The Place of Isra’iliyyat in Tafsir
By Shaykh Ahmad Shakir
From his introduction to ‘Umdah at-Tafsir ‘an al-Hafiz Ibn Kathir [1/14-17], his summary of Tafsir ibn Kathir
Al-Hafiz ibn Kathir has some strong words concerning the issue of Isra’iliyyat and narrating them. With regards to some of them, he clarified his stance concerning them. Despite that, I have found him mentioning some. Frequently, he follows them up with comments in refutation. Therefore, I thought that I should gather together in this introduction some of what I found during my reading of it (i.e. his Tafsir) which I had recorded. Perhaps I will be able to gather the things that I overlooked and then mention then mention them upon completion of this book (Al-‘Umdah), if Allah wills.
So he stated in the introduction of his Tafsir (pp. 43,44) after mentioning the hadith, “Convey from me, even if it be an ayah, and narrate from the Children of Isra’il, and there is no sin in that. And whoever lies upon me deliberately, then let him take his place in the Hellfire”:
However, these Isra’ili narrations are mentioned for supporting evidences, not to be relied on in and of themselves, so they are of three categories:
One of them: That which we to be correct because our sources (the Qur’an and Sunnah) testify to its truthfulness, so that is correct.
And the second: That which we know its falsehood because our sources contradict it.
And the third: That about which no position is taken, it is not of either type, so we do not believe in it, nor do we reject it, while it is permissible to cite due to what has preceded.
It should be noted that most of them contain no benefit in any religious matter, and for this reason, the scholars of the People of the Book themselves disagree concerning these types of issues a great deal. As a result, there is much disagreement amongst the mufassirun as well. Examples of this are what they mention concerning the names of the People of the Cave, the color of their dog, and their number; and concerning the staff of Musa, and what type of tree it was from; and the types of birds that Allah brought back to life for Ibrahim, and; the part of the cow with which the murdered person was struck with (to bring him back to life); and the type of tree that Allah spoke to Musa from; and other matters Allah left unexplained which contains no benefit for people in their worldly affairs or in their religious affairs. However, reporting their disagreement is permissible, as Allah (تعالى) said, “They will say three, and the fourth of them was their dog,” until the end of the verse.
Ahmad Muhammad Shakir, may Allah pardon him states: The permission to narrate from them concerning that which we do not have proof of its truth or falsehood is one thing, and mentioning that in tafsir of the Qur’an, and making it an opinion or an explanation of the meaning of verses, or in particularizing that which was not particularized in it, or in clarifying the details of what was mentioned in it in general form is something else. This is because mentioning something like this next to the Speech of Allah might give the mistaken impression that this report which we do not know to be true or false explains the statement of Allah (سبحانه), and clarifies the details of what is general in it! Allah and His Book are free of that! Allah’s Messenger (صلى الله عليه وسلم), when he permitted narrating from them, he ordered us to not affirm nor reject what they say, and what affirmation of their narrations and their opinions can be stronger then connecting them to the Book of Allah, and placing them next to it in the place for tafsir or explanation?! O Allah, (we seek) forgiveness.
Al-Hafiz ibn Kathir has himself stated in the commentary on verse 50 from Surah al-Kahf, after mentioning opinions concerning Iblis and his name and which tribe he is from:
There are many narrations that have been reported from the Salaf concerning this, and the majority of them are from the Isra’iliyyat which are reported so that they may be examined, and Allah knows best what is the true condition of many of them. Amongst them is that which we can affirm with certainty that it is falsehood, due to its contradicting our sources, and the Qur’an suffices us from the reports of the preceding (nations), because hardly any of them is free from distortion, subtraction, or addition, and because many of them are forgeries. This is because they do not have amongst them the precise Huffaz who eliminate from their narrations the distortions of exaggerators and the forgeries of the falsifiers, like the Imams and scholars, the noble and pious, the righteous and distinguished ones, from the verifying, master scholars and great Huffaz that this Ummah possesses who recorded the Hadiths and verified them, and clarified the Sahih and Hasan from the weak, the rejected and fabricated. They identified the fabricators, the liars, and the unknown narrators, and the other various classes of narrators. All of this was to protect the Station of the Seal of the Messengers and the Chief of Mankind (صلى الله عليه وسلم), so that falsehood not be attributed to him, or that something that is not from him should be reported from him, so may Allah be pleased with them and may He please them, and may he may make the Gardens of al-Firdaws their abode. And truly He has done so.
In the commentary on verses 51-56 from Surah al-Anbiya’ after indicating the relationship of Ibrahim (عليه السلام) with his father, and his looking towards the stars and the created things, he stated:
Many of the stories which many of the scholars of tafsir and other than them have mentioned are from the narrations of the Children of Isra’il. So whatever of it agrees with the truth that we have coming from a ma’soom, we accept it, due to its agreeing with what is authentic, and whatever of it contradicts anything of that, we reject it, and that which neither agrees nor contradicts, we do not affirm it or reject it, rather we refrain from taking a position concerning it. Many of the Salaf allowed for narrating this type of narrations, and many of them contain no benefit, and there is no conclusion that can be drawn from them that is of any religious benefit. If it had a benefit for people in their religion, this perfect, all-encompassing shari’ah would have explained it. The path that we have tread in this commentary is to avoid mention of much of these Isra’ili narrations, because they merely waste time, and because many of them merely contain the falsehood which was in circulation amongst them. This is because they make no distinction between what is authentic and what is weak as the precise Huffaz and Imams of this Ummah do.
At the end of his commentary on verse 102 of Surah al-Baqarah, he stated:
There are narrations concerning the story of Harut and Marut from a group of the tabi’in, such as Mujahid, as-Suddi, al-Hasan al-Basri, Qatadah, Abu al-‘Aliyah, az-Zuhri, ar-Rabi’ ibn Anas, Muqatil ibn Hayyan, and others, and many of the scholars of tafsir, from the early ones and the later ones, mentioned these stories. In their details, they are dependent upon the reports of the Children of Isra’il, for there is not a single authentic, marfu’hadith with a connected chain going back to the Truthful, Believed One who is guarded from error, the one who does not speak based on desire, concerning this. The apparent meaning of the Qur’an leaves the mention of the story in general form without going into great depths and without any exaggeration, so we believe in what has been mentioned in the Qur’an as Allah (تعالى) intended it, and Allah is most knowledgeable concerning the reality of the affair.
He stated at the beginning of Surah Qaf:
It has been narrated from some of the salaf that they said, “Qaf is a mountain that surrounds the whole earth, and it is called Mount Qaf!” And it is as if this, and Allah knows best, is from the superstitions of the Children of Isra’il that some of the people took from them, because of their considering it to be permissible to narrate from them that which is not affirmed nor rejected. I think that this and its likes are from the forgery of some of the Zanadiqah amongst them who deceive the people concerning the matter of their religion, just as hadiths have been fabricated upon the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) in this Ummah – despite the great status of its scholars, Huffaz, and Imams – even though it has not been such a long time. So how about the nation of Bani Isra’il, what with the great time that has passed, the lack of precise Huffaz amongst them, their drinking alcoholic drinks, their scholars twisting the words from their places and changing Allah’s Books and Verses.
The Legislator only permitted narrating from them in his statement, ‘Relate from the Children of Isra’il, and there is no sin in that,’ concerning that which the intellect can conceive, but as for what the intellects find to be impossible, and it is deemed falsehood, and it is fairly obvious that it is a forgery – then it is not included in that.
In the commentary of verses 41-44 of Surah an-Naml, afterning mentioning a long narration from ibn ‘Abbas concerning the story of the Queen of Sheba, which he characterized as “munkar, gharib jiddan (rejected, extremely strange),” he stated:
What is most likely concerning the likes of these reports is that they are taken from the People of the Book, from what is found in their scrolls, such as the narrations of Ka’b and Wahb, may Allah be kind with them concerning the strange, outlandish, and fanciful reports that they reported to this ummah from the Children of Isra’il, some of which occurred and some of which did not, and some of which were distorted or changed or abrogated. Allah (سبحانه) has sufficed us from that with something which is more correct than it and better, clearer, and more beneficial. And to Allah belongs the Praise and the Grace.
In the commentary on verse 46 of Surah al-‘Ankabut, after relating the hadith, “When the People of the Book narrate to you, do not believe nor reject them,” he stated:
Then, it should be known that most of what they narrate is falsehood and forgery, because distortion, change, and false interpretation have entered into it, and truth is very rare in their reports, and even if it were authentic, it is of little benefit.
In the commentary on verse 190 of Surah al-A’raf, he stated:
Their reports are of three types: from them is that which we know its correctness, as indicated by evidence from the Book of Allah or the Sunnah of His Messenger, from them is that which we know its falsehood, as the opposite of it has been proven by evidence from the Book and the Sunnah, and from them is that about which no position is to be taken, so it is permissible to relate, due to His statement (عليه الصلاة والسلام), “Narrate from the Children of Isra’il, and there is no sin in that.” This applies to that which cannot actually be confirmed or rejected, due to his statement, “Do not believe them nor reject them.”
There is a very long story that an-Nasa’i reports in the chapter of at-Tafsir in as-Sunan al-Kubra – which we have not seen – and Ibn Abi Hatim reports in his Tafsir, from Ibn ‘Abbas, and al-Hafiz ibn Kathir refers to it as the Hadith of “al–Fatun.” He relates it in full in the commentary of His (تعالى) statement, “And We tried you with a heavy trial (fatuna),” from verse 40 of Surah Ta-Ha. Then he stated:
It is mawquf from the statement of ibn ‘Abbas, and there is nothing marfu’ concerning any of its contents except a little bit, and it is as if ibn Abbas took it from that which has been permitted to narrate of Isra’iliyyat, from Ka’b al-Ahbar or other than him, and Allah knows best. I heard our shaykh, Abu al-Hajjaj al-Mizzi state that as well.
Al-Hafiz ibn Kathir refers to this hadith, the hadith of al-fatun, in a number of places in his Tafsir. I have thoroughly eliminated it from this book of mine, and I only referred to it once, at the first instance that Ibn Kathir referred to it, at the tafsir of verse 40 of Surah al-Baqarah. After that, I avoid reference to it, so I do not refer to it except if there is some pressing need to do so. And I ask Allah for support in doing what is right and making it easy, and I ask for guidance and firmness.
One of the greatest statements indicating that the Glorious Qur’an is free of these Isra’ili reports is a statement of Ibn ‘Abbas that al-Bukhari reports in his Sahih, and al-Hafiz ibn Kathir relates from him, at the tafsir of verse 79 from Surah al-Baqarah; Ibn ‘Abbas said:
O community of Muslims! How can you ask the People of the Book about something, while your Book that Allah revealed to His Prophet is the most recent of reports from Allah, and you read it fresh, it has not grown old. Allah has informed you that the People of the Book altered the Book of Allah and changed it, and wrote scripture with their own hands and said, “This is from Allah,” so as to purchase by it a small gain. Does the knowledge that has come to you not prohibit you from asking them? And no, by Allah, we have not seen any of them ever asking you concerning that which has been revealed to you.
And this strong, clear admonition has been related by al-Bukhari in three places in his Sahih [5/515; 13/282,414 from Fath al-Bari].
 Scholars of Tafsir.
 These are from the words of Shaykh Ahmad Shakir himself. This type of usage is common in Arabic to make clear when a long quote is coming to an end and the author’s words are continuing.
 It seems, and Allah knows best, that al-Hafiz ibn Kathir mentioned these narrations so that they could be known and recognized and because they have been quoted in the books of Tafsir before him so he wished to encompass the work of his predecessors. Likewise the mere fact that he mentioned these narrations in his Tafsir does not mean that he relied on them as the explanation of the meanings of the Qur’an, just as he did not intend that weak hadiths be relied on as the explanation of its meanings, yet he chose to quote all hadiths relevant to every topic that came up, irrespective of their level of authenticity. So what Shaykh Ahmad Shakir has said here cannot be agreed with completely.
However, one must agree that while the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) permitted narration of Isra’iliyat, it is not fitting to mention these stories or weak hadiths in books of Tafsir directed to the common Muslims, as they will not have the foundational knowledge to distinguish between the correct and the incorrect, and because of the confusion and misunderstandings it would create for them, although there may be benefits in it for the scholar or the capable student of knowledge. We see, for example, that ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Amr is one of those who reported that the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) permitted the study of Isra’iliyat. On the day of Yarmuk, he obtained two full loads of books of Ahl al-Kitab. So, he clearly he understood that it is permissible to study their books. It should be kept in mind, however, that our primary focus should be study of the Qur’an and the Sunnah as shall be mentioned in the statement of ibn ‘Abbas shortly. Such was, in fact, the case with ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Amr. He used to recite the Qur’an completely every seven nights, and according to the testimony of Abu Hurayrah himself, he knew more hadiths than even Abu Hurayrah! Clearly, there is a difference between someone of that level of scholarship reading the Books of Ahl al-Kitab and a layman.
Without doubt, the Tafsir of Imam ibn Kathir is a scholarly work addressed to a knowledgeable audience, so Imam ibn Kathir, may Allah reward him for his tremendous work, is free of blame in that regard. And Allah knows best.
 Plural of Hafidh, a title for great scholars of Hadith.
 One free of error: Allah or His Messengers.
 A hadith that is “raised up,” that is: it goes back all the way to the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم).
 Heretics who seek to undermine the religion.
 Since that time, an-Nasa’i’s book, As-Sunan al-Kubra, has been printed and made available, and all praise is due to Allah.
 Going back to a Sahabi, not the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم).
 This quote reaffirms what I mentioned in a previous footnote: it is not appropriate for the average Muslim to busy himself with Isra’iliyat, because at best, they will distract him from understanding the Book of Allah and the Sunnah of His Messenger (صلى الله عليه وسلم). At worst, it will confuse him and mislead him concerning important matters of his religion. The learned person, however, is allowed to study such narrations because this is not feared him. So it is that we see in the hadith of al-Fatun referred to by Shaykh Ahmad Shakir, that ibn ‘Abbas himself narrated matters that come from the Isra’iliyat, and in fact, he did so in the context of discussing the verses of the Qur’an. It is important also to keep in mind the audience of ibn ‘Abbas. He only mentioned those things when he asked about them by Sa’id ibn Jubayr, one of ibn ‘Abbas’ greatest students, who, in his own right, became a great Imam in Tafsir, to say nothing of the other sciences of Islam.