Hadith-Based Exegesis of the Quran

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Hadith-based Qur'anic exegesis of the Qur'an (al-tafsir al-riwa'i, Arabic:اَلتَّفسیر الرِّوائی) is a sort of Qur'anic exegesis that is based on hadiths narrated from the Prophet (s) and his companions—and on some accounts, Tabi'un (companions of the Prophet's companions). For Imamiyya Shiites, it is a method of Qur'anic exegesis that is based the hadiths narrated from the Prophet (s) and Imams (a). It is also known as al-tafsīr al-naqlī (narrative exegesis), al-tafsīr al-maʾthūr (narrated exegesis) and al-tafsīr al-atharī.

For Imamiyya, the statements of the Prophet (s) and Imams (a)—as the successors of the Prophet (s)—with regard to the exposition of the Qur'an are part of Sunna and they are reliable, but for them, companions are not reliable in a non-qualified sense. So for Imamiyya, the statements of companions regarding the exegesis of Qur'anic verses are not particularly significant. At best, they are tantamount to the attempt made by other scholars of Qur'anic exegesis to interpret Qur'anic verses.


Hadith-based exegesis of the Qur'an is a sort of a Qur'anic exegesis that is based on hadiths narrated from the Prophet (s), his companions, and on some accounts, his Tabi'un, and for Imamiyya, it is a method of Qur'anic exegesis that is based on hadiths narrated from the Prophet (s) and Imams (a). In order to provide a precise definition of al-tafsir al-ma'thur (narrative exegesis), there need to be a precise definition of 'athar (narration), but there is no consensus over this notion.

Some historiographers of Qur'anic exegesis consider the interpretation of Qur'anic verses by other Qur'anic verses to be a sort of narrative exegesis, but given the literal and terminological meaning of 'athar, such an interpretation does not count as narrative exegesis of the Qur'an.

Validity of Hadith-Based Exegesis

Validity of the Prophet's Exegetical Hadiths

Scholars of Qur'anic exegesis maintain that the Prophet Muhammad (s) is, in addition to being a messenger of divine revelations, in charge of interpreting and explaining the words of God. Verses 44 and 64 of Qur'an 16 have been taken to refer to this aspect of the Prophet (s). It is concluded that hadiths narrated from the Prophet (s), if proven to have reliable sources, are among the best and most reliable interpretations of the Qur'an. Moreover, scholars of hadith and jurisprudence take the Prophet's (s) tradition to be an important and valid source of knowing divine verdicts and commands, appealing to them in their deductions of the laws of shari'a.

Validity of Companions's Exegetical Hadiths

There is a disagreement between Sunnis and Shiites concerning whether the interpretations of Qur'anic verses by the companions of the Prophet (s), and on some accounts, Tabi'un, are reliable. The disagreement is rooted in the disputes about the place and reliability of companions with regard to explaining and legislating divine laws. This is the deeper issue regarding the righteousness ('adala) of companions—there have been many attempts by scholars of usul (principles of jurisprudence), theology, and hadith to prove it or deny it.

The proponents of the righteousness of companions have appealed to some Qur'anic verses and hadiths by the Prophet (s), and tried to show the righteousness of all companions.

On the contrary, people who deny that all companions (without any exception) are righteous, have interpreted the relevant Qur'anic verses in a different way, casting doubt on the reliability of many hadiths narrated from the Prophet (s) in this regard. They believe that companions are just like other people, and when they narrate a hadith from the Prophet (s), their reliability and righteousness should be proved. In other words, it is not the case that they are reliable just in virtue of being the Prophet's companions. Therefore, the statements of companions concerning the interpretation of Qur'anic verses has no privileged validity, and they are at best tantamount to attempts made by scholars of Qur'anic exegesis at interpreting Qur'anic verses.

Validity of Imams' Exegetical Hadiths

There is the same disagreement between Sunnis and Shiites with regard to the reliability of exegeses of Qur'anic verses narrated from Imams (a). By appealing to some Qur'anic verses and frequently narrated (mutawatir) hadiths such as Hadith al-Thaqalayn and Hadith al-Ghadir denoting the Imamate and infallibility of Imams (a), and some reliable hadiths denoting the mutual relationship between the Qur'an and Imam Ali (a) or hadiths denoting the connection between the Qur'an and Ahl al-Bayt (a), Shiites hold that Imams have a privileged status concerning the interpretation of the Qur'an and the laws of shari'a.

From hadiths narrated from the Prophet (s) it can be known that the Prophet (s) has, in addition to explaining Qur'anic verses to people, presented special interpretations of such verses for some of his companions, particularly to Imam Ali (a). Moreover, by giving an authority to Ahl al-Bayt (a), the Prophet (s) has opened a way for the interpretation of Qur'anic verses, linking the immortality of Qur'anic exegesis with that of the Qur'an itself. Thus hadiths narrated from Ahl al-Bayt (a) regarding the interpretation of Qur'anic verses, if authentic and reliable, are equivalent to those narrated from the Prophet (s) in that they help us know the meanings of the Qur'an.

Therefore, according to Imamiyya, statements of the Prophet (s) and Imams (a) with regard to the interpretation of the Qur'an are part of the tradition or Sunna.

The Place of Exegetical Hadiths

Another issue regarding hadith-based exegeses of the Qur'an is the place of such hadiths. In general, exegetical hadiths are undoubtedly reliable if they are mutawatir or frequently narrated or if they are sorts of al-khabar al-wahid (not frequently narrated hadiths) with enough supporting evidence. The controversy is over the reliability of hadiths that do not have a certain chain of narration or a certain denotation.

Scholars of theology and usul (principles of jurisprudence) have long emphasized the unreliability of such hadiths with regard to the principles of Islamic beliefs, since religious beliefs, they argue, should be acquired with certainty and knowledge, and a hadith which does not produce knowledge cannot be relied on in holding a principle of belief.

In fact, the issue of whether or not al-khabar al-wahid is reliable is only raised with respect to the laws of Shari'a, in that the person who has a religious obligation has to go on one or another course of action, and if he has no knowledge, he has to resort to other alternatives the most important and practical of which is al-khabar al-wahid. Moreover, it should be noted that for scholars of usul, one significant reason for the reliability of al-khabar al-wahid (which is a kind of testimony) is the practice of rational people. Thus is has been said that such a report (al-khabar al-wahid) is reliable in cases of exegesis as well.

Examples of Hadith-Based Exegesis of the Holy Qur'an

Tafsir al-Furat al-Kufi
Al-Burhan fi tafsir al-Qur'an

Historically speaking, hadith-based exegesis of the Holy Qur'an is one of the oldest sorts of Quranic exegesis. In extant Shiite sources, the following are examples of such exegesis: Tafsir al-Imam al-Hasan al-'Askari (a), Tafsir Ali b. Ibrahim al-Qummi, Tafsir al-'Ayyashi, Tafsir al-Furat al-Kufi, and in later centuries, al-Burhan fi tafsir al-Qur'an by al-Sayyid Hashim al-Bahrani, Tafsir Nur al-Thaqalayn by 'Abd 'Ali b. Jumu'a al-Huwayzi, Kanz al-daqa'iq wa bahr al-ghara'ib by Muhammad Rida al-Mashhadi al-Qummi. And the following are hadith-based exegeses of the Holy Qur'an by Sunni scholars: Tafsir al-Qur'an al-'azim musnadan 'an Rasul Allah (s) wa al-Sahaba wa al-Tabi'in by 'Abd al-Rahman b. Muhammad b. Idris al-Razi, known as Ibn Abi Hatam al-Razi, Tafsir al-Qur'an al-'azim by 'Imad al-Din Isma'il b. 'Umar known as Ibn Kathir and al-Durr al-manthur fi l-tafsir bi l-ma'thur by Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti. In some sources the following have also been mentioned as hadith-based exegeses of the Holy Qur'an: Tafsir al-Tabari or Jami' al-bayan 'an ta'wil al-Qur'an by Muhammad b. Jarir al-Tabari, al-Muharrar al-wajiz fi tafsir al-kitab al-'aziz by Ibn 'Atiyya, al-Kashf wa al-bayan 'an tafsir al-Qur'an by Ahmad b. Muhammad al-Tha'alibi, al-Jawahir al-hisan by 'Abd al-Rahman b. Muhammad al-Tha'alibi, Bahr al-'ulum by Yahya al-Samarqandi, Ma'alim al-tanzil by Baghawi al-Fara'.


There are other issues worthy of consideration with respect to hadith-based exegeses of the Qur'an: issues such as the weakness or unreliability of chains of narrations, fabricated (maj'ul) hadiths, and Isra'iliyat. Ahmad b. Hanbal has discredited all hadiths narrated with regard to wars of Islam, predictions of future events (malahim) and Qur'anic exegesis. It is not, however, deniable that many exegetical hadiths have unreliable chains of narrations. Some scholars of Qur'anic exegesis have investigated the issue. Fabrication of hadiths has been done with different motivations and reasons, such as the establishment and support, or undermining, of a companion of the Prophet (s), and there have been fabricated hadiths concerning the exegesis of the Holy Qur'an. An obvious case is the occasion of the revelation of verse 113 of Qur'an 9. Some scholars of Qur'anic exegesis hold that the verse was revealed about Abu Talib when he was dying, and it denotes that he was a polytheist (mushrik) until his death. Since Abu Talib has died three years before Hijra and the verse has been revealed in the 9th year of Hijra, it is impossible for the death of Abu Talib to be the occasion on which the verse was revealed. So this hadith is fabricated.

Isra'iliyat—hadiths narrated by Jewish people with regard to Islamic beliefs—are also important in hadith-based exegeses of the Qur'an. In most interpretations of the Qur'an, there are such narrations.