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in category Qur'an

What is the difference between tafsir and tawil?

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The word ‘tafsir’ is derived from the verb ‘fassara’, meaning ‘to explain, to expound, to elucidate, to interpret.’ The word tafsir as the verbal noun then means ‘the explanation or interpretation of something.’

The word ‘ta’wil is derived from the verb ‘awl’, which means ‘to return, to revert’, thereby returning to the original meaning of a word to understand its connotations.

There are five opinions amongst scholars regarding the difference between the two terms:

  1. Tafsir explains a word carrying only one meaning, whilst ta’wil is selection of one connotation of a word that carries many connotations.
  2. Maturidi argues tafsir is where the interpretation is based on certain knowledge, tawil where it is based on personal reasoning (ijtihad).
  3. Abu Talib at-Tha’labi argues tafsir explains the literal meaning of the verse, whilst ta’wil explains the actual intent behind the verse.
  4. Tafsir gives the meanings of individual words in a verse, whilst ta’wil gives the meaning of the verse as a whole.
  5. Tabari argues they are equivalent in meaning.

The most common usage is the first one.


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