The Qur’ân is accessible to everyone. Its message is clear and so are its lessons. The Qur’ân is clear in meaning. It was understandable to the people of the past as it is understandable to people today.
However, to fully understand all of what the Qur’ân is telling us in an in-depth, precise, and accurate manner, and to make sure we do not misunderstand anything (for indeed, to err is human), there is prerequisite knowledge that we need to acquire.
For instance, it is of tremendous importance for a person approaching the study of the Qur’ân to have knowledge of the Arabic language and of the Sunnah of the Prophet (peace be upon him).
For a person to be able to explore the meaning of the Qur’ân effectively, he would have to possess a mastery of the Arabic language. The Qur’ân is in Arabic and there is no escaping the fact that its meanings are conveyed by its words.
This is why translations can never suffice. A person cannot rely on someone else’s invariable subjective interpretation. Aside from the subjectivity of the interpreter, levels of meaning that are conveyed by the original Arabic are lost in translation, and more seriously, the words used in the language of translation will unavoidably have shades of meaning not present in the original Arabic.
When it comes to interpreting different shades of meaning, we can never apply our own arbitrary understanding to a verse. We cannot make the meanings up ourselves according to our feelings.
A knowledge of the Sunnah of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is integral to understanding the Qur’ân. Without such knowledge, a commentator might unwittingly contradict some fundamental aspect of our religion or some teaching of the Prophet (peace be upon him).
We must realize that the verses of the Qur’ân were revealed in stages, not all at once. These verses are not arranged in chronological order according to their time of revelation. Therefore, to understand the Qur’ân, we must know the Sunnah of the Prophet (peace be upon him) to whom the Qur’ân was revealed. The Qur’ân and the Sunnah are intrinsically linked.
First of all, the Prophet (peace be upon him) on a number of occasions explained the Qur’ân. He explained the meaning of many verses. Also, through his actions, he demonstrated how many verses of the Qur’ân could be practically applied in our lives.
Allah says: “Indeed, Allah conferred a great favor on the believers when He sent among them a Messenger from among themselves, reciting to them His signs and purifying them and instructing them in the Book and the Wisdom.”
Allah calls the Prophet (peace be upon him) the best example: “You have in Allah’s Messenger an excellent example of conduct for those who put their hopes in Allah and the Last Day and remember Allah often.”
Secondly, verses were revealed under different circumstances and in different contexts. Only by studying the Sunnah and the biography of our Prophet (peace be upon him) can we gain the valuable insights from the context of the revelation of different verses.
Thirdly, some verses abrogate the rulings of others. This is clearly and unambiguously stated in the Qur’ân. Allah says: “What we abrogate of the verses or cause to be forgotten, we come with what is better or similar to it. Do you not know that Allah is capable of all things?”
Since the verses are not presented in the Qur’ân in chronological order, it is vital to know which verses were revealed first and which came later, so we can determine which rulings abrogate which. It is well and good to understand a verse, but if we act upon it not realizing that its ruling has been abrogated, then we are making a mistake. We can only get this information from the Sunnah.
Understanding of the Arabic language and the Sunnah are two of the many important prerequisites to an in-depth and accurate knowledge of the Qur’ân.
We also need knowledge of the views and understandings of the Companions who actually were there at the time of the revelation and those of their students among the Successors.
When we look at a good commentary of the Qur’ân, what do we find? We find discussions of the language of the verses, including the meanings of the words and the meanings of the sentences. We find statements of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and of His Companions. We find discussions of Islamic Law issues that the verses indicate. Therefore, reading good commentaries like that of Ibn Kathîr, and asking knowledgable scholars of Qur'anic commentary, allow us to get a deeper understanding of the Qur’ân.