Definition of Ulum al-Quran
The knowledge of Ulum al-Quran, or ‘The Sciences of the Quran’, deals with the knowledge of those sciences that have a direct bearing on the recitation, history, understanding and implementation of the Qur’an. It is, therefore, a vast field of Islamic scholarship, and one that is of primary importance.
Thus, for example, with regards to recitation, Ulum al-Quran deals with the science of pronunciation (tajweed), the different methodologies of reciting the Qur’an (the qirat), the blessings of reciting the Quran, and the etiquette of its recitation.
With regards to the history of the Qur’an, Ulum al-Quran deals with the stages of revelation of the Quran, the compilation of the Quran, the art and history of writing the Quranic script (rasm al-masahif), and the preservation of the Quran.
With regards to its understanding and implementation, Ulum al-Quran covers the causes of revelation (asbab an-nuzul), the knowledge of the Makki and Madani revelations, the knowledge of the various forms (ashruf) it was revealed in, the understanding of its abrogated rulings and verses (nasikh wa al-mansukh}, the knowledge of the various classifications of its verses (muhkam and mutashabih, aam and khas, mutlaq and muqqayad, etc.), the knowledge of the inimitable style of the Quran (i’jaz al-Quran), the knowledge of its interpretation (tafseer), the grammatical analysis of the Quran (‘iraab al-Quran) and the knowledge of those words whose usage has become uncommon over time (gharib al-Quran).
It has been said that the knowledge of Ulum al-Quran is in reality the knowledge that one is required to know in order to properly interpret the Quran. Therefore, to call this branch of Islamic knowledge ‘The Procedure and Methodology of Interpretation’ (‘llm Usul at-Tafseer) instead of Ulum al-Quran would not be far from the truth.1
However, Ulum al-Quran also includes topics that have very little or no bearing on tafseer, such as the compilation of the Quran, and the development of the script of the Quran. Therefore, the knowledge of Ulum al-Quran is more general then Ilm Usul at-Tafseer.
Benefits of studying Ulum al-Quran
There are many benefits to the knowledge of Ulum al-Quran.
Firstly, it enables the reader to realize the wealth of knowledge and insight that exists with regards to the Book of Allah. As some of the scholars of the past said, “True knowledge is to know one’s ignorance.” Only when a person realizes what he does not know will he appreciate how little he does know.
Secondly, it enables the student of knowledge to better understand the Quran, in that he will be familiar with the history of its revelation and collection, and the various aspects that aid its comprehension. When he reads the books of tafseer, he will be able to understand the terms used, and benefit from the knowledge in them to a greater extent. In other words, he will be equipped to further increase his knowledge and to learn more about his religion.
Thirdly, it increases a person’s belief (iman), because he will realize the beauty of the Quran and the great blessings that he has been given through its revelation. He will not be and the great blessings that he has been given through its revelation. He will not be tooled by the fallacious claims of its enemies, and his heart will be at ease with regards to its authenticity. He will understand the miraculous nature of the Quran, and thus better cherish the greatest Book that mankind has been given.
Fourthly, he will be able to defend the Quran against its enemies, since he will be equipped with the true and pristine knowledge of the Quran, unadulterated by the prejudices of its opponents.
It is no exaggeration to say that, once a person learns the essentials of his religion and what is required for him to know, the first knowledge he should turn his attention to is the knowledge of the Quran and its sciences. As Allah says 2 in the Quran,
“(This is a) Book that We have sent down to you, full of blessings. so that they may ponder over its verses, and that men of understanding may remember.” (Surah Saad, 38 : 29)
The history of Ulum al-Quran
Like all the sciences of Islam, the knowledge of Ulum al-Quran initiated with the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) himself. The Companions used to question the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) about any concept that they did not understand in the Quran. For example, concerning the verse –
“Those who believe and do not mix their belief with injustice, only they will have security, and they are the guided.” (Surah Al-An’am, 6 : 82)
They asked, “O Messenger of Allah (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam)! Who amongst us does not do injustice (to his soul)?”
They had understood that the verse was referring to those believers who did not commit any injustice, or sin. The Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) replied that the injustice referred to in this verse was shirk, or the association of partners with Allah.3
Such was the enthusiasm of the Companions in seeking this knowledge that they were able to not only explain any verse in the Quran, but also give its history and the cause of its revelation.
Ibn Masud said, “I swear by Allah, besides whom there is no other god, there is no surah in the Quran except that I know where it was revealed! And there is not a single verse in the Quran except that I know the reason behind its revelation! If there were any person that knew more about the Quran than I did, and it was possible for me to reach him, I would ride (on my camel) towards him (to get this knowledge).” 4
Ali ibn Abi Talib told his students, “Ask me! For I swear by Allah, there is nothing that you will ask me except that I will answer you. Ask me concerning the book of Allah! For I swear by Allah, there is not a single verse in the Quran except that i know whether it was revealed at night or during the day, or on a mountain or on a plain!” 5
There were many Companions who were famous for their knowledge of the Quran, among them the four Khulafa ar-Raashidun, 6 Abdullah ibn Masud (d. 32 A.H.), Abdullah ibn Abbas (d. 68 A.H.), Ubay ibn Kaab (d. 32 A.H.), Zayd ibn Thabit (d. 45 A.H.). Abu Musa al-Ash’ari (d. 50 A.H.), Abdullah ibn Zubayr (d. 73 A.H.) and ’A’ishah (d. 57 A.H.).
The generation that came after the Companions, the Successors, studied eagerly under the wise guardianship of the Companions. These students took over their predecessors’ responsibilities, and passed this knowledge faithfully to the next generation. Ibn Abbas’s students, Sa’id ibn Jubayr (d. 95 A.H.), Mujahid ibn Jabr(d. 100 A.H.), Ikrimah al-Barbari (d. 104 A.H.), Tawus ibn Kaysan (d. 106 A.H.) and Ata’ ibn Rabah (d. 114 A.H.) were all famous in Makkah. Ubay ibn Kaab’s students, Zayd ibn Aslam (d. 63 A.H.), Abu al-Aliyah (d. 90 A.H.) and Muhammad ibn Kaab (d. 120 A.H.) were the teachers of Madinah; and in Iraq, Abdullah ibn Masud left behind his great legacy to Alqamah ibn Qays (d. 60 A.H), Masruq ibn al-Ajda (d. 63 A.H.), al-Hasan al-Basri (d. 110 A.H.), and Qatadah as-Sadusi (d. 110 A.H).
These three places, Makkah, Madeenah, and Koofah were the leading centres of all the sciences of Islam, including tafseer and Ulum al-Quran.
Thus the knowledge of the Quran was passed on ‘… by the trustworthy (scholars) of the ummah, who protected it from the alterations of the heretics, the false claims of liars, and the false interpretations of the ignorant.’ 7
Early scholars did not write on Ulum al-Quran in general, but rather wrote separate tracts on each science of the Quran. This was due to the fact that, during the early stages of Islamic history, the oral transmission of knowledge occupied a more important status than the written transmission. In addition, the general level of knowledge was high, and did not warrant the extensive writing down of knowledge.
The first and most important of the topics to be written on was tafseer. For example, each of the following scholars wrote a tafseer of the Quran, composed of statements from the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) and the Companions: Sufyan al-Thawri (d. 161 A.H.), Sufyan ibn Uyaynah (d. 198 A.H.), Waki ibn al-Jarah (d. 197 A.H.) and Shuhah ibn al-Hajjaj (d. 160 A.H.).
Following his predecessor’s footsteps, Muhammad ibn Jarir at-Tabari (d. 310 A.H.) wrote the monumental Jami al-Bayan an Tawil aay al-Quran, a tafseer that all later scholars would benefit from.
Other early tafseers were written by Abu Bakr ibn Mundhir an-Naysaburi (d. 318), Ibn Abi Hatim (d. 328), Ibn Hibban (d. 369), al-Hakim (d. 405) and Ibn Mardawayh (d. 410). All of these tafseers were based on reports from the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) and the Companions and Successors, and included the chains of narration (isnaad) of the reports.
After the books of tafseer followed a plethora of books on the other sciences of the Quran: Ali al-Madeni (d. 234 A.H.), the teacher of Imam al-Bukhari, wrote a book on Asbaban-Nuzul. Abu Ubayd al-Qasim ibn Sallam (d. 224 A.H.) wrote two books, one on the science of the Qirat (which was one of the first of its kind), and one on abrogation in the Quran, Nasikh wa al-Mansukh.
Ibn Qutaybah (d. 276 A.H.) wrote a book on rare words in the Quran, Mushkil al-Quran. Abu Ishaq az-Zajjaj (d. 311) wrote a grammatical analysis of the Quran, Irab al-Quran. Ibn Darstawayh (d. 330) composed a tract on the miraculous nature of the Quran, Ijaaz al-Quran. Abu Bakr as-Sijistani (d. 330 A.I I.) wrote another book on the rare words in the Quran, Gharib al-Quran.
Abu Bakr al-Baqillani (d. 403) wrote his famous treatise, also related to the miraculous nature of the Quran, Ijaaz al-Quran. Imaam an-Nasa’i (d. 303 A.I I.), the author of the Sunan, wrote one on the merits of the Quran, Fada’iI al-Quran. Abu al-Hasan al-Wahidi (d. 468) wrote his famous book on Asbab an-Nuzul. llm ad-Deen as-Sakhawi (d. 634) wrote one on the various qira’aat, and so on.
It must also be mentioned that, in addition to these books, many of the books of hadith, such as the Sahihs of al-Bukhari and Muslim, included sections on various topics of Ulum al-Quran. For example, most of the books of the Sunnah have chapters on the tafseer of the Quran, the benefits of reciting the Quran, the history of its compilation, and other topics.
Finally, the scholars of the later generations started compiling all of these sciences into one book, and thus began the era of the classic works on Ulum al-Quran.
The first works of this nature were actually meant to be works of tafseer. One of the first works that is reported in later references (but is not extant) is that of Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Khalaf ibn al-Marzaban (d. 309 A.H.), entitled Al-Hawi fi Ulum al-Quran. 8
Another work, of which manuscript copies of fifteen of a total of thirty volumes are extant, is that of Ali ibn Ibrahim Sa’id (cl. 330), otherwise known as al-Hufi, which he entitled, ‘Al-Burhanfi ‘Ulum al-Quran . This book is primarily one on tafseer, but also discusses all related aspects of a verse. So, for example, after each portion of the Quran, it includes information about the verse’s meaning, its interpretation, its purpose of revelation, its proper method of recitation, the different qiraaat of the verse and how they affect the meaning, where to stop and where not to, and so forth. This work is considered to be the first of its kind in its expansive approach to all the related sciences of the Quran. 9
There appeared after this, books of a similar nature, until finally Badr ad-Deen az-Zarkashi (d. 794 A.H.) appeared with his monumental Al-Burhan fi Ulum al-Quran (the same title as al-Hufi’s work). This is one of the great classics on Ulum al-Quran available in print. A little over a century later, another classic appeared, that of Jalal ad-Deen as-Suyuti (d. 911 A.H.), entitled al-ltqanfi Ulum al-Quran. These two works are considered the standard resource works on Ulum al-Quran, and both have been printed a number of times during the last few decades.
Books on Ulum al-Quran continued to appear throughout the centuries,10 and these last few decades have been no exception. The better known books of this era have been Manahilal-Irfan fi Ulum al-Quran by Shaykh Muhammad Abd al- Adhim az-Zarqani, al-Madhkhal li Dirasat al-Quran al-Karim by Muhammad Abu Shahmah, and two books, both of which are entitled Mabahith fi Ulum al- Quran, one by Dr. Subhi Salih and the other by Dr. Manna al-Qattan.
Unfortunately, there does not seem to be great interest in English circles concerning this topic. Other topics, such as hadith and fiqh have been given greater attention. 11 In English, the only work present 12 is Ahmed Von Denffer’s book, Ulum al- Quran: An Introduction to the Sciences of the Quran. 13 It is a useful book in that it presents a summary of many concepts of Ulum al-Quran, and is meant for a young adult audience. However, probably due to the nature of the audience, the author does not go into great detail.
- cf. ar-Rumi, Fahd ibn Abd al-Rahman ibn Sulayman: Dirasat Ulum al-Quran, Maktabah at-Tawbah, Riyadh, 1994, p. 33, who equates Ulum al-Quran with Usul at-tafseer.
- It should be pointed out that the Quran is only in Arabic, and is the speech (Kalam) of Allah. As shall be proved and elaborated upon in the next chapter of this book. Therefore, the unconditional phrase. “Allah says,” when used in this book (or any book), only refers to the Quran. When this phrase is used in a language other than Arabic, it contains an additional implicit clause that should be understood by the audience, and this clause is, “the meaning of which is,” since the Quran is only in Arabic. Therefore, this phrase should be understood as, “The meaning of what Allah has said is…”
- Ar-Rumi, p. 37.
- A term that means ‘The rightly-guided Caliphs’, used to denote the first four caliphs, Abu Bakr,
Umar, Uthman and Ali.
- A paraphrase of an authentic hadith of the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) reported by ibn Adi and Ibn Asakir. The beginning of the hadith is, “This knowledge will be carried by the trustworthy of the ummah, who will protect … ”
- Ar-Rumi, p. 45, quoting Ibn Nadim’s Fihrist, p. 24.
- Az-Zarqani, Muhammad Abd al-Adhim : Manahil al-lrfan fi Ulum al-Quran, Dar al-Fikr, Cairo, n.d., p. 35 and Qattan, Manna: Mabahith fi Ulum al-Quran, Muasasat al-Risalat, Beirut, 1983. p. 14.
- See ar-Rumi, pps. 41-48, where he lists the most important works in this field from every century of the hijrah, starting from the second century until the present one.
- In hadith, the best works out for introductory-level students are – Hadith Literature: Its Origins. Development and Special Feature by Muhammad Zubayr Siddiqi (Islamic Texts Society, London, 1993), and Studies in Hadith Methodology and Literature by Muhammad Mustafa Azami (American Trust Publication, Indianapolis, 1977); in Usul al-Fiqh, a good work is by Mohammad Hashim Kamali, Principles of Islamic jurisprudence (Islamic Texts Society, 1991).
- This is the only book that this author has come across concerning this topic from a Muslim author.
There is, however, a translation of Ibn taymiyyah’s ‘An Introduction to the Principles of Tafseer’ (al-Hidayah Publishing and Distribution, Birmingham, 1993).
- Published by, ‘The Islamic Foundation,’ Leicester, 1983.
From the book: AN INTRODUCTION TO THE SCIENCES OF THE QURAN