Understanding the principles of Tafseer - part 2 - Arabic & Islam
This is Part 2 of the Introduction in the abridged tafsir of Surah Al-Baqarah based on the book ‘tayseer ila usul it-tafsir’ by Shaykh Ata bin Khalil Abu Rishta.
This tafsir explains the centrality of the Arabic language in understanding and deriving the laws, rules of Islam. Similarly they did not exercise the mind in the unseen that were not sensed by them. This understanding made them glad and satisfied their hearts.
With Islam the best ummah (people) raised from mankind was founded:
“You are the best ummah raised from mankind, you command the good and forbid the evil and you believe in Allah” [aal-‘Imran 110]
With Islam a state arose that was a guiding light for the world, spreading justice to all corners of the earth. The sovereignty and leadership of this ummah and this state was for the book of Allah (jalla jallalahu) and the sunnah(way) of His messenger (saw).
The Muslims in the time of Rasul Allah (saw) and the time of his companions (raa) used to understand the book and the sunnah with a pure understanding. An understanding that made them glad and satisfied their hearts. If a verse or part of a verse was explained by Rasul Allah (saw) as a shariah legal explanation, so the word or verse was given a shariah terminology, they adhered to it and followed it. If he did not give it a shariah terminology they searched for it in their language, the Arabic language, in which it was sent down
“an Arabic Qur’an”
and whose tongue it was
“with a clear Arabic tongue”
Like this, if Rasul Allah (saw) read:
then explained ‘prayer’ as specific actions and sayings, they followed this shariah terminology in understanding the verse and its performance, thus leaving the linguistic meaning of ‘prayer’ that has the meaning of supplication.
As for when it was read to them
“carrion is forbidden for you”
and he (saw) did not give it a shariah terminology, they understood it in their Arabic language as a prohibition to eat carrion, because the التحريم prohibition is connected to carrion as is clear in their language.
This is what they used to do. If an explanation was authentically traced back to Rasul Allah (saw)speech, they adhered to it and followed it. If not, they looked for it in their language that the Qur’an was sent down in. This matter gave them a sound understanding and a straight path that they traveled along, so the ummah became honoured and the state became strong. With that they had a great position.
What increased the purity purer and the clarity clearer was their adding to their understanding of the language of the Qur’an their understanding of the limits of the human mind that Allah distinguished mankind with.
“Allah taught Adam all of the names” [al-Baqarah 31]
They understood that the mind is limited in its scope and its capability, so it cannot study except that which has a sensed reality. As for what has no reality, then there is no role for the mind to produce a thought about it, rather every study of what has no reality will not fail to be an instance of imagination.
They thought about Allah’s creation and contemplated His signs. They saw that this universe, man and life, with its limited nature, its incapability and its neediness and its existence with this precise system, indicates definitely that it has a great powerful eternal creator who limited its existence and organized its sustenance, who is able to end its incapability and secure its needs. So, they believed in Allah, the Creator, the One, al-Ahad as a result of contemplating His signs and thinking about His creation on the basis of the sensed reality for them.
Then, they believed in the Qur’an al-Kareem and that it is the speech of Allah (jalla jallalahu), because they failed in the challenge and their inability to bring a surah like it while they are the people of clear speech and eloquence. Their language is the language of the Qur’an, so their incapability was a definite proof that the Qur’an is the speech of Allah (jalla jallalahu), so they believed in the Qur’an that they read or heard its verses, while it was sensed by them, not unseen to them.
Like this it was confirmed that Muhammad is a Messenger from Allah, as he had come to them with the speech of Allah revealed by Him سبحانه. So, they believed that Muhammad is Rasul Allah (saw) while it was sensed by them, not unseen to them.
However, they did not exercise the mind in the unseen that were not sensed by them. So, they did not subject it to an intellectual study, because it is not its domain. Rather, they were satisfied with an-naql(the transmission), i.e. with what came about it in the book of Allah and what they heard of it from Rasul Allah (saw) , or was transmitted to them of him (saw).
Therefore, they did not exercise the mind to investigate the صفات الله attributes of Allah: are they are created or uncreated? Are they connected to the ذات essence or separate from it?!… Because, their reality was not sensed by them, so they believed in them as they came by way of transmission from Allah’s book and the sunnah of His messenger (saw). The Qur’an is the speech of Allah, they believed in that and were certain about all that was in it, without doubt or suspicion.
Allah is Samee’, Baseer, ‘Aleem, Hakeem, for Him is the best names. They believed in that and had certainty without any investigation into how are these attributes. Rather, they surrendered to them submissively.
Their Iman in the unseen matters became complete just as the Qur’an brought it, without increase or decrease, without interpretation or misguidance. They were happy with that and their hearts were satisfied.
Just as they understood the scope of the language in understanding the Qur’an, similarly they comprehended the scope of the mind and the transmission in al-iman. So the Qur’an is not understood except in the language with which it was sent down, and the mind is not exercised in what has no sensed reality, rather it is transmitted from the book of Allah and the sunnah of His messenger (saw) and it is believed in as it is. The limits of the language are not exceeded in understanding the Qur’an, nor is the scope of the mind that Allah distinguished mankind with exceeded. Their adherence to these two: the language and the mind, and understanding their limits and their domains, was a path to the soundness of the aqeedah (creed) and its correctness, and to the best implementation and perfection of the shariah rules.
This is what the Muslims were on in the time of Rasul Allah (saw) and the time of his companions (raa), all of them, and those who followed them in good. Their weapon in understanding their deen (religious way of life) was what was authentically transmitted of Rasul Allah (saw) of explanation, and their comprehending their language, the Arabic language that the Qur’an was sent down in. Then, their understanding the scope of the mind, its limits and that it has no role in the un-sensed unseen matter, except in proportion to what the mind transmits from the book of Allah and what tawatara (was transmitted in a way that leaves no room for error) from Rasul Allah (saw).
But, there came after them successors, who were weaker in their possession of the language and who were confused about matters. So, they delved into explaining the verses of Allah without the language that it was sent down in, giving meanings to it which it cannot carry. Interpretations became many as they made for the text apparent and hidden meanings. Sects were founded and the people who followed their desires disunited the opinions. This did not stop at exerting effort in the branches, rather it transgressed into the foundations until it extended to the beliefs and the branches of belief.
That which muddied the waters more, was that they did not comprehend the scope of the mind and its limits, so they gave it free reign in what it was not created for. They entered into the intellectual study of Allah’s essence, His attributes and the creation of the Qur’an. They brought investigations that are neither in the book of Allah (jalla jallalahu) nor in the sunnah of His messenger (saw). They busied the people along with them in investigations that Allah did not send down authority for, dividing the Muslims instead of gathering them on the truth that Rasul Allah (saw) and his companions (raa) were on.
Then, after those successors, came other successors, distancing further from the truth, descending lower than those who came before them in terms of guidance.
Those who came before them had one calamity in that they gave free reign to the mind in other than its domain.
As for those who came after them, the initial calamity remained as it was, so they also gave free reign to the mind in other than its domain, then they completed the previous misfortune [so it became a calamity] by neglecting the language, not giving any value to it. If only they had known that they were on ignorance, for they would have then sought knowledge and learnt it. But, they thought that they themselves were knowledgeable, so you see that they were daring with the deen of Allah. They were asked and gave fatwas (specific legal rulings) while they read the verses of Allah and the narrations of Rasul Allah (saw) without understanding or contemplating the language that the Qur’an was revealed in and the messenger of Islam (saw) spoke in, without comprehending its sciences and styles.
If you said to them “how do you issue rules from the book and sunnah while you don’t understand the language of the Qur’an and the sunnah?!” Or, you said to them “Don’t you fear Allah in deriving rules that you are not qualified for, and it is obligatory upon you to concentrate on the language before you issue rules and misguide or be misguided?!”… They reply to you with belittling the standing of the language in understanding the book of Allah(jalla jallalahu) and the sunnah of His messenger (saw).
They added to this claim of theirs, making matters worse, and increasing more on the two calamities. Then some of the general public were affected by them, carrying some of their corrupted concepts and erroneous thoughts, so, sects were established upon them, some connected to those who came before and some of them unconnected.
Except that Allah (jalla jallalahu) sent his favour to this ummah with men after men, who were elevated with thisdeen to towering heights, with Allah’s favour. Allah protected His deen, so these sects were not able to change its path or destroy its thoughts.
Knowledgeable men stood up, among them the extraordinary. They exerted effort and ability in transmitting this language, the language of the Qur’an, pure and clean, from its foundations and principles, then they built upon it other sciences in al-usul Principles and al-fiqh Jurisprudence. The sciences of the language were a companion to the sciences of the Qur’an and hadith and were a basis for them.
They protected for us and transmitted how the Arabs used to speak, and how they used to understand the book of Allah and the sunnah of His messenger (saw) with the language in which it was sent down and the language in which the messenger (saw) said it.