An Important Principle of Tafseer Repels Misunderstandings About Quranic Passages

In the Name of Allaah, the Most Gracious, the All-Merciful…

One of our respected visitors sent in the following question:

Could you give some insight into the origin of the Verse:

فاسألوا أهل الذكر إن كنتم لا تعلمون
“And ask the people of knowledge when you do not know.” [16:43]

This Verse is often used to refer to Muslim scholars, but Ibn Katheer explains this to mean the people of the books that came before, i.e. the previously revealed scriptures.

The response: While it is true that Imaam Ibn Katheer (may Allaah have Mercy on him) did in fact identify that the Verse was revealed about the scholars of the Jews and Christians who had knowledge of previously revealed scriptures, he did not restrict the meaning of the Verse to them alone, in a way that excludes the Muslim scholars. This may sound a little confusing, but by the end of the article the matter should be very clear, in shaa’ Allaah.

What has been mentioned about the Verse being revealed about the people of the earlier scriptures is true. However, reading a book of Tafseer without some basic principles could prove harmful, as you may reach conclusions that were not intended. Al-hamdulillaah for this question, and for what Allaah has opened up for us in understanding of His Book!

When a scholar tries to single out the exact reason for a Verse’s revelation, like in this case, it does not mean that the Verse is restricted to those whom it was revealed about exclusively, or that the scholar was trying to restrict its meaning to that.

There is a principle in Tafseer the scholars work by:

العبرة بعموم اللفظ لا بخصوص السبب

Meaning: The specific reason for a Verse’s revelation, or the specific event or people it was revealed about, does not restrict its meaning, rather it is to be understood to be as general as the wording allows.

An example of this would be: Verses 5-7 of Soorah al-Layl:

فأما من أعطى واتقى وصدق بالحسنى فسنيسره لليسرى
“As for the one who gives and has piety, whilst he believes in the Recompense, then We shall grant him ease in following after al-Yusraa
(the easy path to goodness).”

These three Verses were understood to be revealed about Aboo Bakr as-Siddeeq (may Allaah be pleased with him) specifically. However, to restrict the meanings of the Verses to him alone would be baseless, since the wording includes him and everyone who behaves as he did. Restricting the Verse to one man would effectively remove the impact of this divine encouragement toward belief and upright actions in the lives of everyday Muslims! (May Allaah enable us to live up to the Verses!)

Another example of this principle would be the Verse in Soorah al-Anfaal (8:27) which was revealed regarding Haatib ibn Abee Balta’ah (may Allaah be pleased with him). Ibn Katheer identifies the specific event it was revealed about, and then goes on to say:

والصحيح أن الآية عامة، وإن صح أنها وردت على سبب خاص، فالأخذ بعموم اللفظ لا بخصوص السبب عند الجماهير من العلماء
“What is correct is that the Verse is generally worded, even though it has been authentically narrated to have a specific reason of revelation, since the generality of the wording is taken over restricting it to its reason (for revelation), according the vast majority of scholars.”

With this in mind, now it should be easy to understand why Ibn Katheer used this Verse to explain the status of the scholars and the obligation of following them, in his explanation of Soorah an-Nisaa (4:59):

What seems apparent -and Allaah knows best- is that the Verse refers to all authorities, both the rulers and the scholars, as has preceded.

Allaah has said [what means]: “Why do the firmly-grounded scholars and priests not forbid them from their sinful statements and their devouring of evil things (immoral transactions, oppressive earnings).” [5:63]

And Allaah has said [what means]: “Then ask the people of knowledge when you do not know.” [16:43]

And in the authentic hadeeth which is agreed upon, from the narration of Aboo Hurayrah, who related that the Messenger of Allaah -may Allaah raise his rank and grant him peace- said [what means]: “Whoever obeys me has obeyed Allaah, and whoever disobeys me has disobeyed Allaah. Whoever obeys my ameer (appointed leader) has obeyed me, and whoever disobeys my ameer has disobeyed me.”

These are orders to obey both the scholars and the rulers.

Simply put, while the Verse was originally revealed about those with knowledge of previous scriptures, its general wording also encompasses the obligation for Muslims to ask their scholars about matters which they do not know.

To summarize: The Quran is the Speech of Allaah, divinely miraculous in its meanings. To think that a Verse revealed about a specific event does not apply to anything other the original event itself would lead to the nullification of many, many intended applications of the Quran in our lives. And Allaah knows best.

Written by: Moosaa Richardson

11 thoughts on “An Important Principle of Tafseer Repels Misunderstandings About Quranic Passages

  1. Brother Moosa,

    It’s good to know that this is an established principle in tafseer. How did the ulama derive this principle? Is there a proof from the sunnah for it? I’m not sure if the ulama have derived this principle by finding the proof for it, or by finding no proof to oppose it.

    • May Allaah bless you for your question. Ahlus-Sunnah have NO PRINCIPLES, except that they are established by evidence, and you have done well in seeking out the evidences for this principle. May Allaah bless you with understanding, good deeds, and sincerity until you die.

      Al-Haafith As-Suyootee (d.911) said in his book on Quranic Sciences, Al-Itqaan:
      وقد نزلت آيات في أسباب واتفقوا على تعديتها إلى غير أسبابها كنزول آية الظهار في سلمة بن صخر وآية اللعان في شأن هلال بن أمية وحد القذف في رماة عائشة ثم تعدى إلى غيرهم.

      “A number of Verses came down regarding specific incidents, yet they (the Companions) all agreed that they transcend beyond those specific incidents about which they were revealed, like: [1] the Verse of “Thihaar” being revealed about Salamah ibn Sakhr, [2] the Verse of “Li’aan” being revealed about Hilaal ibn Umayyah, [3] and the punishment for accusing (chaste people of fornication or adultery) about the accusers of ‘Aa’ishah, yet these Verses transcended (those people) into others.”

      Meaning: These rulings were applied generally to whomever fit the descriptions in those Verses, without anyone thinking they were specific to the original events they were revealed about.

      For your reference: The Verse(s) of “Thihaar” are: 58:1-4, and the other two mentioned are both in the opening 9 Verses of Soorah an-Noor (ch.24).

      • Thank you for your dua! Ameen.

        May Allah reward you for giving the evidence and encouraging me to keep seeking out the evidences. Alhamdulilah for the fact that the religion comes with principles, and the principles are based on authentic textual evidences. Islam is so clear and complete…alhamdulilah!

  2. As-salaam alaikum.

    Could this principle also be applied to “And whoever does not judge by what Allah has revealed – then it is those who are the disbelievers”? Since it was revealed specifically for the jewish (if I’m not mistaken) tribes. Yet despite having a specific reason for revelation, because of this principle this would mean that every muslim should judge with Allaah’s rules. This would therefore refute the people of takfeer and extremism who love to use this verse while they themselves don’t always judge with Allaah’s rules, since they have their sins and actions which are incorrect.

    I’m asking because I’m afraid I might say or think something without having a salaf for it and I might end up in a bidah.

    • wa ‘alaykas-salaamu wa rahmatullaah. Yes, you have understood correctly. The Verse was revealed about the Jews who hid knowledge of Allaah’s ruling and sought something else, however the ruling and the warning in it applies generally to everyone. And Allaah knows best.

  3. Assalamum alykum bro.I have noticed some error in your quoting,I think there’s a lot of misquoting taken place while referring have quoted it’s verse 5:62 but it’s actually 5:63,with slight changing of words… like “why do “NOT”,whereas you have just quoted why “do” only.. and as the Hadith appointed Ameer..I wanna know in which book it’s quoted as you stated..It’s all for just clarification and gaining correct knowledge only I’m asking nothing else.May Allaah help those who really strive hard to spread His correct Knowledge..Aameen.

    • wa ‘alaykas-salaamu wa rahmatullaah. Jazaak Allaahu khayran for your message.

      1) Your reference to “a lot of misquoting” needs support. Any errors can be reported easily in a comment on any page.

      2) The reference to 5:63 has been amended, may Allaah bless you for your helpful correction.

      3) Your question about “why do not” vs. “why” seems to be based on a misreading. The passage above says: “Why do the firmly-grounded scholars and priests NOT forbid them…”

      4) Your question about “the Hadith appointed Ameer” is already referenced in the passage, but subtly. The reference to it being “agreed upon” means that it was collected by Al-Bukhaaree and Muslim. To be more precise, it is hadeeth no. 7137 in Saheeh al-Bukhaaree and hadeth no. 1835 in Saheeh Muslim.

      5) Aameen to your kind supplications.

  4. As salamu alaikum, I have question in regards to the eid adha. Where can I find the proof on how many days are there. its a topic that keeps popping up and I would like some clarity? Baarak Allahu Feek.

    • Wa ‘alaykas-salaamu wa rahmatullaahi wa barakaatuh. The Days of Tashreeq for those on Hajj are often confused with and included within ‘Eed al-Adh-haa. However, ‘Eed al-Adh-haa is the 10th of Thul-Hijjah only, and the Days of Tashreeq (when Hajj pilgrims stay camped in Minaa) are the 11th, 12th, and 13th. They are days of eating and relaxing after the most difficult rites of Hajj, yet they are not considered ‘Eed days. And Allaah knows best.

  5. Assalaamu alayka wa rahmatullaah. Dear brother in this article you mentioned: ‘reading a book of Tafseer without some basic principles could prove harmful, as you may reach conclusions that were not intended’… subhaan’Allaah how true this is!
    I like to read the translation of Tafseer ibn Katheer to my family, to gain a better understanding of The Noble Book of Allaah, Al-Qur’aan. I’m very concerned that there will be in it that which I won’t understand or which leads to questions I can’t answer and so recently I have become hesitant to continue as I am worried about falling into error regarding it. What and where can I find these basic principles? How does one go about studying The Book of Allaah?
    Jazaak’Allaah khayr akhi.

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