Thematic Tafsir Methodology
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By Sohaib Saeed
Thematic exegesis (al-tafsir al-mawḍū‘i) is an emerging field in Quranic studies, yet it has forerunners in the shapes of “tafsir by the Qur’an itself”, polysemy (wujūh wa naẓā’ir) and collections of “legal verses” (āyāt al-aḥkām), metaphors (majāz al-Qur’ān), abrogation (al-nāsikh wal-mansūkh) and potentially difficult passages (gharīb al-Qur’ān). It has been described as the logical next step in presentation of the Qur’an’s teachings, and thus the need of our times.
There are a number of recent works which may properly be considered to fall within the genre of thematic tafsir, yet there are many which use this term in their titles – or contain the formula: “X or Y in the Qur’an” – while failing to apply a clear method and/or misapplying this title. There is yet space on the Islamic bookshelf for a major encyclopaedia of Quranic themes, based on a unified methodology.
Scholars of al-Azhar University, particularly in its department of Tafsir and Quranic Sciences (Faculty of Theology), have developed a framework within which such research may be performed and evaluated. Although the term “thematic commentary” has been used in reference to explanations of individual surahs based on their unifying themes, what we intend here is the study of a particular topic in the light of all relevant verses throughout the Book.
The purpose of this short article is to summarise this Azhari methodology in order to encourage its use and further development. As appropriate, observations will be made concerning the adaptation of such methodology for researchers writing in English or other languages, such that they may fulfil the need for students of the Qur’an the world over.
Objectives and Fruits
- Presenting the comprehensive message of the Qur’an in a format accessible to all enquirers.
- Demonstrating new aspects of its miraculous nature.
- Analysing topics with reference to all relevant verses, with proper attention to context.
- Forming sound conclusions about the Quranic method in addressing a particular topic or using a particular term.
- Select a theme that is present in the Quranic text, identifying relevant term(s) upon which to base a search for relevant passages to this theme. The most encompassing term forms the title of the research. Care should be taken not to impose foreign concepts such as “democracy”, but rather to seek Quranic expressions such as shūrā and allow the Qur’an to speak for itself.
- Perform a search for all such occurrences, making use of such concordances as ‘Abd al-Bāqī’s al-Mujam al-mufahras li-alfāẓ al-Qur’ān al-karīm, or computer programs which can perform perfect searches.
- After searching for one particular word (such as ‘ilm for “knowledge”), a researcher must draw upon experience with the Quranic text to perform related searches that pertain to the theme without the word itself being present. One example would be to search for the antonyms (such as jahl, “ignorance”). There are numerous specialised indexes of Quranic themes which can provide helpful references for this stage.
- Insofar as the theme depends on particular linguistic root(s), reference should be made to meanings and Quranic usages according to lexicons such as the Cairo publication Mu‘jam alfāẓ al-Qur’ān al-karīm, which is a combined dictionary-concordance which draws upon works of tafsīr. Arabic-English dictionaries of the Qur’an are also of benefit, as well as works on wujūh/naẓā’ir. These resources provide a suitable opening for the eventual presentation, but they should not be taken as the final word, because thematic research itself seeks to ascertain the various meanings and usages through careful comparison and attention to context.
- After gathering relevant verses, categorise them as far as possible in order of revelation, at least in terms of “Makki/Madani”. Consult works of traditional commentary (i.e. tafsīr mawḍi‘ī/taḥlīlī) to determine the meaning of the individual verses, and to be fully aware of relevant details such as Prophetic explanations, contexts of revelation, abrogation, and relation to other verses (e.g. general vs. specific) as explained by previous authorities.
- Divide the research presentation into sections and compose sub-headings from the Quranic data, being careful not to create any sub-headings from non-Quranic sources – even from the Sunnah – as that would depart from the specialised thematic study of the Qur’an. Then the verses are gathered under the appropriate sub-headings following a logical structure, together with suitable introduction and conclusion.
- In the final presentation, provide explanation for all verses that require it, including to justify their inclusion under a certain heading, with reference to trusted works of tafsīr. However, such should not be tangential or long-winded such that the core theme is obscured. Rather, the study should be focused upon elaborating on the theme and how the Quranic verses and their explanations contribute to our understanding of that theme. Where necessary, misconceptions concerning the subject and its treatment in the Qur’an should be clarified.
All the above must be carried out within the general ethics and norms of exegesis of the Qur’an, paying attention to the special characteristics of the Arabic Qur’an – e.g. its divine origin and perfection – and distinguishing authentic narrations and opinions from the weak and spurious.
 It should be stressed that a new form of tafsir cannot replace the traditional forms and works, but in fact it will only complement them and build upon them – see point 5 of the procedure below.
 In English, the forthcoming Integrated Encyclopedia of the Qur’an may fulfil some of our hopes in this regard. For an example of a study based (loosely) upon the methodology outlined here, see the Quranica article: Brotherhood in Faith and Humanity.
 Such as by the renowned Azhari scholar, Shaykh Muḥammad al-Ghazālī. “A Thematic Commentary on the Qur’an” (IIIT), also published as “Journey Through the Qur’an” (Dār al-Taqwā). The author’s own title was more reflective of its aim and content, and could be translated precisely as: “Towards a Thematic Commentary on the Chapters of the Noble Qur’an” (Naḥw tafsīr mawḍū‘ī li-suwar al-Qur’ān al-karīm). See also: “Pondering on the Qur’an” by the 20th century Indian scholar Amin Ahsan Islahi (Islamic Book Trust), whose commentary is built upon the coherence theory of his mentor, Hamiduddin Farahi.
 For this article, I have drawn upon al-Bidāya fil-tafsīr al-mawḍū‘ī by Dr. ‘Abd al-Ḥayy al-Farmāwī and Faṣl al-khiṭāb fil-tafsīr al-mawḍū‘ī by Dr. ‘Abd al-Raḥmān ‘Awais. Both are senior lecturers in al-Azhar and the books are published and taught within the University. The main source from which I have benefited is al-Madkhal ilā al-tafsīr al-mawḍū‘ī by Dr. ‘Abd al-Sattār Fatḥallāh Sa‘īd (Maktabat al-Īmān).
 Even worse is to impose a subject that has no real presence in the Qur’an, as apparently some have tried to find “flying saucers” or “nuclear bombs” in the Qur’an! See Sa‘īd p.62.
 For an example of this genre in English, see Ahmad Shehu Abdussalam’s Concordance of Qur’ānic Polysemy (IIUM Press, 2008).
 Chronology could certainly be given a greater role than it seems to have been afforded in tafsir mawdu’i studies to date, as it can inform an understanding of the Qur’an’s approach to development and engagement with its believers as well as other communities. Such enquiries feature prominently in the work of academics such as Angelika Neuwirth, who study Quranic passages “diachronically”.
 The role of authentic hadiths in the context of thematic commentary is to explain the verses, rather than providing structure for the presentation of the theme itself. Otherwise, it should be considered a treatment of the subject “in the Qur’an and Sunnah”. The same applies to narrations from the Companions and opinions of scholars.