas were applied to the circumstances of the revelation (asbab
al-nuzul) of verses. Such an activity lacks the potential of assuming an innovative
role that would have enabled it to go beyond lexical meanings and reach the basic ideas
which the Holy Quran offers in its scattered verses.
For a better understanding of
these two different methods of tafsir, we give an example from our experience in fiqh. In
a sense fiqh involves the interpretation of traditions narrated from the Prophet (S) and
the Imams (A). We know that there are legal works which deal with the traditions, one by
one, and expound every tradition with respect to either its meaning, or the chain of its
narrators, or its text, or all of these, depending upon the commentator's approach. This
is what we find in the works of the commentators of al-Kutub al-'Arba'ah ("the
four books", i.e. al-Kafi, al-Tahdhib, al-'Istibsar and Man
la yahduruhu al-faqih) and al-Wasa'il, although the greater part of legal books
and studies do not follow this method. On the contrary, they organise their studies on the
basis of the problems confronted in everyday life, while citing such traditions as relate
to a problem and shed light upon it, leading to the determination of the Islamic viewpoint
concerning it. This is the thematic or problematic method in fiqh, while the former method
was an analytic one of expounding traditions in that field.
Al-Jawahir is in fact a
comprehensive commentary on the traditions of al-Kutub al-'Arba'ah. But it is not a
commentary which expounds their traditions one by one. Instead, it deals with these
traditions in relation with the different issues of human activity, such as sale, ju'alah,
restoration of wasteland, marriage, etc. It collects the relevant traditions under each
head, elaborating and collating them with a view to drawing a legal conclusion. It is not
sufficient to comprehend each tradition separately, for it is not possible to deduce a
rule of the Shari'ah from such isolated studies. The deduction of a rule of the Shari'ah
requires a study of all the traditions relevant to the exposition of a rule or subject
concerning any area of human activity. Following this comprehensive study, a viewpoint
emerges as a result of viewing the traditions together, not in isolation from one another.
This is the thematic approach as applied to the exposition of traditions.
On comparing the method of
enquiry followed in Quranic studies with the one prevalent in fiqh, we observe the
differing positions of the two methods. Thus while the thematic approach prevailed in
fiqh, to the extent that it predominated all the legal studies, and led to advance and
development in this field, we find the opposite being true in Quranic studies, where the
analytic method of tafsir held sway for nearly thirteen centuries. Every exegete would
start his work exactly like his predecessor, and expound the Quran verse by verse.
Consequently, while the thematic method prevailed in fiqh, the analytic method was
prevalent in the filed of Quranic studies.
This kind of Quranic studies
which are occasionally referred to as 'thematic exegeses' - like the studies of exegetes
concerning some specific topics such as asbabal-nuzul of the verses, the variant
readings, the nasikh and mansukh verses, the metaphors used in the Quran,
etc. - are not what we mean by thematic exegesis. Such studies are actually compilations
of a number of statements from analytic tafsir that have something in common. In other
words, not every attempt at collecting or isolating Quranic details in a thematic study.
The thematic study is one where a problem from among the various doctrinal, social and
cosmological issues of life is studies with a view to determining the Quranic standpoint
I think that, most probably, the
prevalence of the thematic approach in fiqh has helped greatly in developing Islamic legal
thought, and in enriching scientific studies in this field. On the contrary, the
prevalence of the analytic method in Quranic studies impeded the development of Islamic
Quranic thought and resulted in its acquiring a quality of repetitiousness, so much so
that we may say that centuries elapsed after the exegetic works of al-Tabari, al-Razi and
al-Shaykh al-Tusi without Islamic thought being able to create anything really new, and
the exegetic activity mostly remained in static state throughout these centuries despite
the extensive changes brought about by time in the various spheres of human life. Later
on, God willing, a comparison of the two methods will reveal the cause and the secret
behind this phenomenon.
The Difference Between the Two Methods:
Why did the analytic method
impede growth, while the thematic method promoted it, leading to the creative expansion in
the scope of ijtihad? To know why that was so, it is necessary that we have a
clearer and sharper understanding of the analytic and thematic methods. The answer will
become obvious after our explaining the points of difference between these two methods.
Following are some of these differences.
The First Difference:
The role of the exegete following the analytic method
is generally passive. First of all, he starts by taking into consideration a particular
Quranic text, such as a verse or passage, without formulating any prior premises or plans,
and seeks to determine the Quranic meaning in the light of assistance afforded to him by
the vocabulary of the Quran, along with any indications that are available to him within
the specific text or outside it. In general, his effort is confined to the exposition of a
specific text of the Quran. In this, the role of the text is similar to that of a speaker,
and the exegete's passive duty is to listen with attention and to comprehend. Here, the
exegete's preoccupation is to listen attentively with an enlightened and clear mind and a
spirit of familiarity with classical Arabic and its refinements and style. With such a
mind and spirit the exegete sits facing the Quran and listens attentively. His role is
passing while the Quran plays an active role. As the Quran effuses its literal meanings,
the exegete records them in his exegesis to the extent of his understanding.
In contrast to this, the exegete
following the thematic method does not start his activity from the text of the Quran, but
from the reality of life. He focuses on a particular subject from among the various
problems relating to the ideological, social or cosmological aspects of life, employing
the accumulated results of human thought and experience concerning that subject, the
questions raised and the solutions suggested regarding it, with the gaps present therein.
Thereafter, he turns to the Quranic text, though not in the role of a passive listener and
a recorder. He places before the Quran a ready topic and problem out of the great number
of human ideas and views. Thus he starts a dialogue with the Quran; the exegete
questioning and the Quran giving the replies.
The exegete studies his topic by
relating it, within the limits of his capacity, t the imperfect intellectual experience of
mankind as represented by the correct and incorrect viewpoints of various thinkers,
focusing the light shed by them on the problem at hand. Then setting aside the results of
his enquiry, he turns to the Quran, not as a mute listener but as one entering a dialogue.
In an inquisitive and contemplative spirit, he questions the Quran, beginning with the
Quranic texts concerning the subject of his study. His aim here is to discover the
standpoint of the Quran concerning the subject under study, and to arrive at a conclusion
inspired by the text, while comparing it with the ideas and viewpoints relating to the
Hence, the results of the
thematic tafsir are in constant link with human experience, because they portray the
Quranic outlines as well as approach to determining the Islamic point of view regarding
any issue of life. It is also clear that thematic tafsir operates as a dialogue with the
Quran by seeking replies from it. But this act of eliciting answers from the Quran is not
simply a passive way of doing so; rather, it is an active approach with the purpose of
discovering a truth from among the great truths of life from the Quranic text.
- Speaking about the Quran, Amir al-Mu'minin 'Ali
That (light) is the Quran. Try to make
it speak, it will never speak, though I will inform you about it. Indeed, it contains the
knowledge of the future and the reports of the past, the cure for your ills and the system
of (organising) your affairs."
(Nahj al-balaghah, Khutbah 158)
The expression istintaq used
by 'Ali, the son of the Quran, is the most splendid term describing the function of
thematic tafsir as a dialogue with the Quran, posing the problems of a particular subject
to it with the purpose of eliciting Quranic replies to them.
Thus, the first principal
difference between analytic and thematic methods of tafsir is that in the former method
the exegete plays the passive role of listener taking notes, which is not the case in the
latter method. The perpetual task of thematic tafsir in every age is to set the human
intellectual heritage and experience as the contemporary thought before the Quran, a Book
immune to the infiltration of falsehood, to seek its verdict regarding the date collected
by the exegete on a subject, to the extent of his ability, to determine, comprehend, and
expound that verdict from the verses of the Quran.
Here, the Quran unites with
reality and human life, because thematic tafsir starts from reality and ends in the Quran.
It is not a tafsir which begins and ends with the Quran and is detached from the realities
of life and the heritage of human experience. On the contrary, it begins with reality and
ends in the Quran, in its capacity as a true sources for determining the sacred outlook
regarding that particular reality.
In this approach, the Quran
retains its perpetual and everlasting capacity to renew and innovate, because the problem
studied is not lexical exegesis. The potential of lexical exegesis is not unlimited,
whereas there are traditions which indicate that the Quran is inexhaustible. The Quran
itself is explicit that the words of God never run out. The Holy Quran is a perennial,
inexhaustible source, whereas lexical exegesis is limited because the lexical meanings are
limited and incapable of growth or renewal.
Therefore, the inexhaustible
bounty of the Quran and the profusion of its meanings, which the Quran and the traditions
of the Ahl al-Bayt (A) explicitly mention, is possible only through the method of thematic
tafsir. This is because through it we seek to make the Quran speak, which certainly
contains the knowledge of the past and the future, the cure for our ills, the plan for
organising our affairs, and the outlook of the Heaven on earthly experience.
Hence thematic tafsir is able to
develop, grow and flourish because of the developing nature of human experience, and the
study and contemplation of the Quran in the light of this experience make this development
a vehicle for correct Islamic and Quranic understanding.
The Second Difference:
The second difference between the two methods is that
the thematic method takes a step beyond the analytic method. The analytic method confines
itself to expressing the detailed meanings of the verses, while the thematic method aims
at something more than this and has a more extended scope of enquiry. It seeks to know the
relationship between the difference verses, whose individual details have been provided by
the analytic method, to arrive at a composite Quranic view, within whose framework each
individual verse occupies its appropriate place. This is what we call a view or outlook.
The thematic method strives, for
instance, to arrive at the Quranic view about prophethood, the view of the Quran regarding
economic theory, its view about the laws which fashion the course of history, and its view
concerning cosmology. Thus, by doing so, thematic tafsir goes a step beyond analytic
tafsir, and intends to arrive at a composite view which represents the stand of the Quran
concerning a particular issue from among the various ideological, social and cosmological
These are the two principal
differences between the analytic and the thematic methods of tafsir. We have also
mentioned that the thematic method was applied in the field of fiqh, while it was not
generally followed in the field of exegesis, where the analytic method remained in vogue.
The term 'thematic' has been used
here in the light of the first characteristic of this form of tafsir, i.e., its starting
from a theme derived from external reality and turning towards the Quran. We may also call
it 'synthetic' because it seeks to unite human experience with the Quran. However, this
does not imply that it seeks to impose this experience on the Quran and to subject the
Quran to it. Rather, it unites the two in the context of a single enquiry aimed at
deriving from this unified context the Quranic notion capable of determining the Islamic
stand concerning a particular human experience o concerning a particular idea which the
exegesis has brought into the context of his enquiry. Therefore the tafsir is thematic and
synthetic on the basis of its first characteristic.
This kind of tafsir is also
thematic on the basis of its second characteristic, because it selects a group of verses
related to a single theme. It is synthetic on the same basis, because it synthesises these
verses and their meanings into single composite view. Thus, the terms 'thematic' and
'synthetic' are in consonance with both the above mentioned differences.
As we said, the thematic approach
has been applied in the study of fiqh, while the analytic method has dominated tafsir.
However, it does not mean that legal studies have exhausted the potential of the thematic
method. Even today fiqhi studies need to draw on the potential of this method to expand
their scope horizontally as well as vertically, because, as said, the thematic method
means starting from reality and leading up to the Shari'ah.
Such has been the wont of the
'ulama' and 'fuqaha' in regard to various aspects and situations of real life, as in the
case of such contracts as ju'alah, mudarabah, muzara'ah, musaqat,
and marriage, to correlate them with the sources of the Shari'ah in order to deduce the
rules of the Shari'ah for these activities. This is a thematic or problematic approach,
because it starts with a real life situation and leads up to the Shari'ah for arriving at
the law applicable to it.
However, it is necessary that the
legal studies further extend their scope horizontally, because the scholars who
contributed to the development of the thematic method during the course of several
centuries were those who were always keen to grasp the current realities of life and to
relate them to the Shari'ah, in order to deduce the laws applicable to these realities.
But since human activity is continually in the process of change and expansion, with new
areas of activity coming into being, it is necessary that the application of this method
continue to develop, by harmonising all the new aspects of human activity with the
The situation of life in the
times of al-Shaykh al-Tusi or al-Muhaqqiq al-Hilli was adequate for the needs of their
respective periods. However a great number of new vistas that have opened gradually since
then in the sphere of human activity need to be correlated with the Shari'ah through the
continued application of the thematic method.
For instance, in the early days,
about a thousand or eight hundred years ago, such transactions as tijarah, mudarabah,
muzara'ah, and musaqat were representative of the commerce of those days.
But today the range of economic transactions has widened and they have become much more
complicated. Therefore, it is essential for the faqih today, as it was for the earlier
'ulama' who were always keen to relate every new aspect of life to the Shari'ah for
obtaining the rules, to constantly relate real life to the Shari'ah. Hence, it is
essential that this method continue to expand horizontally, as it did at its beginning.
This was from the point of view of horizontal expansion.
It is also necessary that the
thematic method operate in fiqh in a vertical direction. Such a vertical expansion is
essential in order to reach the fundamental viewpoints which manifest the outlook of
Islam, on which detailed legislation and the legal superstructure rest. This is because we
know that every set of laws pertaining to any particular filed of human activity is
linked, on the one hand, to the basic concepts, and to the principal developments related
to them, on the other. For instance, the economic laws of the Shari'ah are based on the
Islamic outlook on economics; its laws of marriage, divorce and those concerned with the
relations between man and woman are based on its basic outlook on man and woman and their
These basic concepts, on which
the superstructure of fiqh rests, should be studied more intensively. It is not correct to
view the study of these basic concepts as an activity separate from fiqh, as an
unessential of luxury of an academic nature, because it is not so. Rather, it is one of
the necessities of fiqh, and it is essential to explore them t the extent humanly
Returning to tafsir, we mentioned
the differences between thematic and analytic tafsir and explained a number of advantages
present in the thematic method that makes it superior to the other method. The thematic
method of tafsir, in the light of what has been said, has wide horizons and is more
fertile in that, going a step beyond analytic tafsir, it is capable of continuous
development and productivity, replenished as it is with new material provided by human
experience. This material is placed before the Quran so that the exegete is enabled to
derive replies from it. This is the only way to reach the basic concepts of Islam and the
Quran concerning different issues of life.
It may be asked as to why it is
necessary to know these concepts. What is the need to comprehend the Islamic concept of
prophethood, the Islamic view of the laws that mould the course of history, the Islamic
outlook on economics, and the Islamic cosmology? It is obvious that the Prophet (S) did
not teach these concepts in a general and defined form; he gave the Quran to Muslims in
its present order. Now what is the need to exhaust ourselves in an effort to isolate and
determine these concepts, when we observe that the Prophet (S) was content with delivering
his message in an unsorted lump.
The fact is that there is today a
basic need to determine these concepts and it is not possible to neglect them. The Prophet
(S) did present these concepts, but by applying them in general Quranic climate generated
by him in the Islamic society. Every Muslim living in that atmosphere understood these
concepts, even if summarily and subconsciously, because the educative, spiritual,
intellectual and social atmosphere created by the Prophet (S) was capable of giving a
clear vision and a genuine ability to appraise different situations and incidents.
For a better understanding of
this, consider the following two situations. The first situation is that of a person
living among people speaking a certain language. The second is that of an outsider who
wants to learn a particular language. There are two ways open to him. The first is for
this person to live amidst the people who speak it and to immerse himself in this
language. After living in this milieu for a long period of time he will grasp the
structure of the language and its usages. With this, his mind will travel in accordance
with the words, because he has acquired a general subconscious grasp of the meanings and
rules of the language, the choice of the correct words, and the ability to differentiate a
correct usage from a wrong one.
On the other hand, if a person
living outside the climate of a language intends to cultivate the ability to use it
correctly, what should he do?
This could be done by learning
the rules of that language. This requires him to study the current usage, whose knowledge
he wishes to cultivate, and to refer to it, for deducing the general rules of that
language. This is what happened in the case of Arabic studies. In the beginning the Arabs
did not need to study classical Arabic because they lived in its atmosphere, But with the
passage of time and changes in the cultural atmosphere, the language began to weaken .
Other languages also cast their influence and entered the lives of these people. With this
they began to feel the need for philological studies and grammar, because the current
usage did not provide them with a wholesome grasp of their language. Thus it became
necessary to develop a science with grammatical concepts and rules of syntax on whose
basis they could use this language, and reflect and debate in it.
This was an example intended to
explain the need for thematic tafsir. The Sahabah, who lived with the Prophet (S), though
they did not learn these concepts in their generalised form, nevertheless, did comprehend
them summarily and subconsciously. They were engraved in their minds and implicit in their
thoughts. The general social, spiritual and intellectual atmosphere in which they lived
was itself conducive to the understanding, even if sketchy, of these concepts, and in
creating an appropriate criterion for appraisal.
But since this atmosphere no
longer exists, there is the need for studying the concepts of the Quran and Islam. This
need has become more pressing with the emergence of new views and ideas as a result of the
interaction between the Islamic world and the West, with their vast, and variegated
cultural experience in different fields. As a result of this interaction, a Muslim finds
himself confronted with numerous ideas related to various spheres of life, and it is
necessary to determine the Islamic viewpoint regarding them. It is necessary that the
Islamic texts be studied intensively and 'made to speak', in order to discover the Islamic
standpoint, affirmative or negative, in regard to them. These viewpoints of Islam, when
determined, would enable us to solve the problems in diverse fields of human existence
that human intellectual experience has sought to address.
Therefore, the thematic method is
the better of the two methods of tafsir. But this does not mean that there is no longer
any need for analytic tafsir. The merit of a method does not mean that it should replace
another. What is meant is that we should add the one method to the other; because thematic
tafsir is nothing but a step beyond analytic tafsir, not that there is no need for it in
the presence of the thematic method. Therefore, the issue at stake is not the replacement
of one method by another, but a union of the two methods. This means that that there are
two essential steps involved in tafsir: the first one consists of analytic tafsir, and the
second one is represented by thematic tafsir.
*Editor's Note: This is
translation of two lectures delivered by Martyr al-Sadr on 17thand 18th Jamadi al-Awwal,
1399 (April, 1979), and published with the title "al-Tafsir al-mawdu'I wa
al-tafsir al-tajzi'I " . These have been published, together with other twelve
lectures of the author dealing with history and society, under the title al-Madrasat
al-Quraniyyah, by Dar al-Ta'aruf li al-Matbu'at, Beirut. The text translated here has
been edited to remove repetitions and inessential explanations.
(1) From Al-Tawhid, Vol.VI, No.3 Rajab - Ramadhan, 1409 A.H. - March - May, 1989 Published
by Sazman e Tablighat e Islami, Tehran (Iran)