Qur’an, the holy scripture of Islam, is derived from the Arabic root q-r-a, meaning ‘recitation’ or ‘reading’. This root is also the first word that was sent to the Prophet Muhammad (s) as revelation, iqra’, meaning ‘recite’ or ‘read’ (A. Saeed, The Qur’an).
In the life of Muslims, the Qur’an is of particular importance because it is the exact revealed word of God. Because Muslims perceive it as a model for God’s communication with human beings and as a symbol of divine presence in the world, its significance goes beyond a simple written text (M M Ayoub and V J Cornell, “Qur’ān”, ER).
The Sahabah or Prophet Muhammad’s (s) Companions, the first Muslim generation lived throughout revelation of the Qur’an, witnessed some events about Qur’anic revelation, and numerous pericopes were revealed regarding them.
Therefore, it is vital to reflect on what were the ways of the companions in approaching the Qur’an and its interpretation. In this writing, I will shed light on the methods of the Prophet’s Companions in comprehending and interpreting the Qur’an.
Firstly, it is important to note that the companions’ lives were based on the Holy Book at every moment, and they were well acquainted with the Qur’anic text.
For example, when the second caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab (r) was talking to the Muslim community on the minbar, he stated that the amount of dowry in marriage should be limited to facilitate marriage. An old woman in the community corrected the caliph by indicating verse 4: 20 ‘do not take any of her bride-gifts back, even if you have given her a great amount of gold.’ (Hadith, Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr). Umar (r) took back his advice.
Secondly, some companions were dividing the verses into small parts or groups, focusing on a small part, reflecting on it, and trying to understand before learning other group verses.
For example, some companions such as ʿAbd Allāh ibn Masʿūd (r) stated that ‘when we learned ten verses from the Prophet, we did not pass other verses without studying knowledge (ilm) of these ten verses and their practice.’ For this reason, they were staying for a long time in memorization of a chapter. As an example, Ibn Umar kept on memorizing chapter The Cow (Al-baqara) for eight years.
Here it should be noted that what led them to this action was the following verse in the Qur’an: ‘This is a blessed Scripture which We sent down to you [the Prophet], for people to think about its messages, and for those with understanding to take heed.’ (Qur’an, 38: 29).
It is worth mentioning that pondering a speech without understanding its meanings is not possible (M H Dhahabi, Al-tafsīr wa-l-mufassirūn).
After, the Companions’ approach in their understanding and interpretation of the Qur’an was their ijtihad (an exercise of individual judgment) that depended on what we might call the ‘spirit of the Qur’an and the Prophet’ as they comprehended it (A Saeed, Interpreting the Qur’an).
For example, the fourth caliph Ali ibn Abī Ṭālib (r) underlines that the most precious inheritance which the Prophet gave his companions was ‘individual Qur’anic understanding’ (Hadith, Bukhārī 1981, Jihad 171).
They were in special and active communication with the Qur’anic text and attempted to meet their needs and to find a solution for their problems in their lives in the light of the scripture, and they drew out guidance and direction from the Quran in these subjects by making the Quran talked.
For example, it is interesting to note that in a report ascribed to ʿAbd Allāh ibn ʿAbbās (r), he states ‘If I lost the cord of my camel, I would look for it in the book of God.’ (J J G Jansen, The interpretation of the Koran).
Moreover, they believed that unique meanings of the Qur’an do not finish; it is open to new meanings and signs to people’s daily lives. In this context, it is important to note that numerous Qur’anic scholars put emphasis on ambiguous (mutashabih) verses in the Qur’an, stating that these verses provide us an opportunity for several understanding and new meanings (S Yıldırım, “Kişinin Kur’an-ı Hakimi ile özel iletişimi”).
Next, living with the Prophet helped the Companions to appropriately and deeply comprehend the Qur’an because the Prophet (s) was the ‘walking Qur’an’. He illustrated the Qur’an with his every act and word. As his wife ʿAʾishah (r) highlighted, he was a perfect embodiment of the holy book (A. Ünal, The Qur’an).
Moreover, numerous Qur’anic instructions are expressed in general terms. The Prophet gave them a practical interpretation with his acts. For this reason, in Muslim tradition, the Prophet (s) is often seen as the ‘walking Qur’an’. His sunna (his normative behavior) or his ways of the act was considered as a practical commentary (or practical exegesis) on the Qur’an (A Saeed, The Qur’an).
It is evident from this that the Companions witnessed the Prophet’s every act and word, and this led them to the proper understanding the Qur’an.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that the companions’ exegesis (tafsīr) has been seen as the most significant source in order to interpret the Qur’an after the Prophetic exegesis in the discipline of tafsīr because they were familiar with the revelation of the Qur’an and occasions of its revelation (known as asbāb al-nuzūl) (D Aydüz, Tefsir Tarihi).
For this reason, we can find a great number of interpretations from the companions and their Hadiths about occasions of revelation and linguistic explanations for some qur’anic words in tradition based tafsīr books such as commentary of Ibn Kathīr (774/1372).
Their exegesis (tafsīr) included both their interpretations that are based on the Prophet’ acts and words or about occasions of revelation and their ijtihads and endeavors to understand the Qur’an. While the former ones are prescriptive, the latter ones are preferred according to the majority of scholars (D Aydüz, ibid.)
To sum up, the companions were well familiar with the Qur’an and its message. Moreover, various companions were focusing on a small part of the text, attempting to comprehend and to practise before learning other group verses.
Furthermore, they had individual interpretations and sought inspiration for their daily lives. Also, their major way of comprehending the Qur’an was Prophet’s (s) acts and his practical exegesis.
Finally, the companions play a major role in the sciences of the Qur’an, and their approaches to qur’anic interpretation are essential for properly understanding Holy Scripture.