Interpreting the Quran Through the Quran Itself

How it works

There are a number of techniques which can be considered as forms of intraquranic exegesis. The most obvious step is for the exegete to look for verses which have some similarity (in wording and/or meaning) to the one being examined. However, the process should not be considered as complete just by gathering a list of “parallel” verses (naza’ir), as can be found in some works.

Rather, there are a series of questions to consider: does one of these verses clarify something unclear in the other, or expand upon it? Does it qualify a general wording, or even rule out an apparent meaning? What can be deduced from the combination of these verses which would be missed if each were taken in isolation? How do we deal with meanings which seem to contradict?

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It is important to emphasise the role of the exegete (mufassir) in observing the links between verses and drawing conclusions. Indeed, the exegetes can come to different conclusions depending on which verses they deem relevant, and how they understand them.

As such, the process of tafsir al-Quran bi-l-Quran is not free of subjectivity, and one should be cautious when hearing scholars say that “God knows better than anyone else what He means”; while that is undoubtedly true, we must not ignore the role of the human mind which is subject to error.

It is certainly worth highlighting the importance of studying and surveying the whole Quran before drawing conclusions about what is meant by a particular expression or verse. This is common sense: if we heard someone we know saying something which was unusual or unclear, we would use our broader knowledge about that person and his/her statements and opinions before rushing to conclusions.

Drawing upon the Quranic verse 3:7, Muslim scholars have described this process as referring equivocal (mutashabih) verses back to the clear and unequivocal (muhkam) ones, so that a holistic understanding of the Quran is maintained.

Along with this, it is obvious that certain verses cannot be understood fully without reference to ‘external’ resources, especially the sayings and practical examples (sunnah) of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), who was chosen to receive, teach and clarify the Quran for the believers.

Yes, the Quran contains all the answers, but people are on different levels of ability in extracting those meanings, and not every interpretation is authoritative just by being attributed to the Quran itself. Explaining the Quran through the Quran is one important part of the scholarly method which depends on a thorough understanding of the Arabic language, Prophetic narrations, context, and more.

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