Tafseer of the Quran by Aathaar (explanations of the Sahaabah)
Whenever the Sahaabah (companions of Prophet Muhammad ) could not find the Tafseer (exegesis) of a passage in the Quran itself or in the Sunnah (Prophetic narrations), they would use their own reasoning based on their knowledge of the contexts of the verses and the intricacies of the Arabic language in which the Quran was revealed.
One of the greatest commentators of the Quran, Imaam Ibn Katheer wrote in the preface of his Tafseer: "If we are unable to find a suitable Tafseer in the Quran or in the Sunnah, we go to the opinions of the Sahaabah, for it is certain that they knew the Quran better than anyone else due to their knowledge of the circumstances of its revelation, their complete and accurate understanding of it, and their righteous deeds." These explanations of the Sahaabah are known as the Tafseer by Aathaar (sayings of the Sahaabah). For example, when Ibn 'Abbaas, may Allah be pleased with him, was questioned about the verse (which means): “And tell the believing women to reduce [some] of their vision and guard their private parts and not display their adornment except that which [ordinarily] appears thereof…” [Quran: 24:31] he replied: ‘It refers to the face and hands'. On another occasion, after reciting the verse (which means): “…And whoever does not judge by what Allah has revealed – then it is those who are the disbelievers.” [Quran: 5:44] Ibn 'Abbaas may Allah be pleased with him said: "It is a form of Kufr (disbelief) that is less than real Kufr.’
The Sahaabah also provided information about the circumstances under which the verses were revealed, which further clarified their meanings. However, the Tafseer transmitted from the Prophet and the Sahaabah did not cover all of the verses of the Quran. The Prophet explained only what was unclear to the Sahaabah.
Tafseer of the Quran by the Arabic Language
With the passage of time, words took on new meanings and old meanings became lost, foreign words entered into the language and vast sections of vocabulary fell into disuse. This natural process necessitated the explanation of some of the Quranic verses according to their literal and logical meanings. Consequently, this period witnessed the appearance of dictionaries such as Mukhtaar As-Sihaah, written specifically to deal with the Quranic Arabic vocabulary and philology.
In cases where words had more than one meaning, this step created differences of opinion, which could only be solved by finding some support in the Sunnah. For example, the word 'Lams' literally means to touch but figuratively means sexual intercourse, thus Muslim scholars were of two basic opinions concerning the following verse (which means): “…Or you have touched women and find no water, then seek clean earth and wipe over your faces and your hands…” [Quran: 4:43]
Imaams Ash-Shafi'ee and Maalik held that it meant the touch of the hand, though each Imaam added certain stipulations to it. On the other hand, Imaam Abu Haneefah ruled that it meant sexual intercourse. The Prophet’s wives, may Allah be pleased with them, reported that on some occasions, he kissed them before performing prayers, which indicates that touching was not intended by this verse.
Tafseer of Quran by Opinion
Opinions based on a careful study can be considered valid as long as they do not contradict any known authentic explanations. Likewise, the application of obvious meanings of the Quran to existing situations and the formation of conclusions based on their similarities is also allowed as long as such interpretations do not clash with authentic classical explanations. However, free interpretation based on philosophical, scientific or sectarian ideas is totally forbidden. The Prophet was reported to have said thrice: "Opinion-based arguments about the Quran is Kufr (disbelief)." Then he said: "What you know of it, act on it; and what you are ignorant of, refer it to one who knows." [Ahmad]
We can see from the above mentioned narration that the Prophet sternly warned his companions and later generations of Muslims concerning the interpretations of the Quran based on speculation and unsubstantiated opinions. This was done because the Quran is the foundation of Islam and, as such, it had to remain pure and untampered with.
If free rein were given to any and everyone to interpret the Quran as he wished, its value would be totally destroyed and Islam itself would be undermined from its foundation. Thus, the only accepted Tafseer is that which follows the following sequence: Tafseer of the Quran by the Quran, Tafseer by the Sunnah, Tafseer by the sayings of the Sahaabah, Tafseer by language, and finally, Tafseer by opinion.