Allah revealed the Qur’an in order for us to ponder it: “A Book that We have sent down to you, blessed, so that they may ponder its verses.” [38:29] Allah also rebukes those who do not ponder it: “Do they not ponder the Qur’an, or are there locks on some hearts?” [47:24] Tadabbur, or pondering, the Qur’an is to contemplate its words and meanings time after time to penetrate its depths. Hence it can be said that Tadabbur is a stage that follows after Tafsir, because one cannot ponder a verse or surah if he does not first understand it at a basic level. Consequently, the command for Tadabbur is a command for Tafsir by greater reason.

Ibn ‘Abbas has categorized Tafsir in respect to people’s knowledge of it, and it is possible to deduce what is obligatory for the individual from this categorization (to be mentioned shortly).

Categories of Tafsir

Explanation of the Qur’an, i.e. Tafsir, can be categorized in different ways, and each categorization is based on a different perspective, each perspective accounting for a different aspect of Tafsir.

It is possible, in light of these various perspectives, to make the following categorizations:

1st in respect to people’s knowledge of it;

2nd in respect to the manners of deducing it;

3rd in respect to the methods;

4th in respect to the tendencies of the exegetes.

These are some perspectives, and there are other perspectives in light of which Tafsir can be categorized, such as wording and meaning – as shall be mentioned – or time and place, etc.

(1) People’s Knowledge of Tafsir

It was divided into four categories by the erudite scholar of this Ummah Ibn Abbas:

A) Tafsir that is known to the Arabs from their knowledge of their language;

B) Tafsir which no one can be excused for being ignorant of it;

C) Tafsir that is known to the scholars;

D) Tafsir only Allah knows, and whoever claims to know it is lying.

Explanation of these four categories:

That which the Arabs know from their knowledge of their language

This category encompasses the words of the Qur’an and its styles of address, and that is because it was sent down in their language and their manners of speaking.

These words and expressions are well known to them, even though individuals amongst them might be unfamiliar with certain words and expressions, because they had not heard it or because it was not customarily used in the dialect of his tribe, just as ibn ‘Abbas was unaware of the meaning of certain vocabulary, like the word ‘Fatir’ and others. This is why you find in the explanations of the Salaf linguistic explanations of the meaning of al-Samad, al-Kufu’, al-Falaq, al-Ghasiq, etc.

Given that its expressions were in accordance with their way of speaking, they did not have difficulty in understanding what was meant by them. For example, they would understand from the verse {Taste! Indeed you are mighty, noble} [44:49], that this address is intended to express scorn and sarcasm , even though such words are normally employed in praise. However, the context indicates that its meaning is scorn.

Knowledge of this category is a communal obligation (fard kifayah), as it is not obligatory for every Muslim to know all the linguistic meanings or styles of expression mentioned in the Qur’an. In some cases, it might rise to the level of being obligatory if fulfillment of some obligation is dependent upon this knowledge.

Tafsir which no one can be excused for being ignorant of it

This includes the commands to fulfill obligations and the prohibitions against unlawful matters and the fundamentals of morals and creed.

Take, for example, the verse: {Establish the prayer and give charity} [2:110] and His: {Pilgrimage to the House is due to Allah from mankind, whoever (of them) is able to make a way towards it} [3:97], and: {Fasting is prescribed upon you, just as it was prescribed upon those before you} [2:182]. No one can be excused for being ignorant of these sorts of passages when he recites the Qur’an.

It also includes the commands to honesty, trustworthiness, the prohibition on lying and deception, or committing lewdness, and other commands and prohibitions on matters of character. It includes matters of beliefs, like the verse: {So know there is no god but Allah} [47:19], and His saying: {And We have not sent a Messenger before you except We revealed to him that there is no god but Me, so worship Me} [21:25], and other commands and prohibitions concerning Tawhid. All of this enters into that category of Tafsir that is obligatory for every Muslim to learn.

Tafsir only the Scholars know

This category includes the meaning of that which is unclear to common people, as well as the rulings and fine points that can be derived from it. This category falls under the communal obligations.

What is not known except to Allah, and whoever claims to know it is lying-

The includes the real nature of matters of the Unseen and the time of their occurrence. Thus the reality or exact nature of the Beast (al-Dabbah) which shall emerge in the last days is not known except by Allah, and the time of its emergence is not known except by Allah. The same is true for the rest of the Unseen matters.

This category is not obligatory on anyone. Rather, whoever undertakes to explain it, he is guilty of sin and lying against Allah, having claimed knowledge of that which only Allah knows, Glorified is He.

(2) Manners of deducing it

From this perspective, Tafsir can be divided into two categories:

1) Tafsir that is based on reports, and it is known as Tafsir bil-Ma’thur.

2) Tafsir that is based on ijtihad, and it is known as Tafsir bil-Ra’i.

(3) Technique

From the point of view of technique, Tafsir can be divided into 4 categories:

1) Analytical Tafsir (al-Tafsir al-Tahlili)

2) General Tafsir (al-Tafsir al-Ijmali)

3) Comparative Tafsir (al-Tafsir al-Muqaran)

4) Thematic Tafsir (al-Tafsir al-Mawdu’i)

Analytical Tafsir

This category is typical in most commentaries. With this technique, the exegete resorts to detailed analysis of the Ayah. He explains the reason for its revelation, explains any obscure words, the grammar of difficult passages, its overall meaning…etc. Examples of this type include the commentaries of Ibn Atiyyah, al-Alusi, ash-Shawkani and others.

General Tafsir

The exegete seeks to clarify the general meaning of the Ayat without dealing with the details, like grammatical declension, definitions, rhetorical study, deduction of lessons, and other issues. Examples of this type include the commentaries of ‘Abd al-Rahman b. Nasir al-Sa’di, Tafsir al-Makki al-Nasiri, Tafsir al-Maraghi, and also in the commentary of Abu Bakr al-Jaza’iri under the heading “General Explanation” (al-Tafsir al-Ijmali).

Comparative Tafsir

The exegete will examine two differing opinions about the interpretation of a passage and compare between the two, giving his own conclusion as to which view he thinks is strongest. Examples of this type are Tafsir at-Tabari and others who mention the different opinions of the exegetes, providing their own conclusions as to what is the strongest interpretation.

A contemporary example is the Tafsir that Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn Aqil al-Zahiri is giving on the radio under the title Tafsir at-Tafasir.

Thematic Tafsir

This technique relies upon studying the wording, or sentence structure, or a theme in the Qur’an, and its categories are:

A) A study of a subject as it is dealt with throughout the Qur’an, such as the subject “Descriptions of the Slaves of the Merciful in the Qur’an.”

B) A study of a subject as it is dealt with in a particular Surah, such as the subject “Social Ethics in Surah al-Hujurat”.

C) The commentator studies the usage of a Qur’anic word or phrase, explaining its meanings in the Qur’an, such as the word ‘al-Ummah’ in the Qur’an, or the phrase ‘Those in whose their hearts is a Disease’ in the Qur’an.

* This categorization into Analytical, General, Comparative, and Thematic Tafsir is a categorization of methods, not necessarily of the commentaries themselves. It is not necessary that every commentary is devoted to a particular method. Al-Tabari’s commentary, for example, employs the analytical, general and comparative techniques.

(4) Tendencies of the commentators

Every exegete has particularly tendencies or focuses that will characterize his commentary and distinguish it from other works.

These tendencies in Tafsir are the result of different factors. If we consider the exegetes’ tendencies as a result of their theological school, we have, for example:

A) Salafi- Tafsir at-Tabari, Ibn Kathir, and al-Shinqiti

B) Mu’tazili- Tafsir az-Zamakhshari

C) Ash’ari- Tafsir ar-Razi

Also, some of them are characterized by the particular science that predominates that Tafsir. Some examples are:

A) The book Ma’ani al-Qur’an by al-Fara’ and Majaz al-Qur’an by Abu Ubaydah, which are examples of a linguistic tendency.

B) The book I’rab al-Qur’an by an-Nahhas, al-Bahr al-Muhit by Abu Hayyan, and ad-Durr ul-Masun by as-Samin al-Halabi, which are examples of a grammatical tendency.

C) The book al-Kashaf by az-Zamakhshari and at-Tahrir wat-Tanwir by at-Tahir bin Ashur, which have a focus on rhetoric (balaghah)

Other examples are mentioned in the books written on ‘Ulum al-Qur’an or tendencies of the exegetes. See, for example, al-Tafsir wal-Mufassirun by Muhammad al-Dhahabi.