Short historical background of Exegesis of the Qur’an
The Twentieth Century of the Common Era, corresponding to the fourteenth century of the Islamic calendar, started off with an awakening of the Eastern world, especially the Muslims. In this century, the magical spell of colonialism was, to an extent, broken. Countries that had been under colonization emerged as independent or at least partially independent countries. The Muslims and their intellectual leaders began to contemplate upon a series of fundamental issues, and the reasons for the subjection and backwardness of their societies was studied and thereby, they sought to find reasons for their abject state.
Amongst the issues that drew their greater attention was the propagation of the teachings, truths, and sciences of the Qur`an, since in the previous centuries, it was only the scholars who were benefiting from the truths of this Heavenly Book while the rest of the people were limited to the mere recitation of the scripture.
The lay people expended all of their energy in the correct recitation of the Qur`an and in learning the rules of proper pronunciation, while the books of exegesis of the Qur`an written during those centuries were only of benefit to the scholars.
Very rarely could it be seen that a scholar would sit down and write a commentary of the Qur`an which would be for the guidance of the common people in understanding the meaning of the Qur`an and very rarely could it be seen that they would hold classes in which the Qur`an would be expounded upon.
It can be said that pondering and thinking upon the verses of the Qur`an was something limited to the scholars, while the rest of the people were only to benefit from the recitation of the Qur`an!
In addition to this frame of thought being very detrimental which is something that the scholars found out later, this belief went directly against the clear verses of the Qur`an as the Qur`an has invited all of humanity to think and ponder deeply on its verses and to take it as their radiant lamp (giving off Divine Celestial light) and as the best guide and leader of the Allah-conscious (those with Taqwa).
The Qur`an introduces itself as a "Reminder” (تَذْكِرَةٌ) and a way through which we can be informed (of previous nations, scriptures and events that have transpired). In addition, we see that those who refrain from hearing the Qur`an and pondering upon the meaning of its verses have been severely reprimanded, as the Noble Qur`an says:
فَمَا لَـــهُمْ عَنِ التَّذْكِرَةِ مُعْرِضِـينَ ٭ كَـأَنَّهُمْ حُمُرٌ مُّسْـتَـنْفِرَةٌ ٭ فَرَّتْ مِنْ قَسْوَرَةٍ
"What is the matter with them that they evade the Reminder as if they were terrified donkeys fleeing from a lion?”1
The verses of the Qur`an which call upon those with consciousness of Allah (Taqwa), scholars, thinkers and intellectuals to listen and to contemplate upon the concepts presented in this Book are in such a great number that we shall refrain from quoting them or translating them or even giving their chapter and verse numbers (in this short treatise). Rather, we shall only present one such verse, suffice ourselves with it, and then go on to another discussion:
وَلَقَدْ يَسَّرْنَا الْقُرَآنَ لِلذِّكْرِ فَهَلْ مِنْ مُّدَّكِرٍ
"And We have indeed made the Qur`an easy to understand for remembrance, then is there any that will receive admonition?”2
This verse and other such verses of the Qur`an tell us that understanding and making use of the Qur`an is not limited to a select or specific group of people!
In Summary: Sidelining the masses of people (from the Qur`an) and preventing them from benefiting from the verses of the Qur`an which was done in the previous centuries, is something that goes directly against the words of this Heavenly Book!
Due to the aforesaid, one of the greatest changes seen at the beginning of the fourteenth Islamic century is the opening up of the gatherings of the commentary of the Qur`an to everyone with the masses of people becoming acquainted with this Heavenly Book. In this regards, commentaries aimed at enlightening the general public have been written in the various Islamic countries (Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and Iran) and gatherings are held – all with the purpose of acquainting the people with the Qur`an.
At this point, it is necessary for us to exhibit the correct way and method of pursuing a commentary of the Qur`an so that those who have an ardent desire to understand the meanings and teachings of the Qur`an may be able to make the best use of this Book.
The commentary of the Qur`an, in the true meaning and way in which the commentator struggles to understand the meanings of the verses of the Qur`an – and not merely in which they simply follow those who have come before them in explaining the verses of the Qur`an, must be carried out through employing a series of rules, realizing various conditions, and following certain issues that will bring about good commentary.
To be continued…
Culled from Introduction to science of tafsīr written by Ayatullah Ja’far Subhani