“To understand the Qur’an, you only need tafsir”

This is a fallacious belief that is common among quite a lot of Muslims of Pakistani/Indian subcontinent origin (especially those that study with certain unmentioned international organizations) as well as the understanding of a few contemporary Muslim figures (usually from the same region). Many are the basements in which amateur exegetes claim to interpret the Qur’an and many are the institutes in which it is well-meaningly proclaimed ‘all you need is the Qur’an’. Yet the truth is not so simple.

Please note: In this article, I don’t want to de-legitimize or de-emphasize the casual study of the Qur’an for the average Muslim, whether that be a reading of a translation or doing tadabbur (reflection) over the verses of the Qur’an for a more educated-in-Islam Muslim. It is also very important for every Muslim to have a daily wird (routine) of Qur’an recitation. This article was written to correct a problematic pedagogical perspective in many institutes that develops an almost cult-like mentality in some Muslims with regards to how they approach and understand the Qur’an. Note: Pedagogy is the science of teaching, curriculum and learning.

These Muslims think that in order to study, understand, and develop a relationship with the words of Allah, one must only ‘study it directly and nothing else’. So for them a pedagogical approach to studying the Qur’an would entail a study of basic tajwid, ‘Qur’anic Arabic’, tafsir, and little else. But this a deeply problematic pedagogy, and it is more affected by Qur’anist movements than anything else. (Quranism comprises views that Islamic law and guidance should only be based on the Qur’an, thus opposing the religious authority, reliability, and/or authenticity of hadith literature).

Firstly, the whole concept of ‘Qur’anic Arabic’ is problematic. The Arabic of the Qur’an is not just native to the Qur’an, it was revealed in the Arabic of the Arabs of the time, for them. In order to fully appreciate the linguistic power and impact of the Qur’an, one should not just study how the Qur’an utilizes the Arabic language, yet the Arabic language itself. And this demands a study of Arabic poetry, syntax, morphology, rhetoric and of course the Qur’an itself, as it is also a form of literature native to that period.

Secondly, one must remember that indirectly, almost all the other Islamic sciences are in some way an explanation of the Qur’an or derived from the study of the Qur’an. As a result, their study can be understood, by extension, to be a study of the Qur’an itself. Probably the most famous example of this is the role of Prophetic sunnah in understanding the Quran. Imam al-Shafii himself was famous for writing that the Sunnah is the ijtihad of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم from the meanings of the Qur’an. One can even appreciate the Qur’an at a deeper level by studying non-Islamic fields such as sociology and psychology and come to appreciate the depth of the Qur’anic discussions on such issues.

To demonstrate the fallacious argument of skipping the study of fiqh, hadith, usul, Arabic literature and other fields as an excuse to pursue ‘closeness to the Qur’an’ one only needs to read the intellectual biographies of the scholars of tafsir themselves.

The most prolific scholars of tafsir were not just scholars of tafsir, almost every single one could be identified to be a polymath across different fields. Whether it be al-Zamakshari and his mastery of Arabic rhetoric and literature, al-Tabari and his mastery of fiqh, hadith and history, al-Razi and his master of philosophy, kalam and usul, or Ibn Ashur and his famous works in Maliki fiqh and usul, scholars of tafsir were in themselves in violation of what many of these ‘students of the Qur’an’ believe the ‘study of the Qur’an’ to be.

Lastly consider Imam al-Suyuti’s (himself an author of multiple tafasir of the Qur’an) conditions for being able to do tafsir from his al-Itqān:

  1. Knowledge of the Arabic language i.e. literature/poetry, the meanings of words in their original context
  2. Knowledge of Nahw i.e. Arabic syntax
  3. Knowledge of Sarf i.e. Arabic morphology
  4. Knowledge of Ishtiqaq i.e. The roots of Arabic words
  5. Knowledge of Balaghah i.e. Arabic rhetoric via it’s three sciences: Ma’ani (Meaning), Bayan (Eloquence), Badī’ (Aesthetics)
  6. Knowledge of the Recitations
  7. Knowledge of Kalam/Aqidah i.e. Islamic theology
  8. Knowledge of Usul-ul-Fiqh i.e. Islamic rules of interpretation
  9. Knowledge of the Causes behind Revelation and the Sirah in general
  10. Knowledge of Abrogation
  11. Knowledge of Fiqh
  12. Knowledge of Hadith (in addition to that mustalah to know which Hadith to accept and which to not)
  13. Gifted Knowledge i.e. knowledge gifted by Allah due to the righteous actions of the scholar (I would add to Knowledge of Tasawwuf to this as the theoretical backdrop to this knowledge).
  14. Knowledge of Ulum ul-Qur’an i.e. the sciences of the Qur’an

As I’ve already mentioned, I would add the contemporary natural and social sciences, as well as other contemporary fields to this, in order to make any future tafsir of the Qur’an relevant and useful to the current generation.

So to ‘come closer to the words of Allah’ you don’t only study the words of Allah themselves. In fact in order to study the words of Allah correctly and effectively, you need to acquire the full range of tools with which to do so. And the more you acquire, more in-depth knowledge you will have of the Qur’an.

Many of these Muslims, when they think of studying the Qur’an they perceive it primarily as a means of worshipping Allah and attaining closeness to Him. While this is admirable and on the surface very true, building a relationship with Allah and building a relationship with His book are two different processes with different methodologies of attaining each objective. Does building a relationship with the Qur’an improve ones relationship with Allah? Of course it does. But the roadmap for each is different even if they are related.

Building a relationship with Allah has its own parameters in tasawwuf, and ‘building a relationship with the Qur’an’ has its parameters in tafsīr, and without a doubt, tafsīr teaches us that multidisciplinary study is critical to appreciate the depth and breadth of the Qur’an in both wording, content, recitation and history.

In order to fully appreciate and experience the transformative effect of the Qur’an, one must immerse themselves in Qur’anic ontology, i.e. They must let their very conception of life, reality and existence be transformed by the meanings of the Qur’an.

Such a comprehensive transformation cannot happen by studying the Qur’an via mere tajwid, ‘Qur’anic Arabic’ and tafsir. Rather the theological, linguistic, epistemological, sociological, legal, political, ethical, practical, psychological, spiritual, and cultural aspects of the Qur’an need to be internalized in the mind and soul, and manifested in word and deed. This cannot happen, except by investment in all of Islamic and useful worldly knowledge (yes, including tafsir), not just a one-dimensional ‘study of the Qur’an’ via the pedagogy previously identified.

This is the true ‘closeness’ to the Qur’an, not a mere weeping out of reflecting over verses, which is a spiritual hāl i.e. condition that can be attained by other means such as internal or spoken dhikr, or reflecting over the signs of Allah in His creation.

3 Replies to ““To understand the Qur’an, you only need tafsir””

  1. Salam Bro,

    A bit confused here. Need a bit of clarification. Are you saying people can only connect with the Qur’an if they do a thorough study of it? If so, then I respectfully disagree. Qur’an has a multi-level connection. Of course, there is a much deeper and thorough connection that can be built with the Qur’an only through a thorough study of the religious sciences including a deep study of the Arabic language. However, this does not mean that average Muslims cannot build a connection with the Book of Allah at any level. They can build a basic connection with His book by reading even basic tafsirs.

    Also, I don’t agree that studying tafsir are similar to “a mere weeping out of reflecting over verses”. That’s just not true. Tafsirs, even brief ones, will often discuss rulings related to the verses that need to be applied. Yes, it may not go into great depth as say someone studying fiqh, but it is still not similar to “a mere weeping out of reflecting over verses”.


    1. Walaikumassalam

      Sorry completely forgot about your comment here. No I’m not saying that the average person can’t have a connection with the Qur’an. What I’m saying is that deepening that connection does not only require that one study the Qur’an directly via tafsir.

      As for the last paragraph, what was meant by it was that a spiritual ‘hāl’ from reading the Qur’an is not equivalent to having a connection with the Qur’an.


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