The Holy Qur’ān shapes and governs all aspects of the life of the Muslim community - individual and collective, religious and social, political and financial, legal and moral, national and international. It gives meaning to their lives. In Muslim perception, those who dedicate their life to understanding the Qur’ān and explaining it to others earn great respect in this world and everlasting reward in the Afterlife. It raises theirreligious as well as social status in the Muslim ummah. The Book has therefore attracted the best minds over the last fourteen centuries, who immersed themselves in deciphering its text, deriving legal commands from it, highlighting its social implications, discovering ethical principles and formulating religious dictates from it that govern the Muslims’ individual as well as collective life. Such contributions have in turn further established its relevance to the Muslim’s belief and practice in all ages.
The first generation of readers (or listeners) of the Qur’ān were the Companions of the Holy Prophet (sws). The Companions and their successors commented on the text spontaneously and directly. “This was because they knew what was revealed before their eyes, had full knowledge of the circumstances in which it was revealed and were characterized by a perfect understanding, correct knowledge and virtuous deeds.” It appears that a few of them developed a special taste for the study and understanding of the Qur’ānic sciences. This activity must have involved little research and more questioning from the Prophet (sws). The Companions must have asked the Prophet (sws) about the verses or surāhs of the Qur’ān to get an immediate answer which, coming from the Prophet (sws), would be fully satisfying for them.
The situation however must have changed immediately after the Holy Prophet (sws). With passing time and increasing distance from the first addressees of the Holy Qur’ān, as in other disciplines, the art of interpreting the Book of God became more and more specialized. By the third century Ḥijrah, it had evolved into a highly technical discipline which became dependent on input from a number of sophisticated disciplines like language, grammar, rhetoric and above all a methodology of interpretation.
During the first few centuries, remarkably brilliant exegeses were compiled by scholars from various schools. But the science of uṣūl-i tafsīr (Qur’ānic Hermeneutics) was still not conspicuous. Though the exegetes of the classical times did not comprehensively state the methodology and the principles they followed in interpreting it, yet, it was possible for the later scholars to study the works of their predecessors and explain the principles they had followed and which, they believed, provided an example for the subsequent generations. Immediately after the first generation, various principles of interpretation can be traced in the anecdotal material we have inherited from the first generation commentators. With the passage of time, Muslim scholars of the later generations gleaned the principles from earlier works and attempted comprehensive and scientific statements of the methodology of interpreting the holy text. This led to the evolution of the Muslim hermeneutics or uṣūl-i tafsīr. The works of Taqi al-Dīn Aḥmad Ibn Taymiyyah (1263–1328 AD), Jalāluddīn Suyūṭī (c.1445-1505 AD) and Shah Walliullāh of Delhi (1703–1762 AD), based on retrospective analysis of the major tafsīr works, represent the models of usūl-i tafsīr that has been widely accepted and applied by the later exegetes.
A study of the tafsīr works from medieval times reveals that most of the exegetical literature was modeled on a line that can safely be termed as tafsīrbased on tradition usually termed as tafsīr ma‘thūr. This means that first, the exegetes of these times, with few exceptions, held the received interpretations as a dominant factor in deciding on their interpretations of the text. They show a pronounced preference for authority over rationality and tradition over originality. Furthermore, most of these scholars considered the verses as individual stand alone independent verses, in an atomistic manner, without giving any weight to the logical or textual coherence. Though references to the context and to the internal organization of the text are frequently found in the standard Muslim exegetical literature, but they mostly followed, what may be called, a “fragmentarian” approach.
At the same time, another parallel tradition of interpretation of the Qur’ān can also be traced throughout the history. This mode of interpretation emphasized the text itself to the exclusion of or to the suppression of historical reports regarding the occasion of revelation of each verse. The independence from such historical reports was to be compensated by closer reading of the text and its thematic and structural coherence. It appears that being a lesser tradition, the exegetical works produced in this mode did not reach outstanding levels of scholarship and there are only few extant examples to be cited. This suppressed tradition in the tafsīr literature however was revived in the beginning of the last century by an Indian scholar, Ḥamīd al-Dīn Farāhī (India, 1930). Farāhī emphasized a seminally important approach towards understanding the Qur’ān. Contesting the attitude taken by earlier scholars, who betrayed the belief that the Holy Qur’ān is devoid of apparent structure and coherence, he proposed that every sūrah of the book deals with a specific central theme and the book as a whole is also well structured. Through this approach, he makes the Holy Qur’ān the central and the most authoritative tool for its interpretation, vis-à-vis the Ḥadīth literature, the recorded opinions of the Companions and their successors, the tafsīr literature, and the narratives regarding the occasions of revelation and the instances of abrogation within the Holy Qur’ān.
Basing his tafsīr on a thorough understanding of the language of the Holy Qur’ān, instead of relying on the Ḥadīth narratives and received interpretations, and taking the naẓm (coherence) as a guiding principle instead of the so called fragmentarianism, he offers a viable alternative to the approach of traditionalism and atomism of the traditional tafsīr model. He has forcefully challenged conventional methodologies that dominate Qur’ān tafsīr offering a new building block for understanding the Holy Qur’ān.
Though, unfortunately, he could not complete his commentary on the Book of God and many of his discussions on the principles of interpretation remained unfinished, yet he showed the scholars a well lit path for approaching the Holy Qur’ān which he argued, was more reliable. Farāhī’s work was to be converted into a significant and enduring tradition by Amīn Aḥsan Iṣlāḥī and Jāvēd Aḥmad Ghāmidī. Direct guidance from Farāhī’s works and remaining under his tutelage allowed Amīn Aḥsan Iṣlāḥi (1904 to 1997), one of his illustrious students, to pen a nine volume commentary of the Holy Qur’ān named Tadabbur-i Qur’ān. As the tradition continued to flourish, Jāvēd Aḥmad Ghāmidī (Born: 1954), has been able to further develop the concept of Qur’ānic coherence as found in the works of Farāhī and Iṣlāḥī. His markedcontribution however is his attempt toexplain the Sharī‘ah of God contained in the Holy Qur’ān and Sunnah in the light of textual coherence.
A number of introductory books, including one by Mustansir Mir, were instrumental in introducing Farāhī and Iṣlāḥī to the English readers, which in turn created a demand for the books and articles written by the founder of the Farāhī school of thought, as it has come to be known in the Indian Subcontinent. In fact, now this school represents a powerful intellectual current in Pakistan. There is therefore enough justification to present the work of Farāhī in English so that the English speaking world can access these seminal texts.
A new Qur’ānic Hermeneutics
Farāhī could not complete these introductory prologues (muqaddamah) to his commentary on the Qur’ān titled Niẓām al-Qur’ān wa Ta’wīl al-Furqān bi al-Furqān (Coherence in the Qur’ān and Interpretation of the Qur’ān by the Qur’ān) and these remained in the form of manuscripts which were compiled and published posthumously. These prolegomena constitute a set of tracts, independent but not unconnected fragments. Farāhī’s works are marked by his conviction that the Holy Qur’ān is a univocal text. To access its univocal meaning, however, we have to be perfectly comfortable with the classical Arabic language and its usages. Then, a competent reader has to apply his linguistic skills to the revealed text, putting aside all preconceived notions. This will help grasp the thematic coherence as well as the structure of the sūrahs and of the Holy Qur’ān in a holistic manner.
Farāhī insists that the Holy Qur’ān is a well structured book. Its sūrahs are complete units of meaning. Thus, one should first enable himself to understand the language of the Holy Qur’ān through a close study of the Book of God in the backdrop of expertise in classical Arabic literature. Only then should a fruitful reading of the Holy Qur’ān become possible. This reading should focus the fundamental unit of the sūrah. A careful reading would lead him to learn that each sūrah deals with a single issue that is comprehensively treated by it. This issue can be called the central theme of the sūrah, the “‘umūd”, as Farāhī calls it. Having identified and established the central theme, he will be able to properly deal with the other issues that were previously considered to have direct bearing on the interpretation of the Holy Qur’ān. Thus competence of language of the Holy Qur’ān and understanding of its coherence is a key to the univocal interpretation of the Book.
Just as each sūrah of the Holy Qur’ān is a complete unit, the Book, as a whole, too exhibits structural and thematic coherence. The sūrahs have been arranged in the present order by the Prophet (sws) as guided by the Almighty himself and, therefore, are not without a compelling rationale. The sūrahs can be divided in nine groups, each dealing with a specific central theme. Sūrahs in each group are ordered in a way that mostly Makkan sūrahs follow Madinan ones.Each sūrah, with minor exceptions, corresponds to the previous one or to one or more succeeding ones.
Farāhīalso deals with other important issues like historical resources of interpretation and the linguistic ones, as well as recorded reports of historical events about the prophetic career of Muhammad (sws) and circumstances generally believed to have spurred the revelation, the role of the isrā’īliyyāt,the common themes of the previous Scriptures, the role of Ḥadīth in understanding the Holy Qur’ān. All these resources, his view, have to be subjected to the primacy of the Qur’ānic language and coherence. Any Ḥadīth that contradicts the interpretation reached by an expert of the language of the Holy Qur’ān, in the light of the coherence in the book has to be abandoned. If the previous Scriptures, the so called isrā’īliyyāt, the narratives of occasion of revelation etc. corroborate our interpretation, that will surely add to our confidence. If, however, they contradict and negate the clear Qur’ānic stance, then they have to be reinterpreted and reconciled to the clear and obvious meaning of the Qur’ānic text.
Most of the issues taken up by Farāhī as short prologues are a further elaboration on and establishing the principle of naẓm. The others contain discussions to remove or reform the prevailing dominant trends in interpreting the Holy Qur’ān. Linguistic resources for example explain how the experts of the language can safely reach the intended meaning and the one and only legitimate explanation of the verses. It shows how obstructive it would be to chain oneself to the confines of Aristotelian rhetoric and to subject the Holy Qur’ān to the grammar rules, originally devised by medieval grammarians for ordinary non-Qur’ānic discourses of a mundane nature.
Yet another classification of these resources of interpretation is epistemological. There are two broad categories, conclusive and non-conclusive. Among the conclusive principles lie the Holy Qur’ān itself, its coherence and its language. The established historical facts, Ḥadīth, the previous scriptures, the received interpretations, the disciplines of grammar, usūl al-fiqh, balāghah etc form the secondary resources. Here again the coherence and the language of the Holy Qur’ān constitute the foundation of the Farāhī model of tafsīr. The distinction between conclusive and non-conclusive resources is the cornerstone of Farāhī’s approach and marks a major departure from the popular mode of interpretation of Holy Qur’ān.
In his endeavor to raise the art of Qur’ān tafsīr to a science with a well defined methodology he penned down, besides the principles of interpretation in this exordium, the following booklets which illustrate these issues further or clarify a relevant discussion that has direct bearing on the tafsīr work:
i) Mufradāt al-Qur’ān (Vocabulary of the Qur’ān)
ii) Jamharah al-Balāghah (Manual of Rhetoric)
iii) Dalā’il al-Niẓām (Proofs for Coherence)
iv) ’Asālīb al-Qur’ān (Styles of the Qur’ān)
v) Al-Takmīl fī Usūl al-Ta’wīl (Perfection in the Principles of Interpretation).
Most of these works remained as manuscripts or in forms of notes, and have been published without author’s closure. However they provide immense help in developing insight into Farāhī’s approach. Produced for the consumption of religious scholars, all of these works were written in Arabic and the demand for their English translation has been ever-increasing.
As I motioned earlier Iṣlāḥīand Ghāmidī have further developed this model of Qur’ān tafsīr. It would therefore be useful to briefly explain their contributions. Iṣlāḥī’s understanding of the ‘umūd of the sūrahs is identical to that of his teacher. He has however modified the overall structure of the Book as understood by his mentor. He holds that there are seven groups of the sūrahs instead of nine. He believes that all sūrahs, with few exceptions, have been put in pairs. He has established the seven-fold division of the Holy Qur’ān by pleading to the Qur’ān itself. He holds that in each group the Makkan and Madinan sūrahs constitute distinct blocks, the former preceding the latter. Farāhī, however, did not stress on this aspect of internal arrangement of groups. Iṣlaḥī believes that each of the seven sūrah groups treats all the phases of the Islamic movement as led by Muhammad in Arabia, though emphasis in each groups is on different themes of the movement. Farāhī does not assign specific themes to each group of sūrahs.
As to Ghāmidī’s contribution to the concept of naẓm he makes valuable additions to the elaborateness of the overall structure of the Holy Qur’ān while keeping alive emphasis on the internal naẓm of the sūrah. Asif Iftikhār has summarized Ghāmidī’s concept of Qur’ānic naẓm in the following words. “The basic theme of the Qur’ān is a description of the Prophetic indhār (admonition) to his people, the Banū Ismā‘īl–more specifically the Quraysh. Prophet Muḥammad, according to Ghāmidī, belonged to a specific category of the messengers of God who were sent to specific peoples as God’s final judgment on them. The Qur’ānic term for such messengers is rasūl (plural: rusul). Unlike some other messengers, termed as anbiyā’ (singular: nabī), whose basic purpose is to prophesize the coming of a rasūl and who are sometimes killed by their own people, the rusul always triumph. A rasūl’s people are always given Divine punishment on denial after a stipulated time period and rewarded with a special privilege in this world if they accept his message and the authority. In Prophet Muḥammad’s case, his prophetic mission of doing indhār went through different phases, which can be categorized as general admonition(indhār-I ‘ām), culmination of the conclusive argument (itmām-i ḥujjat), the abandonment and migration (barā’at and ḥijrat), and the reward and punishment (jazā’ and sazā). A depiction of these themes is given in the Qur’ān in seven distinct groups, each group consisting of a set of Makkan and Madīnan sūrahs. The sūrahs within each group occur in pairs. Each group of the Qur’ān possesses certain special features as a central theme of its own and arrangement of ideas. The order of the groups has a thematic significance too. For example, thematically, the second group is culmination of the themes gradually flowing backwards from the seventh group. The theme of the seventh group is admonition (indhār) to the polytheists of Mecca. This theme moves gradually towards the inner purification(tazkiya) and organization of those who paid heed to this admonition and became Muslims (from the seventh group to the second). Then, in the second group, after culmination of the conclusive argument (itmām-i ḥujjat), the Divine law of retribution is implemented on all the religious groups present in Arabia in the time of the Prophet (sws). From the first to the second group, the topical arrangement is also somewhat the same. While indhār is done to the People of the Book (the Israelites and the Nazarites), guidelines for the tazkiya and organization of the nascent Muslim community are also given, who are the umma that has now been given the responsibility of being witnesses of God over people (shuhadā ‘alā al-nās).”
A study of these introductory prologues, it is hoped, will show how Farāhī seeks to change our approach to the Qur’ān tafsīr. His theory of naẓm, emphasis on univocity of the Qur’ān, reliance on the language of the Qur’ān and interpreting the Qur’ānic verses with their parallels are expanded and elaborated upon in his other works. His successors too made significant contributions in this movement. For a detailed study of the Farāhī School the readers may like to consult the following:
A‘zamī, Akhtar Ḥusain, Mawlānā Amīn Aḥsan Iṣlāḥī, Ḥayāt-o Afkār (Life and Thoughts of Amīn Aḥsan Iṣlāḥī), Lahore, Nashriyāt, 2008.
Farāhī, Ḥamīd al-Dīn, Majmū‘ah-i Tafāsīr-i Farāhī (Collection of Exegeses of Farāhī). Translated by Amīn Aḥsan Iṣlāḥī. Lahore: Fārān Foundation, 1991.
----Al-Ra’y al-Saḥīḥ fī man huwa al-dhabīḥ, A‘zamgarh: Maktabah al-Dā’irah al-Ḥamīdiyyah, 1968.
----Tafsīr Niẓām al-Qur’ān, Sūrah al-Baqarah (2), A‘zamgarh: Maktabah al-Dā’irah al-Ḥamīdiyyah, 2000.
----Rasā’il al-Imām Farāhī fi ‘Ulūm al-Qur’ān, (Dalā’il al-Niẓām, Al-Takmīl fī ‘Usūl al-Ta’wīl and ‘Asālīb al-Qur’ān), A‘zamgarh: Maktabah al-Dā’irah al-Ḥamīdiyyah, 2005.
----Mufradāt al-Qur’ān (Vocabulary of the Qur’ān), A‘zamgarh: Maktabah al-Dā’irah al-Ḥamīdiyyah, 2004.
----Im‘ān fī Aqsām al-Qur’ān (Study of the Qur’ānic Oaths), A‘zamgarh: Maktabah al-Dā’irah al-Ḥamīdiyyah, 1930.
----Jamharah al-Balāghah (Manual of Rhetoric), A‘zamgarh: Maktabah al-Dā’irah al-Ḥamīdiyyah, 1941.
Ghāmidī, Jāvēd Aḥmad. Burhān (An Evident Proof). Lahore: Dānish Sarā, 2000.
----Mīzān (Balance). Lahore: Dār al-Ishrāq, 2001.
----Al-Bayān (Elucidation). Lahore: Dār al-Ishrāq, 2001.
Iṣlāḥī, Amīn Aḥsan. Da‘wat-i Dīn awr us kā Ṭarīqa-i Kār (Invitation to Religion and its Method). Lahore: Fārān Foundation, 1981.
----Tawḍīḥāt (Clarifications). 1956. Reprint, Lahore: Islamic Publications Ltd., 1985.
----Tadābbur-i Qur’ān. 9 vols. Lahore: Farān Foundation, 1985-1988.
----Mubādī-i Tadabbur-i Ḥadīth (The Foundations of Ḥadīth Analysis and Interpretation). Compiled and edited by Mājid Khāwar. Lahore: Fārān Foundation, 1989.
----Maqālāt-i Iṣlāḥī (Iṣlāḥī’s Articles). Vol. 1. Compiled and edited by Khalīd Masūd. Lahore: Fārān Foundation, 2000.
Iṣlāḥī, Sharaf al-Dīn. Dhikr-i Farāhī (Remembering Farāhī). Lahore: Dār al-Tadhkīr, 2002.
Mir, Mustansir. Coherence in the Qur’ān: A Study of Iṣlāḥī’s Concept of Naẓm in Tadabbur-i Qur'ān. Indianapolis: American Trust Publications, 1986.
----“Tafsīr.” In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Modern Islamic World, 1995.
----“The Qur’ān as Literature.” Renaissance 10 (May 2000).
----“The Qur’ān Oaths: Farāhī’s Approach,” Renaissance 10 (July 2000).
Robinson, Neal. Discovering the Qur’ān: A Contemporary Approach to a Veiled Text. London: SCM Press, 1996.
Aḥmad, Islamic Modernism in India and Pakistan, 1857-1964. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967.
I wish to explain that while remaining true to the original Arabic work of Farāhī, I have, in the present translation, made free use of Iṣlāḥī’s Urdu translation of the work, Majmū‘ah-i Tafāsīr-i Farāhī (Collection of Exegeses of Farāhī). Farāhī, it should be noted tends to be terse and concise. There are places in his works where terseness overtakes required clarity. Therefore this translation draws heavily on Iṣlāḥī who having remained under the tutelage of Farāhī and being an erudite scholar and a prominent figure in the Farāhī School, is able to fully comprehend and explain Farāhī. Thus with the help of his Urdu translation, difficult passages of the book could be correctly rendered and properly explained. All the notes by Farāhī and Iṣlāḥī have been included in the translation. References have been added wherever required. Important concepts and terminology exclusive to the Farāhī School have been further explained by cross references from the author’s other works. Arabic terms have been provided along with their English equivalents. It is hoped that the translation proves to be fairly proper and sufficiently faithful rendering of Farāhī’s original work.
All my teachers and colleagues deserve my profound gratitude for their valuable help and guidance in accomplishing the translation. I am deeply indebted to Mr Talib Mohsin and Mr Sajid Hameed who, on more than one occasion, helped me make sense of several difficult passages of the original text in Arabic. Mr Nadir Aqueel Ansari and Mr Jhangeer Hanif made a number of valuable suggestions to help improve the quality of the translation. My thanks are therefore also due to them. I owe special thanks to Mr Manzoor ul-Hassan, under whose magnanimous supervision, the publication of the translation finally became possible. A note of thanks is also due to all the support staff of al-Mawrid, who contributed towards bringing the text into publishable form.
Tariq Mahmood Hashmi