What Are the Categories of Tafsir (Quranic Exegesis) Books?

Answered by Shaykh Anas al-Musa


What are the categories of Tafsir (Quranic Exegesis) books?


In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful,

All praise is due to Allah, Lord of all worlds, and peace and blessings be upon the Messenger sent as a mercy to the worlds, our Master and Prophet, Muhammad, and his Family and Companions.

Scholars have divided the most important books of Tafsir into three categories:

  1. Tafsir bi al-Riwaya: The books of Tafsir through tradition.
  2. Tafsir bi al-Diraya: The books of Tafsir through reasoning/opinion.
  3. Tafsir bi al-Ishara: The books of symbolic Tafsir. [Zurqani, Manahil al-‘Irfan fi ‘Ulum al-Quran]

Some have divided the books of Tafsir from an academic methodology standpoint into two main categories: books of Tafsir through tradition and books of Tafsir through opinion. [‘Itr, ‘Ulum al-Quran; Subhi al-Salih, Mabahith fi ‘Ulum al-Quran]

The First Category: Books of Tafsir through Tradition

These books contain the interpretation of the Quran by the Quran itself, the Sunna, and the narrations from the Companions and the Followers.

Note: Scholars have differed on what the books of Tafsir narrate from the Followers. Some scholars consider it part of the tradition, while others consider it part of the second category (Tafsir through opinion). However, the books of Tafsir through tradition have included what was narrated by the Followers in Tafsir; therefore, it can be considered included in the traditional Tafsir.

There are many prominent books of Tafsir through tradition, including but not limited to:

  • Jami‘ al-Bayan ‘an Ta’wil ay al-Quran: By Imam Abu Ja‘far Muhammad Ibn Jarir al-Tabari, who passed away in 310 AH. It is considered one of the best and most comprehensive books of Tafsir through tradition, with meticulous editing and critique. It is distinguished by attributing all narrations from Hadith and traditions, and it considers different readings and the language.
  • Tafsir al-Quran al-Azim: By Imam Abu al-Fida’ Ismail Ibn Kathir al-Dimashqi, who passed away in 774 AH. It is considered one of the Tafsir books through tradition with the most diligence, investigation, conciseness, and refinement. It clarifies the degrees of authenticity of many reports.
  • Al-Durr al-Manthur fi Tafsir bi al-Ma’thur: By Imam Hafiz Jalaluddin Abdur-Rahman ibn Abi Bakr al-Suyuti, who passed away in the year 911 AH. This Tafsir almost exclusively contains Hadiths and traditions, systematically cited and attributed to their original sources.

Examples of Tafsir through tradition:

  • Interpreting the Quran by the Quran: The interpretation of Allah’s saying:
    “Forbidden to you are carrion, blood, and swine; what is slaughtered in the name of any other than Allah (…).” [Quran, 5:3]
    This verse explains the phrase “what is hereby announced to you” from His saying: “O believers! Honor your obligations. All grazing livestock has been made lawful to you—except what is hereby announced to you (…).” [Quran, 5:1]
  • Interpreting the Quran by the tradition from the Prophet, his Companions, and the Followers: As mentioned in Tafsir Ibn Kathir regarding Allah’s saying:
    “Then go forth with the rest of the pilgrims. And seek Allah’s forgiveness. Surely Allah is All-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” [Quran, 2:199]
    It narrates from ‘Aisha (Allah be pleased with her), who said:
    “Quraysh and those who followed their religion used to stand at Muzdalifa, and they were called al-Hums, while the rest of the Arabs would stand at ‘Arafat. When Islam came, Allah commanded His Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) to proceed to ‘Arafat, stand there, and then depart from it; thus, His saying: ‘Then depart from the place from where [all] the people depart.’” [Bukhari]
    Then it says: “And so said Ibn ‘Abbas, Mujahid, ‘Ata, Qatada, Suddi, and others, and Ibn Jarir chose this opinion and reported consensus on it, may Allah have mercy on them.” [Ibn Kathir, Tafsir Ibn Kathir]

The Second Category: Books of Tafsir through Opinion

Tafsir through opinion, is the interpretation of the Quran through diligent effort relying on the sciences and tools that the interpreter needs, such as the sciences of language, grammar, morphology, and etymology, the sciences of rhetoric, the science of readings, the science of the fundamentals of religion, the science of the principles of Islamic jurisprudence, and the Hadiths that explain the interpretation, like reasons for revelation, abrogating, and abrogated verses, or explanations of the general or ambiguous verses…, the science of stories, and the science of divine gift, which is knowledge bestowed by Allah to those who act according to what they know, and familiarity with the axioms of modern sciences.

That is, interpreting the Quran by the implications of the Quran’s language, through its usage among its people, in their prose and poetry, and making efforts within the framework of the rules of interpretation.

Examples of Tafsir works based on opinion:

  1. Al-Kashshaf ‘an Haqa’iq Ghawamid al-Tanzil: By Abu al-Qasim Mahmud Ibn ‘Amr Ibn Ahmad al-Zamakhshari, Jar Allah (d. 538 AH).
  2. Anwar al-Tanzil wa Asrar al-Ta’wil: By Qadi Imam Nasir al-Din Abdullah Ibn Umar Ibn Muhammad al-Baydawi, the Shafi‘i, who passed away in 685 AH.
  3. Al-Bahr al-Muhit: It was written by Imam Abu Hayyan Muhammad Ibn Yusuf Ibn ‘Ali al-Gharnati al-Andalusi, who passed away in 745 AH.

An example of Tafsir through opinion:

The interpretation of Allah’s saying:

“This worldly life is no more than play and amusement, but far better is the (eternal) Home of the Hereafter (وَلَلدَّارُ ٱلْـَٔاخِرَةُ) for those mindful (of Allah). Will you not then understand (تَعْقِلُونَ)?” [Quran, 6:32]

Zamakhshari, in his Tafsir al-Kashshaf, said: “He described the actions of the worldly life as play and amusement and engagement in what is not serious and does not bring benefit, unlike the actions of the Hereafter which bring great benefits. And His saying: ‘for those mindful’ is evidence that everything is play and amusement except for the deeds of the righteous.”

Ibn ‘Abbas (Allah be pleased with him) read it as “(ولدارُ الآخرة).”

And “(تَعقلون)” was read with a “ta” and a “ya.” [Zamakhshari, al-Kashshaf]

Furthermore, there are other types of Tafsir books, including Fiqhi (Jurisprudential) Tafsir books, symbolic Tafsir books, linguistic Tafsir books, and Tafsir books authored in the modern era. We discussed symbolic Tafsir and its books when answering the question: “Is symbolic Tafsir a reliable interpretation of the Quran, and what are its prominent books?” For brevity, I refer the questioner to the answer to that question and will talk about the rest of the books:

Fiqhi (Jurisprudential) Tafsir Books

These are Tafsir books concerned with the study of verses related to rulings and explaining how these rulings are derived from them. A group of scholars focused on interpreting the verses of rulings that explain the laws of Islam and clarify what is halal (permissible) and haram (forbidden). [‘Itr, ‘Ulum al-Quran; al-Muqaddimat al-Asasiyya fi ‘Ulum al-Quran]

Fiqhi Tafsir books are distributed across the three jurisprudential schools: Hanafi, Maliki, and Shafi‘i.

Prominent among these Tafsirs are:

  1. Ahkam al-Quran: This is based on the Hanafi school of jurisprudence and was written by Abu Bakr Ahmad Ibn ‘Ali al-Razi al-Jassas al-Hanafi, who passed away in 370 AH.
  2. Ahkam al-Quran: By Imam Abu al-Hasan ‘Ali Ibn Muhammad Ibn ‘Ali al-Tabari, nicknamed “al-Kiya” Al-Harrasi al-Shafi‘i, who passed away in the year 504 AH. The author focused on clarifying the Shafi‘i School’s interpretation of the verses related to rulings.
  3. Ahkam al-Quran: It was written by the eminent Imam, Qadi Abu Bakr Muhammad Ibn Abdullah al-Ishbili, known as “Ibn al-Arabi” al-Maliki, who passed away in 543 AH. He paid particular attention to Imam Malik’s school and refined the statements of his companions.

Linguistic Tafsir Books

These are books intended to pay attention to explaining the Quranic text grammatically and rhetorically, highlighting various meanings, eloquence, and literary beauty. They also focused on unveiling a range of its meanings and peculiarities based on what is known about the Arabs. [al-Muqaddimat al-Asasiyya fi ‘Ulum al-Quran]

Among the most notable books of this type are:

  1. I‘rab al-Quran: By the Imam of Grammar, Abu Ja‘far Ahmad Ibn Muhammad Ibn Ismail al-Nahhas, who passed away in the year 338 AH. This book is dedicated to the grammar, readings, and their variations in the Quran. The author has made the sciences of his predecessors accessible and summarized them in grammar, attributing them with precise wording.
  2. Mushkil I‘rab al-Quran: This book was written by Imam Abu Muhammad Makki Ibn Abi Talib al-Qaysi al-Qurtubi, who passed away in 437 AH. It is focused on the grammatical analysis of the Quran’s challenging words only, not all its words, and was written for those with a background in grammar.
  3. Imla’ Ma Mann Bihi al-Rahman min Wujuh al-I‘rab wa al-Qira’at fi Jami‘ al-Quran: By Imam Abu al-Baqa’ Abdullah Ibn al-Hussain al-Akbari al-Hanbali, who passed away in the year 616 AH.

Contemporary Tafsir Books

The reasons for authoring this type of Tafsir books:

  • The language of Tafsir in the past ages was akin to a discourse for specialists, where most of those who benefited from it were students of religious knowledge rather than the general public. Thus, there was a need for new books in a language that aligned with the realities of people.
  • Contemporary Tafsir books also took into account the innovations of this era and what touches the needs of Muslims today. Orientalists and their followers raised many doubts about the Quran in our time; therefore, it was necessary for Muslims to respond to them in their own style.
  • Modern science has revealed many of the secrets of creation, which the interpreter finds directly related to the Quran. Indeed, it has revealed truths that were not accessible to earlier interpreters; hence, books emerged that explain these truths and simplify them for the people.

Examples of these books include:

  • Al-Tafsir al-Wadih: Authored by Dr. Muhammad Mahmud Hijazi. This book is essential and accessible for the general readership, beneficial, and fitting to inspire the spirit of resurgence in Muslims and awaken their awareness of sciences and cultures. [‘Itr, ‘Ulum al-Quran]

The movement of authoring in the field of Tafsir continues to this day and will not stop; new compilations for interpreting the Holy Quran have emerged, including thematic Tafsir books, scientific Tafsir books, Tafsir books related to the Quranic miracles, general Tafsir books… No wonder, as these are interpretations related to a book whose wonders never cease. [Zurqani, Manahil al-‘Irfan; Husayn al-Dhahabi, Tafsir wa al-Mufassirun; Muhammad Abu Shahba, al-Isra’iliyyat wa al-Mawdu‘at fi Kutub al-Tafsir; ‘Itr, ‘Ulum al-Quran al-Karim; al-Muqaddimat al-Asasiyya fi ‘Ulum al-Quran]


I recommend that those interested in further exploring this topic refer to books that focus on the methodologies of interpreters, among the most important are: “al-Tafsir wa al-Mufassirun” by Dr. Muhammad Sayyid Husayn al-Dhahabi (d. 1398 AH), and “al-Tafsir wa al-Mufassirun Asasiyyatuhu wa Ittijahatuhu wa Manahijuhu fi al-Asr al-Hadith” by Professor Dr. Fadl Hassan Abbas.

Allah’s blessings be upon our Master and Prophet, Muhammad, and his Family and Companions.

And Allah (Most High) knows best.
[Shaykh] Anas al-Musa

Shaykh Anas al-Musa, born in Hama, Syria, in 1974, is an erudite scholar of notable repute. He graduated from the Engineering Institute in Damascus, where he specialized in General Construction, and Al-Azhar University, Faculty of Usul al-Din, where he specialized in Hadith.

He studied under prominent scholars in Damascus, including Shaykh Abdul Rahman al-Shaghouri and Shaykh Adib al-Kallas, among others. Shaykh Anas has memorized the Quran and is proficient in the ten Mutawatir recitations, having studied under Shaykh Bakri al-Tarabishi and Shaykh Mowfaq ‘Ayun. He also graduated from the Iraqi Hadith School.

He has taught numerous Islamic subjects at Shari‘a institutes in Syria and Turkey. Shaykh Anas has served as an Imam and preacher for over 15 years and is a teacher of the Quran in its various readings and narrations.

Currently, he works as a teacher at SeekersGuidance and is responsible for academic guidance there. He has completed his Master’s degree in Hadith and is now pursuing his Ph.D. in the same field. Shaykh Anas al-Musa is married and resides in Istanbul.