Tafsiir (Quran Interpretation 101)

“Bismallaah Al-Rahman Al-Rahiim” (In the name of God, the most Gracious and the Merciful”): The “Basmala”, this is the opening phrase in the Quran, and opens every Surah except for Surah 9, “Al-Tawba” (The Repudiation).* This article will go through some reflections and points on each of the Surah’s. Due to the complexity surrounding the issues, this is just offering some تفسير (tafsiir or Quranic interpretations) of various آية‎ (“aya”, verse ) and سورة (“surah”, chapter) and is by no means the only interpretation possible.

Surah Kafirun, the “Unbelievers” (الكافرين) in other words, the one who doesn’t know the Truth. This Surah, number 109, is only 6 آيات (“ayat”, verses) long. It ends with: “to you be your religion, and to me my religion”. This holds openminded connotations, similar to the old saying “to each his own.” This Surah can be seen as an order to the Prophet Muhammad to not force the unbelievers. Similarly, in Surah number 10, Surah يونس (“Yunus”, Jonah), aya 41:

“وَإِن كَذَّبُوكَ فَقُل لِي عَمَلِي وَلَكُمْ عَمَلُكُمْ أَنتُم بَرِيئُونَ مِمَّآ أَعْمَلُ وَأَنَاْ بَريءٌ مِمَّا تَعْمَلُونَ”

“And if they belie you, say: ‘For me is my work and for you is your work. You are quit of what I do, and I am quit of what you do’.”

It emphasised that one cannot force others to believe. In other words, force is not commendable here, but rather, the opposite, is: سلام (“salam”, peace). The word “Islam” is derived from this root word “sine (س) lam (ل) mim (م)”, here pronounced “sa la ma”, as does the word “Muslim”. Surah Yunus may be examined closely alongside Surah Kafirun, as it addresses monotheism and how to deal with those who deny the revelation.

Surah Miryam (مريم), or in Christianity and Judaism, “Mary”, the mother of Jesus, tells a beautiful story of the birth of Jesus. In Islam, unlike in Christianity, Jesus is not the son of God, but another prophet, alongside other prophets like Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Ishmael, Idris, Adam, Noah, and so on. A rationalisation of this is derived from the following logic: Allah wouldn’t need, want, or have a son because this would then imply divisibility and furthermore a need for intimacy, etc. Miryam is the only woman’s name mentioned in the Quran, and is mentioned 34 times in the Quran. The Surah tells of the prophet Abraham who left his father, who worshipped idols, and was rewarded with two sons – Isaac and Jacob. The Guardian of Mary, Zechariah, also a prophet, and the husband of Elizabeth (Mary’s cousin) wanted a son, but his wife was barren and he was very old, and so he asked God who forbade him to speak for three days, and then gave him a son named يوحنا (“Yahya”, John. Generations after these prophets, people became negligent of God, and gave in to their basic desires, as the Arabs believed in life after death more as a formality and custom. The argument for life after death follows the following line: the first birth, the birth that is why we are all here, is the argument that supports re-birth.

Mary, sister of Aaron, is a miracle, and perhaps is a way to show people that although things may seem bad in the moment, they are good. Mary’s birth was very painful, so painful she said that she wished she had never been born:

فَاَجَآءَهَا الْمَـخَاضُ إِلَي جِذْعِ النَّخْلَةِ قَالَتْ يَا لَيْتَنِي مِتُّ قَبْلَ هَذَا وَكُنتُ نَسْياً مَنْسِيّاً

“And the pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm-tree. She said: ‘Would I had died ere this, and had been a thing forgotten’.” (aya 23)

and Allah told her to eat the sweet dates off the tree and drink water:

فَنَادَاهَا مِن تَحْتِهَآ اَلاَّ تَحْزَنِي قَدْ جَعَلَ رَبُّكِ تَحْتَكِ سَرِيّاً

وَهُزّ‌ِي إِلَيْكِ بِجِذْعِ النَّخْلَةِ تُسَاقِطْ عَلَيْكِ رُطَباً جَنِيّاً

“Then (a voice) called out unto her from beneath her: ‘Grieve not! Verily your Lord has made a stream to flow beneath you’.” (aya 24)
“And shake the trunk of the palm-tree towards yourself. It will drop on you fresh ripe dates.” (aya 25)

Surah Al Zumar (الزر) “the Groups”, describes the Day of Judgement. There are many names for the Day of Judgement, such as the Day of the Rising, the Day of Regret, the Day of Recompense, and the Day of Meeting. Here those that were going to Heaven or Hell were referred to repeatedly as the “troops” or the “throngs”, who would enter the gates of Heaven or Hell as such. Paradise and Hell were, in this Surah, both described as having gates, and keepers. One would be judged by a record of their deeds, and then witnesses would provide testimonies. This Surah also states that if you recite this Surah, you won’t go to Hell. Heaven is described as having lofty rooms and rivers flowing with milk, wine, and honey, while Hell is described as “Coverings of fire”. Those that lied, “their faces will be black”:

وَيَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ تَرَی الَّذِينَ كَذَبُوا عَلَی اللَّهِ وُجُوهُهُمْ مُسْوَدَّةٌ أَلَيْسَ فِي جَهَنَّمَ مَثْویً لِلْمُتَكَبِّرِينَ

“And on the Day of Resurrection you will see those who lied against Allah – their faces will be black. Is there not in Hell an abode for the vain?” (aya 60) 

The book of deeds will be put forth, and the Prophets and witnesses will be brought forward (aya 69).

Surah al-Nisa (النساء, “the women”) is one of the most controversial Surah’s. It is the longest Surah in the Quran after second Surah, البقرة (“Baqarah”, The Cow) with 177 verses. Surah al-Nisa’s topics span from faith, justice, to supporting the orphans at the end, marriage, inheritance, immigration, Holy War/Jihad, and opponents of the Islamic community. The first 35 aya’s are about women and family affairs. Aya 34 holds extreme importance and is greatly debated about the meaning:

الرِّجَالُ قَوَّامُونَ عَلَى النِّسَاء بِمَا فَضَّلَ اللّهُ بَعْضَهُمْ عَلَى بَعْضٍ وَبِمَا أَنفَقُواْ مِنْ أَمْوَالِهِمْ فَالصَّالِحَاتُ قَانِتَاتٌ حَافِظَاتٌ لِّلْغَيْبِ بِمَا حَفِظَ اللّهُ وَاللاَّتِي تَخَافُونَ نُشُوزَهُنَّ فَعِظُوهُنَّ وَاهْجُرُوهُنَّ فِي الْمَضَاجِعِ وَاضْرِبُوهُنَّ فَإِنْ أَطَعْنَكُمْ فَلاَ تَبْغُواْ عَلَيْهِنَّ سَبِيلاً إِنَّ اللّهَ كَانَ عَلِيًّا كَبِيرًا

“Men have authority over women because Allah has made some of them to excel others and because they spend out of their property (for the support of women). Therefore, the good women are obedient, guarding the unseen as Allah has guarded. And (as to) those (women) on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them, and avoid them in beds and beat them; then if they obey you, do not seek a way against them; verily Allah is Ever-High, Ever-Great.”.

Aya 75 encourages Muslims to fight for the vulnerable in war – referring to oppressed men, women, and children:

وَمَا لَكُمْ لاَ تُقَاتِلُونَ فِي سَبِيلِ اللّهِ وَالْمُسْتَضْعَفِينَ مِنَ الرِّجَالِ وَالنِّسَاء وَالْوِلْدَانِ الَّذِينَ يَقُولُونَ رَبَّنَا أَخْرِجْنَا مِنْ هَـذِهِ الْقَرْيَةِ الظَّالِمِ أَهْلُهَا وَاجْعَل لَّنَا مِن لَّدُنكَ وَلِيًّا وَاجْعَل لَّنَا مِن لَّدُنكَ نَصِيرً }

“And what has happened to you that you should not fight in the way of Allah and for the weak among men, women and children who say: ‘Our Lord! Take us out of this town whose people are oppressors, and appoint for us from You guardian, and appoint for us from you helper!”

For the early Muslim community, this aya outlined acceptable behavior. It is commonly utilised by fundamentalists for control, and was believed to be revealed to the Prophet Muhammad during جَاهِلِيَّة (“Jahiliyyah”,Time of Ignorance, referring to the time before the advent of Islam, in other words, the time before the Prophet Muhammad). During that time, polygamy was the norm (for men) and so women had no laws protecting her, and as it was all tribes, the Surah here helped lay down foundations for marriage, inheritance, and such. Surah Al-Nisa may be seen as an early attempt at social reform, as:

يُرِيدُ اللّهُ أَن يُخَفِّفَ عَنكُمْ وَخُلِقَ الإِنسَانُ ضَعِيفًا

“Allah desires that He should make light your burden, and man has been created weak.” (Aya 28)

As seen merely from examining a few select aya’s from Surah al-Nisa, it is clear the topics in this Surah span many topics.

With knowledge of the Arabic language, one would understand the concept of the root word in Arabic, of which many other words stem from that – each of their meanings having some connection with the meaning of the root word. This is extremely important to understand and recognise, because it means that every aya in the Quran may be interpreted in many different ways, hence the need and growth of Tafsiir. Furthermore, reading a text has many layers:

  1. The meaning the reader derives from the text, inevitably influenced by their schemata. This is influenced by the time and place and era one is in, as nothing is produced in a vacuum: the reader is, inevitably, to some extent, a product of your environments, and therefore as are your thoughts.
  2. Similarly, the author is also a product of his/her time and place, and therefore, there is the meaning the author wanted the reader to know.
  3. Finally, there is also the meaning the author didn’t intend the reader to know or didn’t know himself or herself at the time.

These latent and manifest layers require one to acknowledge that these interpretations are not whole and are not representations of the aya’s in their meaning entirely. This article merely acts as a very rudimentary first dip into the abyss of Tafsiir. The Arabic and English translations in this article were derived from https://www.alislam.org/, a repudiable, widely used and well-known site for understanding the Quran.

* It is debated why this is the only Surah of the 114 Surah that together comprise the Quran that does not begin with the Basmala. This link provides a clear explanation of the main theories as to why this is: https://islam.stackexchange.com/questions/36463/why-does-surah-taubah-start-without-bismillah.

 

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