Each section in the book responds to a particular type of question about the genre of tafsir. The chapters in Section One, ‘The Aims of Tafsir’, explore the exegetes’ stated methods of interpretation in their introductions. In their introductions, exegetes state their aims and discuss their methods, and in doing so they explain what, for them, constitute the appropriate sources through which the words of the Qur’an are mediated, thereby exposing the general aims of the genre.
Two of the chapters in Section One, by Walid Saleh and Suleiman Mourad respectively, include editions of important introductions: one by Abu’l-Hasan ‘Ali al-Wahidi (d. 486 AH/1076 CE) and one by al-Hakim al-Jishumi (d. 494 AH/1101 CE). The introduction to the commentary of ‘Abd al-Razzaq al-Kashani (d. 736 AH/1336 CE) is also translated here by Feras Hamza. This section provides not only analysis, but also primary sources for those interested in the aims and methods of tafsir.
Section Two of the volume is dedicated to the study of exegetes’ sources and methods. Thus, while Section One examines the exegetes’ theories, and how they claimed to uncover the meaning of the Qur’an in their works of tafsir, Section Two describes how exegesis works in practice: by mediating the Qur’an’s words through specific sources such as hadiths, exegetes can transform the apparent sense of the text.
The analysis in works of exegesis written in the fourth/tenth to ninth/fifteenth centuries tends to focus on grammar, hadiths, lexicology and the legal application of verses. The exegetes say that they are using these tools to uncover what is already in the text; but for outside observers, or exegetes from a rival school of interpretation, some methods entail reading meaning into the text, as well as taking meaning from it. As the essays in Section Two show, the exegetes’ interpretive methods were complex and influenced by a myriad of different factors. These included, but were not limited to, local and regional influences, ideological beliefs and intellectual interests, responses to previous works in the tradition, and the need to produce a work that fulfilled a certain communal and didactic function and reflected the learning and authority of its author.
In this section, the study of methods and sources is intertwined. Roberto Tottoli, Andrew Rippin, Stephen Burge and Robert Gleave each study the way that exegetes use different types of narratives and hadiths. Narratives and hadiths are used to bring meaning to the Qur’anic text: Rippin shows, for instance, how the use of the occasions of revelation (asbab al-nuzul) creates a historical context for the Qur’an’s verses, providing meaning not apparent in the text itself. Tottoli examines the use of hadiths in the two literary genres of tafsir and hadith; genre boundaries influenced the hadiths used in each type of work. Burge looks at how Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (d. 911 AH/1505 CE) uses hadiths to create different modes of exegesis. And Gleave analyses hadiths attributed to the Shi‘i imams in order to highlight the imams’ interpretative methods. In all of these cases, the study of the sources of exegesis cannot be disentangled from the study of the methods of exegesis, and the exegetes use these sources and methods to take particular meanings from, and read meanings into, the text of the Qur’an.
Other essays focus on exegetes’ intellectual context. Martin Nguyen examines the way that previous exegeses influence the work of Abu’l-Qasim al-Qushayri (d. 465 AH/1072 CE), which, in turn, reveals Qushayri’s own learning and exegetical authority. Tariq Jaffer describes the philosophical method of exegesis in the work of Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 606 AH/1209 CE), a method borrowed from outside the genre of tafsir and imported into it by Razi in order to expound his own interests through the Qur’an. Ludmila Zamah examines the way that one particular concept, that of the ‘apparent’ or ‘literal’ meaning (zahir), is used in exegesis.
The chapters in Section Three, ‘Contextualising Tafsir’, are dedicated to the context of tafsir and methods for the study of the genre. Claude Gilliot takes an in-depth look at one author in the genre, al-Dahhak b. Muzahim al-Hilali (d. 106/724), and in particular his connections and influence. Michael Pregill examines how we may date a work of exegesis by placing it in conjunction with other works of the period. Each of these essays undertakes a kind of archaeological research into tafsir, examining the full context of a particular exegete or work. Gilliot and Pregill use a wide lens to examine minute details, and in doing so they help us to understand more about the factors influencing the genre as a whole, whether that be in its social and intellectual context, or its methodological one.