A Student’s Guide to Essential Works on Qur’ānic Exegesis

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A Student’s Guide to Essential Works on Qur’ānic Exegesis

By Mawlānā Yūsuf al-Bannūrī 

Translator’s Preface

Before you is an excerpt from “Yatīmat al-Bayān,” a forward by the critical hadith scholar Mawlānā Yūsuf al-Bannūrī (d. 1397 AH) to “Mushkilāt al-Qur’ān” which is a compilation of exegetical notes by ‘Allāmah Anwar Shāh al-Kashmīrī (d. 1352 AH). In this excerpt, Mawlānā Yūsuf al-Bannūrī begins by pointing out beneficial resources for commentary of Qur’ānic verses in works not written exclusively on the subject of Tafsīr but are nonetheless written by brilliant scholars whose works are generally filled with beneficial commentary. He then draws the attention of the reader to four primary books of Tafsīr which in his opinion “would quench the thirst of anyone who drinks from their springs.” These four are:

(1) Tafsīr al-Qur’ān al-‘Ażīm by Ibn Kathīr (d. 774 AH)images (3)

(2) Mafātīh al-Ghayb/al-Tafsīr al-Kabīr by Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 606 AH)

(3) Rūh al-Ma‘ānī fī Tafsīr al-Qur’ān al-‘Ażīm wa al-Sab‘ al-Mathānī by Mahmūd al-Alūsī (d. 1270 AH)

(4) Irshād al-‘Aql al-Salīm ilā Mazāyā al-Qur’ān al-Karīm by Abū al-Su‘ūd (d. 951 AH)

He further adds four more works: two as a replacement for those who are too busy to consult the first four books, and two for those who are interested in particular commentary, identifying in the process certain weaknesses found in them. Finally, he suggests a Tafsīr written in Urdu for those who are more comfortable with reading in that language; but he reassures the reader that there isn’t an Arabic Tafsīr that can replace it.

The entire forward, published in nearly 140 pages, serves as a beneficial introduction for students interested in an in-depth study of Qur’ānic exegeses and related disciplines. Mawlānā Yūsuf al-Bannūrī eloquently discusses issues like reason-based exegesis (al-tafsīr bī al-ra’y) and the nature of the Qur’ān’s inimitability (i‘jāz al-Qur’ān), constantly citing notes and research from his teacher Allāmah Anwar Shāh al-Kashmīrī. May Allah accept their efforts. To make this article more reader-friendly, an idiomatic translation was adopted in many places.

Muntasir Zaman


Before concluding this section of the forward, it will be appropriate to draw the attention of my brethren, seekers of knowledge and truth to the names of reliable works of Tafsīr that nearly suffice one from consulting other works. It should be noted that every book of Tafsīr has its own specialty; rarely does one book fill the void left by another. Thus, no book will suffice for other books in any given subject, notwithstanding that later books attempt to include the discussions of previous books. Even if a person were to summarize a particular book, seldom would it suffice from the original. This is proven through experience and evidence—except that which Allah intends. How can it be otherwise when differences of opinion are inevitable, variations in approach are natural, and the need of every individual differs from that of others? Often a person requires a thing whereas others are independent of it, and many a statement would interest a particular scholar but not others. As such, it is necessary for those who wish to study the disciplines of the Qur’ān and aspire to achieve expertise in them that they consult all the available works of Tafsīr.

This is necessary because the subject in its entirety is beneficial, particularly the contributions of the critical researchers. If one is looking for commentary of a single chapter or two chapters, rather, even a single verse or two verses, then he should search in their works on subjects besides Tafsīr, searching for it like a lost item of great value. How often does a person locate the explanation of difficult passages of the Qur’ān in unexpected places? The likes of these scattered pearls are found in the works of critical researchers such as the Proof of Islām al-Ghazālī (d. 505 AH) and the prolific memorizer Ibn al-Qayyim (d. 751 AH). Among them, the latter [Ibn al-Qayyim] has reached heights. Rarely are his books void of commentary on verses from the Qur’ān. And like his teacher the flowing sea, the prolific memorizer, Ibn Taymiyyah al-Harrānī (d. 727 AH); like Shaykh Abū al-Qāsim al-Sayyid al-Sharīf al-Murtadā (d. 436 AH)[1], the author of al-Amālī in three volumes; like the critical researcher [Ibn] al-Wazīr al-Yamānī [d. 840 AH], the author of Ithār al-Haqq ‘alā al-Khalq, al-‘Awāsim wa al-Qawāsim, and al-Rawd al-Bāsim; like Shaykh Bahā’ al-Dīn al-Subkī Ibn Taqī al-Dīn [d. 773 AH] in his book ‘Arūs al-Afrāh; and like al-Amīr Yahyā ibn Hamzah al-Yamanī from the ninth century in his book al-Tirāz [2], among other leading authorities of the Ummah. It has been on my mind for some time that if Allah granted me the ability I would string the scattered pearls from the writings of these brilliant scholars. I only mention this so that those who are inspired have insight regarding the matter—and Allah alone inspires.

Given that life is short, necessities are many, and ambitions are low, I wish to draw the attention of my brethren, seekers of knowledge to certain easily accessible works of Tafsīr that would suffice anyone who wishes to remain content with them and would quench the thirst of anyone who drinks from their springs. In my opinion, they are the following four books of Tafsīr:

The first is the Tafsīr of the Damascene prolific hadith memorizer, ‘Imād al-Dīn Ibn Kathīr (d. 774 AH), a student of Hāfiż Ibn Taymiyyah (may Allah have mercy on him). His Tafsīr is a refinement of Tafsīr Ibn Jarīr [al-Tabarī] and others in both transmission (riwāyah) and interpretation (dirāyah). There is hardly an equal to it among the Tafsīrs of the Hadīth scholars. Our teacher, the Imām of the era [al-Kashmīrī] (Allah have mercy on him) said, “If any one book would suffice another, it would be Tafsīr Ibn Kathīr, because it suffices for Tafsīr Ibn Jarīr.”

The second is Mafātīh al-Ghayb, better known as al-Tafsīr al-Kabīr, by the distinguished authority, the critical researcher, Fakhr al-Dīn Ibn Khatīb al-Rayy [/al-Rāzī] al-Shāfi‘ī (d. 606 AH). Our teacher (Allah have mercy upon him) said, “I am not aware of any difficult passage in the Qur’ān except that the Imām took notice of it.” And he would say, “Indeed the Imām delves into the difficult passages, except at times he is not successful in solving some of them in a manner that puts the heart at ease.” He would also say, “What is said regarding his Tafsīr that it contains everything apart from Tafsīr -as related by the author of al-Itqān [3]– is a depreciation of its value and lofty status. It is perhaps the statement of one who is overwhelmed with citing narrations without discussing the subtleties of the Qur’ān and its disciplines.”

The third is Rūh al-Ma‘ānī by the Muftī of Baghdād, the most knowledgeable scholar of his time, Sayyid Mahmūd al-Alūsī al-Hanafī, an intellectual from the thirteenth century [d. 1270 AH]. Its outstanding features captivate the heart, and its beauty is breathtaking. It holds, in my opinion, the same status as Fath al-Bārī for Sahīh al-Bukhārī in its copious content, clarity of expression, and elegant style. The difference is while Fath al-Bārī is a commentary of the speech of the creation and thus its author fulfilled the obligation of the Ummah by explaining the Sahīh, on the other hand, it is inconceivable for a human to fulfill the rights of Allah’s speech even if he were to exert all his strength.

The fourth is the Tafsīr of Shaykh Abū al-Su‘ūd al-Hanafī, the Muftī of the Ottoman Empire, the lecturer of the exegetes, chief justice, the polymath, the jurist, Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-‘Imādī (d. 951 AH), entitled Irshād al-‘Aql al-Salīm ilā Mazāyā al-Qur’ān al-Karīm. It beautifully expresses the intent of the Qur’ān and gives a magnificent presentation. In many aspects, it suffices for al-Kashshāf of Imām al-Zamakhsharī.

These are four books, two written by Shāfi‘ī scholars and two by Hanafī scholars, by which an occupied exegete will be content. Whoever wishes to have awareness of modern sciences, the wonders of creation, and the laws of divine creation, let him add Jawāhir al-Qur’ān al-Karīm by Shaykh Jawharī al-Tantāwī [d. 1940 CE]. It should be noted that his views on hadith criticism should not be relied upon. Our teacher explained that he often critiques hadith purely based on his rationale, disregarding thereby the conditions laid out by the experts of the field. And whoever wishes to understand the objectives of the Qur’ān in a contemporary literary style, let him add parts of Tafsīr al-Manār by the reputable scholar, the late Sayyid Rashīd Ridā [d. 1935 CE], without relying on all of his opinions. This work is to be read selectively and cautiously in places where the pen of the author’s teacher [Muhammad ‘Abduh] deviated from the mainstream position. All in all, the weaknesses of these two works, al-Jawāhir and al-Manār, should not prevent one from benefiting from the beneficial content therein. The one who does so, however, should keep in mind the couplet of al-Hamāsī, “Do not be deceived by the pure that you drink; perhaps it is contaminated with dirt.”

Whoever wishes to remain content with less than the above, let him suffice on (1) Gharā’ib al-Furqān by the critical researcher Shaykh al-Naysābūrī [4], a beneficial abridgment of Tafsīr al-Rāzī, and on (2) the Tafsīr of Abū al-Su‘ūd al-‘Imādī mentioned earlier. As for the person who wishes to consult only one book: (1) if he is looking for a detailed work, then he should hold firmly to Rūh al-Ma‘ānī as the author included therein the cream of the narrations and the height of interpretation and rhetoric (2) if he is looking for a concise work, then he should hold firmly to al-Jawāhir al-Hisān by the Gnostic Shaykh ‘Abd al-Rahmān al-Tha‘ālibī al-Jazā’irī [d. 875 AH], an extremely beneficial abridgment wherein the author summarized the Tafsīr of Ibn ‘Atiyyah[5] and added valuable material from roughly 100 other works on different subjects. I have now enumerated in total eight collections of Tafsīr. Whoever wishes to add to them, let him do so, for the subject in its entirety is beneficial.

Whoever is looking for Urdū commentary of the Qur’ān in a wonderful literary style in a short period of time, he should consult the exegetical notes on the Qur’ān by the Shaykh of the era, the Gnostic Mawlānā Mahmūd al-Hasan al-Deobandī (d. 1339 AH), known as Shaykh al-Hind, and by the critical researcher of the present era, our teacher Mawlānā Shabbīr Ahmad al-‘Uthmānī [d. 1949 CE]. They have included therein excellent content on the commentary of the Qur’ān and the explanation of its objectives in words that are stunning pearls. At times, you will not find the solution to a perplexity after having paged through these large volumes, but you will find that this work solves it in the shortest of words and the subtlest of indications. This is a work that reputable scholars are not independent from, let alone seekers of knowledge during the course of their studies. There isn’t a printed Tafsīr in Arabic that can replace it. I am not claiming that it will suffice one from consulting other Tafsīrs. But neither will other Tafsīrs suffice for it. May Allah accept their noble effort.


[1] See his entry in: al-Dhahabī, Siyar A‘lām al-Nubalā’, vol.17, p.588

[2] Yahyā ibn Hamzah ibn ‘Alī, the author of al-Tirāz al-Mutadammin li Asrār al-Balāghah wa ‘Ulūm Haqā’iq al-I‘jāz, was a leading Zaydī scholar from Yemen who passed away in the eighth century (d. 745 AH). See: al-Shawkānī, al-Badr al-Tāli‘, vol.2, pp.331-332; al-Ziriklī, al-A‘lām, vol.8, pp.143-144

[3] Al-Suyūtī, al-Itqān fī ‘Ulūm al-Qur’ān, vol.4, p.243, on the authority of Abū Hayyān who cites an unnamed source; see Abū Hayyān, al-Bahr al-Muhīt, vol.1, p.547.

[4] Niżām al-Dīn al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Qummī al-Naysābūrī, the author of Gharā’ib al-Qur’ān wa Raghā’ib al-Furqān, also known as Tafsīr al-Naysābūrī, passed away after the year 850 AH. See al-Zirikli, al-A‘lām, vol.2, p.216.

[5] Abū Muhammad ‘Abd al-Haqq ibn Ghālib Ibn ‘Atiyyah, the author of the above Tafsīr, which Hājī Khalīfah named al-Muharrar al-Wajīz fī Tafsīr al-Kitāb al-‘Azīz. Ibn ‘Atiyyah passed away in 541 AH. See al-Dhahabī, Siyar A‘lām al-Nubalā’, vol.19, p.587; Hājī Khalīfah, Kashf al-Zūnūn, vol.2, p.1613

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One thought on “A Student’s Guide to Essential Works on Qur’ānic Exegesis

    Imran Khan said:
    February 28, 2016 at 1:28 pm

    Jazak Allah for your efforts. While translating these texts, is it possible to adopt a more idiomatic approach instead of a literal one? The first paragraph might be a good example. Just some food for thought.

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