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Historical Sources of Interpretation
Imam Hamiduddin Farahi
(Tr. by:Tariq Haashmi)

There are two types of historical sources of interpretation, (a) foundational and absolutely authentic and (b) secondary and supportive. The Holy Qur’ān itself serves as the basic and foundational source while the sound Ahādīth (the prophetic traditions), established historical facts and scriptures of the earlier nations constitute the ancillary and secondary sources. Had it not been for the uncertainty involved in the authenticity of prophetic traditions, historical facts and earlier revelations, I would have considered them among foundational sources along side the Holy Qur’ān. In that case, all of these sources would have worked to corroborate each other without mutual contradiction. It is only the lack of absolute authenticity of Hadīth narratives that obliges students of the Holy Qur’ān like me not to rely on narratives contradicting the Holy Qur’ān. Some of the narratives negate the verses of the Qur’ān and disrupt their interrelation unless their obvious implication is abandoned. Strangely enough, some commentators disregard the obvious meanings of the verses they seek to interpret and do not bother to interpret the relevant narratives in accordance with the verse. They leave the apparent contradiction between the two unresolved. Some scholars even dare to take a narrative as it is without bothering to interpret the verse the way it should be and while interpreting the narrative go as far as to disrupt the coherence of the Qur’ānic discourse whereas we all know that when roots and branches come to threaten the existence of each other a rational being would sever the branches and not the roots. As the poet says:

و كأين رأينا من فروع طويلة

تموت إذا لم تحييهن أصول

Wa kā’ayyin ra’aynā min furū‘in tawīlatin

Tamūtu idhā lam tuhyīhinna usulu

(How many tall branches we have seen die out if not nourished by roots! )

One can only wonder over the practice of accepting narratives which outright contradict the text they are supposed to interpret. Examples of such outrageous interpretation include the traditions ascribing lies to Abraham1 and the narratives which tell that the Holy Prophet (sws) recited verses other than the divine revelation while reciting the Holy Qur’ān. We therefore, need to show extreme care regarding such narratives. We may only consider the narratives which are in accordance with the Holy Qur’ān and which corroborate its statements. For example, the interpretations ascribed to Ibn ‘Abbās (rta) do not often violate the nazm of the Holy Qur’ān. We will refer to them as corroborative evidence in our attempt to interpret the Holy Qur’ān.

As regards the history of the People of the Book, what has been reported to us of the eastern folklore regarding the Jewish and Christian milieu (the so called Isrā’īliyāt) is not that authentic.  What the scriptures of the People of the Book contain is a safer and a surer source of related information rather than the Isrā’īliyāt. Our exegetes have indeed received the detailed Isrā’īliyāt from Jewish converts among the common folk who had little or no knowledge of the history of Israel and the Israelite Prophets. Therefore, it is only safer for us to resort to their reliable books instead of referring to the Isrā’īliyāt. It must however remain clear that the Jewish and the Christian Scriptures too have to be used as supportive and explanatory sources. If these books contradict the Holy Qur’ān at a certain point, they have to be abandoned. We know that truth has been concealed in these books. God has said concerning their bearers: “are you more knowledgeable or Allah?”2 The issue of offering of Ishmael (sws) is a clear example of such an adulteration as confirmed by the Holy Qur’ān, the undisputable foundation of religious truth. We want to make abundantly clear that we have been taught not to differentiate between revealed books. We must appreciate that the Holy Qur’ān is but one of them. However, when we find some discrepancy between these books, which are sources of divine knowledge, we will have to give preference to the most authentic among them. We have to measure the authenticity of the contradicting sources and consider only the more authentic. However, when they are found in agreement, corroborating and strengthening each other, there is no harm in accepting even what is not established as historically authentic once we have critically reflected upon its contents. For example, we may refer to the Psalms while discussing the following verse of the Holy Qur’ān:

وَلَقَدْ كَتَبْنَا فِي الزَّبُورِ مِن بَعْدِ الذِّكْرِ أَنَّ الْأَرْضَ يَرِثُهَا عِبَادِيَ الصَّالِحُونَ (١٠٥:٢١)

And We have written in the Psalms, after the reminder, that my righteous servants shall inherit the land. (21:105)

We may also refer to the Torah in an effort to appreciate what has been alluded to in the following Qur’ānic verse:

إِنَّ هَذَا لَفِي الصُّحُفِ الْأُولَى صُحُفِ إِبْرَاهِيمَ وَمُوسَى (٨٧: ١٨-١٩)

Indeed, this is what is found in the earlier revelation – the books of Abraham and Moses. (87:18-9)

Similarly, referring to the history of the earlier nations, the Almighty says:

وَقَضَيْنَا إِلَى بَنِي إِسْرَائِيلَ فِي الْكِتَابِ لَتُفْسِدُنَّ فِي الأَرْضِ مَرَّتَيْنِ (٤:١٧)

And We conveyed to the Children of Israel in the Book: “You will surely create mischief in the land twice.” (17:4)

What matters most is to appreciate that the Holy Qur’ān does not depend on anything external to it including the earlier scriptures in making its purport clear. It indeed governs the earlier revelations. It is the truth which can be resorted to in case of difference among the books of God. It is only when one wishes to confirm what the Holy Qur’ān says that one may turn to these secondary sources for corroboratory evidence. They are surely helpful in that they increase our faith in the Holy Qur’ān and affirm our faith in its teachings. I believe that the following Qur’ānic directive guides us to this quest:

قُلْ سِيرُواْ فِي الأَرْضِ ثُمَّ انظُرُواْ كَيْفَ كَانَ عَاقِبَةُ الْمُكَذِّبِينَ (١١:٦)

Tell [them]: “Walk in the land and then observe what has been the fate of the rejecters.” (6:11)

Studying the earlier revelations therefore has its reward. A sound understanding of their contents helps us understand the excellence of Qur’ānic teachings over them. This also helps us learn how the Holy Qur’ān has revived what the People of the Book had lost from their books and how it has unveiled their adulteration in the divine texts.

We must, however, not lose the line of difference between what the Holy Qur’ān says and what these secondary sources offer. You need to keep a clear barrier and a demarcating wall between the two sources and may never confuse one for another. What has been mentioned in the Holy Qur’ān is absolutely authentic and whatever these sources add to it is always subject to doubt and uncertainty. Therefore, if somebody rejects these secondary sources, on some valid ground, he cannot be equated with the rejecters of the Holy Qur’ān.

Similarly one must also learn that narratives, even if they are mutawātir3, cannot repeal the Holy Qur’ān. We will have to explain any apparent contradiction found between them in accordance with the Qur’ānic statements on the issue or keep them under consideration. This is the reason Imām Shāfi‘ī, Imām Ahmed Ibn Hambal and most scholars of the science of Hadīth never claimed that the Holy Qur’ān can be abrogated by the Hadīth narratives even if they were reported by a large number of people supposed to be unable to unite over concocting a report. The owner of a house, they say, knows best what it contains and these great scholars of the past hold the status of the “owner of the house” in this case. I am absolutely convinced of the untenability of the counter views offered by some of the jurists and the scholastics. I seek God’s refuge from saying that the Messenger of God could abrogate the words of God. Such narratives as contradicting the Holy Qur’ān must always be ascribed to the misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the narrators.

(Translated from Farāhī’s Majmū‘ah Tafāsīr by Tariq Mahmood Hashmi)



1. Whereas the word kadhiba (he lied) can be taken to mean tawriyah (i.e. making use of ambiguity of meaning arising from language that lends itself to more than one interpretation). The word kadhiba is conventionally used in this sense as well. This then clearly explains the narrative. (Islāhi)

2. The Holy Qur’ān, 2:140.

3. A mutawātir narrative is one which is transmitted by such a great number of people who cannot be conceived to have agreed upon fabricating it.

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