Islamic Studies Tafsir
Andrew Rippin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 December 2009
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0087


Tafsir refers to a genre of Muslim literature and to the process of interpretation itself, especially (but not solely) that of scripture. Both aspects of the topic have received attention, with the main focus on the genre of literature, itself a major emphasis of the traditional Muslim educational system, and the writing of which was an endeavor that most major Muslim intellectuals undertook. Books of tafsir generally follow the text of the Qurʾan from beginning to end, providing glosses, grammatical analysis, theological reflection, and narrative embellishment. Many works are enormous, reflecting the sense that writing a work of tafsir is, in and of itself, an act of spiritual devotion. Such works also reflect the cultural interactions of the areas in which they were written and the paths the transmission of knowledge took (and continue to take today) across the Muslim-dominated world. The mutual enrichment of Jewish midrash and Muslim tafsir in medieval times is especially notable.

General Overviews

In order to come fully to grips with the genre and processes of tafsir, it is hard to avoid dealing directly with the Arabic texts, especially because so many of the original works are so concerned with the niceties of language and grammar. The classic study of Goldziher 2006, originally published in 1920, remains the core text that surveys the genre, although so many more commentaries have become available since Goldziher’s time that the textual references are increasingly outdated. The reference manual of Sezgin 1967 helps provide a better sense of the inventory of works. Rippin 1982 provides a bibliographical update to scholarly studies in the wake of Goldziher’s initial mapping of the field of study. As the field has grown, the approach of having multiple authors undertake more up-to-date overviews collectively has achieved some success, as in McAuliffe, et al. 2003 and Rippin 1988. Works by individual authors, such as Smith 1975, provide brief introductions and samples from a range of tafsirs that are very useful for getting a quick overview that is structured chronologically. In recent decades a good deal of attention has been paid to the first few centuries of tafsir in order to understand the emergence of the later massive medieval commentaries. Wansbrough 2004 defined the area of study, and works such as Rippin 2001 display the impact that Wansbrough’s work has had on the field. Some of Wansbrough’s accomplishments are put into perspective in Fudge 2006, in which the intellectual background of the study of tafsir is sketched.

  • Fudge, Bruce. “Qurʾanic Exegesis in Medieval Islam and Modern Orientalism,” Die Welt des Islam 46, no. 2 (2006): 115–147.

    DOI: 10.1163/157006006777896858

    Useful historical survey of the growth of the study of (and attitudes toward) tafsir in the West.

  • Goldziher, Ignaz. Schools of Koranic Commentators with an Introduction on Goldziher and Hadith from Geschichte des Arabischen Schrifttums by Fuat Sezgin. Edited and translated by Wolfgang Behn. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 2006.

    Translation of the classic 1920 study Die Richtungen der islamischen Koranauslegung (Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill), which remains the only monograph-length treatment of the exegetical tradition.

  • McAuliffe, Jane Dammen, Barry D. Walfish, and Joseph W. Goering, eds. With Reverence for the Word: Medieval Scriptural Exegesis in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    Ten essays explore various facets of Muslim exegesis within the general context of scriptural hermeneutics; especially useful is McAuliffe’s introductory chapter, which provides an overall view of medieval Muslim exegesis.

  • Rippin, Andrew, ed. Approaches to the History of the Interpretation of the Qurʾan. Oxford: Clarendon, 1988.

    Fourteen essays devoted to the emergence and development of the Muslim exegetical tradition down until the present day.

  • Rippin, Andrew. “The Present Status of Tafsir Studies.” The Muslim World 72 (1982): 224–238.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1478-1913.1982.tb03245.x

    Bibliographical survey.

  • Rippin, Andrew. The Qurʾan and Its Interpretative Tradition. Aldershot, UK:Ashgate, 2001.

    Twenty-one essays, with a focus on method in the study of the Qurʾan and its interpretation, variant readings, early works of tafsir, and “occasion of revelation” material.

  • Sezgin, Fuat. Geschichte des arabischen Schrifttums. Vol 1, Qurʾānwissenschaften, Ḥadīṯ, Geschichte, Fiqh, Dogmatik, Mystik. Bis ca. 430H. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1967.

    Standard biographical and bibliographical reference work on all early exegetes and Qurʾan reciters; useful even for those who do not understand German.

  • Smith, Jane I. An Historical and Semantic Study of the Term “Islam” as Seen in a Sequence of Qurʾan Commentaries. Missoula, MT: Scholar’s Press, 1975.

    Examines the sense of the word “Islam” as it emerges from a sequence of fourteen exegetes from the 8th to the 20th centuries. A good introduction to the full variety within the tafsir tradition.

  • Wansbrough, John. Quranic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation. 2d ed. Foreword, translations, and expanded notes by Andrew Rippin. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2004.

    Originally published by Oxford University Press in 1977. Part IV, “Principles of Exegesis,” is a pioneering study of early exegetical works, many of them studied critically for the first time; the typology of exegesis proposed has had significant impact on the field.

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