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Exegesis (Ar. tafsīr or taʿwīl) refers to the interpretation and clarification of the text of the Qurʿān. For some Muslim scholars tafsīr addresses the external meanings of words and phrases in the Qurʿān, and taʿwīl refers to clarification of internal, hidden meanings. However, some scholars see the two terms as synonymous.

Muslims have sought to interpret the message of the Qurʿān since the time of the Prophet Muḥammad. The methods of interpretation were a matter of great controversy in the early centuries, with interpreters cautious about seeming to add their own perspectives in understanding the sacred text of Islam. Furthermore, some questions were deemed inappropriate, such as those suggesting Qurʿānic textual error, incompleteness, or borrowing from non-Islamic sources.

Thus Muslims faced a tension between a need for exposition of their sacred scripture and a recognition of the limits of such a task. Community need was met by careful exegesis in the early years. The greatest early commentator, Abū JaʿfarMuḥammad ibn Jarīr al-Ṭabarī (d. 923 CE), reports that the Companions of Prophet Muḥammad, especially his cousin Ibn ʿAbbās, engaged in exposition of the Qurʿān. The compilation of the authoritative ḥadīth collections assisted the emergence of the science of tafsīr in the Islamic community; exegetical methodology was guided by a ḥadīth from Abū ʿĪsā Muḥammad al-Tirmidhī stating, “Whoever interprets the Qurʿān according to his own light will go to Hell.” Henceforth, exegesis should be able to be reconciled with the recorded statements and deeds of Muḥammad. Nevertheless, a fundamental opposition was to develop between a more literalist, ḥadīth-based approach to exegesis (tafsīr bi-al-maʿthūr) and one based on rationalist methods drawing on ijtihād (tafsīr bil-raʿy).

Al-Ṭabarī was key in establishing tafsīr as a reputable pursuit in early Islam. His multivolume Jāmiʿ al-bayān fī tafsīr al-Qurʿān (Commentary on the Qurʿān) provides a clear example of tafsīr bi-al-maʿthūr. His insistence that the immediately visible meaning of a word or phrase should be paramount both reflected and reinforced popular engagement with the Qurʿān by the Muslim community in his time. Another figure in this stream of exegesis was Abū Isḥāq Aḥmad ibn Ibrāhīm al-Thaʿlabī (d. 1035). His al-Kashf wa-al-bayān ʿan tafsīr al-Qurʿān (Unveiling and Clarifying the Interpretation of the Qurʿān) mixed ḥadīth accounts with lengthy narratives, reflecting a popular interest in Qurʿānic exposition through story. However, some of his narratives were suspected of deriving from Jewish sources, thus putting the credibility of his commentary into question.

Debates about exegetical method mirrored discussion and controversy on a wider scale in the early centuries of Islam. Scholars more inclined to philosophical speculation made their presence increasingly felt in the community of exegetes. Some, but not all, were Muʿtazilīs, who tended to produce voluminous commentaries. Key names in this regard were Abū al-Qāsim Maḥmūd ibn ʿUmar al-Zamakhsharī (d. 1144) and Muḥammad ibn ʿUmar Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 1210).

The title of al-Zamakhsharī 's Al-kashshāf ʿan ḥaqāʿiq ghawamid al-tanzīl wa-ʿuyūn al-aqāwīl fī wujūh al-taʿwīl (The Unveiler of the Real Meanings of the Hidden Matters of What Was Sent Down and the Choicest Statements About the Various Aspects of its Interpretation) points to the rationalist inclinations of the author. He had no hesitation in presenting his own Muʿtazilī viewpoints quite overtly, in spite of the fact that the Muʿtazilah had ceased to hold center stage by his lifetime. Al-Rāzī 's thirty-volume Mafātiḥ al-ghāʿib (Keys of the Unseen) drew heavily on al-Zamakhsharī, though avoiding the Muʿtazilī elements of the latter and adding copious information from the author 's own viewpoint.

Al-Rāzī 's commentary represented a key staging point in Sunnī exegesis. Henceforth, commentaries tended to fall into one or other of the tafsīr bi-al-maʿthūr or tafsīr bil-raʿy streams. Important names for the former were Ibn Kathīr (d. 1373), whose Tafsīr al-Qurʿān al-ʿaẓīm (Exegesis of the Glorious Qurʿān) is well known; Abū Yaʿlā al-Farrāʿ (d. 1066); Abū Muḥammad al-Baghawī (d. 1122) and ʿAlā al-Dīn Abū al-HasanʿAlī ibn Muhammad IbrāhīmʿUmar ibn Khalīl al-Shīhī al-Baghdādīal-Shāfiʿī al-Sūfī, known as al-Khāzin (d. 1340), both of whom wrote commentaries drawing heavily on al-Thaʿlabī's narrative exegesis; and Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī (d. 1505).

Prominent later exegetes of the tafsīr bil-raʿy stream were ʿAbd Allāh al-Bayḍāwī (d.c. 1286), whose Anwār al-tanzīl wa-asrār al-taʿwīl (The Lights of Revelation and the Secrets of Interpretation) drew on diverse sources, but especially the commentary by al-Zamakhsharī, and ʿAbd Allāh bin Aḥmad binMaḥmūd al-Nasafī (d. 1310).

Muslim scholars in non–Arabic speaking countries drew on the great early Arabic commentaries directly. However, the task of clarifying the meaning of the Qurʿān for the masses required the preparation of commentaries in vernacular languages. One prominent example from the Malay world was Tarjumān al-Mustafīd (The Interpreter of That Which Gives Benefit) by ʿAbd al-Raʿūf ibn ʿAlī al-Fanṣūrī al-Singkilī (d. 1693). This work used as its primary sources the commentaries of the Tafsīr al-Jalālayn (Commentary of the Two Jalāls), al-Bayḍāwī, and al-Khāzin. Thus it provided for its readership a snapshot of various exegetical approaches: ḥadīth-based, rationalist, and narrative.

The twentieth century brought dynamic developments in Qurʿānic exegesis. On the one hand, modern exegetes were fully conversant in the work of their classical predecessors. On the other, a rapidly changing context necessitated new approaches and new answers to the challenges of the modern world.

Muḥammad ʿAbduh (d. 1905) and Muḥammad Rashīd Riḍā (d. 1935) were the authors of the Tafsīr al-manār (The Beacon Exegesis), drawing on ʿAbduh's lectures at al-Azhar and supplemented by Rida 's exegetical writing. This work sought to reconcile the message of the Qurʿān with the findings of modern science, doing so in a language that was accessible to the masses. It had a profound influence throughout the Muslim world and served as the primary inspiration of a commentary by the Indonesian scholar Hamka (d. 1981). Indonesia proved to be a key location for the revival of tafsīr bil-raʿy, with liberal scholars there making a dynamic contribution to Qurʿānic exegesis in the early twenty-first century.

At the same time, more literalist approaches to interpreting the Qurʿānic text were flourishing. Principal names from the modern era include the Egyptian Sayyid Quṭb (d. 1966), whose thirty-volume Fī ẓilāl al-Qurʿān (In the Shade of the Qurʿān), together with his other writings, has inspired politicized Islamist activists around the Muslim world. His Pakistani contemporary Sayyid Abū al-Aʿlā Mawdūdī (d. 1979) wrote Tafhīm al-Qurʿān (Understanding the Qurʿān), in which he argued that the sharīʿah should guide Muslims as they inevitably seek to create Islamic states.

Exegesis by Shīʿī scholars has typically favored the allegorical over the literal, reflecting the influence of Sufism on mainstream Shīʿī thinking. Prominent Shīʿī exegetes include ʿAlī ibn Ibrāhīm al-Qummī (also known as Ibn Bābūyah [Bābawayh]; d. 939) from the early centuries of Islam and Muḥammad Ḥusayn Ṭabāṭabāʿī (1903–1981), whose twenty-volume Al-mīzān fī tafsīr al-Qurʿān (Balance in Interpreting the Qurʿān)] represents the apogee of twentieth-century Shīʿī exegesis.

Throughout Muslim history, works of philosophical exegesis, tafsīr bil-raʿy, have been enjoyed by scholars and thinkers. However, works of tafsīr bi-al maʿthūr have been much more accessible to the masses, both in classical times and in the modern day. At the beginning of the twenty-first century the tension between the two is as present as ever. Literalist approaches, based on a surface reading of the Qurʿān and ḥadīth, are used to justify contemporary radical Islamist policies. These are countered by modern rationalists, the ideological descendants of the Muʿtazilah, who argue that interpretation of the Qurʿānic text should be shaped for modern contexts, not read within a context of seventh-century Arabia.



  • Berg, Herbert. The Development of Exegesis in Early Islam: the Authenticity of Muslim Literature from the Formative Period. Routledge, 2009.
  • Gätje, Helmut. The Qurʿān and Its Exegesis: Selected Texts with Classical and Modern Muslim Interpretations. Translated from the German and edited by Alford T. Welch. Rockport, Maine, 1996. See pp. 30–44.
  • McAuliffe, Jane Dammen. Qurʿānic Christians: An Analysis of Classical and Modern Exegesis. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1991.
  • Rippin, Andrew, ed.The Qurʿan: Formative Interpretation. Aldershot, Vt., 1999.
  • Saleh, Walid A.The Formation of the Classical Tafsīr Tradition: The Qurʿān Commentary of al-Thaʿlabī (d. 427/1035). Boston, 2004.
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