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Tafseer made simple

September 17, 2011

“At-Tashīl li-‘Ulūm at-Tanzīl”
The easy path to understanding the sciences of the Revelation
by: Ibn Juzayy
 (Abu’l-Qāsim Muhammad b. Ahmad b. Juzayy al-Kalbī al-Gharnātī)

Sūrah al-Baqarah
A MADINAN SŪRAH save for āyah 28, which was sent down during the Farewell Hajj

The number of its āyāt is 286. It is the first sūrah to have been revealed in al-Madīnah

Āyah 1:

A disagreement of opinions has occurred among the expert commentators regarding it and all the other alphabetical letters at the start of suwar of the Qur’ān, namely:
Alif-Lām-Mīm-Sād; Alif-Rā’; Alif-Mīm-Rā’; Kāf-Hā’-Yā’-‘Ayn-Sād; Ta-Ha; Tā’-Sīn-Mīm; Tā’-Sīn; Yasīn; Sād; Qāf; Hā’-Mīm; Hā’-Mīm-‘Ayn-Sīn-Qāf; and Nūn.
One group of learned people said: “They should not be interpreted, because they belong to the allegorical part of the Book, the true explanation of which is known to Allah only”. Abū Bakr as-Siddīq in particular said: ‘Allah has a secret in every one of His Revealed Books, and His secret in the Qur’ān consists in the opening letters of the suwar.’
By contrast, a different group of adroit commentators said: “These letters have to be interpreted, and their meaning elucidated”.

Those who took the latter view in turn differed as to their proper construction.
One view that has been propounded is that these letters represent the names of the suwar. Others stated that they were Names of Allah, whereas a third group contended that they were things which Allah took an oath by.
An additional interpretative position is that these letters have been severed from full words. The alif would thus come from the word Allah, the lām from Jibrīl, and the mīm from Muhammad, may Allah send prayers of blessing and salutations of peace upon him and his family. The same would hold true of all such alphabetical letters at the beginning of suwar.

It has also come down in a hadīth that the Israelites understood from these letters that they indicated, by the numerical values assigned to each such alphabetical unit, the lifetime span of this Muhammadan nation (ummah). The Prophet, may Allah send prayers of blessing and mercy and greetings of peace on him and on his family, heard such statement of theirs and did not refute it. In accordance with such construction, Abu’l-Qāsim as-Suhaylī did gather the numerical values of all of them, after dropping any such letter that appeared more than once at the start of suwar, and arrived at a total number of 903 years.
[That has clearly been shown to be incorrect, so either this interpretation lacks validity or the repeated letters should be taken into account in making the final computation.
As-Suhaylī was a master of inter alia Qur’ānic sciences, Prophetic sīrah and Arabic linguistics from Islamic Spain. He authored one of the main reference works on the meaning of words and phrases in the Qur’ān which refer to individuals, things and groupings whose identification is not immediately intelligible, or mubhamāt].


The declension of these letters varies in accordance with the particular meaning allocated to them. It is thus conceivable to decline them as if they were in the locus of the case of regularity (raf`), in the one of openness (nasb), or in the case of submission (khafd).
The case of regularity would be conceived on the basis that any such letter or group of letters is either the primate (mubtada’) or the predicate (khabar) of a primate which is implied and has not been explicitly mentioned.
The case of openness would be envisaged on the ground that one such letter or cluster of letters represents the patient (maf`ūl) of a verb which has to be implied, as it has not been made explicit mention of in His Speech.
As for the case of reduction, it would accord with the view of those alleging that the letters are objects of Divine oaths. That would echo the Arabs’ statement, ‘Allāhi, la-af`alanna’ (‘By Allah, I shall certainly do’).

Next time:

1)    An explanatory gloss on Ibn Juzayy’s said commentary;
2)    Scattered gems from other mufassirūn on this āyah, on the outward meaning (e.g. al-Baydāwī) and on the inward import (e.g. Ibn ‘Ajībah).


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