Muqaddimah – Tafsir Nizam-ul-Quran – Historical Resources of Interpretation
There are two types of historical resources of interpretation:
- Foundational or absolutely authentic, and
- Secondary or supportive
The Holy Quran alone is the basic and foundational resource while the sound Hadith, established historical facts, and the Scriptures of the earlier nations constitute the ancillary and secondary resource. Had it not been for the uncertainty involved in the authenticity of the Prophetic traditions, historical facts, and earlier revelations, I would have considered them among foundational resources alongside the Holy Quran. In that case, all of these resources would have worked to corroborate each other without mutual contradiction. It is only the lack of authenticity of the Hadith narratives that obliges students of the Holy Quran like me not to rely on any such traditions as contradicting the Holy Quran. Some of the narratives even negate the verses of the Holy Quran and disrupt their interrelation unless their obvious implication is abandoned. Strangely enough, some commentators disregard the obvious meanings of the verses they seek to interpret and do not bother to re-interpret the relevant narratives in accordance with the verses: they leave the apparent contradiction between the two unresolved. Some scholars even dare to take the narrative as it is without bothering to interpret the verses accordingly. In so doing they put the nazm of the discourse at stake. When the roots and branches come to threaten each other every rational being would cut out the branches, not the roots. As the poet says:
How many tall branches we have seen
Die out if not nourished by the roots
One wonders why the exegetes have freely employed the narratives which outright contradict the text they are supposed to interpret. Examples of such outrageous interpretations include the traditions ascribing lies to Abraham and the narratives which tell that the Holy Prophet (sws) recited verses that were not revealed by God. We, therefore, need to observe extreme care regarding such narratives. We may only consider the narratives which are in accordance with the Holy Quran and which corroborate its statements. For example, the interpretations ascribed to Ibn Abbas do not often violate the nazm of the Holy Quran. We will refer to them as corroborative evidence in our attempt to interpret the Holy Quran.
Similarly, it is safer to resort to the history of the People of the Book as a source of interpreting the Holy Quran rather than bank upon the folklore of these nations (commonly referred to as Israiliyaat). This is because the exegetes have taken these narrations from people who were rarely knowledgeable when it came to the History of the Jewish People and their prophets. Thus, it makes sense for us to resort to their reliable books rather than conjured up stories. It must, however, remain clear that the Jewish and the Christian Scriptures have to be used only as a supportive and explanatory resource. If these books contradict the Holy Quran at a certain point they have to be abandoned. We know the truth has been consciously concealed from within these books. Plus, Allah has also pointed out to them (2:140):
…are you more knowledgeable or Allah?
The issue of offering Ismail for sacrifice is a clear example of such a manipulation as confirmed by the Holy Quran.
I want to make it clear that we Muslims have been taught not to differentiate between the revealed Books, the Holy Quran being one of them. However, when we find that these books, the sources of Divine knowledge, differ over an issue, we should prefer the authentic over the corrupted. We have to measure the authenticity of the contradicting sources and consider only the one which is more authentic. However, when they are found in agreement, corroborating and strengthening each other, there is no harm in accepting even what is not historically authentic once we have critically reflected over its contents. For example, we may refer to the Psalms while discussing the following verse of the Holy Quran (21:105):
We have written in the Psalms, following the reminder, that my righteous servants shall inherit the land
We may also refer to the Torah in an effort to appreciate what has been alluded to in the following Quranic verse (87:18-19):
…and indeed this is what is found in the earlier revelations, the books of Abraham and Moses
Similarly, to explain the verses like one given below, we have to refer to the history of the Jewish people
…and We conveyed to the Children of Israel in the Book “You will surely create mischief in the land twice”(17:4)
What matters most in this exercise is to appreciate that the Holy Quran does not depend upon anything external to it, including the earlier Scriptures, in making its purport clear; rather, it governs the earlier revelations in that it is the only true source that can settle the differences among the Books of God. However, when one wishes to confirm what the Holy Quran says they may turn to secondary sources to corroboratory evidence. They are surely helpful in that they increase our faith in the Holy Quran and affirm our belief in its teachings. I believe that the following Quranic directive guides us to this quest (6:11):
Tell (them): “Walk in the land and then observe what has been the end of rejectors”
Studying the earlier revelations, therefore, has its reward. A sound understanding of their contents helps us appreciate the excellence of the Quranic teachings over them. This also proves useful in learning how the Holy Quran has refreshed the guidance that which the People of Book have lost from their revelations as well as exposing the changes they have made in the Divine texts.
We must, however, not lose the line of difference between what the Holy Quran says and what these secondary sources offer. We need to keep a clear barrier and a demarcating wall between the two sources and may never confuse one for another. What has been mentioned in the Holy Quran is absolutely authentic and whatever these resources add to it is always subject to doubt and uncertainty. Therefore, if somebody rejects these secondary resources on valid grounds, he cannot be equated with the rejectors of the Holy Quran.
Similarly, one must also appreciate that the Hadith narratives, even if they are mutawatir, cannot abrogate the Holy Quran.We will have to explain any apparent contradiction found between the Holy Quran and the Hadith in accordance with the Quranic stance on the issue or keep the narrative under consideration. This is the reason Imam Shafi, Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal, and the majority from amongst the scholars of the science of Hadith never claimed that the Holy Quran can be abrogated by the Hadith narratives, even if these were reported down by a large number of people supposed to be unable to unite over concocting a report. When these scholars, who are experts in their field, do not adhere to such a stance (i.e hadith narratives abrogating the Holy Quran) then we do not give any importance to the points raised by Fiqhi scholars and other scholastics. I seek God’s refuge from saying that the Messenger of God could cancel the word of God. Such narratives as contradicting the Holy Quran must always be ascribed to the misunderstanding and confusion of the narrators. A thorough analysis of both of these views along with the line of arguments they offer would surely help add to our commitment and satisfaction in truth regarding this matter. We cannot, however, go into a detailed discussion over this issue here and will discuss it partly in the last introduction titled “Interpreting the Holy Quran in the light of the hadith“
This is a rendering of English translation of Muqaddimah – Tafsir Nizam ul Quran by the permission of the translator, Tariq Mahmood Hashmi. Original version available here.