There are three roads open to us when making commentary upon the Qur'an. Firstly, by using knowledge that one already possesses.
Secondly, with the help of the sayings of the Prophet or Imams.
Thirdly, by using a combination of methods: by reflection and analysis, or by allowing the verse to become clarified by comparing it to other verses, or by use of the sayings of the Prophet and the Imams, whenever possible.
The third way is the one which we have outlined in the last section and it is this way which the Prophet himself and the Imams of his family indicate in their teachings (1); As we have seen, the Prophet said that, "The verses were revealed to confirm each other," and Imam 'Ali said that "One part of the Qur'an explains another and one part witnesses to the other."
It is, moreover, clear that this method of commentary is other than that warned against by the Prophet when he said, "Whoever makes a commentary upon the Qur'an according to his own opinion prepares for himself a place in the Fire" (2). This method uses the Qur'an to explain itself and is not based merely on explanation arising from whim or fancy.
The first method is unacceptable and exemplifies commentary based on opinion, except in cases where it agrees with the third method. The second method is the one used by the early scholars and for many centuries afterwards, and is still in use amongst both Sunni and Shi'ite scholars of the traditions of the Prophet. This method is limited, considering the vast nature of the subject and the countless number of questions, (both general and particular), arising from over six thousand verses.
Where, one asks, is the answer to such questions? Where is the solution to so many intricate and perplexing questions? Or, should we refer to the body of tradition concerning the verses?
Let us not forget that the total number of traditions of the Prophet accepted and transmitted by the Sunni scholars number no more than two hundred and fifty; we should also remember that many of them are weak and some even totally unacceptable. It is true that the traditions of the Prophet and the Imams transmitted by the Shi'ite scholars number a thousand and that amongst them are to be found a consider- able number which are fully trustworthy.
Consideration of these traditions is not enough, however, given the countless questions which arise and the many Qur'anic verses that are not even mentioned in this body of traditions. Should one refer in such matters to the appropriate verses?
As we have explained, this is not acceptable according to the method under consideration here. Should one simply abstain from investigation and imagine that the need for knowledge is non-existent? In this case, what is one to understand by the verse, And we reveal the Book to you as an exposition of all things, [XVI:89] which is clear proof that the Qur'an itself is not a mystery but rather explains, among other things, itself, by its own light.
Chapter IV:82 contains the injunction, "Will they not ponder on the Qur'an." Similarly, in chapters XLVII:24 and XXXVIII:29 "(This book) is a Book that we have revealed to you, full of blessing, that you may ponder its revelation and the men of understanding may reflect. " Likewise in Chapter XXIII:68, "Have they not pondered the word, or has something come to them which did not come to their forefathers. "
What are we intended to understand by these verses? How are we to act in the light of the totally trustworthy traditions of the Prophet and the Imams in which they advise us to refer to the Qur'an itself in case of problems of interpretation and discordance of opinion? According to many well known traditions of the Prophet, transmitted in unbroken chains of transmission, one is obliged to refer the tradition to the Book of God; if the tradition is in accordance with the Book, then it is accepted and used in commentary and, if in disagreement, it is rejected.
It is clear that the meaning of these traditions is applicable when one discovers through the Science of Commentary that the inner meaning of one verse is contrary to what is contained in another verse. In this case, one must reject what one has discovered through the study of commentaries.
These traditions are the best proof that the Qur'an, like speech or writing in general, has meaning and will always have meaning, even when studied independently of the traditions. Thus it is the duty of the commentators to take into account and reflect upon the traditions of the Prophet and Imams concerning Qur'anic verses but only use those traditions which are in accordance with the verse under scrutiny.
(1) See the beginning of al-'Ayyashi's, Kitab al-tafsir, al-Fayd al- Kashani's al-Safi, al-Bahrani's al-Burhan and al-Majlisi's Bihar al-anwar.
(2) Al-Majlisi, ibid., vol. 1, p. 137 (chapter on ikhtilaf al-akhbar).