Many Muslims claim that learning tafsir is not part of learning the Qur’an. They think that it is only the duty of scholars. Yet in fact, knowing tafsir is extremely crucial to understanding the Qur’an properly even for people who are not the scholars. Without taking a look at books of tafsir, we could easily misunderstand the Qur’an.
Iyas ibn Muawiyah, a Tabi’i, said, “The parable of a people who recite the Qur’an and do not know its explanation is like a group of people who have a written message from their king that comes to them during the dark night, and they do not have a lamp. Therefore, they do not know what is in the message. The example of one who knows tafsir is like a person who comes to them with a torch and reads to them what is in the message.”
For instance, Adi bin Hatim, one Shahabi, said, “When the following verse was revealed. ‘Eat and drink until the white thread appears to you, distinct from the black thread’ [Quran 2:187], I took two strings, one black and the other white and kept them under my pillow and went on looking at them throughout the night, but could not make any distinction between the two. So, the next morning I went to Allah’s Messenger and told him the whole story.
The Prophet said jokingly, “Your pillow is very wide if the white and black threads are under it!” Then he explained, “Rather, they are the blackness of the night and the whiteness of the daylight.” Meaning we are allowed to eat and drink until the dawn come.
Another interesting example of misunderstanding a verse based on its simple meaning is the story in the Sunan of Al-Baihaqi and the Mushannaf of Abdurrazzaq between Umar ibn Khattab and Qudamah ibn Mazh’un, the governor of Bahrain beginning from 624 AD. Umar as a Caliph got an information that Qudamah once drank khamr (intoxicant/wine). Umar said, “I will punish you if you drink as they said.”
Qudamah said, “If I drink as they said, then you do not have any authority to punish me because Allah said, “There is not upon those who believe and do righteousness any blame concerning what they have eaten if they fear Allah and believe and do righteous deeds, and then fear Allah and believe, and then fear Allah and do good; and Allah loves the doers of good.” [Quran 5:93]
Umar said, “You misinterpreted this verse. If you fear Allah then you will certainly get away from what is forbidden. Allah sent down this verse only referring what people said when khamr was prohibited, `O Allah’s Messenger, what about our brothers who died while still drinking Khamr before it was forbidden?” Meaning, there is no sin to people drank khamr before its prohibition because they were pious but people who drink it after the prohibition should be punished.
Such information can only be found in tafsir books. Imagine if people understand Quranic verses literally by merely reading their basic translation especially in these days when every people bring verses towards their selfish interpretations in order to legitimate their evil deeds. Therefore, reading tafsir books is necessary to get the precise meaning of verses we recite and prevent misunderstanding.