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Tafsīr (Arabic: التفسير) or Quranic exegesis, is one of the "Quranic sciences." Various definitions have been suggested for tafsir, such as "explicating the meanings of Quranic verses and unveiling their indications and implications." The word "tafsir" may also refer to Qur'anic commentaries.

Exegesis of the Qur'an started while the Qur'an was revealed by the Prophet (s). After him, Imam Ali (a) is considered the first commentator of the Quran, from whom many Companions narrated their exegetical hadiths. Other than him, figures such as Ibn Abbas and Ubayy b. Ka'b were known among the Companions for their exegesis of the Quran. Tafsir was continued by the next generations, leading to the composition of various Quranic commentaries, which became increasingly sophisticated, and various methodologies of tafsir emerged.

Quranic commentaries can be divided into Quran-based, hadith-based, and rational commentaries. Also, Quranic commentaries can be thematic or ordinal.

Among the major Shiite Quranic commentaries are Tafsir al-Qummi, al-Tibyan, Majma' al-bayan, Rawd al-jinan, Tafsir al-safi, and Tafsir al-mizan.


The lexicographical meaning of the word "tafsir," which is taken from the root f-s-r, is to interpret, explain, or reveal. The word "tafsir" has been mentioned once in the Qur'an in the sense of explanation.

As to the technical meaning of tafsir, Allama Tabataba'i states, "Tafsir means explaining the meanings of the verses of the Qur'an and unveiling their indications and implications." According to Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr (d. 1400/1980), however, tafsir involves unveiling and thus does not include explanations of the manifest meaning of the Qur'an.

In his al-Itqan, al-Suyuti proposes the following definition: "Tafsir is a science that discusses the Quran's intended meanings in a way that is relevant to human understanding and comprehension."

Necessity of Tafsir

The necessity of tafsir is rooted in the necessity of understanding the Quran. The Quran itself calls people to ponder its verses. In verse 29 of Qur'an 38, we read: "[It is] a blessed Book that We have sent down to you, so that they may contemplate its signs [verses]". On the other hand, although the Quran is revealed in a language that people understand and although it describes itself as a "manifest book"[1], God instructs the Prophet (s) to explain the Quran to people[2], because understanding the manifest meanings of the Quran does not necessarily entail understanding all its indications and deep meanings.

Moreover, the Quran has some features that necessitate tafsir in all times. Some of these features are the following:

  • Various and multiple meanings. The Quran has exoteric and esoteric meanings. Imam Ali (a) states in this regard: "The apparent aspect of the Quran is beautiful and its hidden aspect is deep. Its marvels do not expire, and it wonders do not end."
  • The Quran does not mention the details in many cases. For instance, the Quran commands the Muslims to pray, fast, and perform hajj, but it leaves out many details of how these rituals are to be performed. This is true even in the case of doctrines and beliefs.
  • The Quran was revealed gradually in twenty-three years, and the suras and verses are not organized according to the time of revelation, and thus the key to understanding one verse in one sura may be in another verse in a different sura. Therefore, the science of tafsir is needed to provide us with the textual and contextual clues needed for understanding the Quran.
  • The Quran is rooted in the limitless knowledge of God and tells people about a world that is beyond the material world. The Quran has tried to convey the truths of the Unseen World in the form of the forms and concepts of this world. Understanding the depth of these truths requires instruction and explanation.

The Origins of Tafsir

Tafsir started when the Quran was being revealed. The Quran mentions "teaching the book" as a task of the Prophet (s): "As We sent to you an Apostle from among yourselves, who recites to you Our signs, and purifies you, and teaches you the Book and wisdom, and teaches you what you did not know" [3].

In the first generation of Muslim exegetes other than Imam Ali (a)—companions such as Ibn Abbas, Abdullah b. Umar, and Ubayy b. Ka'b—tafsir was restricted to lexical and literary discussions, mentioning the occasion of revelation, using some verses to explain other verses, and hadith-based tafsir.

A page of Tafsir Ibn 'Abbas, Hagia Sophia manuscript

The generation of the exegetes among the Followers (tabi'un), such as Mujahid, Qatada, Ibn Abi Layla, Sha'bi, and Suddi, also continued almost the same approach and methodology of their predecessors. The only difference was that they would use more hadiths in their commentaries.

However, with the expansion of Muslim territories, Muslims came into contact with various faith traditions and schools of thought, which prompted theological and polemical discussions. On the other hand, toward the end of the first/seventh century, Greek philosophical and scientific works were translated to Arabic and Muslims became acquainted with Greek thought. Moreover, Sufism appeared among Muslims and attracted many people. There were also a group of people who were only concerned with the exoteric aspects of religion and favored a literal understanding of the Quran and hadiths. These factors, together with sectarian schisms, led to a variety of approaches and attitudes to Quranic exegesis.

Varieties of Tafsir

The commentators of the Quran have a variety of methodologies, approaches, and styles in interpreting the verses of the Quran. Each commentator explains the Quran from his own perspective and based on his knowledge and other factors that shape his understanding. This has led to a variety of commentaries and interpretations for the Quran.

Some commentators base their interpretations only on the hadiths of the Infallibles (a) or on the exegetical opinions of the Companions and Followers. They believe that commentators must stay away from interpreting the Quran independently. On the other extreme, a group of commentators interpret the Quran based on their independent understanding of the verses without any attention to the tradition.

  • In terms of content, some commentators focus on lexical and literary aspects of the Quran. Others emphasize theological and doctrinal aspects. A third group pay attention to mystical and spiritual teachings of the Quran. A fourth group of commentators zoom in on the Quran's scientific contents. Other types of Quranic commentaries include historical, legal, and social tafsirs.
  • In terms of the foundation of exegesis, Quranic commentators can be divided into Quran-based, hadith-based, ijtihadi, philosophical, mystical, and scientific exegesis.
  • In terms of form, Quranic commentaries can be thematic or ordinal.

Below, some types of Quranic exegesis will be introduced:

Quran-Based Exegesis

Main article: Quran-Based Exegesis

When a commentator uses a Quranic verse to interpret another verse, his exegesis is Quran-based. This type of exegesis is supported by Quran 75:18-19. Also, God calls the Quran "a clarification of all things" (Quran 16:89), so it must certainly be a clarification of itself. Because of this, it was accepted, since early periods, that "parts of the Quran interpret other parts of it." This rule is supported by the hadiths of the Imams (a) such as "Some parts of the Quran makes other parts of it speak, and some parts of it testify to its other parts" or "Verily, parts of the Book confirms other parts of it." Therefore, it could be said that the first source of Quranic exegesis is the Quran itself. Quran-based exegesis was used by the Prophet (s) and the Imams (a), and also by the Companions and the Followers.

Hadith-Based Exegesis

The second source at the disposal of a Quranic commentator is the Tradition—that is, the hadiths of the Prophet (s) and the Imams (a), though in Quranic sciences, this term (i.e., tafsir ma'thur "trandition-based exegesis") refers to using the exegetical opinions of the Companions, the Followers, and the Followers of the Followers as well.

Instances of this kind of exegesis in Shiism include: Tafsir al-Qummi, Tafsir al-Ayyashi, Nur al-thaqalayn, and al-Burhan. Among the Sunni Hadith-Based commentaries are Tafsir al-Tabari and al-Durr al-Manthur.

With regard to Hadith-Based tafsir, the following points are noteworthy:

  • Distinguishing authentic hadiths from inauthentic ones is a difficult task which requires mastery of hadith sciences.
  • Exegetical hadiths explain a limited number of verses; for many verses of the Quran, there are no hadiths from the Prophet (s) or the Imams (a). Therefore, the claim that Quranic exegesis must be limited to Hadith-Based exegesis leads to leaving many verses of the Quran with no interpretation.

Ijtihadi Exegesis

Another source of understanding the Quran is reason. The majority of Muslim scholars emphasize the high status of reason in Islam. Regarding the importance of reason in understanding religion, Imam Ali (a) says, "Nothing sets religion right but reason." Allama Tabataba'i mentions that more than three-hundred verses of the Quran call people to thinking and using reason, and not even one verse of the Quran requires adhering to religion without understanding.

However, some Muslims have disagreed with using independent reason in Quranic exegesis. These groups were afraid that using independent reason in understanding the Quran leads to eisegesis.

The Imams (a), notwithstanding, supported using the ijtihadi approach in Quranic exegesis. Considering lexical and literary points, context of the revelation, other Quranic verses, and the rulings of reason were among the principles of ijtihadi approach taught by the Imams (a).

Ordinal Exegesis

Main article: Ordinal Exegesis

This structure of Quranic exegesis has been used by commentators since the early history of tafsir. In this kind of exegesis, the commentator starts his commentary from the beginning of Quran 1 (Sura al-Fatiha) and ends it with the last verse of Quran 114 (Sura al-Nas). Almost all classical Quranic commentaries employed this style. The few exceptions include a number of tafsirs that discuss Ahkam al-Quran (rulings of the Quran).

Thematic Tafsir

Main article: Thematic Exegesis

"Thematic tafsir" (tafsir mawdu'i) is a new term that refers to a style of tafsir in which the commentary is not organized based on the order of the Quranic chapters and verses; rather, it is organized based on a theme or topic. The commentator gathers different verses that related to a certain topic, presents the Quranic view of that topic based on his interpretation of all those verses—thus explaining the viewpoint of the Quran on that topic— and organizes his tafsir based on the themes he discusses.

Tatbiqi Exegesis

Main article: Tatbiqi Exegesis

The word "tatbiqi" has different meanings in Arabic and Farsi, and thus different meanings are intended by term tatbiqi exegesis. The word means in Arabic applying the verses of the Quran to everyday issues of life, but in Farsi it means a comparative study of the views of Quranic commentators on the verses.

Scientific Exegesis

Main article: Scientific Exegesis

In this type of tafsir, commentators try to find connections between the verses of the Quran and scientific findings. This type of exegesis has had its proponents and opponents. Al-Ghazali (d. 505/1111), for instance, maintained that there is no problem in using scientific findings that were not known at the time of the revelation of the Quran. Following him, Zarkashi (d. 794/1391) and Suyuti (d. 911/1505) expressed their support for using scientific findings in Quranic exegesis. They maintained that Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 606/1209) actually used such findings to interpret the Quran in his al-Tafsir al-kabir. On the other hand, al-Shatibi (d. 590/1193) was the first scholar who disagreed with scientific exegesis, and a group of scholars adopted his opinion.

Contemporary Exegesis

Main article: Contemporary Exegesis

Contemporary (asri) exegesis is considered a new type of exegesis in which the commentator tries to find and elaborate on the message of the Quran for the people of his time. This requires his knowledge of the issues, questions, and concerns of the people of the time. Commentators in this type of exegesis try to present their commentary in a new form, backed by suitable and convincing evidence to their people.

Historical Exegesis

Historical exegesis can refer to two different types of exegesis. First is the exegesis in which the commentator is concerned about collecting historical narratives and stories related to each verse. Al-Kashf wa-l-bayan by al-Tha'alibi (350/961-429/1037) and Rawd al-jinan by Abu l-Futuh Razi (470/1078 - d. 552/1157 or 556/1161) are among such commentaries. This type of historical exegesis is usually replete with isra'iliyyat and forged hadiths.

The second type of historical exegesis is concerned with understanding the historical context of verses and what they meant to their original audience. As a result, this type of exegesis is organized according to the order of revelation of the verses. Instances of this type of tafsir include al-Tafsir al-hadith by Muhmmad Izzat Darwaza (1305/1887-1404/1983), Bayan al-ma'ani by Abd al-Qadir Mulla Huwaysh Al Ghazi (fl. 14th/20th century), and Pa bi pay-i wahy by Mahdi Bazargan (1907-1995).

Jurisprudential Exegesis

This type of tafsir focuses on Ayat al-ahkam (legal verses). It is especially important, because the Quran is the most fundamental source of Islamic law, and the authority of Sunna relies on it.

Some Shiite jurisprudential commentaries are the following:

Philosophical Exegesis

This current in tafsir uses philosophical concepts and doctrines in the exegesis of the Quran. An example of this type of exegesis is Avicenna's interpretation of Quran 112 (Sura al-Ikhlas), Quran 113 (Sura al-Falaq), and Quran 114 (Sura al-Nas) based on his peripatetic philosophical system; instances of exegesis influenced by Illuminationist philosophy is found in the works of Suhrawardi (549/1154-587/1191), especially in his al-Talwihat; and philosophical exegesis based on Transcendental Wisdom can be found in the works of Mulla Sadra, the founder of this philosophical school, especially in his Tafsir al-Qur'an al-Azim and Mafatih al-ghayb.

Philosophical Exegesis

In theological trend of tafsir, the commentator uses Quranic verses to support his religious beliefs and respond to the criticisms of his opponents. Theological tafsir can be categorized under ijtihadi exegesis.

Mystical Exegesis

Main article: Mystical Exegesis

A major presupposition of this type of exegesis is that the Quran has an esoteric aspect in addition to its exoteric aspect, which can be achieved through mystical experience and insight. In a mystical interpretation, the commentator interprets the Quran based on his mystical findings, often leading to a non-literal reading of the verses.

In this type of tafsir, mystical terminology is used and mystical experience is considered a major source for understanding the Quran.

Literary Exegesis

Main article: Literary Exegesis

This type of Quranic exegesis focuses on lexical and literary aspects of the Quran and employs literary and linguistic disciplines such as morphology, syntax, etymology, and rhetoric. Literary exegesis is in fact the first step in every proper endeavor to understand the Quran. Among the outstanding commentaries that focus on this type of exegesis are Abu Hayyan al-Andalusi's commentary, Zamakhshari's al-Kashshaf, and al-Tabrisi's Majma' al-bayan, and Jawami' al-jami'.

Literary exegesis is also used to signify a genre of Quranic commentaries which employ literary and artistic expressions to convey the edifying teachings of the Quran, such as Fi zilal al-Quran by Sayyid Qutb.

Allusive Exegesis

Allusive (ramzi) exegesis, which is sometimes called esoteric exegesis, is a type of tafsir which presupposes that the indications of Quranic words and expressions are not determined by rules and principles of ordinary language. This type of exegesis is different from mystical exegesis: allusive exegesis is based on the teachings of an authoritative teacher while in mystical exegesis the commentator can interpret Quranic verses based on his own mystical findings. Major instances of this type of exegesis can be found among Ismaili exegetical works, some of which rejects the importance of religious laws and rituals and likenes the relation between the esoteric teachings and exoteric teachings of Islam to the relation between a kernel and its shell.

Ahl al-Bayt's Exegesis

The sayings of the Imams (a) related to the exegesis of Quranic verses are contained in the works of their disciples. According to verse 44 of Qur'an 16, elaborating on the Quran was the task of the Prophet (s); the Shi'a maintain that, according to Hadith al-Thaqalayn, after the Prophet (s) this task was given to Ahl al-Bayt (a) and that their hadiths has the same authority of prophetic hadiths. Al-Shaykh al-Mufid quotes a hadith indicating that the sayings of Ahl al-Bayt (a) are rooted in the sayings of the Prophet (s) and ultimately in God's words. A hadith from Imam al-Sadiq (a) also indicates that the teachings of the Imams (a) are derived from those of the Prophet (s). Imam al-Baqir (a) too speaks of the Imams (a) as the heirs of prophets. According to a hadith from Imam Ali (a), the Prophet (s) taught Ali (a) the exoteric and esoteric interpretation of the Quran, including its general and specific, manifest and ambiguous, and abrogating and abrogated verses. The authority of the teachings of Ahl al-Bayt (a) is also rooted in the Quran. According to Quran 33:33, Ahl al-Bayt (a) are free from all impurities, and thus they have a perfect understanding of the Quran (see 56:79).

The sayings of the Imams (a) on Quranic verses focus mostly on explicating the intended meanings of the verses but sometimes also tackle their lexical and grammatical aspects.

According to hadiths and historical reports, there was a "mushaf" (codex) of the Quran that was collected by Imam Ali (a), who was the most knowledgeable companion of the Prophet (s) especially with regard to the exegesis of the Quran and the occasions of its revelation. In this codex, the verses of the Quran were organized based on the order of their revelation; it also provided exegetical notes and information on abrogating and abrogated verses, among other things. One can also find implicit or explicit exegetical notes in the collection of Imam Ali's sayings and words in Nahj al-balagha.

There are reports of exegesis by Imam al-Hasan (a) and Imam al-Husayn (a). Historical reports point to the efforts of Imam al-Sajjad (a) in interpreting the Quran. The Imam's supplications in al-Sahifa al-Sajjadiyya contain explanations of the meanings of the Quran and abundantly use and refer to Quranic verses (e.g., supplication 44 and the interpretation of "righteous servants" therein). A number of hadiths are narrated from Imam al-Sajjad (a) on the merits of the Quran and the occasions of the revelation of some verses.

Abu l-Jarud Ziyad b. Mundhir, one of the companions of Imam al-Baqir (a), collected the Imam's exegetical sayings, which are mostly concerned with explicating difficult verses and words by referring to other Quranic verses and also referring Quranic verses to what would happen to the Imams (a). In some cases, Imam al-Baqir (a) talked about abrogating and abrogated verses and expounded jurisprudential aspects of the Quran.

The exegetical sayings of Imam al-Sadiq (a) are collected in hadith collections and hadith-based commentaries.

In the exegetical hadith of Ahl al-Bayt (a), explicating the meaning of legal verses and answering the related jurisprudential questions is a predominant theme. In addition to the methodology of interpreting the Quran by the Quran, the Imams (a) would use the sayings of the Prophet (s) or other Imams (a) in their exegesis, which can be regarded as a type of hadith-based exegesis.


Main article: Ta'wil

There is a variety of opinions among the commentators and scholars of Quranic studies on the meaning of ta'wil and its difference from tafsir. Some scholars consider both terms to have the same meaning. This opinion is attributed to early exegetes. However, one can find differences between tafsir and ta'wil in the works of Muqatil b. Sulayman (d. 150/767), al-Tabari (d. 310/922), and Maturidi (d. 333/944). In later periods, many scholars defined ta'wil differently from tafsir: they limited tafsir to discussions on the exoteric meanings of the Quran and reserved ta'wil for discussions of its esoteric meanings. According to some scholars, tafsir deals with definite indications of the Quran, whereas ta'wil deals with its conjectural indications. Other scholars consider retelling what is found clearly in the Quran or Sunna to be tafsir and scholarly explanations of the ambiguous parts of the Quran to be ta'wil.

Disciplines, Sources, and Rules

Scholars of Quranic studies have counted familiarity with, or mastery in, a number of scholarly disciplines as a requirement of engaging in tafsir. Some of these disciplines are the following:

  • Linguistic and literary disciplines, such as etymology, morphology, syntax, and rhetoric.
  • Quranic sciences and having the knowledge of recitations (qira'at), abrogating and abrogated verses, and occasions of revelation.
  • Hadith sciences, such as diraya and rijal.
  • Jurisprudence (jurisprudence and principles of jurisprudence).
  • Theology.

In addition to the above-mentioned disciplines, it is said that a commentator of the Quran needs "intuition-based knowledge." This knowledge is acquired through following the teachings of the religion and purifying the soul. The more one purifies one's soul, the more he will understand the Quran. A commentator of the Quran has to know and use the sources of tafsir, which include the Quran itself, hadiths, the views of other commentators (especially the early ones), and lexicons. Reason is also considered a source of Quranic exegesis. Observing the rules of tafsir is also necessary for a commentator. Tayyar has classified these rules into general (umumi) and preferential (tarjihi) rules. The former refer to the rules that a commentator has to observe in explicating the meaning of a verse, and the latter relate to the rules that are used to choose among the exegetical views of the past commentators.

Engaging in tafsir without knowing or observing the above-mentioned disciplines, sources, and rules may lead to arbitrary exegesis (al-tafsir bi-l-ra'y).

Shiite Exegetes

Shiite scholars have had a significant presence in developing the field of tafsir and authoring Quranic commentaries. Ibn Abbas, Ibn Mas'ud, Jabir b. Abd Allah al-Ansari, Ubayy b. Ka'b, and Maytham al-Tammar were among the early personalities with Shiite leanings who engaged in interpreting the Quran or producing Quranic commentaries.

In the age of the Followers (tabi'un), many Shiite figures, starting with Sa'id b. Jubayr, engaged in tafsir. According to Qatada, Sa'id was the most knowledgeable of the Followers with regard to tafsir. Mujahid b. Jabr, a disciple of Ibn Abbas, was the next commentator after Sa'id who had Shiite leanings. Fadl b. Maymun reports that Mujahid said, "I presented the Quran to Ibn Abbas three times. I read it verse by verse and asked him about each verse's occasion of revelation and tafsir." Most Sunnis narrate their exegetical hadiths from Mujahid.

Other disciples of Ibn Abbas who had Shiite inclinations included Abu Salim Mizan al-Basri and Abu Abd Allah al-Yamani Tawus b. Kaysan, who was also a disciple of Imam al-Sajjad (a). Atiyya b. Sa'id al-Kufi also belongs to this group of the Followers; he was a disciple of Imam al-Baqir (a) and composed a Quranic commentary in five volumes entitled Tafsir Atiyya al-Kufi. Other Shiite commentators in this period include Yahya b. Ya'mur (a disciple of Abu l-Aswad al-Du'ali), Jabir b. Yazid al-Ju'fi (a disciple of Imam al-Baqir), and Isma'il b. Abd al-Rahman al-Kufi known as Suddi al-Kabir ("the Great Suddi," who was a disciple of Imam al-Sajjad (a), Imam al-Baqir (a), and Imam al-Sadiq (a) and who passed away in 127/744).

In the generation after the Followers, an even greater number of Shiites engaged in tafsir and produce exegetical works.

Major Shiite Commentaries of the Quran

Among of the major Shiite commentaries of the Quran in different periods are the following:

The book Al-Mizan

  • Majma' al-bayan fi tafsir al-Quran: This work by Fadl b. al-Hasan al-Tabrisi (d. 548/1153-54) is one of the outstanding commentaries of the Quran, which has been used by both Shiite and Sunni scholars. The structure, comprehensiveness, accuracy, clear interpretation, and impartiality of this commentary in analyzing various viewpoints are among its notable characteristics. It includes discussions on recitations, grammar, semantics, literary aspects, occasions of revelation, related hadiths, and historical events and stories. One of the significant features of this tafsir is that it tries to explain the relations between the verses, a feature which is not quite common among Shiite commentaries.
  • Tafsir al-Safi: This hadith-based commentary is compiled by Mulla Muhsin Fayd Kashani. Due to its conciseness and at the same time comprehensiveness, it has become a source for the later commentators. Fayd Kashani has tried to present a kind of exegesis that is free from the opinions that are not rooted in revelation, and for this reason has called his work "al-Safi" (The Pure). The work contains theological, mystical, and literary discussions, and the author has produced a summary of it in his Tafsir al-Asfa.
  • Tafsir al-Qur'an al-karim by Mulla Sadra (1050/1640) is a commentary on some suras of the Quran. Mulla Sadra compiled different parts of this commentary in the form of treatises in about twenty years. He had the intention to compile a comprehensive commentary of the Quran, but he did not succeed to do so. In 1040/1630, he wrote Mafatih al-ghayb as an introduction to the commentary that he had in mind.
  • Al-Mizan fi tafsir al-Qur'an: This work is among the most comprehensive and detailed Shiite commentaries of the Quran. It was written by Allama Tabataba'i (b. 1321/1904 - d. 1402/1981), and primarily employs the methodology of interpreting each verse by means of other Quranic verses.


  1. Qur'an 5:15
  2. Quran 16:44
  3. Qur'an 2:151