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There are several approaches to the interpretation of the Quran. One of the most widespread methods is exegesis or tafsir which focuses on the textual evidence and formal characteristics of a particular passage. This paper aims at examining the methodology of tafsir developed by such scholar as Ibn Kathir. Usually, he insists on finding a single correct reading of the Quran. In other words, he does not usually want to admit that multiple interpretations of this text are possible. Additionally, in his analysis, Ibn Kathir attempts to eliminate any form of subjectivism which can be based on a person’s conceptions of justice or rationality.
These assumptions have to be confirmed by textual evidence available in the Quran, hadiths or other sources that are deemed to be authoritative. Furthermore, one can argue that he takes a very critical approach to those narratives or arguments that are derived only from Biblical passages. Nevertheless, one can also state that sometimes Ibn Kathir’s tafsir can be driven by his individual convictions or dogmas, rather than textual evidence. This is the main thesis which should be examined.
The main principles of Ibn Kathir’s approach
Overall, it is possible to identify several peculiarities of the method advocated by Ibn Kathir. In particular, he believes that opinionated interpretation of the Quran is not permissible. In other words, conclusions of readers should be based only on the relevant and credible textual evidence. A person must not make subjective comments about the meaning of Quranic messages1. For instance, these subjective comments can be derived from a person’s notions of justice or rationality. Additionally, these assumptions can rely on people’s respect for a particular tradition of interpretation. In Ibn Kathir’s view, such comments are not permissible, because the authenticity of evidence used for the analysis can be questioned. This is one of the aspects that should be taken into account.
Apart from that, this author identifies the sources of evidence which can be accepted by Islamic theologians. In particular, one should speak about the following sources: They are the Quran, hadiths, sayings of the Prophet’s companions and opinions of tabi’un or those people who were the pupils of Muhammad’s immediate followers2. In turn, a theologian should certainly attach more importance to the evidence which is directly available in the text of the Quran, rather than other sources. Moreover, Ibn Kathir states that the correct interpretation should be consistent with the truths which were revealed to the Prophet. Overall, one can say that this framework is exclusionary because it significantly restricts the range of interpretations that can be available to an Islamic scholar.
Additionally, one should note that Ibn Kathir adopts a specific approach to the use of Biblical passages. In his opinion, they should be viewed very critically, especially when they are used for tafsir3. This is why, he often disagrees with those commentators who take the validity of Biblical narratives for granted4. In his opinion, the validity of these passages can be accepted only if they are explicitly confirmed in the Quran. If this requirement is not met, a person should not use Judaic or Christian narratives to justify his/her conclusions. This is one of the points that he stresses and this principle is often followed by other Islamic theologians.
Furthermore, one should note that Ibn Kathir prefers to find single and definitive reading of a specific passage. He is usually reluctant to admit that multiple interpretations of the Quran are possible. These are some of the traits that distinguish him from other Islamic scholars such as Tabari, Razi, or Qurtubi who recognize the idea that one can identify several possible meanings within a specific passage of the Quran. This is one of the aspects that should be taken into account.
Example of Ibn Kathir’s tafsir
In order to illustrate his approach one can examine the way in which Ibn Kathir examines the story of Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael. According to the Bible, Abraham was ready to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, to prove his dedication to God. This narrative has been accepted by many theologians, including Islamic scholars. In contrast, Ibn Kathir departs from this tradition and argues that Abraham intended to sacrifice Ishmael, rather than Isaac.
In order to elaborate this assertion, he argues that Abraham was required to sacrifice his “only son”5. Furthermore, one should keep in mind that Isaac was born after Ishmael, thus, he could not be called the only son. Moreover, he argues that Isaac is not mentioned as the proposed sacrifice in the Quran. Certainly, Ibn Kathir admits that the conventional narrative is supported by some of Muhammad’s followers. However, he argues that this statement was accepted without any proper proof. In his opinion, mentioning of Isaac was simply a later falsification.
This example is important for understanding Kathirs approach to tafsir. It should be mentioned that the debate about Isaac and Ishmael attracted so much attention because Ishmael was considered to be the forefather of various Arabic tribes. Furthermore, he is regarded as an important Islamic prophet. In contrast, Isaac was primarily associated with Judaism. Besides, by depicting Ishmael as the intended sacrifice, some Islamic theologians tried to highlight the supremacy of Islam. This is one of the details which should not be overlooked by people who analyze the arguments put forward by Ibn Kathir.
Apart from that, one should note that Ibn Kathir may sometimes contradict the principles which he postulates. As it has been said before, he insists on the critical examination of Biblical passages. Nevertheless, he immediately accepts that the statement that Abraham was asked to sacrifice his only son. This premise is taken for granted because it helps him to develop his arguments. Later, he rejects Biblical narratives and disagrees with the assumption that Isaac was offered to God as a sacrifice. It becomes obvious that the problem is not “simply one of scripture versus dogma”6 Thus, one can say that Ibn Kathir’s analysis can also be driven by theological conviction, but it is not always supported by the textual evidence7.
The main advantage of this method is that it can be useful for questioning or critiquing the assumptions that have long been taken for granted. Apart from that, this method can help commentators to find a contradiction in the religious texts. These contradictions can be critical for better understanding of the message conveyed through the text. For instance, theologian should explain why Isaac could be called the only son, even though he was born after Ishmael.
These are some of the positive aspects that can be distinguished. Nevertheless, one can argue that Ibn Kathir can also be biased because some of his assertions can sometimes be driven by dogmas, rather than available evidence. Furthermore, the example that has been included indicates that he can treat textual passages in an arbitrary way. In other words, Ibn Kathir may accept some of the statements without questioning their authenticity, but at the same time, he may reject the evidence taken from the same source. These are some of the limitations that should not be overlooked.
“The scholarly tradition is characterized then by an even-handed approach to the matter”8. Apart from that, by insisting on finding a single interpretation, Ibn Kathir can significantly restrict the meaning of the Quran. In turn, this interpretation can impoverish the meaning of this text. That is why, many commentators do not agree with the method adopted by Ibn Kathir. Admittedly, they also accept the premise that several conflicting interpretations cannot be valid. However, they also recognize the idea that a person may not always be able to pinpoint the intended idea. These are some of the aspects that can be distinguished.
On the whole, the approach adopted by Ibn Kathir is based on the premise that much attention should be paid to the quality of evidence which is used for the interpretation. This is why, he identifies four types of sources which can be regarded as legitimate or acceptable for tafsir. Furthermore, he urges interpreters to take a very critical look at the narratives that are derived from other religions such as Judaism or Christianity. To some degree, this method can help to identify inner contradictions within texts and questioning the assumptions that can be accepted without questioning. However, one can say that Ibn Kathir often focuses on dogmas or theological convictions, rather than textual evidence which he often treat in an arbitrary way. These are the main elements that can be identified.
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Calder, Norman. “Tafsir from Tabari to Ibn Kathir. Problems in the Descriptions of a Genre.” In Approaches to the Quran, edited by Gerald Hawting, 101-140. London: Routledge, 1993.
Demiri, Lejla. Muslim Exegesis of the Bible in Medieval Cairo: Najm Al-Din Al-Tufi’s (d. 716/1316) Commentary on the Christian Scriptures. New York: BRILL, 2013.
MacAuliffe, Jane. The Cambridge Companion to the Qur’ān. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Tlili, Sarra. Animals in the Qur’an. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
- Sarra Tlili, Animals in the Qur’an (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 63.
- Tlili, Animals in the Qur’an, 63.
- Lejla Demiri, Muslim Exegesis of the Bible in Medieval Cairo: Najm Al-Din Al-Tufi’s (d. 716/1316) Commentary on the Christian Scriptures (New York: BRILL, 2013), 57.
- Jane MacAuliffe, The Cambridge Companion to the Qur’ān (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 197.
- Norman Calder, “Tafsir from Tabari to Ibn Kathir. Problems in the Descriptions of a Genre,” In Approaches to the Quran, ed. by Gerald Hawting (London: Routledge, 1993), 124.
- Ibid., 107
- Ibid., 123